One of the primary ways in which I tend to use YouTube is as a resource for watching short films, which are often ill-served by other platforms (whether online streaming services or physical media, not to mention film festivals and cinematic screenings, or even TV). Whether that’s catching up on the work on the LA Rebellion’s women filmmakers, random recommendations like Possibly in Michigan, the short films that feature on Jonathan Rosenbaum’s favourite 1000 films list (one of which, Adynata, I review below), some short films littering the lower depths of Kristen Stewart’s filmography (I can’t bring myself to review them here though I pondered doing a post), or of course music videos, amongst other ephemera. There’s a lot there to enjoy, and I expect if I do future posts about short films, YouTube will be a key resource.
The Ukrainian director Kira Muratova died in 2018 after a long career starting in the 1960s. Her filmmaking is perplexing, perhaps wrought from the chaotic times she worked through, dense with allusion and busy with action, almost breathlessly so. I can’t pretend to understand all the details, and in some cases much of it seems to wash over me, but I can’t deny she was doing something fascinating and her films remain worth watching if you can (and they are not always easy to track down).
With Agnieszka Holland’s newest film out in cinemas (I don’t imagine many of them) tomorrow, now seems like a good time to look back at two of her earliest films made in Poland, both of which deal with actors and (more in the latter film) their relationship to their directors. Both make for interesting portraits of the professional work of actors, not to mention a turbulent era in the country’s history.
I can’t honestly tell you I understood every twist and turn in this film about a man seeking revenge for the death of his friend. It starts out in black-and-white as we happen upon an apparent double-suicide of a cop and his girlfriend, though even here there is a splash of colour in some roses, before we barrel straight into the rest of the movie, in sharp poppy colours in a widescreen format. In truth it’s the visuals that really stand out here, and director Suzuki has an eye for framing in what is very much a stylish picture. As for the plot, our anti-hero Jo (played by the easily-recognisable Joe Shishido) swings through various setups involving gangsters and hangers-on, pretty liberally wielding his fists, guns and even a spraycan he’s adapted into a flamethrower to elicit the information he wants about who was responsible for what in those opening scenes he clearly thinks was a murder. It zips along at a good pace but it always retains its pop-art appeal.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Seijun Suzuki 鈴木清順; Writers Ichiro Ikeda 池田一朗 and Tadaaki Yamazaki 山崎忠昭 (based on the novel 人狩り by Haruhiko Oyabu 大藪春彦); Cinematographer Kazue Nagatsuka 永塚一栄; Starring Joe Shishido 宍戸錠, Misako Watanabe 渡辺美佐子; Length 92 minutes.
Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Friday 20 September 2019.
It is difficult to watch this epic-length life of the Christ without thinking of Hail, Caesar! and its satirical take on the po-faced earnestness of filmmakers trying to render the Biblical story visual. DeMille’s production hasn’t got an ounce of jocularity or self-awareness to it, and to a certain extent that’s just as well, because it’s difficult to approach some of this material without being utterly committed to the solemnity of it all. It feels less like a portrait of Judaea 20 centuries ago as it does a pageant of big iconic scenes, and DeMille spares no effort to have doves fluttering around the important symbols, or have Jesus holding a lamb. Indeed, the campness is high as Jesus is backlit with lights every time he appears, looking like every (Western) portrait of him, all glistening beard and beatific expression (except, briefly, when Simon Peter has renounced him three times and Jesus looks on smugly). There’s some interesting use of very early colour in the opening and during the Resurrection sequences, though the black-and-white is more persuasive and has a real beauty to it at times. There is undoubtedly some great religious art which has been made, even about Jesus, over the years, but this one feels like it’s more for the existing fans, rendering iconic all the famous scenes, without really finding the drama (as say in another Criterion release, The Last Temptation of Christ) or a persuasive sense of how the lived experience might have been back then (as in Life of Brian). Sosin’s score has a grandeur and, for better or worse, largely matches the film’s own storytelling, at times lapsing into a slight kitschiness.
- There are two discs, and the second has a shortened 112-minute release from 1928, with two separate scores. I haven’t watched that yet, but will update this page when I have.
- On the first disc, the extras are a few production photos, some from the film’s premiere at Grauman’s Chinese Theater (it was the film chosen as the opening premiere at this new cinema), as well as extensive documentation of the original illustrated programme booklet (both photos and extensive text of the contents), and some telegrams from DeMille to his cast.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Cecil B. DeMille; Writer Jeanie Macpherson; Cinematographers J. Peverell Marley and F.J. Westerberg; Starring H.B. Warner, Ernest Torrence, Jacqueline Logan, Joseph Schildkraut; Length 155 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 20 October 2019.
There’s nothing out at the end of this week in UK cinemas that’s inspiring me to any themed week so I thought I’d return to some of the ones I’ve already done with follow-up reviews. I’ll start with my South American cinema week, which was on the occasion of the (necessarily limited) cinematic release of La flor. I spent three nights in a cinema for this one, so here is my review.
I can’t say if this movie is good in any traditional sense, but I suppose by the end of any 14 hour movie, anyone is likely to be a little unclear on critical categories, though the fact this is out there is in a sense worth more than any individual detail within it. It’s also not a film in which the visual style is its most important feature. The director, for example, is overly fond of shots with a shallow depth of focus, as figures move blurrily into the foreground. It’s also frequently discursive, sometimes in ways that are a little dull — I may have nodded off once or twice. The third episode out of six, for example, takes up the entirety of the second part (over five hours), itself split into three and then with countless other sub-headings as its spy genre drama flits between countries, and back and forth in time.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. It’s a film that, at a formal level, is clearly intended to be screened (as I saw it) over three nights. Its director, Mariano Llinás, pops up in little interstitial scenes in each of its three parts, and makes reference not just to where we are within each part, but elaborates the overall structure via messy handwritten notes in his diary. He has a trolling sensibility too elsewhere, as quite aside from the (surely almost mandatory) scenes of characters relieving themselves deep into the epic runtime, he opens one section with loud snoring, cuts out the sound entirely for another episode, deploys ostentatious dubbing for foreign voices even while clearly using Argentinean actors (to our ears the American and British ones seem particularly ill-suited to their actors, and that’s quite aside from the presence of Margaret Thatcher as a character), he fiddles with the light levels even while a scene is playing out (rendering the subtitles briefly unreadable), and seems to have flies stuck to the camera lens at one point. In fact, episode four is structured around a paranormal investigator trying to understand the director’s own notebook, after an extensive sequence of him (played by an actor) dragging his forlorn crew around filming a drama about some trees.
Whatever else it might be, though, this is a film that is in love with the act of storytelling. Rivette’s Out 1 may be an obvious reference point in terms of not just a focus on acting (here the same four women play roles in all but one of the film’s six episodes), but also its use of secret societies and shady cabals pulling strings behind the scenes. However, La flor is mainly just obsessed with weaving plots, and Llinás uses genre cues to set them up, whether the long, tortuous espionage plot of the third episode (with flashbacks and sub-plots for each of its spies), the supernatural mummy of the first, or the fetching story of two singers who have divorced but still work together, intercut with a secret society working on a deadly scorpion poison, though at two days remove I can no longer remember quite how that works into the story of the singers. That said, none of the first four episodes have much of a resolution: the point, really, is in the telling of the stories, not where they go.
The lack of resolution, which the director’s diagrams suggest may be solved in the final two episodes, but these — which only come in the final couple of hours (a good half hour of which is taken up by the credits) — may prove to be unsatisfactory for those who have stuck out 12 hours in the hope that it will all come together. No, what this is all about is just a love of narrative and of acting, and the various ways that all of these roles and stories can be reconfigured and recombined. It’s perfectly happy along the way to poke fun at itself — the way his four leading ladies (witches, briefly, in episode 4) react to the idea that they might have to do another episode in French after the epic episode 3 (in which they play French-speaking spies) is particularly great, but then the film is filled with throwaway moments of fine acting and self-effacing humour. I can’t tell you that you’ll find it thrilling or promise 14 hours of non-stop fun, but it does have its rewards, and it’s clearly not willing to compromise either.
Director/Writer Mariano Llinás; Cinematographer Agustín Mendilaharzu; Starring Elisa Carricajo, Valeria Correa, Pilar Gamboa, Laura Paredes; Length 807 minutes (not including intermissions).
Seen at ICA, London, Friday 13, Saturday 14 and Sunday 15 September 2019.
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, Sunday 25 February, Sunday 4 March and Sunday 11 March 2018.
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.
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.
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.
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 Сергей Эйзенштейн; Cinematographer Andrei Moskvin Андрей Москвин and Eduard Tisse Эдуа́рд Тиссэ́; Starring Nikolai Cherkasov Никола́й Черка́сов; 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.
Director Hou Hsiao-Hsien 侯孝賢; Writers Hou, Chu T’ien-wen 朱天文, Hsieh Hai-Meng 謝海盟 and Zhong Acheng 鍾阿城; Cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bin 李屏賓; Starring Shu Qi 舒淇, Chen Chang 張震, Yun Zhou 周韻; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Tuesday 26 January 2016.