Criterion Sunday 501: Paris, Texas (1984)

The Criterion Collection had just released Wim Wenders’s other big 1980s feature film Wings of Desire before this one, and though Wenders had garnered a fair amount of attention for his 1970s German road movies, I think it’s Paris, Texas that remains his most well-loved. And it would be easy for me to try and dismiss this as I wanted to dismiss Wings of Desire but both have a depth and complexity that is more than their slightly sentimental stories of family and healing might on the surface suggest. Here we have the poise and emptiness of the desert setting, the mysterious entrance of Harry Dean Stanton’s Travis and the unfolding of his story. Familial love is important here — the love of his brother Walt (Dean Stockwell) for Travis, the love of Travis for his son Hunter (Hunter Carson, the screenwriter’s son), and even the love he seems to have, however fleetingly, for his ex-partner Jane (played by the much younger Nastassja Kinski). The relationship they had is only really ever hinted at — and it seems like it must have been a strange, strained one, possibly one rooted in drugs and nihilism — but the story becomes far more one about the child they had together and what is best for that child, and this is the moral quandary that Travis is dealing with. Wenders of course, along with cinematographer Robby Müller, do a beautiful job of framing this quest, and a climactic scene is almost perfectly blocked between Stanton and Kinski. But beyond the technical credits the acting is exactly right for the setting, and so the film remains iconic almost 40 years on.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Wim Wenders; Writers L. K. Kit Carson and Sam Shepard; Cinematographer Robby Müller; Starring Harry Dean Stanton, Dean Stockwell, Hunter Carson, Nastassja Kinski, Aurore Clément; Length 147 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 30 January 2022 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, December 2000).

Criterion Sunday 469: The Hit (1984)

Stephen Frears directed his first movie at the start of the 70s and then spent most of the next decade working in TV, though this is the era when Ken Loach and Alan Clarke were creating distinctive visions on the small screen, so by the time Frears returns with The Hit, you can’t really accuse him of not having some style. It’s set in Spain, so it doesn’t lack for beautiful light and arresting backdrops; at times Frears seems to be going maybe even a little bit too hard on the quiet, empty shots of these locales, though he matches it with striking framings (such as an unexpected overhead shot during one tense encounter). Still, there’s a lot that feels very 80s here, and it’s not just Tim Roth being a young hard man (not as fascist as in Alan Clarke’s Made in Britain, perhaps, but still a thug) but also some of the patronising attitudes (towards women, for example, or the Spaniards they encounter). Of course, that’s as much to do with the characters, who are after all small time criminals. Terence Stamp isn’t a million miles from Ray Winstone’s retired criminal in Sexy Beast, a man who may be retired but is aware he’s never going to be fully out of the racket, and when John Hurt pops up to carry out the titular action, he puts across a weary indefatigability. Ultimately this is a strange blend of genres, with black comedic elements and a strong road movie vibe (a saturated Spanish version of what Chris Petit or Wim Wenders were doing in monochrome, perhaps). I admire it more than I love it, but it has its moments.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Stephen Frears; Writer Peter Prince; Cinematographer Mike Molloy; Starring Terence Stamp, John Hurt, Tim Roth, Laura del Sol; Length 98 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Monday 11 October 2021.

Criterion Sunday 425: アントニー・ガウディー Antonio Gaudí (1984)

This documentary about the Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí approaches his work in a reflective way, without voiceover (aside from a brief snatch of it near the end), talking heads or even any contextualising on-screen text. It just presents images of his work, carefully framed and edited to elicit not just the details of his work, but the way it ties in with, for example, natural rock formations or the building style of small farming villages, finding its place not just within the urban sprawl of Barcelona but in the region and in the nature. Thus there are close-up and wide shots, shots from around the city giving an idea of the cultural life and the typical local architecture, amongst which Gaudí’s designs seem particularly alien, which is exacerbated by the occasionally dissonant 70s electronic score, his designs at times seemingly beamed in from another plane of existence. Finding this balance between the oddness of the architect’s work, but also the way it fits in within the environment, is part of the project of the documentary, and if it seems a little abstract at times, it has a lot of visual beauty to it.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Hiroshi Teshigahara 勅使河原宏; Cinematographers Junichi Segawa 瀬川順一, Ryu Segawa 瀬川龍 and Yoshikazu Yanagida 柳田義和; Length 72 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 15 May 2021.

Criterion Sunday 410: Under the Volcano (1984)

Alcoholics, it turns out, are rather boring and interminable people when put on film. This one does a good job of capturing the spiral in which Albert Finney’s character Geoffrey is trapped, a consul working in a small town in Mexico just before WW2, whose wife Yvonne has apparently left him and who is not making much effort to hold himself together. He has turned, fairly heavily, to drinking, as one imagines a lot of British colonial figures have done in the past, but that really does seem to be all that defines him, as he stumbles from one bar and one encounter with some local colour to another. Yvonne (Jacqueline Bisset) returns one morning after the Day of the Dead festivities, and his younger brother too (Anthony Andrews), and together they hash out their various fallings-out, as things get ever more bleak for Geoffrey. There’s a lot of imagery of death — as you might imagine given the setting and festivities — which feels fairly ominous alongside the titular volcano, and it all amounts to a sort of allegory about the British abroad, which is persuasive in its way, though hardly the most fun to watch. It’s just a cavalcade of self-pity and immiseration enlivened by the setting and the fine acting.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director John Huston; Writer Guy Gallo (based on the novel by Malcolm Lowry); Cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa; Starring Albert Finney, Jacqueline Bisset, Anthony Andrews; Length 112 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 26 March 2021.

Mr. Wrong (aka Dark of the Night, 1984)

Stepping back in time, NZ hasn’t been making feature films for all that long. There were certainly earlier examples, but much of the modern industry didn’t begin until the late-70s, so this 1984 horror thriller (of sorts, though it also has comedic elements) directed by a woman is therefore a rather early example of their cinematic endeavours.


I can’t deny there’s sometimes a certain cringe factor when looking back at old New Zealand films; the industry, like the homes and the fashions we see on screen, was a lot less polished back then, and sometimes indeed the acting and direction on some of those titles feel like the work of people still learning the ropes in an industry still in its relative infancy (though enthusiastic amateurishness has its charms too). Thankfully such is not the case with Mr. Wrong (that full stop is in the on-screen title), though as the filmmakers pointed out in a Q&A after the film, it didn’t have a very marketable title (the film got a different, rather unmemorable, title for its US release: Dark of the Night).

It’s a haunted thriller in a Hitchcockian mode (apparently he was originally going to adapt the same story before he died), though being made by a group of women filmmakers mean there’s definitely a feminist slant on it that you suspect would never have made it through if Hitch had been making the film. Partly that comes down to the ending (not the story’s original ending, though I shan’t say any more), and partly it’s just that all the men in the piece are indeed very wrong, whether overtly aggressive, hectoring or just condescending in a gently sexist way. Even the love interest, a certain Mr Wright (Danny Mulheron) — yes that is his name — has a habit of turning up at all the wrong moments and scaring our heroine Meg (Heather Bolton). As all these classic horror scenarios of lurking strangers in dark creaking homes and on rainy mountain roads play out, Meg continually tries to persuade herself she’s overreacting, always apologising to these creepy guys, and in part that’s because she doesn’t initially realise or accept that she’s in a ghost story, but also it’s a little bit because she’s been conditioned to be deferent and submissive, a quality she only slowly starts to shed as the film progresses. That’s probably where the feminism primarily lies, but it works as a subtly chilling ghostly thriller, and even has a few laughs in it. Well worth checking out.

Mr. Wrong film posterCREDITS
Director Gaylene Preston; Writers Geoff Murphy, Preston and Graeme Tetley (based on a short story by Elizabeth Jane Howard); Cinematographer Thomas Burstyn; Starring Heather Bolton, David Letch, Perry Piercy, Danny Mulheron; Length 88 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Monday 7 December 2020.

Criterion Sunday 400: Stranger Than Paradise (1984)

This isn’t New York filmmaker Jim Jarmusch’s debut feature film (that would be 1980’s Permanent Vacation), but already there’s a strong sense of what would be his signature style during the 1980s, the deadpan delivery, single shot long takes, the grungy (yet oddly beautiful) black-and-white cinematography of these interchangeable American locales. The opening shots see Eszter Balint’s youthful Eva wandering the streets of what looks like New Jersey from the street signs, though she eventually finds her way to stay with her cousin in Brooklyn (John Lurie). She’s from Hungary and her cousin was too, where he was Bela, but now goes by Willie and is trying hard to put the immigrant identity behind him. His friend Eddie (Richard Edson) stops by and the film… well, “gets going” doesn’t seem quite right, but all the characters are now in place. Ultimately it’s not about what they do (they hang out, they get on the road to Cleveland, they mooch about some more), but about this sense of America as a place where identity can be subsumed. Willie’s aunt tries desperately to cling to the old ways and refuses to speak English to him, but there’s little that identifies her home as different from anywhere else the trio go; even Florida has the same sense of gloomy dereliction at the end. It’s a film in which the characters move around a lot but ultimately don’t seem to do anything.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Chief among the extras is a West German documentary, Kino ’84: The Making of Jim Jarmusch (1984, dir. Martina Müller), which catches up with him during the making of Stranger Than Paradise after it seems his 1980 debut Permanent Vacation had gained him something of a profile in that country, and so features interviews with that latter film’s star Chris Parker, as well as his DP Tom DiCillo — whose lack of interest in continuing in this job prompts Jarmusch to suggest some cinematographers he’d like to work with (including the one he did). There are also shorter bits with Lurie, Edson and Balint, as well as the brief appearance of Sara Driver. It’s good to see how Jarmusch was working back then.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jim Jarmusch; Cinematographer Tom DiCillo; Starring John Lurie, Eszter Balint, Richard Edson; Length 89 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 20 February 2021 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, February 1998).

Criterion Sunday 264: Dokument Fanny och Alexander (The Making of Fanny and Alexander, 1984)

What’s interesting about this “making of” documentary is that, rarely enough, it is actually what it says: it shows in great detail the actual making of the film. It’s not so much bothered about contextualising the production, about where it was made or how long the shoot was (though that sort of comes out in a roundabout way), nor even the preparation or the post-production. This is focused strictly on Bergman himself making the film, with his actors on the sets, with his DoP Sven Nykvist, and just in the flow of eliciting the performances and ensuring that the vision being created by the camera and the lighting matches his. In that sense it can be a little claustrophobic, because you’re just in these houses with him constantly, but it imparts a little sense of how engaged and focused he is on the task, and about some of what it means to be a director: it’s about getting the performances you want to see from your actors, and about having the right people around you to deal with the other stuff.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • This feature was originally accorded its own spine number, but in the Blu-ray re-release of the box set, is essentially just one of the supplements. The others I mention on the page for the box set.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Ingmar Bergman; Cinematographer Arne Carlsson; Starring Ingmar Bergman; Length 110 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Monday 19 August 2019.

Criterion Sunday 257: Secret Honor (1984)

One of many films attempting to understand the character of Nixon, this is based on a stage play and it certainly shows, given the film takes place entirely in a single room (Nixon’s study) and aside from archival clips and images, the only person we see on screen is Philip Baker Hall. It’s a bravura performance, the kind of thing that on stage would wow a crowd, but at times feels like overacting on film, but in a sense that’s intentional: the way the thoughts tumble out of Nixon’s mouth, often incomplete, jostling with one another to find clarity of expression; the mad dashes he takes around his study, ranting at pictures, staring down the camera, speaking into his tape recorder and addressing an off-screen editor. Altman’s camera fluidly captures all the digressions and frantic movements, opening up the space a little but still with the claustrophobia that you get from a single, heavily wood-panelled, setting. The script touches on a lot of the issues that motivated Nixon, and suggest a deeper, darker reality than the one seen in the media of the time, as shadowy cabals of men are alluded to as his backers, and his misdeeds appear to be more than what brought him down in the end. It’s a passionate performance, but as a film it feels rather like a footnote to the ongoing retelling of the legends of American Presidency.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There’s a 22 minute interview with Philip Baker Hall discussing the project, his background in theatre and how that meant very little once he moved to LA, how the film kickstarted his acting career on film, but mostly how it was filmed and his work with Altman.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Robert Altman; Writers Donald Freed and Arnold M. Stone (based on their play); Cinematographer Pierre Mignot; Starring Philip Baker Hall; Length 90 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 28 July 2019.

Women Filmmakers: Cécile Decugis

Cécile Decugis (1934-2017) has never really been a prominent film name, which is a shame. She may have only made a handful of short and medium-length films as director (which I like well enough), but she makes it to my Women Filmmakers’ feature for her more prominent work as a film editor. She worked on some of the most important French Nouvelle Vague films of the 1950s and 1960s, films which were known particularly for their innovative editing (usually ascribed to their more famous directors). These films include many of the works of Éric Rohmer (she worked with him through to the 1980s), as well as a few other minor works you may not have heard of like À bout de souffle (Breathless, 1959) and Les Quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows, 1959, along with Marie-Josèphe Yoyotte, another editor, of Martinican heritage). Her activism on behalf of Algerian independence began in the late-1950s with her first short film, and ended up costing her two years in prison from 1960-62. Her own films were often about people in a certain existential confusion, it seems to me, and I got a chance to see them at the invaluable Il Cinema Ritrovato festival (though I only caught half of the full programme).

Continue reading “Women Filmmakers: Cécile Decugis”

Criterion Sunday 80: The Element of Crime (aka Forbrydelsens element, 1984)

I’ve never been a huge fan of Danish cinematic bad boy Lars von Trier, but this, his first feature film, is certainly made with a fair amount of energy and a bold (if dark) cinematic vision, taking its apparent cue from film noir thrillers, not to mention recycling some of Tarkovksy’s imagery. Stylistically, though, my overall feeling is that it’s more akin to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil of the following year, with all those fussy, busy details in all corners of the frame. The plot is in a sense fairly straightforward, as Detective Fisher (gruff-voiced Michael Elphick) is tracking down a serial killer using the methods of his mentor Osborne (Esmond Knight), in which he is aided by prostitute Kim (Meme Lai). Yet this plot is nested within layers of memory and obfuscation, attaining something of a dream-like trance state, emphasised by the line delivery of the actors, who move around almost as if underwater. The chief cue to this altered consciousness is the visual style, which is almost monochrome in its (usually red-tinged) intensity, like something Guy Maddin might make, tipping its hat at one level to silent film, but creating its own world of grainy distanciation — the characters may not actually be underwater, but they are certainly submerged in this grimy dark monochrome world. I can’t say it ever really coheres for me (and Meme Lai’s role requires little more than that she hang around and take off her clothes occasionally, though it’s a small part in any case), but there’s plenty here of interest to those who like an arty thriller with pretensions.

Criterion Extras: Aside from the trailer, the main extra of interest is the medium-length documentary Tranceformer: A Portrait of Lars von Trier (1997), directed by Stig Björkman (with help from Fredrik von Krusenstjerna), filmed around the time of von Trier’s The Kingdom (1994) and Breaking the Waves (1996). It’s rather an amusing jaunt through (von) Trier’s life from his upbringing by lefty liberal parents to his early schoolboy filmmaking attempts, through film school and his early film work, along the way self-aggrandisingly awarding himself the aristocratic ‘von’. The film features behind the scenes footage of his directing the two films (which has its own fascination), as well as talking head interviews with his colleagues and actors (and it’s particularly nice to see Katrin Cartlidge, who sadly died far too young), giving an impression of him as a man with plenty of phobias and quirks such that it’s surprising he can get any films made at all. Von Trier pops up periodically to talk us through his life and foibles, and there’s a warmth to the film’s portrait of him, so he never comes off too badly, beyond what he says about himself.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Lars von Trier; Writers von Trier and Niels Vørsel; Cinematographer Tom Elling; Starring Michael Elphick, Esmond Knight, Meme Lai, Jerold Wells; Length 103 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 14 February 2016.