One of the great contemporary Chinese filmmakers is currently Jia Zhangke, who made A Touch of Sin (2013), one of my favourites of the decade. His interest in small people dwarfed by huge government building programmes or infrastructure projects seems to run through his films, and is certainly evident in the screenshots (seen here) of the three narrative feature films (and one documentary) I’m reviewing in this post, all from the 2000s. However, more than that, they seem to be about people who are alienated from their society, or otherwise find difficulties in being connected, people who slip out of the system or are trying to keep in touch despite enormous societal changes going on around them.
While there are a huge number of recent biopics I can (and have) reviewed recently during this themed week on the genre, they have also had popularity throughout the history of cinema, and in many other parts of the world. Today I am focusing on two Japanese examples I watched more or less back-to-back this past year, both of which are concerned with artists, and are made by among the better directors of Japanese cinema, Naruse and Mizoguchi.
Expatriate Chinese director Xiaolu Guo is another key figure in British (and indeed wider European) arts scene, who has made a number of films which bridge documentary and drama and don’t really sit very comfortably within British filmmaking, preferring a rather more avant-garde praxis and perhaps better suited to gallery spaces.
One of Xiaolu Guo’s growing body of films clearly made on a shoestring budget, pitched somewhere in between documentary and fiction. Perhaps this is because of the way they’re filmed, or because they deal with real people in fictionalised scenarios, but it’s interesting to see these five disparate people enact a drama around the reproduction of a Caravaggio painting. Four of these men live in London (none of them English, it would seem, and Brexit inevitably plays a background role), while the artist of the painting is in China, one of a village community entirely filled with artists. One of the four London-based men, a photographer, strips off to pose on trees for his own photos, a hairy counterpoint to the smooth features and perfect light of the young man in Caravaggio’s painting. Another of them is a philosopher, but dabbles in art himself, endlessly trying to reconfigure and improve the reproduction painting, a philosophical exercise perhaps. The third is a writer, displaced from Ethiopia via the Sudan, who has a shelf full of books by Deleuze that he barely understands, but reads obsessively and quotes from, and here we have this idea of the time-image (his are key texts for theorists of cinema), which is I guess what the Caravaggio reproduction functions as for the fourth man, a poet. There’s a lot to unpack, and Guo’s films aren’t always the most accessible, but she’s an artist and this is another of her reproducible works.
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Xiaolu Guo 郭小橹; Length 74 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Saturday 20 October 2018.
Having never heard of it before it popped up on our Criterion watching project, this is a perfectly likeable colour film about a colourful character who paints colourful works of art and injects a bit of épater into those bourgeois lives he drifts through (well, more upper-class really), but I’m not sure what deeper meaning it really captures. The one the filmmakers presumably intend — that art is valuable, damn everything — comes through clearly though, and Alec Guinness in the lead as dishevelled painter Gulley Jimson is as ever reliable, not unlike the Meryl Streep of his day, all accents and imposture in the service of wit and well-crafted journeyman material. It has its diversions, and is pleasing on the eye.
Criterion Extras: There’s a short interview with Ronald Neame from before he died (around when the DVD was released, presumably), who is a genial host and tells of the film’s production. There’s also a trailer. However, the standout extra is a short film which was shown with the feature at its original New York run in the late-1950s, a short film by D.A. Pennebaker called Daybreak Express. For all its five minutes running time, it is far the superior work. It’s a jaunting work of jazzy cinematic propulsion, like a city symphony made my Soviet constructivists with a penchant for Duke Ellington. Rich and resonant colours, bold modern architecture, a train ride from the city to suburbs both exceeding that experience but also encapsulating it.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Ronald Neame; Writer Alec Guinness (based on the novel by Joyce Cary); Cinematographer Arthur Ibbetson; Starring Alec Guinness, Kay Walsh; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 23 April 2017.
One of the strengths of a traditional documentary is to shine light on something that is perhaps less well-known and bring it to life in some way. I can’t claim that this film makes any great formal advances, and some of the titling is a little clunky if I’m trying to pick holes, but it takes the life of a person I did not know very well except in passing as a name engraved on art museums (although her uncle Solomon is the Guggenheim behind the more iconic ones), and makes it into an enjoyable and fascinating story. The life of Peggy Guggenheim is told via talking heads interviews with those who knew and worked with her, archival photos from her life, snippets of film, images of the most famous artworks she collected and the places where they hang, but primarily via a voice recording she made with her biographer late in her life. This trope of ‘these recordings were believed lost, but have been rediscovered and are presented in this film for the first time’ is becoming one wearily familiar in the documentary world; I’ve seen a few already this year. However, Peggy’s voice is a wonder to hear, not just for her idiosyncratic delivery, but for her willingness to candidly talk about all kinds of subjects (her biography is noted by one interviewee as being a catalogue of the people she’s slept with). Her life becomes a distillation of bohemian allure and hard-nosed business deals, taking her from New York to Paris to London to Venice, combined with her winning ingenuousness and delight at the modern art she loved so much. It’s only a pity she’s no longer around, but her art galleries remain a testament to her vision.
Director Lisa Immordino Vreeland; Writers Bernadine Colish and Vreeland; Cinematographer Peter Trilling; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Tuesday 15 December 2015.
Russian auteur Andrei Tarkovsky is certainly no stranger to grand portentous overlong films that seem to hold within their allegorical narratives some statement about society and the world, and in many ways this 1966 film (not released until 1969 due to problems with the Soviet censors) is the first of those to break through to an international audience. It did so in a series of increasingly shorter cuts of around 2.5 to 3 hours in length, but the full 205 minutes is restored here by Criterion and, assuming you’re already in for meandering stories about wandering monks in 14th century Russia, then it won’t disappoint. Although Rublev was a famous painter of icons in Russian Orthodox churches, there’s relatively little of that actually in the film (possibly the creation of art isn’t quite as compelling). However, it enacts a narrative of divine inspiration challenged by atheist philistines, and one can already sense why perhaps the atheist Communist Party of 1960s USSR might not have taken too kindly to Tarkovsky’s themes. The film is split into eight chapters, set in chronological order and dealing (if sometimes tangentially) with episodes from Rublev’s life — encountering a sarcastic jester, discussing art with his mentor Theophanes, enacting Christ’s passion, dealings with pagans and Tatars, et al. It’s probably best to think of these as each illustrating some allegorical lesson about Russia, but they are also quite often handsomely mounted and beautifully shot in sinuous long takes. The final section is perhaps the most impressive, wherein a young boy, the son of a bellfounder, is called on to forge an enormous bell for the Grand Prince, and does so by submitting blindly to faith, while Rublev watches from a distance in silence, having at this point given up on his art. Its message of the importance of artistic creation even under oppressive regimes is a valorous one, and though it may take some time to sink in, the film is a grand achievement.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Andrei Tarkovsky Андре́й Тарко́вский; Writer Andrei Konchalovsky Андре́й Михалко́в-Кончало́вский and Tarkovsky; Cinematographer Vadim Yusov Вадим Юсов; Starring Anatoly Solonitsyn Анатолий Солоницын; Length 205 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 3 May 2015 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, September 1997, and at the university library, Wellington, September 2000).
I don’t write full reviews of every film I see, because I’d spend more time writing than watching, probably, and I’ve been seeing quite a few things at home. However, I thought I should offer some brief thoughts about my other January viewing.
Big Eyes (2014, USA)
The Craft (1996, USA)
D’est (From the East) (1993, Belgium/France/Portugal)
Get Over It (2001, USA)
Holes (2003, USA)
I Could Never Be Your Woman (2007, USA)
Into the Woods (2014, USA)
Loser (2000, USA)
Sheen of Gold (2013, New Zealand)
Slap Her, She’s French! (aka She Gets What She Wants) (2002, USA)
Tabu (1931, USA)
The veteran American documentarian Frederick Wiseman likes to point his camera at institutions and try to document the way that they work (or don’t work, as the case may be). His previous film, At Berkeley was set at the University of California, Berkeley, and dwelt a lot on the bickering of its board members about various minutiae of academic life — moreso, it sometimes felt, than the actual teaching of students.
In this new film about London’s National Gallery, the focus is very much on the pedagogy over the administration. Sure, there are some scenes featuring the then-director Nicholas Penny and his team, but the tenor of these is largely set up by an early scene of (I’m guessing) a marketing manager rather tediously (and vaguely) confronting Penny about the gallery’s public engagement strategies, as it’s this theme that’s picked up again later during a board debate about a charity event. Instead, when the camera isn’t on the paintings (generally briefly) or on people looking at paintings in the galleries, it’s mostly observing the staff engaging various audiences about the meanings in the paintings and their value as artistic works. These audiences range from public visits and school groups standing in front of the paintings themselves, students looking behind the scenes at restoration work (a vital yet sensitive part of the gallery’s function), educational events (for example, one in which blind people are given tactile versions of the paintings), and rather more stentorian groups of members and donors. These all combine to give a sense of how the gallery and its director must navigate these various interest groups, protecting the gallery’s function as a public space as well as its increasing need to keep revenue ticking over.
But it’s also a film about the limitations of capturing paintings on film. One educator talks to students about the difference between paintings and films in terms of time (what we might call their synchronic versus diachronic aspects, to exhume a bit of film studies lingo), that one is a moment in time whereas another can evolve over a duration. Wiseman gives as much prominence to the pictures as to those people in the gallery who are looking at or standing around these pictures. The documentary tries to convey a sense of what it is to confront art in a gallery setting, and about its value to society, but the nature of film makes it difficult to really do more than show people talking about the art, though the montage valiantly tries to break some of the works down during discussions in the way you might focus on different areas of the painting while thinking about its effects and the themes the artist is trying to convey. If the film then is reminiscent of the famous quote “writing about music is like dancing about architecture”, so Wiseman’s ending seems like a witty rephrasing of this with relation to filming art. Luckily, despite the film’s length, sitting through it to get to this scene is far from a chore, and the fact that I didn’t feel the need to visit the Gallery afterwards (despite it being just around the corner from the cinema) is — I hope — a testament to the breadth of its approach.
Director Frederick Wiseman; Cinematographer John Davey; Length 181 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Sunday 11 January 2015.
Two more short reviews of films I just haven’t been able to summon up the enthusiasm to think about at great length. Not that either of them is bad, mind.
Mr. Turner (2014)
This latest by Mike Leigh seems to have divided audiences and critics, though by most metrics it has done very well at the box office, a fine feat considering its length. Presumably it appeals to the heritage crowd, what with being a period film, and at that it does very well, conjuring a good sense of 19th century London, with its galleries and its fine houses, as well as its muck and dirt, not to mention the failings of medicine (Dorothy Atkinson’s servant gets progressively more blighted by psoriasis as the film goes on). At the film’s heart is Timothy Spall’s JMW Turner, a painter of some of the finest works of English art, who here is a gruffly monosyllabic grouch who communicates more in coughs and splutters than with words (Spall’s performance is in fact second only this year to Gérard Depardieu’s in Welcome to New York for guttural grunting). Yet it’s an oddly disjointed film, which moves along in vignettes — Turner at the Royal Academy disputing with his fellow painters, Turner at home, Turner on holiday in Margate, this kind of thing. To be fair, this gives it the sense of a series of (moving) paintings, much like Turner’s work, and like his work a lot of the film is very beautifully shot. However, even the most artfully composed film could never approach the breathtaking vistas of Turner’s later paintings, so perhaps my point of comparison is just unfair in the first place.
Director/Writer Mike Leigh; Cinematographer Dick Pope; Starring Timothy Spall, Marion Bailey, Dorothy Atkinson; Length 149 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Tuesday 4 November 2014.
The Homesman (2014)
Another film set in the 19th century — in fact, covering many of the same years as Mr. Turner, albeit on another side of the Atlantic — is this film by actor turned writer/director Tommy Lee Jones. His debut film as director was the wonderful and underrated The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005), a film with a great feeling for border territories, and this new film is again set on a frontier of sorts. I’m tempted to call it a Western, though it’s not set in the west but rather in Nebraska, and it deals with a sturdy frontierswoman, Mary Bee Cuddy (played capably by Hilary Swank), who for various reasons has to accompany three mad women back to civilisation, where they can be (more) properly cared for. She soon picks up Tommy Lee’s disreputable George Briggs to help her, and thus begins their journey. It’s all very ably and attractively shot by veteran DoP Rodrigo Prieto, and in the two central roles Jones and Swank make for a fine odd couple. But things take a turn later on which is both unexpected and abrupt, though undoubtedly it suggests (and, more widely, the film does capture well) a sense of the difficulties attendant on life in this era and location. In which respect, of course, the roles for the mad women are rather thankless, amounting to little more than gurning and groaning at times. Yet, while it’s a film that feels as if it has two distinct parts, it certainly also has its virtues.
Director Tommy Lee Jones; Writers Jones, Kieran Fitzgerald and Wesley Oliver (based on the novel by Glendon Swarthout); Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto; Starring Hilary Swank, Tommy Lee Jones; Length 122 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld West India Quay, London, Tuesday 25 November 2014.