The Mafu Cage (1978)

The horror genre seems to attract far more men as directors and writers, though it’s certainly not short of women in front of the camera (usually being victimised, of course). That said, there are a significant number of women who are fans of the genre and have written about it at length (notably the Australian writer Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, who is working on a book called 1000 Women in Horror). There are even a few who have managed to get behind the camera, and I am trying to focus on as many examples as I can this week. The film today is more of a thriller than a horror, exactly, and its director Karen Arthur only ever made three feature films (before moving into a career in television).


This film is a lot. It’s at heart a sort of psychological terror film about a disturbed young woman, Cissy (Carol Kane, who at one point intemperately demands her sister explain what she means by “normal”), who acts out in a way that distracts her sister (Lee Grant) from her astronomy job. Yet there are many complex depths to their relationship, not least a sort of incest theme that left me wondering if they were in fact sisters, or whether something more was going on (at first I suspected a proto-Fight Club duality).

The specific manifestation of Cissy’s mental health issues is her fixation on her father, a deceased anthropologist. Cissy performs African tribal dances, obsessively plays field recordings, and wears African hairstyles, as if in an alternate timeline for Mean Girls‘ Cady. Moreover she tortures primates in the cage set up by their father for study (the “mafu” of the title seems to be a term used to refer generically to primates, or perhaps just pets). Thus the film seems to be enacting a confrontation between white colonisers and Africa (its fauna and its human cultures), perhaps hinting at a sense of guilt, but certainly a pathology of slavery and subjugation, while also being about family dynamics in a hothouse environment that (not unjustly) claims a particularly pervy astronomer colleague of Cissy’s sister.

There’s so much going on that I can’t pretend to cover it all, but it was certainly interesting (even if the surviving 35mm print we watched is rather degraded in its pink palette).

Film posterCREDITS
Director Karen Arthur; Writer Don Chastain (based on the play Toi et tes nuages by Eric Westphal); Cinematographer John Bailey; Starring Lee Grant, Carol Kane; Length 104 minutes.
Seen at Watershed, Bristol, Friday 27 July 2018.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (aka دختری در شب تنها به خانه می‌رود Dokhtari dar sab tanha be xane miravad, 2014)

There is a lot to like about this film. As a feature-length debut it casts a long (chador-clad) shadow, with a largely stylish use of its widescreen black-and-white frame, and a commanding central performance from the laconic Sheila Vand as the unnamed girl of the title. It’s a vampire film, but not a horror precisely, more of an existential mood piece, like the Jarmusch of Dead Man but without the deadpan humour, with a central character who takes her style cues from Anna Karina and the early nouvelle vague. It has been called a ‘western’ as well, which I think gets at some of the frontier-like emptiness of its setting, nominally an Iranian town called “Bad City” but actually shot in California.

But the style can be a weakness, as you get the sense that the project started with a visual motif — the forbidding figure cut at night by a woman wearing the traditional Iranian chador, the long cape-like black garment which is affixed over the head and billows out behind — with the film then being built up around this. So those sequences where Vand is walking down darkened streets have a compelling inky monochrome beauty, with her lithe movements practised at home in front of a record player, but when other characters are introduced — whether Arash Marandi’s putative love interest, or Marshall Manesh’s drug-addicted father — the narrative focus wavers a bit, as if uncertain what to do.

At times, too, the film turns into something of a musical, as a track is cued up on the turntable then plays out at length, though the director’s taste seems geared towards mid-2000s indie rock, which doesn’t always seem to mesh with the forbidding atmosphere created by the musical score elsewhere. Possibly the most compelling other character is the even more laconic performance from Masuka, a cat, whose presence structures the film and also conveys key plot points to lovelorn Arash.

However, for all this — and surely some of my reservations boil down to personal taste — it remains a strong and distinctive directorial debut with a compelling representation of female empowerment that undercuts the expectations created by its title.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Ana Lily Amirpour آنا لیلی امیرپور; Cinematographer Lyle Vincent; Starring Sheila Vand شیلا وند, Arash Marandi آرش مرندی, Marshall Manesh مارشال منش; Length 101 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Thursday 28 May 2015.

Tracks (2013)

I don’t really understand why the concept of ‘spoilers’ and the avoidance of them has become such a big issue nowadays; I’m quite sure it wasn’t this way when I was younger. It feels to me like an extension of that infantilising idea that people need things signposted, as if they can’t be trusted to figure out by themselves that their coffee will be hot or that a review of a film might disclose some plot points. I won’t for example let you in on what happened in the last episode of Game of Thrones, suffice to say that having intentionally spoilered myself as to what happens, I could still enjoy (or, you know, not enjoy) the staging of the events, because most of the power of filmmaking (to me, anyway) lies outside what actually happens. In any case, this is all a rather roundabout way of saying that Tracks, an Australian film about a woman walking across the country’s desert, isn’t really about what happens and is by its nature pretty resistant to the idea of spoilers. I feel confident in fact that I could tell you how it ends (I won’t) without it affecting your enjoyment of the film, because it really is — as the title suggests — all about the journey.

That journey is one that took place in 1977, as Robyn Davidson resolved that she would walk from Alice Springs (in the centre of the country) across the desert as far as the Indian Ocean, a journey of several thousand miles. I might try to ascribe this quest to a certain directionlessness in her life, except that she is very single-mindedly focused on achieving her ambition, whatever vague reasons she may have for it (her parents had taken similar journeys, and there are teasing hints throughout the film, via flashbacks and memories, that she is still processing and working through the death of her mother). In any case, having made this resolution, she puts it into action and spends a few years in Alice Springs, acclimatising herself to the desert and working at camel farms learning how to train and ride camels to accompany her on the journey.

Some of the posters prominently feature Adam Driver as National Geographic photographer Rick Smolan, but his role is fairly minor in the scheme of things — he drops in and out of Robyn’s life during her nine-month trek — and the relationship between him and Robyn is hardly dwelt upon. This is not a story about two people in love, and very thankful we can all be for that. If anything, it’s Robyn’s faithful dog which provides the more compelling relationship and provokes rather more pathos than anything Rick does (even some of the camels have more personality, though I don’t mean to demean Driver’s performance: he does well within the limited context of his scenes).

The trailer I’ve seen (and that gratuitous King’s Speech namedrop on the poster), too, seems to present this as some feelgood story of Outback camaraderie and local colour — the kind of sentimental angle that would usually raise alarm bells with me, fears that we’d get a dose of ‘magic realism’ and the spurious new-age spirituality that often accompanies stories of white people moving amongst native cultures. Yet, again, none of these fears are realised, and though Davidson’s peripatetic journey does indeed bring her into contact with a wide range of people, it’s all presented in an uninflected matter-of-fact way. There’s still a fundamental decency to all the supporting characters, even under the solitary prickliness that some of them exude, and if I do broadly find these interactions heart-warming, after a fashion, it’s never melodramatically forced.

No, this is very much Mia Wasikowska’s film as Robyn, about a woman who decides to do something, for her own reasons, by herself, and achieves it. Wasikowska is an actor I’ve grown to really enjoy over the last couple of years, as she’s made a name for herself in films, and this film really highlights all the wonderful subtlety of her acting. So much of her journey is internal (again, the kind of thing that could go so wrong in a film, but which is well-handled here), that you need an actor capable of conveying that and Wasikowska is exactly right. I should say a few words about the director too, whose only previous film I’d seen was his debut, Praise (1998), which got a release in New Zealand when I was a young film student and which made a few waves over in that part of the world for its frank depiction of grungy young directionless lives with a vibrancy that belied its depressing themes. As I hope I’ve conveyed already, Curran has found exactly the right tone here for material that could have been pulled in all kinds of inferior directions (whether feelgood shmaltz or bleak loneliness of the soul), even if the journey itself is filmed in a fairly straightforward way. Then again, perhaps you don’t need narrative tricksiness when you have this kind of expansively beautiful setting.

For a film that could easily have been boring or plodding, or have tried to melodramatically force in some kind of spiritual awakening or overdetermined meaning to the journey, Tracks is never dull. It’s a heartening corrective to so many macho stories of journeys of testosterone-fuelled bravado. The character of Davidson never allows herself to be forced into conventional gender frameworks; this is a human story of determination, served best by its excellent central performance.

Tracks film posterCREDITS
Director John Curran; Writer Marion Nelson (based on the memoir by Robyn Davidson); Cinematographer Mandy Walker; Starring Mia Wasikowska, Adam Driver; Length 110 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld West India Quay, London, Saturday 27 April 2014.

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

The thing about Llewyn is, he’s a bit of dick, to put it plainly. Over the course of the film we come to have a little understanding about why this is, and the structure of the film even gives us a little chance to revisit that initial assessment at the end. He’s not a dick like Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street — he’s not hateful at a fundamental level — but he’s a man in need of some social graces. So, starting with a vaguely obnoxious character in an iconic American setting (Greenwich Village in the early-60s), the new Coen brothers movie has crafted a story of quite considerable pathos which has already attracted plenty of impassioned online essays, itself always a good sign.

As you may already know (or have guessed from the setting), this is a story based in the roots of the folk scene in the 1960s that gave us such figures as Bob Dylan, as well as plenty of others who’ve largely faded from view, of whom Llewyn is one (it’s been suggested he’s loosely based on Dave Van Ronk, a figure of that era). There’s a nostalgic glow (well, it’s some form of cultural nostalgia, not one I personally have) that comes from seeing those old LP covers, with their blocky text and frontal shots of a morose singer-songwriter, and the cinematography itself has a similar slightly-faded, soft-focused, battered charm. Llewyn was in a duo but now performs solo at a folk dive hangout, alongside crooning Irish barbershops and earnest Arkansas grandmothers. He has no great success, and his life is a shambles. He’s a connoisseur of people’s couches, and we see him settling into one for the first time, assessing its comfort level. He has a prickly relationship with June (Carey Mulligan), another folk singer who is already partnered up with well-meaning but earnestly dull sweater-wearing Jim (Justin Timberlake). And his label is a joke.

These are just the jumping off points, though. It’s a character study, as the film’s title suggests, and it’s one grounded in failure — I might even go so far as to say this film should take its place in the pantheon of great American films about failure (like the flipside of that far-too-often-evoked theme of ‘the American Dream’). Llewyn is resistant to the idea of everyday life; his folk music isn’t a protest against anything except settling down and working a steady job like his retired dad had in the merchant marines.

The songs aren’t just a period affectation, though. There’s a tremendous amount of generosity towards them, and most are featured in their entirety. The film starts and ends with Llewyn playing, and in between we get to hear a number of others, all presented largely uncut. It’s through the songs, for example, that we get a sense of Llewyn’s relationship with his departed musical partner (“Dink’s Song/Fare Thee Well”, especially when performed in the company of his older middle-class friends — or perhaps patrons, after a fashion, given the way they exhibit him to their learned friends each time he visits). It’s also through the songs he sings that we learn how he sees himself, and about his relationship with his father. Finally, they bring us back to that early-60s milieu: the only protest song we hear in the end is a quaint one addressed to President Kennedy, criticising the space race.

Around the songs is structured a heavily allusive narrative, which loops back in on itself, repeating and slightly reconfiguring some of the events. The story ends where it begins, with an encounter in a darkened alley. There’s the repetition of his living arrangements (couches to couches), and then there’s the cat who accompanies Llewyn on some of his travels, who has escaped from the flat of that middle-class couple where he was crashing at the beginning. It’s been seized upon by those essay writers as an integral element, which helps to elucidate some of what the film is about — although perhaps “elucidate” is the wrong word. Still, it seems freighted with meaning, starting with its peripatetic name: Ulysses, as much bringing to mind the Coen’s earlier film O Brother, Where Art Thou? as any classical allusion. It feels appropriate, then, that John Goodman should return, and the strangeness of the sequence he appears in — accompanying Llewyn in a car journey from New York to Chicago — as well as the singularity of his character feels of a piece with that earlier role as a Cyclops-like Bible salesman.

Indeed this ultimately is a mythical journey, in an almost-equally mythic American setting, that returns ultimately to failure. At least, so it seems for the title character. For the viewer, however, it’s as grand a success as any film the Coen brothers have crafted, and a reminder to doubters like myself that sometimes they can really get things right.

Inside Llewyn Davis film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Joel Coen and Ethan Coen; Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel; Starring Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, Justin Timberlake; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Sunday 9 February 2014.

Go West (1925)

This screening was presented with live piano accompaniment from John Sweeney, whose work was excellent and deft as ever. I always worry I should try to have something more precise to say, but if he had been unduly drawing attention to his playing, it would hardly have been so successful; instead I was fully engrossed in the Keaton comedy.


There’s plenty of ink that’s been spilled over the years (although that’s not entirely an apt metaphor for this modern era) discussing the differences between the various silent film comedians, along with people’s personal preferences. I’ve not seen enough by any of them (although I did, rather briefly, review a screening of Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last! last year) to contribute much that’s worthwhile to that discussion — which I can only hope will be a blessed relief to readers, who should be free to make their own judgement on this matter. I will say that of the famous ones, I’ve seen the most films by Buster Keaton, a disparity that’s hardly going to be rectified by the BFI’s current Keaton retrospective season. Amongst his fine body of work, Go West is it seems a little underappreciated, but over a series of vignettes set in the Wild West, Keaton mines plenty of humour, and even a bit of pathos.

Plot isn’t really what this kind of comedy is about, so much as the set-up. In this case, Keaton plays a friendless loner (called “Friendless” in the credits, indeed) who is evicted from his home and, exhausted by city life, hops on a train headed to Santa Fe, where he falls in to working at a cattle ranch run by a gruff but kindly Howard Truesdale. This of course motivates a series of comedic set pieces that test the untrained city-slicker neophyte against this new world, leading to slapstick pratfalls (primarily from donning chaps and spurs), incompetence (trying to lasso a calf, or milk a cow), imperilment (at the horns of some rampaging bulls) and fights (squaring up to a poker cheat). But Keaton’s Friendless also discovers a determination and tenacity prompted by his newly-kindled love.

Of course, being a comedy, the love interest angle is hardly straightforward. When Friendless shows kindness towards a cow named Brown Eyes, the cow devotedly follows him, which initially seems played for laughs — especially given the ranch owner has a daughter who is seen making eyes at Friendless. However, it soon leads to something akin to genuine pathos, as a mutual affection develops between the two that leads Friendless to want to save his love from imminent death. But this is hardly a proto-animal-welfare message movie: the last third of the film has him show loyalty to the ranch owner by trying to ensure his cattle are delivered to the slaughterhouse stockyards, which motivates a manic slapstick stampede through the local town.

Keaton’s touch is everywhere evident, not just in the unconventional relationship dynamic and in his trademark pork-pie hat (which he continues to wear even as a cowboy), but elsewhere in a number of little throwaway moments, like him catching his hat as it’s blown off in a passing breeze, staying in his stony-faced character as his poker-playing antagonist holds a gun on him and demands he smile, or leaping back onboard a runaway train so that he can comfort Brown Eyes rather than try to stop the train. There’s also a lovely sequence later on showing a black street dancer plying his trade while Friendless watches captivated, all of them happily oblivious to the growing number of stampeding cattle approaching from the back of the shot.

The film is really a framework within which to accommodate all these (and many other) virtuoso moments. There’s no point where things stop to deliver a message about character growth or the importance of friends; Keaton keeps things far subtler than all that. Instead, clichés of romantic love are skewered within the familiar fish-out-of-water scenario, and even the ‘riding off into the sunset’ shot gets a laughable twist. This film shouldn’t, therefore, be just for fans of Keaton or silent comedy: there’s plenty for everyone to love. Even farmyard animals.

Go West film posterCREDITS
Director Buster Keaton; Writers Raymond Cannon and Keaton; Cinematographers Elgin Lessley and Bert Haines; Starring Buster Keaton, Howard Truesdale; Length 80 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Tuesday 21 January 2014.

The Return of Draw Egan (1916) and The Lighthouse by the Sea (1924)

The Cinema Museum logo These two full-length features (albeit short by modern standards) were presented with a short film and some amusing historical anecdotes by the film historian Kevin Brownlow to a packed audience of avid silent film fans at South London’s Cinema Museum, part of the regular ‘Kennington Bioscope’ night. Piano accompaniment was provided by Lillian Henley for ‘The Passer-by’, Cyrus Gabrysch for William S. Hart western ‘The Return of Draw Egan’, and John Sweeney for the Rin Tin Tin adventure ‘The Lighthouse by the Sea’. Although on such a sweltering Summer evening it was warm in the room, the evening was enjoyable enough that any discomfort was almost forgotten. As these were prints from Brownlow’s private collection they may not have been in the best condition (and their running time may have differed from the times given below), but all were projected very capably by the Cinema Museum staff. I should be clear that my ratings and reviews below are a rather futile attempt to judge the films like any others I’ve seen this year, and though they may have been hoky melodramas, the evening was superbly enjoyable and I’m glad to have seen all three.

Continue reading “The Return of Draw Egan (1916) and The Lighthouse by the Sea (1924)”