Continuing my week’s theme of documentaries about women artists (photographers, filmmakers, painters et al.) are these two hour-long Barbara Hammer video pieces. One is autobiographical, while the other focuses on three different women living in different eras, whose image-making work intersects with their (sometimes contested) sexuality.
In my week focusing on Australian films, I’ve already covered some modern classics including Aboriginal director Tracey Moffatt’s beDevil (1993) and a number of documentaries interrogating Australia’s colonialist and racist societal dynamics, notably Another Country (2015). Warwick Thornton is probably the most prominent director from an Aboriginal background currently working in the country, and over the course of a number of short films and two features has burrowed into this history, stepping back to the 1920s with his most recent feature Sweet Country.
Born in the capital of Senegal in 1943, and trained as a teacher, Safi Faye had worked with filmmaker Jean Rouch and went on to formally study ethnography (gaining her doctorate in Paris). Therefore, this perspective runs strongly through her work, which frequently blurs the line between documentary and fiction. Her ethnographic focus is not, however, on documenting some exotic Other but often on her own family and their rural background (further explored in her 1979 film Fad’jal, named for her parents’ village), reclaiming it perhaps from the hands of Rouch and the French and European colonialists who deeply affected the entire region (if not, indeed, the continent).
I think maybe Soderbergh is onto something here, a three-part comedy satire about, well, I don’t know, adultery? The American Dream? The suburban middle-classes? It seems to touch on a lot of things with a deadpan that wouldn’t be out of place in Monty Python, or low-budget Wes Anderson at times, but mostly this is just demented throwing-ideas-at-the-screen-and-seeing-what-sticks kinda stuff. By the time it’s finished, the manic energy has calmed a bit into something a little more contemplative, about the leading lady (Betsy Brantley, Soderbergh’s ex-wife) and a feeling of ennui, perhaps, comes through. But mostly, it’s just quite exhausting.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Steven Soderbergh; Starring Steven Soderbergh, Betsy Brantley; Length 96 minutes.
Seen at home (VHS), Wellington, June 2000 (and on DVD at a friend’s house, London, Sunday 18 February 2018).
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.
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.
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.
The Criterion Collection hit an early nadir with Michael Bay’s bombastic world-destroying Armageddon (1998) — I imagine some people even consider this the worst film in the whole collection (though for me, so far, it’s Chasing Amy, sorry Kev). So it’s fair to say my expectations weren’t high for the film Bay made just before it, The Rock. That said, there are no more of Michael Bay’s auteurist Gesamtkunstwerken in the collection, so I need never watch another of his films again, and perhaps this buoyed me into actually — a little bit — enjoying this festival of silliness. That said it might just as easily be the presence of Nic Cage, an admittedly unreliable but off-the-wall star (still holding it in a little, as he was wont to do at his awards-feted mid-90s height), or the steadying effect of Ed Harris and Sean Connery, two fine screen actors. I didn’t believe for a moment any of the plot contortions that see Ed Harris’s rogue military man take over Alcatraz and threaten destruction on the people of San Francisco — events that lead to Cage and Connery’s involvement. Indeed, I feel little interest in recounting these here. Twenty years on from its release, you’ll have seen the film already, or you’ll have decided not to bother with it, and who am I to criticise your decisions, borne of a cultural awareness hard-won for all of us labouring through those squalid trenches of mainstream blockbuster moviemaking. Still, if you were forced to see it — let’s say, if you were watching the whole of the Criterion Collection from earliest to most recent — then you could do worse. And, after all, how can you ever appreciate the austere rigours of arthouse at its most steely if you don’t also watch the popcorn-munching chemical-warfaring action nonsense too.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Michael Bay; Writers David Weisberg, Douglas S. Cook and Mark Rosner; Cinematographer John Schwartzman; Starring Nicolas Cage, Sean Connery, Ed Harris, John Spencer, David Morse; Length 136 minutes.
Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 7 July 2016.
Undoubtedly filmmaking outside the mainstream has always looked different, and as a film which presents itself as a documentary, lo-fi technology and a lack of budget is practically flaunted here. The lead character (played by director Cheryl Dunye) works in a video rental shop, using its resources to research and film a piece about a mysterious 1930s actor known only to her as ‘The Watermelon Woman’, so we see her recording equipment, not to mention shelves and shelves of antiquated VHS tapes (although these may not have seemed so at the time, I suppose). But it would be wrong to write the film off because of the way it looks, just as it would be disingenuous to say its greatest value is in representing a black lesbian point of view. Certainly it was and remains interesting for that reason, but 20 years on it still has an energy to its underlying message that goes beyond simply testifying to the presence of black and lesbian women in history. At a wider level, it’s a film about the erasure of identities within history as a whole, as Cheryl picks through various archives and libraries, not to mention the testimonies and personal mementoes of an older generation, in order to find something out about her subject. Yet all this is presented within a broadly comedic framework (even romcom, with the appearance of Guinevere Turner’s video shop customer) that makes its political force effortlessly palatable, and hardly diluted by the fact that the black lesbian actor of the title is a fictional recreation — not existing may be the ultimate erasure of historical identity.
Director/Writer Cheryl Dunye; Cinematographer Michelle Crenshaw; Starring Cheryl Dunye, Valarie Walker, Guinevere Turner; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Sunday 10 December 2016.
I don’t write full reviews of every film I see, because I’d spend more time writing than watching, probably, and I’ve been seeing quite a few things at home. However, I thought I should offer some brief thoughts about my other January viewing.
Big Eyes (2014, USA)
The Craft (1996, USA)
D’est (From the East) (1993, Belgium/France/Portugal)
Get Over It (2001, USA)
Holes (2003, USA)
I Could Never Be Your Woman (2007, USA)
Into the Woods (2014, USA)
Loser (2000, USA)
Sheen of Gold (2013, New Zealand)
Slap Her, She’s French! (aka She Gets What She Wants) (2002, USA)
Tabu (1931, USA)