Women Filmmakers: Molly Dineen

I’m doing a week focusing on ‘very long’ (3hr+) films, but most of these have been made by men, perhaps overeager to flex their cinematic clout or show off their stamina (amongst other things). However, there have been plenty of directors working in television who have pulled off longer-form work in the guise of mini-series and multi-part episodic drama. One such figure, working in the documentary form, is Molly Dineen, who like a British Frederick Wiseman, has been profiling institutions and work throughout her career. Her longest films are The Ark (1993) and In the Company of Men (1995), which respectively look at London’s zoo and the British Army (as deployed in Northern Ireland), but she also has a number of shorter works to her name. Her most recent film, Being Blacker (2018) is one I haven’t yet caught up with, but everything else I talk about below. All of these have been released by the BFI on the three-part DVD set The Molly Dineen Collection, which is well worth tracking down.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Cinematography Stan Brakhage.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 25 February, Sunday 4 March and Sunday 11 March 2018.

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

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

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

The Stars Are Beautiful (1974) | Length 19 minutes.

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

Glaze of Cathexis (1990) | Length 3 minutes.

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

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

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

Lovesong (2001) | Length 11 minutes.

Criterion Sunday 119: Withnail and I (1987)

I have, as it happens, already written a review of this on this blog so here it is. There’s little I’d want to add to it, aside from reaffirming that it does stand up under the weight of its cult status, not that it’s a film I myself am necessarily drawn back to, unlike…

Criterion Extras: … the fans depicted in the short piece Withnail and Us (1999), who show a fanatical fondness for the film that sometimes seems too much (obsessive quoting of movie lines has never been something I’ve been good at, nor had any inclination to do) but also reminds me of what’s genuinely appealing about the film’s bleak dark vision of England. Alongside the fans, the documentary also corrals a number of the actors to talk about the experience of making the film, and is an enjoyable half-hour for what it is.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Bruce Robinson; Cinematographer Peter Hannan; Starring Paul McGann, Richard E. Grant, Richard Griffiths; Length 107 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 26 January 2014.

Film Round-Up May 2016

So much for writing separate posts for everything; that didn’t really work out for me in the long-term. I still watch a lot of movies (more than ever) but in terms of writing I go through phases, as I’m sure many of us who try and write about films do, and right now I’ve not really felt an urge to write up my film reviews (beyond a few short sentences on Letterboxd). So here’s a round-up of stuff I saw in May. See below the cut for reviews of…

Captain America: Civil War (2016, USA)
Cold Comfort Farm (1995, UK)
Desperately Seeking Susan (1985, USA)
Down with Love (2003, USA)
Everybody Wants Some!! (2016, USA)
Evolution (2015, France/Belgium/Spain)
Feminists Insha’allah! The Story of Arab Feminism (2014, France)
A Flickering Truth (2015, New Zealand)
Green Room (2015, USA)
Hamlet liikemaailmassa (Hamlet Goes Business) (1987, Finland)
Heart of a Dog (2015, USA)
Lemonade (2016, USA)
Losing Ground (1982, USA)
Lovely Rita (2001, Austria/Germany)
Luck by Chance (2009, India)
As Mil e Uma Noites: Volume 3, O Encantado (Arabian Nights Volume 3: The Enchanted One) (2015, Portugal/France/Germany/Switzerland)
Money Monster (2016, USA)
Mon roi (aka My King) (2015, France)
My Life Without Me (2003, Canada/Spain)
Our Kind of Traitor (2016, UK)
Pasqualino Settebellezze (Seven Beauties) (1975, Italy)
Picture Bride (1994, USA)
Radio On (1979, UK/West Germany)
She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry (2014, USA)
Sisters in Law (2005, UK/Cameroon)
Star Men (2015, USA/UK/Canada)
Their Eyes Were Watching God (2005, USA)
Trouble Every Day (2001, France/Germany/Japan)
Underground (1928, UK)
L’Une chante, l’autre pas (One Sings, the Other Doesn’t) (1977, France)
Visage (Face) (2009, France/Taiwan)
Zir-e poost-e shahr (Under the Skin of the City) (2001, Iran)

Continue reading “Film Round-Up May 2016”

King Lear (1987)

It’s not uncommon for one to praise the ravishing cinematography even in films one doesn’t understand, but although there is some fine imagery in King Lear, by this point in Godard’s career — after a period in the 1970s co-authoring films with his partner Anne-Marie Miéville during which they seemingly resisted all kinds of ‘professionalism’ — it is Godard’s soundtracks which are most apt to be called beautiful. The distinctive reliance on texts now manifests as overlapping layers of spoken word, washing over the soundtrack like the Swiss lake by which this film is shot — primarily the recitation of Shakespeare by a stentorian voice, sometimes at the same time as Burgess Meredith’s Don Learo or Molly Ringwald’s Cordelia are speaking the same lines, though sounds of nature and of seagulls vie too for our attention from all sides. The plot, such as it is, has Peter Sellars (the theatre director, not the actor) as Shakespeare Jr. the Fifth seeking to rediscover his ancestor’s works after some vague Chernobyl-related calamity has befallen the planet. Godard himself steps in as a Shakespearean fool/savant, Professor Pluggy, with cables for a wig, farting ostentatiously, and muttering out of the side of his mouth. It’s not that this is exactly an adaptation of Shakespeare, so much as a play on the idea of authorship (“a cLEARing” as one of the film’s interchangeable subtitles has it), and a grand thumbing of the nose to great traditions (whether of cinema or theatre). It also looks forward a little bit to Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma with its use of overlapping film images and oblique commentary. One of Godard’s finest films of the 80s.

Screening alongside the feature is a short film from the year before, Meetin’ WA, in which Godard interviews Woody Allen, though it’s unclear the extent to which this is staged. The encounter is at times awkward, with Godard leading Allen down some rambling metaphorical lanes regarding the radioactivity of television and its effect on Allen’s own filmmaking, and when Allen’s answers don’t seem interesting to him, he fades out the volume or slows down the speed, or irises in (the film starts with an empty black hole over Allen’s head), or smash cuts to an intertitle and a burst of jazz. It’s a comic short, really, in which it’s Godard as the director who is the comedian rather than Allen as the subject.

King Lear (1987)CREDITS
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Monday 22 February 2016.

King Lear (1987)
Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard (based on the play by William Shakespeare); Cinematographer Sophie Maintigneux; Starring Peter Sellars, Molly Ringwald, Burgess Meredith, Jean-Luc Godard; Length 90 minutes.

Meetin’ WA (1986)
Director Jean-Luc Godard; Cinematographer Pierre Binggeli; Starring Woody Allen; Length 26 minutes.

Near Dark (1987)

Following in something of the grainy exploitation footsteps of James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984) — his 1986 film Aliens even gets a name-check here, though he was after all Kathryn Bigelow’s then-soon-to-be- and now-ex-husband — Near Dark takes instead the vampire mythos and reconfigures it into a dusty, grungy road movie with Western overtones. The word “vampire” is never uttered, so what we are presented with is a motley band of leather-clad ne’er-do-wells blazing a path across the mid-West, killing random locals and draining their blood for sustenance. One such is naïve farm boy Caleb (Adrian Pasdar), who is smitten with drifter Mae (Jenny Wright). She for her part takes pity on him and just bites him rather than draining his blood, meaning he survives but is turned into one of her kind. At this point, the entire crew is introduced, led by Lance Henriksen’s Jesse, although it’s Bill Paxton as the loud-mouthed and dangerous Severen who makes the most impact in the film (and so is given prominence on the posters). Even 30 years on, the film still looks excellent, with a score by German electronic group Tangerine Dream which is at once both an archetypal example of scoring from this strain of 1980s genre cinema and also somehow avoids seeming really dated, like a lot of the era’s soundtracks now tend to. Undoubtedly the film is playing with contemporary fears around AIDS and other epidemics — isn’t that what they always say about vampire films? — but it works as an enjoyable genre piece, if a rather nihilistic one.

Near Dark film posterCREDITS
Director Kathryn Bigelow; Writers Eric Red and Bigelow; Cinematographer Adam Greenberg; Starring Adrian Pasdar, Jenny Wright, Bill Paxton, Lance Henriksen; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 31 January 2016.

Criterion Sunday 23: RoboCop (1987)

It’s quite difficult, it turns out, to write a coherent review of a film that you spend a lot of time saying is one of the great films of the 1980s (if not all time), but I’ll have a punt. It may have a silly, pulpy title, but what Paul Verhoeven and his screenwriters have done here is to craft a masterful satire of a society in which government has outsourced its functions to a greedy private corporation, which leverages the societal decay attendant on its own chronic underinvestment in public services as a means to impose a police state enforced by its own military hardware. In short, like a lot of Verhoeven’s work, it’s about the heady allure of fascism, with a story that’s still sadly current in our own times of austerity. In many ways, its only concession to science fiction is the title robot, although the film has two robotic cops: one is RoboCop, a wonder of brushed steel-effect costume design (which must have been quite some work for the actor underneath, Peter Weller); and the other its clunky counterpart ED-209 (animated using stop-motion techniques developed from those employed in the 1950s by Ray Harryhausen). But the effects are just the veneer, because RoboCop is about what it means to have a soul even in the absence of a body; its hero is in many ways a Christ-like figure of suffering, rebirth and redemption (though that much is to be expected from the devout Verhoeven).

All these thematics would be for naught, though, were it not for the tightly structured script, the comedic levity of the satire, and the very fine performances. Of the latter, the standouts are two actors more known for easygoing likeability, cast well against type: Ronny Cox as Dick Jones, the Vice-President of OCP (OmniConsumer Products, the corporation at the film’s dark heart); and Kurtwood Smith as the grinning, leering Clarence Boddicker, unofficial crime lord of old Detroit and a footsoldier for Jones. The comedy comes through in unlikely places, like the overextended violent death of the junior executive Mr Kinney at an early board meeting, and the repeated failings of Dick Jones’s ED-209 droid (of which this is just the first). Most effective are the newsbreaks which punctuate the film and their fake adverts, a technique that Verhoeven extended in Starship Troopers ten years later, along with a penchant for casting daytime soap actors and an attempt at gender-blind casting (there’s a hint of it in the police station locker room scene in RoboCop, not to mention the prominent role for Nancy Allen’s Detective Lewis).

I’ve seen this film so many times over the last twenty years that it’s hard for me to stand back and objectively assess it (which is partly what the five-star rating category is about). The fashion and especially the hairstyles may have dated, and the technology on view is pretty clunky as you might expect, but Verhoeven and his screenwriters Ed Neumeier and Michael Miner are playing with some ideas that haven’t weakened in the ensuing years. More to the point, the characters have a deeper symbolic dimension that makes the story an effective allegory. Verhoeven speaks feelingly on the commentary track about his childhood in Holland under Nazi occupation and about the horrors he witnessed then and how it had affected his filmmaking, and there’s a lot of that wary relationship to power and its abuses to be seen in his films, particularly his strong run of US films from this one through to Starship Troopers. As a society, after all, the United States has a lot to criticise in this regard, but we all live to some extent under the power of corporations and RoboCop is a brilliant dissection as well as a cautionary tale. Your move, creep.

Criterion Extras: The Criterion release of this film leans heavily on textual sources once again, with a very lengthy piece (with some illustrations and video clips) focusing on the special effects and how they were achieved. There are also some storyboards for unshot sequences, which work a lot better with this film (with all its comic-book trappings) than some of the other titles on which they’ve cropped up as extras. The chief interest, though, is in the commentary. Too many of these are dull, but Paul Verhoeven, screenwriter Edward Neumeier and executive producer Jon Davison have a lot of interesting insights into the film, and it’s well worth a listen.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Paul Verhoeven; Writers Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner; Cinematographer Jost Vacano; Starring Peter Weller, Nancy Allen, Ronny Cox, Kurtwood Smith, Miguel Ferrer; Length 102 minutes.

Seen at Prince Charles Cinema, London, Friday 7 November 2014 (and many times before and since on VHS and DVD, most recently at a friend’s home on DVD, London, Sunday 8 February 2015).

Withnail and I (1987)

Famously, this mid-80s black comedy occupies a place at a certain select level of ‘cult films’ (certainly in the UK). Many people like to quote it incessantly, but it never made much of an impression on me when I saw it as a teenager, so it was good to reacquaint myself with it recently and realise that in fact — unlike so many garlanded cult films — it does deserve some of its popularity. It’s not cult in the sense of niche interest though, as it’s all fairly engaging; presumably the use of the term is more to do with its relative success at the time of its release. No indeed, there’s no egregious bad acting or flimsy sets, though stylistically the film isn’t particularly standout. What it has is wit and laughs and, in Richard E. Grant, a hugely charismatic anti-hero.

The titular characters are young actors and the setting is London at the arse-end of the 1960s, and not a particularly pleasant bit of London (either then or, perhaps to a lesser extent given the forces of gentrification, now). Nominally this is Camden Town, but to those of us who live nearby and pass through it regularly, it’s clearly not filmed there, but in the leafy Western suburbs, somewhere around Westbourne Green or Notting Hill (which when the film was made in the mid-1980s was pretty run-down too). My point is, these are not rich characters living the kind of idle life they would be if they inhabited one of these parts of London these days. They are living a classic student/actor’s life of hand-to-mouth scrabbling after sustenance, which mostly takes the form of alcohol. As it happens, Withnail has a rich uncle, Monty (Richard Griffiths), to whose country cottage the two repair for a holiday, but that’s about it as far as action goes. They each vaguely search for work, but we only hear about that in passing as ameans of punctuating Withnail’s wallowing.

So this is not a film about what the characters do, so much as how they do it. The film is really good at what it’s like to be between higher education and your first real job, if you’re down on your luck — and that’s probably the key to its cult success. The central character (Paul McGann, playing the unnamed “I” of the title) is the viewer’s proxy, and Richard E. Grant’s Withnail is probably how you might have imagined yourself through the haze of your 20-something heavy-drinking habits — angry and sarcastic and miserable, but witty and funny and relentlessly energetic in pursuit of narcotic relief from life’s pains. (There’s even a drinking game which has grown up around the film — drink when the characters drink — but it’s probably not advisable except to those who are in the same situation and point in life as the characters.)

It’s all put together with journeyman professionalism, but the core of the film’s success is in writer/director Bruce Robinson’s script, and the acting, particularly the single-minded Richard E. Grant and the luvvie lush Richard Griffiths. Paul McGann does fine with what he has to do, but it’s very much a less showy part. If you’re British and in your 20s or older, you’ve probably seen this film, but I think it stands up even after over 25 years as a fine example of a black comedy.

CREDITS
Director/Writer Bruce Robinson; Cinematographer Peter Hannan; Starring Paul McGann, Richard E. Grant, Richard Griffiths; Length 107 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 26 January 2014.