Criterion Sunday 521: Mystery Train (1989)

Having not seen this film for many decades, not since the first flush of my cinephilia in my early-20s, I was inclined to assume this was a fairly minor Jarmusch, but honestly I think it may be one of his best. Sure the plot itself is slight — various people converge over a single night in Memphis, centering around a run-down hotel presided over by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Spike Lee’s younger brother. First up there’s the young Japanese tourists (Masatoshi Nagase and Youki Kudoh) who seem to be on a train journey across the country’s musical heritage spots and land in Memphis for an evening, then an Italian widow (Nicoletta Braschi) stranded in the town trying to get back to Italy, and finally a trio of barfly characters who get into trouble because of Johnny (Joe Strummer), who’s in a bad mood as a man who’s lost his job and his girlfriend (the other two are Steve Buscemi in an early role, and Vondie Curtis-Hall). The circumstances this trio in particular get into seem to stretch the otherwise quiet and observant tone of the rest into something close to melodrama, but overall the film is a brilliant evocation of a particular little heart of Americana, with a deep love for old music and an eye (no small thanks to Robby Müller’s beautiful cinematography) for the picturesquely derelict byways of culture. Even when the high drama starts to pile up, it somehow doesn’t ruin the mood that Jarmusch has built up, and somewhere buried in those showy characters is a keen sense of economic instability and of a country and a culture balanced on a fine edge of a precipice.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jim Jarmusch; Cinematographer Robby Müller; Starring Masatoshi Nagase 永瀬正敏, Youki Kudoh 工藤夕貴, Nicolette Braschi, Joe Strummer, Steve Buscemi, Vondie Curtis-Hall; Length 110 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 1 April 2022 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, September 1997).

Criterion Sunday 356: Sweetie (1989)

I think it’s easy to take against a lot of what is most distinctive and interesting about this early feature by Jane Campion, but I find it compelling. It’s about the blandness and conformity of suburban lives in a way, set in an Australia that could as easily be the 1950s as the present, and revolves around a character called Kay, an office worker whose life outwardly just seems to be a black hole. The actor who plays her (Karen Colston) has a compelling face and even a charismatic screen presence, but the details of Kay’s life just seem to drain energy from around her, as she sucks in the gormless Louis (Tom Lycos) and then pushes him away bit by bit through her phobias and hang-ups. And this is when her sister Dawn, nicknamed Sweetie (Geneviève Lemon), bounds into her life and her home and seems to cause destruction and alienation all around her, as first their parents split up and then she starts to go after Louis, although she has her own boyfriend/hanger-on/”producer” Bob (Michael Lake). I think in a lesser film Sweetie would be the kind of force for change that prompts the other characters to discover themselves, but here her own mental difficulties and acting out hardly seems too divorced from that of her sister. The visual style breaks their world down into close-ups and breaks it up with humorous cutaways that suggest a fundamental absurdity to suburban Australian life.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • The main extras are three of Campion’s early short films, starting with An Exercise in Discipline: Peel (1982), which with a paucity of camera flourishes marks out a distinctive vision, even if the story it tells — of a young boy throwing peel out of a car window, and being disciplined by his dad — is fairly slight. Given how dislikeable all three of the characters are (there’s also the dad’s sister, I think), it’s still pretty watchable. Her next is Passionless Moments (1983), a series of little black-and-white vignettes of ordinary suburban banality, of the sort that probably all of us have been through at some point, but presented as fascinating insights into the human animal. It’s all very carefully framed and nicely directed, with a droll anthropological voiceover that only heightens the likeable absurdity. Finally there’s A Girl’s Own Story (1984), which feels like Campion really finding her voice and dealing with the themes that she would pursue throughout her feature film career. Here these include a coming of age in a period setting (1960s girls’ school), but probing into darker psychosexual corners with the dysfunctional parental relationship. There are a number of young women at the centre of the tale, who all seem to be lacking in proper adult guidance and find themselves in various forms of trouble as a result, with little support from their peers. It looks great in grainy black-and-white, and is filled with striking shots that are all laden with perils of this well-worn genre.
  • There’s a 22 minute interview from several decades later with its two stars, Lemon and Colston, sitting on a sofa reflecting on making the film, their camaraderie on set and their own lasting friendship, as well as the lack of opportunities it generally led to (unlike some more noted Australian films of subsequent years).
  • Another 20 minute piece from the AFTRS (Australian Film, Television and Radio School, where Jane Campion was a student) has Campion speaking to a critic about her early works, particularly the three short films included on this disc, on which she made her name.
  • There is a gallery of striking and distinctive production photographs showing the making the film.
  • Plus, of course, there is a trailer for the film, which captures a little of the distinctive flavour although obviously it has degraded somewhat more than the film itself.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jane Campion; Writers Campion and Gerard Lee; Cinematographer Sally Bongers; Starring Karen Colston, Geneviève Lemon, Tom Lycos, Jon Darling, Dorothy Barry; Length 97 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Monday 24 August 2020 (and earlier on VHS at the university library, Wellington, May 2000).

Two Films by Ulrike Ottinger: Ticket of No Return (1979) and Johanna d’Arc of Mongolia (1989)

Though Ulrike Ottinger is probably one of the key female figures in the New Germany Cinema that sprung up in the late-1960s, and one who started directing her own films by the early-1970s, she was a filmmaker who until recently was fairly unknown to me. I’ve seen three of her features just this year, and have already written about the epic documentary travelogue Chamisso’s Shadow (2016). Like a lot of filmmakers who are drawn to documentary, there’s a lot of it even in her fiction features, particularly the Mongolian-set Johanna d’Arc of Mongolia (with its very careful use of three different languages in its original title). Even the 1979 film I deal with below has little elements of real life, as I gather that one of the characters was a real-life homeless woman well-known in the area at the time, and it wilfully dispenses with narrative expectations as its central character gets even more messy (the German title translates as “diary of a drinker”). It was screened as part of an online film festival recently, and I look forward to catching up with more of Ottinger’s work.

Continue reading “Two Films by Ulrike Ottinger: Ticket of No Return (1979) and Johanna d’Arc of Mongolia (1989)”

Az én XX. századom (My Twentieth Century aka My 20th Century, 1989)

If you’re looking to subscribe to the BFI Player there are no shortage of films directed by women, which they have collated into the useful Woman with a Movie Camera subscription collection. For example, amongst films I’ve seen and reviewed, there are: debbie tucker-green’s Second Coming; Naomi Kawase’s Sweet Bean; displaced-Iranian-in-London drama Gholam and the mindbending bit of French weirdness Evolution; Australian documentary Island of the Hungry Ghosts; great films by Lucrecia Martel and Annemarie Jacir; two of what I personally consider the films I’ve most underrated, Jessica Hausner’s Amour Fou and Anocha Suwichakornpong’s By the Time It Gets Dark; the list goes on and on. I’ve seen the film I’m reviewing today twice since starting this blog, yet have managed not to write about it either time, which is a mistake because it’s great.


A strange, at times disorienting, take on themes in European and Hungarian history. It ranges freely over themes, times and places that defined the 20th century (unsurprisingly, given its title) and yet it always retains a sort of light-hearted optimism, helped enormously by its double central performance by Dorota Segda as twins Dóra and Lili, separated in childhood, and living different aspects of the bourgeois struggle — one sexually libertine (and positively thrilled by it), the other with feminist anarchist ideals. Something about that Hungarian practice of post-synching dialogue gives a heightened sense both of diegetic sounds (not just words, but breathy little noises that the twins make) and also a sort of fantastic soundscape abstracted from the images, which combined with the diffuse ethereal electric lighting (Edison plays a key role) and the twinkling, chattering stars, has a beatific effect. You would never guess it was made in the 80s, having barely appeared to age. Indeed, on the big screen it truly shimmers with a radiant, crystalline yet slightly soft-edged monochrome beauty. It’s the kind of oneiric cinema that I wish were praised over the dark fantasies of Lynch, et al.

My Twentieth Century film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Ildikó Enyedi; Cinematographer Tibor Máthé; Starring Dorota Segda, Oleg Yankovsky Оле́г Янко́вский; Length 102 minutes.
Seen at Watershed, Bristol, Friday 27 July 2018 (and originally on DVD at home, London, Sunday 13 August 2017).

Two Films by Kira Muratova: The Asthenic Syndrome (1989) and Chekhovian Motifs (aka Chekhov’s Motifs, 2002)

The Ukrainian director Kira Muratova died in 2018 after a long career starting in the 1960s. Her filmmaking is perplexing, perhaps wrought from the chaotic times she worked through, dense with allusion and busy with action, almost breathlessly so. I can’t pretend to understand all the details, and in some cases much of it seems to wash over me, but I can’t deny she was doing something fascinating and her films remain worth watching if you can (and they are not always easy to track down).

Continue reading “Two Films by Kira Muratova: The Asthenic Syndrome (1989) and Chekhovian Motifs (aka Chekhov’s Motifs, 2002)”

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.

Continue reading “Women Filmmakers: Molly Dineen”

Three Black American Satirical Films: The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973), Chameleon Street (1989) and Sorry to Bother You (2018)

Satire has always been a popular artistic form, especially when confronted with the wealth and ingrained power of the American elites. As a form, it has been utilised by a number of filmmakers over the years, notably African-American artists seeking to attack the privilege and entitlement of the (majority white) leaders, whether of government, the media or the corporate world. Whereas a film like Dear White People (2014) and its subsequent TV series may look at the educational system, the films below cover the institutions that support American power most directly — the FBI and corporate America — and in Chameleon Street suggests the contortions that such power inflict on the (Black) psyche.

Continue reading “Three Black American Satirical Films: The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973), Chameleon Street (1989) and Sorry to Bother You (2018)”

Tongues Untied (1989)

There have been a lot of films about the Black experience in America, but relatively few touching on the intersection with LBGT identities, although there have been more prominent works in the last few years, like Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight (2016). One of the key figures who worked to open up this area was Marlon T. Riggs, a filmmaker, poet and educator who died in 1994 at the age of 37 from AIDS-related complications. It’s a bold and provocative work, all the moreso as it was made for TV (and created quite a bit of controversy on this account).


There’s hardly very much I can possibly add to any discourse around this film, but despite being 30 years old, it still feels like some kind of testament to endurance and defiance through so many multiple sites of oppression and erasure. It’s like a compendium of texts (it largely takes its launching point from an anthology of poetry by gay Black men), of multiple voices speaking, declaiming, laughing, a kaleidoscopic text that has as much joy as it has pain. And while there are pieces in it which feel somewhat of its era, there is just so much that I think still resonates strongly; so much of its formal experimentation has been taken up since then, and yet so much of this still undeniably feels fresh. It’s also at times extremely funny (the Snap!thology bit, as one example), even when what’s being expressed is still ultimately about escaping reductive gazes, finding some measure of freedom — not just from racial oppression, but from conservative voices even within African-American communities (the hate speech we hear, close-up on the mouths, is from all kinds of people, not least clips of Eddie Murphy on-stage, which despite the presence of the in-film audience laughter have no comedic power at all when placed in this context). It’s under an hour in length, but so dense with meanings and voices, and experiences so rarely represented even now in film, that it will undoubtedly continue to be relevant.

Tongues Untied film posterCREDITS
Director Marlon Riggs; Cinematographers Vivian Kleiman and Riggs; Starring Marlon Riggs, Essex Hemphill; Length 55 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Saturday 30 March 2019.

Celia (1989)

This week here I’m doing a themed week of Australian films, mostly documentaries, but I’m starting it with this important and perhaps under-recognised 1989 drama that distills a particular vision of (white) Australia in the recent past. The 1990s would turn out to be a successful decade for Australian cinema, both at home and abroad, and the same cinematographer worked on another prominent film made by women a few years later that I’ve also reviewed on my blog, The Last Days of Chez Nous (1992). If you want a primer on women in Australian cinema, by the way, you could do a lot worse than this Senses of Cinema dossier, which includes an essay on Celia which properly contextualises my own remarks below as being on the lower end of amateurish.


This Australian film from the late-1980s certainly builds up a curious atmosphere, not quite horror but inhabiting a strange and (to the film’s young protagonist, played by Rebecca Smart) at times terrifying world in between lived reality and paranoid fantasy, based on fears stoked up by the adults — these being around both the ‘Red menace’ of Communists, but also the government’s attempts to eradicate the rabbit population by introducing myxomatosis. It’s not a million miles from the allegorical territory of The Babadook (again without the specifically horror genre elements, aside from a few brief monstrous dream rabbits), but rooted more firmly in a 1950s milieu of conservative culture. Celia’s cherished grandmother turns out to have had Communist sympathies, and her neighbours are local organisers, so this brings them into conflict with her regressive father (Nicholas Eadie). A parallel storyline about Celia’s pet rabbit becoming a threat to state security (enforced by her uncle, the local police chief) strangely manages to bring together some of these fraught family dynamics. Overall, it sustains a striking atmosphere of cultural dread, aptly filtered through the experiences of a young girl.

Film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Ann Turner; Cinematographer Geoffrey Simpson; Starring Rebecca Smart, Nicholas Eadie; Length 103 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 8 January 2019.

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.