With the director’s second film Moonlight gathering so much critical acclaim, there have been a few screenings (like this one) of his 2008 debut, which never made much of a splash over in the UK aside from a London Film Festival appearance. It’s a relationship drama set in San Francisco between two people. On the one hand, there’s a story of feelings (because “love” is probably too strong a term), as these two are roused the morning after a drunken one-night stand and spend the ensuing day in one another’s company. But it’s also the story, not coincidentally, of two black people. Two black people, to the point, who live in an increasingly white city, a rapidly gentrifying city — a city of coffee shops and kombucha and technology (MySpace — either a dated reference, or a thematically-loaded harbinger), a city of indie pop club nights and museums presenting black historical experiences which, being in a museum environment, have a certain alienated character. There’s a level at which this is like a terrifying sci-fi in which these two people are the last two in a bland expanse of corporatised white space. Or at least that feels like maybe the story Micah (Wyatt Cenac) is trying to tell, whereas Joanne (Tracey Heggins) isn’t exactly having it. In this dialogue on race and the city space, which enters and leaves the film periodically, their relationship pushes and pulls. Likewise, colour bleeds, almost imperceptibly at times, into and out of the image (for much of the time it’s a stark black-and-white). Still, ultimately this is a film about two people spending a day together, and at that it feels unforced and real. It feels a long way from Moonlight, but maybe in being about that contested space between two people, it’s not so far after all.
SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW Director/Writer Barry Jenkins | Cinematographer James Laxton | Starring Wyatt Cenac, Tracey Heggins | Length 88 minutes || Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Monday 13 February 2017
Eisenstein’s final film (he’d planned a third part but died after starting to film it) follows the now very much de rigueur pattern of splitting its story into two separate films, though one would assume given its Soviet origins this wasn’t done for commercial reasons. Indeed, the second part was shelved for 12 years following its completion because apparently Stalin was disconcerted with the portrayal of his great hero Ivan. Knowing this obviously lends some compelling subtext to Nikolai Cherkasov’s portrayal of the increasingly paranoid and despotic ruler, though the first film has him posing far more innocently, adopting all those heroic poses he’d already mastered in Alexander Nevsky (1938). There’s a huge amount of beauty to Eisenstein’s framing, all glowering black-and-white close-ups of the principal characters — a huge amount of the drama is conveyed not through dialogue but by the movement of the actors’ eyes, and the frenetic mien of their expressionistic faces. In many ways, it’s like a modern soap opera, as bitter rivals grimace at one another, or go for hugs while revealing their true feelings to the camera over the other character’s shoulder. Much of the film takes place indoors, in cavernous chambers and long hallways, which means the lighting design and use of shadows is at times spectacular. The second part gets progressively darker, until, in a moment of surprise, there’s almost a dance sequence in (slightly reddishly-degraded) colour, before things lapse back to the previous stark monochrome. With a lot of the thematic development done via acting and staging, it’s the kind of film which would surely repay repeat viewings, but the central thrust of its thesis is nevertheless as evident to us as it must have been to Stalin.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection Director/Writer Sergei Eisenstein | Cinematographer Andrei Moskvin and Eduard Tisse | Starring Nikolai Cherkasov | Length 187 minutes (split into two parts of 99 and 88 minutes respectively) || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Monday 2 May 2016
Hou Hsiao-Hsien makes slow films. I’m still fairly certain that the most walk-outs I’ve ever experienced from a film screening was when I went to see his magisterial Flowers of Shanghai (1998) when it screened for the first time at my local film festival (about half the audience left, and that’s a festival crowd). He returns to a Chinese period setting with his latest film (this time it’s the 8th century Tang Dynasty), so I’m not surprised to hear people criticise it for a certain coolness to its narrative exposition. For my own part, the period setting strikes me in the same way as, say, Shakespeare plays do: I’m not always exactly sure the historical importance of each of the characters, but I get the gist of what’s going on. Shu Qi plays the titular figure of Nie Yinniang, who is instructed by the nun who raised her to assassinate a corrupt government minister, Tian Ji’an (Chang Chen), but she finds it difficult to complete the mission when it transpires he is a cousin and former betrothed of hers. These are the broad brush strokes, but Hou fills in the rest with his cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bin, using a gorgeous colour palette and elaborate costumes. Yinniang is often filmed through veils and obstructed by trees in outdoor settings, lurking in the background as Tian and his wife (Yun Zhou) hold court. I confess I probably need to see this film again to properly appreciate its artistry, but on a first viewing it certainly doesn’t disappoint. Unless, that is, one goes in hoping for a more action-packed genre-inflected wuxia.
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW Director Hou Hsiao-Hsien | Writers Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Chu Tien-wen, Hsieh Hai-Meng and Zhong Acheng | Cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bin | Starring Shu Qi, Chen Chang, Yun Zhou | Length 105 minutes || Seen at ICA, London, Tuesday 26 January 2016
Seijun Suzuki’s final film for Japanese film studio Nikkatsu was Branded to Kill (covered last week, as the films are numbered in reverse chronological order by Criterion), but it shares certain generic traits in common with the previous year’s Tokyo Drifter. They’re both yakuza gangster films with outsider protagonists, but where the later film dealt with a hitman (whose work is naturally lonesome), here our hero is pushed into his drifter lifestyle. Tetsuya Watari plays a gangster of the same first name (generally abbreviated to Tetsu) whose boss has retired. When he turns down the advances of a rival, his peripatetic fate is sealed. Plotwise, there’s other stuff in there (a girl, a double-cross), but as always with Suzuki it’s the style that shines through. Tetsu isn’t just a drifter, he’s a drifter with a catchy title song that crops up throughout the film, and as the initial black-and-white scenes soon break into vibrant colour, it’s quickly established that he has a quirky style, dressed in a powder-blue suit on his journeys. There’s not a huge deal of depth to it, but it’s a concise film with a sure sense of its own stylishness.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection Director Seijun Suzuki | Writer Yasunori Kawauchi | Cinematographer Shigeyoshi Mine | Starring Tetsuya Watari | Length 82 minutes || Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 31 May 2015
Russian auteur Andrei Tarkovsky is certainly no stranger to grand portentous overlong films that seem to hold within their allegorical narratives some statement about society and the world, and in many ways this 1966 film (not released until 1969 due to problems with the Soviet censors) is the first of those to break through to an international audience. It did so in a series of increasingly shorter cuts of around 2.5 to 3 hours in length, but the full 205 minutes is restored here by Criterion and, assuming you’re already in for meandering stories about wandering monks in 14th century Russia, then it won’t disappoint. Although Rublev was a famous painter of icons in Russian Orthodox churches, there’s relatively little of that actually in the film (possibly the creation of art isn’t quite as compelling). However, it enacts a narrative of divine inspiration challenged by atheist philistines, and one can already sense why perhaps the atheist Communist Party of 1960s USSR might not have taken too kindly to Tarkovsky’s themes. The film is split into eight chapters, set in chronological order and dealing (if sometimes tangentially) with episodes from Rublev’s life — encountering a sarcastic jester, discussing art with his mentor Theophanes, enacting Christ’s passion, dealings with pagans and Tatars, et al. It’s probably best to think of these as each illustrating some allegorical lesson about Russia, but they are also quite often handsomely mounted and beautifully shot in sinuous long takes. The final section is perhaps the most impressive, wherein a young boy, the son of a bellfounder, is called on to forge an enormous bell for the Grand Prince, and does so by submitting blindly to faith, while Rublev watches from a distance in silence, having at this point given up on his art. Its message of the importance of artistic creation even under oppressive regimes is a valorous one, and though it may take some time to sink in, the film is a grand achievement.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection Director Andrei Tarkovsky | Writer Andrei Konchalovsky and Andrei Tarkovsky | Cinematographer Vadim Yusov | Starring Anatoly Solonitsyn | Length 205 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 3 May 2015 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, September 1997, and at the university library in September 2000)
There’s no doubt that director Samuel Fuller had quite a life, and it’s his autobiography that forms the basis for this documentary by his daughter. The form is simple: a collection of actors and directors — both those who worked with him and admirers of his work — sit in his study and read from his memoirs. So we get the likes of actors James Franco and Constance Towers (whose towering peformance so enlivened his The Naked Kiss), and directors Wim Wenders and Monte Hellman, amongst many others. The first half of the film covers Fuller’s start as a newsboy and copy editor in New York, before moving on to his formative experiences in World War II, while the second half rattles through his film work over the following 30 years. The armchair-readings format is broken up with archival clips, many of them filmed by Fuller himself and taken from his own archives. There’s nothing groundbreaking about the formal methods, though his daughter provides a memorable introduction as the camera roves across his study and all the artefacts within it, but this is a solid and fascinating film portrait of one of the great American directors of the 20th century.
FILM REVIEW Director/Writer Samantha Fuller (based on the memoir A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting, and Filmmaking by Samuel Fuller) | Cinematographers Hilton Goring, Seamus McGarvey, Tyler Purcell and Rachel Wyn Dunn | Length 80 minutes || Seen at Regent Street Cinema, London, Tuesday 23 June 2015
This screening was preceded by an early silent short film, which I’ve reviewed separately at the end.
SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW || Director Rupert Julian | Writers Elliott J. Clawson, Tom Reed and Raymond L. Schrock [all uncredited] (based on the novel Le Fantôme de l’Opéra by Gaston Leroux) | Cinematographer Charles Van Enger | Starring Lon Chaney, Mary Philbin, Norman Kerry | Length 93 minutes | Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Monday 20 January 2014 || My Rating very good
I imagine a lot of people have at least a smattering of knowledge about this story based on its long-running stage musical incarnation or its soundtrack. And though I can’t pretend (like the snob I am) that I’ve entirely avoided Andrew Lloyd Webber in the course of my life, I had at least missed out on this particular creaky stage musical of his, so I can’t make any comparison between it and this (much earlier) film adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s original. I can only assess it as it compares with other silent films I’ve seen of the era, and certainly the 1925 Phantom provides plenty of enjoyment on its own merits, including an iconic role for the all-too-brief silent film career of Lon Chaney (senior), as well as featuring some beautiful camerawork and use of colour and tinting.
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.
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 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.
RERELEASE FILM REVIEW || Director Otto Preminger | Writer Arthur Laurents (based on the novel by Françoise Sagan) | Cinematographer Georges Périnal | Starring Jean Seberg, David Niven, Deborah Kerr | Length 94 minutes | Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Friday 30 August 2013 || My Rating excellent
Jean Seberg, whose career was much too short, gained her greatest fame when she appeared in Jean-Luc Godard’s debut À bout de souffle (Breathless, 1960). Godard, like many directors in the French New Wave, adored American B-movies, but it’s fair to say he also had a lot of respect for the mainstream films of such idiosyncratic studio directors as Nicholas Ray, Douglas Sirk and Otto Preminger. Therefore it’s no surprise that Godard claimed that Seberg’s character in his film was a continuation of her role of Cécile in Preminger’s Bonjour Tristesse of only two years earlier. In both films, it would be possible to argue that Seberg’s young woman is in thrall to an overpowering older man, but where in Godard’s film that man is her occasional boyfriend and gangster Michel, here it’s her father Robert (played by an immaculate David Niven).