Criterion Sunday 470: Wise Blood (1979)

This is an odd film, sufficiently so that I’m convinced I either have it completely wrong and it’s actually a masterpiece beyond my meagre understanding, or else maybe it’s just plain odd, but in its oddness it sits apart from most of contemporary cinema. It deals with what I can only call very American themes — of a sort of autochthonous religious mania, where the open spaces of the American heartlands blend seamlessly with Christianity, sex and death, and become somewhat messed up in the head of Brad Dourif’s war veteran Hazel Motes — which war is never quite specified, though the headstone of his father, played by the director, has a birth year that suggests maybe it’s a future war, yet in tone and costuming it feels very much like World War II or maybe something earlier even. It is, in short, a very American film about something buried deep in the white American psyche, and so perhaps it is a masterpiece, but it’s one that takes a hard route to follow. One that’s perhaps worth following, but it does its best to frustrate anyone trying to do that and the hard face of Hazel, his angry bitter mien is right at the heart of that attempt, a bleak and brutal film of the American mid-20th century experience.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director John Huston; Writers Benedict Fitzgerald and Michael Fitzgerald (based on the novel by Flannery O’Connor); Cinematographer Gerry Fisher; Starring Brad Dourif, Dan Shor, Amy Wright, Harry Dean Stanton; Length 105 minutes.

Seen at a bed and breakfast (DVD), Takaka, Saturday 16 October 2021.

Criterion Sunday 384: 復讐するは我にあり Fukushu Suru wa Ware ni Ari (Vengeance Is Mine, 1979)

I’ve never really been drawn to films about serial killers, though this is probably a fine example of the genre. It doesn’t let its antihero (played by Ken Ogata, and based on a real Japanese serial killer) off the hook, nor does it dwell on his murders, but instead as a series of flashbacks it spends time with him as he moves between incidents, with women in seedy boarding houses (or perhaps brothels), with his father and wife, finding the banal alongside the criminal. It’s almost inscrutable in the way it deflects understanding of his soul, as though perhaps he has none, and certainly the film seems to suggest in a final scene (that I won’t go into obviously) that his judgement is as much from heaven as it is from other people. It’s a nasty tale, with that grainy raw patina of a lot of 70s filmmaking, and for those that like these stories it’s likely to land a lot better.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Shohei Imamura 今村昌平; Writer Masaru Baba 馬場当 (based on the novel by Ryuzo Saki 佐木隆三); Cinematographer Shinsaku Himeda 姫田真佐久; Starring Ken Ogata 緒形明伸, Rentaro Mikuni 三國連太郎, Mitsuko Baisho 倍賞美津子; Length 140 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 27 December 2020.

Criterion Sunday 370: The Emperor Jones (1933) and Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist (1979)

The first film on the first disc of Criterion’s Paul Robeson box set is reserved for The Emperor Jones (1933), not Robeson’s earliest work featured on the collection but probably the most famous of his film roles. The acclaim is certainly warranted when it comes to his acting, though to be fair he is given not just a big role (being the title character, Brutus Jones) but a very big character too (shot as if towering above everyone else on the set). Having gained the rare distinction of a job among the white world as a Pullman porter, Jones womanises and gambles his way to serious trouble, and upon escaping finds himself on an island (Haiti, allegorically), where he proclaims himself Emperor. Eugene O’Neill’s source play is what we would nowadays call ‘problematic’ I suspect and certainly leans heavily on a certain depiction of Black people (soulful, primitive, a little bit magical) in a script laden with racial epithets. Still, there’s stuff there that in the context of the early-1930s feels bold, like having him lord it over a white capitalist, even if things don’t end up going his way, and there’s even a showcase for Robeson’s fine singing voice.

The most remarkable thing about the accompanying documentary about Robeson’s life and work, Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist (1979), is that it’s so short. It could be a thirty part mini-series but instead it’s a jaunty 30 minutes, narrated by Sidney Poitier, and touching ever so briefly on so much of his work that there’s no real room for his legacy. We do, however, get a careful delineation of the shifting lyrics to his iconic song “Ol’ Man River” as he sang it repeatedly over the years, as well as his involvement in political struggles not just in the USA but across Europe and the world (though very little engagement with the nature of those political beliefs, aside from the fact that they were enough to warrant him being denied his passport for 10 years). There is certainly room for a longer more detailed work about the man, but this will have to suffice along with his many films.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Seen at an Airbnb flat (DVD), Lower Hutt, Sunday 8 November 2020.

The Emperor Jones (1933)
Director Dudley Murphy; Writer DuBose Heyward (based on the play by Eugene O’Neill); Cinematographer Ernest Haller; Starring Paul Robeson, Dudley Digges, Fredi Washington; Length 76 minutes.

Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist (1979)
Director/Writer Saul J. Turell; Length 30 minutes.

Two Films by Ulrike Ottinger: Ticket of No Return (1979) and Johanna d’Arc of Mongolia (1989)

Though Ulrike Ottinger is probably one of the key female figures in the New Germany Cinema that sprung up in the late-1960s, and one who started directing her own films by the early-1970s, she was a filmmaker who until recently was fairly unknown to me. I’ve seen three of her features just this year, and have already written about the epic documentary travelogue Chamisso’s Shadow (2016). Like a lot of filmmakers who are drawn to documentary, there’s a lot of it even in her fiction features, particularly the Mongolian-set Johanna d’Arc of Mongolia (with its very careful use of three different languages in its original title). Even the 1979 film I deal with below has little elements of real life, as I gather that one of the characters was a real-life homeless woman well-known in the area at the time, and it wilfully dispenses with narrative expectations as its central character gets even more messy (the German title translates as “diary of a drinker”). It was screened as part of an online film festival recently, and I look forward to catching up with more of Ottinger’s work.

Continue reading “Two Films by Ulrike Ottinger: Ticket of No Return (1979) and Johanna d’Arc of Mongolia (1989)”

Two Early Films by Agnieszka Holland: Screen Tests (1977) and Provincial Actors (1979)

With Agnieszka Holland’s newest film out in cinemas (I don’t imagine many of them) tomorrow, now seems like a good time to look back at two of her earliest films made in Poland, both of which deal with actors and (more in the latter film) their relationship to their directors. Both make for interesting portraits of the professional work of actors, not to mention a turbulent era in the country’s history.

Continue reading “Two Early Films by Agnieszka Holland: Screen Tests (1977) and Provincial Actors (1979)”

West Indies ou les nègres marrons de la liberté (West Indies: The Fugitive Slaves of Liberty, 1979)

I’ve been doing themed weeks of films since restarting this blog, but as we come up to the end of the year, I want to dedicate a few weeks to reviews for films I’ve not yet managed to shoehorn into a themed week, which I regard as among the best I’ve seen this year. They won’t all be new films, though, so I’m starting with Med Hondo’s wonderful West Indies, a 1979 musical dedicated to anti-colonialism and laying bare the hypocrisy of the French state. It’s a lesson that could be applied to a number of former colonialist and imperialist countries, I suspect.


Historically speaking, African cinema doesn’t seem to have made much of an impact on Western cinephilia (certainly the opportunities I had when I was younger to watch any on home media or TV were fairly sparse), and it feels like this has begun to change somewhat only in recent decades. Filmmakers like Scorsese and George Lucas have been putting money into restorations of African and other non-Western developing nations’ cinema (Il Cinema Ritrovato has been screening some great film restorations every year), but there are still so many gems that languish unrestored, and a few of those are by Mauritanian director Med Hondo (though his debut feature Soleil Ô did receive treatment recently).

Hondo’s 1979 film West Indies might be the best thing I’ve yet seen by him, and a truly sui generis work that fuses the radical political sensibility that a number of African filmmakers were channelling from the 60s onwards, in the spirit of pan-African post-colonialism (and which also reminds me a little of contemporary Caribbean filmmakers like Raoul Peck) with something of the avant-garde staging that you might get with Godard or Akerman (who also made her own modernist musical in the 80s).

Needless to say, this single-set musical about colonialism, empire, slavery, capitalism and hypocrisy is truly everything you could want: there are energetic dance numbers, and there’s anger about the West and its involvement in both Africa and the Caribbean. The film makes explicit links between the exploitation of workers in migrant economies with the economics of slavery itself (one notable sequence sees the parade of people getting flights to France, whipped up by the conniving of French businessmen and political leaders, overlap with an historical flashback to slaves in chains being led to the slave ships). The links between this historical violence and the suppression of revolts by riot police in modern French cities is also effectively done, and Hondo throughout deploys recurring visual motifs to link past and present, which all wheels by together on the same multi-layered set.

It’s a virtuoso exercise, but far from a hollow one, as it mercilessly mocks and derides White imperialism — whether economic, political or cultural (oh, the tourists) — and evinces anger at the circumstances of the African-Caribbean peoples. At the same time it mellifluously weaves in song and dance, the sound design as effective as any propagandist, but aimed instead at exploding the myths of Western neo-liberalism when it comes to exploitation and power. It’s a glorious pageant, and a truly inspiring film, which hasn’t dated or lost its relevance in 40 years (because these topics never truly seem to go away). I only hope it can continue to inspire in the future.

CREDITS
Director Med Hondo ميد هوندو; Writers Hondo and Daniel Boukman (from Boukman’s novel Les Negriers “The Slavers”); Cinematographer François Catonné; Starring Robert Liensol, Roland Bertin, Hélène Vincent; Length 110 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Thursday 5 December 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”

.قضیه شکل اول… شکل دوم Qazieh-e shekl-e avval… shekl-e dovvom. (First Case, Second Case, 1979)

For my week of Iranian cinema I can’t really avoid Abbas Kiarostami. He is, by some way, the pre-eminent figure in Iranian cinema, certainly the best-known, though some of his earlier films can be difficult to see. Many have been banned in Iran for political reasons, not least his 1979 documentary First Case, Second Case which was filmed on either side of that year’s revolution.


At one level this feels like a dour, controlled and apparently innocuous morality lesson with a documentary-like precision, as a series of talking heads comment on two different examples from a classroom where disobedient boys are being punished: one in which one the boys denounces his colleagues, the other in which they stand united. However, it was made at the time of the Iranian Revolution, and the moral questions are ones that pierce to the heart of any society, especially this one at this time: should we stand with our colleagues who are being unfairly treated, or denounce them for personal gain (and even if do, have we really gained anything). The first people we hear from are the fathers of each of the boys, and then a series of governmental, religious, cultural and educational figures, who broaden the debate to one of fairness and indeed about whether the teacher was in the right. Of course, these lines of argument become rather leading at a time when the entire country was in turmoil: the film was banned and many of those speaking in the film were suppressed later.

Film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Abbas Kiarostami عباس کیارستمی; Cinematographer Houshang Baharlou هوشنگ بهارلو; Length 53 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Arlecchino, Bologna, Friday 28 June 2019.

La batalla de Chile: La lucha de un pueblo sin armas (The Battle of Chile, 1975/1976/1979)

The “Third Cinema” movement may have kicked off with Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino’s The Hour of the Furnaces (1968), but in a decade of revolutions few made as many waves throughout the continent and internationally as the one that deposed Socialist leader Salvador Allende on 11 September 1973. This period is covered in detail by Patricio Guzmán in a series of films made in the late-1970s, and followed up decades later with the reflective Chile, la memoria obstinada (Chile, Obstinate Memory, 1997).


Primera parte: La insurrección de la burguesía (Part I: The Insurrection of the Bourgeoisie, 1975)

This first part of Guzmán’s trilogy about the downfall of Salvador Allende is urgent political filmmaking that still feels relevant today. To a large extent, it is a careful laying out of events early in 1973 around a plebiscite and subsequent tactics by the opposition to Allende to unseat him from government and derail his policies, so in a sense it does feel like a lot of footage of protests and vox pops with people out on the streets. However, the footage has clarity and seems carefully structured and researched, and images of middle-class Chileans screaming out for impeachment of the left-wing Allende does seem to resonate through time. It also builds to a real coup de cinéma, which is chilling at the same time as setting up the imminent events for the coup against Allende. If anything, I’d have liked a bit more discussion of what exactly Allende’s policies were and where his unpopularity was rooted, but it is filmmaking with passion and purpose.

Segunda parte: El golpe de estado (Part II: The Coup d’État, 1976)

This second part moves from the abortive coup attempt in late-June 1973 through to the events of 11 September 1973, when Pinochet was installed in power to turn back the Marxist policies of Salvador Allende. Again, Guzmán goes into great detail about the way events evolved, from the transport strikes and street protests in favour of Allende, through to the fragile political situation involving the Christian Democrats (and the Catholic Church), the hints of a coup being organised by the military forces in Valparaíso (and the assassination of a high-ranking officer loyal to Allende in order to prevent word getting to him). Throughout the film are these teachable moments about how fascist, anti-revolutionary forces organise and destabilise a country, before pledging to restore the stability they themselves undermined (in collusion with business, media and powerful political interests) in a show of military force. The end of the film still shows that the angry determination of the workers was an obstacle yet to be dealt with by Pinochet and the coup leaders, which takes us into part III of the documentary.

Tercera parte: El poder popular (Part III: Popular Power, 1979)

The third part steps back from the messy end of Part II (September 1973) and turns its focus instead to the people, the workers and their bosses, those who were wanting the government to deliver on their promises and were trying to lead the attempts to make Chile a better place for the workers. It shows their struggles and difficulties, the ways in which strikes and bourgeois actions prevented certain elements of the grand plans to nationalise industries, and the way in which government support didn’t always deliver on its promises. It’s a little more diffuse than the previous parts in lacking its focus on Allende himself and the attempts to topple him, but it provides an interesting epilogue to the work of revolutionary activity at all levels of society.

Film posterCREDITS
Director Patricio Guzmán; Cinematographer Jorge Müller Silva; Length 263 minutes (Part I: 97 minutes; Part II: 78 minutes; Part III: 88 minutes).
Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 2 July/Wednesday 4 July/Thursday 12 July 2018.

My Brilliant Career (1979)

Having started my Australian-themed film week with Celia, I’m skipping back ten years to a real classic of the era, and a film that launched the career of one of Australia’s best known directors, Gillian Armstrong, whose 1992 film The Last Days of Chez Nous I’ve also reviewed on here. (NB I only realised after watching and writing the text below that this has recently been released on the Criterion Collection, but it won’t be until 2032 that I’ll get to that film, so expect another review in, er, 13 years.)


This film is now 40 years old, and I wonder whether a lot of the issues that it addresses, the rich emotional lives it affords to its characters, and particularly the way it resolves the central romantic pairing, are still somewhat ahead of their time even now. There are certainly plenty of filmmakers who could do some catching up. Published originally in 1901, My Brilliant Career is a late-19th century story of colonial Australia starring a young Sam Neill (who almost 40 years later would be in a quite different rendering of a similar period in Sweet Country). Here he plays Harry, a dashing young man competing for the hand of Sybylla, but it’s very much her film, and that of Judy Davis who plays her. Indeed the very first scene sets that much out, as Davis makes an iconic entrance* reading the words of Miles Franklin, that this is a story about her. It’s also a story about finding one’s own way in the world (shades of The Souvenir which I just watched yesterday) and about colonial-era class relationships, though the society it depicts remains very white (there are some Aboriginal servants, but these are only glanced briefly in the background). At this remove, it feels like there’s a preponderance of Australian cinema dealing with its colonial European past from the 1970s, though that’s partly just how brightly Picnic at Hanging Rock still shines, but each of these films deserves its place in expanding the possibilities of a specifically Australian cinema, and Syb (as Harry calls her) feels like a very modern woman, even now, even in 2019.

* I don’t know if it’s iconic, but it should be.

My Brilliant Career film posterCREDITS
Director Gillian Armstrong; Writer Eleanor Witcombe (based on the novel by Miles Franklin); Cinematographer Donald McAlpine; Starring Judy Davis, Sam Neill, Wendy Hughes; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 1 September 2019.