Criterion Sunday 468: “Science Is Fiction: 23 Films by Jean Painlevé”

The Criterion Collection may generally be known for championing the great auteurs, but they also do some rather left-field choices, whether that’s Michael Bay (albeit early on in their existence; I’m not sure they’d give his films much time now), weird low-budget 50s sci-fi and now this set of short films about animals, which somewhat defy any straightforward description. The first disc presents his “popular films”, which is to say those made for the public (and not academics).

There’s a certain wonder to the first, Hyas and Stenorhynchus (1927), about little weird algae-like creatures with their spindly spines. The photography is obviously not as advanced as now, or even Painlevé’s later films, but there’s something luminous about the grainy, ethereal monochrome of these aquatic close-ups that has a magic to it. Sea Urchins (1954) has a lot of the same tentacles and marine weirdness but is somehow slightly unsettling, perhaps from the pulsating 1950s electronic score or just the better closer photography available. It’s co-directed with Painlevé’s partner, Geneviève Hamon, like a lot of his later films and sadly she seems not to get mentioned much in writing about him and his work. Clearly, though, both had a fascination with jellyfish, or with the category of weird gelatinous and tentacle-y things, because it feels like a number of his films deal with them. How Some Jellyfish Are Born (1960) also shows an interest in some unusual methods of conception and birth, with perhaps some hints towards other orders of gender and sexuality in these creatures which could probably have been developed more.

One of his better works, and certainly the creature with which he’s most linked (given the set’s box art), The Sea Horse (1933) makes clear just how extremely weird these creatures are. Just watching them is like gazing upon some Ray Harryhausen stop motion animated monster, but in a cute sort of way, though maybe there’s a bit of Lovecraft to them. Certainly Painlevé gets much more into the reproduction here, with the males gestating the babies, and seeing the tiny little ones come out is so fascinating (though I could have used without the shock cut to them cutting a pregnant seahorse open, even if I recognise this is ultimately a scientific film). Anyway, this is the kind of thing that Painlevé excels at, the intersection of science and the oneiric, which is also where The Love Life of the Octopus (1967) seems to sit. Truly octopuses are the most terrifying of creatures. Slithering yet smart, and, like so many of Painlevé and Hamon’s scientific studies, they have many tentacles. This particular short sets up our subject before getting into reproduction, and that too is strange and creepy, with thousands of little octopuses swimming away from these loose threads of gestating eggs. I remain properly terrified by this animal.

Further short films continue their fascination. With Shrimp Stories (1964), the directors acknowledge how ridiculous shrimp look with an overtly comic introduction, before we get into these (once again) elaborately tentacled sea creatures. Well in the case of shrimp, less tentacles than waving antennae and frantically moving little feet. If Acera, or The Witches’ Dance (1972) were merely an excuse to orchestrate the delightful aquatic ‘dance’ of these tiny snail-like organisms, then that would be enough (they swirl about, all but hopping up and down), but we also discover their hermaphroditic reproductive rituals and the gestation of tiny new acera. The photography is luminous and, as ever, these animals are strangely compelling. Sadly Freshwater Assassins (1947), despite its title, just seems a little bit duller, more like the orthodox nature shows you might get on TV, with less of the ugly weirdness of his other animals, mostly being just bugs living and fighting under the water in a pond. In Sea Ballerinas (1956), though, there’s a sense of humour, with it ending on a brittle fish seemingly conducting an orchestra, but otherwise there’s a lot of tumbling, shuffling and crawling around.

Stepping away from the sea creatures to watch something far more abstract is Liquid Crystals (1978). This is in fact closer to a late Stan Brakhage film than the kind of natural science pieces Painlevé did earlier on. It’s beautiful, though, as is an earlier film about the blood-sucking vampire bat, The Vampire (1945), which contextualises it in a short history of entertainment before letting it loose on an unfortunate guinea pig. There’s the customary blend here of limpid beauty and a sense of mystery in the photography, an informative voiceover and the dull academic subject matter, but the first enlivens the latter. Back to the abstraction in Diatoms (1968), but partly because the creatures under the (literal) microscope here are single-celled algae-like things, of various shapes, floating around on their own or in colonies. I’m still not exactly clear what a diatom is or does but I certainly got an almost trippy vision of their lives.

The final film on the first disc, and the latest film collected in the set, is Pigeons in the Square (1982). Pigeons get all kinds of bad press, and though this (relatively long) short film has a comical edge to it, Painlevé comes from a science background so he’s not interested in adding to the negative propaganda about pigeons. They are by turns majestic, beautifully patterned, comically silly, strutting, hopping, fluttering and pecking. Sure some of the urban varieties are a bit bedraggled and their seduction attempts wouldn’t pass muster by human standards, but this film just enjoys watching pigeons, and I enjoyed watching this film.

The second disc starts with “early popular silent films”, some of his earliest works. There’s The Octopus (1927), which has sort of a structure, but is mostly just the octopus slinking around (because if there’s anything we learn from the first disc it’s that Jean Painlevé loves a tentacled sea creature). The fragile beauty to these silent films is exemplified by Sea Urchins (1928), a creature he returned to in the 1950s (on the first disc), with luminous oneiric cinematography and no sound to distract (even if I did put some music on). The urchins wave around but also move and burrow. One thing I could do without is watching one get cut open but I guess there is at least some scientific method here. I am, though, prompted to wonder if my response to these short films is related to how much I like the creatures rather than a dispassionate critique of the filmmaking. I mean we may all know and love a seahorse, and even have opinions on octopuses, but what’s a Daphnia (1928)? Still for all its tiny bug like size — and there’s some serious magnification happening here — there’s even a bit of drama when the hydra comes along. A lovely little film.

Under the heading “silent research films”, there are a couple of Painlevé’s scientific shorts included and you can see immediately the difference from his “popular films”. The Stickleback’s Egg (1925) deals with a less than thrilling subject (microscopic organisms) and is pretty dry. There’s some great close-up photography that must have been very advanced for the time, and being silent I was able to put on a jaunty score, but this is mainly interesting as a comparison. Meanwhile Experimental Treatment of a Hemorrhage in a Dog (1930) is only four minutes, and exemplifies his specifically scientific focus in the silent era, but I really did not need to see this. The dog was fine after the procedure the film is clear to point out and that’s good, but it’s pretty graphic.

Unlike his more famous short films about animals (often underwater tentacled ones), Jean Painlevé also made a series of films dealing with various abstract concepts, here collected as “Films for La Palais de la Découverte”. The Fourth Dimension (1936) covers that idea, suggesting ways in which it could be understood, possibly as something beyond our own conception, something almost magical. It’s hard to really get to grips with it but Painlevé is serious and educational and it’s a lot to take in. More abstract scientific ideas are on show in The Struggle for Survival (1937) although this film is heavy on the text, which almost overwhelms the film with detail. He’s talking about population growth and certainly covers some ideas about it. Turning his cinematic attention to the Earth’s place in the universe is the subject of Voyage to the Sky (1937), which seems to conclude that in the grand vastness of space, we humans are almost ridiculously insignificant. It’s a rather bleak conclusion but nicely illustrated. Finally, Similarities Between Length and Speed (1937) is a rather abstruse short film on a topic I don’t really understand (which is to say, anything to do with mathematics). However, Jean Painlevé is an engaging filmmaker and tries to grapple seriously with his subject, which is about how bigger things aren’t exactly proportional.

Finally comes the single film under the heading “animation”, Bluebeard (1938), and it certainly a departure from Painlevé’s other films, being for a start not a scientific study of animals but instead a gloriously colourful claymation animated film about the bloodthirsty titular pirate, chopping off heads hither and yon. It’s all rather jolly and odd, and dark too and a fine way to round out the set.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection

My custom on this blog has not been to give ratings to short films, so the list below is just of the films included in the order they are presented. However my favourite was probably The Sea Horse, with the two academic research works and the mathematics film as my least favourite.

Hyas et stenorinques (Hyas and Stenorhynchus, 1929) [silent film] | Director Jean Painlevé | Cinematographer André Raymond | Length 10 minutes.
Oursins (Sea Urchins, 1954) | Directors Jean Painlevé and Geneviève Hamon | Cinematographer Claude Beausoleil | Length 11 minutes.
Comment naissent des méduses (How Some Jellyfish Are Born, 1960) | Directors Jean Painlevé and Geneviève Hamon | Length 14 minutes.
Cristaux liquides (Liquid Crystals, 1978) | Directors Jean Painlevé and Geneviève Hamon | Length 6 minutes.
L’Hippocampe ou ‘Cheval marin’ (The Seahorse, 1933) | Director Jean Painlevé | Cinematographer André Raymond | Length 14 minutes.
Les Amours de la pieuvre (The Love Life of the Octopus, 1967) | Directors Jean Painlevé and Geneviève Hamon | Length 14 minutes.
Histoires de crevettes (Shrimp Stories, 1964) | Directors/Cinematographers Jean Painlevé and Geneviève Hamon | Length 10 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 26 September 2021.

Acera ou Le Bal des sorcières (Acera, or The Witches’ Dance, 1972) | Directors/Cinematographers Jean Painlevé and Geneviève Hamon | Length 13 minutes.
Le Vampire (The Vampire, 1945) | Director Jean Painlevé | Length 9 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Monday 27 September 2021.

Les Assassins d’eau douce (Freshwater Assassins, 1947) | Director Jean Painlevé | Length 24 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Tuesday 28 September 2021.

Les Danseuses de la mer (Sea Ballerinas, 1956) | Directors/Cinematographers Jean Painlevé and Geneviève Hamon | Length 13 minutes.
Diatomées (Diatoms, 1968) | Director Jean Painlevé | Cinematographer Catherine Thiriot | Length 17 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 1 October 2021.

Les Pigeons du square (Pigeons in the Square, 1982) | Director Jean Painlevé | Cinematographer Vincent Berczi | Length 27 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 2 October 2021.

La Pieuvre (The Octopus, 1927) [silent film] | Director Jean Painlevé | Length 13 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 3 October 2021.

Les Oursins (Sea Urchins, 1928) [silent film] | Director Jean Painlevé | Length 10 minutes.
La Daphnie (Daphnia, 1928) [silent film] | Director Jean Painlevé | Length 9 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Thursday 7 October 2021.

L’Oeuf d’épinoche (The Stickleback’s Egg, 1925) [silent film] | Director Jean Painlevé | Length 26 minutes.
Traitement éxperimental d’une hémorragie chez le chien (Experimental Treatment of a Hemmorhage in a Dog, 1930) [silent film] | Director Jean Painlevé | Length 4 minutes.
La Quatrième dimension (The Fourth Dimension, 1936) | Director Jean Painlevé | Length 10 minutes.
Images mathématiques de la lutte pour la vie (The Struggle for Survival, 1937) | Director Jean Painlevé | Length 14 minutes.
Voyage dans le ciel (Voyage to the Sky, 1937) | Director Jean Painlevé | Length 11 minutes.
Similitudes des longueurs et des vitesses (Similarities Between Length and Speed, 1937) | Director Jean Painlevé | Length 10 minutes.
Barbe-Bleu (Bluebeard, 1938) [colour film] | Directors Jean Painlevé and René Bertrand | Length 13 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 10 October 2021.

Criterion Sunday 467: 愛の亡霊 Ai no Borei (Empire of Passion, 1978)

This ghost story doesn’t have the frisson of controversy that many of Oshima’s other films (it immediately follows his most sensational, In the Realm of the Senses, and has a similar title in the original), but it certainly does look gorgeous. It’s ostensibly a story about a man wronged (Takahiro Tamura) who returns to haunt his wife (Kazuko Yoshiyuki) and her lover (Tatsuya Fuji), but really it is much more about the wife and the way that she is first assaulted by and then lured into a love tryst with a disreputable young man (though the actors aren’t so far apart in their actual age) in 1890s Japan. There’s a fundamental unhappiness at the heart of all their actions, but then again they live a meagre life, he a rickshaw puller and her making ends meet as a lowly servant to a grand home. Like a lot of ghost stories, there’s a great deal of expressive use of the dark, and plenty of grime and filth too, though it’s not exactly scary. It’s more about internal strife and an inchoate desire for something else, some other way of living, some kind of connection with emotion that seems to motivate the woman, and the film’s central tragedy.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Nagisa Oshima 大島渚; Writers Oshima and Itoko Nakamura 中村糸子; Cinematographer Yoshio Miyajima 宮島義勇; Starring Tatsuya Fuji 藤竜也, Kazuko Yoshiyuki 吉行和子, Takahiro Tamura 吉行和子; Length 105 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Monday 13 September 2021.

醉拳 Zeoi Kyun (Drunken Master, 1978)

I could easily do a week of Netflix films with only original titles (perhaps just romcoms) from the last handful of years, but they do also have older stuff. It’s a bit hit or miss what you’ll get, in fact it’s almost entirely random it sometimes seems, but there are a few ‘classics’ buried in there. For example, old Hong Kong action comedies like this one by Jackie Chan from the late-70s.


I’ve managed to miss out on most early Jackie Chan (aside from the peerless Police Story) so I figured it was time to catch up with his oeuvre. This film is firmly in the comedy kung fu vein of the kind that used to be mocked (and who knows, maybe still is) for the poor dubbing, but as watched on Netflix the English dubbing only crops up at random periodic moments (in a totally slapdash way; was this the artistic intention?). In any case, it’s a vigorous demonstration of all kinds of martial arts choreography, and very impressive most of it is too, but it lowkey has some character development too, as Jackie Chan’s Wong Fei-hung “Freddy” starts out as a swaggering show-off, making fun of his teacher’s skills before swiftly being put firmly in his place by, first, his aunt and then a moustachioed gentleman “Thunderleg” (Hwang Jang-lee) and so he submits to the training of the title character So Hua (Yuen Siu-tin). In a sense, it’s about Freddy overcoming his childishness and misogyny and this new respect for women (and, obviously, alcohol) helps him wins fights. So it’s silly, but it’s also a filmic Bildungsroman of sorts with a positive moral lesson for our foolish comedy hero.

Zeoi Kyun (Drunken Master, 1978)CREDITS
Director Yuen Woo-ping 袁和平; Writers Siao Lung 蕭龍 and Ng See-yuen 吳思遠; Cinematographer Chang Hui 張海; Starring Jackie Chan 成龍, Yuen Siu-tin 袁小田, Hwang Jang-lee 황정리; Length 110 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), Wellington, Saturday 20 March 2021.

Criterion Sunday 409: Days of Heaven (1978)

I’m hardly a Terrence Malick fanboy (at least, not based on his output over the last decade or so) but one or two of his films really get to me, and this is one. You can see a lot of the aspects of his style that he would develop further in his 21st century work — for example, a focus on nature and wind sweeping through grass, or a propensity for the camera to drift off and focus on some still life little image in microcosm rather than dwell on plot or melodrama, as well as a largely unspoken Christian underpinning to the broad sweep of the film and its themes. The Criterion Collection’s previous release was Breathless and, for all the enormous difference in setting and feel (Malick’s film is set in 1916 Texas), there are some genetic similarities to that, like the occasional handheld shots, location shooting with natural lighting, not to mention a plot in which the lead character’s murder of an authority figure is pushed far into the background, and quite often the plot doesn’t even feel that important. Days of Heaven is a film composed of feeling above all: the dappled colours of the ‘golden hour’ (the time of day after the sun has set, and still the most well-known thing about this film, even though there’s plenty that’s shot during the morning and night as well); the poetic voiceover by Linda Manz; and the meandering sense that this isn’t about what happens in the end but about the beauty we’ve witnessed along the way. Luckily this kind of visual cinema is what appeals to me.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Aside from a commentary, the extras are four short piece split into two headings, “Actors” and “Camera”. For the actors section, there’s an audio interview with Richard Gere and a video one with Sam Shepard, both of whom recall Malick’s methods for eliciting a performance and his shy self-effacing way on set.
  • The “Camera” interviews are with the camera operator John Bailey as well as with Haskell Wexler, who took over from Almendros when the latter had to leave the project to go do a Truffaut film. Legend says that Wexler was miffed at not receiving a full credit, but he concedes in retrospect that he was just continuing the work set in place by Almendros. Either way, what a visual achievement.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Terrence Malick; Cinematographer Néstor Almendros; Starring Richard Gere, Brooke Adams, Sam Shepard, Linda Manz; Length 94 minutes.

Seen at Paramount, Wellington, Thursday 14 May 1998, and at BFI Southbank, London, Sunday 11 September 2011 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Saturday 20 March 2021).

Criterion Sunday 340: Koko, le gorille qui parle (Koko: A Talking Gorilla, 1978)

This documentary, about a young woman (Penny Patterson at Stanford University) teaching a gorilla to speak using some apparent version of American Sign Language, is interesting partly in the ways in which it has dated in the interim forty-something years. I suspect that ideas of animal rights (if not personhood) have advanced somewhat, though these questions are explicitly addressed by the film’s narrator towards the end of this film. And as I in the audience am not a behavioural scientist, I can hardly assess the techniques that Patterson uses (I don’t know quite how robust her scientific methodology is), but the fascination is in watching her and Koko interact and drawing one’s own conclusions. That said, there are occasional talking heads which pop up to elucidate some of the questions demanded by watching this footage. Still, I end up feeling a bit bad for Koko: the lives of animals in zoos are too often poor, especially compared to their natural habitats, and Koko feels rather forced into this arrangement. The film leaves us with the question of whether it’s even fair to assess a gorilla in relation to human society; there is a sense of the “civilising” work of missionaries at times to the single-mindedness of Patterson teaching her sign language, and who can know whether Koko’s life was improved as a result. Still, she lived a long life — she only died two years ago in 2018 — and the film remains an interesting reflection on something about that life.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • The only major extra is a 12-minute interview with the director from when the Criterion DVD was released, in the mid-2000s, in which he discusses the filming and some of the key members of the crew.
  • Otherwise, there are both (subtitled) French and English versions of the narration available, though all the footage is in English and (thankfully) isn’t dubbed.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Barbet Schroeder; Cinematographer Néstor Almendros; Length 80 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 27 July 2020.

Passe ton bac d’abord (aka Graduate First, 1978)

Not all my favourite films of the year are new films, and I’m always discovering films from the past to love. The BFI ran a small season dedicated to French post-New Wave director Maurice Pialat, and this 1978 piece — a follow-up of sorts to his L’enfance nue of 10 years earlier — was one that I managed to catch on the big screen, though all his films that I’ve seen have had much to commend them.


The title suggests the (sadly rather well-worn) genre of ‘old man director wags his finger at the teens for not applying themselves’ and I suppose there would be something to that. After all, it’s about a bunch of late-teenage kids studying for their university entrance exams, who seem largely less than interested in such high-minded educational application and — as teens are in movies everywhere — more interested in making out with one another, or smoking, or just hanging out. Some of them have jobs (not great jobs), some of them have dreams and plans, some just settle down because there’s little else to do and very few options in their small French town. I’d say what elevates it above run-of-the-mill coming-of-age exploitation is the sensitivity with which these situations are played out, and (title aside) the general lack of judgement that seems to be passed here. Everyone is played naturalistically and there’s no forced narrative that pushes everyone into particular places. Indeed it feels like it evolves in an almost documentary manner, in a way that’s both true to the characters and ultimately satisfying, though without tying everything up neatly.

Passe ton bac d'abord film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Maurice Pialat; Cinematographers Pierre-William Glenn and Jean-Paul Janssen; Starring Sabine Haudepin, Philippe Marlaud; Length 86 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Sunday 10 November 2019.

Girlfriends (1978)

On Friday this week, a film is being released to UK cinemas called Brittany Runs a Marathon, which is billed as a comedy-drama. And while I haven’t yet seen it, I want to attempt something a little more difficult this week, which is to theme a week around the hybrid form of comedy and drama, particularly as it’s cropped up in recent American cinema. I’m not sure how much has been written about this particular category of film, and frankly I’m not exactly sure how to define it, except I think that a number of films have managed to successfully (in my opinion, but not in everybody’s) blend the two forms, such that they’re not simply comedies with serious dramatic themes or vice versa, but they amount to their own specific thing. The 1970s was a great time for new voices in American cinema, none more so than the women who have largely been (unfairly) forgotten since then. Once such voice was Claudia Weill, who went on to a career in TV, but made a captivating portrait of the era with Girlfriends, in which the comic elements of Melanie Mayron’s central character are tempered by the frustration of the situations she finds herself in.


This is the kind of small canvas of emotionally-honest socially-conscious filmmaking that must have been about a fair bit in the 1970s but is very hard to get to see, isn’t part of a curriculum or a constantly rotating canon of the era, and it should be. Plenty of people have mentioned modern parallels (much of it in television), but there were a number of women making American films in the 70s and 80s who just haven’t been given their due (for example Joan Micklin Silver, whose Hester Street I reviewed recently, or even Elaine May, only recently getting any kind of critical rehabilitation). That said, there are clearly aspects that have dated: the idea of someone working as a part-time photographer, selling small commissions and working bar mitzvahs and weddings to make ends meet, able to have their own place in NYC. But largely this film remains utterly delightful: Melanie Mayron (who would go on to work more in directing) is sparky and engaging as Susan, who’s been living with Anne (Anita Skinner), but when the latter moves out to get married, finds herself unable to forge the same friendships with others who pass through her life. The boyfriends in this film (Bob Balaban and Christopher Guest) are desultory and disappointing, and there’s an underlying (if never quite fully expressed) feeling that maybe the two women at the film’s core would be better off without either of them. It’s a charming film and one that should be better known.

Girlfriends film posterCREDITS
Director Claudia Weill; Writer Vicki Polon; Cinematographer Fred Murphy; Starring Melanie Mayron, Anita Skinner, Eli Wallach, Christopher Guest, Bob Balaban; Length 88 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 25 August 2019.

Some Films by Women of the LA Rebellion

The so-called “LA Rebellion” was a movement of sorts that arose amongst African-American filmmakers enrolled at UCLA’s School of Film, Theatre and Television in the 1970s, in the wake of the Civil Rights movement and US involvement in the Vietnam War. Their work was challenging the mainstream cinema, which certainly at that time — and you could make an argument for even now — remained a largely closed industry, in the process expanding the range of visual representations of the Black experience in the United States. The most well-known filmmakers to come from this movement remain the men: Charles Burnett and Haile Gerima, most notably. However, there were also a large number of women making films within this movement, some of whom would go on to work elsewhere in the film industry, but none of whom were ever given much of a chance beyond the film school.

Probably the best known of the women associated with the LA Rebellion has been Julie Dash, whose 1991 film Daughters of the Dust may be the single work most associated with the movement, but even she was not given the chance to direct many films (aside from some made-for-TV films). One of her earliest works is the short dance film Four Women (1975), which may be seven minutes of interpretative dance, but there’s beauty and grace, fabric and texture, hair and body, power and defiance in this dance, and in the Nina Simone song that soundtracks it. She followed it a couple of years later with Diary of an African Nun (1977, pictured above), which has a beautiful quality even in the imperfect decaying 8mm grain as it survives in a restored (as much as possible) print. Based on a story by Alice Walker, the film has a dreamy poetic quality that appears as if through a haze, with its central character finding it difficult to reconcile herself to her religious calling. Probably her finest film prior to Daughters is Illusions (1982, pictured at the top of this post), which may be little more than half an hour, but packs a lot into its World War II-era story of Mignon (Lonette McKee), a woman passing for white in a film studio’s production office. Mignon meets a darker-skinned woman employed to dub white women’s vocals in the pictures. The film nimbly enacts the way that race is deployed and erased, sometimes literally (here represented by an army censor), as well as the complex interactions between representation and reality. Plus, it’s beautifully shot and acted.

Another key figure in the movement is Alile Sharon Larkin, who has spent most of her career as an educator, with scandalously few directing credits. Her first student film was The Kitchen (1975), which touches on issues that are still very present and relevant in our own day — topics, indeed, that dominate a lot of the discourse I see online about the treament of women (particularly Black women and other women of colour). In this film, for example, there’s a sense that Black women are put in institutions and stigmatised with mental health issues for being different within mainstream white society. There’s a lot of play with hair in that respect, and the main character seems to be traumatised by memories of her natural hair being tortured into place with red hot irons, which leads to her donning a wig, directly linked to her being placed into care. These themes are undoubtedly even more visceral to those who live within these beauty constraints, and despite being under seven minutes in length, Larkin’s film captures this well. Like Dash, Larkin went on to make a longer work a few years later with A Different Image (1982, pictured above). There’s a certain earnestness, perhaps borne of the era in which it was made or the seriousness of its intentions, but this is an affecting 50-minute drama about the way that sexualised images in the environment affect socialisation between men and women. The film is never heavy-handed in the way it deploys this theme, with passing images contextualised by the men looking at them — at first, easy to laugh off, like a young boy laughing at the sight of our leading lady’s underwear, or her (male) work colleague’s interactions with another of his friends (who ostentatiously reads Playboy and wants to know if his friend has got some action yet). Progressively these become darker and more troubling, and the film continues to hint at an inability of men to see beyond women’s sexual attributes. It’s nicely acted and well shot by Charles Burnett.

Another woman within the LA Rebellion is Barbara McCullough, who went on to a career as a production manager (particularly within visual effects), a little older than some of her contemporaries, but who made a number of short films at the time. The one I’ve seen is Water Ritual #1: An Urban Rite of Purification (1979). There’s real beauty to this short experimental film, beautifully restored on 35mm, as a woman interacts with a sparse, impoverished environment. It’s all fairly oblique but ends in an act of purifying defiance.

Among the lesser-known figures was Anita W. Addison, who went on to direct TV shows in the 1990s as well as getting involved in production, but who died in 2004. I’m not clear if her short film Eva’s Man (1976) was made under the auspices of UCLA, but her name is linked with the LA Rebellion (at least on the Wikipedia page). Her film obliquely tells the story of a woman who kills her husband, with flashbacks to give a sense of why she might have done it, and sustains a nice claustrophobic atmosphere with a bit of free jazz on the soundtrack.

One final filmmaker I wanted to mention is Malvonna Bellenger, who later worked in local television and the recording industry, and who died from breast cancer in 2003. Her short film Rain (Nyesha) (1978) is ostensibly about a rainy LA day, though it’s not exactly about rain per se. Instead it’s about the possibility of a change coming, washing things away that existed before. And it’s about a young woman who seems from her voiceover to be disconsolate who finds herself becoming more certain as the rain comes down and Coltrane plays in the background. It finds its tone somewhere between elegiac and active, and it sticks to it.

Continue reading “Some Films by Women of the LA Rebellion”

A Deusa Negra (Black Goddess, 1978)

One of the most famous Brazilian films in the mid-20th century was a French-Brazilian co-production, Black Orpheus (1959), marrying a Brazilian setting with an imported director and almost 20 years later, it has some qualities in common with the rather more rare hybrid of Nigerian and Brazilian in Black Goddess. There’s a feeling for the displaced, for folk rituals and syncretic religious figures that both share, perhaps the result of an outsider’s gaze.


This is a curious film. It’s a Brazilian-Nigerian co-production about Babatunde (Zózomi Bulbul), a man seeking an insight into his past — his ancestors were shipped off into slavery in Brazil — by returning there with the symbol of a goddess, in search of that goddess’s priests and answers as to what happened to his ancestor. The opening scenes of 19th century troops wending their way across a mountain, then falling into battle, suggests Werner Herzog — but if one must make comparisons to his work, then it’s worth noting that while his films are from the point-of-view of the coloniser, Ola Balogun makes his from the side of the colonised (a relatively rare point of view, especially in this period).

As Babatunde makes his way around Brazil, he plunges into an almost documentary-like sequence in a favela, then onto a jungle temple (candomblé), taking a woman from back home as his guide, who is trailed by her jealous suitor. Moments of (possibly unintentional) humour come, such as when there is a fight that leads to the suitor’s death and the response is basically an ‘oh well’ shrug. Throughout, the history of transatlantic slavery between Africa and Brazil is emphasised, as well as the continuing hold of syncretic African religions even amongst modern Brazilians. The end of the film sees a sort of ritual in transfigured time that brings past and present into contact, seemingly allowing our protagonist to break the fourth wall and fix his gaze on us.

At my screening, the film was introduced by the director Ola Balogun, whose rather wild and effusive style didn’t address the film itself, but he did tell some Yoruba creation myths, and then invite everyone to dinner on the Friday night, as well as telling us of his interest in clothes design (he gave out his e-mail for those who wanted to get in touch). A singular presence, and one responsible for an oddly fascinating film.

Film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Ola Balogun; Cinematographer Edison Batista; Starring Zózimo Bulbul, Léa Garcia; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Lumière (Sala Scorsese), Bologna, Tuesday 26 June 2018.

The Mafu Cage (1978)

The horror genre seems to attract far more men as directors and writers, though it’s certainly not short of women in front of the camera (usually being victimised, of course). That said, there are a significant number of women who are fans of the genre and have written about it at length (notably the Australian writer Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, who is working on a book called 1000 Women in Horror). There are even a few who have managed to get behind the camera, and I am trying to focus on as many examples as I can this week. The film today is more of a thriller than a horror, exactly, and its director Karen Arthur only ever made three feature films (before moving into a career in television).


This film is a lot. It’s at heart a sort of psychological terror film about a disturbed young woman, Cissy (Carol Kane, who at one point intemperately demands her sister explain what she means by “normal”), who acts out in a way that distracts her sister (Lee Grant) from her astronomy job. Yet there are many complex depths to their relationship, not least a sort of incest theme that left me wondering if they were in fact sisters, or whether something more was going on (at first I suspected a proto-Fight Club duality).

The specific manifestation of Cissy’s mental health issues is her fixation on her father, a deceased anthropologist. Cissy performs African tribal dances, obsessively plays field recordings, and wears African hairstyles, as if in an alternate timeline for Mean Girls‘ Cady. Moreover she tortures primates in the cage set up by their father for study (the “mafu” of the title seems to be a term used to refer generically to primates, or perhaps just pets). Thus the film seems to be enacting a confrontation between white colonisers and Africa (its fauna and its human cultures), perhaps hinting at a sense of guilt, but certainly a pathology of slavery and subjugation, while also being about family dynamics in a hothouse environment that (not unjustly) claims a particularly pervy astronomer colleague of Cissy’s sister.

There’s so much going on that I can’t pretend to cover it all, but it was certainly interesting (even if the surviving 35mm print we watched is rather degraded in its pink palette).

Film posterCREDITS
Director Karen Arthur; Writer Don Chastain (based on the play Toi et tes nuages by Eric Westphal); Cinematographer John Bailey; Starring Lee Grant, Carol Kane; Length 104 minutes.
Seen at Watershed, Bristol, Friday 27 July 2018.