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 449: Missing (1982)

In a way this film by Costa-Gavras is exemplary of a certain strand of political filmmaking that flourished in the 1980s, finding a way into an epochal event through a human rights case involving (white) Americans, to make it more relatable. Interestingly, of course, the Chilean coup in 1973 that led to the death of the young American journalist Charles Horman (played here by John Shea) is so far in the background that Allende and Pinochet are barely even named, and the Chileans we see are just shady military characters with little to distinguish them. Costa-Gavras is very much more interested in focusing on the Americans involved, which makes sense given the help they gave to what was an explicitly anti-leftist and militaristic coup, aligning so well with their destabilising influence across Central and South America in this Cold War era. So we are led to see all these events, the disappearance and death of American journalists, as part of an essentially American story of silencing their own citizens as part of enacting geopolitical change that would favour their own national interests. That said, what I find frustrating about the film is just having to watch Jack Lemmon (playing Charles’s dad Ed) trying to throw his weight around and not understanding his own son’s situation, though it’s all presented as part of a learning curve for him — as someone of a certain age who implicitly trusted his own government finally understanding that he could never trust them again. His character is difficult and has trouble understanding the context, and that can just make him a little bit difficult to watch at times when it’s just variations of him going into rooms and being dismissive of his son’s wife (Sissy Spacek) and friends whenever they speak. Still, it’s a well-intentioned film that did attempt to grapple with some of this geopolitical reality at a time when Reagan had recently been elected.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Costa-Gavras Κώστας Γαβράς; Writers Costa-Gavras and Donald E. Stewart (based on the non-fiction book The Execution of Charles Horman: An American Sacrifice by Thomas Hauser); Cinematographer Ricardo Aronovich; Starring Jack Lemmon, Sissy Spacek, John Shea, Melanie Mayron; Length 122 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 17 July 2021 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, September 2000).

Global Cinema 9: Australia – Starstruck (1982)

Australia is of course a huge country, but relatively speaking it’s not so populous. Nevertheless it’s had a long and prosperous cinema, with a number of well-known and highly-regarded directors, not least Gillian Armstrong, who directed the film I’m focusing on in this post. I’m not sure if any one film can sum up Australia, but Starstruck seems to capture something of the spirit of the place, at least in the 1980s.


Australian flagCommonwealth of Australia
population 25,758,900 | capital Canberra (427k) | largest cities Sydney (5.3m), Melbourne (5.1m), Brisbane (2.5m), Perth (2.1m), Adelaide (1.4m) | area 7,692,024 km2 | religion Christianity (52.1%), none (30.1%) | official language none (English) | major ethnicity no data | currency Australian Dollar ($) [AUD] | internet .au

The sixth-largest country in the world by area is an island large enough to be (most of) its own continent, and as such has huge diversity of environments, from deserts to tropical rainforest, and mountains in the south-east, and most of the population is concentrated on the eastern seaboard. The name comes from the Latin terra australis (“southern land”) used since ancient times for an (at that point hypothetical) southern continent, though “New Holland” (explorer Abel Tasman’s name for it) was largely used until the early-19th century. It has been inhabited by indigenous peoples for around 65,000 years until Dutch explorers “discovered” it in the early-17th century. The British set up camp for the first time there in 1788, to establish a penal colony, with further colonies set up in Tasmania (Van Diemen’s Land) and other areas, though South Australia was never a penal colony. Indigenous populations declined in these years, with a policy of assimilating the Aboriginal population that continued until well into the 20th century. The separate colonies federated on 1 January 1901 and independence from the UK declared, with formal constitutional ties ended in 1942. Ties to the US strengthened and immigration from Asia was allowed from the 1970s onwards. It still maintains the British monarch as head of state, with an elected Prime Minister.

Cinema had its beginnings in Australia with screenings in 1896, and anthropological shorts from 1900, with the first feature in 1906 being The Story of the Kelly Gang (the earliest feature-length narrative film in the world, depending on your definitions). Studios were founded (the earliest in Melbourne) and there was a boom of sorts in the 1910s, followed by a decline in the 1920s. Production continued at an uneven pace, slowing down significantly by the 1960s, though the Australian Film Institute was founded in 1958. From the late-1960s onwards, though, government supported film more and various programmes led to an Australian New Wave, as well as a fringe of “Ozsploitation”. The 1990s saw a further entrenchment into the mainstream and worldwide success for a number of titles. Cinema continues to be made, although with less worldwide success against the huge American productions, though a lot of these are filmed in the country.


Starstruck (1982)

Obviously Gillian Armstrong’s feature debut My Brilliant Career (1979) is justly lauded, and it’s a fine period film, but with the passage of almost 40 years this, her second feature film, seems almost equally period. It’s contemporary, of course, and it gleefully trades on a certain post-punk new wave spirit of restless energy and vertiginous hairstyles, yet alongside it sits the traditional working class Australia still stuck in the 1950s, tut-tutting at the kids and the noise they make. It’s a slender premise to hang a film around — a TV talent show that could make our heroine Jackie (Jo Kennedy) a big star if only she can somehow inveigle her way on — but yet Starstruck achieves it with single-minded vision. The energy of the musical numbers shares a lot with the kind of art pop of, say, Split Enz, which makes sense given the involvement of that band’s leader Tim Finn in the songs here (and, one imagines, some of the performances too). It’s an energy that sustains the film through all of its madcap plotting, that and the interplay between cousins Jackie and 14-year-old Angus (Ross O’Donovan), who it slowly becomes clear are only so determined at pop success because their family disappoints them so regularly — with the exception of the rambunctious Nana (Pat Evison). This is one of the films I had most looked forward to seeing by Gillian Armstrong and it’s inexplicable that it’s not more widely-available, because it’s not just a precious document of an era (the early-80s) but also a delightful film in its own right.

Starstruck film posterCREDITS
Director Gillian Armstrong; Writer Stephen MacLean; Cinematographer Russell Boyd; Starring Jo Kennedy, Ross O’Donovan, John O’May, Margo Lee, Pat Evison; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at home (YouTube), London, Friday 22 May 2020.

Criterion Sunday 287: Burden of Dreams (1982)

Herzog’s film Fitzcarraldo isn’t in the Criterion Collection and honestly, I’m not sure it should be; it’s fine and well-made as far it goes, but the story of its making — the story told in this documentary — is far more interesting. In a sense, there’s as much colonialist privilege being exerted in the actual making of this Amazonian epic as there is in the text of the film itself, and you can see that coming through, the maniacal drive of Herzog to make his film, to honour his grand and foolish metaphor despite all the destruction it wreaks, and the troubles it causes amongst the tribes people he is using as extras and for labour. Indeed, the film touches briefly on but never gets into the human toll of the filming, though we see him and Kinski, amongst others, slipping and sliding about in the mud. And then of course there are those great Herzogian flourishes of aggrandising whimsy (“the birds here are in misery; I don’t think they sing, they just screech in pain”) as he addresses his evolving situation. It is, and it surely looks like, the very model of the ‘troubled shoot’, and it’s a vastly entertaining documentary, but it’s also a bleak and concerning portrait of a filmmaker gone awry, a man too much in service to his central metaphor to consider whether it’s all worth it.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • The main extra is the 1980 short film Les Blank made — the project on which he met Herzog and decided to follow him in making Fitzcarraldo. It documents a promise Herzog made to fellow (aspiring) documentary filmmaker Errol Morris that he’d eat his shoe if Morris was able to make his debut (Gates of Heaven, which will show up later on the Criterion Collection). There are, I suppose, two things going on in this short film, and one of them of course is the German film director eating his shoe. Which is to say, we see him preparing it (stuffing it with bulbs of garlic and onion and spices), cooking it, and then — onstage before a screening of Gates of Heaven and then apparently afterwards in the bar — slicing up little pieces and eating it, with a little bit of help from those who wish to interview him. But the other thing going on here is that it’s a public show of support for a small independent filmmaker who has, with Herzog’s encouragement, been able to make his own film. That film is a great work, but this is all about Herzog honouring his own loud mouthed promises, and supporting filmmaking.
  • There’s are some outtakes from Burden of Dreams, via Herzog’s own documentary about Kinski My Best Fiend (1999) showing Kinski ranting and raving on set.
  • Herzog does a long interview 25 years later for the release of the Criterion disc, reflecting back on how he was back then, what was omitted, and how it’s impossible to really capture the making of a film as enormous and foolhardy as Fitzcarraldo. He also draws attention to Blank’s own interests that went beyond the production itself, vignettes of the locals and the rainforest and the wildlife, that somehow make the documentary greater than it would otherwise have been.
  • There’s a gallery of some rather stunning and evocative photos taken during the production, primarily by Blank’s editor Maureen Gosling.
  • Finally, there’s a short trailer for the documentary.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Cinematographer Les Blank; Starring Werner Herzog, Klaus Kinski; Length 95 minutes.

Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 12 September 2001 (and before that on VHS at the university library, Wellington, June 1996, and most recently on DVD at home, London, Friday 24 January 2020).

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”

Criterion Sunday 262: Fanny och Alexander [The Television Version] (Fanny and Alexander, 1982)

I started watching this under the impression that, as a “television version” which is ostensibly split into four episodes, it would therefore be watchable in small chunks. However, do not be fooled, for despite its five act structure (plus a prologue and epilogue), and the separate credit roll at the end of each “episode”, this is essentially a single 312-minute film, so I ended up watching most of it in a single sitting.

There are different ways to use this kind of duration and Bergman focuses on the characters. There are essentially three households at the heart of this film: the Ekdahls (with Ewa Fröling as the key figure, Emilie), a rich theatre-owning family in whose company we start the film, as they throw a grand Christmas gathering; that of the austere Bishop Vergérus (Jan Malmsjö); and the Jewish moneylender Isak (Erland Josephson), who is more a passing background character for much of the film. The title may put the emphasis on Emilie’s two children, and their experiences guide the structure of the film (Bertil Guve’s Alexander is the character that director Ingmar Bergman identified with, and whose point of view we mostly adopt), but Emilie is the film’s linchpin.

Intended perhaps to be his swansong, this is a gloriously mounted production, which carefully contrasts the burnished colours, deep rich saturated reds, brocaded fabrics and warm lights of the Ekdahl household, with the gloomy bare prison-like atmosphere of the Bishop’s home, with his wan, dispirited serving women and authoritarian mother. In fact, generally Bergman is pretty savage with this man of the cloth, although religious belief runs throughout the film and is hardly all the kind of dour torture that the Bishop cleaves to, even if that’s the most “Bergmanesque” passage of the film. But it’s mostly a film about family and growing up, a warm remembrance of childhood and of a certain kind of cultured middle-class upbringing. The acting is all superb, too, with a vast roster of talent familiar from many other Bergman works.

But this remains very much a film, not a TV series.

[NB This version was released the year after the feature version, in 1983, although I would consider it an alternate cut of the same film, so I’m sticking with the original release year on the heading of this post.]

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There are no extras on this disc, as they are all on a separate supplements disc.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Ingmar Bergman; Cinematographer Sven Nykvist; Starring Ewa Fröling, Jan Malmsjö, Allan Edwall, Bertil Guve, Erland Josephson, Jarl Kulle; Length 312 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Friday 16 August 2019.

Wênd Kûuni (aka God’s Gift, 1982)

While a number of post-independence films in Africa have focused on specific issues related to colonialism and development across the region, a number of filmmakers instead turned to pre-colonial stories of traditional life, perhaps to recall what had been lost, or else highlighting the powerful continuity of traditions that can be recognised even in a continent reconfigured with enforced new religions and political leadership. The Royal Belgian Film Archive has led on a new restoration of the Burkina Faso film Wênd Kûuni, which showed at this year’s Il Cinema Ritrovato festival.


Although made in Burkina Faso (known as Upper Volta when the film was made), this is set before the coming of Europeans, in a dusty and sun-drenched village. It moves at a gentle pace, as first we hear of a woman whose husband has disappeared, and then we see an abandoned child (Serge Yanogo), apparently mute, taken to a local village by a passing traveller. The villagers look after him as he grows, naming him ‘God’s Gift’ (Wênd Kûuni). The narrative, such as it is, involves his backstory, finding out where he comes from (which brings in local folk narratives, witchcraft and a rather brutal expulsion). However, it also suggests a time when such lives could be lived without the greater threat of the destabilisation created by the outside world, of a lost culture that no longer existed in Burkina Faso.

Film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Gaston Kaboré; Cinematographers Issaka Thiombiano and Sékou Ouedraogo; Starring Serge Yanogo, Rosine Yanogo; Length 75 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Lumière (Sala Scorsese), Bologna, Saturday 29 June 2019.

Criterion Sunday 205: Die Sehnsucht der Veronika Voss (Veronika Voss, 1982)

One of Fassbinder’s final films (indeed, the last to be released in his lifetime), this is a dreamlike reverie of soft black-and-white, specifically an hommage to a presumed golden era of Hollywood (and Nazi-era) filmmaking, flashbacks to which are all starry-eyed lights and slinky fashion. The star of these films is the title character (Rosel Zech), who a decade after World War II is struggling to get work and struggling to keep her fragile sense of identity. She meets a sports reporter (Hilmar Thate) who doesn’t know who she is, and strikes up an affair, during which he discovers she’s being drugged by a rapacious doctor (Annemarie Düringer), and resolves to try and free her. These genre elements though are largely interwoven into a story that’s about the dangerous addiction not just to morphine but to fame itself, with a subtle through line of satire that is difficult to laugh at given the suffocating atmosphere of much of the film. It’s a more admirable piece than one I genuinely love, but thus is often the way with Fassbinder.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Rainer Werner Fassbinder; Writers Fassbinder, Pea Fröhlich and Peter Märthesheimer; Cinematographer Xaver Schwarzenberger; Starring Rosel Zech, Hilmar Thate, Cornelia Froboess, Annemarie Düringer; Length 104 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 25 March 2018 (and before that on VHS at the university library, Wellington, April 2000).

Losing Ground (1982)

You sort of expect that all the best works of an era will be known and widely celebrated already, but then you see something which was once obscure that blows you away. This feature-length debut by Kathleen Collins (an academic and playwright who died a few years later) is said to be the first feature film by a Black woman in America, but despite that it’s very far from being some pioneeringly amateurish stab at filmmaking from a dilettante. Rather this is a deeply-felt, very carefully constructed film that shapes its narrative and characters in very particular ways, in which Collins makes full use of the cinematic means at her disposal. There’s drama in its story of a relationship between Sarah (Seret Scott), an intellectual professor of philosophy who is serious-minded and likes order in her life, and her husband Victor (Bill Gunn, himself a director of pioneering films like 1973’s Ganja & Hess), a loose, louche painter of abstracts with a ready smile and the desire to constantly move around. Yet there’s also plenty of comedy, not to mention a filmic tone that keeps pushing at the edges of both registers, never resolving any of its characters into stereotypes or boxes but allowing them many forms of expression. It’s remarkable too that this story of middle-class intelligentsia is exclusively made and performed by people of colour, but that may be the reason for its marginalisation since its initial release. Whatever the reasons for its obscurity, it’s a brilliant film with some fantastic performances that presents a really compelling and complex inner journey of one woman.

Losing Ground film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Kathleen Collins; Cinematographer Ronald K. Gray; Starring Seret Scott, Bill Gunn, Duane Jones; Length 86 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Wednesday 25 May 2016.

De stilte rond Christine M. (A Question of Silence, 1982)

This Dutch film, the first by director Marleen Gorris (who would go on to win an Oscar for Antonia’s Line in 1995, as well as making a fine English-language adaptation of Mrs Dalloway a few years after that), is generally hailed as feminist classic of the 1980s. It deals with the murder of a shopkeeper by Christine (Edda Barends) — helped by two bystanders, housewife Annie (Nelly Frijda) and secretary Andrea (Henriëtte Tol) — and their subsequent legal defence, led by the evidence of a court-appointed psychiatrist (Cox Habbema). The film still retains a lot of power in its dissection of sexist attitudes, as it depicts scenes from the lives of each of the three women, as well as the psychiatrist, which illustrate the societal attitudes which have contributed to their actions. The title’s “silence around Christine M.” refers to the silent witnesses to the women’s crime, whose invisibility within this context is a riposte to imbalances in ‘justice’ as applied to the crimes of men against women. And although it retains a number of dated characteristics from the decade — the hair and fashions most obviously — seeing it on the small screen doesn’t diminish the stark simplicity of the set design as well as the elegant camera movements which tie these characters together visually. It remains a fine film, whose central thesis isn’t greatly changed even 35 years on.

A Question of Silence film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Marleen Gorris; Cinematographer Frans Bromet; Starring Cox Habbema, Nelly Frijda, Henriëtte Tol, Edda Barends; Length 92 minutes.
Seen at home (YouTube), London, Thursday 28 January 2016.