Criterion Sunday 258: Tanner ’88 (1988)

A fictionalised account of a Democratic nominee for President contesting the primaries against the likes of Michael Dukakis (who would go on to actually win the Democratic nomination that year, if not the Presidency), Jesse Jackson and even Al Gore and Joe Biden (who are never seen, but their names come up once or twice). Michael Murphy (as Jack Tanner) has a sort of bland appeal that feels so familiar in US Presidential candidates, so he’s a good choice for this man who becomes very slightly radicalised during his campaign — we’re not talking Bulworth (1998) here, but there’s a striking sequence in Detroit where he talks to (presumably very real) local campaigners in what feels the closest to a documentary sequence in the whole mini-series (not a million miles from some of the political discussions in, say, Ken Loach’s Land and Freedom in making dramatic the everyday political discussions of ordinary people). Elsewhere there’s behind-the-scenes political plotting, including Tanner’s affair with the deputy manager of a rival’s campaign, his daughter Alex (Cynthia Nixon)’s college idealism clashing with her more conservative father, whose policies for the most part are in unemotional soundbites, and his hard-nosed campaign manager TJ (Pamela Reed) making calls and crunching numbers in fairly opaque ways, but they certainly come across dramatically. The general sense is to satirise the idea of politicians having any actual beliefs, an early broadside against the kind of media and image-heavy campaigning that has come to dominate the US election cycle. Altman’s familiar style, with a roving camera, plenty of zooms and overlapping dialogue is all in place and it feels a bit like a prelude to some of the multiple narratives he’d pursue in The Player and Short Cuts.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Each of the 11 episodes is prefaced by a minute or two of an in-character introduction filmed in 2004 (generally Murphy, but Reed and Nixon also show up), reflecting on the events of the previous episode. This was filmed at the time that Trudeau and Altman worked with many of the same actors on a follow-up mini-series Tanner on Tanner. That latter sequel isn’t on this set, but perhaps a future upgrade may include it?
  • There’s a 20 minute conversation between Garry Trudeau and Robert Altman from 2004, in which they discuss how the series came together and the way they shot the thing, as well as useful comments on the improvisations and working methods of some of the actors and political figures they got as cameos.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Robert Altman; Creator/Writer Garry Trudeau; Cinematographer Jean Lépine; Starring Michael Murphy, Pamela Reed, Cynthia Nixon, Wendy Crewson; Length 353 minutes (in 11 episodes of c30 minutes each, although the first is a double episode).

Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 4 August 2019.

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Two Tunisian Films Directed by Women: Fatma 75 (1975) and The Trace (1988)

Filmmaking by women in the Arab-speaking world has been a relatively new phenomenon, given various social forces that have slowed the cause of women’s rights — many of which are fairly forthrightly confronted in the films which have been made by women in this region — such as Wadjda, a 2012 film by a Saudi Arabian woman. Like Lebanon (and unlike Saudi Arabia), Tunisia has been one of the more progressive countries, and a number of the earliest works by women come from here.

Continue reading “Two Tunisian Films Directed by Women: Fatma 75 (1975) and The Trace (1988)”

Two 1988 Films by Agnès Varda: Jane B. by Agnès V. and Kung-Fu Master!

Both these films were made by Varda as collaborations with Jane Birkin. The idea for Kung-Fu Master! came from Birkin during the production of Jane B. and so Varda helped her realise the concept. Varda’s similarly playful (and similarly titled) final film Varda par Agnès (2019) is released in the UK this Friday 19 July.

Continue reading “Two 1988 Films by Agnès Varda: Jane B. by Agnès V. and Kung-Fu Master!”

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 133: Spoorloos (The Vanishing, 1988)

Watching this film for a second time (albeit decades after my first viewing), I find it a curious experience. Obviously I knew the outcome but in a sense the film never really tries to hide it — you may not know the specifics, but it’s clear from the outset who the bad guy is, and once he’s selected his target, it’s broadly clear what happens to that person. The drama is in the details of the crime, and the single-mindedness of purpose of each of the three men wrapped up in this drama: our bad guy (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu), our victim’s boyfriend (Gene Bervoets), and our director (George Sluizer). It prefigures some of what Michael Haneke would go on to do in the 1990s onwards, cynically manipulating audience expectation in quite a nasty way. I don’t like Haneke’s films but I have at least a respect for the craft, and so it is here.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director George Sluizer; Writers Sluizer and Tim Krabbé (based on Krabbé’s novel Het Gouden Ei, “The Golden Egg”); Cinematographer Toni Kuhn; Starring Gene Bervoets, Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu, Johanna ter Steege; Length 107 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 20 November 2016 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, May 2000).

Criterion Sunday 70: The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)

It caused quite a commotion on its original release, but this adaptation of a 1955 novel by Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis, is relatively restrained, all things considered. It asks us to imagine if Jesus Christ had lived a regular life instead of being crucified (had, in other words, given in to the temptation to avoid his fate), and uses that as a way to get inside the duality of Christ as man and as divine figure of grace and redemption. Then again, obviously there are a lot of people with a lot of knowledge on the subject, and a lot of opinions either way, so I can’t really say much beyond that it’s a compellingly made film with some excellent performances (not least Willem Dafoe in the title role), and beautiful cinematography from veteran lenser Michael Ballhaus. Harvey Keitel’s shock-headed Judas is a surprise, and not always a welcome one, and in general Jesus’s band of disciples seem more Brooklyn than Judaea, which can be troublesome when they’re set alongside the cast of local extras (it was filmed in Morocco), but the racial issues are left unexamined here. Instead, it’s a morality play with a very human leading performance, which is at least a change from most depictions of Jesus on film.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Martin Scorsese; Writer Paul Schrader (based on the novel Ο Τελευταίος Πειρασμός O Teleutaios Peirasmos by Nikos Kazantzakis Νίκος Καζαντζάκης); Cinematographer Michael Ballhaus; Starring Willem Dafoe, Harvey Keitel, Barbara Hershey, Harry Dean Stanton; Length 162 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 27 December 2015.

Criterion Sunday 55: The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988)

Maybe I’m missing the emotionally devastating power of this film (or at least, that’s the kind of description I imagine was applied to it when it was first released), or perhaps it just doesn’t stand up over time particularly well, or maybe I’m the wrong generation to appreciate it properly. I really don’t know what explains it, but for me, this handsomely-mounted, big-budget Hollywood epic of the 1980s with some pretty big name stars (at least by today’s standards; Day-Lewis and Binoche were still early in their careers back then) doesn’t seem to connect with its characters. To an extent changes in filmmaking taste may be a factor: hearing these actors from a range of European countries (England, France and Sweden for the central trio) affect Czech accents can seem a little jarring to today’s tastes, perhaps. But there’s also a sort of studied artfulness to the sex scenes: it has an 18 certificate, but you wonder if it would still merit that nowadays. There’s nothing particularly explicit or shocking: Day-Lewis and Olin play characters who live bohemian lives (it is Prague, after all), whose sexual libertinism swiftly comes into conflict with the new Soviet-imposed Communist ideals, as the tanks roll in to crush their freedom. Still, as shot by Bergman’s frequent cinematographer Sven Nykvist, it is beautiful to look at — it’s difficult to imagine Prague or the Czech countryside being difficult to imbue with charm, but Nykvist succeeds admirably well. I haven’t read the novel, but one imagines the idea that life and sex are fleeting pleasures that must be embraced and enjoyed — seemingly the meaning of the ‘lightness’ in the title — may work work better on the page. Certainly there the characters benefit from not having belaboured accents, though I will at least own that we’d miss the shaggy charm of their dog, Karenin.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Philip Kaufman; Writers Jean-Claude Carrière and Kaufman (based on the novel Nesnesitelná lehkost bytí by Milan Kundera); Cinematographer Sven Nykvist; Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Juliette Binoche, Lena Olin; Length 171 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 20 September 2015.

Criterion Sunday 21: Dead Ringers (1988)

David Cronenberg’s films can be difficult to classify, and this certainly applies to Dead Ringers, involving as it does elements of horror and psychological thriller, as well as being a character study of a pair of twin gynaecologists, the Mantle brothers. In this role, Jeremy Irons is superb, managing to convey a distinct personality for each, meaning it’s (almost) never unclear which one is which, despite their largely similar look. The set design maintains a sort of creepy anonymity, as the film takes place in a series of almost indistinguishable blue and beige rooms, with the only really bold colour being the crimson red capes that the brothers wear in the operating theatre, recalling the garb of a 15th century cardinal (or perhaps even a plague doctor). The film manages a masterfully controlled slow build of tension and creepiness, as a famous actor (played by Geneviève Bujold) is pulled into their increasingly fraught orbit. There’s some dense ideas about individuality in there, but they never get in the way of the story. A film worth revisiting.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director David Cronenberg; Writers Cronenberg and Norman Snider (based on the novel Twins by Bari Wood and Jack Greasland); Cinematographer Peter Suschitzky; Starring Jeremy Irons, Geneviève Bujold; Length 115 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 25 January 2015.

February 2015 Film Viewing Round-Up

Herewith some brief thoughts about films I saw in February which I didn’t review in full.

Big Hero 6 (2014, USA)
Bride of Frankenstein (1935, USA)
Kawachi Karumen (Carmen from Kawachi) (1966, Japan)
Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988, USA)
Lifeforce (1985, USA)
Lovelace (2013, USA)
La Reine Margot (1994, France/Italy)
The Selfish Giant (2013, UK)
Somersault (2004, Australia)
Stop Making Sense (1984, USA)

Continue reading “February 2015 Film Viewing Round-Up”