Criterion Sunday 544: Head (1968)

If one of the best-known aspects about Bob Rafelson’s debut as a director — and the first (and last) outing of manufactured music group The Monkees onto film — is that it was a massive commercial flop, that’s also probably the least interesting thing about it. After all, being a failure is sort of built into its very genetic code: it was designed to be a wholesale razing of The Monkees’ image, perhaps to allow them to go onto other things. However, it’s not like it’s designed to be bad, it’s just so scattershot and weird as to be basically unwatchable in a strictly narrative sense. But it’s certainly not lacking in interest either. Some of it remains very much of its era, and some of the ways it interrogates contemporary culture are less successful than others (just showing footage of an execution from the Vietnam War alongside screaming fans at a Monkees gig seem a little bit simplistic). But Rafelson and company — including co-screenwriter/producer Jack Nicholson — are throwing so much at the screen that at least some of it still maintains the power to perplex and astonish as it does to cause concern. It’s a series of setpieces and ideas that probably seemed more fully-formed when the makers were on acid (which is both evident and also documented), but still manages to be silly and serious in almost equal measures, a predecessor to what Adam McKay does now but if it were done to challenge rather than entertain the audience.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • One extra is a recent interview with director/co-writer Bob Rafelson, who had helped to create The Monkees as a TV show (and thereby a band), who is lucid and very entertaining talking about the genesis of this film and how things worked out for everyone. It’s almost half an hour, but an entertaining one.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Bob Rafelson; Writers Rafelson and Jack Nicholson; Cinematographer Michel Hugo; Starring The Monkees (Peter Tork, David Jones, Micky Dolenz, Michael Nesmith); Length 85 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 11 June 2022.

Criterion Sunday 482: 2 ou 3 choses que je sais d’elle (2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, 1967)

I think the way you feel about this film probably has a lot to do with how you feel about Godard overall. His can be a very frustrating body of work to follow, and even at his most accessible, back in the 1960s, by the end of the decade he was starting to get abstruse and political in ways that weren’t always friendly to audiences watching. However, for my money this is the film where he balances those two opposing tensions best, being both pretentious in the way his whispered narration hints at various topics around capitalism, alienation of labour and the modern city, while also presenting an identifiable character whose life we can be pulled along by. It’s pretty abstract at times, but there’s beauty as well as b0llocks in that abstractness and if it seems like an impressionistic grab bag of ideas, it’s still for me pretty compelling, a film that doesn’t divulge all its mystery but holds back something for repeat viewings.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard (based on an article by Catherine Vimenet); Cinematographer Raoul Coutard; Starring Marina Vlady; Length 87 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 27 November 2021 (and earlier on VHS at the university library, Wellington, March 1999).

Criterion Sunday 468: “Science Is Fiction: 23 Films by Jean Painlevé”

The Criterion Collection may generally be known for championing the great auteurs, but they also do some rather left-field choices, whether that’s Michael Bay (albeit early on in their existence; I’m not sure they’d give his films much time now), weird low-budget 50s sci-fi and now this set of short films about animals, which somewhat defy any straightforward description. The first disc presents his “popular films”, which is to say those made for the public (and not academics).

There’s a certain wonder to the first, Hyas and Stenorhynchus (1927), about little weird algae-like creatures with their spindly spines. The photography is obviously not as advanced as now, or even Painlevé’s later films, but there’s something luminous about the grainy, ethereal monochrome of these aquatic close-ups that has a magic to it. Sea Urchins (1954) has a lot of the same tentacles and marine weirdness but is somehow slightly unsettling, perhaps from the pulsating 1950s electronic score or just the better closer photography available. It’s co-directed with Painlevé’s partner, Geneviève Hamon, like a lot of his later films and sadly she seems not to get mentioned much in writing about him and his work. Clearly, though, both had a fascination with jellyfish, or with the category of weird gelatinous and tentacle-y things, because it feels like a number of his films deal with them. How Some Jellyfish Are Born (1960) also shows an interest in some unusual methods of conception and birth, with perhaps some hints towards other orders of gender and sexuality in these creatures which could probably have been developed more.

One of his better works, and certainly the creature with which he’s most linked (given the set’s box art), The Sea Horse (1933) makes clear just how extremely weird these creatures are. Just watching them is like gazing upon some Ray Harryhausen stop motion animated monster, but in a cute sort of way, though maybe there’s a bit of Lovecraft to them. Certainly Painlevé gets much more into the reproduction here, with the males gestating the babies, and seeing the tiny little ones come out is so fascinating (though I could have used without the shock cut to them cutting a pregnant seahorse open, even if I recognise this is ultimately a scientific film). Anyway, this is the kind of thing that Painlevé excels at, the intersection of science and the oneiric, which is also where The Love Life of the Octopus (1967) seems to sit. Truly octopuses are the most terrifying of creatures. Slithering yet smart, and, like so many of Painlevé and Hamon’s scientific studies, they have many tentacles. This particular short sets up our subject before getting into reproduction, and that too is strange and creepy, with thousands of little octopuses swimming away from these loose threads of gestating eggs. I remain properly terrified by this animal.

Further short films continue their fascination. With Shrimp Stories (1964), the directors acknowledge how ridiculous shrimp look with an overtly comic introduction, before we get into these (once again) elaborately tentacled sea creatures. Well in the case of shrimp, less tentacles than waving antennae and frantically moving little feet. If Acera, or The Witches’ Dance (1972) were merely an excuse to orchestrate the delightful aquatic ‘dance’ of these tiny snail-like organisms, then that would be enough (they swirl about, all but hopping up and down), but we also discover their hermaphroditic reproductive rituals and the gestation of tiny new acera. The photography is luminous and, as ever, these animals are strangely compelling. Sadly Freshwater Assassins (1947), despite its title, just seems a little bit duller, more like the orthodox nature shows you might get on TV, with less of the ugly weirdness of his other animals, mostly being just bugs living and fighting under the water in a pond. In Sea Ballerinas (1956), though, there’s a sense of humour, with it ending on a brittle fish seemingly conducting an orchestra, but otherwise there’s a lot of tumbling, shuffling and crawling around.

Stepping away from the sea creatures to watch something far more abstract is Liquid Crystals (1978). This is in fact closer to a late Stan Brakhage film than the kind of natural science pieces Painlevé did earlier on. It’s beautiful, though, as is an earlier film about the blood-sucking vampire bat, The Vampire (1945), which contextualises it in a short history of entertainment before letting it loose on an unfortunate guinea pig. There’s the customary blend here of limpid beauty and a sense of mystery in the photography, an informative voiceover and the dull academic subject matter, but the first enlivens the latter. Back to the abstraction in Diatoms (1968), but partly because the creatures under the (literal) microscope here are single-celled algae-like things, of various shapes, floating around on their own or in colonies. I’m still not exactly clear what a diatom is or does but I certainly got an almost trippy vision of their lives.

The final film on the first disc, and the latest film collected in the set, is Pigeons in the Square (1982). Pigeons get all kinds of bad press, and though this (relatively long) short film has a comical edge to it, Painlevé comes from a science background so he’s not interested in adding to the negative propaganda about pigeons. They are by turns majestic, beautifully patterned, comically silly, strutting, hopping, fluttering and pecking. Sure some of the urban varieties are a bit bedraggled and their seduction attempts wouldn’t pass muster by human standards, but this film just enjoys watching pigeons, and I enjoyed watching this film.

The second disc starts with “early popular silent films”, some of his earliest works. There’s The Octopus (1927), which has sort of a structure, but is mostly just the octopus slinking around (because if there’s anything we learn from the first disc it’s that Jean Painlevé loves a tentacled sea creature). The fragile beauty to these silent films is exemplified by Sea Urchins (1928), a creature he returned to in the 1950s (on the first disc), with luminous oneiric cinematography and no sound to distract (even if I did put some music on). The urchins wave around but also move and burrow. One thing I could do without is watching one get cut open but I guess there is at least some scientific method here. I am, though, prompted to wonder if my response to these short films is related to how much I like the creatures rather than a dispassionate critique of the filmmaking. I mean we may all know and love a seahorse, and even have opinions on octopuses, but what’s a Daphnia (1928)? Still for all its tiny bug like size — and there’s some serious magnification happening here — there’s even a bit of drama when the hydra comes along. A lovely little film.

Under the heading “silent research films”, there are a couple of Painlevé’s scientific shorts included and you can see immediately the difference from his “popular films”. The Stickleback’s Egg (1925) deals with a less than thrilling subject (microscopic organisms) and is pretty dry. There’s some great close-up photography that must have been very advanced for the time, and being silent I was able to put on a jaunty score, but this is mainly interesting as a comparison. Meanwhile Experimental Treatment of a Hemorrhage in a Dog (1930) is only four minutes, and exemplifies his specifically scientific focus in the silent era, but I really did not need to see this. The dog was fine after the procedure the film is clear to point out and that’s good, but it’s pretty graphic.

Unlike his more famous short films about animals (often underwater tentacled ones), Jean Painlevé also made a series of films dealing with various abstract concepts, here collected as “Films for La Palais de la Découverte”. The Fourth Dimension (1936) covers that idea, suggesting ways in which it could be understood, possibly as something beyond our own conception, something almost magical. It’s hard to really get to grips with it but Painlevé is serious and educational and it’s a lot to take in. More abstract scientific ideas are on show in The Struggle for Survival (1937) although this film is heavy on the text, which almost overwhelms the film with detail. He’s talking about population growth and certainly covers some ideas about it. Turning his cinematic attention to the Earth’s place in the universe is the subject of Voyage to the Sky (1937), which seems to conclude that in the grand vastness of space, we humans are almost ridiculously insignificant. It’s a rather bleak conclusion but nicely illustrated. Finally, Similarities Between Length and Speed (1937) is a rather abstruse short film on a topic I don’t really understand (which is to say, anything to do with mathematics). However, Jean Painlevé is an engaging filmmaker and tries to grapple seriously with his subject, which is about how bigger things aren’t exactly proportional.

Finally comes the single film under the heading “animation”, Bluebeard (1938), and it certainly a departure from Painlevé’s other films, being for a start not a scientific study of animals but instead a gloriously colourful claymation animated film about the bloodthirsty titular pirate, chopping off heads hither and yon. It’s all rather jolly and odd, and dark too and a fine way to round out the set.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection

My custom on this blog has not been to give ratings to short films, so the list below is just of the films included in the order they are presented. However my favourite was probably The Sea Horse, with the two academic research works and the mathematics film as my least favourite.

Hyas et stenorinques (Hyas and Stenorhynchus, 1929) [silent film] | Director Jean Painlevé | Cinematographer André Raymond | Length 10 minutes.
Oursins (Sea Urchins, 1954) | Directors Jean Painlevé and Geneviève Hamon | Cinematographer Claude Beausoleil | Length 11 minutes.
Comment naissent des méduses (How Some Jellyfish Are Born, 1960) | Directors Jean Painlevé and Geneviève Hamon | Length 14 minutes.
Cristaux liquides (Liquid Crystals, 1978) | Directors Jean Painlevé and Geneviève Hamon | Length 6 minutes.
L’Hippocampe ou ‘Cheval marin’ (The Seahorse, 1933) | Director Jean Painlevé | Cinematographer André Raymond | Length 14 minutes.
Les Amours de la pieuvre (The Love Life of the Octopus, 1967) | Directors Jean Painlevé and Geneviève Hamon | Length 14 minutes.
Histoires de crevettes (Shrimp Stories, 1964) | Directors/Cinematographers Jean Painlevé and Geneviève Hamon | Length 10 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 26 September 2021.

Acera ou Le Bal des sorcières (Acera, or The Witches’ Dance, 1972) | Directors/Cinematographers Jean Painlevé and Geneviève Hamon | Length 13 minutes.
Le Vampire (The Vampire, 1945) | Director Jean Painlevé | Length 9 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Monday 27 September 2021.

Les Assassins d’eau douce (Freshwater Assassins, 1947) | Director Jean Painlevé | Length 24 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Tuesday 28 September 2021.

Les Danseuses de la mer (Sea Ballerinas, 1956) | Directors/Cinematographers Jean Painlevé and Geneviève Hamon | Length 13 minutes.
Diatomées (Diatoms, 1968) | Director Jean Painlevé | Cinematographer Catherine Thiriot | Length 17 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 1 October 2021.

Les Pigeons du square (Pigeons in the Square, 1982) | Director Jean Painlevé | Cinematographer Vincent Berczi | Length 27 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 2 October 2021.

La Pieuvre (The Octopus, 1927) [silent film] | Director Jean Painlevé | Length 13 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 3 October 2021.

Les Oursins (Sea Urchins, 1928) [silent film] | Director Jean Painlevé | Length 10 minutes.
La Daphnie (Daphnia, 1928) [silent film] | Director Jean Painlevé | Length 9 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Thursday 7 October 2021.

L’Oeuf d’épinoche (The Stickleback’s Egg, 1925) [silent film] | Director Jean Painlevé | Length 26 minutes.
Traitement éxperimental d’une hémorragie chez le chien (Experimental Treatment of a Hemmorhage in a Dog, 1930) [silent film] | Director Jean Painlevé | Length 4 minutes.
La Quatrième dimension (The Fourth Dimension, 1936) | Director Jean Painlevé | Length 10 minutes.
Images mathématiques de la lutte pour la vie (The Struggle for Survival, 1937) | Director Jean Painlevé | Length 14 minutes.
Voyage dans le ciel (Voyage to the Sky, 1937) | Director Jean Painlevé | Length 11 minutes.
Similitudes des longueurs et des vitesses (Similarities Between Length and Speed, 1937) | Director Jean Painlevé | Length 10 minutes.
Barbe-Bleu (Bluebeard, 1938) [colour film] | Directors Jean Painlevé and René Bertrand | Length 13 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 10 October 2021.

Criterion Sunday 440: Brand Upon the Brain! (2006)

Clearly Guy Maddin had been working up to a full-blown pastiche on silent films for quite a while at this point, and it’s a style that has largely defined a lot of his subsequent work: expressionist pools of darkness; rapid cross-cutting; fragments of frames as if rescued from decay; and bonkers storylines with incredulous, exclamative (!!) intertitles aplenty. To the extent that this has become his stock-in-trade, I didn’t even recall having seen this at the London Film Festival back when it came out, but reading up on it, I see that a number of its original presentations were accompanied by a live narrator in Japanese benshi style (whether this is how I saw it in 2007 is lost to my memory, but I don’t think so). In any case, it has an expressive beauty and it’s fun even if it still feels ultimately like a pastiche-y farce about weird parental manipulation of orphan kids, polymorphous sexuality and death — all of which is by way of saying, it feels very Canadian.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Chief among the bonuses are two 2008 short films that Guy Maddin made to go with this feature film. One is “It’s My Mother’s Birthday Today”, which deals with one of the cast members, but in a typically Maddinesque impressionistic — er, actually expressionist, I guess? — kinda way. It’s a blur of images and feelings that tend towards the dark.
  • The other short film is “Footsteps”, and if you’re going to do DVD bonus featurettes about the making of your film, this is about as good as they can really be. It’s Guy Maddin showing how the sound effects were made, by the working collective of the title, but filmed as a Maddinesque short film — and, like anything by Maddin, I’m not exactly convinced of how truthful it is, either. However, it is fun and funny, and it gives a good sense of the rather absurdist work of a foley artist.
  • There’s also a deleted scene which runs for a few minutes but which was probably excised wisely as I don’t recall very much about it having seen it a mere hour or two ago, but it was intended to up the ‘queer’ factor of a film which already plays enough with gender identities.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Guy Maddin; Writers Maddin and George Toles; Cinematographer Benjamin Kasulke; Starring Gretchen Krich, Maya Lawson, Isabella Rossellini; Length 99 minutes.

Seen at NFT, London, Saturday 20 October 2007 (and most recently on DVD at home, Wellington, Sunday 20 June 2021).

Criterion Sunday 390: Sweet Movie (1974)

This may well be a masterpiece of piercing bourgeois complacency and for some people it clearly is, but I think I just have trouble connecting with the carnivalesque sense of polymorphous perversity. It almost feels more coherent than his 1971 W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism, though it’s still a blend of elements (including some very unsettling footage of WW2 atrocities being uncovered, although ones committed by the Soviet forces being brought to light by Nazis). The rest of the film involves a lot of people debasing themselves for various causes, and surely that’s the point of the film — starting with the valorisation of virginity presented as an American style talent contest, and moving through both women and men debasing themselves, being humiliated, acting out and generally being pariahs, and all in the name of the film’s satirical targets. I find it wearying where others revel in its warped sensibilities, though I imagine that making the likes of me feel a bit worn out is probably an achievement the film should be perfectly happy with.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Dušan Makavejev; Cinematographer Pierre Lhomme; Starring Carole Laure, Anna Prucnal, Pierre Clémenti; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 17 January 2021.

Criterion Sunday 389: W.R. – Misterije organizma (W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism, 1971)

I’m very amenable to those critics calling this a masterpiece, but I fear that perhaps when I look at it, I find it difficult to perceive the depths that others do. It’s an assemblage of narrative fictional material — a Yugoslav woman (Milena Dravić) preaching free love who seduces a Russian ice-skating comrade hero (Ivica Vidović), only to lose her head — along with archival sources, an old Soviet propaganda film, and documentary elements dealing with the later life and research of controversial psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich. Indeed, for much of the early portion it seems like a straight documentary, in so far as anything about Reich could be called straight. His theories deal with the orgasm and sexual potential, and other segments (like Nancy, the “Plaster Caster”, making a mould of the Screw editor’s penis, or the hippie, Tuli Kupferberg, who stalks through New York masturbating his toy rifle and menacing the bourgeoisie) sort of develop these themes in relation to capitalism and the West, while the propaganda footage suggests a misunderstood sexual dimension to Soviet Communism. It’s all pretty feverish and clearly you may love it, but while I certainly wasn’t bored, I guess I didn’t really connect at the level the film was aiming for.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Dušan Makavejev; Cinematographers Aleksandar Petković and Pega Popović; Starring Milena Dravić, Ivica Vidović, Jagoda Kaloper, Tuli Kupferberg; Length 85 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 16 January 2021 (and a long time before that on VHS at home, Wellington).

Criterion Sunday 387: La Jetée (aka The Pier, 1962) and Sans soleil (aka Sunless, 1983)

Unquestionably a classic of the French New Wave, though it somewhat stands apart from the other familiar films of that period what with it being un photo-roman, driven by still photographs. It’s a canny technique for a low-budget science-fiction film, and director Chris Marker exploits it fully, with a range of photographic effects matched by the familiar poetic narrational style from his documentaries. The plot hinges on its central time-travelling dichotomy, which I think is well-known enough that it’s not exactly a spoiler any more (especially after its reimagining as 12 Monkeys, but look away if so): the man who remembers witnessing his own death. Having seen this sub-30 minute film several times, it’s still enormously affecting the way the film loops around to this, hopping back and forth through time, evoking an apocalyptic Paris through simple effects: dungeon-like settings, a bleak high-contrast photography and the simple foam pads over the eyes that hint at the only technological resources the future still possesses, whereas the present is in a softer monochrome, flickering briefly to life in the eyes of the woman our protagonist is fixated on. I think it’s Godard who is often quoted as saying his films have a beginning, a middle and an end though not necessarily in that order, but La Jetée exemplifies that in practice.

I think Chris Marker’s poetic documentary style of film essay has been incredibly influential, and Sans soleil (1983) is one of his key works, the title also translated on screen as Sunless (and, strangely, in Russian if I recall correctly). It’s a documentary after a fashion, but really it’s a reflective personal essay about memory and understanding, put into the words of a fictional Hungarian cameraman in letters to the narrator, who may be understood to be an alter ego for Marker himself I suppose, as this film was made after a period in which Marker and his New Wave compatriots had been in various leftist collectivist political groups that eschewed authorial credit. In any case, you can see a lot of what has been inspiring about the film though it remains something of a product of its times. It’s mostly concerned with a travelogue around Japan, from the point of view of someone who grew up during World War II, and so turns back every so often to the remnants of the war, probably more in the narrator’s mind than those he films, but it makes for slightly uncomfortably viewing. This kind of othering, or exoticising of foreign people (and the film also flits occasionally to Africa and Cape Verde), sits oddly but really it’s a film about memory that loops in travelogue and even a bit of film criticism (of one of Marker’s favourites, Vertigo, a film which had a strong formative role in La Jetée also) and as such occupies a sort of poetic imaginary. Certainly, it’s not a film that will necessarily help you understand Japan except as it figures in western consciousness of the mid-20th century perhaps.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection

La Jetée (aka The Pier, 1962)
Director/Writer Chris Marker; Cinematographers Jean Chiabaut and Marker; Starring Jean Négroni; Length 27 minutes.
Seen at the Paramount, Wellington, Wednesday 30 July 1997 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Thursday 7 January 2021).

Sans soleil (aka Sunless, 1983)
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Chris Marker; Length 103 minutes.
Seen at the Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Tuesday 10 June 2003 (and before that on VHS at home, Wellington, August 1997, and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Saturday 9 January 2021).

LFF 2020: 日子 Rizi (Days, 2020)

This was my second film at the London Film Festival this year, and while I do not generally post reviews of films I have not fully seen, sadly I was thwarted a little by this new world of online film festivals. I cannot speak of the ending because my session “expired” 20 minutes from the end, for reasons that elude me (I think there was only a limited time to watch once you click play, but I couldn’t find it anywhere on the site). Still, I think enough was clear from the first 105 minutes, and I will certainly be seeking out future opportunities to see it (hopefully on a big screen some day given its typically Tsai qualities of beautiful stillness).


Director Tsai, especially in recent years (such as in the remarkable 2013 film Stray Dogs), has been slowly stripping back his cinema more and more, and this film, although a narrative feature, is almost abstract in its rhythms, like his ‘Walker’ series of short films or documentaries like Your Face (2018). It’s “intentionally unsubtitled”, though the only words we hear are mixed very much in the background (and aren’t heard until half an hour into the film). The film shows two men going about their days (one of whom is of course Tsai’s partner and regular collaborator Lee Kang-sheng), a slow accretion of details of two different lives. These two come together (literally) about two-thirds of the way in, and then drift apart again. The images are beautiful, dark, sometimes completely empty and still, and often water-laden (of course, because it’s Tsai), but it’s captivating and shows his continued mastery of the ‘slow cinema’ form.

Days film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Tsai Ming-liang 蔡明亮; Cinematographer Chang Jhong-yuan 張鍾元; Starring Lee Kang-sheng 李康生, Anong Houngheuangsy 亞儂弘尚希; Length 127 minutes.
Seen at home (BFI Player streaming), London, Friday 9 October 2020.

Criterion Sunday 360: “Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Two Takes” (1971/2005)

This Criterion release collects two films, and I present below reviews of both of them. The first is listed as 1968 on the packaging, and I discuss the dates below, but I have listed it as 1971 because that’s the date on the film. Of course, strictly-speaking it was never publicly screened for a number of decades, so there’s a case that it should be much later.


Symbiopsychotaxiplasm Take One (1971)

There is some question about the date of this film: it’s generally listed as 1968 (including on the director’s website), but the date of production that shows up on-screen at the end of the film, and on the Wikipedia page and elsewhere, it states it wasn’t completed until 1971, and certainly doesn’t seem to have been screened publicly for quite some time after that (1991 according to AllMovie). Then again, this is hardly a straightforward film by any means, being ostensibly a documentary but one about a film-within-a-film (called Over the Cliff, being made with a variety of actors tested out, seemingly in the style of a Cassavetes picture). It’s also a film in which even its documentary subjects — the filmmakers themselves, the loudest among them soon becoming Bob Rosen (the production manager), and Jonathan Gordon (one of the soundmen), along with the director — may be characters or versions of themselves that don’t match reality. Most straightforwardly this can be seen in the character of the director, Bill Greaves (William Greaves), who seems rather coarse and even a bit flamboyant at times, but then we also see his crew sitting around discussing him, casting aspersions on his quality as a director, but also aware they’re being filmed and suggesting even that he may be outside the room listening (and all of these may well be true, along with the possibility that this is a staged scene). And of course there’s that extra level whereby the African-American director is being discussed and picked apart by a (largely) white crew, putting his actions in a spotlight that’s matched against their own expectations. The film, then, which frequently splits into two or three different images, openly toys with the limits of its own fictions (and truths), and does so in an evocative, constantly questioning sort of way that’s appealing to anyone who grew up as an audience regularly confronting such issues in self-consciously metatextual films of the 1990s and 2000s.


Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take 2½ (2005)

It’s fairly clear at this point — even to the participants in the film — that this long-delayed follow-up to Take One lacks something of the immediacy of the first. It uses the footage shot in 1968 as a starting point, picking up from the final shot of the first film (over that film’s end credits) to lead directly into the opening credits of this one, following a brief crew introduction on a NYC balcony. It picks up with another two actors rehearsing the roles of Freddie and Alice, in this case a mixed-race pairing (unlike the two we see for most of Take One‘s running time). There’s half an hour following of footage from 1968 of what was presumably originally going to be Take Two (the director William Greaves even makes reference to it at one point, suggesting he had a very clear idea of how these films would have been delineated back then, had he had the funding). We then very briskly skip forward some 30 years to a Q&A following a screening of the original film, at which Steve Buscemi makes an appearance (as a champion of the original and a producer on its follow-up). The dynamics remain fairly similar, with crew discussions taking place without the director, and then with footage from Central Park of the filming of the two actors, who have returned, older and greyer, to reprise their characters. It seems more interested in the dynamic between them than the original film ever was, but then this one lacks the on-screen charisma of production manager Bob Rosen (though Jonathan the soundman is back). It’s a sweet film, and hardly ever boring exactly, but it feels more like a reflective tangent to the urgency and immediacy of the original film.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
[Symbiopsychotaxiplasm Take One] Director/Writer William Greaves; Cinematographers Steven Larner and Terence Macartney-Filgate; Starring Don Fellows, Patricia Ree Gilbert, William Greaves; Length 75 minutes.
Seen at home (Criterion Channel streaming), London, Monday 29 June 2020.

[Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take 2½] Director/Writer William Greaves; Cinematographers Steven Larner, Terence Macartney-Filgate, Henry Adebonojo, Phil Parmet and Jonathan Weaver; Starring Audrey Heningham, Shannon Baker, William Greaves; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at home (Criterion Channel streaming), London, Monday 29 June 2020.

Two Short Reviews of 1970 Films by Czech Women: Fruit of Paradise and The Murder of Mr Devil

In my Czech film week, I’ve already covered one Věra Chytilová film, and I’ll have more to come, but the unifying person for these two films is the writer of both, Ester Krumbachová. Each is strange, perhaps comic (more broadly so in her own directorial effort), and probably have some deep coded meanings within the context they were made, but as you’ll see from my pretty short reviews (I wasn’t lying about that), they can be pretty difficult to decode. That said, I’d definitely want to watch both again.


Ovoce stromů rajských jíme (Fruit of Paradise, 1970) [Czechoslovakia/Belgium]

A boldly, rapturously incomprehensible film, presenting the Adam and Eve origin story overlaid with visual effects (the opening sequence), saturated yet bleached in its colour palette, with spirited performances. But as to what is actually happening, I couldn’t really say. That said, it was fascinating nonetheless.

Fruit of Paradise film posterCREDITS
Director Věra Chytilová; Writers Chytilová and Ester Krumbachová; Cinematographer Jaroslav Kučera; Starring Karel Novák, Jitka Nováková; Length 99 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Wednesday 9 November 2016.


Vražda ing. Čerta (The Murder of Mr Devil, 1970) [Czechoslovakia]

An enjoyable satire on romance and marriage by a director whose collaboration with Věra Chytilová I think helps to place her humour. Mr Devil (Vladimír Menšík) is, quite clearly, a terrible person, and his gluttony is quickly (and somewhat repetitively) established. In some ways there’s not a lot to the film but it doesn’t much care for your bourgeois hang-ups.

The Murder of Mr Devil film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Ester Krumbachová; Cinematographer Jiří Macák; Starring Jiřina Bohdalová, Vladimír Menšík; Length 77 minutes.
Seen at Watershed, Bristol, Saturday 27 July 2019.