Criterion Sunday 123: Grey Gardens (1975)

Clearly these two ageing women, scions of the Bouvier family (and hence related to Jackie O), make for great documentary subjects. They sit in their dilapidated Long Island home, bickering with one another in front of the camera. The mother Edith still seems like the sensible one and her daughter Edie flighty and irrepressible, prone to song and dance, improvising fashion including endless variations on headscarves to hide her greying hair, though wistful at the idea of living with so many cats and raccoons. Yet at the same time, it hovers on the edge of uncomfortable exploitation of what is clearly mental illness: Edie is very much aware of the camera and is equally clearly playing to it. She makes constant references to filmmakers David and Albert Maysles, flirting with them and at times opening up to them, and so their use of her at times feels like it could be stepping over a line. Of course, these two have wealth to continue being able to live like this, but there’s a basic dignity that’s not always evident and seems to me to push at the edge of documentary ethics.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer | Cinematographers Albert Maysles and David Maysles | Length 94 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 2 October 2016

Criterion Sunday 122: Salesman (1968)

The idea of going door-to-door selling Bibles is hardly one that you imagine can be particularly lucrative, and yet there are plenty of people we see doing just this in the seminal late-60s documentary Salesman (another film from the Maysles brothers and Charlotte Zwerin, predating by a couple of years their Gimme Shelter). But the film is not just about a bunch of guys in grey suits selling (or failing to sell) Bibles: it’s about a way of life under capitalism, and the toll it takes on those who follow it. Amongst the four or five salesmen we see (each of whom have animal nicknames), Paul “The Badger” Brennan is the one who stands out — hollow-eyed, with a punchy, almost angry, insistence on trying to win over people, which he is finding increasingly difficult (you can imagine him being played in a film by Bryan Cranston). He holds dear (whether for personal or business reasons) his Irish Catholic background and frequently lapses into an almost-mocking Irish accent when talking about his customers, but he also fails to see how poor so many of them are, how little need they have for a deluxe new $50 Bible for their home, and how stretched they’d be to afford it. Because that struggle to keep going — whether Paul in his selling, or the families he’s selling to — is another of the film’s themes. You get the sense that it will never work out, and the black-and-white photography and the men’s identical grey suits and salaryman demeanour make it seem (and must have surely seemed even on release) as a document out of time, bound never to fit in, like the product they’re hawking.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors Albert Maysles, David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin | Cinematographer Albert Maysles | Length 91 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 2 October 2016 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, early-2000s)

Criterion Sunday 121: Billy Liar (1963)

Someone had clearly been watching those recent French New Wave films and taking cues from Godard and Truffaut. Specifically, director John Schlesinger, one imagines, and he does a British version very well here. Billy Fisher is a chronic dreamer (I can only imagine he was an inspiration for Wes Anderson’s own arch-fantasist Fischer) who just can’t be honest with anyone, least of all himself. It’s the 1960s and the film opens with a montage of modern housing estate developments; Billy lives in a northern city and works at a (literal?) dead-end job, not doing very well there. There’s an energy to Billy, as he bounces around the city from one failure to another, playing off his various fiancées, and enduring his parents’ scorn. There’s also a lovely role for Julie Christie, and while any character who has Julie Christie in love with him and doesn’t immediately ditch everything else to be with her is clearly a moron, Courtenay still manages to work up quite a bit of winsome charm. He’s still an idiot, though and his parents aren’t wrong.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director John Schlesinger | Writers Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall (based on the novel by Waterhouse) | Cinematographer Denys Coop | Starring Tom Courtenay, Helen Fraser, Julie Christie | Length 98 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 25 September 2016

Criterion Sunday 120: How to Get Ahead in Advertising (1989)

There’s a gleeful absurdism at work here that’s hard to deny has some pleasure, though I found it overwrought, almost stretching too hard to be considered “cult” (familiar territory for director Bruce Robinson, this being his follow-up to Withnail and I). It’s a High Thatcher British culture media satire and Richard E. Grant is its high priest, an ad exec pushed over the edge by zit cream, forced to account for his work to a boil that grows from his neck and threatens to take over his identity and his life. There’s a do-you-see #SATIRE quality that I find strained, but maybe it’s the very soul of anarchic comedy genius. It certainly has its admirers, and Grant certainly isn’t sparing any actorly extreme in his dual-role performance.

Criterion Extras: Aside from the transfer and the liner notes, there are no extras here.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Bruce Robinson | Cinematographer Peter Hannan | Starring Richard E. Grant, Rachel Ward | Length 94 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 18 September 2016

Criterion Sunday 119: Withnail and I (1987)

I have, as it happens, already written a review of this on this blog so here it is. There’s little I’d want to add to it, aside from reaffirming that it does stand up under the weight of its cult status, not that it’s a film I myself am necessarily drawn back to, unlike…

Criterion Extras: … the fans depicted in the short piece Withnail and Us (1999), who show a fanatical fondness for the film that sometimes seems too much (obsessive quoting of movie lines has never been something I’ve been good at, nor had any inclination to do) but also reminds me of what’s genuinely appealing about the film’s bleak dark vision of England. Alongside the fans, the documentary also corrals a number of the actors to talk about the experience of making the film, and is an enjoyable half-hour for what it is.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Bruce Robinson | Cinematographer Peter Hannan | Starring Paul McGann, Richard E. Grant, Richard Griffiths | Length 107 minutes || Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 26 January 2014

Criterion Sunday 118: Sullivan’s Travels (1941)

Of all Preston Sturges’ output — he had a glorious run in the 1940s, in particular — this is the film that tends to get most often featured as his pinnacle. And yet, and yet. I assume I’d be missing the point to say this is a film about an absurdly privileged paternalistic condescending white man, a film director no less, who learns a Truth about poor folk: that comedy films are what the people want and that he’s been wrong to speak down to his audience. I mean, as far as Lessons go, it’s a good one, but it does rather require sitting through a lot of Joel McCrea being a pampered, pompous cretin. After all, he’s been wanting to make a serious work of Art, a disquisition on the plight of Man: O Brother, Where Art Thou? (it was left to the Coen brothers many years later to imagine just how this director character might have fused drama and comedy). Of course, yes, Sullivan’s Travels is a commentary on the operation of class privilege, but yet there’s plenty in the film that still irks me (as just one example, that he showed no contrition whatsoever for assaulting a railway worker with a rock). The ending suggests Sturges’ intentions are good — and the scene in the church with the black pastor is beautifully moving — but as a comedy it has a streak of meanness to it that makes it a frustrating film for me at least. Veronica Lake as “the girl” (nice work with that name) doesn’t impress as a great actor on this outing, but I love her character’s attitude for much of the film, at least, and could have stood to see more of it. I don’t wish to dispute the film’s Great-ness overly, but it just impresses me less than Sturges’ other films upon rewatching.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Preston Sturges | Cinematographer John Seitz | Starring Joel McCrea, Veronica Lake | Length 90 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 4 September 2016 (and earlier on VHS at university, Wellington, March 1998)

Criterion Sunday 117: Le Journal d’une femme de chambre (Diary of a Chambermaid, 1964)

Less of a black comedy than some of Buñuel’s other French films, this is more a portrait of the upper-classes during the 1930s as seen by the maid of the title (played well by Jeanne Moreau). There’s perversity of course and, as you’d expect from Buñuel, a feckless priest, but this film touches more on the spectre of fascism, with the casual anti-Semitism of the rural peasantry and incipient nationalist fervour always in the background. Fine widescreen monochrome lensing gives a bourgeois finish to a troubling tale.

As an aside, it was also interesting for me to watch this right after Nelly Kaplan’s La Fiancée du Pirate (1969), as that feels in retrospect like a satirical extension of the psychosexual undertow of this film, and if you get a chance to see it, do.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Luis Buñuel | Writers Luis Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carrière | Cinematographer Roger Fellous | Starring Jeanne Moreau, Michel Piccoli, Françoise Lugagne, Georges Géret | Length 97 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 11 September 2016

Criterion Sunday 116: Kakushi toride no san akunin (The Hidden Fortress, 1958)

By this point, Kurosawa knew pretty well how to craft a samurai film as a version of a Western. There’s an effortless feel to his filmmaking, probably helped here by focusing the story so much around not Toshiro Mifune’s warrior, but instead the foolish comedy characters of the peasant duo (Minoru Chiaki and Kamatari Fujiwara) whose avarice constantly blinds them to the dangers they’re in. Of course Mifune does his eye-catching thing of being strong and supportive as the General of a defeated tribe, while the tribe’s Princess (Misa Uehara) shows quite a bit of self-determination, even if she can’t be in a scene — even ostensibly disguised as a peasant — without looking obviously imperious. To that extent, some of the adventurous heroics strain credulity, but the film never sacrifices character-grounded observation to action setpieces or silly plot contrivances. This is a film that remains invested in its characters most of all.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Akira Kurosawa | Writers Shinobu Hashimoto, Ryuzo Kikushima, Akira Kurosawa and Hideo Oguni | Cinematographer Kazuo Yamasaki | Starring Toshiro Mifune, Misa Uehara, Minoru Chiaki, Kamatari Fujiwara | Length 139 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Friday 26 August 2016

Criterion Sunday 115: Du rififi chez les hommes (Rififi, 1955)

This film is generally acclaimed as a classic of the heist genre and justifiably so. Indeed, there are some pretty clear reasons, chief among them the impressive way in which an extended, almost silent, sequence of the gang breaking into a safe is handled. Nevertheless, for all writer/director/star Jules Dassin’s nous behind the camera — and indeed in front of it, decked out as he is in a stylish bowtie (why can’t gangsters have that kind of style anymore?) — the film devolves into a morality play for its last half that feels a little backwards looking. Again, it’s all classic genre stuff nowadays: the criminal gang divided amongst themselves, fractured not just by the investigations of the police but by internecine squabbling over the lucre. Still, the style and the performances of Rififi carry it ably.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jules Dassin | Writers Auguste Le Breton, Jules Dassin and René Wheeler (based on the novel by Le Breton) | Cinematographer Philippe Agostini | Starring Jean Servais, Robert Manuel, Carl Möhner, Jules Dassin | Length 115 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (streaming), London, Thursday 4 August 2015

Criterion Sunday 114: My Man Godfrey (1936)

All of a sudden the Criterion Collection seemed to become interested in 1930s screwball comedy with a number of fine Preston Sturges films, and alongside them this example from director Gregory La Cava, a somewhat underrated director responsible for the very odd Gabriel Over the White House (1933). His political viewpoint seems to come from FDR’s New Deal following the Depression, and there are fascinating ideological contortions at work, as an initial setup criticising the way capitalism reifies and recycles human beings ultimately gives way to a upper-class family-based knockabout comedy. The operation of class in the USA is always there in the background, even if it’s never clearer than in the opening sequence, as the imperious socialite Cornelia (Gail Patrick) and her ditzier sister Irene (Carole Lombard), both from a wealthy family, visit a bridge to grab a homeless man, Godfrey (William Powell). This is all in pursuit of a game they’re playing with their aristocratic friends, whereby they get points for parading him as a prize. Yet Godfrey turns out to be a quick wit and scrubs up nicely, so Irene hires him as the family’s butler, promptly falling in love with him too. That’s largely how things proceed, as further reversals of fortune take place, and it becomes apparent that Godfrey is not what he initially seemed. Still, it’s all great fun, and Powell is a compelling screen presence.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Gregory La Cava | Writers Eric Hatch and Morrie Ryskind (based on Hatch’s novel 1101 Park Avenue) | Cinematographer Ted Tetzlaff | Starring William Powell, Carole Lombard, Gail Patrick, Eugene Pallette, Alice Brady | Length 92 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Friday 19 August 2016