Criterion Sunday 184: “By Brakhage: An Anthology, Volume One” (1954-2001)

This compendium of short films by the American experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage spans the range of his life, from his earliest works to after his diagnosis with the cancer which would claim his life in 2003. It was joined by a second volume some years later (as spine numbers 517 and 518), meaning this early instalment was retrospectively retitled as “Volume One” at that time. I present thoughts on some of the films below.

Desistfilm (1954) is my introduction to Brakhage’s work, like some kind of hepped-up beatnik film about a house party set to a hard-edged droning soundtrack, as people’s relationships break down. Wedlock House: An Intercourse (1959) takes glimpses of early married life, but edits them together with fades to black in flickering light and comes across as nothing so much as a Lynchian dystopia of nightmares, with negative-image graphic sex interpolated. It doesn’t exactly paint a pleasant portrait of marriage.

Brakhage’s most famous work, though, probably remains Dog Star Man, made in four parts with a prelude (so: five separate short films). As a whole it’s a fevered rush of images, or at least that’s the sense that Part IV conjures, though the Prelude sets up the basic imagery of the title, where the “man” is both Brakhage himself, and also his newborn baby, and the “star” seems more like a solar plexus of body imagery and film manipulation effects. It’s all quite affecting in its way, but perplexing too. Part I has the most sustained sense of narrative, as Brakhage journeys futilely up (or along, depending on the camera angle) a snowy slope like a deranged Sisyphean hunter figure with his dog. Part II introduces the baby imagery more fully, with this and the remaining parts being relatively shorter.

Possibly the most distinctive film, both integrated into his oeuvre but also standing apart by virtue of its extreme subject matter, is The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes (1971). I don’t really know how to ‘rate’ this, but for all that the subject matter may be gruesome (footage taken during actual autopsies), I found it difficult to take my eyes off the screen, because to do so would seem somehow disrespectful to what Brakhage is filming here: the very substance of physical being itself. I suppose at a metaphorical level this could be construed as another film about the technical aspects of filmmaking — editing and deconstructing — but yet it’s really, really not: it’s the literalisation of some kind of metaphysical consciousness that doesn’t simply reduce once-living beings to cadavers, but finds some kind of transcendent purity in our essential form. This is supported by the formal means Brakhage uses, the occasionally occluded camera angles, the complete lack of sound, the structure moving us gently from coroners measuring things into the more macabre material. I wouldn’t call it disturbing exactly, though not everyone would wish to sit through it, but it certainly makes all other filmed images seem a little unnecessary.

At the other end of the spectrum of life, Window Water Baby Moving (1959) films Brakhage’s wife giving birth to their baby daughter (or is that a spoiler?). It has a lyrical quality to it, to the colours and textures, that carries it through the bloody and painful aspects of what’s taking place, seeming to communicate at least something of what’s special to it. From the same year, Cat’s Cradle is riven with blood red textures, of sensuality perhaps or something more eerie… and a cat. Family figures in a later film, Kindering (1987), in which odd contorted images of children playing in their backyard create a strange, slightly creepy effect. With I… Dreaming (1988), he again hints at a dark loneliness, something that seems to have been taken up by Lynch when I think about the spaces of void (or I believe that’s the word he writes most often over his film here), but it doesn’t entirely work for me.

There are a few films which continue to explore the textures of filmed matter. In Mothlight (1963), the light of the camera passes directly through the biological material of a moth and its world, creating patterns and textures directly on the film. Returning to similar ideas, The Garden of Earthly Delights uses plant ephemera, and sort of achieves something of the same effect.

Sometimes the experimentalism of Brakhage’s films comes from the sense of the editing, but in The Wold Shadow (1972), it feels more like he’s experimenting with effects in the camera, or using a static image of trees in a forest as a base for improvisation on the theme of colour and light. It’s fascinating. More perplexing is The Stars Are Beautiful (1981), in which Brakhage recounts various creation myths relating to the stars, while his children (I am guessing) clip a chicken’s wings. I guess those birds won’t be getting anywhere near the stars.

There are also a large number of colour films, painted and collaged, but the first on the set (1987’s The Dante Quartet) isn’t my favourite. However, it has (unsurprisingly, Dante-esque) headings to its sections. Somewhat a precursor to that is Night Music (1986), thirty seconds of colour, big and bold. Meanwhile, the colours just seem a little more dissipated in Glaze of Cathexis (1990), though it’s the film of his which sounds most like the name of a black metal band (yes, it turns out someone has taken it for such), while Delicacies of Molten Horror Synapse (1990) sounds like the title of that band’s first album. Once again, it does some lovely things with colour and light, as you’d expect. A few years later, Study in Color and Black and White (1993) is more dark than colour, more black than white.

Having watched a series of Brakhage’s short experiments with light and colour hand-painted directly onto film, the 10+ minute running length of Untitled (For Marilyn) (1992) suggests it might somehow be wearyingly epic by comparison, and yet this ended up being the one I most loved (alongside Lovesong). It has the textures, the colours, the feeling. It’s the whole package, and is dedicated to his wife. Black Ice (1994) is another of his films which, when watched alongside some sludgy doomy metal (as I was doing, given most of these films are silent), starts to feel like a crack in the cosmos, through which snippets of light and colour seem to make their way. Cosmic shapes appear in Stellar (1993) as well, extensions of Brakhage’s work with painting on film, and perhaps these are just suggested by the title, but there is a sort of harmony of the spheres to it all.

In Crack Glass Eulogy (1991), after a long run of his colour and light films, seeing filmed images seems rather a novelty. It has a spare, haunting, elegiac quality, like night vision, like surveillance. By the end of the decade, though, in The Dark Tower (1999), the darkness threatens to overwhelm everything else, perhaps suggestive of his failing vision. Likewise Comingled Containers (1996, which Criterion’s sleeve notes correct to “commingled”) feels like a blend of photography (water imagery) and the filmmaker’s manipulations of light and colour in a way that is rather more productive than some of Brakhage’s other works, but with a similar undertow of darkness.

The final film on the set is the most recent one, Lovesong (2001), made only a couple of years before Brakhage’s death from cancer. What I like most about this film is that it feels like a pure expression of paint on film. It seems so fresh, wet and glistening on the surface of the celluloid. It’s a film that has hundreds if not thousands of individual artworks, any one of which could be framed, but together seem beautiful and mysterious, like so much of Brakhage’s work.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection || Director/Cinematography Stan Brakhage || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, over Sunday 25 February, 4 March and 11 March 2018

Desistfilm (1954) | Length 7 minutes
Wedlock House: An Intercourse (1959) | Length 11 minutes
Dog Star Man (1961-64) | Length 75 minutes [1001 Films]

The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes (1971) | Length 32 minutes [Rosenbaum 1000]

Cat’s Cradle (1959) | Length 7 minutes
Window Water Baby Moving (1959) | Length 13 minutes
Mothlight (1963) | Length 4 minutes
Eye Myth (1967) | Length 1 minute
The Wold Shadow (1972) | Length 3 minutes
The Garden of Earthly Delights (1981) | Length 2 minutes

The Stars Are Beautiful (1974) | Length 19 minutes

Kindering (1987) | Length 3 minutes
I… Dreaming (1988) | Length 7 minutes
The Dante Quartet (1989) | Length 7 minutes
Night Music (1986) | Length 1 minute
Rage Net (1988) | Length 1 minute

Glaze of Cathexis (1990) | Length 3 minutes

Delicacies of Molten Horror Synapse (1990) | Length 9 minutes

Untitled (For Marilyn) (1992) | Length 11 minutes

Black Ice (1994) | Length 2 minutes
Study in Color and Black and White (1993) | Length 2 minutes
Stellar (1993) | Length 3 minutes
Crack Glass Eulogy (1991) | Length 7 minutes
The Dark Tower (1999) | Length 3 minutes
Comingled Containers (1996) | Length 3 minutes

Lovesong (2001) | Length 11 minutes

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Pisutoru opera (Pistol Opera, 2001)

Unquestionably a singular and odd film by veteran filmmaker Seijun Suzuki, revisiting themes in his early-career masterpiece Branded to Kill, albeit with a woman assassin. The ‘opera’ aspect of the title shouldn’t be underestimated, as, although without songs, it has a lot of the theatricality of that format: the frontal staging, addresses to camera, the high-key lighting in a very clear and uncluttered frame, and the very frugal use of movement. Suzuki at times prefers to use empty shots with strong sound effects over people doing things in frame. So in short, it’s not your ordinary film. Like opera, though, the plot is actually fairly straightforward: an assassin (Makiko Esumi), ranked #3 by her Guild, has to contend with her fellow assassins (not least the mysterious Hundred Eyes, #1), in order to claim the first place, while also being stalked by a 10-year-old wannabe (Hanae Kan). It may be filmed in a very idiosyncratic way, but it’s never without visual flair and parades an array of gorgeous saturated colours.


FILM REVIEW
Director Seijun Suzuki | Writers Kazunori Ito and Takeo Kimura | Cinematographer Yonezo Maeda | Starring Makiko Esumi, Sayoko Yamaguchi, Hanae Kan, Masatoshi Nagase | Length 112 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 17 January 2017

Film Round-Up May 2016

So much for writing separate posts for everything; that didn’t really work out for me in the long-term. I still watch a lot of movies (more than ever) but in terms of writing I go through phases, as I’m sure many of us who try and write about films do, and right now I’ve not really felt an urge to write up my film reviews (beyond a few short sentences on Letterboxd). So here’s a round-up of stuff I saw in May…

New Releases (Cinema)

Captain America: Civil War (2016, dir. Anthony Russo/Joe Russo) Surely many people are in the same position as me, of now being quite emphatically weary of superhero movies. I’d largely sworn off them this year (hence no X-Men: Apocalypse for me, no Batman v. Superman), but I dragged myself along to this third Captain America film (more if you include the Avengers ones which also feature most of these characters) because I’d liked Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) more than many other superhero flicks. Needless to say the demands on “fan service” (catering to the fans by featuring storylines for all the characters, which by now is getting to be quite a few) made it overlong, but there was a general avoidance of extended city destruction and it grappled with more complex moral issues than most of these films manage. [***]

Everybody Wants Some!! (2016, dir. Richard Linklater) I saw this twice, because I wanted to be sure whether I really liked it. Granted, it has some serious problems, not least an overly affectionate regard for a group of people (and an era) some might say is beyond reclaiming. That affection goes for unironic female nudity (thankfully fairly brief) and lusty testosterone-fuelled sporting men (though that’s in the title), and yet I still find Linklater’s ability to put together a film pretty peerless, and for all that they were unlikeable characters (for the most part), I found it likeable watching these baseball players through Linklater’s fairly soft-focus filter. [***½]

Evolution (2015, dir. Lucile Hadžihalilović) Seen for the second time also; I’ve written up my initial viewing at the London Film Festival last year. Still beguiling and mysterious, though even at its short running length and for all its excellent qualities, the sense of creeping dread and its ominous atmosphere means I don’t think I’ll be revisiting it again in a hurry. [****]

A Flickering Truth (2015, dir. Pietra Brettkelly) A documentary about the beleagured Afghan film archives, and their attempts to preserve a film heritage which has suffered through various regimes and bitter warfare. Plenty of dusty shots of picking through rubble, and quite affecting in its interviews with long-standing workers there, who’ve dedicated their lives to these films, though it never really lifts off as a film. [***]

Green Room (2015, dir. Jeremy Saulnier) I wrote this up already here, though already its tinged with melancholy at the passing of its star Anton Yelchin. Now that it’s sat with me for a little while, I think if anything I may have underrated this gory siege film: it may not appeal to those who dislike this kind of content, but it’s done a lot more ably and interestingly — and stylishly — than many of this genre. [***]

Heart of a Dog (2015, dir. Laurie Anderson) A strange little personal documentary by musician/artist Anderson, who narrates a digressive story made up of animation, home-shot footage and various other media, in an attempt to deal with loss — ostensibly of her beloved dog, but at a wider level with her husband and with her own mortality. It seems too ragged to work initially, but it has a cumulative power. [***½]

As Mil e Uma Noites: Volume 3, O Encantado (Arabian Nights Volume 3: The Enchanted One) (2015, dir. Miguel Gomes) I wrote this up with the other two already here. A bold experiment which didn’t entirely captivate me as it did other critics. [***]

Money Monster (2016, dir. Jodie Foster) There’s an oddly old-fashioned feel to this movie, perhaps because it harks back to Network and Broadcast News and other such newsroom-set movies. The hostage situation that TV host George Clooney finds himself in helps to draw in arguments about modern capitalism and recent financial woes, but in the interplay between Clooney and his producer Julia Roberts, this remains largely a story about a news anchor handling a complex situation. Like Our Kind of Traitor below, it may not be a major work, but it’s an enjoyable watch. [***]

Mon roi (aka My King) (2015, dir. Maïwenn) This relationship drama between Vincent Cassel’s self-assured chef and Emmanuelle Bercot’s (rather unbelievable) lawyer proceeds at a rather strained tempo. It’s not inherently bad, but your tolerance for melodramatic fireworks and exuberant Acting may affect how much you like it. [**½]

Our Kind of Traitor (2016, dir. Susanna White) A straightforward spy thriller with the terminally dull Ewan McGregor in the lead, though Naomie Harris as his wife is excellent, and Stellan Skarsgård runs away with the film as a Russian mobster/money launderer. Because of these performances, it’s actually a lot better than one might expect, and certainly passes the time ably enough. [***]

Special Screenings (Cinema)

Feminists Insha’allah! The Story of Arab Feminism (2014, dir. Feriel Ben Mahmoud) It presents a broad sweep for an hour-long film and it does its best to fit in some key historical events and personas for a broad audience presumably unfamiliar with the subject. There are some interviews from interesting perspectives on the key issues as the film sees them, although these are predominantly polygamy and the hijab, which given the preponderance of French commentators is a little loaded. The audience I saw it with (primarily academic) came to the consensus that it was pretty simplistic, and notably omitted any class-based issues, not to mention focusing on key male figures in the early history. However, as a basic intro you could do worse, and it’s good to see another perspective on a narrative of Islam that doesn’t cleave to the usual subjects. [***]

Hamlet liikemaailmassa (Hamlet Goes Business) (1987, dir. Aki Kaurismäki) A pendant to the BFI’s months-long Shakespeare season is this Kaurismäki film, which in its preponderance of plot puts it a little out of pace with his other films. That said, it still retains a mordant deadpan humour that works rather well, at least at times. [***]

Losing Ground (1982, dir. Kathleen Collins) I was trying to work up a review of this film, but I find it difficult to capture my feelings upon seeing it. More or less rescued last year by Milestone Video, the founders of that label provided a brief introduction. It’s one of the earliest feature films by a Black American woman (who sadly died only a few years after making it), and certainly doesn’t lack for the quality of its acting, or its unusual setting amongst fairly comfortable middle-class intellectual couple (she is a lecturer, he a painted) — indeed, eschewing the usual ghetto/violent setting of most African-American films probably didn’t help its commercial prospects at the time. In any case, I immediately bought a copy on DVD and advise anyone else to try and watch this film. Some of its technical qualities seem a little ropey, but it has a great energy and a keen visual eye. [****]

Radio On (1979, dir. Christopher Petit) A ‘mystery film’ screening at the Prince Charles Cinema, and it’s fair to say many of the audience were probably expecting something a bit more trashy, but Petit’s homage to German road movies (à la Wim Wenders) still has a sort of slow-burning spell of gloomy depressing English towns appropriately filmed in monochrome. It’s hard to make out all the dialogue, but there’s an energy to its peripatetic aimlessness which is helped along by the choice of music (Bowie, Kraftwerk, all the usual suspects) — well, aside that is from a cameo by one Sting. [***½]

Trouble Every Day (2001, dir. Claire Denis) A new feminist collective focusing on horror movies put on this screening as the introduction to their project, and as a fan of Denis’s work, I felt I should catch up with it. It’s a gory horror film with a hint of vampirism, but suffused with slow-mounting threat (though just looking at Vincent Gallo’s face will achieve that nicely). When it does go gory, nothing is held back, and the mood of frank eroticism only makes the bloody turns the more upsetting. Moreover it’s shot with a lot of extreme close-ups and a grainy weariness that only enhances that lack of distance. It seems to be saying something about the way love is (literally) an all-consuming passion, and in depicting that it certainly doesn’t pull any punches. [***½]

Home Viewing

Cold Comfort Farm (1995, dir. John Schlesinger) Broadly likeable in its way, though at times I couldn’t tell if it was going for warm-hearted satire on the ways of simple country folk, or nasty-edged class-based caricaturing of the yokels. Of course, Beckinsale’s Emma-like central character is little better, yet on the whole it remains fairly light in tone. [**½]

Desperately Seeking Susan (1985, dir. Susan Seidelman) You don’t expect a mid-80s US film to recall Céline and Julie Go Boating, but then again why not? The playfulness and feminine camaraderie of that Parisian film transfers well to NYC, and the stars here never looking anything less than glorious — of their time, yes, but never ridiculous. It’s a film about performance and having fun and in the process finding out what you want. It’s a delight. [****]

Down with Love (2003, dir. Peyton Reed) I’ve reviewed this already here, but to recap based on yet another viewing, it’s a hugely underrated masterpiece of 2000s retro filmmaking which both delights in the costumes, set design, and possibilities of the widescreen frame which come from its early-60s NYC setting (although somewhat conflated with the 50s) via Doris Day comedies, Frank Tashlin satires and a hint of Nick Ray. Yet this isn’t ultimately nostalgia exactly — there are plenty of ways in which the zippy dialogue hides darker unpleasant facets to the era’s sexual politics. But chiefly this is a film whose real stars are its (nominally heterosexual, but that’s part of the satire one suspects) supporting players David Hyde Pierce and Sarah Paulson, so utterly perfect and so brilliantly played that even my usual dislike for McGregor and Zellweger is forgotten — though in truth, their goofy smiles fit the material quite well. Ah, “Catcher Block. Ladies’ man, man’s man, man about town.” I love this film. [****½]

Lemonade (2016, dir. Kahlil Joseph/Beyoncé Knowles Carter) I’ve listened to the album a lot since first watching this and it strikes me the film is quite a different proposition. If you can believe the album is just about her and Jay-Z you can’t really take that from the film, which broadens the focus, and really allows for a range of black stories and experiences, moving from the specific to the political. It’s ravishing, raw and moving, and it’s definitely one of the best films of the year. [****]

Lovely Rita (2001, dir. Jessica Hausner) As a big fan of Amour Fou, it’s interesting to watch this early film by director Jessica Hausner and identify some stylistic continuities. There’s a stillness to the way scenes play out, an affectless quality to the acting, and underlying it all, something utterly morbid. Here though there’s an ugly visual texture which may be due to financial constraints but which is completely embraced and even feels right for the story — little tics like the quick zooms and the self-conscious acting which suggest dated and cheesy TV soaps. It makes the way the actions of the title character unfold that much more surprising, even shocking. It’s an interesting debut in any case. [***]

Luck by Chance (2009, dir. Zoya Akhtar) A likeable amusing behind-the-scenes take on Bollywood, ahem, the Hindi film industry. It’s a classic tale of the little guy getting a big break and (almost, maybe) getting corrupted in the process. If I were better versed with the context I’d have picked up on a lot more of the celebrity cameos and maybe a bit of the satire, but it all still works very nicely. [***]

My Life Without Me (2003, dir. Isabel Coixet) There’s a little clunkiness to some of the meaningful symbolism, but as far as films about women tragically dying young this is about as good as they can get, and its probably just as well it wasn’t directed by its producer Pedro Almodóvar. There’s a small dose of whimsical magic realism but it’s mostly grounded in the acting, primarily Sarah Polley and Mark Ruffalo. [***]

Pasqualino Settebellezze (Seven Beauties) (1975, dir. Lina Wertmüller) I was all set to detest this film at the start, with its grimy 70s palette and more to the point a protagonist who is vain, brutal, nasty, misogynist trash. And yet somehow it becomes something different by the end, as he undergoes a gradual dehumanisation when captured by the Nazis, as all of what he considered his integrity and morals (very little he had too, mostly around ‘protecting’ his sisters) are stripped from him. I’m not convinced by the use of concentration camps in this way, as it seems like a cheap exploitative means to making a moral point, but there’s no winners here after all so perhaps I’m overthinking it. In any case, it achieves some kind of cumulative power that is affecting. [***]

Picture Bride (1994, dir. Kayo Hatta) A sweetly sentimental film about early-20th century Hawaii and the practice of arranged marriage, focusing on city girl Riyo transplanted to a sugar plantation with a much older husband and coming to find some value in the life there. Nice performances and a surprise cameo by Toshiro Mifune as an ageing benshi. [***]

She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry (2014, dir. Mary Dore) A very solidly made documentary about second wave feminism in the US which nimbly flits through a range of issues from a variety of women (of many races and classes), and also looks at some modern expressions of feminist action. I think it does a particularly good job of celebrating and honouring achievements while also acknowledging the range of opinions which exist (and have existed), and that continued action is necessary. It is ultimately about a certain period of history, but it’s not kept in isolation. There are still plenty of stories to tell. [***½]

Sisters in Law (2005, dir. Kim Longinotto/Florence Ayisi) Kim Longinotto tells another fascinating story of women in marginalised spaces fighting for rights, this time in Cameroon. There’s clearly a wider picture of a society based on ‘traditional’ values trying to change, or rather being pushed to do so by the strong women of this story (whether those bringing charges of assault, rape and the like, or those defending them or judging their cases). However the film really focuses in on these key four stories and follows them through, and it is in its way, after all the detailed accounts of abuses heard earlier, a heartening one. [***]

Star Men (2015, dir. Alison Rose) A likeable documentary in which four British astronomers reunite in California 50 years after first meeting one another. It touches on the professional work and research each has done, as well as their respective personalities, and cannot help but address mortality. The filmmaker inserts herself as a sort of fan into the storyline, and her style (particularly with the music) seems to recall Errol Morris. Rather devolves into an extended hiking sequence towards the end, but does have some lovely nature photography not to mention some nice insights along the way (not least that evolution demands death to allow new ideas to take root, an observation by one of the elderly men). [***]

Their Eyes Were Watching God (2005, dir. Darnell Martin) A very creditable film about one woman’s self-determination and struggle to find her identity in the American south, based on Zora Neale Hurston’s great novel (which I was reading at the same time). It’s made for TV and as such feels a little airbrushed around the edges (nobody really ages much despite its sweeping span), pushed perhaps more than it needs to be into a certain generic mould for such stories, but the acting is excellent across the board and the film is beautifully shot. [***]

Underground (1928, dir. Anthony Asquith) Excellent Tube-set London melodrama with a love triangle which goes awry. Expressive camerawork with a fine new score by Neil Brand. [***½]

L’Une chante, l’autre pas (One Sings, the Other Doesn’t) (1977, dir. Agnès Varda) There’s something almost disarmingly sweet-natured to this film about politically active 70s French feminists, but perhaps that’s the prevailing hippie vibe of its lead actor who travels around the country in a van singing right-on songs about a woman’s right to choose. It’s a good film though and it still looks great, with vibrant colours and a keen eye for framings. Its political message too is warmly inclusive while celebrating the right to a legal abortion. [***½]

Visage (Face) (2009, dir. Tsai Ming-Liang) Every great director has their self-indulgent French film which premieres at Cannes and promptly disappears (well it passed me by at the time). It’s a typically visual film, with scenes that don’t seem to hang together, except perhaps as notes towards an essay on grief, loss, the passage of time, artistic creation, things like that. It has a lot of Tsai’s familiar motifs (it basically kicks off with a deluge) and has plenty of French acting greats. An interesting work that would probably benefit from being seen on a big screen. [***]

Zir-e poost-e shahr (Under the Skin of the City) (2001, dir. Rakhshan Bani-Etemad) I found the narrative a bit difficult to follow at times, but basically it’s about a poor family whose son is struggling to make a better life for himself. Gets a little overwrought at times but mostly is a fine domestic drama. [***]

Criterion Collection Home Viewing

I also watched Ivan Grozniy (Ivan the Terrible) (1944/1958, dir. Sergei Eisenstein), L’avventura (1960, dir. Michelangelo Antonioni), Pygmalion (1938, dir. Anthony Asquith/Leslie Howard), Do the Right Thing (1989, dir. Spike Lee) and Gimme Shelter (1970, dir. Albert Maysles/David Maysles/Charlotte Zwerin) as part of the Criterion Sunday series, but you’ll have to wait for those reviews.

Things Behind the Sun (2001)

Allison Anders has had a somewhat patchy relationship with film success, though I’m not quite sure why. Her Grace of My Heart (1996) deserves far wider renown than it perhaps has, and she returned to a music-based theme with this film five years later, which tracks a journalist for a vinyl obsessives’ magazine, Owen (Gabriel Mann), as he writes a piece about an up-and-coming Florida indie rock band fronted by Sherry (Kim Dickens). For all that it occasionally moves into slightly hokey TV melodramatic territory, this is for the most part really very assured work, with a dark palette suited to its milieu of grimy bars and gig venues, and a confident storytelling appeal. That the backstory into which the journalist delves deals with rape can also be difficult to less confident filmmakers, but Anders makes this a story about a rounded and complex character who has trauma in her past, rather than about an outsider’s response to it. When Owen tries to inveigle himself into this narrative and make it about his own role and how he deals with it, the film doesn’t so much belittle him as just insist he allow some perspective — Sherry putting her hand up to his face and walking away as he tries to empathise. The acting is uniformly strong (particularly from Dickens and the ever-dependable Don Cheadle as her manager/boyfriend-of-sorts), and it has a confidence to it that rewards attention.


FILM REVIEW
Director Allison Anders | Writers Allison Anders and Kurt Voss | Cinematographer Terry Stacey | Starring Kim Dickens, Gabriel Mann, Don Cheadle | Length 120 minutes || Seen at home (streaming), London, Tuesday 19 January 2016

Lovely & Amazing (2001)

Everyone’s ever so slightly neurotic and has trouble living with themselves in Nicole Holofcener’s films (most recently in 2013’s Enough Said). I’d say they’re generally white and middle-class too, although here the matriarch Jane (Brenda Blethyn) has a young black adopted daughter Annie (Raven Goodwin). Anyway, if it’s a formula, it’s one that makes for enjoyable, watchable films, because Holofcener writes observant character studies of people who you imagine it might be difficult to live with, but not to watch on screen for 90 minutes. As ever, Catherine Keener is the film’s real star, here playing Michelle, a struggling artist who feels like she’s wasting her life, so takes a job at a photo booth with a tiny Jake Gyllenhaal. Meanwhile there’s her sister Elizabeth (Emily Mortimer), an aspiring actress feeling fragile due to body image worries, no thanks to the superficial men she needs to court jobs from. It may not build to any big melodramatic climax, but for its brief running time it feels like it’s touching on feelings that are common and understandable and not always related in American comedies.


FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Nicole Holofcener | Cinematographer Harlan Bosmajian | Starring Catherine Keener, Brenda Blethyn, Emily Mortimer, Raven Goodwin, Jake Gyllenhaal | Length 91 minutes || Seen at home (streaming), London, Sunday 10 January 2016

January 2015 Film Viewing Round-Up

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, as I’m adding ratings for these films to my full A-Z list.


© The Weinstein Company

Big Eyes (2014, USA, dir. Tim Burton) [Tue 13 Jan at Cineworld West India Quay]. This is perhaps a slight film from Burton, but it marks a more grounded move in his storytelling of recent years, dealing with the real-life events surrounding artist Margaret Keane (Amy Adams), whose husband (Christoph Waltz) passes off her somewhat kitschy paintings of doe-eyed children as his own in order to enjoy success. Whatever truth there may be in his arguments — the film emphasises what a difficult time the 1950s was for a woman to be an artist — he’s a domineering husband, and Adams finds herself amongst all the shallow trappings of success.

The Craft (1996, USA, dir. Andrew Fleming) [Tue 13 Jan at home]. A trio of high-school witches led by suitably gothy Fairuza Balk welcomes a new member in the form of Robin Tunney, who’s transferred to their school. Things take a turn as their power increases and Tunney rebels against their increasingly violent actions, but the film remains a sort of campy pleasure, which gives plenty of agency to these four women.

D’est (From the East) (1993, Belgium/France/Portugal, dir. Chantal Akerman) [Thu 22 Jan at ICA]. You couldn’t get more different with Akerman’s East European travelogue, as she moves from Germany to Russia with her watchful camera. There’s an eeriness that’s evoked by its frequent extended tracking shots, whether across industrially-blighted scenery or along long ranks of people standing in the cold by roads, presumably waiting for a bus. There’s no dialogue as such, though a fair bit of unsubtitled talking emphasises that this is an outsider’s view of an only newly capitalist society, and the faces directed towards the camera speak volumes about their lives.

Get Over It (2001, USA, dir. Tommy O’Haver) [Sat 10 Jan at home]. It may hardly be inspired but it’s fun to watch this teen film, which fits into the contemporary trend for sort-of-adaptations of classic literature (in this case, Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a modern production of which features in the film). A young Ben Foster plays the rather bland leading man, and Kirsten Dunst pops up as a love interest, but the performances from a bunch of actors at the start of their careers are all enjoyable and the film moves along briskly.

Holes (2003, USA, dir. Andrew Davis) [Mon 5 Jan at home]. A very silly film with a good sense of its dusty desert location where the youthful protagonist (Shia LaBeouf) digs holes as part of some kind of Disneyfied child chain gang. As family entertainment goes, it’s fine, but the emotional epiphanies are all fairly cliched.

I Could Never Be Your Woman (2007, USA, dir. Amy Heckerling) [Mon 26 Jan at home]. Even lower in esteem amongst Heckerling’s recent work than Loser (see below), but this romcom featuring an older woman (Michelle Pfeiffer) and her younger lover (Paul Rudd) is still fitfully pleasing, despite the shmaltz of its premise. There’s an early role for the adaptable and talented Saoirse Ronan, and many odd and surprising cameos from various UK television celebrities, betraying that it was partly shot near London.

© Walt Disney Motion Picture Studios

Into the Woods (2014, USA, dir. Rob Marshall) [Sun 11 Jan at Peckhamplex]. I confess I watched this while somewhat drunk, so a lot of the details escape me. I’m not a huge Sondheim fan, but this is all mounted very handsomely, with particularly good performances from a delightful Emily Blunt as more-or-less the lead role, as a woman who must gather up a bunch of magical items from various fairytales in order to be able to conceive a baby, and Chris Pine as a deeply narcissistic prince with a great dance-off scene. Meryl Streep shows up too and steals scenes in ways that Johnny Depp can only dream about nowadays.

Loser (2000, USA, dir. Amy Heckerling) [Sat 10 Jan at home]. After the comedic high point of Heckerling’s Clueless five years before, this film came in for a bit of a kicking, and to a certain extent you can see why. Its story of gawky provincial kid Jason Biggs going to college in the Big Apple hits a lot of familiar notes, and bless her Mena Suvari is not convincing, but there’s still plenty to enjoy all the same.

Sheen of Gold (2013, New Zealand, dir. Simon Ogston) [Fri 2 Jan at home]. A documentary about New Zealand 80s garage punk band the Skeptics, one of the bands on legendary indie label Flying Nun and one I’ve loved since growing up in New Zealand. Like a lot of NZ music of the era, their angular sound borrows a lot from UK post-punk bands like the Fall while adding a certain Antipodean slant. The documentary itself is primarily talking heads, with archival material spliced in where available, including footage from the last gig by the band prior to the untimely death of their lead singer in 1990.

© Winchester Films

Slap Her, She’s French! (aka She Gets What She Wants) (2002, USA, dir. Melanie Mayron) [Tue 13 Jan at home]. The title sounds dire, the setup is familiar (French exchange student Piper Perabo comes to Texas and throws everything into disarray for the local teen queen Jane McGregor) and indeed some of the filmmaking is squarely in the clunky made-for-TV exposition mode, but there’s plenty to enjoy here. The performances are broad in a comically enjoyable way, and what seems initially like a bit of easy European xenophobia turns out to be a misdirect (though in any case, the film makes far more fun of Texans than French people).

Tabu (1931, USA, dir. F.W. Murnau) [Sat 10 Jan at home]. Often subtitled “A Story of the South Seas”, this sees expressionist German director Murnau filming on the island of Bora Bora in the Pacific, imparting a sense of untouched paradise fraught by forbidden love between a commoner and a princess. There’s hints of ethnographic condescension, but for the most part this is touching, and undeniably beautiful.


I also saw some early Eric Rohmer films (The Baker of Monceau and Suzanne’s Career), but you’ll have to wait until they crop up in the Criterion Collection for my review.

Où gît votre sourire enfoui? (Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie?, 2001)

Films About FilmmakingFor this first review in my themed month, I’ve chosen a documentary, the most straightforward way to deal with the art of filmmaking. Needless to say this one by Portuguese director Pedro Costa is hardly straightforward and instead presents an elegiac look at a vanishing art, filled as much with darkness as light in its depiction of two avant-garde filmmakers at work.


SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW: ‘Films about Filmmaking’ Theme || Director Pedro Costa | Cinematographers Pedro Costa and Jeanne Lapoirie | Starring Jean-Marie Straub, Danièle Huillet | Length 104 minutes | Seen at Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, Thursday 9 January 2014 || My Rating 4 stars excellent


© Arte

The majority of my reviews on this blog are of mainstream releases, and I can’t really pretend that the reviews for films I get around to seeing on the arid and obscure nether reaches of auteurist ephemera ever really garner much in the way of readership. Yet growing up in New Zealand there were few destinations to see decent films, so my tastes soon got shaped by the programming at the annual film festival and by my local video shop (Aro Street), and then of course I studied film at university. So I still get a thrill watching stuff that in our digital download age remains properly hard to come by, made by filmmakers with little regard for the norms of narrative cinema or apparent interest in the capricious tastes of audiences. The filmmaking team of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet are figures from a past generation of cineastes that spring most easily to mind in this respect, just as Pedro Costa can be numbered among a more updated, modern strand of the same kind of cinematic mentality (though their methods are quite different). So this documentary made by the latter about the former, for an excellent French TV series called Cinéastes de notre temps (therefore not entirely obscure), was already fascinating to me, and seeing it in a cinema with the director present and a full audience reminds me that the cinema exemplified by Straub/Huillet and Costa need not to be quite so abstracted and rarefied a pleasure. Its appeal need not even be restricted to those with an interest in either of these auteurs, for the film which results is about filmmaking as a craft — primarily via a focus on film editing — and about finding that passion for something you love, even as it all feels a little bit elegiac.

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Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (aka Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, 2001)

It’s coming up to the Christmas season, so it seems like as fitting a time as any to kick off watching this series of fantasy kids’ films (even if the choice wasn’t entirely under my control).


FILM REVIEW || Director Chris Columbus | Writer Steve Kloves (based on the novel by J.K. Rowling) | Cinematographer John Seale | Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Robbie Coltrane, Alan Rickman | Length 146 minutes | Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Tuesday 17 December 2013 || My Rating 2.5 stars likeable


© Warner Bros. Pictures

Is this really the first instalment of a much-beloved modern classic? To be fair, I could have asked the same thing after watching The Fast and the Furious, made the same year, but I came to have an affection for that series, so I may yet come to feel similarly about this one. After all, the whole thing had largely passed me by (I was 24 when this movie came out), though living in London I can watch for many uninterrupted minutes the enthusiastic people who still, even now, queue up to get their photos taken by the really rather naff half-trolley in a random brick wall labelled Platform 9¾ at King’s Cross station. Until now, the only film I had seen of the series was the very last one (half of one, really, wasn’t it?) when my wife took me along a few years back. Well, now she’s making me watch the whole thing, and on the basis of the first instalment, I wouldn’t have picked it as a world-beating crowd-pleaser.

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Éloge de l’amour (In Praise of Love, 2001)

With a bit of a break for Hélas pour moi (1993) and For Ever Mozart (1996), for the majority of the 1990s, Godard was engaged on his densely-textured multi-part video work Histoire(s) du cinéma. Given his devotion to that project (which I shall be reviewing later), it’s no surprise to find in this return to the narrative feature format, something of both that and his celluloid roots, both in terms of the textures as well as some of the themes. Éloge de l’amour is every bit as interesting and complex a work as his other late-period films and probably demands (certainly deserves) more attention than I was able to give it on my one sole viewing (so far), but it feels to me like a great film.

Those allusive textures I mentioned are most obviously in the last half-hour, shot on video and pushed towards an extreme colour balance, all thickly saturated blocky colours threatening to overwhelm the fragile human figures. But the first half too reminds us of Godard’s past, utilising starkly monochrome photography of Paris by night. If the style is not quite the same as back in those 1960s films with Raoul Coutard behind the camera — here it’s more contrasty, with deep inky blacks pressing in everywhere — it still feels redolent of that era. Filming in the street recalls his debut feature, while a scene by the river brings to mind a similar one in Bande à part. It’s a modern Paris but the filming renders it once more timeless.

That said, Godard the filmmaker is concerned above all with time, and as in many of his films, channels whatever are his current autobiographical obsessions. With Éloge, it’s his advancing age that is part of the backdrop. In fact, in many ways this film is more elegy than eulogy, its blend of textures and repeated classical music motifs drawing us back in time, with reminiscences of the French wartime resistance becoming part of the story (one commodified by Hollywood filmmaking — the ‘resistance’ here is as much Godard’s towards those methods of telling a story, as it is the wartime French). Love, which from the film’s title is ostensibly more important, is just one aspect of history and one that can so easily disappear into the shadows. Intertitles which flash up during the first part of the film are unclear as to what’s being eulogised: “DE L’AMOUR” or “DE QUELQUE CHOSE” (“of something” else). By the final video-shot part of the film, the intertitles are more interested in the passage of time — this section is set two years in the past, the “ARCHIVES”, “a long time ago”… “so long ago” — and the fact that the past utilises grainy colour video footage is even more a provocation.

The story itself is as opaque as ever in late-period Godard. There’s some sense that a writer (played by Bruno Putzulu) is trying to recall a love he shared, and is auditioning women to play parts in his story, but it’s all very obliquely presented. The ravishing black-and-white images show face-and-shoulders shots of the women speaking to camera with the writer’s voiceover questioning them, the writer in various settings of wealth and aspiration talking about the project, and night-time Paris with its tourist monuments in the background and its night-time workforce of cleaners and caretakers passing through. All these shots come in a flow of associative ideas, broken up by black leader suggesting images snatched from memory or from time itself.

I suspect audiences either go with Godard’s dense filmic poetry or actively resist his generalising and pretensions. He doesn’t make it particularly easy — for the American audiences, there are some challenging positions with regards to US hegemony and Hollywoodisation of history, which certainly come through as sore points when flicking through the critical commentary online — but his way with sound and images remains undimmed after all these years. He’s certainly grown crankier as a filmmaker, but the end result is a beautiful film that I believe stands up to repeat viewings and gives something of a sense of how it is to grow old within a medium that fetishises beauty and youth. It is something of a swansong.


© ARP Sélection

DIRECTOR FOCUS FILM REVIEW: Jean-Luc Godard
Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard | Cinematographers Julien Hirsch and Christophe Pollock | Starring Bruno Putzulu | Length 96 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Wednesday 25 September 2013

My Rating 4 stars excellent


Next Up: The most recent film of Godard’s I’ll be looking at is Notre musique (2004), which deals with violence and colonialism.

Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001)


FILM REVIEW || Director Sharon Maguire | Writers Andrew Davies and Richard Curtis (based on the novel by Helen Fielding) | Cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh | Starring Renée Zellweger, Colin Firth, Hugh Grant, Jim Broadbent | Length 97 minutes | Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Saturday 4 August 2001 (and at holiday apartment in Rovinj on TV, Saturday 1 June 2013) || My Rating 2.5 stars likeable


© Universal Pictures

By this point it’s well enough known that the original novel on which this film is based took its inspiration from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (though not so much by me, who had to be apprised of this fact by my wife upon expressing surprise at the similarity in both name and casting between Colin Firth here and in the BBC TV adaption of said Austen novel some years earlier). Bridget Jones is a nice middle-class girl who lives in an attractive area (in this case a scrubbed-up London, above a pub in Borough Market, rather than the countryside) with a group of dedicated single friends (rather than sisters), who dallies with chaps of much greater income.

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