Criterion Sunday 255: Opening Night (1977)

Coming the year after The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, this could be construed as another film about Cassavetes’ relationship to art and artistic practice — and that is certainly a major element in it — but after the very masculine energy of the previous film, this one refocuses the story once again on Gena Rowlands and becomes about her character Myrtle’s (not-entirely-)self-destruction. By that I mean that she, as a celebrated theatre actor, has the adulation and the awards, but she also has a coterie of people around her who are only too happy to enable her in her downward spiral, just so long as they can make some money off her along the way. Her trajectory is triggered by the death of a young fan, whose presence comes back to haunt her throughout, which gets her to contemplating her own mortality and ageing, and perhaps it’s also a little to do with having to perform boring bourgeois plays about families and relationships (which she doesn’t really have in the same way). Maybe that last one is my misreading, but Myrtle’s erratic behaviour (brought on by the way she’s constantly pushed by those around her) leads her to ditch much of the text of the play she’s in, during its small-town off-Broadway run, such that by the Broadway opening night of the title she and Cassavetes are riffing on something completely different (to the irritation of the playwright, the legendary Joan Blondell). This sequence is largely improvised, and it’s unclear to me whether we’re supposed to take it as a swipe at how theatre audiences will laugh at any old nonsense, or about how much the actors react against the original text, or just about a person breaking down and opening themselves up, but in any case it’s a potent story about the price of art.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Ben Gazzara speaks to Gena Rowlands at her home in the mid-2000s, discussing the film’s themes, the other actors, how it was made, and how annoyed Cassavetes got at being called an auteur. There’s another short piece where DoP/producer Al Ruban speaks about making the film and the way he talks about Cassavetes does sort of fit that description, but then there’s a lot about the way he specifically collaborated on his creations.
  • There are two fairly straightforward trailers that lean heavily on footage from the final performance of the play-within-the-film.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer John Cassavetes; Cinematographer Al Ruban; Starring Gena Rowlands, Ben Gazzara, Joan Blondell, John Cassavetes; Length 144 minutes.

Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 15 May 2002 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, August 2001, and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Friday 12 July 2019).

Criterion Sunday 119: Withnail and I (1987)

I have, as it happens, already written a review of this on this blog so here it is. There’s little I’d want to add to it, aside from reaffirming that it does stand up under the weight of its cult status, not that it’s a film I myself am necessarily drawn back to, unlike…

Criterion Extras: … the fans depicted in the short piece Withnail and Us (1999), who show a fanatical fondness for the film that sometimes seems too much (obsessive quoting of movie lines has never been something I’ve been good at, nor had any inclination to do) but also reminds me of what’s genuinely appealing about the film’s bleak dark vision of England. Alongside the fans, the documentary also corrals a number of the actors to talk about the experience of making the film, and is an enjoyable half-hour for what it is.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Bruce Robinson; Cinematographer Peter Hannan; Starring Paul McGann, Richard E. Grant, Richard Griffiths; Length 107 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 26 January 2014.

Merrily We Go to Hell (1932)

Hollywood films of the early-1930s, before the instigation of the Production Code, quite often have a loose and freewheeling quality that still delights so many decades on. Plenty of that is in evidence here, with the sparky Sylvia Sidney playing heiress Joan, who begins dating alcoholic reporter Jerry (Fredric March) after meeting him at a high society party. Indeed, the title of the film comes from his signature toast. In terms of the pre-Code elements, the frank portrayal of alcoholism and adultery — as Joan and Jerry start to feud and break apart — is forthright and unapologetic, and there’s a lot to enjoy in the spirited performances. It’s a pity, then, that the denouement glosses over the preceding events with a moralistic hue, but for the most part director Dorothy Arzner keeps things moving along nicely, and it even briefly features a young Cary Grant as one of Joan’s paramours.

Merrily We Go to Hell film posterCREDITS
Director Dorothy Arzner; Writer Edwin Justus Mayer (based on the novel by Cleo Lucas); Cinematographer David Abel; Starring Sylvia Sidney, Fredric March; Length 88 minutes.
Seen at home (YouTube), London, Sunday 31 January 2016.

郊遊 Jiao You (Stray Dogs, 2013)

Since premiering at the Venice Film Festival in September 2013, where it won a prize, it’s taken over a year for Tsai Ming-Liang’s Stray Dogs even to get a screening in London (despite there having been two London Film Festivals in the intervening time), and just a one-off in an East London multiplex at that. I suppose this might suggest that potential distributors consider the film may be problematic to sell, and certainly it has all the traits that have marked the ‘slow cinema’ coming out of Taiwan since the 1980s (primarily films by Tsai and his compatriot Hou Hsiao-Hsien). Indeed the film even starts with a static shot of several minutes in length, showing two children sleeping while a woman sits beside them. And yet it’s a marvellous film that despite being slowly-paced and deliberately withholding a lot of information about its characters, exerts a fascinated hold over the audience (well, over me certainly) for its long running time. Even seeing the first half hour twice — the characters speak so seldom that it took the cinema that long to realise it was framed incorrectly, resulting in the subtitles being cropped off — didn’t loosen any of that hold, and in fact seeing the same slowly-paced near-silent sequences twice in a row without getting bored or antsy just made me more confident in the film’s artistry.

Trying to sum up what it’s about is a trickier proposition, not just because of the aforementioned lack of expository dialogue, but because of a somewhat perplexing narrative strategy, which seems to mix up different time periods with one another. If the woman (played by three different actors, as it happens) is the childrens’ mother sitting with them at the start, the next shot seems to skip back to a time when they are just living with their father (Lee Kang-Sheng), while intercutting scenes of the mother working at a supermarket while her kids lurk around. The father is working by a busy road holding signs advertising luxury condominiums in all weather; he lives with his kids in a dry corner of a derelict warehouse building, while shopping centre toilets provide a chance for personal hygiene. These characters are, by all standards, poor, and their living arrangements and alienation from society suggest that they are the ‘stray dogs’ of the title. At some point, the mother finds the father and the children, and the family are united. Quite what has got them to this place, or where they go from here, is sort of what the film is about.

I say “dry corner” above because the film — like all of Tsai’s films — is utterly suffused with dampness, whether it’s the severely (and picturesequely) water-damaged home the family occupy near the film’s end, pools of water on the ground, leaks from above, or driving rain outside. More than many of Tsai’s films, it’s about people adrift and unmoored, and along the way it provides a pretty concise portrait of modern society, specifically a sense of alienation — their difficulty in connecting with one another (and, perhaps, with the audience, not least thanks to the strategy of having three different actors play the ‘mother’ role). One of the most striking (and in many ways, disturbing) scenes, which plays into this, has the daughter ‘adopting’ a cabbage as a surrogate mother, which her father (while drunk, as he is rather often) comes home to find in bed. And several sequences, including at the film’s denouement, show the characters intently staring towards a painted landscape horizon.

It’s bleak, and it’s slow, but it’s almost hallucinatory in its intensity, and to my mind the narrative ellipses and obfuscations just make it all the more compelling. Despite not revealing the specifics of this particularly family unit, in many ways it seems to say something about family and connectedness and about the difficulties of forming those connections, and about all the ways they may go awry. Or perhaps I’m misreading it completely, and it all means something else. Whatever, it’s certainly a film to continue thinking about.

Stray Dogs film posterCREDITS
Director Tsai Ming-kiang 蔡明亮; Writer Song Peng Fei 鹏飞, Tsai and Tung Chen Yu 董成瑜; Cinematographers Liao Pen-Jung 廖本榕, Xin Lu Qing 吕庆鑫 and Shong Woon-Chong 宋文忠; Starring Lee Kang-sheng 李康生; Length 138 minutes.
Seen at Vue Stratford City, London, Tuesday 2 December 2014.

Withnail and I (1987)

Famously, this mid-80s black comedy occupies a place at a certain select level of ‘cult films’ (certainly in the UK). Many people like to quote it incessantly, but it never made much of an impression on me when I saw it as a teenager, so it was good to reacquaint myself with it recently and realise that in fact — unlike so many garlanded cult films — it does deserve some of its popularity. It’s not cult in the sense of niche interest though, as it’s all fairly engaging; presumably the use of the term is more to do with its relative success at the time of its release. No indeed, there’s no egregious bad acting or flimsy sets, though stylistically the film isn’t particularly standout. What it has is wit and laughs and, in Richard E. Grant, a hugely charismatic anti-hero.

The titular characters are young actors and the setting is London at the arse-end of the 1960s, and not a particularly pleasant bit of London (either then or, perhaps to a lesser extent given the forces of gentrification, now). Nominally this is Camden Town, but to those of us who live nearby and pass through it regularly, it’s clearly not filmed there, but in the leafy Western suburbs, somewhere around Westbourne Green or Notting Hill (which when the film was made in the mid-1980s was pretty run-down too). My point is, these are not rich characters living the kind of idle life they would be if they inhabited one of these parts of London these days. They are living a classic student/actor’s life of hand-to-mouth scrabbling after sustenance, which mostly takes the form of alcohol. As it happens, Withnail has a rich uncle, Monty (Richard Griffiths), to whose country cottage the two repair for a holiday, but that’s about it as far as action goes. They each vaguely search for work, but we only hear about that in passing as ameans of punctuating Withnail’s wallowing.

So this is not a film about what the characters do, so much as how they do it. The film is really good at what it’s like to be between higher education and your first real job, if you’re down on your luck — and that’s probably the key to its cult success. The central character (Paul McGann, playing the unnamed “I” of the title) is the viewer’s proxy, and Richard E. Grant’s Withnail is probably how you might have imagined yourself through the haze of your 20-something heavy-drinking habits — angry and sarcastic and miserable, but witty and funny and relentlessly energetic in pursuit of narcotic relief from life’s pains. (There’s even a drinking game which has grown up around the film — drink when the characters drink — but it’s probably not advisable except to those who are in the same situation and point in life as the characters.)

It’s all put together with journeyman professionalism, but the core of the film’s success is in writer/director Bruce Robinson’s script, and the acting, particularly the single-minded Richard E. Grant and the luvvie lush Richard Griffiths. Paul McGann does fine with what he has to do, but it’s very much a less showy part. If you’re British and in your 20s or older, you’ve probably seen this film, but I think it stands up even after over 25 years as a fine example of a black comedy.

CREDITS
Director/Writer Bruce Robinson; Cinematographer Peter Hannan; Starring Paul McGann, Richard E. Grant, Richard Griffiths; Length 107 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 26 January 2014.

Nord (North, 1991)

This series, of which this is the second instalment, is inspired by the Movie Lottery blog, whose author is picking DVD titles from a hat in order to decide which films to watch. As ever, you’ll notice my dust-gathering DVD collection includes a lot more European arthouse films. I’ve selected another one from the hat to watch and present my review below.


FILM REVIEW: Movie Lottery 2 || Director/Writer Xavier Beauvois | Cinematographer Fabio Conversi | Starring Xavier Beauvois, Bernard Verley, Bulle Ogier | Length 92 minutes | Seen at home (DVD), Sunday 5 May 2013 || My Rating 2 stars worth seeing


© Forum Distribution

There’s a lot of empty space in this debut feature from the director Xavier Beauvois, who is most well-known for the contemplative monastic drama Des hommes et des dieux (Of Gods and Men, 2010). The contemplation in this early work is altogether less divinely-inspired, unless it’s by the deities of ancient Greece, who seem to preside over this drama of a family falling apart under the strains of the father’s alcoholism. The empty space is the setting of the title, in the grey industrial North of France, around Calais where the director himself grew up. It seems to suffuse every scene, not least because so many unfold in extreme long shot, with the actors as small presences against the terrain.

Continue reading “Nord (North, 1991)”