Criterion Sunday 430: Le Feu follet (The Fire Within, 1963)

I think you could probably construct a small cinematic canon of works that deal with characters who are profoundly depressed and suicidal, but I don’t think there are a huge number which confront it head on. And by ‘head on’ I do mean that this is a film entirely about a man adrift. The protagonist moves around Paris, from a clinic in Versailles where he’s trying to clean up his alcoholism, into town where he tries — disconsolately, lackadaisically — to meet up with former friends and acquaintances. He seems to be seeking something, some connection that will convince him not to kill himself, but he’s also pretty set on not finding it, and that makes for uncomfortable watching. Don’t get me wrong, as played by Maurice Ronet, Alain Leroy is charismatic and can be good company, but it becomes increasingly clear that he is adrift and that things aren’t going to work out for him. The filmmaking matches his mental disarray at times, and underpins his emotions with the similarly desolate piano work of Erik Satie (which is too often misused in films in my opinion, but works rather well here).


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Louis Malle (based on the novel [also translated as “Will O’ the Wisp”] by Pierre Drieu La Rochelle); Cinematographer Ghislain Cloquet; Starring Maurice Ronet; Length 108 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Monday 24 May 2021.

The Lighthouse (2019)

While I was compiling my favourite films of 2020 list, I realised that there were still some titles I hadn’t posted full reviews of, so I’m going to try and knock the rest of those out this week. I’m going to start with a distinctive 2019 film that took its time getting to the UK, which is probably why I forgot to post a review of it. Still, it remains strikingly vivid in my mind.


I’ve not seen a Robert Eggers film before, but he’s certainly a stylist. It’s a film that hints strongly at a certain period without ever being specific, but then it moves between heavyweight historical grime, supernatural horror and something even rather mythic — and without giving away anything in my review, this becomes fairly explicit by the last shot. I came to this via Robert Pattinson (a very fine actor), whose accent also hints strongly at geography without ever quite landing on any one place (which may well be a conscious decision) but the one thing you can’t say about either of the leads (Pattinson or Willem Defoe) is that they’re afraid to commit. This in many ways is most reminiscent — in that commitment, in its blend of history and fantasy, but perhaps above all in the sheer unrelenting grimy muddy mulch of the film — of Hard to Be a God, and both pretty far out in performances. I’m not sure what it all adds up to, but I did rather admire it nonetheless (and discovering it was at least partly shot and funded by Canada, makes a lot more tonal sense to me).

The Lighthouse film posterCREDITS
Director Robert Eggers; Writers Robert Eggers and Max Eggers; Cinematographer Jarin Blaschke; Starring Willem Dafoe, Robert Pattinson; Length 109 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Sunday 26 January 2020.

Criterion Sunday 361: The Beales of Grey Gardens (2006)

I suppose it was inevitable in this series — especially now that I’m doing them twice a week — that I’d eventually miss an entry, though this isn’t the first. However, as I’ve moved halfway around the world, this one slipped a little as I wasn’t able to watch it before we left. I shall try to avoid any more glaring holes.


It turns out that when the Maysles brothers were filming the Beales for Grey Gardens (1975), they had enough footage to craft this sequel of sorts, revisiting them in their weirdly cut-off little bit of derelict suburbia, as they continue to seem addled and out of time. I suppose it makes clear that any successful documentary at least comes down to the screen presence of its subjects, and the Beales (scions of the same family as Jackie Kennedy) certainly have that, as the elderly mother constantly berates her preening show-offy daughter, while the latter is constantly playing up for the camera, singing songs or swanning around showing off her seemingly homemade fashions. Indeed it becomes almost a familiar rejoinder that the younger Edie says something only for her mother’s voice to pipe in from off camera correcting her or saying that never happened. One wonders at times, as in the original, about the ethics of the thing, as the Beales hardly seem the most present in mind, but it’s fairly benign I think and there’s a lot here for fans of the original.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors Albert Maysles and David Maysles; Cinematographer Albert Maysles; Length 91 minutes.

Seen at a hotel (Blu-ray), Auckland, Thursday 15 October 2016.

The Roads Not Taken (2020)

I’ve had a bit of break again for the last week and a half, as things are busy at work, and preparing to move to the other side of the world, but I’ve seen a few more films in cinemas (all directed by women as usual), and as Miss Juneteenth is out this Friday in the UK, I’ll post reviews of the cinema releases I’ve seen since the last week I dedicated to these. I’m starting on Women Filmmakers’ Wednesday with the new Sally Potter film, a great director and already a veteran of several decades. Perhaps her recent films haven’t been my favourite of her work, but she’s still producing interesting drama at under-90-minute lengths.


Sally Potter’s most recent film is about a fragile relationship between the creative urge and memory in an older man, as his mind becomes fragmented in a period of dementia. It uses Javier Bardem in a small apartment by the subway tracks in New York, and contrasts this quotidian and slightly sad setting with him living by the sea in Greece as a writer, and again with Salma Hayek in Mexico, each time pursuing relationships that, as the title suggests, perhaps he never did do and perhaps has only imagined. So in fact, we get three outcomes for the same man’s life, three ways things could have gone, and who’s to say which is right; perhaps in his dementia, he’s imagining these lives, but perhaps just as much he (as a writer in Greece) has written the life of the man in NYC, whose daughter (and this is a stretch) is played by Elle Fanning. I like a lot of what Potter is doing here, but I don’t think it really quite comes off — partly perhaps because Bardem’s dementia performance seems like a caricature, or a fancible creation by a writer (although, to be fair, it could be a creation by another character within the film as much as outside it). I wanted to like it a lot more than I did, but I think it’s a nifty idea.

The Roads Not Taken film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Sally Potter; Cinematographer Robbie Ryan; Starring Javier Bardem, Elle Fanning, Salma Hayek, Laura Linney; Length 85 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Tuesday 15 September 2020.

Criterion Sunday 354: Clean, Shaven (1993)

I remember checking this out after Peter Greene’s memorable turn as Zed in Pulp Fiction (1994). It’s a film he made with first-time director Lodge Kerrigan over a couple of years in the early-90s, due to a lack of budget for the production, and to a certain extent that shows in the stripped-back mise en scène. The film very much harnesses these monetary setbacks into the feel of the film, from the grittiness of its working class small town settings to the graininess of the image, and the texture of Greene’s feverish performance as a schizophrenic man (also called Peter) recently released from hospital, looking for his daughter. The film makes all sorts of implications that he may be a dangerous child killer, but never shows any direct evidence of this, and at least part of what it’s trying to do is suggest that perhaps those with schizophrenia are not killers, somewhat against the tangent of most pop culture. That said, he’s clearly a danger at least to himself, and his own interior world is evoked through the soundtrack, all buzzing radios and white noise, accompanied by flashes of old photographs, some kind of kinesthetic attempt to get inside Peter’s brain. There are moments of real gruesome horror that make you flinch, and a message that the cop (Robert Albert) — whose hunt is intercut with Peter’s own search for his daughter — may be the really dangerous one here, as both are fairly unpleasant, single-mindedly driven people. It’s a fine debut, the first in Kerrigan’s small filmography dealing with outsiders.

NB: The Criterion Collection date on this release is 1994, though it was made available publicly in 1993 according to Wikipedia.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Lodge Kerrigan; Cinematographer Teodoro Maniaci; Starring Peter Greene, Robert Albert; Length 79 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 19 September 2020 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, in the late-1990s).

Two Films by Kira Muratova: The Asthenic Syndrome (1989) and Chekhovian Motifs (aka Chekhov’s Motifs, 2002)

The Ukrainian director Kira Muratova died in 2018 after a long career starting in the 1960s. Her filmmaking is perplexing, perhaps wrought from the chaotic times she worked through, dense with allusion and busy with action, almost breathlessly so. I can’t pretend to understand all the details, and in some cases much of it seems to wash over me, but I can’t deny she was doing something fascinating and her films remain worth watching if you can (and they are not always easy to track down).

Continue reading “Two Films by Kira Muratova: The Asthenic Syndrome (1989) and Chekhovian Motifs (aka Chekhov’s Motifs, 2002)”

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”

The Mafu Cage (1978)

The horror genre seems to attract far more men as directors and writers, though it’s certainly not short of women in front of the camera (usually being victimised, of course). That said, there are a significant number of women who are fans of the genre and have written about it at length (notably the Australian writer Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, who is working on a book called 1000 Women in Horror). There are even a few who have managed to get behind the camera, and I am trying to focus on as many examples as I can this week. The film today is more of a thriller than a horror, exactly, and its director Karen Arthur only ever made three feature films (before moving into a career in television).


This film is a lot. It’s at heart a sort of psychological terror film about a disturbed young woman, Cissy (Carol Kane, who at one point intemperately demands her sister explain what she means by “normal”), who acts out in a way that distracts her sister (Lee Grant) from her astronomy job. Yet there are many complex depths to their relationship, not least a sort of incest theme that left me wondering if they were in fact sisters, or whether something more was going on (at first I suspected a proto-Fight Club duality).

The specific manifestation of Cissy’s mental health issues is her fixation on her father, a deceased anthropologist. Cissy performs African tribal dances, obsessively plays field recordings, and wears African hairstyles, as if in an alternate timeline for Mean Girls‘ Cady. Moreover she tortures primates in the cage set up by their father for study (the “mafu” of the title seems to be a term used to refer generically to primates, or perhaps just pets). Thus the film seems to be enacting a confrontation between white colonisers and Africa (its fauna and its human cultures), perhaps hinting at a sense of guilt, but certainly a pathology of slavery and subjugation, while also being about family dynamics in a hothouse environment that (not unjustly) claims a particularly pervy astronomer colleague of Cissy’s sister.

There’s so much going on that I can’t pretend to cover it all, but it was certainly interesting (even if the surviving 35mm print we watched is rather degraded in its pink palette).

Film posterCREDITS
Director Karen Arthur; Writer Don Chastain (based on the play Toi et tes nuages by Eric Westphal); Cinematographer John Bailey; Starring Lee Grant, Carol Kane; Length 104 minutes.
Seen at Watershed, Bristol, Friday 27 July 2018.

Criterion Sunday 253: A Woman Under the Influence (1974)

In my ongoing Criterion watching project, I stalled a bit before this film. I’d seen it before, and I’d rated it highly, but it’s one of those films that you need to take a big breath and a bit of time before you launch yourself into it because it is unrelenting. It’s not bleak exactly, but it’s exhausting because Gena Rowlands — who utterly dominates the film — just fills every empty space with her presence. She’s Mabel, the mother to three kids, and the wife to Peter Falk’s construction engineer Nick (or some kind of municipal worker), and if the way I’m defining her life seems a little regressive, well that’s the world of the film, and it’s strongly implied that part of her problem is the way that she has been pushed into this role, and the way she comes apart at the seams trying to live up to expectations made of her. That’s also partly why it’s so heartbreaking, because although she’s clearly become unhinged, it’s Nick who’s the bully and the bad person. He can be sweet and understanding at times, but every time he loses control of Mabel, he starts shouting and gets pushy and violent, and the kids, who are there most of the time, can’t do much about it. Cassavetes keeps the camera tight in on them for much of the film, only at the end disappearing behind a closed curtain as he leaves them. It’s a film of towering acting performances, not least from Rowlands, although Falk is also on brilliant form. There are these characters around the edges (parents, kids, co-workers of Nick’s), who feel almost like non-actors and perhaps they are, but for all its age, it feels continually fresh and perceptive about its characters, and about mental health.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer John Cassavetes; Cinematographers Al Ruban and Mitch Breit; Starring Gena Rowlands, Peter Falk; Length 147 minutes.

Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 12 May 2002 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, February 2000, and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Thursday 4 July 2019).

Two Films by Julio Bracho: Another Dawn (1943) and Twilight (1945)

We’re now deep into the Golden Age of Mexican cinema, though I can’t tell you much about the director himself. He was from a large family, was sister to Andrea Palma (seen in 1934’s The Woman of the Port and in Another Dawn below) and a cousin to Dolores del Río (whom we saw in La otra). He was involved with modern theatre in Mexico City in the 1930s and then moved into writing and directing between the 1940s-1970s, though he had trouble with the censors later in his career. He passed away in 1978.

Continue reading “Two Films by Julio Bracho: Another Dawn (1943) and Twilight (1945)”