Criterion Sunday 326: Metropolitan (1990)

This film feels like the New Wave if that movement were about spawning the Noah Baumbachs and Wes Andersons who would come to define the genre of ‘brittle New York-set comedies of manners skewering the affectations of the urban haute bourgeoisie’ (well, that’s what they call themselves in Metropolitan, “uhbs” for short). Then again, I suppose this kind of confected class paradigm has always been part of the NYC milieu, but Whit Stillman is particularly good at capturing the absurdity without also making me hate the characters — although I did certainly dislike most of them. That self-important sense of a man who lectures a more educated woman about Jane Austen before at length revealing grandiosely that he doesn’t like to read novels, only literary criticism; or the exceedingly designer-clad woman who declares to all that she despises snobbery; or the earnest invocation of French socialists at a tuxedo-clad debutants party. Part of the film’s affectation is to present these quaint society throwbacks of the Upper East Side (apologies if I’m getting the geography a bit wrong, as I’m not from NYC) in a slightly arch framework, with the title cards and graphics all suggesting a world-preserved-in-aspic quality, a sort of faux Gilded Era of society wits with a youthful sense of their own mortality and impending worthlessness (only briefly punctured when they meet an older version of themselves who doesn’t quite align with their self-mythologising). The key is, though, it’s well-written, which carries the film’s at times amateurish feeling — though I do genuinely mean that in a generous way, in the sense of someone who really loves what they’re depicting but perhaps hasn’t quite yet acquired the polished skill that Whitman would come to possess.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There are a couple of short clips presenting multiple takes of alternative casting, including the actor who plays the hated Rick as the central character Nick, and Troma director Lloyd Kaufman as a music producer.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Whit Stillman; Cinematographer John Thomas; Starring Edward Clements, Carolyn Farina, Chris Eigeman, Taylor Nichols; Length 98 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Thursday 18 June 2020.

파업전야 Paeopjeonya (The Night Before the Strike, 1990)

An important battlefield for resistance, aside from in politics and on the streets, is of course the workplace, and trade unions have a strong role to play in that story. One such is this oppositional work made in South Korea against the background of the Gwangju Uprising, an expression of popular discontent which was brutally repressed in 1980 and led to all kind of fallout during the subsequent decade. It was written, shot and directed by a large roster of activist filmmakers, working largely under the radar of major institutions, and so was only restored very recently.


This Korean film was made in the late-80s, filmed (as I understand it) at a factory which had been occupied by striking workers and using a cast which included a lot of these workers in minor roles. Filmed on 16mm it feels like it has a documentary quality at times, akin to some of the low-budget TV plays being made in the UK at the time which dealt with working-class and working issues in a way that wasn’t exploitative or condescending (itself rather rare in our modern media climate). The main character here, for audience purposes, is Han-su, who sort of watches from the sidelines as his workplace (a metal-working factory) is radicalised thanks to the small-mindedness of the bosses coming into conflict with those who are trying to get a union off the ground. His long face and sullen demeanour conveys his confusion at what’s happening, as he slowly gets up to speed on why unionisation makes sense to protect his job. There’s a nice scene as various people who have been drafted in by management to protect the plant against these unionising workers (who are all swiftly laid off when their plans comes to management’s attention) all find out they’ve been made the same promises. For the most part, though, this isn’t a strident sloganising or propagandistic film, but rather a small-scale drama set amongst these workers that unfolds gradually. The director spoke on stage after the film about how the collective’s first film a few years earlier had been criticised by those whom it had been about, and how that meant they wanted to work more closely with the subjects to find a way of presenting their struggles sympathetically. This they did, to the extent that the film was officially banned and had to find its audience via non-cinematic screenings (which probably makes more sense given the content) and has only now been restored.

The Night Before the Strike film posterCREDITS
Directors Lee Eun 이은, Chang Yong-hyun 장윤현, Jang Dong-hong 장동홍 and Lee Jae-gu 이재구; Writers Kong Su-chang 공수창, Kim Eun-chae 김은채 and Min Kyeong-cheol 민경철; Cinematographers Kim Jae-hong 김재홍, Oh Cheng-ok 오정옥 and Lee Chang-jun 이창준; Starring Go Dong-eop 고동업, Im Yeong-gu 임영구; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Sunday 3 November 2019.

La telenovela errante (The Wandering Soap Opera, 2017)

Amongst the restorations and retrospectives, Mubi also presents new or rediscovered films by contemporary directors, both brand new names I’ve never heard of before (like Lina Rodriguez) — and this despite my regular attendance at film festivals! — or old names who have new works that perhaps have slipped by other means of distribution (such as new films by Krzysztof Zanussi for example, or the later works of Straub/Huillet). One such is this Chilean film by expatriate filmmaker and prolific auteur Raúl Ruiz; it was filmed in 1990 but edited together after Ruiz’s death (in 2011) by his partner.


A typically goofy project from the prolific expatriate Chilean director, returning to his home country to make this 1990 project with students, only now edited and released by his former partner. It has an episodic structure with title cards and only a loose sense of connectivity between the episodes, but it has Ruiz’s style, or rather his restless reinventions, as the action is framed differently, whether through TV screens and reflections, or shot from behind indoor plants, and other ways of retaining viewer attention. There’s a constant sense of play around spectatorship that you might expect, and it comes across as a metatextual reconfiguration of telenovelas with lots of references to contemporary Chile, which naturally pass me by but raise a wry smile at times. It has an energy and humour to it that is very likeable, even as (like many Ruiz films) it contains some kind of enigmatic mystery at its heart.

The Wandering Soap Opera film posterCREDITS
Directors Raúl Ruiz and Valeria Sarmiento; Writers Ruiz and Pia Rey; Cinematographers Leo Kocking, Héctor Ríos and Rodrigo Avilés; Starring Luis Alarcón, Patricia Rivadeneira, Francisco Reyes; Length 80 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Thursday 2 January 2020.

Criterion Sunday 301: An Angel at My Table (1990)

Janet Frame is one of those iconic New Zealanders (not least because of her bright corona of red hair) who probably isn’t much known outside the country — or wasn’t until this biopic by Jane Campion. It’s a remarkable work that tracks her life via a tripartite structure (taken from the three memoirs Frame wrote): we see her as a young schoolgirl, then as a teenager, and finally played by Kerry Fox as an uncertain adult venturing out into the world after a period of difficulty. By which I mean that she was sectioned into a mental hospital for eight years of her life, for absolutely no medically-sound reason as it later turned out (just that everyone thought she was a bit odd). Campion does her best to find a balance between the darker elements and a sense of poetic license and even joy, and ultimately the film is about Frame finding her place in the world and her poetic voice. It’s all gorgeously shot and mounted, set in rural Otago before Frame later moves to London and Spain. Fox does well to convey Frame’s withdrawn character in an engaging way, and this is one of Campion’s best films.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • The main extra is the 10 minute The Making of An Angel at My Table (2002) documentary by one of the producers of the feature which gives some behind the scenes context for the making of the film, mostly told by Campion herself, as well as Campion on her festival and press tour, promoting the finished film.
  • There are six short deleted scenes which add a few more little details to the characterisations.
  • There’s a fine stills gallery with some production photos, including the actual Janet Frame with her three actors.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jane Campion; Writer Laura Jones (based on the autobiographies To the Is-Land, An Angel at My Table and The Envoy from Mirror City by Janet Frame); Cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh; Starring Kerry Fox, Alexia Keogh, Karen Fergusson, Kevin J. Wilson; Length 158 minutes.

Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Sunday 12 December 1999 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Tuesday 17 March 2020).

Trys dienos (Three Days, 1991)

A filmmaker whose first films were made in the final dying days of the Soviet Union (I have a bonus review of one of them below), but who has since come to some prominence on the art film scene has been Šarūnas Bartas (often transcribed as Sharunas Bartas). I’ve so far only seen this, his debut feature film, but it has a beautiful slow cinema quality that definitely commends his work to me, and as a bonus comes in at a sprightly 75 minutes.


Strong echoes of Tarkovsky in this debut feature. It moves slowly, deliberately, without excessive talking. There are characters (two young men, and a young woman, primarily), who meet, then seem to be looking for a room, but for what reason (sex? shelter? some flicker of human connection?) is unclear. What is evident is that their town is bleak, apparently without comfort, filled with crumbling edifices, and that their lives have little future to commend them. Bartas, like Tarkovsky and Tarr, is great at capturing that feeling in landscapes, against which the characters seem suitably bowed. Fantastic stuff but I love this kind of thing.

Three Days French film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Šarūnas Bartas; Cinematographer Vladas Naudžius; Starring Katerina Golubeva Екатери́на Го́лубева, Rimma Latypova Римма Латыпова, Arūnas Sakalauskas, Audrius Stonys; Length 75 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Friday 30 December 2016.


Praejusios Dienos Atminimui (In Memory of the Day Passed By, 1990) [USSR, medium-length, black-and-white]

A beautiful quiet mid-length film which has a documentary way about capturing an unnamed city and its characters, its bleakness and its persistence, and the changing seasons.

In Memory of the Day Passed By film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Šarūnas Bartas; Cinematographer Vladas Naudžius; Length 40 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Friday 30 December 2016.

Облако-рай Oblako-ray (Cloud-Paradise, 1990)

A rather delightful late-Soviet comedy about a small town, where Kolya (Andrei Zhigalov, doing a holy fool type character) bumbles around, annoying people with his insipid questions about the weather, before hitting on the notion that he’s going to move away to the East to get a job, a ploy to prove to them that he’s not the good-for-nothing they think. Thus a film that opens with the camera gliding down from the heavens to the ground of this grim apartment block to confront a sea of deadpan faces — Kaurismäki-style stares into the abyss of hopelessness and entropy — immediately does an about-turn as everyone Kolya knows becomes excited by his sudden news, and quickly enough he finds he can’t back out of the lie. There are a succession of these little set-piece scenes of celebration, and at times it feels like it could burst into musical numbers (the few songs that pepper the film were sadly untranslated, but had more of a solemn setting to them). It’s a film that metaphorically suggests the Soviet Union in a period of transition, desperate for any (even made-up) hope for change.

Film posterCREDITS
Director Nikolai Dostal Николай Досталь; Writer Georgi Nikolayev Георгий Николаев; Cinematographers Yuri Nevsky Юрий Невский and Pyotr Serebryakov Пётр Серебряков; Starring Andrei Zhigalov Андрей Жигалов, Sergey Batalov Сергей Баталов, Irina Rozanova Ири́на Роза́нова; Length 79 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Arlecchino, Bologna, Tuesday 25 June 2019.

Criterion Sunday 247: Slacker (1990)

It’s 30 years since this film was shot, and whatever you might think of it, it certainly has created a legacy, both of independent filmmaking, but also by way of capturing a zeitgeist, a spirit of a certain strand of alternative American existence (whether here in Austin TX or in Portland OR, et al.): places that have defined themselves by a certain lo-fi aesthetic and bohemian drop-out culture. The strongest aspect remains Linklater’s narrative structure, which builds on the familiarity of multi-strand intersecting narratives, but instead has characters just bump into one another, pulling the camera (and thus the viewer) into these constantly changing stories, all set within the same city, in a tight (but not real-time) framework. It’s all queued up by Linklater’s appearance as the first of these figures, indulging in some pseudo-philosophical ramblings in the back of a taxicab (shades of Scorsese in Taxi Driver, and a tendency which Linklater would indulge in his later films), which both gently pokes fun at his pretensions but also lays out the film’s alternative realities groundwork. Ultimately the rambling concept can’t help but exceeding the framework of the film, but this leads to a final act of filmic self-destruction a little bit reminiscent of Two-Lane Blacktop in a way, and brings a fitting close to this era-defining film.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Among the many extras is Woodshock (1985), a very early short film by Linklater which focuses on a local indie music festival. No footage of the music is shown, but there’s a charming DIY aesthetic to this lo-fi footage of the audience just milling about and acting like quintessential music festival audiences, not to mention an eager young Daniel Johnston toting his cassette album.
  • There’s also footage from a 10th anniversary cast reunion at a cinema in Austin, which features a lot of the local cast reflecting on the film and their experiences in front of an audience.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Richard Linklater; Cinematographer Lee Daniel; Length 100 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 28 April 2019 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, January 2000).

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.

Paris Is Burning (1990)

It’s an overwhelming experience this film, a very early touchstone for a transgender community still rarely represented on-screen (especially in 1990), and seeing it followed by a panel discussion of people of colour involved in the ball community added extra layers and made it clear there’s plenty to criticise — mostly in terms of how the scene is presented, how the personalities are little more than icons, and whether this is a form of gentrification of a subculture. Primarily, it made clear to me that this is not a fleeting fad that has since disappeared, but is part of almost a century of continuous development, just that mostly it’s been out of sight of those such as myself (and presumably the director of this film).

As for the film, whatever criticism one may make about some of the ways it frames its talent, the sheer energy and presence of these performers is real and amazing. They ARE fabulous, they take control of their space, of the viewer, they step beyond the frame of the filmmaker and outside the bounds of any conventional criticism, along the way creating a vocabulary which has flourished ever since. Almost all of the key players of the film are dead now, and only 25-30 years has passed. Many of them reflect cogently and sometimes with ruefulness in the film about the conditions of society which hold them back, but then their performance and their lives make such an impression as to make it clear how important it is to be part of a community of people in safe and nurturing spaces. I can only hope such spaces continue to be available to those who need them.

Paris Is Burning film posterCREDITS
Director Jennie Livingston; Cinematographer Paul Gibson; Length 78 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Tuesday 29 November 2016.