Criterion Sunday 599: Vanya on 42nd Street (1994)

As a film, this is the very definition of stagy. You could reduce it in synopsis to a recording of an ongoing theatre project whereby director Andre Gregory convened the same group of actors over a period of several years to work together on the text of Uncle Vanya (as rewritten by David Mamet), just for themselves and occasional invited guests but never for public show. However, as directed by Louis Malle (in his final film), there’s an elegance and grace to this project and a feeling that it’s more than mere recorded theatre, but that something cinematic is going on. It’s not just the space where the filming takes place — an abandoned old theatre in the heart of NYC — though that certainly lends a lot of the film’s atmospherics, but it’s a way of really focusing on performances and performance styles, stripping away the design and setting elements (there is some costuming that hints towards its Russian roots, but for the most part this is both modern-day and also somehow timeless). What you get is the themes of the play — the aggressive pleasures and pain of being with family, the melancholy of ageing, all that fun stuff — and none of the distraction, and for me, despite (or perhaps because of) its self-evident staginess, it’s all the more engrossing.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • This is a fairly basic package, with only a half-hour piece made in 2011 about the creation of this work, its production and its filming. It catches up with most of the cast, including Gregory and most of the case (only Phoebe Brand as the grandmother had passed) and is fairly insightful into his process as a theatre director.
  • The only other extra is the trailer, which is fairly standard issue as these things go, but it did impress on me that there were plenty of moments in the film that I still somehow missed, suggesting that rewatching it would probably bring out different aspects of the production.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Louis Malle; Writer Andre Gregory (based on the play Дя́дя Ва́ня Dyadya Vanya by Anton Chekhov Антон Чехов, as adapted by David Mamet); Cinematographer Declan Quinn; Starring Wallace Shawn, Julianne Moore, Larry Pine, Brooke Smith, George Gaynes; Length 119 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 17 December 2022.

Criterion Sunday 589: Trois coleurs : Blanc (Three Colours: White aka Three Colors: White aka Trzy kolory. Biały, 1994)

Revisiting again the site of my early exposure to world cinema, I think I liked White more than Blue on first exposure, but partly that was me responding to the comedy inherent in the setup (a man is left by his wife and feels compelled to reinvent himself in order to win her back). However upon rewatching there’s a certain rather nasty edge to this humour (which is dealing with the “egalité” of the French flag and national motto), and Julie Delpy is placed in a rather thankless position by the story. This is, after all, her ex-husband’s story, and Zbigniew Zamachowski has a clownish sense to his despondency. The colour palette isn’t as suffused in the film as the other two episodes so perhaps that also means it doesn’t stand out visually, though it has its moments. Primarily, what I love is Preisner’s score, which has a jauntiness while also incorporated some of the more traditional Polish motifs of his work. It’s a solid film, but Blue has the edge, while Red is the one that endures I think.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Once again the disc includes two earlier, short works, both of these by Kieślowski. The first is Siedem kobiet w róznym wieku (Seven Women of Different Ages, 1979). The loose seven day structure allows Kieślowski to focus on different participants in a ballet class and performance, who as the title suggests are of different ages. We get the young girls and women doing their practice, then another performing on stage, an older ballerina hanging around looking disappointed at not getting much work, and then a ballet instructor teaching the young girls we saw on the first day. It really emphasises, through these little glimpses of them at work, just how much of an effort it is to be a ballet dancer, the constant rehearsal, the pointed comments from the teachers, and the physical exertion (one of the days is soundtracked almost entirely by the ballerina’s heavy and belaboured breathing).
  • The other short film is Gadające głowy (Talking Heads, 1980). There’s a fairly simple concept at work here, as Kieślowski interviews people about what they want from life, moving from younger to older respondents (with their birth year listed in the lower left hand corner). You can track a certain greater reflectiveness as the ages tick up of course, but there’s a core of hopefulness and wisdom that the film is tapping into, even if you could hardly call these brief snippets of interviews particularly enlightening on an individual level. This is about people across society, from all ages, reflecting on what they want from the world.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Krzysztof Kieślowski; Writers Krzysztof Piesiewicz and Kieślowski; Cinematographer Edward Kłosiński; Starring Zbigniew Zamachowski, Julie Delpy, Janusz Gajos, Jerzy Stuhr; Length 91 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 13 November 2022 (and first on VHS at home, Wellington, in the mid-1990s).

Criterion Sunday 517: “By Brakhage: An Anthology, Volume Two” (1955-2003)

After a first volume some years earlier, Criterion has added this second one, covering much the same range of years as the first, from some of his earliest works to his very last. I’m not sure if it necessarily adds more depth to the casual viewer’s understand of Brakhage as an artist, but it’s fascinating to see more of these little snatched windows into his life and artistry.

A lot of those early films seem more overtly autobiographical than the more abstract later works. The earliest included here, The Wonder Ring (1955), is a film glimpsed through the windows of a passing train, life reflected on the surface of that image, evoking a world that’s disappearing (this train line soon to be demolished) in a world so far from now and yet so tangibly there. The Dead (1960) takes in Paris, superimposing images of cemeteries (a sort of spectral double vision), a river boat ride and other assorted flashes of the old world, though it didn’t really cohere for me. In Two: Creeley/McClure (1965), the first of two portraits passes in a typical way for early Brakhage, with languorous superimpositions and negative images inserted, but this short piece is all about the second portrait, an all too brief ecstatic experience, literal flashes of a man. Rounding out the first programme of films, 23rd Psalm Branch (1967) is almost an hour long, a frenzied rush of images — of corpses (initially), of bombing, of Nazis, but also tender images of families and home, of being at the beach. But that shock of war and the horrors of conflict (this film was made during and largely as a response to Vietnam) means that even the positive images are pulled down into the darkness of Brakhage’s vision. It feels almost agitprop but of course remains an avant-garde text, a scream of a silent experimental film.

The second programme of films opens with one of his more renowned works, Scenes from Under Childhood, Section One (1967). It seems to me there’s a penetrating darkness to the vision of childhood here, the images snatched from black leader, flashes of red, a strange sense of dislocation and eeriness. Maybe that’s the soundtrack (apparently Brakhage preferred it without, but there’s an optional one and I do prefer it to silence — what even is “silent” as a film concept, really, for those of us who live in the world, where there are constantly noises in the background?). Anyway, this is a potent poetic opening to what is a three-part film (the other two are not included here), as strong as anything in this period of his work. The Machine of Eden (1970) follows it as a bit of a landscape piece with glorious glowering skies, albeit in an impressionistic collage. However, I like the way that Stan Brakhage really mined his domestic life in this period of his filmmaking, reflected in Star Garden (1974). He must have been quite an intense dad to grow up with but he was always there filming his kids, his home, the special reflection of light through blinds, through paper, the edge of a dress, a spectral presence always because isn’t all film ultimately about light? Rounding out the group, Desert (1976) is a short film that I gather is more about the idea of a desert, expertly evoked with the light and filters, except for those brief moments when it just seems grey and suburban.

For the third programme of films, there is a movement towards the abstract, starting with The Process (1972), as images of people both become colour fields and are intercut with flashing blocks of colour suggesting (as I gather it) one’s closed eyelids and the idea of recalling something. There’s death in Burial Path (1978) in the shape of a bird, placed carefully in a cardboard box, and then there’s the recollection of death, the camera moving on to other things before looping back around to the bird. The duplicity in Duplicity III (1980) is presumably the spectacle of theatre as put on by his children and their classmates, but there’s almost an epic quality here. That sense is aided by showing these scenes alongside animals, a sort of contrast between lies and unadorned truth that evokes something essential. Four animals are intercut with one another in The Domain of the Moment (1977), though I don’t think that snake is making friends with the mouse. There’s a mystery and a beauty to his editing here. Of course, maybe you just need to be in the right mood to appreciate any abstract experimental film but Murder Psalm (1980) was very much it when I watched it: a collage of images, textures and grains of film and video, the shock of life and of death, the play of children and of armies, juxtaposing these eternal themes under an evocative title that suggests a continuity of behaviour from the humiliated child onwards and outwards through history. Rounding out the programme, one does wonder how Criterion decided which of the 20 films in Arabic Numeral Series to present. Ostensibly 12 (1982) is an abstract series of lights piercing the darkness, shimmering and hazy as if reflected through many layers and then gone. It has its own hypnotic pulse and I wonder again at the deeper meaning.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Cinematography Stan Brakhage.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Friday 18 March, Saturday 19 March, Monday 21 March, Sunday 3 April, Saturday 14 May, Saturday 27 August, Wednesday 2 November, Thursday 3 November and Friday 4 November 2022.

The Wonder Ring (1955) | Length 6 minutes.
The Dead (1960) | Length 11 minutes.
Two: Creeley/McClure (1965) | Length 4 minutes.
23rd Psalm Branch (1967) | Length 67 minutes.
Scenes from Under Childhood, Section One (1967) | Length 24 minutes [Rosenbaum 1000].
The Machine of Eden (1970) | Length 11 minutes.

Star Garden (1974) | Length 21 minutes.

Desert (1976) | Length 11 minutes.
The Process (1972) | Length 9 minutes.

Burial Path (1978) | Length 9 minutes.

Duplicity III (1980) | Length 23 minutes.
The Domain of the Moment (1977) | Length 15 minutes.

Murder Psalm (1980) | Length 17 minutes.

Arabic Numeral Series 12 (1982) | Length 18 minutes.
Visions in Meditation #1 (1989) | Length 17 minutes.

Visions in Meditation #2 (Mesa Verde) (1989) | Length 17 minutes.

Visions in Meditation #3 (Plato’s Cave) (1990) | Length 17 minutes.
Visions in Meditation #4 (D.H. Lawrence) (1990) | Length 18 minutes.

Unconscious London Strata (1982) | Length 23 minutes.

Boulder Blues and Pearls and… (1992) | Length 23 minutes.
The Mammals of Victoria (1994) | Length 35 minutes.
From: First Hymn to the Night – Novalis (1994) | Length 3 minutes.
I Take These Truths (1995) | Length 18 minutes.
The Cat of the Worm’s Green Realm (1997) | Length 15 minutes.
Yggdrasill: Whose Roots Are Stars in the Human Mind (1997) | Length 17 minutes.
“…” Reel Five (1998) | Length 15 minutes.
Persian #1 (1999) | Length 2 minutes.

Persian #2 (1999) | Length 2 minutes.

Persian #3 (1999) | Length 2 minutes.

Chinese Series (2003) | Length 3 minutes.

Criterion Sunday 453: Chung Hing sam lam (Chungking Express, 1994)

Thinking back on it, it’s difficult to sum up what the plot of this film is exactly, but made in a break from filming his grandiose epic folly Ashes of Time, it’s fair to say that Wong Kar-wai is going for a looser feel here, two stories of people passing by one another in a busy city, barely enough time to make a connection that’s lasting. Thinking back to when I saw it several decades ago, my abiding memory is its heavy use of the song “California Dreamin'” but watching again it’s not in it all that much and just in the second story, certainly not to Godardian levels of replaying snippets of music, though you get the sense that Godard’s New Wave work is one of Wong’s touchstones. But there’s both a denseness to the imagery — of a crowded city, of colourful lights and rain-slicked streets, of bustling shopping streets and little food stands — but also a lightness to the tone, with two flirtatious stories that touch on crime (because in the first, Brigitte Lin is engaged in drug dealing and kills those who double-crossed her, though the second just features Tony Leung as a cop stopping by for food on his downtime near where he lives) but really are about the feelings of the central characters in each, Takeshi Kaneshiro (also apparently a cop though we don’t see him in uniform like Leung) and the mesmeric Faye Wong who takes a job at a snack bar and, yes, plays that Mamas and the Papas song a lot. There’s an oneiric sense to Chris Doyle’s camerawork and a sense of fleetingness to each story, as if these characters will soon disappear into Hong Kong’s bustle never to be seen again, and indeed they seem to do that. It’s a very film-y film ultimately, but grounded in a very specific place and time — in many ways, to me, it is the apex of 90s filmmaking.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Wong Kar-wai 王家衛; Cinematographers Christopher Doyle and Andrew Lau 劉偉強; Starring Faye Wong 王菲, Tony Leung [Chiu-Wai] 梁朝偉, Takeshi Kaneshiro 金城武, Brigitte Lin 林青霞; Length 102 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Wednesday 11 August 2021 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, December 1997).

Criterion Sunday 436: Пред дождот Pred doždot (Before the Rain, 1994)

I saw this back in the 90s, when it was still the darling of the festival scene, trading in all the tropes that were so much in vogue at that time: cyclical narratives, weighted down with metaphorical meaning, and a quasi-mystical sense of Balkan violence. There were plenty of films about that part of the world and blending it with the multi-strand interlocking narrative — albeit in an elegant way which intentionally resists cyclical readings by implanting inconsistencies like characters still being alive in one segment when they should be dead in another, that kind of thing. Which is all a way of saying it hasn’t necessarily dated all that well, and strikes me as trying a little too hard to find poetic depths, but it’s still a fine film for a fledgling country like [North] Macedonia, and one that broadly-speaking deserved its contemporary accolades. Rade Šerbedžija is the stand-out in the cast, although it’s always lovely to see Katrin Cartlidge on screen (who had far too short a career), and brings a certain grizzled authenticity to scenes set amongst internecine religious-based conflict that never fully reveals its causes, perhaps because they are lost, in an area that certainly at that point had seen a lot of pain.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Milcho Manchevski Милчо Манчевски; Cinematographer Manuel Teran; Starring Rade Šerbedžija Раде Шербеџија, Katrin Cartlidge, Grégoire Colin, Labina Mitevska Лабина Митевска; Length 113 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 5 June 2021 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, August 1997).

Criterion Sunday 354: Clean, Shaven (1993)

I remember checking this out after Peter Greene’s memorable turn as Zed in Pulp Fiction (1994). It’s a film he made with first-time director Lodge Kerrigan over a couple of years in the early-90s, due to a lack of budget for the production, and to a certain extent that shows in the stripped-back mise en scène. The film very much harnesses these monetary setbacks into the feel of the film, from the grittiness of its working class small town settings to the graininess of the image, and the texture of Greene’s feverish performance as a schizophrenic man (also called Peter) recently released from hospital, looking for his daughter. The film makes all sorts of implications that he may be a dangerous child killer, but never shows any direct evidence of this, and at least part of what it’s trying to do is suggest that perhaps those with schizophrenia are not killers, somewhat against the tangent of most pop culture. That said, he’s clearly a danger at least to himself, and his own interior world is evoked through the soundtrack, all buzzing radios and white noise, accompanied by flashes of old photographs, some kind of kinesthetic attempt to get inside Peter’s brain. There are moments of real gruesome horror that make you flinch, and a message that the cop (Robert Albert) — whose hunt is intercut with Peter’s own search for his daughter — may be the really dangerous one here, as both are fairly unpleasant, single-mindedly driven people. It’s a fine debut, the first in Kerrigan’s small filmography dealing with outsiders.

NB: The Criterion Collection date on this release is 1994, though it was made available publicly in 1993 according to Wikipedia.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Lodge Kerrigan; Cinematographer Teodoro Maniaci; Starring Peter Greene, Robert Albert; Length 79 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 19 September 2020 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, in the late-1990s).

Three Short Films by Sarah Maldoror

I think if we’ve all learned anything from the last few decades of study and research about women in cinema is that there has been a paucity of women creating cinema since the silent era, i.e. from when cinema started to be seen as a viable industry and not just a hobby or a sideshow. This means a lot of women’s work in cinema has been in non-commercial spheres like the experimental avant garde, or else in oppositional contexts, and that is where we find the French/West Indian filmmaker Sarah Maldoror, who chose her surname and began to make films with her Angolan nationalist husband after having been an assistant on The Battle of Algiers. That first short I review below was also made in Algeria, but is specifically about the Angolan situation, before its independence. She made a feature film a few years later, Sambizanga (again filmed in absentia in the Republic of Congo/Brazzaville, but about Angola), which I will be covering shortly in my Global Cinema series when we get to Angola. Sadly, Maldoror died earlier this year, in April 2020, as a result of complications from COVID-19, at the age of 90. The three short films below were made available for a short time by Another Gaze journal, in support of a panel featuring her daughters, poetry recital, and a discussion amongst film critics, which was insightful and also, for me, rather unusual in centering the experiences of African and Caribbean women.

Continue reading “Three Short Films by Sarah Maldoror”

Criterion Sunday 289: Hoop Dreams (1994)

I’m not exactly a big sports fan (and I know nothing about basketball), but it seems to me that when your team wins, you get happy not just for the drama of the contest but the hope that this win will lead to bigger and better things, and eventually your team will be the champions. We watch a fair few clips of basketball games in Hoop Dreams, but it’s not the teams’ wins that matter, but those of the two boys whom the film is following, and the hope — which sometimes seems as distant as the idea of a championship win to some of these teams — that their lives can be better.

After all, this ultimately is a film about what it takes to make something of yourself in America, specifically when you’re born poor and Black and live in an area of a big city (Chicago in this case) where there’s little enough money to be made honestly, and only crime and drugs seem to be good options. I think that’s a story that became particularly familiar during the 1990s in cinema — when making cinema about the African-American experience seemed to be all about ghettos and crime. But if that’s a background that has dogged Arthur Agee’s dad (as only the most notable example within the film), what’s excellent about is that he’s never just those things in the film. Indeed, like all the characters, he has many levels, and most of all we remember him as a dad (and a particularly effusive and supportive one), which by the end of the film both Arthur and William also are.

This film follows both of these guys over a period of about five years, as they go from promising 14-year-old kids scouted by a high school recruiter on the poorly-maintained courts of the Chicago suburbs where they live, through a peculiarly American high school system, where kids with sporting talent get scholarships and money and chances, as long as they perform. Of course, they have to travel for hours to get to these nice schools in predominantly white neighbourhoods, to play ball and win leagues. But Arthur doesn’t quite make the grade for that school, so finds himself busted down to a less wealthy local school.

You end up caring about it all, because it’s not about the Game but about the people just trying to make a chance in life, doing their best not to be worn down or overtaken by the Game, though it’s always looking for new talent and the chances move by all too quickly at times. It’s also about families and community, and that’s probably what lingers the longest for both these players, and whatever their own personal successes and failures (both within this film and since it was released), it’s the time with the families that sticks around.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • One of the film’s big champions from its very first appearance at Sundance Film Festival in January 1994 was the Siskel and Ebert film review show, and we see clips of Gene and Robert talking about the film on their TV shows, from Jan 1994, through its wider American release, as well as in episodes leading up to and after the Oscar nominations, and then an end-of-year best of list (in which both named it as their favourite film) and finally at the end of the decade, after Gene’s passing the previous year, when Roger named it his favourite film of the 1990s and talks briefly to Martin Scorsese about the film.
  • In the clips of Roger Ebert, we see him imagining a return to the same characters after a number of years have passed, and as if in answer to that is Life After Hoop Dreams (2015), a 40 minute follow-up directed by Steve James and Abbey Lustgarten (a Criterion producer). It is primarily filmed ten years after the original film, but then picks up with some interviews a further 10 years on from that (like a very abbreviated 7 Up). Obviously it can’t stand up to the original, but it’s interesting to see how the boys we saw in the first film have grown up, putting into perspective their childhood dreams and the great maturity they’ve gained through life experience and — to an extent — tragedy, as both have lost people close to them. What is clear that the love and dream of basketball hasn’t died in either, though we see that like the parents in the original documentary, it’s their children who are now more of the focus for each.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Steve James; Writers James and Frederick Marx; Cinematographer Peter Gilbert; Length 170 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 2 February 2020.

Little Women (1994)

Well, I’ve done my due diligence now and have watched Gillian Armstrong’s 1990s adaptation of this perennial classic. It’s as white as the snow that adorns the Christmastime landscapes, but has many of the same delights as the most recent adaptation by Greta Gerwig.


Watching this for the first time after seeing the latest adaptation, and it feels in retrospect like that was a remix of this one (not least because the two adaptations share the same producers). Gerwig’s version cuts up the narrative, and reimagines what some of the leads might be like with different actors, but they have a certain fidelity in some respects. For my money, Christian Bale here has exactly the same dandyish energy as Timothée Chalamet in the new one and controversial as it may be, I like Saoirse Ronan more than Winona Ryder, although I don’t think it can be overestimated just how much Ryder embodied the 1990s in cinema. I feel sad that Trini Alvarado never had much of a (film) career after this, because she is every bit as good as everyone else in this ensemble cast. There’s a lush, almost nostalgic glow, but the film doesn’t dwell in this comfort, acknowledging the hardship and the sadness of life that surrounds the family. And then of course there’s Beth, who surely never had a better rendition than that by Claire Danes. Somehow director Gillian Armstrong’s choice to cut from her final bed scene to the nanny harshly ripping apart roses feels perfect, and in many ways this film may come to be viewed as one of the finest of the decade.

Little Women film posterCREDITS
Director Gillian Armstrong; Writer Robin Swicord (based on the novel by Louisa May Alcott); Cinematographer Geoffrey Simpson; Starring Winona Ryder, Christian Bale, Susan Sarandon, Trini Alvarado, Claire Danes, Kirsten Dunst, Gabriel Byrne; Length 118 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Friday 27 December 2019.

Sátántangó (1994)

Aside from Lav Diaz‘s work, there are few long films in recent years more mythical than Bela Tarr’s seven-hour Hungarian black-and-white Sátántangó, a film loved by those who’ve seen it and which represents something of a badge of honour among most cinephiles. I’ve not (yet) seen it in a cinema, but every few years seems to bring an opportunity to do so. It’s now 25 years old.


I realise this is accepted by many as a pinnacle of a certain kind of filmmaking, the ne plus ultra of slow cinema, and it is very good. Great, even. I’d been meaning to watch it every since seeing Werckmeister Harmonies a couple of times back in 2000, but it was still pretty mythical back then. It takes a small Hungarian village community as its setting, as charismatic charlatan Irimiás (Mihály Vig) comes to town, but those who know the film probably know this. I’d just finished reading the novel and I’m impressed by how closely it cleaves to that, but when you have seven hours of running time to play with, fidelity to the source is easier to achieve. The cinematography is luminously monochrome, or rather just as often drenched in bleak melancholic half-light, but that’s appropriate. It’s about people who are led, ceding their power to an authority figure, like an allegory of the citizens to a kleptocratic state, or sheep — cows, perhaps, given the open shot — led by wild promises of secession into their own doom but profiting the political classes (no, nothing on my mind right now). It’s all there, all as slow as you want it, long tracking shots down endless roads, characters walking off to the horizon, scenes that pause so the characters can grab a snack or go to the loo (a provocation to any cinema audience). This is a great film for those who like its thing (I do), but I’ll want to catch it at the cinema some day before I make any grandiose pronouncements beyond that.

Sátántangó film posterCREDITS
Director Béla Tarr; Writers Tarr and László Krasznahorkai (based on the novel by Krasznahorkai); Cinematographer Gábor Medvigy; Starring Mihály Vig, Putyi Horváth, László Lugossy; Length 432 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 7 January 2017.