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, over Sunday 25 February, 4 March and 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

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Criterion Sunday 120: How to Get Ahead in Advertising (1989)

There’s a gleeful absurdism at work here that’s hard to deny has some pleasure, though I found it overwrought, almost stretching too hard to be considered “cult” (familiar territory for director Bruce Robinson, this being his follow-up to Withnail and I). It’s a High Thatcher British culture media satire and Richard E. Grant is its high priest, an ad exec pushed over the edge by zit cream, forced to account for his work to a boil that grows from his neck and threatens to take over his identity and his life. There’s a do-you-see #SATIRE quality that I find strained, but maybe it’s the very soul of anarchic comedy genius. It certainly has its admirers, and Grant certainly isn’t sparing any actorly extreme in his dual-role performance.

Criterion Extras: Aside from the transfer and the liner notes, there are no extras here.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Bruce Robinson | Cinematographer Peter Hannan | Starring Richard E. Grant, Rachel Ward | Length 94 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 18 September 2016

Criterion Sunday 100: “Beastie Boys Video Anthology” (1981-99)

There’s a certain type of film that gets characterised as your typical Criterion release, though in truth they do keep their slate of releases relatively varied from long-established ‘classics’, to slow arthouse films to more recent releases and documentaries. However, even amongst these, an anthology of music videos by a single band is rather unusual, so I’m not really sure how to review it per se. It should be fairly clear that if you don’t like the music of the Beastie Boys, you probably won’t get much from Criterion spine number 100, though some of the productions (which are mostly directed by the sadly departed Adam Yauch aka MCA aka Nathanial Hörnblowér, the latter of which is his directing credit) have a sort of lo-fi amateur energy.

Chief amongst these, and perhaps typical of much of their output, is the one which opens the set “Intergalactic”. It’s a genre pastiche which utilises cheap props and cardboard sets intercut with our three rapping heroes in close-up. The genre here is the monster movie (it’s your usual giant robot vs giant octopus scenario), but when they do genre pastiches it’s usually the low-budget end which gets satirised, meaning the amateurish effects are part of the formal charm of the films. My favourite is probably “Body Movin'”, a 60s-style heist spoof that has the style that Austin Powers was going for, but funnier and frankly more interesting than that franchise, and some great sets and laugh-out-loud moments. Most people, though, will at least recall “Sabotage”, the Spike Jonze-directed cop film pastiche that still ranks amongst their (and his) finest works.

The rest of the videos vary from cut-ups of archival footage (for example, “Ricky’s Theme” or “Something’s Got to Give”) to straight-to-camera fisheye-lens setups of rapping, though “Three MCs and One DJ” mixes it up a little by having the three Beastie Boys frozen in their studio for an amusing minute-long prologue until their DJ arrives. One thing that becomes clear (and is probably the reason for the omission of some of the more famous late-80s cuts) is the maturation of the group from goofing-around frat-boy types with crude sexual humour to being rather more reflective about social issues (the last video on the set, “Alive” from 1999, even includes lyrics addressing the economic situation).

And if, like us, you’re watching them all from start to finish, you’ll probably move on to watching their other videos on YouTube, in which case check out the 30-minute long “Fight for Your Right Revisited”, which packs in a huge variety of celebrity cameos, and plenty of the sense of humour you’ll have picked up on from the 18 videos on the Criterion set.

Criterion Extras: Almost all the videos have multiple remixes which can be played over the videos, and some include alternate takes and angles. There’s an extended short film of “Intergalactic” which presents the monster movie plot without the music track (which doesn’t really help). Finally, and perhaps most usefully, there are lyrics subtitles for all the videos so you can keep up with what the boys are rapping about.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors Evan Barnard (“Root Down”, 1995), Adam Bernstein (“Hey Ladies”, 1989), Spike Jonze (“Sabotage” and “Sure Shot”, 1994), Tamra Davis (“Netty’s Girl”, 1992), David Perez Shadi (“Gratitude”, 1993) and Adam Yauch [as “Nathanial Hörnblowér”] (“Holy Snappers”, 1981; “Looking Down the Barrel of a Gun”, “Shadrach” and “Shake Your Rump”, 1989; “Pass the Mic”, “Something’s Got to Give” and “So What’cha Want”, 1992; “Ricky’s Theme”, 1994; “Body Movin'” and “Intergalactic”, 1998; “Alive” and “Three MCs and One DJ”, 1999) || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Saturday 4 June 2016

Criterion Sunday 97: Do the Right Thing (1989)

It’s been over 25 years since this film was first released — the film that very much put Spike Lee on the map, even if he’d had a few features before this which had garnered attention. It still fizzes with energy, a bold primary-coloured work of cinematic joie de vivre that, thanks to its sterling cinematography from Lee’s collaborator Ernest Dickerson, has a warm filter placed over everything. Every surface seems to drip with sweat and refract with the heat of this, the hottest day of the year. It’s shot and set in the Bedford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn NYC, and presents a warm-hearted portrait of a community that certainly isn’t perfect but is trying to get along. There’s a foothold to an older generation of Italian-American immigrants (the traditional white working class of Sal and his sons, running a popular corner pizzeria), whose ancestors may have made up much of the original population but who by the late-20th century have also largely fled to other areas further out in Queens and on Long Island (so-called ‘white flight’). There are the Black Americans who’ve also been there for some decades, and who are the beating heart of the modern community. There are Puerto Ricans in the mix, there is a newer influx of Asian immigrants (the Koreans who own the corner grocery opposite Sal’s, somewhat stereotyped), and there are even signs of a monied white middle-class moving in to start gentrifying the block. And everything would largely be fine except for the blasted heat which seems to fry everyone’s brains, leading to the film’s denouement. The one thing the heat can’t fully be blamed for — and the one area where Lee’s generosity to his characters is notably absent — is the action of the New York city police.

If the film still feels contemporary, still feels like a relevant angry broadside, it’s not just because fashions come back around, or that the urgent music of Public Enemy never really dropped out of style, or because of the stridency and subtlety of much of the acting. There’s Danny Aiello as Sal who tries to get along but is still marked by his racist upbringing, Richard Edson and John Turturro as Sal’s divided sons, Spike Lee in the central role of the rootless Mookie who can’t really manage his adult responsibilities, Rosie Perez as his angry girlfriend, angry as much from Mookie’s inaction as from the stress of raising their son, and the range of Greek Chorus figures like Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee as the elderly witnesses to their neighbourhood, the unemployed men sitting out on the sidewalk commenting on the action which passes them by, and Samuel L. Jackson as Mr Señor Love Daddy, the radio DJ. These are all very strong performances, and keep the film seeming fresh. But mostly it’s still contemporary because the interactions between American police and the neighbourhoods they are supposed to be policing doesn’t appear to have moved on, even as a generation has since passed by. Do the Right Thing testifies to the illegal deaths of Black men in police custody (not to mention a passing graffito reference, “TAWANA TOLD THE TRUTH”, to a notorious rape denial case of the era), and the sad thing is that news headlines of 25+ years later have scarcely moved on. The film makes the useful point, one that never really becomes tired, that racism and injustice affects everyone in a community. Hence: do the right thing.

Criterion Extras: It’s a packed edition, one of the early tentpoles for the growing collection. Most notably is the hour-long documentary Making “Do the Right Thing” (1989, dir. St. Clair Bourne), which is more than just a puff piece making-of that you’d get on a mainstream release. This is very much a cinematic work, one that tracks the progress of the shoot from its very earliest beginnings, but also talks to and gauges the response of the locals who’ve been affected for almost six months by this production, as Lee’s team builds sets along a block, and then for eight weeks is out there filming, shutting down the street and calling for silence for chunks of the summer. Suffice to say, not everyone is happy, and the film hears their voices, but is also watches carefully as the actors grapple with their characters (Danny Aiello in particular has trouble grasping the essential racism of Sal). It’s a very fine bonus feature indeed.

Alongside this, there is also a significant amount of (somewhat shakily amateur handheld) videos documenting the rehearsal and filming process with Spike Lee and his actors. The 1989 Cannes press conferences is reproduced in full, replete with slightly confused questions from the white European journalists present, and a short piece in which Lee and his producer revisit their locations 12 or so years on. There’s Lee’s video for Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power”, which contextualises their words within a tradition of protest as seen on archival film footage. And there’s an interview with Lee’s editor Barry Brown talking about the challenges of the work. Each of these extras is prefaced by a short Spike Lee introduction, and he also wraps up with some final words.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Spike Lee | Cinematographer Ernest Dickerson | Starring Spike Lee, Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis, John Turturro, Rosie Perez, Richard Edson | Length 120 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 22 May 2016 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, February 1997, and at university, May 1998)

Criterion Sunday 54: For All Mankind (1989)

I can’t really fault this documentary about the Apollo space missions of the late-1960s and early-1970s: it tells a big story using archival footage of the era, shot by the astronauts and those working at NASA, and it does so using only these images and the voices of the astronauts. The value is in seeing this footage, some of which is shot from space and presents uncanny views of the Earth and of the work the astronauts were doing, and hearing from the participants. Nevertheless it can at times be a little difficult to tell apart all these buzz-cut white guys in their control centre, and the missions are interwoven fairly fluidly, meaning we jump back and forward in time. It’s a fascinating and informative work for those with a strong interest in the space race, and for those people this is likely to be far more interesting than it was to me.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Al Reinert | Length 80 minutes || Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 13 September 2015

Criterion Sunday 8: Diexue Shuangxiong (The Killer, 1989)

© The Criterion Collection

In Irma Vep, Olivier Assayas’s masterful film about the industry (which to a certain extent functions as an investigation into the the very nature of cinema and visual representation itself), a boorish and macho film critic at one point interviews/lectures Maggie Cheung about the balletic quality of extreme violence exhibited by his favourite filmmaker, John Woo. There’s certainly a lot of masculinist interest to Woo’s filmmaking, and while it wouldn’t be a stretch to classify these as bold and stylistic choreographies of bullet-ridden violence, there’s still a limit to the number of scenes where moody slow-motion heroes point guns at each other. It’s the prime means by which his characters seem to learn about one another: where in other films they might meet in cafes or bars for a drink, Woo’s heroes stand off head-to-head in tense gun battles. The antihero here is Ah Jong (Chow Yun-fat), who accepts a last job to help out Jennie (Sally Yeh) whom he hurt in a gun battle, but is tracked by Detective Li Ying (Danny Lee), who comes to feel some kinship with his target, as (in time-honoured style), cop and gangster discover they are not so very different. Scenes and imagery are lifted wholesale by Woo for his later Hollywood career, notably Face/Off, but that doesn’t make them any the less impressive (think a church, candles and doves), while both heroes do a good line in atmospheric gazes off camera. It’s all quite ridiculous, but in a pleasingly goofy way.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer John Woo | Cinematographers Peter Pau and Wong Wing-hang | Starring Chow Yun-fat, Danny Lee, Sally Yeh | Length 110 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 16 November 2014

When Harry Met Sally… (1989)

FILM REVIEW || Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Wednesday 25 December 2013 (also years ago on VHS) || My Rating 3 stars good


© Columbia Pictures

I’d like to tell you that this romantic comedy from the pen of Nora Ephron, which is coming up on its 25th anniversary, hasn’t dated at all, but I can’t tell you that. There are few scenes featuring either Billy Crystal or Meg Ryan (you can figure out their characters’ names, I’m sure) which do not provoke some gasp of incredulity at the 1980s fashion and hairstyles. Thankfully, though, the comedy set-up at the film’s heart is rather more resilient (using the time-honoured structuring motif of will-they-won’t-they antagonism and resolution) and, by the end, even the most ridiculous feathered hairstyle or cropped shorts cannot distract from the romance. Partly that’s on account of Nora Ephron, whose touch here is so central to the film’s success. Ephron went on to helm her own comedies in the 1990s, yet although this is directed by the workmanlike Rob Reiner, her writing style is all over it, channelling the shmaltz and brazen sentimentality of similar films from the Golden Era of Hollywood (the 1940s and 1950s) via the neuroses of latter-day New York bard Woody Allen. I daresay for some this would be enough to write off her own efforts in a mire of gloop, but I feel like her work is deft enough to avoid these pitfalls. There’s certainly a rather brittle framing device, using interviews with apparently real New York couples from an older generation, who comment on what it is to be in love. However, it’s easy enough to instead focus on the central story, and at that Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan do very well, the latter well enough to basically keep her in this kind of territory for most of the following decade (my favourite of the Ryan-Ephron cycle remains 1998’s You’ve Got Mail, for what little it’s worth). It may not be a masterpiece, but it sums up something about the 1980s, and it’s all rather pleasant nonetheless.


CREDITS || Director Rob Reiner | Writer Nora Ephron | Cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld | Starring Billy Crystal, Meg Ryan, Carrie Fisher, Bruno Kirby | Length 92 minutes