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 509: Ossos (1997)

I can’t fully pretend to be able to tell apart the characters in this film by Pedro Costa, which kicks off his so-called Fontainhas trilogy (being the films set in the downmarket area of Lisbon where migrants from former colonies have tended to cluster together). Nor am I entirely sure of their relationships to one another. However, Costa’s filmmaking is absolutely clear in finding perfect images to capture the essence of this neighbourhood and of the squalor in which the characters live. Not quite dim and unlit as his later films, there’s still a palpable sense of chiaroscuro to the contrasts in these interiors, as characters with equally murky intentions move through them (a young mother, a feckless father, some others who are trying to do good to little avail). Every shot here has a careful and palpable beauty to it, even as the characters themselves seem unable to express themselves and keep trying to find a way out of a certain sense of hopelessness. It feels like a move towards his modern style of filmmaking.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Pedro Costa; Cinematographer Emmanuel Machuel; Starring Vanda Duarte, Nuno Vaz; Length 98 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 20 February 2022.

Criterion Sunday 426: The Ice Storm (1997)

I remember loving this as a 20-year-old back in 1998 when it was on its first release. After all, I’ve always responded positively to elegantly filmed adaptations of contemporary literature, with all those underlying themes of suburban ennui and disaffection, couched in a stylised and ironic register, and in truth I still like it a lot. However, I find it more difficult to watch it without groaning at the immediacy of the “ice storm” metaphor, given these peoples’ lives in 1973 Connecticut, the suburbs of New York, the playground of the middle-classes as they struggle to adjust to… well, to the same things to which people in books and movies (and life) have always failed to adjust: them losing the spontaneity in their relationships; their tedious friends they’re stuck with; their kids growing up and becoming more sexual; the mindless tedium of the working life; you know, the usual. And with Kevin Kline in there you wonder if this isn’t just an updated The Big Chill (I haven’t seen it yet, mind, but the titles do seem superficially similar). Anyway, in short I think what happened to Elijah Wood’s character was a bit overdetermined, and things just seem so oppressively miserable for everyone (even though materially they’re all pretty well-off), but even so the look of the film is gorgeous, and the acting is all excellent, not least of all Joan Allen, who is I think the emotional core of the film, increasingly so as I get older.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Ang Lee 李安; Writer James Schamus (based on the novel by Rick Moody); Cinematographer Frederick Elmes; Starring Joan Allen, Kevin Kline, Sigourney Weaver, Christina Ricci, Elijah Wood, Tobey Maguire; Length 113 minutes.

Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Saturday 11 April 1998 (and again on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Saturday 15 May 2021).

Thank God He Met Lizzie (aka The Wedding Party, 1997)

Right, I’ve done weeks themed around various online streaming platforms, but I haven’t yet mentioned YouTube, which may just be the best repository for films online. It certainly has some of the more interesting and obscure titles. It’s always worth searching YouTube when you’ve exhausted every other possibility, especially when you’re looking for a particularly niche title, because someone may have uploaded it. I also can’t verify that at any given moment any of the films I mention having watched there will be available, but who knows. This particular pick comes from inspiration provided by Australian film writer and academic Alexandra Heller-Nicholas in a Twitter thread of Australian movies directed by women which were available on various platforms, including YouTube, so a few more may appear on my blog this week.


A deeply bittersweet Australian romcom of the late-1990s, about a man who marries a woman but realises as he’s doing so that he still has deep and real feelings for an ex that he can never repair due to his own stupidity. That all comes out in the final act, though, as the early part of the film is him meeting his future wife, and then a series of flashbacks to the earlier relationship. At first these seem like they’re just a reminder of another similar time of happiness in his life, but by the end comes the realisation (for him as for the audience) that this was in fact the only time he was happy. The problem — and this is perhaps a problem exacerbated by time — is that it’s difficult to really feel for his predicament because the woman he ends up marrying, the Lizzie of the film’s title, is played by Cate Blanchett. That said, playing the role of a beautiful, perfect yet imperious and demanding woman is in fact very suited to Blanchett; the true love is played by late-90s Aussie romcom mainstay Frances O’Connor (well, she was in Love and Other Catastrophes anyway), and that makes some sense even if the fact that both of them fell for this guy (called Guy, which makes me think of the similarly bittersweet Umbrellas of Cherbourg) is rather less explicable. Still, it’s rather likeable in my opinion.

Thank God He Met Lizzie newspaper adCREDITS
Director Cherie Nowlan; Writer Alexandra Long; Cinematographer Kathryn Milliss; Starring Richard Roxburgh, Cate Blanchett, Frances O’Connor; Length 91 minutes.
Seen at home (YouTube), London, Friday 10 April 2020.

Women Filmmakers: Molly Dineen

I’m doing a week focusing on ‘very long’ (3hr+) films, but most of these have been made by men, perhaps overeager to flex their cinematic clout or show off their stamina (amongst other things). However, there have been plenty of directors working in television who have pulled off longer-form work in the guise of mini-series and multi-part episodic drama. One such figure, working in the documentary form, is Molly Dineen, who like a British Frederick Wiseman, has been profiling institutions and work throughout her career. Her longest films are The Ark (1993) and In the Company of Men (1995), which respectively look at London’s zoo and the British Army (as deployed in Northern Ireland), but she also has a number of shorter works to her name. Her most recent film, Being Blacker (2018) is one I haven’t yet caught up with, but everything else I talk about below. All of these have been released by the BFI on the three-part DVD set The Molly Dineen Collection, which is well worth tracking down.

Continue reading “Women Filmmakers: Molly Dineen”

Selena (1997)

I’ve dedicated this as a year of catching up with classic movies, and 20 years on from Selena‘s release, I’d heard this film had become something of a classic — at least, amongst those whose experiences it reflects. After all, like I’m sure plenty of British people, I don’t know anything about Tejano music or cumbia, or indeed about the singer at the heart of this story. Incredible as it may be, it’s true that this film wasn’t made to reflect or reconfirm anything I experience or know about the world — but that’s a quality I like in films and I like it here. Sure you could say it’s about all those ‘universal themes’ (growing up under a demanding father, finding your voice in the world, love against the odds or at least against aforementioned father, all that kind of thing), but it’s grounded in a specifically Texan (or ‘Tex-Mex’) reality, of sparkly 90s fashion, and of music I have already confessed to knowing nothing about (so won’t say anything about). I do like that the director enters the story via mainstream ‘white’ music with the backstory of Selena’s father Abraham cross-cut with her 1995 set at the Houston Astrodome, which incidentally illuminates the outsider experience of America — a fascinating topic now as ever. I like too Jennifer Lopez’s performance, but I’ve always been a fan of her acting. It’s a full-throated biopic that tips occasionally into melodrama and has the hint of hagiography but on the whole is radiant with life and colour (where it could easily have been about death and tragedy).

Selena film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Gregory Nava; Cinematographer Edward Lachman; Starring Jennifer Lopez, Edward James Olmos, Jon Seda; Length 127 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 28 January 2017.

بانوی اردیبهشت Banoo-Ye Ordibehesht (The May Lady, 1997)

A quiet, thoughtful film about a middle-aged woman reflecting on motherhood, and how to weigh the feelings of her (almost grown) son with her own desires. It uses documentary footage of women talking about being mothers — the protagonist is a filmmaker — to introduce these themes, as she talks about her feelings in voiceover. Her son really is quite an annoying chap, but it leaves it until the very last moment to resolve her indecision.

The May Lady film posterFILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Rakhshan Bani-Etemad خشان بنی‌اعتماد; Cinematographer Hossein Jafarian حسین جعفریان; Starring Minoo Farshchi مینو فرشچی; Length 88 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 12 January 2017.

Love Jones (1997)

I guess there are elements here that seem dated (no one having cellphones, spoken word clubs, some of the fashion) but they’re part of a rich texture that evokes an era and a place and a group of people — which is to say, Chicago in the late-1990s. Twenty years on and this film is excellent at giving a sense of this group of friends and acquaintances, and what it’s like to be around them. As the film progresses, so from out of the group emerge the two protagonists, Darius and Nina (played by Larenz Tate and Nia Long), who fall in love, sort of, then actually, then not so much. It creates a bewitching atmosphere, never needy and boisterous (like, say, the more overtly comedic The Best Man a couple years later), and never reliant on the ubiquitous 1990s tropes of black filmmaking (drugs, violence, ghettoes). As the star of both those films Nia Long should have been everywhere (maybe she was; her career is a blindspot for me and I need to remedy that), and this director should have defined romance in film for the following decade, but that didn’t happen and who knows why. This is great.

Love Jones film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Theodore Witcher; Cinematographer Ernest Holzman; Starring Larenz Tate, Nia Long; Length 108 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 10 January 2017.

Criterion Sunday 80: The Element of Crime (aka Forbrydelsens element, 1984)

I’ve never been a huge fan of Danish cinematic bad boy Lars von Trier, but this, his first feature film, is certainly made with a fair amount of energy and a bold (if dark) cinematic vision, taking its apparent cue from film noir thrillers, not to mention recycling some of Tarkovksy’s imagery. Stylistically, though, my overall feeling is that it’s more akin to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil of the following year, with all those fussy, busy details in all corners of the frame. The plot is in a sense fairly straightforward, as Detective Fisher (gruff-voiced Michael Elphick) is tracking down a serial killer using the methods of his mentor Osborne (Esmond Knight), in which he is aided by prostitute Kim (Meme Lai). Yet this plot is nested within layers of memory and obfuscation, attaining something of a dream-like trance state, emphasised by the line delivery of the actors, who move around almost as if underwater. The chief cue to this altered consciousness is the visual style, which is almost monochrome in its (usually red-tinged) intensity, like something Guy Maddin might make, tipping its hat at one level to silent film, but creating its own world of grainy distanciation — the characters may not actually be underwater, but they are certainly submerged in this grimy dark monochrome world. I can’t say it ever really coheres for me (and Meme Lai’s role requires little more than that she hang around and take off her clothes occasionally, though it’s a small part in any case), but there’s plenty here of interest to those who like an arty thriller with pretensions.

Criterion Extras: Aside from the trailer, the main extra of interest is the medium-length documentary Tranceformer: A Portrait of Lars von Trier (1997), directed by Stig Björkman (with help from Fredrik von Krusenstjerna), filmed around the time of von Trier’s The Kingdom (1994) and Breaking the Waves (1996). It’s rather an amusing jaunt through (von) Trier’s life from his upbringing by lefty liberal parents to his early schoolboy filmmaking attempts, through film school and his early film work, along the way self-aggrandisingly awarding himself the aristocratic ‘von’. The film features behind the scenes footage of his directing the two films (which has its own fascination), as well as talking head interviews with his colleagues and actors (and it’s particularly nice to see Katrin Cartlidge, who sadly died far too young), giving an impression of him as a man with plenty of phobias and quirks such that it’s surprising he can get any films made at all. Von Trier pops up periodically to talk us through his life and foibles, and there’s a warmth to the film’s portrait of him, so he never comes off too badly, beyond what he says about himself.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Lars von Trier; Writers von Trier and Niels Vørsel; Cinematographer Tom Elling; Starring Michael Elphick, Esmond Knight, Meme Lai, Jerold Wells; Length 103 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 14 February 2016.

Criterion Sunday 75: Chasing Amy (1997)

I was pretty indulgent of this film when it first came out almost 20 years ago, and remember liking it on the big screen, but it was also the last of Kevin Smith’s films I saw and in retrospect I think maybe we just grew apart (I don’t even recognise the titles of some of his more recent works). In truth, my enjoyment of it it may be because I identified somewhat with Ben Affleck’s romantic lead Holden (his ill-advised 90s goatee aside) or maybe, as a friend opines, it’s because it was interesting and relatively unusual to see this geeky subculture of comic books and fan conventions portrayed on screen back then. In any case, it really doesn’t stand up to the test of time (if it ever was any good when I first saw it) and now strikes me as almost amateurish in its style, and in the attitude it takes towards its subject matter — the fluidity of sexuality and romantic desire, specifically as channelled through the character of Alyssa (Joey Lauren Adams), who is a lesbian… or is she??? [Cue this viewer’s heaviest sigh.] Jason Lee as Holden’s sidekick Banky has far more comic energy, even if his puerile fantasising tends towards aggressive hate words (or so they certainly seem now) and it’s not a stretch to see him as the narrow-minded person Kevin Smith indulgently imagines he’s moving away from, and Holden as a caustic self-portrait of himself not being able to deal with others’ sexuality. But I still feel that would be too forgiving to a set of characters who are all fairly one-dimensionally drawn caricatures, as colourful yet as flat as their comic book alter egos.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Kevin Smith; Cinematographer David Klein; Starring Ben Affleck, Joey Lauren Adams, Jason Lee; Length 113 minutes.

Seen at Rialto, Wellington, December 1997 (and on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 17 January 2016).