I know that Lars von Trier wants us to hate his movies, because he wants us to have that authentic visceral reaction to them, whether it be love or hate. That seems fairly clear both from his pronouncements as from the films themselves, and therefore I want to respond by saying I found his film — surely one of the films that most potently distils everything that he wants to assault the viewer with — as merely middling. However, I cannot lie: I disliked it a lot. Not that it wasn’t acted with great power by both Gainsbourg and Dafoe, who are pretty much the only humans we see for much of the film (aside from their infant son who dies in the prologue and whose death hangs over the entire psychodramatic dynamic that ensues). Not that it wasn’t filmed with customary elegance by Anthony Dod Mantle. Not that there weren’t elements that worked well and could be appreciated. But just that constant assault of images and ideas that serve no purpose other than to evoke grand emotions. Well, I’m glad people can embrace those and I don’t doubt that it’s all very intentionally done. I could dispassionately render a critique on its artistry. But I feel like a more honest response — and perhaps the one that Trier would prefer — is just: f*ck that guy. I didn’t hate his film, and maybe even one day I can come to it with understanding, but I don’t have to watch it again, and I’m glad about that.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Lars von Trier; Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle; Starring Willem Dafoe, Charlotte Gainsbourg; Length 108 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 18 June 2022.
The first time I saw Steven Soderbergh’s magnum opus, his enormous two-part biopic/investigation of Argentine doctor Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s revolutionary life, I think I must have been a bit underwhelmed. In retrospect it’s probably significantly to the film’s benefit that it avoids the preachiness of most Hollywood biopics, and certainly avoids some of the moralising traps of other Soderbergh films. It’s hardly a revolutionary picture itself, though, and feels overly interested in pastiching period news footage in the scenes from NYC in 1964, with grainy black-and-white, off-centre close-up framings, nervous handheld camerawork and on-screen captions that mimic exactly the font of those old burned-in subtitles you used to see in footage. In other words, you wonder at times if it was more about the technical challenge than capturing the man, and certainly contemporaneous accounts invested a lot in the digital technology Soderbergh was using. But yet at its heart I feel as if this is quite an earnest project. Guevara isn’t the hero of the kind you see on the famous poster images, but just a man amongst many others (and women, too, as we see in the guerrilla armies he forms and leads) trying to make a positive change to a country mired in corruption, no thanks to US involvement. Soderbergh is hardly interested in digging deep into the politics, but just by focusing on Guevara, Castro and the others there’s a gentle sense of solidarity with those holding these revolutionary ideals and the dream of a future forged in training camps in the jungles and skirmishes on the streets.
Moving on a few years for the second half of this epic, it’s clearly possible to see how it works in tandem with the first part. That film presented revolutionary ideology and practice with the stylistic flash of, say, the contemporary New Wave cinemas of the era, as Guevara worked alongside his fellows in Cuba in the late-1950s, intercut with interviews and speeches at the UN in 1964. This part takes a quite different tack, going for more of a handheld observational style, using a muted colour palette that really downplays the lushness of the highland setting, as Guevara faces up to the reality of the struggle in Bolivia in 1967. If the first was a film about glory, this is a film mostly about disappointment and failure. Its episodic march of time, numbered by the days Guevara has spent in country, sees his people slowly picked off, their deaths really just captured in passing or off-screen, as the action follows increasingly bearded men messing around in the hills, trying to win over the local people and with a mounting sense of desperation. There’s nothing glorious here, but there’s a certain fascination to Che’s resolve, even as he’s battered by asthma and poor discipline from the forces he’s trying to lead. Perhaps by design, but it feels almost underwhelming after the first part, a corrective perhaps but a sad one.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Che: Part One (2008)
Director Steven Soderbergh; Writers Peter Buchman and Benjamin A. van der Veen (based on the non-fiction work Pasajes de la guerra revolucionaria cubana [Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War] by Ernesto Guevara); Cinematography Steven Soderbergh [as “Peter Andrews”]; Starring Benicio del Toro, Demián Bichir, Rodrigo Santoro, Julia Ormond; Length 135 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Thursday 13 January 2022 (and earlier on DVD at home, London, sometimes in the early-2010s I imagine).
Che: Part Two (2008)
Director Steven Soderbergh; Writers Peter Buchman and Benjamin A. van der Veen; Cinematography Steven Soderbergh [as “Peter Andrews”]; Starring Benicio del Toro, Franka Potente, Gastón Pauls, Lou Diamond Phillips; Length 136 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Monday 17 January 2022 (and earlier on DVD at home, London, sometimes in the early-2010s I imagine).
I don’t know that I can say that this new film from Wes Anderson in any way grapples with the contemporary position of journalism, but I’m not sure that many would expect it to. In a year in which the Nobel Peace Prize went to a pair of journalists doing work in the most difficult circumstances, this film instead looks back fondly to a time (well, various times during the mid-20th century it seems) of what can best be described as gentleman journalism. There are outsiders, criminals and revolutionaries, but no real sense of peril or expectation of change. I can easily imagine a way to damn the film for this, but I chose in this case to go with it, making this a pleasant divertissement.
Everyone now must have a pretty good idea about whether they’re a Wes Anderson person or not. If you find his style in any way irritating, or his subjects just a little bit too affectedly pretentious, then you’ll probably run screaming from this. I thought I was done with him — as with the Marvel Cinematic Universe (albeit for different reasons) — but I ventured along and… it was quite likeable. Of course it has all his hallmarks. Right from the start you can see that it’s a love letter to The New Yorker as well as to Europe. I’d say to France, but I do wonder how the French would take it, as it’s just so doggedly adherent to so many stereotypes of French people that I imagine it would seem vaguely absurd and perhaps offensive. You can also tell it was written by a bunch of guys the moment Léa Seydoux arrives on screen. But for the most part this portmanteau film, essentially a number of shorter films tied together with a loose framing structure, is quite delightful. I especially loved Chalamet and Lyna Khoudri as student revolutionaries, with plenty of cribbing from 60s Godard movies (Khoudri being styled to look like Anna Karina) with plenty of other visual references throughout, but there was a sort of emotional core at the heart of that particular story which seems a bit hit or miss elsewhere. It blends black-and-white and saturated colour pretty liberally, and it never bored me. I wonder at the end what deeper meaning I’m supposed to take other than, ah yes a golden age of journalism and engagement with the life of the mind. But maybe that’s enough.
Director Wes Anderson; Writers Anderson, Roman Coppola, Hugo Guinness and Jason Schwartzman; Cinematographer Robert Yeoman; Starring Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Benicio del Toro, Léa Seydoux, Tilda Swinton, Adrien Brody, Frances McDormand, Timothée Chalamet, Lyna Khoudri, Jeffrey Wright, Mathieu Amalric; Length 108 minutes.
Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Saturday 18 December2021.
I find it easy to resist this film, its blend of poetic voiceover, impressionist use of colour and black-and-white, and reflections on the nature of freedom in a still-divided Berlin. But watching it after so many years since having last seen it, I am still forcefully struck with the underlying melancholy. Bruno Ganz is one of a number of angels who seem to be assigned to shadow a handful of people in the city of Berlin; we see (and hear the thoughts of) those he follows, but we also see his fellow angels standing imperceptibly and calmly over the shoulders of others he passes. This all seems to stand in as a conceit by which to evoke Berlin itself, and the film is in a lineage of city symphonies (that prominently includes, of course, Walter Ruttmann’s 1927 silent one about the same city), but it’s a powerful one, suggesting a higher purpose that has been severed somehow. Broken people shuffle amongst ruins and building sites, and there’s a provisional nature to what everyone is doing, a holding pattern. That’s all in the atmosphere, and is barely even expressed, but we have Peter Falk playing himself after a fashion as an actor, grounded and gruff, while Solveig Dommartin is a French trapeze artist, flying lightly through the air, and these seem to be like poles within which Bruno Ganz’s Dammiel tries to make his way. There’s a choice, and a movement towards the end, which promises a sequel (there is one; I’ve not ever seen it), and I’m not sure how substantial it all is really, but it feels somehow defining of an era and remains a beautiful film — and it seems appropriate that it was shot by the cinematographer of Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast — however much I try to cynically resist it.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Wim Wenders; Writers Wenders, Peter Handke and Richard Reitinger; Cinematographer Henri Alekan; Starring Bruno Ganz, Otto Sander, Solveig Dommartin, Peter Falk, Curt Bois; Length 127 minutes.
Seen at home (VHS), Wellington, April 1998 and again at home (Kanopy streaming), Wellington, Sunday 26 December 2021.
One of Lars von Trier’s earlier works, back when his focus was very much on being a wunderkind behind the camera and doing tricksy things with deep focus honouring his classical heroes, while also setting the stage to some extent for Guy Maddin and others, but for me it all lacks the thrill of Maddin. It certainly achieves a certain textural depth, with the graininess of the colour tinted film and the deep contrasts of the black-and-white working quite nicely with one another. The plot is a bit Hitchcockian, with its trains and machinations and a certain post-war gloominess about the idea of Europe along with Germany’s place within it. I didn’t feel an enormous amount of attachment to the characters or the story but as an exercise in style it’s persuasive.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Lars von Trier; Writers von Trier and Niels Vørsel; Cinematographers Henning Bendtsen, Edward Kłosiński and Jean-Paul Meurisse; Starring Jean-Marc Barr, Barbara Sukowa, Udo Kier, Ernst-Hugo Järegård, Max von Sydow; Length 107 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 22 August 2021 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, June 1998).
I think there are a lot of opinions one could hold about the films of Paul Schrader as about the art of Yukio Mishima, and though I’ve read a novel of his and enjoyed it at the level of writing, you don’t have to dig very deep into his life to get profoundly concerned. He’s the kind of man who would probably in our modern age have connected far more readily with the army he was looking for, and perhaps we can be glad of the times he lived in that this didn’t happen. He wanted to roll back post-war changes in Japanese society that he detested and restore Japan to its rightful place of honour, or something along those lines. And Schrader’s own work has been so boldly sadomasochistic and masculinist at times that it feels that matching the two might make for discomfort, and yes it’s certainly not easy to watch this story, either as a character study of a man fixated on honour and death, but also at a formal level it can be challenging to follow. After all, as the title suggests, it’s split into four chapters but is further fractured by various re-enactments of his works (shot in luridly saturated colours) as well as flashbacks in black-and-white to foundational moments in Mishima’s development, as played by Ken Ogata. Still, it remains a beautiful work, with gorgeous lighting and framing and a transcendent Philip Glass score which for a change doesn’t overwhelm the film (mainly because the filmmaking has a strong enough visual look and narrative structure to withstand Glass’s hammering and repetitive musical cadences). I will surely never feel any kinship with Mishima’s ideas but the film does give a visceral sense of his strange relationship to his society, and the fact that this is made by an American creates a strange thematic connection to some other contemporary titles in the Criterion Collection, like The Ice Storm (a quintessential suburban white American story as told by a Taiwanese filmmaker) or The Last Emperor (in which Chinese political history is interpreted by an Italian).
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Paul Schrader; Writers Leonard Schrader and Paul Schrader; Cinematographer John Bailey; Starring Ken Ogata 緒形明伸; Length 120 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Tuesday 25 May 2021.
After recently watching Spice World and 1933’s The Invisible Man, I feel I already have a sense of how small, insular and close-minded an island Britain can be. Perhaps those weren’t the lessons to be learned from those particular films, but an assessment of the British (or English) character is somewhat in the background, and it’s the same here in a portrayal of the kind of education our ruling classes get in the UK. It’s a satire of course, but even when it’s going over-the-top (there’s a priest in a drawer! there’s an entire stash of weaponry!) it’s never particularly untethered from the reality — or at least how I imagine it to be (though the writers of this film were certainly drawing on lived experience). Even the very removed microcosm of school life I endured showed some of the hallmarks of the society depicted here, though obviously never nearly as brutal. It’s also rather awkward watching this in the era of incels and domestic terrorism, as you get the feeling that what Mick (Malcolm McDowell) and his compatriots are doing isn’t so far removed from that paradigm either. Still, given the system they’re rebelling against here, there is still an underlying level of sympathy for Mick, and the satire remains pointed. It’s no wonder it caused such a stir at the time, given the nature of politicised student violence and the incipient revolution in the air back in 1968, but there’s still a revolutionary zeal to it watching even now, alongside that black comedy.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Lindsay Anderson; Writer David Sherwin; Cinematographer Miroslav Ondříček; Starring Malcolm McDowell, Richard Warwick, David Wood, Robert Swann, Christine Noonan; Length 112 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Friday 22 January 2021 (and on VHS at home at some point in the distant past).
I took a break from the (online) London Film Festival to find time for this Netflix film and I’m glad I did. As I say in the review, I’ve long since lost the expectation of finding good and interesting and new things on Netflix, but sometimes there are surprises and it’s always good to be open to them.
Perhaps I’m judging unfairly, but I don’t expect to find interesting new voices (or new to me) on Netflix, the home of comforting if uninspiring romcoms. I think that’s unfair; they’ve had plenty of good content over the years but it’s always been rather hidden. This largely black-and-white film (and certainly its play-within-a-film Harlem Ave.) is sort of about the changing face of NYC, while really about the connections between people that keep it vital. Actor-writer-director Radha Blank plays a character with the same name, a playwright who had some early success now trying to rediscover her passion and finding peace with (or maybe giving a hearty ‘fvck you’ to) the compromises she’s had to make along the way to make ends meet. So ultimately it’s not so much about gentrification as about resisting it. It’s a film that honours the people that keep New York City vital and the relationships that matter.
Director/Writer Radha Blank; Cinematographer Eric Branco; Starring Radha Blank, Peter Kim, Oswin Benjamin; Length 129 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Sunday 11 October 2020.
In my German-language women directors theme week, I’ve been running a strand of secondary reviews each day of films that are a little bit odd and experimental, and this one by Austrian mixed media artist Valie Export. Her work here (which is sometimes credited as 1979 or even 1977) plays with feminist ideas of the era, almost comically at times.
There’s something very eighties about this stylistically heterogeneous exploration of male chauvinism and the terrible toll it can exact on women. That’s not just because of its Tom Selleck-like moustachioed lothario (Klaus Wildbolz), or the grainy film stock. Maybe it’s because of the many formal ways the Austrian director experiments with presenting her message, or maybe it’s just that I didn’t always love it. There are, however, moments when you wonder if the way it uses all those distancing formal techniques isn’t just a joke at the expense of the earnest male dialecticians of filmmaking who usually do this kind of stuff. In any case, it’s interesting.
Director Valie Export; Writer Peter Weibel; Cinematographers Wolfgang Dickmann and Karl Kases; Starring Klaus Wildbolz, Renée Felden, Maria Martina, Susanne Widl; Length 132 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 3 June 2017.
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.
Continue reading “Two Experimental Short Films from the 1980s Directed by Women: Measures of Distance (1988) and Adynata (1983)” →