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.

Bringing Greenham Home: Two Films about Greenham Common

It’s been over 35 years since the start of the peace camp at Greenham Common, which suggests that memories of the event in popular culture have faded somewhat, but at the time it was a pretty big deal. At its height around 1982-83, there were up to 50-70,000 women at the site protesting the presence of nuclear cruise missile weaponry in the UK, and the camp itself was maintained for well over a decade. Feminist activism arguably hasn’t really had quite the same reach since, but it’s worthwhile to reconsider the legacy of the protest and the ways it can inform current activities, hence this event organised by London-based collective Club des Femmes, which included an afternoon the next day involving practical discussion and zine-making (I didn’t attend the latter). Current protest activity may focus more on social justice issues and anti-capitalist struggle, but even now nuclear armament is still widely discussed (most notably the Trident programme), so there’s plenty still relevant in the documentaries presented, quite aside from the interest generated by contemporary documentation of important historical events.

The key work screened was the 1983 documentary Carry Greenham Home, the first film by director Beeban Kidron, who went on to make a Bridget Jones film, no less, and is now a Baroness, though still involved with activist causes. Rather than focusing on the big media-grabbing events, it documents day-to-day reality at the camp — discussions amongst organisers about strategy and finances, frequent breaks through the chain-link fence surrounding the military base, the appearances of heavy-handed law enforcement and the scenes outside courtroom hearings for the protestors. The film is also, surprisingly, almost a musical, given the frequency with which the participants break into song, whether a snatched chorus from a contemporary protest song like Leon Rosselson’s “The World Turned Upside Down” (written about the 17th century Diggers, forerunners of every anarchist socialist anti-capitalist dissenter since), to chants like “Which side are you on?” which take on musical quality when thrown into the faces of the police. Indeed the film’s title is taken from a song by Peggy Seeger written upon her visit to the site. Another quality that comes through well is the humour with which many confronted the inevitable political and bureaucratic obstacles, including staging protests like a ‘teddy bears’ picnic’ inside the fence. The film turns bleakly amusing, too, in scenes of the police (their faces uncovered, unlike their counterparts at modern protests), who are seen squirming awkwardly when confronted with the women’s protest or incompetently trying to break a bike lock placed on the base’s gates.

Accompanying this was a screening of a medium-length documentary about Nell Logan, the most elderly of 36 protesters arrested in 1982 for climbing the fence of the military base and dancing on top of the nuclear silos, and who was jailed for a time as a result. The director focuses on Nell for her long history of dissent, which stretches back to a visit to the Soviet Union in the 1920s, and shows her daily life in the small English town where she lived. It’s a gentle introduction to a turbulent period of protest, focusing on a single participant in a way that I suppose you could call heart-warming and certainly would have made for canny TV counter-programming at the time.

The screening ended with a discussion chaired by So Mayer, a Club des Femmes member and published author (whose Political Animals I can recommend). Her guest was academic Anna Reading, who led the audience in a singalong, though there were plenty of other testimonies from the audience as to their experiences of the camp and of modern protest actions.


Club des Femmes logoCREDITS
Seen at Rio, London, Saturday 23 January 2016.

Carry Greenham Home (1983)
Directors Beeban Kidron and Amanda Richardson; Cinematographer Richardson; Length 69 minutes.

Greenham Granny (1986)
Director Caroline Goldie; Length 46 minutes.

Criterion Sunday 50: E la nave va (And the Ship Sails On, 1983)

My sense of late Fellini is that his filmmaking moved into a more determinedly nostalgic register — it’s certainly the feeling I got from 1973’s Amarcord — but if that’s the case, there’s still plenty of interest, much of it rather idiosyncratic. With And the Ship Sails On what we have is a story about the journey of a cruise liner in 1914, around the outbreak of World War I and the delineation of some of the class antagonisms onboard. Obviously, there are shades of another famous (real-life) story here, and some of the same terrain is covered: we have the plutocrats in their opulent dining rooms and cabins while beneath decks are men heaving coal into the boiler’s fires, and a boatload of Serbian refugees from the Austrian-Hungarian empire. Fellini’s style, though, is more playful, and the audience’s entry point is a journalist, Orlando, played with admirable campness by Freddie Jones — indeed, much of the core cast appear to be English actors, albeit dubbed into Italian. Orlando shares his commentary directly to the camera, but all the actors are aware of it and frequently break the fourth wall with nervous glances, as if they are being unwillingly shadowed by a film crew. There’s also a very obvious non-naturalism to the sets and the sea-bound effects, particularly in a sequence near the end, in which the waves are evidently tarpaulins, and a battleship’s smoke is drawn on. It all contributes to a precarious sense of a stratified society teetering on the brink of collapse, something perhaps summed up best by the opera-singing haute bourgeoise characters memorably showing off against one another in heated competition in the ship’s boiler room, egged on by the sweaty men below.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Federico Fellini; Writers Fellini and Tonino Guerra; Cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno; Starring Freddie Jones; Length 127 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 23 August 2015.

The Gold Diggers (1983)

I’ve been reading B. Ruby Rich’s memoirs and essay collection from her time in the 1970s and 1980s as a feminist film critic (Chick Flicks) and as she discusses Sally Potter’s breakthrough film work, I thought it timely to watch her first feature, much though I’ve had the DVD on my shelves for the past five years. It wasn’t exactly a success at the time, and looking at it you can understand why: it defiantly avoids anything commercial or saleable. It’s a deeply impenetrable film with a dissociative editing style that seems to hint at many issues and flirt with many different genres, to the extent that it’s generically unclassifiable. Comments on the packaging call it a sci-fi musical, though it doesn’t have any song setpieces and it’s sci-fi to extent of making our world seem alien. You could add in period drama to the mix pretty easily (the Icelandic landscapes and scenes of panning for gold, along with some ballroom costume sequences), but perhaps it could be called a psychodrama of identity, and what it means to be a woman within the recursive forms of filmed illusionism. I mean, perhaps? I don’t even know for sure, but I do know that I’ll need to watch it again to get some sense. In the meantime, for those looking at it but not following along easily (as I was), it’s a gorgeous film to look at, with some of the most spectacular black-and-white images from any film, thanks to its cinematographer (and Chantal Akerman collaborator) Babette Mangolte.

CREDITS
Director Sally Potter; Writers Lindsay Cooper, Rose English and Potter; Cinematographer Babette Mangolte; Starring Julie Christie, Colette Laffont; Length 89 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Wednesday 19 August 2015.