Criterion Sunday 206: Lola (1981)

I’d seen this before when I was younger, but perhaps I was an idiot, because I remember almost nothing about this film, and yet it is so very striking. It feels like finally, after years of flirting, Fassbinder completely nails the Sirkian aesthetic, in all its garish heady blend of colours and framing and little satirical nudges about Germany society in the 1970s. It’s a story of corrupt small town politicians and developers, and of course it’s also about sex and desire too. It’s a venal world, and apparently little is going to change that, but Armin Mueller-Stahl’s bureaucrat tries his best all the same. Every successive shot is a masterclass in lighting, all saturated colours and a strange blue highlight used for Mueller-Stahl’s eyes whenever he’s in his office. It’s a gorgeous film about — what else — but moral turpitude and the baseness of the human spirit.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Rainer Werner Fassbinder | Writers Fassbinder, Pea Fröhlich and Peter Märthesheimer | Cinematographer Xaver Schwarzenberger | Starring Barbara Sukowa, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Mario Adorf | Length 113 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 1 April 2018 (and before that on VHS in the university library in Wellington, March 2000)

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Criterion Sunday 184: “By Brakhage: An Anthology, Volume One” (1954-2001)

This compendium of short films by the American experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage spans the range of his life, from his earliest works to after his diagnosis with the cancer which would claim his life in 2003. It was joined by a second volume some years later (as spine numbers 517 and 518), meaning this early instalment was retrospectively retitled as “Volume One” at that time. I present thoughts on some of the films below.

Desistfilm (1954) is my introduction to Brakhage’s work, like some kind of hepped-up beatnik film about a house party set to a hard-edged droning soundtrack, as people’s relationships break down. Wedlock House: An Intercourse (1959) takes glimpses of early married life, but edits them together with fades to black in flickering light and comes across as nothing so much as a Lynchian dystopia of nightmares, with negative-image graphic sex interpolated. It doesn’t exactly paint a pleasant portrait of marriage.

Brakhage’s most famous work, though, probably remains Dog Star Man, made in four parts with a prelude (so: five separate short films). As a whole it’s a fevered rush of images, or at least that’s the sense that Part IV conjures, though the Prelude sets up the basic imagery of the title, where the “man” is both Brakhage himself, and also his newborn baby, and the “star” seems more like a solar plexus of body imagery and film manipulation effects. It’s all quite affecting in its way, but perplexing too. Part I has the most sustained sense of narrative, as Brakhage journeys futilely up (or along, depending on the camera angle) a snowy slope like a deranged Sisyphean hunter figure with his dog. Part II introduces the baby imagery more fully, with this and the remaining parts being relatively shorter.

Possibly the most distinctive film, both integrated into his oeuvre but also standing apart by virtue of its extreme subject matter, is The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes (1971). I don’t really know how to ‘rate’ this, but for all that the subject matter may be gruesome (footage taken during actual autopsies), I found it difficult to take my eyes off the screen, because to do so would seem somehow disrespectful to what Brakhage is filming here: the very substance of physical being itself. I suppose at a metaphorical level this could be construed as another film about the technical aspects of filmmaking — editing and deconstructing — but yet it’s really, really not: it’s the literalisation of some kind of metaphysical consciousness that doesn’t simply reduce once-living beings to cadavers, but finds some kind of transcendent purity in our essential form. This is supported by the formal means Brakhage uses, the occasionally occluded camera angles, the complete lack of sound, the structure moving us gently from coroners measuring things into the more macabre material. I wouldn’t call it disturbing exactly, though not everyone would wish to sit through it, but it certainly makes all other filmed images seem a little unnecessary.

At the other end of the spectrum of life, Window Water Baby Moving (1959) films Brakhage’s wife giving birth to their baby daughter (or is that a spoiler?). It has a lyrical quality to it, to the colours and textures, that carries it through the bloody and painful aspects of what’s taking place, seeming to communicate at least something of what’s special to it. From the same year, Cat’s Cradle is riven with blood red textures, of sensuality perhaps or something more eerie… and a cat. Family figures in a later film, Kindering (1987), in which odd contorted images of children playing in their backyard create a strange, slightly creepy effect. With I… Dreaming (1988), he again hints at a dark loneliness, something that seems to have been taken up by Lynch when I think about the spaces of void (or I believe that’s the word he writes most often over his film here), but it doesn’t entirely work for me.

There are a few films which continue to explore the textures of filmed matter. In Mothlight (1963), the light of the camera passes directly through the biological material of a moth and its world, creating patterns and textures directly on the film. Returning to similar ideas, The Garden of Earthly Delights uses plant ephemera, and sort of achieves something of the same effect.

Sometimes the experimentalism of Brakhage’s films comes from the sense of the editing, but in The Wold Shadow (1972), it feels more like he’s experimenting with effects in the camera, or using a static image of trees in a forest as a base for improvisation on the theme of colour and light. It’s fascinating. More perplexing is The Stars Are Beautiful (1981), in which Brakhage recounts various creation myths relating to the stars, while his children (I am guessing) clip a chicken’s wings. I guess those birds won’t be getting anywhere near the stars.

There are also a large number of colour films, painted and collaged, but the first on the set (1987’s The Dante Quartet) isn’t my favourite. However, it has (unsurprisingly, Dante-esque) headings to its sections. Somewhat a precursor to that is Night Music (1986), thirty seconds of colour, big and bold. Meanwhile, the colours just seem a little more dissipated in Glaze of Cathexis (1990), though it’s the film of his which sounds most like the name of a black metal band (yes, it turns out someone has taken it for such), while Delicacies of Molten Horror Synapse (1990) sounds like the title of that band’s first album. Once again, it does some lovely things with colour and light, as you’d expect. A few years later, Study in Color and Black and White (1993) is more dark than colour, more black than white.

Having watched a series of Brakhage’s short experiments with light and colour hand-painted directly onto film, the 10+ minute running length of Untitled (For Marilyn) (1992) suggests it might somehow be wearyingly epic by comparison, and yet this ended up being the one I most loved (alongside Lovesong). It has the textures, the colours, the feeling. It’s the whole package, and is dedicated to his wife. Black Ice (1994) is another of his films which, when watched alongside some sludgy doomy metal (as I was doing, given most of these films are silent), starts to feel like a crack in the cosmos, through which snippets of light and colour seem to make their way. Cosmic shapes appear in Stellar (1993) as well, extensions of Brakhage’s work with painting on film, and perhaps these are just suggested by the title, but there is a sort of harmony of the spheres to it all.

In Crack Glass Eulogy (1991), after a long run of his colour and light films, seeing filmed images seems rather a novelty. It has a spare, haunting, elegiac quality, like night vision, like surveillance. By the end of the decade, though, in The Dark Tower (1999), the darkness threatens to overwhelm everything else, perhaps suggestive of his failing vision. Likewise Comingled Containers (1996, which Criterion’s sleeve notes correct to “commingled”) feels like a blend of photography (water imagery) and the filmmaker’s manipulations of light and colour in a way that is rather more productive than some of Brakhage’s other works, but with a similar undertow of darkness.

The final film on the set is the most recent one, Lovesong (2001), made only a couple of years before Brakhage’s death from cancer. What I like most about this film is that it feels like a pure expression of paint on film. It seems so fresh, wet and glistening on the surface of the celluloid. It’s a film that has hundreds if not thousands of individual artworks, any one of which could be framed, but together seem beautiful and mysterious, like so much of Brakhage’s work.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection || Director/Cinematography Stan Brakhage || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, over Sunday 25 February, 4 March and 11 March 2018

Desistfilm (1954) | Length 7 minutes
Wedlock House: An Intercourse (1959) | Length 11 minutes
Dog Star Man (1961-64) | Length 75 minutes [1001 Films]

The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes (1971) | Length 32 minutes [Rosenbaum 1000]

Cat’s Cradle (1959) | Length 7 minutes
Window Water Baby Moving (1959) | Length 13 minutes
Mothlight (1963) | Length 4 minutes
Eye Myth (1967) | Length 1 minute
The Wold Shadow (1972) | Length 3 minutes
The Garden of Earthly Delights (1981) | Length 2 minutes

The Stars Are Beautiful (1974) | Length 19 minutes

Kindering (1987) | Length 3 minutes
I… Dreaming (1988) | Length 7 minutes
The Dante Quartet (1989) | Length 7 minutes
Night Music (1986) | Length 1 minute
Rage Net (1988) | Length 1 minute

Glaze of Cathexis (1990) | Length 3 minutes

Delicacies of Molten Horror Synapse (1990) | Length 9 minutes

Untitled (For Marilyn) (1992) | Length 11 minutes

Black Ice (1994) | Length 2 minutes
Study in Color and Black and White (1993) | Length 2 minutes
Stellar (1993) | Length 3 minutes
Crack Glass Eulogy (1991) | Length 7 minutes
The Dark Tower (1999) | Length 3 minutes
Comingled Containers (1996) | Length 3 minutes

Lovesong (2001) | Length 11 minutes

Criterion Sunday 106: Coup de torchon (aka Clean Slate, 1981)

There’s quite a deep vein of black comedy to be found in this film noir-ish story of an affable police chief Lucien (Philippe Noiret) in pre-World War II colonial-era Africa using his power to rid himself of his tormentors. It’s all filmed with evident facility, and the veteran cinematographer gets a chance to show off with some excellent use of sinuous tracking shots. The script (based on a similarly black novel by Jim Thompson, albeit one set in the American South) evinces a fair amount of wit in unspooling events, as Lucien takes advantage of what others perceive to be a shambolic simple nature as the perfect cover to take his revenge. His likeability also seems to attract a range of female admirers (including Isabelle Huppert as Rose, the battered wife of one of those Lucien seeks to do away with). Lucien’s retribution is initially on Rose’s wife-beating husband, his cruel colonialist bosses and shady French businessmen exploiting the local conditions, but when it eventually moves on to the local black servants, the humour ultimately curdles, rendering a portrait of socially-mandated lawlessness, quite a potent critique of colonial power after a fashion.

Criterion Extras: The film’s director, Bertrand Tavernier, introduces and explains an alternative ending involving, rather fantastically but amusingly, a pair of dancing apes.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Bertrand Tavernier | Writers Bertrand Tavernier and Jean Aurenche (based on the novel Pop. 1280 by Jim Thompson) | Cinematographer Pierre-William Glenn | Starring Philippe Noiret, Isabelle Huppert | Length 128 minutes || Seen at City Gallery, Wellington, Saturday 20 March 1999 (and more recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 10 July 2016)

Criterion Sunday 100: “Beastie Boys Video Anthology” (1981-99)

There’s a certain type of film that gets characterised as your typical Criterion release, though in truth they do keep their slate of releases relatively varied from long-established ‘classics’, to slow arthouse films to more recent releases and documentaries. However, even amongst these, an anthology of music videos by a single band is rather unusual, so I’m not really sure how to review it per se. It should be fairly clear that if you don’t like the music of the Beastie Boys, you probably won’t get much from Criterion spine number 100, though some of the productions (which are mostly directed by the sadly departed Adam Yauch aka MCA aka Nathanial Hörnblowér, the latter of which is his directing credit) have a sort of lo-fi amateur energy.

Chief amongst these, and perhaps typical of much of their output, is the one which opens the set “Intergalactic”. It’s a genre pastiche which utilises cheap props and cardboard sets intercut with our three rapping heroes in close-up. The genre here is the monster movie (it’s your usual giant robot vs giant octopus scenario), but when they do genre pastiches it’s usually the low-budget end which gets satirised, meaning the amateurish effects are part of the formal charm of the films. My favourite is probably “Body Movin'”, a 60s-style heist spoof that has the style that Austin Powers was going for, but funnier and frankly more interesting than that franchise, and some great sets and laugh-out-loud moments. Most people, though, will at least recall “Sabotage”, the Spike Jonze-directed cop film pastiche that still ranks amongst their (and his) finest works.

The rest of the videos vary from cut-ups of archival footage (for example, “Ricky’s Theme” or “Something’s Got to Give”) to straight-to-camera fisheye-lens setups of rapping, though “Three MCs and One DJ” mixes it up a little by having the three Beastie Boys frozen in their studio for an amusing minute-long prologue until their DJ arrives. One thing that becomes clear (and is probably the reason for the omission of some of the more famous late-80s cuts) is the maturation of the group from goofing-around frat-boy types with crude sexual humour to being rather more reflective about social issues (the last video on the set, “Alive” from 1999, even includes lyrics addressing the economic situation).

And if, like us, you’re watching them all from start to finish, you’ll probably move on to watching their other videos on YouTube, in which case check out the 30-minute long “Fight for Your Right Revisited”, which packs in a huge variety of celebrity cameos, and plenty of the sense of humour you’ll have picked up on from the 18 videos on the Criterion set.

Criterion Extras: Almost all the videos have multiple remixes which can be played over the videos, and some include alternate takes and angles. There’s an extended short film of “Intergalactic” which presents the monster movie plot without the music track (which doesn’t really help). Finally, and perhaps most usefully, there are lyrics subtitles for all the videos so you can keep up with what the boys are rapping about.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors Evan Barnard (“Root Down”, 1995), Adam Bernstein (“Hey Ladies”, 1989), Spike Jonze (“Sabotage” and “Sure Shot”, 1994), Tamra Davis (“Netty’s Girl”, 1992), David Perez Shadi (“Gratitude”, 1993) and Adam Yauch [as “Nathanial Hörnblowér”] (“Holy Snappers”, 1981; “Looking Down the Barrel of a Gun”, “Shadrach” and “Shake Your Rump”, 1989; “Pass the Mic”, “Something’s Got to Give” and “So What’cha Want”, 1992; “Ricky’s Theme”, 1994; “Body Movin'” and “Intergalactic”, 1998; “Alive” and “Three MCs and One DJ”, 1999) || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Saturday 4 June 2016

Criterion Sunday 37: Time Bandits (1981)

If this is considered a family film classic, then it’s a dark and strange one. In many ways, it feels like something of a template for Terry Gilliam’s later filmmaking after the previous decade spent subsumed into the Monty Python comedy collective. It’s a story that comes from a place of imagination and wonder, so it’s suitably focused on a young boy, Kevin (Craig Warnock in his only film role), who’s led by a group of dwarves from his bedroom through a portal into another dimension of fantasy and Gilliamesque weirdness. I’m not sure I’m always a fan of Gilliam’s skewed take on the world, though it’s impossible to deny the anarchic energy he brings to every element of filming and set design, the latter of which seems to be entirely based around the toys littering Kevin’s bedroom. The film takes a child/dwarf’s-eye view of the world, with plenty of close-to-the-ground framings of various dastardly creatures (giants, swordsmen, God and Evil, and the very tall John Cleese as a condescending aristocratic Robin Hood). Gilliam keeps the film focused on the merry little band, with strong roles for David Rappaport as their self-appointed leader Randall and Kenny Baker as lovably dim sidekick Fidgit in particular, though given their bandit nature, all of them remain largely selfish and nasty up to the end. Time Bandits has that delight in upsetting the adult world of order that you see in, for example, Roald Dahl’s kids’ books, so it’s certainly not devoid of gruesome little jokes scattered around the madcap capering through this literalised dreamscape. Quite what it all amounts to, I’m not always sure, but it’s certainly diverting.

Criterion Extras: There’s a long filmed interview with Terry Gilliam from on stage at the Midnight Sun Film Festival, around the time of the release of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, in which he speaks volubly and at length about his career, with only brief prompting from his on-stage interviewer. He only briefly touches on Time Bandits, but it’s an interesting piece. There are shorter pieces about the creation of the film’s look, as well as archival footage of Shelley Duvall talking about her (very small) role in the film. The commentary track merges a number of interviews, primarily with Gilliam talking about the making of various scenes, but with brief interpolations from some of the actors like Craig Warnock, Cleese and Michael Palin, who was also a co-screenwriter, and is all very informative.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Terry Gilliam | Writers Terry Gilliam and Michael Palin | Cinematographer Peter Biziou | Starring Craig Warnock, David Rappaport, Kenny Baker, David Warner, Ralph Richardson | Length 116 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 17 May 2015

Psy-Warriors (1981)

This screening was presented as part of a series dedicated to the visual spaces of television, alongside a shorter work called “The Saliva Milkshake” (reviewed below). The image is a screen capture of the film’s title card. Both were originally shown on the BBC, with the feature originally aired on 12 May 1981 as part of the “Play for Today” series, and the shorter work on 6 January 1975 in the “Centre Play” series.


SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW || Director Alan Clarke | Writer David Leland | Cinematographer Ken Westbury [as film cameraman] | Starring Rosalind Ayres, John Duttine, Derrick O’Connor, Warren Clarke, Colin Blakely | Length 73 minutes | Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Monday 24 February 2014 || My Rating 3 stars good


© BBC

I feel as though I preface a lot of my reviews by claiming I’m no expert on what I’m about to write about, but I must at least be honest. This is going to occur fairly frequently when one dips into areas of filmmaking that are strange or unusual or otherwise outside the mainstream, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. In this case, the format of the standalone television drama (whether a half-hour segment or a feature-length presentation) is one that has been particularly ill-served by advances in distribution over the last few decades. There are still huge numbers of TV shows languishing in archives (or entirely wiped from them) that get very little airing nowadays. They may have garnered larger viewerships than many cinema-distributed films at the time, but for only one or two airings many decades ago. It’s this context in which I come to this film I’m reviewing now, a fascinating document of a past era (albeit tackling themes still very much relevant now), which I saw in a one-off archival screening at the British Film Institute.

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