Criterion Sunday 464: Danton (1983)

I certainly don’t mean to be reductive about what is clearly a grand effort at staging a historical spectacle, but this very much seems to fall into the ‘sweaty men shouting at each other in antique rooms’ sub-genre of historical film. It’s not that any of them is specifically a bad actor — although the dubbing into French of the many Polish actors is a bit off-putting at times — but it is rather reliant on the conflict of men (the few women involved are reduced very much to side figures, a little unfair I think in the case of Camille Desmoulins’ wife Lucile at least, who was a prominent diarist and journalist).

Danton, of course, has the more heroic character in this rendering of history — the film is named for him after all, and is played with all the charismatic charm that Depardieu can bring — but he’s still more talked about than seen. The film focuses far more on his chief antagonist, Maximilien Robespierre (played by a Polish actor, Wojciech Pszoniak), a shrinking and rather pathetic figure here. Patrice Chéreau matches Depardieu for sweaty outrage as Desmoulins but doesn’t get too much time to shine (though his presence reminds me of Chéreau’s own grand historical drama from the following decade, La Reine Margot, an older bit of history but rendered much more lustily and effectively than here). So in a sense the period costuming and other effects — the sweat, the blood, the crumbling architecture — stands just as strongly in for the drama as the actors themselves, which may owe a little to Rossellini’s history films. Rossellini’s films may have a calmer demeanour, but Wajda’s protagonists really like to get stuck in. It doesn’t always serve the film best, but it’s not too dull.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Andrzej Wajda; Writers Jean-Claude Carrière, Wajda, Agnieszka Holland, Bolesław Michałek and Jacek Gąsiorowski (based on the play Sprawa Dantona “The Danton Case” by Stanisława Przybyszewska); Cinematographer Igor Luther; Starring Wojciech Pszoniak, Gérard Depardieu, Patrice Chéreau; Length 136 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 24 September 2021.

Criterion Sunday 458: El Norte (1983)

I didn’t really expect much going into this, perhaps something a bit well-meaning and earnest, like contemporary Costa-Gavras films or those of John Sayles — which to be fair, is really quite deeply unfair to the latter’s work, but I’m trying to convey that sense of slightly po-faced political dramas about ordinary people in challenging times. In a sense, cinema since then hasn’t really grappled with those topics so much, but in relation specifically to the Anglophone cinema of Latin-American politics that I’m most familiar with, Gregory Nava’s feature has a more poetic register. This isn’t magical realism, though, it’s a poetic realism more akin to the Italian Neorealists, I think, but imbued with a lived sense of how America treats its Latin-American citizens. The central characters are indigenous people, from a small Guatemalan village, who journey to the North because of conditions back home, and who have to endure a lot to get to the very bottom of the ladder in the US. It’s not straightforwardly for or against anything though — their lives in the US do have some benefits compared to the past, but oppression comes in many guises and for all that they do see some material changes to their position, in other ways they are made to feel very much an underclass, not least in terms of the bureaucracy of immigration (and not much has changed there in almost 40 years one suspects). It’s a film that is as concretely about the conditions of work and life as anything else of the decade, but one imbued with a sense of almost mystical dread, that can be at times overwhelming but equally quite beautiful and resonant.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Gregory Nava; Writers Nava and Anna Thomas; Cinematographer James Glennon; Starring David Villalpando, Zaide Silvia Gutiérrez; Length 140 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 3 September 2021.

Criterion Sunday 387: La Jetée (aka The Pier, 1962) and Sans soleil (aka Sunless, 1983)

Unquestionably a classic of the French New Wave, though it somewhat stands apart from the other familiar films of that period what with it being un photo-roman, driven by still photographs. It’s a canny technique for a low-budget science-fiction film, and director Chris Marker exploits it fully, with a range of photographic effects matched by the familiar poetic narrational style from his documentaries. The plot hinges on its central time-travelling dichotomy, which I think is well-known enough that it’s not exactly a spoiler any more (especially after its reimagining as 12 Monkeys, but look away if so): the man who remembers witnessing his own death. Having seen this sub-30 minute film several times, it’s still enormously affecting the way the film loops around to this, hopping back and forth through time, evoking an apocalyptic Paris through simple effects: dungeon-like settings, a bleak high-contrast photography and the simple foam pads over the eyes that hint at the only technological resources the future still possesses, whereas the present is in a softer monochrome, flickering briefly to life in the eyes of the woman our protagonist is fixated on. I think it’s Godard who is often quoted as saying his films have a beginning, a middle and an end though not necessarily in that order, but La Jetée exemplifies that in practice.

I think Chris Marker’s poetic documentary style of film essay has been incredibly influential, and Sans soleil (1983) is one of his key works, the title also translated on screen as Sunless (and, strangely, in Russian if I recall correctly). It’s a documentary after a fashion, but really it’s a reflective personal essay about memory and understanding, put into the words of a fictional Hungarian cameraman in letters to the narrator, who may be understood to be an alter ego for Marker himself I suppose, as this film was made after a period in which Marker and his New Wave compatriots had been in various leftist collectivist political groups that eschewed authorial credit. In any case, you can see a lot of what has been inspiring about the film though it remains something of a product of its times. It’s mostly concerned with a travelogue around Japan, from the point of view of someone who grew up during World War II, and so turns back every so often to the remnants of the war, probably more in the narrator’s mind than those he films, but it makes for slightly uncomfortably viewing. This kind of othering, or exoticising of foreign people (and the film also flits occasionally to Africa and Cape Verde), sits oddly but really it’s a film about memory that loops in travelogue and even a bit of film criticism (of one of Marker’s favourites, Vertigo, a film which had a strong formative role in La Jetée also) and as such occupies a sort of poetic imaginary. Certainly, it’s not a film that will necessarily help you understand Japan except as it figures in western consciousness of the mid-20th century perhaps.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection

La Jetée (aka The Pier, 1962)
Director/Writer Chris Marker; Cinematographers Jean Chiabaut and Marker; Starring Jean Négroni; Length 27 minutes.
Seen at the Paramount, Wellington, Wednesday 30 July 1997 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Thursday 7 January 2021).

Sans soleil (aka Sunless, 1983)
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Chris Marker; Length 103 minutes.
Seen at the Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Tuesday 10 June 2003 (and before that on VHS at home, Wellington, August 1997, and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Saturday 9 January 2021).

Criterion Sunday 337: À nos amours (1983)

Maurice Pialat had something of an outsider’s relationship to mainstream cinema, it feels at times, a bit like Cassavetes or similar filmmakers who thrived on improvisation and documenting raw emotional states. This film focuses on Sandrine Bonnaire’s Suzanne, a fantastic debut performance and very much the heart of the film, whose coming of age blends with a sense of rebellion against her dysfunctional family and also, it’s hinted, deriving from depression (perhaps something to do with her family situation). The family, sadly, are the weakest part of the film, at least from an acting point of view (both the mother and the brother are frustrating to watch and come across as particularly and screechingly one note; Pialat himself plays the dad). It certainly is close to the surface, these growing pains that Suzanne is going through, her flings with men and her aimlessness, but for all that the dramas are evident, her own feelings are buried and largely inaccessible to any of those around her. She is a steely mystery at the heart of a messy film, and one that I suspect will grow if I revisit it, but another fine film in Pialat’s oeuvre.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Maurice Pialat; Writers Arlette Langmann and Pialat; Cinematographer Jacques Loiseleux; Starring Sandrine Bonnaire, Maurice Pialat, Dominique Besnehard, Evelyne Ker; Length 95 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 18 July 2020.

Two Experimental Short Films from the 1980s Directed by Women: Measures of Distance (1988) and Adynata (1983)

One of the primary ways in which I tend to use YouTube is as a resource for watching short films, which are often ill-served by other platforms (whether online streaming services or physical media, not to mention film festivals and cinematic screenings, or even TV). Whether that’s catching up on the work on the LA Rebellion’s women filmmakers, random recommendations like Possibly in Michigan, the short films that feature on Jonathan Rosenbaum’s favourite 1000 films list (one of which, Adynata, I review below), some short films littering the lower depths of Kristen Stewart’s filmography (I can’t bring myself to review them here though I pondered doing a post), or of course music videos, amongst other ephemera. There’s a lot there to enjoy, and I expect if I do future posts about short films, YouTube will be a key resource.

Continue reading “Two Experimental Short Films from the 1980s Directed by Women: Measures of Distance (1988) and Adynata (1983)”

Yentl (1983)

Another key figure not just for the American musical but for music and indeed society itself, from the 1960s on, is Barbra Streisand. She is a towering presence in a number of films created around her charismatic on-screen persona, but she moved into directing as well, most notably with this adaptation of a Isaac Bashevis Singer play and short story.


There’s probably no real intellectual response to this film, because you’re either partial to Barbra Streisand or you’re not. She certainly does dominate the film, though when he shows up a young Mandy Patinkin does distract attention somewhat, even if (perhaps wisely) Streisand doesn’t give him any singing to do — the music is all for Yentl to perform, for hers is the central drama. Her struggle is against the religiously-mandated life that has been set out for her in early-20th century Poland — wife and motherhood — when all she wants to do is study and learning, right from the very outset (when we see her buy a religious text off a passing bookseller). So she cuts her hair and goes into town, dropping quotes from the Talmud and enrolling in a yeshiva with aforementioned Avigdor (Patinkin), who’s engaged but doesn’t really want to get married. The production values are big, of course, and it’s all rousingly put together. The incipient gender-non-conformist themes are somewhat let down in the final act, but it does enjoyably flirt with these ideas for at least part of its running time, and that (along with those central performances) probably keep it worthwhile.

Yentl film posterCREDITS
Director Barbra Streisand; Writers Streisand and Jack Rosenthal (based on the play by Isaac Bashevis Singer and Leah Napolin, itself based on the short story “Yentl the Yeshiva Boy” by Singer); Cinematographer David Watkin; Starring Barbra Streisand, Mandy Patinkin, Amy Irving; Length 131 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 25 August 2019.

海灘的一天 Hai Tan De Yi Tian (That Day, on the Beach, 1983)

In modern Taiwanese cinema, 1982-83 was a watershed period, when the earliest developed works of Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-hsien were made, ushering in the Taiwanese New Wave. These two filmmakers were born the same year (1947), but the latter began with a number of fairly mainstream features before moving towards the style and themes he would later develop with The Boys from Fengkuei (1983). And although That Day, on the Beach is hardly Yang’s finest work, it marks a departure from the earlier cinema of Taiwan, which I’ve already covered examples of, in thrall to the popular cinemas of the mainland (China and Hong Kong).


Edward Yang’s debut film feels too long, but it’s trying to tell a big story — about growing up, after all, and about finding one’s place in the world. There’s an ambitious structure too: when a renowned concert pianist (Terry Hu) returns to Taiwan, the sister of her first boyfriend (played by the great Sylvia Chang) gets in touch, and when they meet they share memories. However, within these reminiscences of their childhood are embedded all kinds of memories and flashbacks, and eventually the structure becomes fractured by all these different levels of time and subjectivity, so already you can see some of the threads Yang would pursue in his subsequent filmmaking. It’s a beautifully-shot film as well (one of Christopher Doyle’s earliest projects), and for all its epic length, never feels dull or boring. That said, it’s not perfect, and aside from feeling like there’s a tighter story in there, as well as some slightly wayward sound editing, there’s also at least one actor (the ladies’ man and boss, Ah Tsai) who seems to be acting in a different film, maybe more of a soap opera — indeed, there’s a lot of melodrama bursting to get out which Yang does his best to restrain through underplaying the drama and removing most of the musical cues. Still, it’s a great debut and a harbinger of the coming ‘Taiwanese New Wave’, in which Yang would be a key figure.

Film posterCREDITS
Director Edward Yang 楊德昌; Writers Wu Nien-jen 吳念真 and Yang; Cinematographers Hui Kung Chang 張惠恭 and Christopher Doyle 杜可風; Starring Sylvia Chang 張艾嘉, Terry Hu 胡因夢; Length 166 minutes.
Seen at Close-Up Cinema, London, Friday 14 June 2019.

Possibly in Michigan (1983)

One of the most prolific genres in cinemas is horror, and with It re-released this week in UK cinemas ahead of It Chapter Two in a couple of weeks — along with a few other titles like the latest by prolific genre director Alexandra Aja, a Guillermo del Toro production, and a documentary about Satanism — it’s about time I featured a few films in this genre (or closely adjacent to it) on my blog. Honestly, I’m not a huge horror genre acolyte, and it’s rather a blindspot for me — one I heartily acknowledge and am trying to remedy, given that a great deal of the most impassioned cinephilia revolves around horror. After all, I only watched my first few giallo films three years ago. There’s a huge range of work that falls under the ‘horror’ mantle, and it’s often a genre that attracts directors with a great amount of technical skill or visual flair (somewhat like metal in relation to other popular music), and as such has a committed fanbase of knowledgeable commentators. I’m not one, so this week I’ll just be picking out some things I’ve found interesting, starting with a short film for a change. It’s on YouTube and is worth 12 minutes of your life.


Due to my 2018 project to try to watch a film every day I was watching a lot more short films that year, and this strange video-shot 1980s oddity has been through periodic flashes of internet interest, because after all, it. Is. Wild. It feels like the kind of lo-fi found-in-an-attic thing that John Darnielle would be writing a novel about, except it is very au courant about its themes (because those themes, sadly, are always au courant) — being the link between capitalism and murder, and the creepy violence of weird dudes. It’s set largely at a mall, and it has the best Casiotone-style chunky keyboard music — it’s basically a musical short film. It is, in case this isn’t clear, thoroughly delightful with a strange, slightly surreal edge reminiscent of early Lynch.

CREDITS
Director/Writer Cecelia Condit; Cinematographers Amy Krick and Jeff Chiplis; Length 12 minutes.
Seen at home (YouTube), London, Thursday 4 October 2018.

Criterion Sunday 248: Videodrome (1983)

I had this idea that I watched this film with my stepbrothers when I was a kid, but if I did I certainly didn’t get it at the time (nor do I remember any of it upon rewatching so I may just be imagining it). However, as a result, I’ve probably spent more of my life than is reasonable believing I wasn’t really ‘into’ David Cronenberg’s brand of body horror combined with media satire. That said, I’ve seen plenty of his films since, and I’ve liked most of them quite a lot, but yet still retained some core of that original belief, perhaps modified somewhat into some idea that he’s just an outré auteur who panders to horror-soaked fanboys’ wet dreams… and clearly — look, you all know this already — but I’m wrong.

Videodrome looks from the outside as something nasty and exploitative, but it feels more like an advance warning from a Nostradamus of the early-1980s about everything we have in our culture now. The technology may look a little clunky but the effects still hold up really well. It’s the kind of film that you probably need to rewatch a number of times to figure out its particular configuration of the televisual exploitation of sleaze, sex, sexual violence and depravity, the way that links to notions of masculine performance (James Woods, who nowadays probably really is that guy he’s playing here, hallucinates a literal vagina opening across much of his torso), added to which there’s the fetishisation of videotapes. There are also so many layers of hallucinatory dream life that it stops being clear what’s real and what’s just in the head of Max/Nicki/Prof O’Blivion/Cronenberg/whoever else might be imagining this stuff.

In short, it opened up my head like Barry Convex’s in this film, and I don’t know if I can be the same again. The 1980s was the decade of Cronenberg, no doubt.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer David Cronenberg; Cinematographer Mark Irwin; Starring James Woods, Debbie Harry, Sonja Smits; Length 89 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Monday 6 May 2019.

LFF 2016 Day Eleven: Daughters of the Dust (1991), Park (2016), Born in Flames (1983) and Moderation (2016)

Saturday 15 October, the penultimate day of the London Film Festival, and another heavy one for me, with four films. Two of them were archival restorations, so a bit of guaranteed classic status in amongst the new works.


Daughters of the Dust (1991)Daughters of the Dust (1991, USA, dir./wr. Julie Dash, DOP Arthur Jafa)
It’s quite an achievement this film, but it’s not one that goes in for a straightforward narrative or overt central character. It’s about a whole family, if not an extended community, who are — at length — preparing to leave their home on an island in South Carolina in 1902. And it’s about their stories, and memories, and inherited customs. But none of this is presented in a particularly linear way; instead there’s a flow of characters and images (strikingly beautiful at times), and an accretion of scenes illustrating their lives. It’s not perfect either — the score sadly hasn’t dated very well at all, a wash of post-80s synths that doesn’t always add to the drama — but for the most part it’s excellent and singular.


Park (2016)

Park (2016, Greece/Poland, dir./wr. Sofia Exarchou, DOP Monika Lenczewska)
I can already see the reviews of a few people calling this film “boring” and “overlong” and… well, it would be disingenuous to claim I don’t know what they’re talking about, but as far as I’m concerned films that get those labels — or at least films which aren’t superhero movies — tend to be just my kind of thing (see also: “self-indulgent”). It’s a film about a bunch of disaffected young people congregating amidst the detritus of Athens’ Olympic Park; their lives are going nowhere, so yeah, it’s fair to say there’s plenty of boredom and entropy. The two characters who come to be central, Dimitri and Anna, just mooch around, fight, fuck, dance, nothing special. But I thought it was compelling in its atmosphere of dereliction and dead-ends, a clarion call from a certain precarious position in a decaying society.


Born in Flames (1983)

Born in Flames (1983, USA, dir./wr. Lizzie Borden)
This is a film that comes from a specific time and place (New York in the early-80s) and perhaps some choices might not have been made today — bombing the WTC seems most obvious — but there’s still an enormous amount that retains both relevance and power 35 years on. Most notably this is an expression of intersectionality in practice avant la lettre, giving strong central roles to women of colour and criticising some of the viewpoints and privilege expressed by white feminists. That’s just one aspect; I liked also the way that its imagined socialist revolution (shades of Bernie brocialism?) hasn’t materially altered the patriarchal power structure, leading to calls for continued feminist insurrection. It’s all made in a sort of pseudo-documentary collagist agitprop style that is perhaps born of its extended genesis (filmed over five years) but works admirably. A lo-fi no-wave independent feminist masterpiece of sorts.


Moderation (2016)

Moderation (2016, UK/Greece, dir. Anja Kirschner, wr. Kirschner/Maya Lubinsky/Anna De Filippi, DOP Mostafa El Kashef/Dimitris Kasimatis)
There’s a certain category of experimental filmmaking whose films seem more tailored to an academic appreciation, by which I mean that they are clearly carefully thought out in terms of thematics and ideas, but express themselves visually in ways that don’t always hold the casual viewer’s attention. Or maybe I was just coming down off three other films, because there was plenty in it to like, intellectually speaking. It’s a disquisition of sorts into horror cinema, without ever quite being a horror film — though it certainly flirts with generic elements both in its film-within-a-film story of strange sand-spewing pods, as well as in some of the apartment-bound scenes with actors encountering creepy poltergeist-like activity. The film is structured around a woman director and her screenwriter (Maya Lubinsky and Anna De Filippi), who are in a relationship, talking to prospective actors for their mooted horror film, and these extended scenes form a key part of the film. Indeed, storytelling, whether in dialogue by the actors or as an exercise of artistic creation dramatised between the two women, is very much the film’s most sustained theme, with horror just a heightened form of that basic need to tell stories. Also, there’s one scene where the Egyptian actor Aida’s pink hair and turquoise eye shadow perfectly matches her floral print dress, and it’s gorgeous to behold.