NZIFF 2021: Ailey (2021)

I’ve seen a range of different documentaries at Whānau Mārama – New Zealand International Film Festival, and if this one fits into the rather more didactic end (which makes sense as a film best intended for public television), it’s no less interesting for that. Any documentary is going to succeed on the interest generated by its subject, and the Black American dance pioneer Alvin Ailey certainly is one such figure.


Not every film I go to see is moving or memorable because of its formal sophistication. This is a fairly straightforward documentary in that respect, blending people talking with archival footage, but the story it tells remains fascinating, being that of African-American dancer and choreographer Alvin Ailey, who founded his own school of dance (which is still going as we see them rehearse a piece for its 60th anniversary) and toured the world. Part of what I like, though, especially watching the old footage — part of what moves me — is just the form: there is nothing like dance and ballet that seems quite as much like magic to me. How the dancers can put their bodies into the form that they do for such a long time, so gracefully and seemingly without effort (though clearly it is a punishing endeavour), it’s remarkable when it’s done well and clearly here it’s done very well. So just to learn about Ailey’s life and work is moving enough, just to see extended footage of him and his company at work, and makes the film (which seems to have been made for TV and would fit that format perfectly well) a worthwhile one for anyone keen to learn about 20th century art.

Ailey (2021) posterCREDITS
Director Jamila Wignot; Cinematographer Naiti Gámez; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at Penthouse, Wellington, Saturday 13 November 2021.

Criterion Sunday 406: “Martha Graham: Dance on Film”

There are three films in this collection, each around half an hour in length and made for American public television at a time when this kind of programming was possible. The first, A Dancer’s World (1957) is intended as an introduction to the Martha Graham Dance Company and her place in American dance, something I appreciate given my lack of knowledge of this major area of cultural work. Dance always seemed rather forbidding to me, and even if it’s more often seen on-screen nowadays in its contemporary street dance varieties, it still has a beauty and sophistication that is only amplified by the ballet-like compositions seen here. Graham narrates while fixing her make-up and costume in the dressing room; she introduces her company who enter the dance studio to illustrate some techniques, but it’s presented as a sequence with only the barest commentary. Instead, it’s the dancers’ limbs and actions that provide the context, with Graham delivering in his imperious way the diktats of her craft: control over the body, the elevation of the genius through a decade or more of practise. And in the end, for all her own resistance to filming it, and the fact this was made for public TV, the effect is rather cinematic after all, elegant yet mysterious.

The other two films are productions of her work presented without commentary (or any contextualisation or, indeed, any speaking at all). I don’t know how Appalachian Spring (1958) ranks as a film; it’s clearly a filmed piece of staged dance theatre and while certainly the blocking has been done with an eye towards its reproduction on screen, it’s still essentially a stage piece. That said, this is the kind of thing, a strange curio that stands somewhat to the side of the film history, which intrigues me, because it mainly exists to showcase the work of pioneering dancer, choreographer and artist Martha Graham to a wider world. She’s technically too old to be playing this role of a new bride (having entered her 60s), but avoiding close-ups alongside the modernist staging means it works perfectly fine. The language of dance, though, quite aside from the language of cinema, is its own thing and is rather opaque to me, but it seems that within these movements and this choreography, the motion of bodies, the gestures and contortions, there’s an entire world of feeling. There’s a certain awe to watching the long loose limbs of Matt Turney as the Pioneer Woman, so elegant (glamorous even) and so aware at every moment of how her motion will affect her clothing or how she interacts with those around her, or the gentle little skips of Bertram Ross’s Preacher, and soon enough it’s all over because this is still just 32 minutes in length, but it’s a lovely 32 minutes.

The final of the three is Night Journey (1960). I found this filmed performance less successful than Appalachian Spring, though I remain as yet without any significant status as a dance expert. There is so much that is mysterious to me about the form, but somehow this piece, derived from the story of Oedipus and Jocasta via Sophocles, seems a little bit more mannered, or perhaps Graham’s movements feel a little stiffer — though that may be as much to do with the subject matter, the studied formality of the tragedic mode. But then the group of chorus dancers come in, and somehow they create a sense of wonder, seemingly floating above the stiffness of the tragedy, so long and thin and with such easy movements. However, it certainly makes an impression as part of a trilogy of three films about Graham and her work.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There are a large number of extras which contextualise the work of Martha Graham, which is just as well for me. Perhaps the most illuminating on the first disc is a comparison piece by dance critic and historian Deborah Jowitt, which contrasts the 1958 filmed version with a silent 16mm film made in 1944, starring Merce Cunningham as the Preacher. Jowitt is very good at detailing how the gestures and movements are supposed to come across, and what changes were made for the filming, and it becomes rather engrossing, bringing out details that my untrained eye was unable to detect the first time around.
  • Another extra is a short few minutes’ excerpt from a TV programme (perhaps from the 1970s or 80s) in which composer Aaron Copland touches on Appalachian Spring and his work with Graham.
  • Aside from Graham, the other important figure in these films is producer Nathan Kroll, who negotiated with Graham to get her on screen, and who tells the story of working with her to realise this three-part project. We only hear his words, but they are illustrated by stills and clips from the films.
  • There’s a bit more about Kroll in a 12-minute interview with Ron Simon, who discusses Kroll’s important place in television. His work with Graham was just part of an interest in masterclasses with key cultural figures (like cellist Pablo Casals, or opera singer Luciano Pavarotti), showing a deep and abiding interest in how masters of their art teach students. Kroll himself was it seems a thwarted violinist and wanted to imagine himself via these surrogates as an expert of sorts.
  • The first disc is rounded out by interviews with the two editors who worked on the three films, Eleanor Hamerow and Miriam Arsham, who speak about their work on the films and also touch on why women were so frequently found as editors.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 14 March 2021.

A Dancer’s World (1957)
Director/Cinematographer Peter Glushanok; Writers Martha Graham and LeRoy Leatherman; Starring Martha Graham; Length 31 minutes.

Appalachian Spring (1958)
Director/Cinematographer Peter Glushanok; Writer Martha Graham; Starring Martha Graham, Matt Turney, Bertram Ross; Length 32 minutes.

Night Journey (1960)
Director Alexander Hammid; Cinematographer Stanley Meredith; Starring Martha Graham, Bertram Ross, Paul Taylor; Length 30 minutes.

Work It (2020)

If there’s one thing you can rely on Netflix for, it’s formulaic teen movies and romcoms, and then maybe the intersection between those. They have lots of examples, yes, I’ve seen plenty, but mostly they’re pretty likeable I find, and it’s a genre they seem able to do quite well. So here’s another teen film and another dance competition film, with a little bit of romcom to it but not too much.


It would be easy to write this film off as formulaic, because after all it is formulaic: it follows the ‘let’s form a team and beat our peers in the big finale’ and it cleaves tightly to all the rules as we understand them. Plus, being set in a high school, it folds in all the rules around teen high school movies too (all those cliques to introduce). And then there’s the team in question, which is a dance troupe, and already this film feels very mid-2010s because we’ve seen all those movies already, and clearly so have the filmmakers. But I can’t write it off, because dance movies still spark joy in me however formulaic they may be, and this one isn’t entirely witless. Sabrina Carpenter in the lead is pretty good (except at pretending to be bad at dancing), her band of high school misfits endearing in almost exactly the same way as, say, Pitch Perfect, and the love story is almost perfunctory, but I found it all very likeable and watchable, once you get past the initial wobbles (where the screenplay tries to throw in of-the-moment buzzwords like ‘being cancelled’ in a really clunky way).

Work It film posterCREDITS
Director Laura Terruso; Writer Alison Peck; Cinematographer Rogier Stoffers; Starring Sabrina Carpenter, Liza Koshy, Jordan Fisher, Keiynan Lonsdale; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), Wellington, Sunday 14 February 2021.

Step (2017)

I suppose this kind of milieu, the inner-city school, isn’t particularly uncommon, nor even focusing on athletic achievements in that venue (The Fits, although a fiction drama, isn’t so removed from this). And indeed there’s a whole (and great, in my opinion) franchise of films dedicated to this dance style, Step Up. Still, it’s nice to see the dance form tied to a story that’s grounded in a sociopolitical context, and though it’s always worth being attentive to the means of production (the film crew appear to be largely white), I think the resulting film avoids exploitation and is empathetic towards its subjects.


See, I get the reviews calling this film uplifting or inspirational, because that vibe definitely exists here, at least in part. But it’s set in a Black girls’ school in Baltimore, and the context — as we’ve seen only too often, and recently as well — is tough for them. That much the documentary makes clear at the outset. Still, this is about three young women who each approach their goal of getting into college via different means, but all of whom are into step dance. Those sequences could be better filmed (choppy editing and close-ups are all too common in dance films and really don’t help viewers appreciate it), but the pathos is all there, and by the end I think the film really allows for some empathy with its stars. Well, I shed a few tears.

Step film posterCREDITS
Director Amanda Lipitz; Cinematographer Casey Regan; Length 83 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Sunday 13 August 2017.

Criterion Sunday 317: The Tales of Hoffmann (1951)

I watch plenty of films but I’m still not sure I have the language to express how this post-Red Shoes fantasia by Powell and Pressburger comes across, because more than most films it seems to move somewhere beyond the reach of mere words. It blends ballet and opera on sets that don’t merely defy naturalism but seem to actively conspire against it in every dimension, as people vanish into the floors, run down grand staircases in 2D, float in the sky or disappear into the trees. And that’s before we’ve even mentioned the gaudy costumes, each colour-themed to the film’s three segments and framing story. It’s a film about a writer called Hoffmann (Robert Rounseville), in love with a dancer called Stella (Moira Shearer), who waits for her during one of her performances and regales the lads down the pub with some stories of his past loves. If this were taken as being about the nature of women, then it comes up a little short (as Shearer she’s a puppet, as Ludmilla Tchérina she’s a courtesan, and as Ann Ayars she’s tragically doomed), but it’s really about this self-regarding man and his obsessions, which doom him never to be happy with a woman. It’s as much an aesthetic experience as it is a film, and it will weary you if you’re not a fan of opera, but it’s certainly something special.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger; Writers Powell, Pressburger and Dennis Arundell (based on the opera Les Contes d’Hoffmann by Jacques Offenbach with libretto by Jules Barbier, itself based on the short stories “Der Sandmann” [The Sandman], “Rath Krespel” [Councillor Krespel] and “Das verlorene Spiegelbild” [The Lost Reflection] by E.T.A. Hoffmann); Cinematographer Christopher Challis; Starring Robert Rounseville, Moira Shearer, Robert Helpmann, Ludmilla Tchérina, Ann Ayars, Léonide Massine; Length 127 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Wednesday 13 May 2020.

The Fits (2015)

This isn’t a new film (and it took a couple of years to make it to London), but I wanted to fit it into my week of American films directed by women, as I really liked it. You can rent it on BFI Player or YouTube, and it’s well worthwhile, a really strong atmosphere piece.


At a superficial level there are similarities with the previous year’s The Falling, but this film is very much its own thing, and a striking debut at that. It deals with young women, part of their high school’s dance team, having fits, but actually that’s only one element, sort of an allegorical rendering of what we already see in lead character Toni’s story (played by the incredibly named Royalty Hightower). It’s really a film about fitting in, though initially I had yet another reading of the title, as I assumed it was about people who were just particularly into fitness (the pre-credits sequence is Toni doing sit-ups, and there’s a lot of repetition of exercise throughout). Indeed I’d say that one of the strong threads in the film is the idea that you can become good at something through repetitive practice (Toni starts out as not very good at dancing), and if sport and dance are the only things we see these kids doing at school, there’s an implication there too about their life options perhaps. What hooks me most though, the acting aside, is the filmmaking vision. The framing is very precise and there’s a minimum of shot-reverse shot sequences (several scenes have characters showing Toni something while the camera just look at her watching). I think this director has great promise, but most of all this is a compelling film about school, in an already crowded field.

The Fits film posterCREDITS
Director Anna Rose Holmer; Writers Holmer, Saela Davis and Lisa Kjerulff; Cinematographer Paul Yee; Starring Royalty Hightower, Alexis Neblett; Length 72 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Friday 24 February 2017.

Top Hat (1935)

Wrapping up my several weeks catching up on my favourite films I saw for the first time in 2019, is this Astaire-Rogers musical, generally considered to be their best collaboration and certainly the most famous of them all. It’s a delightful attempt to recreate some of the Lubitsch touch (with some uncredited inspiration taken from Hungarian plays of the era, which fits in with the European-ness of the whole undertaking), and it moves along with gay abandon.


I do not love a mistaken identity plot, and it was probably a tired device even in 1935, but somehow this film manages to make it almost acceptable, though it remains a source of great frustration every time someone fails to say their name and the film gets into some huge contortions trying to keep the whole thing going. And yet! Of course it is delightful, for there is dancing. Fred Astaire plays Jerry, a professional dancer, something of a big name who finds himself in (some weird cinematic form of) London to star in Horace (Edward Everett Horton)’s stage show, a dramatic conceit that’s quickly forgotten about when… Jerry falls in love with Ginger Rogers’s Dale (not playing a character who is a professional dancer, just a character who happens to be really good at dancing) and must fly off to (an even weirder cinematic soundstage recreation of) Venice to woo her. There are all kinds of misunderstandings wrapped up with this convoluted plot, among which one that leads to Horace being punched in the face by his wife Madge (Helen Broderick, who is, by the way, a comic highlight along with Erik Rhodes as the archly self-regarding Beddini) but the writing keeps it all tight and moving along swiftly. Ginger’s dresses are also particularly on point, and the whole thing is, to use a term which was then used rather more casually (but nonetheless aptly), a gay affair. Nice to see, too, that Eric Blore’s valet Bates uses they/them pronouns.

Top Hat film posterCREDITS
Director Mark Sandrich; Writer Dwight Taylor and Allan Scott; Cinematographer David Abel; Starring Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Edward Everett Horton, Helen Broderick, Erik Rhodes, Eric Blore; Length 101 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Tuesday 30 December 2019.

Some Films by Women of the LA Rebellion

The so-called “LA Rebellion” was a movement of sorts that arose amongst African-American filmmakers enrolled at UCLA’s School of Film, Theatre and Television in the 1970s, in the wake of the Civil Rights movement and US involvement in the Vietnam War. Their work was challenging the mainstream cinema, which certainly at that time — and you could make an argument for even now — remained a largely closed industry, in the process expanding the range of visual representations of the Black experience in the United States. The most well-known filmmakers to come from this movement remain the men: Charles Burnett and Haile Gerima, most notably. However, there were also a large number of women making films within this movement, some of whom would go on to work elsewhere in the film industry, but none of whom were ever given much of a chance beyond the film school.

Probably the best known of the women associated with the LA Rebellion has been Julie Dash, whose 1991 film Daughters of the Dust may be the single work most associated with the movement, but even she was not given the chance to direct many films (aside from some made-for-TV films). One of her earliest works is the short dance film Four Women (1975), which may be seven minutes of interpretative dance, but there’s beauty and grace, fabric and texture, hair and body, power and defiance in this dance, and in the Nina Simone song that soundtracks it. She followed it a couple of years later with Diary of an African Nun (1977, pictured above), which has a beautiful quality even in the imperfect decaying 8mm grain as it survives in a restored (as much as possible) print. Based on a story by Alice Walker, the film has a dreamy poetic quality that appears as if through a haze, with its central character finding it difficult to reconcile herself to her religious calling. Probably her finest film prior to Daughters is Illusions (1982, pictured at the top of this post), which may be little more than half an hour, but packs a lot into its World War II-era story of Mignon (Lonette McKee), a woman passing for white in a film studio’s production office. Mignon meets a darker-skinned woman employed to dub white women’s vocals in the pictures. The film nimbly enacts the way that race is deployed and erased, sometimes literally (here represented by an army censor), as well as the complex interactions between representation and reality. Plus, it’s beautifully shot and acted.

Another key figure in the movement is Alile Sharon Larkin, who has spent most of her career as an educator, with scandalously few directing credits. Her first student film was The Kitchen (1975), which touches on issues that are still very present and relevant in our own day — topics, indeed, that dominate a lot of the discourse I see online about the treament of women (particularly Black women and other women of colour). In this film, for example, there’s a sense that Black women are put in institutions and stigmatised with mental health issues for being different within mainstream white society. There’s a lot of play with hair in that respect, and the main character seems to be traumatised by memories of her natural hair being tortured into place with red hot irons, which leads to her donning a wig, directly linked to her being placed into care. These themes are undoubtedly even more visceral to those who live within these beauty constraints, and despite being under seven minutes in length, Larkin’s film captures this well. Like Dash, Larkin went on to make a longer work a few years later with A Different Image (1982, pictured above). There’s a certain earnestness, perhaps borne of the era in which it was made or the seriousness of its intentions, but this is an affecting 50-minute drama about the way that sexualised images in the environment affect socialisation between men and women. The film is never heavy-handed in the way it deploys this theme, with passing images contextualised by the men looking at them — at first, easy to laugh off, like a young boy laughing at the sight of our leading lady’s underwear, or her (male) work colleague’s interactions with another of his friends (who ostentatiously reads Playboy and wants to know if his friend has got some action yet). Progressively these become darker and more troubling, and the film continues to hint at an inability of men to see beyond women’s sexual attributes. It’s nicely acted and well shot by Charles Burnett.

Another woman within the LA Rebellion is Barbara McCullough, who went on to a career as a production manager (particularly within visual effects), a little older than some of her contemporaries, but who made a number of short films at the time. The one I’ve seen is Water Ritual #1: An Urban Rite of Purification (1979). There’s real beauty to this short experimental film, beautifully restored on 35mm, as a woman interacts with a sparse, impoverished environment. It’s all fairly oblique but ends in an act of purifying defiance.

Among the lesser-known figures was Anita W. Addison, who went on to direct TV shows in the 1990s as well as getting involved in production, but who died in 2004. I’m not clear if her short film Eva’s Man (1976) was made under the auspices of UCLA, but her name is linked with the LA Rebellion (at least on the Wikipedia page). Her film obliquely tells the story of a woman who kills her husband, with flashbacks to give a sense of why she might have done it, and sustains a nice claustrophobic atmosphere with a bit of free jazz on the soundtrack.

One final filmmaker I wanted to mention is Malvonna Bellenger, who later worked in local television and the recording industry, and who died from breast cancer in 2003. Her short film Rain (Nyesha) (1978) is ostensibly about a rainy LA day, though it’s not exactly about rain per se. Instead it’s about the possibility of a change coming, washing things away that existed before. And it’s about a young woman who seems from her voiceover to be disconsolate who finds herself becoming more certain as the rain comes down and Coltrane plays in the background. It finds its tone somewhere between elegiac and active, and it sticks to it.

Continue reading “Some Films by Women of the LA Rebellion”

LFF 2019 Day Six: 37 Seconds, The House of Us, Noura’s Dream and And Then We Danced (all 2019)

Day six and another four film day. I’ve actually managed to stay awake for all 16 of the films I’ve seen so far, but this writing them up at the end of the evening is the worst part. Still, I must put my thoughts down or I’ll forget these films, so here are some more reviews. Today I’ve visited Japan, South Korea, Tunisia (again) and Georgia.

Continue reading “LFF 2019 Day Six: 37 Seconds, The House of Us, Noura’s Dream and And Then We Danced (all 2019)”

Showgirls (1995)

This review doesn’t link in with any theme weeks (except a very old one that I did for ‘films about filmmaking’, which this tangentially is). It’s rather because the London Film Festival starts next week and my first film is You Don’t Nomi, a documentary about Showgirls that I hope will be illuminating about its long legacy, as it comes up on 25 years old. I will be trying to post regular updates from the Festival in between other theme week reviews.


It’s difficult to imagine, looking at some recent reviews by cinephiles on Letterboxd (at least those of them that I follow), that this was considered one of the ne plus ultra turkeys of its year — not a financial disaster perhaps, but certainly a critical one. It’s fair to say most of Verhoeven’s films have been underappreciated or just flat out misunderstood by critics and audiences upon their release, but it’s equally hard to say that in this case it was all misplaced. After all, it does feature some truly dreadful acting and a fairly limp script (albeit with some, perhaps unintentional, zingers that have probably aided its long gestation as a cult classic).

Still it very much has now been rehabilitated and it’s just as well, because there’s a lot going on in this film worth talking about (and not just being pointed and laughed at, as many contemporary responses seemed to prefer to do), even if its thematic throughline — the seemingly endless exploitation, carnality and corruptibility of American capitalist society — is hardly original. In fact, this is very much in the territory of filmmakers looking with poisoned self-regard at their own art, a form which stretches back further than Peeping Tom (1960); I’m pretty sure that even as cinema was first being formulated, there were directors being cynical about its artifice. Of course, overlaid on that is the artifice of Las Vegas, the perfect setting for such a story (again, hardly new), and the power dynamics of the sex industry. But while men in positions of power hardly get let off the hook here, neither does anyone else — not least women of colour, who seem to bear the brunt of the violence. Indeed, aside perhaps from Molly (Gina Ravera), the costume designer friend of aspiring star Nomi (Elizabeth Berkley), nobody acts with anything approaching a moral compass, and everyone is on the grift. And those like Molly who do have morals get punished for them in the end.

It’s a coruscating film, at once flashy in its style and pointed in its criticism. The characters in the film aren’t the only ones getting punished, for so does the viewer, because the film at every level resists being easily loved: for every sharp thematic critique comes something lascivious and exploitative, a Me Too story heaped with a side of misogyny, because that’s just how the American Dream is packaged. It’s how it came in 1995, just as it does now, and so it’s a film that hasn’t lost any of its kitsch-drenched melancholia.

Showgirls film posterCREDITS
Director Paul Verhoeven; Writer Joe Eszterhas; Cinematographer Jost Vacano; Starring Elizabeth Berkley, Gina Gershon, Kyle MacLachlan, Gina Ravera; Length 131 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Thursday 26 September 2019 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, November 1999 and January 2002).