La flor (2018)

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.

CREDITS
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.

Advertisements

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, Sunday 25 February, Sunday 4 March and Sunday 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.

Medicine for Melancholy (2008)

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.

Medicine for Melancholy film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Barry Jenkins; Cinematographer James Laxton; Starring Wyatt Cenac, Tracey Heggins; Length 88 minutes.
Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Monday 13 February 2017.

Criterion Sunday 88: Иван Грозный Ivan Grozniy (Ivan the Terrible, 1944/1958)

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.

刺客聶隱娘 Cike Nie Yinniang (The Assassin, 2015)

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.

The Assassin film posterCREDITS
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.

Criterion Sunday 39: 東京流れ者 Tokyo Nagaremono (Tokyo Drifter, 1966)

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 鈴木清順; Writer Yasunori Kawauchi 川内康範; Cinematographer Shigeyoshi Mine 峰重義; Starring Tetsuya Watari 渡哲也; Length 82 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 31 May 2015.

Criterion Sunday 34: Андрей Рублёв Andrei Rublev (aka The Passion According to Andrei, 1966)

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 Андре́й Тарко́вский; Writer Andrei Konchalovsky Андре́й Михалко́в-Кончало́вский and Tarkovsky; Cinematographer Vadim Yusov Вадим Юсов; Starring Anatoly Solonitsyn Анатолий Солоницын; 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, Wellington, September 2000).

A Fuller Life (2013)

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.

A Fuller Life film posterCREDITS
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.

The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

This screening was preceded by an early silent short film, which I’ve reviewed separately at the end.


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.

The serialised novel by Leroux was originally published in 1909-10, but I’m guessing that even back then it was considered a bit clichéd. Whatever the strengths or limitations of the original, though, this adaptation has more than a whiff of the Victorian stage melodrama to its gothic horror stylings. Then again, of course, it’s set in a world of theatrical stylisation. In a sense, this is its coup du théâtre — there are few artistic forms so given to the grand gesture as opera, so it’s a brilliant match to the setting to have the acting be quite so flamboyantly over-the-top. Chaney as lost soul Erik (aka “the Phantom”) and the film’s female lead, the opera singer Christine (Mary Philbin), wring out every emotion, stretching their bodies and their gestures as if to convey their emotions to even those furthest up at the back of the gods. When Philbin (or one of the other female performers) is in peril, she holds herself in thrall to the lurking shadows, her hands flying up to protect herself from the danger, often unseen. When Chaney has been bested, he reaches out to grasp at the air above him with his fists, as if executing a particular flamboyant manoeuvre on the dancefloor of a goth club. None of it is in any way subtle, and that’s just fine.

At this point, I should probably at least sketch out the plot, not that it’s difficult to follow. The so-called “Phantom” (who is not so much a ghost, as a demented denizen lurking in the shadowy lower depths of the Paris opera house) is in love with opera singer Christine. He insists she perform in place of Carlotta, another singer, but when the latter disobeys his command, he takes terrible vengeance and abducts Christine away from her suitor, the Comte de Chagny (Norman Kerry, with a suitably rakish moustache). However, allowed by the Phantom to return to sing in a production of Faust (of course), she makes plans to escape with the Count, which spurs on the hectic denouement. Key to the plot is the idea that the opera house, the Palais Garnier, is built over many layers of historical torture chambers and underground rivers (it is not). Also — and I fully admit I may have misunderstood the specific references in the script — it seems that the “Phantom” has been in hiding since the revolution of 1848, although the Palais Garnier wasn’t completed until 1875. But these are pointless quibbles; historical accuracy is hardly at the forefront of the drama.

What’s probably more interesting is the production history, which was, in that classic understatement of Hollywood filmmaking, troubled. The film was released in 1925, after passing through a number of different cuts, adding and then removing comedy sideplots and changing the ending from a redemptive one to a more nakedly vigilante sequence that remains in all subsequent versions. Then, in 1929, it was recut again with some additional musical sequences (given sound in some cinemas, though silent elsewhere) which is what has been restored (albeit without the sound), first in 1996 with the Carl Davis score, and then again in 2013. With all these studio changes to the film in the 1920s, the credits are rather a mess, and there are all kinds of additional screenplay, directorial and cinematography credits (not to mention the extra actors for scenes which were subsequently removed). The original (and still the credited) director seems an interesting fellow, Rupert Julian (born Thomas Hayes), the first major New Zealand director to work in Hollywood, who made his name with an anti-German propaganda film in 1918, but who rather fell from grace following the debacle of this film’s production.

Given this production history, it’s pleasing to note that the film does not suffer greatly in terms of what’s seen on screen. The cinematography makes great use of shadows, and the set design for the basement is all suitably gothic and creepy. Best of all is a sequence towards the middle of the film which presents a Bal Masqué at the opera in an early form of Technicolor. The colours have in places faded towards pinks and greens, but it’s still a welcome surprise, and Chaney’s blood red costume as the Masque of the Red Death remains striking amongst the whirl and excitement of the dancing performers. Elsewhere there’s some good use of tinting (reminding one once again that early black-and-white silent films were in fact neither black-and-white nor silent, for the most part). Chaney’s creature effects are another visual highlight, and it’s for his pioneering make-up skills that Chaney is still largely remembered. Here he raises his nose, gets a nice sunken-eye make-up effect and wears some prosthetic teeth for a suitably monstrous appearance under the mask, revealed at length in one of those classic cinematic shock moments that still has much of its original power.

If one can move past the heavily stylised acting — which, as mentioned above, may be of a piece with stereotypes that exist regarding silent movie acting, but which is here matched nicely to the location and the genre — then this early film version of The Phantom of the Opera has a lot to commend it. It slowly builds tension through its shadowy sets and deployment of gothic horror archetypes, and nimbly uses intercutting to sustain it during the denouement. Best of all, there’s no Andrew Lloyd Webber on the soundtrack, but instead another wonderful piece of orchestral music from Carl Davis (known best for his Napoléon score). Still, to each their own: if you’re watching it at home, you can put whatever music you want on with it. Just don’t tell me.

The Phantom of the Opera film posterCREDITS
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.

Continue reading “The Phantom of the Opera (1925)”

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.

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

In Praise of Love film posterCREDITS
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.