Cécile Decugis (1934-2017) has never really been a prominent film name, which is a shame. She may have only made a handful of short and medium-length films as director (which I like well enough), but she makes it to my Women Filmmakers’ feature for her more prominent work as a film editor. She worked on some of the most important French Nouvelle Vague films of the 1950s and 1960s, films which were known particularly for their innovative editing (usually ascribed to their more famous directors). These films include many of the works of Éric Rohmer (she worked with him through to the 1980s), as well as a few other minor works you may not have heard of like À bout de souffle (Breathless, 1959) and Les Quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows, 1959, along with Marie-Josèphe Yoyotte, another editor, of Martinican heritage). Her activism on behalf of Algerian independence began in the late-1950s with her first short film, and ended up costing her two years in prison from 1960-62. Her own films were often about people in a certain existential confusion, it seems to me, and I got a chance to see them at the invaluable Il Cinema Ritrovato festival (though I only caught half of the full programme).
It may only be half an hour but it puts across everything it needs to, about the scale and terror of some (very recent, contemporary) history, given it was made just 10 years after the end of the war. It deals a bit with the way that sites of abject misery so quickly return to verdant life: I remember visiting Auschwitz and Birkenau and they seemed like such peaceful places, as they do at times in this film, but then there’s the archival footage, and the vastness of it is difficult to comprehend. I’m not really sure this film manages to make it comprehensible because in so many ways it’s not, but it hints at these appalling events and it’s important for people to be reminded.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Alain Resnais | Writer Jean Cayrol | Cinematographers Ghislain Cloquet and Sacha Vierny | Length 32 minutes || Seen at university library (VHS), Wellington, January 1998 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 18 February 2018)
This compendium of short films by the American experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage spans the range of his life, from his earliest works to after his diagnosis with the cancer which would claim his life in 2003. It was joined by a second volume some years later (as spine numbers 517 and 518), meaning this early instalment was retrospectively retitled as “Volume One” at that time. I present thoughts on some of the films below.
Desistfilm (1954) is my introduction to Brakhage’s work, like some kind of hepped-up beatnik film about a house party set to a hard-edged droning soundtrack, as people’s relationships break down. Wedlock House: An Intercourse (1959) takes glimpses of early married life, but edits them together with fades to black in flickering light and comes across as nothing so much as a Lynchian dystopia of nightmares, with negative-image graphic sex interpolated. It doesn’t exactly paint a pleasant portrait of marriage.
Brakhage’s most famous work, though, probably remains Dog Star Man, made in four parts with a prelude (so: five separate short films). As a whole it’s a fevered rush of images, or at least that’s the sense that Part IV conjures, though the Prelude sets up the basic imagery of the title, where the “man” is both Brakhage himself, and also his newborn baby, and the “star” seems more like a solar plexus of body imagery and film manipulation effects. It’s all quite affecting in its way, but perplexing too. Part I has the most sustained sense of narrative, as Brakhage journeys futilely up (or along, depending on the camera angle) a snowy slope like a deranged Sisyphean hunter figure with his dog. Part II introduces the baby imagery more fully, with this and the remaining parts being relatively shorter.
Possibly the most distinctive film, both integrated into his oeuvre but also standing apart by virtue of its extreme subject matter, is The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes (1971). I don’t really know how to ‘rate’ this, but for all that the subject matter may be gruesome (footage taken during actual autopsies), I found it difficult to take my eyes off the screen, because to do so would seem somehow disrespectful to what Brakhage is filming here: the very substance of physical being itself. I suppose at a metaphorical level this could be construed as another film about the technical aspects of filmmaking — editing and deconstructing — but yet it’s really, really not: it’s the literalisation of some kind of metaphysical consciousness that doesn’t simply reduce once-living beings to cadavers, but finds some kind of transcendent purity in our essential form. This is supported by the formal means Brakhage uses, the occasionally occluded camera angles, the complete lack of sound, the structure moving us gently from coroners measuring things into the more macabre material. I wouldn’t call it disturbing exactly, though not everyone would wish to sit through it, but it certainly makes all other filmed images seem a little unnecessary.
At the other end of the spectrum of life, Window Water Baby Moving (1959) films Brakhage’s wife giving birth to their baby daughter (or is that a spoiler?). It has a lyrical quality to it, to the colours and textures, that carries it through the bloody and painful aspects of what’s taking place, seeming to communicate at least something of what’s special to it. From the same year, Cat’s Cradle is riven with blood red textures, of sensuality perhaps or something more eerie… and a cat. Family figures in a later film, Kindering (1987), in which odd contorted images of children playing in their backyard create a strange, slightly creepy effect. With I… Dreaming (1988), he again hints at a dark loneliness, something that seems to have been taken up by Lynch when I think about the spaces of void (or I believe that’s the word he writes most often over his film here), but it doesn’t entirely work for me.
There are a few films which continue to explore the textures of filmed matter. In Mothlight (1963), the light of the camera passes directly through the biological material of a moth and its world, creating patterns and textures directly on the film. Returning to similar ideas, The Garden of Earthly Delights uses plant ephemera, and sort of achieves something of the same effect.
Sometimes the experimentalism of Brakhage’s films comes from the sense of the editing, but in The Wold Shadow (1972), it feels more like he’s experimenting with effects in the camera, or using a static image of trees in a forest as a base for improvisation on the theme of colour and light. It’s fascinating. More perplexing is The Stars Are Beautiful (1981), in which Brakhage recounts various creation myths relating to the stars, while his children (I am guessing) clip a chicken’s wings. I guess those birds won’t be getting anywhere near the stars.
There are also a large number of colour films, painted and collaged, but the first on the set (1987’s The Dante Quartet) isn’t my favourite. However, it has (unsurprisingly, Dante-esque) headings to its sections. Somewhat a precursor to that is Night Music (1986), thirty seconds of colour, big and bold. Meanwhile, the colours just seem a little more dissipated in Glaze of Cathexis (1990), though it’s the film of his which sounds most like the name of a black metal band (yes, it turns out someone has taken it for such), while Delicacies of Molten Horror Synapse (1990) sounds like the title of that band’s first album. Once again, it does some lovely things with colour and light, as you’d expect. A few years later, Study in Color and Black and White (1993) is more dark than colour, more black than white.
Having watched a series of Brakhage’s short experiments with light and colour hand-painted directly onto film, the 10+ minute running length of Untitled (For Marilyn) (1992) suggests it might somehow be wearyingly epic by comparison, and yet this ended up being the one I most loved (alongside Lovesong). It has the textures, the colours, the feeling. It’s the whole package, and is dedicated to his wife. Black Ice (1994) is another of his films which, when watched alongside some sludgy doomy metal (as I was doing, given most of these films are silent), starts to feel like a crack in the cosmos, through which snippets of light and colour seem to make their way. Cosmic shapes appear in Stellar (1993) as well, extensions of Brakhage’s work with painting on film, and perhaps these are just suggested by the title, but there is a sort of harmony of the spheres to it all.
In Crack Glass Eulogy (1991), after a long run of his colour and light films, seeing filmed images seems rather a novelty. It has a spare, haunting, elegiac quality, like night vision, like surveillance. By the end of the decade, though, in The Dark Tower (1999), the darkness threatens to overwhelm everything else, perhaps suggestive of his failing vision. Likewise Comingled Containers (1996, which Criterion’s sleeve notes correct to “commingled”) feels like a blend of photography (water imagery) and the filmmaker’s manipulations of light and colour in a way that is rather more productive than some of Brakhage’s other works, but with a similar undertow of darkness.
The final film on the set is the most recent one, Lovesong (2001), made only a couple of years before Brakhage’s death from cancer. What I like most about this film is that it feels like a pure expression of paint on film. It seems so fresh, wet and glistening on the surface of the celluloid. It’s a film that has hundreds if not thousands of individual artworks, any one of which could be framed, but together seem beautiful and mysterious, like so much of Brakhage’s work.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection || Director/Cinematography Stan Brakhage || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, over Sunday 25 February, 4 March and 11 March 2018
The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes (1971) | Length 32 minutes [Rosenbaum 1000]
Cat’s Cradle (1959) | Length 7 minutes
Window Water Baby Moving (1959) | Length 13 minutes
Mothlight (1963) | Length 4 minutes
Eye Myth (1967) | Length 1 minute
The Wold Shadow (1972) | Length 3 minutes
The Garden of Earthly Delights (1981) | Length 2 minutes
The Stars Are Beautiful (1974) | Length 19 minutes
Glaze of Cathexis (1990) | Length 3 minutes
Delicacies of Molten Horror Synapse (1990) | Length 9 minutes
Untitled (For Marilyn) (1992) | Length 11 minutes
Black Ice (1994) | Length 2 minutes
Study in Color and Black and White (1993) | Length 2 minutes
Stellar (1993) | Length 3 minutes
Crack Glass Eulogy (1991) | Length 7 minutes
The Dark Tower (1999) | Length 3 minutes
Comingled Containers (1996) | Length 3 minutes
Lovesong (2001) | Length 11 minutes
Surely Charles Burnett is the most adaptable of modern directors, able to work successfully at all levels of production (indie and mainstream, feature-length, short film or, as here, hour-long History Channel-type TV documentary). This is a film about Nat Turner and his 1831 slave rebellion, but it’s equally about the impossibility of knowing or representing this event, filtered as it is through so many other voices, not to mention experiences of the troubling history of race relations in the United States. Burnett’s documentary presents not just interviews with historians and commentators, but also recreations, recreations of interpretations, and even behind-the-scenes of those recreations. It’s really excellent, powerful stuff, and surely the only film you need about not just Nat Turner, but about the pitfalls of historiography on screen.
Director Charles Burnett | Writers Charles Burnett, Frank Christopher and Kenneth S. Greenberg | Cinematographer John Demps | Length 57 minutes || Seen at home (streaming), London, Thursday 8 December 2016
I’ve never been a huge fan of Danish cinematic bad boy Lars von Trier, but this, his first feature film, is certainly made with a fair amount of energy and a bold (if dark) cinematic vision, taking its apparent cue from film noir thrillers, not to mention recycling some of Tarkovksy’s imagery. Stylistically, though, my overall feeling is that it’s more akin to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil of the following year, with all those fussy, busy details in all corners of the frame. The plot is in a sense fairly straightforward, as Detective Fisher (gruff-voiced Michael Elphick) is tracking down a serial killer using the methods of his mentor Osborne (Esmond Knight), in which he is aided by prostitute Kim (Meme Lai). Yet this plot is nested within layers of memory and obfuscation, attaining something of a dream-like trance state, emphasised by the line delivery of the actors, who move around almost as if underwater. The chief cue to this altered consciousness is the visual style, which is almost monochrome in its (usually red-tinged) intensity, like something Guy Maddin might make, tipping its hat at one level to silent film, but creating its own world of grainy distanciation — the characters may not actually be underwater, but they are certainly submerged in this grimy dark monochrome world. I can’t say it ever really coheres for me (and Meme Lai’s role requires little more than that she hang around and take off her clothes occasionally, though it’s a small part in any case), but there’s plenty here of interest to those who like an arty thriller with pretensions.
Criterion Extras: Aside from the trailer, the main extra of interest is the medium-length documentary Tranceformer: A Portrait of Lars von Trier (1997), directed by Stig Björkman (with help from Fredrik von Krusenstjerna), filmed around the time of von Trier’s The Kingdom (1994) and Breaking the Waves (1996). It’s rather an amusing jaunt through (von) Trier’s life from his upbringing by lefty liberal parents to his early schoolboy filmmaking attempts, through film school and his early film work, along the way self-aggrandisingly awarding himself the aristocratic ‘von’. The film features behind the scenes footage of his directing the two films (which has its own fascination), as well as talking head interviews with his colleagues and actors (and it’s particularly nice to see Katrin Cartlidge, who sadly died far too young), giving an impression of him as a man with plenty of phobias and quirks such that it’s surprising he can get any films made at all. Von Trier pops up periodically to talk us through his life and foibles, and there’s a warmth to the film’s portrait of him, so he never comes off too badly, beyond what he says about himself.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Lars von Trier | Writers Lars von Trier and Niels Vørsel | Cinematographer Tom Elling | Starring Michael Elphick, Esmond Knight, Meme Lai, Jerold Wells | Length 103 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 14 February 2016
It’s been over 35 years since the start of the peace camp at Greenham Common, which suggests that memories of the event in popular culture have faded somewhat, but at the time it was a pretty big deal. At its height around 1982-83, there were up to 50-70,000 women at the site protesting the presence of nuclear cruise missile weaponry in the UK, and the camp itself was maintained for well over a decade. Feminist activism arguably hasn’t really had quite the same reach since, but it’s worthwhile to reconsider the legacy of the protest and the ways it can inform current activities, hence this event organised by London-based collective Club des Femmes, which included an afternoon the next day involving practical discussion and zine-making (I didn’t attend the latter). Current protest activity may focus more on social justice issues and anti-capitalist struggle, but even now nuclear armament is still widely discussed (most notably the Trident programme), so there’s plenty still relevant in the documentaries presented, quite aside from the interest generated by contemporary documentation of important historical events.
The key work screened was the 1983 documentary Carry Greenham Home, the first film by director Beeban Kidron, who went on to make a Bridget Jones film, no less, and is now a Baroness, though still involved with activist causes. Rather than focusing on the big media-grabbing events, it documents day-to-day reality at the camp — discussions amongst organisers about strategy and finances, frequent breaks through the chain-link fence surrounding the military base, the appearances of heavy-handed law enforcement and the scenes outside courtroom hearings for the protestors. The film is also, surprisingly, almost a musical, given the frequency with which the participants break into song, whether a snatched chorus from a contemporary protest song like Leon Rosselson’s “The World Turned Upside Down” (written about the 17th century Diggers, forerunners of every anarchist socialist anti-capitalist dissenter since), to chants like “Which side are you on?” which take on musical quality when thrown into the faces of the police. Indeed the film’s title is taken from a song by Peggy Seeger written upon her visit to the site. Another quality that comes through well is the humour with which many confronted the inevitable political and bureaucratic obstacles, including staging protests like a ‘teddy bears’ picnic’ inside the fence. The film turns bleakly amusing, too, in scenes of the police (their faces uncovered, unlike their counterparts at modern protests), who are seen squirming awkwardly when confronted with the women’s protest or incompetently trying to break a bike lock placed on the base’s gates.
Accompanying this was a screening of a medium-length documentary about Nell Logan, the most elderly of 36 protesters arrested in 1982 for climbing the fence of the military base and dancing on top of the nuclear silos, and who was jailed for a time as a result. The director focuses on Nell for her long history of dissent, which stretches back to a visit to the Soviet Union in the 1920s, and shows her daily life in the small English town where she lived. It’s a gentle introduction to a turbulent period of protest, focusing on a single participant in a way that I suppose you could call heart-warming and certainly would have made for canny TV counter-programming at the time.
The screening ended with a discussion chaired by Sophie Mayer, a Club des Femmes member and published author (whose Political Animals I can recommend). Her guest was academic Anna Reading, who led the audience in a singalong, though there were plenty of other testimonies from the audience as to their experiences of the camp and of modern protest actions.
Carry Greenham Home (1983)
Directors Beeban Kidron and Amanda Richardson | Cinematographer Amanda Richardson | Length 69 minutes
Greenham Granny (1986)
Director Caroline Goldie | Length 46 minutes
SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW: Club des Femmes
Seen at Rio, London, Saturday 23 January 2016
These two documentaries by veteran English documentarian Kim Longinotto (co-directed by Jano Williams) have titles which nicely complement one another, as well as both being filmed in Japan. They also share an interest in looking into underrepresented aspects of Japanese culture, respectively women’s professional wrestling and female-to-male transgender nightclub hosts. Both are fascinating in their ways, though they don’t aim to provide full context — the wrestling documentary, Gaea Girls, doesn’t get into the foundation of the Gaea Japan league or any backstory about the figures involved, while Shinjuku Boys doesn’t really go beyond the confines of the Marilyn Club in Tokyo. Still, what’s there is still engrossing, particularly in the feature-length Gaea Girls, which throws us into an organisation run by the buzzcut and imposing Chigusa Nagayo to train up wrestlers, though at times it seems more like a ladies’ reformatory school as we see parents dropping off their sullen daughters to take up the wrestling lifestyle. Few of them seem cut out for the sport (and several drop out or run away over the course of the film) but as the documentary progresses, we start to focus on Takeuchi, who despite her diminutive stature seems determined to make it, even as she’s seen effortlessly swatted about by Nagayo — and in a few disarming sequences, brutally bloodied and beaten (within the ring, of course). Her monosyllabic responses and lack of clear reasons for her persistence are in contrast to Nagayo’s engagement with the documentary, as she talks about her own violent upbringing. On the other hand, the Shinjuku Boys seem not to come from the same kind of background, though the film’s thematics fit in with a wider discussion in modern times about transgender issues and rights. The language deployed by the interviewees covers a range of identities, from one who still uses the female pronoun and considers their work as dressing up, to another who is committed to his new identity and has a male-to-female transgender partner. It’s a relatively short work, but it remains interesting throughout, and both are made with care and respect, as with Longinotto’s other films.
Gaea Girls (2000)
Directors/Writers Kim Longinotto and Jano Williams | Cinematographer Kim Longinotto | Length 104 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 21 January 2016
Shinjuku Boys (1995)
Directors Kim Longinotto and Jano Williams | Cinematographer Kim Longinotto | Length 53 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 12 January 2016
What better time than January to cast our minds back to some of those delights of a December spent at least partially at home, sipping port or whatever is your tipple, and flicking through your TV channels? If you’re in the same place next year you might come across some of these titles.
There are, it seems to me, many different types of film one might talk about. The kinds of productions usually reviewed on this site tend towards the prestige and high-brow — film festival-friendly films, with the occasional popcorn-munching blockbuster towards one end and the frankly experimental/avant-garde at the other, as the feeling takes me. Other sites focus more on cult or genre films (I’m thinking horror and slasher films, as an example) which make up a sizeable but largely submerged world of filmmaking which rarely pokes its head above the middle-brow surface of the kind of cinema I tend to skim across. And then there are various national cinemas: I’ve been dipping my toe into Bollywood over the last year, but it and the other cinemas of the Asian continent have their own almost-entirely-separate ecosystems. So within this vaguely aquatic metaphor I’ve deployed, I don’t quite know where made-for-TV films live — somewhere down in the trenches where weird-looking brightly-coloured sea creatures live — nor do I know quite how heated the discussion around them is, but I’m guessing there must be at least someone enthusiastically poring over the latest Hallmark Channel offering.
Even within this context — and to be clear, we’re not talking the growing arena of TV where quality, high production values and big screen actors make their living (this isn’t Todd Haynes’ Mildred Pierce or Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake I’m talking about) — even within this corny, cardboard and strictly-no-longer-than-90-minute domain, Christmas movies have their own special place. There are cable channels dedicated to them. There’s a whole world of filmographies that seem to include only films with the word “Christmas” in the title. It’s a permanently frosted, be-tinselled and sparkling place of elven delight and gnomic repartee. (Okay, maybe not gnomic.) My point is mainly to say there’s not really much I can tell you about these films, though one of them is ostensibly a more prestige production, made for Netflix under the auspices of famous director Sofia Coppola and with cameos by actually-A-list celebrities, but I’ll get to that later. No, the bread and butter of this genre is often almost indistinguishable when flicking through plot summaries on your favoured service.
All I Want for Christmas (2013) is largely typical of what I’ve seen: it’s filmed in the ever-sunny Los Angeles, in a series of unremarkable (if not bland) office, home and retail settings, with capable actors who probably get a lot of work but aren’t exactly stretched by the demands of a script which credits at least three or four writers. There’s room for a Santa’s elf with magical powers, but this isn’t Bad Santa (2003), and Martin Klebba might in any case be the best actor in this film — that distinction certainly doesn’t go to Tom Arnold, who is beyond wooden as the boss of Melissa Sagemiller’s Elizabeth. Anyway, thanks to magic and some credulity-stretching plotting, she ends up with (or does she?… okay okay you can probably guess which) Brad Rowe’s executive Robert, whom she first meets cute when she cuts in front of him at a coffee shop, allowing for a bit of comedy grumpiness back and forth for, oh, more or less the film’s entire running time. Anyway, at least I think that’s the plot. It’s been a few months since I saw it, and it blends together a bit with all the other Christmas films I’ve ever seen (I have a friend who likes them, and anyway look, you just need to be in the right frame of mind, which needless to say is certainly aided by mulled wine).
At a more competent level of quality (not even filmed in LA) is Hallmark’s 2014 production A Royal Christmas. To say it rips off elements of The Princess Diaries (2001, a film which in the context is a masterpiece) would be to deploy some pretty high-level diplomatic language, but for all that it passes by in exactly the kind of pleasing haze I hope the makers are happy to know they achieved. In comparison to Julie Andrews in that earlier work, Jane Seymour leans a little heavily on dismissive hauteur as the Queen of Cordinia, but Lacey Chabert has a goofy charm as seamstress Emily (yes, seamstress! her surname is Taylor!) who falls in love with normal guy-around-the-corner Leo (Stephen Hagan) who turns out to be… a Prince! Specifially, of the aforementioned Ruritanian kingdom, which luckily is English-speaking and looks like a pretty nice set. Once you have a sense of the contours of this genre, there’s really little point in saying very much more than that it’s performed with all the likeability that its programmatic plot allows.
And then there’s A Very Murray Christmas which is a film not dissimilar in its general effect — in fact, if anything it seems to be striving to be a pastiche of something the directors of the films above might have casually tossed off back in the ‘golden era’ of 50s US TV, and which has probably since been lost to time. It purports to present a seasonal live TV variety show hosted by Bill Murray, with the twist being that the hotel in NYC where he’s filming has been snowed in and none of the scheduled guest stars can get there, so it’s ironically distanced by showing the behind-the-scenes trauma of the staging, as a desultory Murray is consoled by his pianist Paul Shaffer and eventually co-opts some of the hotel’s other snowed-in residents (who are played by famous people, in any case). I admire its spirit of drink-sozzled cheer in the face of adversity, which eventually cedes to full-blown fantasia, but even over an hour-long running time it comes across a little uneven.
All I Want for Christmas (2013)
Director Fred Olen Ray | Writers Michael Ciminera, Richard Gnolfo and Peter Sullivan | Cinematographer Theo Angell | Starring Melissa Sagemiller, Brad Rowe | Length 88 minutes || Seen at a friend’s flat (streaming), London, Sunday 8 November 2015
A Royal Christmas (2014)
Director Alex Zamm | Writers Janeen Damian, Michael Damian, Neal H. Dobrofsky and Tippi Dobrofsky | Cinematographer Viorel Sergovici | Starring Lacey Chabert, Jane Seymour, Stephen Hagan | Length c90 minutes || Seen at home (streaming), London, Monday 28 December 2015
A Very Murray Christmas (2015)
Director Sofia Coppola | Writers Sofia Coppola, Mitch Glazer and Bill Murray | Cinematographer John Tanzer | Starring Bill Murray, Paul Shaffer, Jason Schwartzman, Maya Rudolph, Rashida Jones | Length 56 minutes || Seen at home (streaming), London, Monday 7 December 2015