I’m doing a week focusing on ‘very long’ (3hr+) films, but most of these have been made by men, perhaps overeager to flex their cinematic clout or show off their stamina (amongst other things). However, there have been plenty of directors working in television who have pulled off longer-form work in the guise of mini-series and multi-part episodic drama. One such figure, working in the documentary form, is Molly Dineen, who like a British Frederick Wiseman, has been profiling institutions and work throughout her career. Her longest films are The Ark (1993) and In the Company of Men (1995), which respectively look at London’s zoo and the British Army (as deployed in Northern Ireland), but she also has a number of shorter works to her name. Her most recent film, Being Blacker (2018) is one I haven’t yet caught up with, but everything else I talk about below. All of these have been released by the BFI on the three-part DVD set The Molly Dineen Collection, which is well worth tracking down.
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.
There have been a lot of films about the Black experience in America, but relatively few touching on the intersection with LBGT identities, although there have been more prominent works in the last few years, like Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight (2016). One of the key figures who worked to open up this area was Marlon T. Riggs, a filmmaker, poet and educator who died in 1994 at the age of 37 from AIDS-related complications. It’s a bold and provocative work, all the moreso as it was made for TV (and created quite a bit of controversy on this account).
There’s hardly very much I can possibly add to any discourse around this film, but despite being 30 years old, it still feels like some kind of testament to endurance and defiance through so many multiple sites of oppression and erasure. It’s like a compendium of texts (it largely takes its launching point from an anthology of poetry by gay Black men), of multiple voices speaking, declaiming, laughing, a kaleidoscopic text that has as much joy as it has pain. And while there are pieces in it which feel somewhat of its era, there is just so much that I think still resonates strongly; so much of its formal experimentation has been taken up since then, and yet so much of this still undeniably feels fresh. It’s also at times extremely funny (the Snap!thology bit, as one example), even when what’s being expressed is still ultimately about escaping reductive gazes, finding some measure of freedom — not just from racial oppression, but from conservative voices even within African-American communities (the hate speech we hear, close-up on the mouths, is from all kinds of people, not least clips of Eddie Murphy on-stage, which despite the presence of the in-film audience laughter have no comedic power at all when placed in this context). It’s under an hour in length, but so dense with meanings and voices, and experiences so rarely represented even now in film, that it will undoubtedly continue to be relevant.
Director Marlon Riggs; Cinematographers Vivian Kleiman and Riggs; Starring Marlon Riggs, Essex Hemphill; Length 55 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Saturday 30 March 2019.
For my week of Iranian cinema I can’t really avoid Abbas Kiarostami. He is, by some way, the pre-eminent figure in Iranian cinema, certainly the best-known, though some of his earlier films can be difficult to see. Many have been banned in Iran for political reasons, not least his 1979 documentary First Case, Second Case which was filmed on either side of that year’s revolution.
At one level this feels like a dour, controlled and apparently innocuous morality lesson with a documentary-like precision, as a series of talking heads comment on two different examples from a classroom where disobedient boys are being punished: one in which one the boys denounces his colleagues, the other in which they stand united. However, it was made at the time of the Iranian Revolution, and the moral questions are ones that pierce to the heart of any society, especially this one at this time: should we stand with our colleagues who are being unfairly treated, or denounce them for personal gain (and even if do, have we really gained anything). The first people we hear from are the fathers of each of the boys, and then a series of governmental, religious, cultural and educational figures, who broaden the debate to one of fairness and indeed about whether the teacher was in the right. Of course, these lines of argument become rather leading at a time when the entire country was in turmoil: the film was banned and many of those speaking in the film were suppressed later.
Director/Writer Abbas Kiarostami عباس کیارستمی; Cinematographer Houshang Baharlou هوشنگ بهارلو; Length 53 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Arlecchino, Bologna, Friday 28 June 2019.
My themed week of African cinema has seen a lot of strategies for dealing with post-colonial issues, but Nigerien (that is, from Niger) filmmaker Moustapha Alassane used the generic codes of that most American of genres, the western, to critique Western involvement in Africa. It’s witty and never outstays its welcome. Equally amusing are his shorter, animated films, most of all the glorious Kokoa (which may have been made in the 1980s, though most resources list its year of production as 2001). Needless to say, Niger isn’t currently one of the most highly-developed film-producing nations in Africa, although Wikipedia relates that it was once far more productive, with the ethnographer Jean Rouch being heavily involved in work there, followed by a number of native-born directors. Production in the last few decades has dwindled, although at a recent London Film Festival, I did see The Wedding Ring (2016) by a woman director, Rahmatou Keïta.
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, Sunday 25 February, Sunday 4 March and Sunday 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 Burnett, Frank Christopher and Kenneth S. Greenberg; Cinematographer John Demps; Length 57 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix 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 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.