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)”

Criterion Sunday 297: Au hasard Balthazar (1966)

I’m pretty sure you can throw around the word “masterpiece” about any of Bresson’s films, if you are someone who likes and appreciates his style (and it’s not for everyone). Important scenes are sometimes broken down synecdochally such that we only see an extreme close-up of someone’s hand or legs as a stand-in for them, and these brief snippets of action are used to convey some dramatic or uncomfortable event (a rape, say). It’s certainly effective if you are attuned to what Bresson is doing, and lends an almost spiritually ascetic quality to the proceedings. This isn’t my favourite of his films, and in some ways it’s a rather melodramatic story of a young woman and her donkey, as well as the many men who mistreat both of them. Their suffering is reminiscent of The Passion of Joan of Arc, silent and with a sense of grace, part of which comes from the very specific acting method he encourages, which minimises any kind of externalisation of suffering in expressive movement or facial responses. Still, this film no less than Bresson’s others, is beautifully controlled and enunciated in a very specifically visual film language.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Robert Bresson; Cinematographer Ghislain Cloquet; Starring Anne Wiazemsky, François Lafarge, Walter Green, Jean-Claude Guilbert; Length 95 minutes.

Seen at National Library, Wellington, Tuesday 19 June 2001 (also earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, March 1999, and most recently on Blu-ray home, London, Saturday 15 February 2020).

Criterion Sunday 292: Unfaithfully Yours (1948)

One of those classic Hollywood comedies where you’re not quite sure where the tone of the film is intended to be. It starts out filled with detail and incident, such that I had a hard time following what exactly was going on, before settling down to be a story of a jealous husband who must deal with his cheating wife. It swerves into a detective story and then there’s a stretch of screwball nonsense, but for me it’s held together by Rex Harrison as the husband, who somehow sells these wild mood swings. There’s a lovely repeated camera move zooming into his eye to introduce a number of fantasy sequences — which once again after the recent Criterion film Divorce Italian Style is about a husband imagining the death of his wife — all of which comes to fruition in the final bit of knockabout comedy. Preston Sturges was capable of great things, and this is a fine introduction to his style, though The Lady Eve remains my favourite of his works for being more distilled and compact somehow.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Preston Sturges; Cinematographer Victor Milner; Starring Rex Harrison, Linda Darnell, Rudy Vallée; Length 105 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Friday 10 January 2020.

Criterion Sunday 291: Heaven Can Wait (1943)

Ernest Lubitsch made some classic films, and there are plenty of moments of elegantly satirical comedy in this one too, starting with Don Ameche’s elderly philanderer Henry Van Cleve showing up to an appointment in Hades, but finding a bit of resistance from the gatekeeper there. Thereupon he recounts his story, which largely revolves around his likeable old codger of a grandfather (Charles Coburn) along with his stuck-up parents and cousin. Gene Tierney as his love interest Martha shows up altogether too late, and seems rather poorly used by both Henry and the director (especially as she ages during the film). The film rather coyly suggests Henry’s infidelity, but also lets him off the hook for it, hinting at a clear double-standard at play, which is all played for delightful laughs, even if it hasn’t exactly aged brilliantly. Still, it all looks fantastic, shot in lush Technicolor, and played with spirit by the supporting cast (including an ever amiable Eugene Pallette, playing pretty much the same character as in The Lady Eve).

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There’s a half-hour 1982 TV episode dealing with writer Samson Raphaelson’s career, including some interviews with him, which touch on this film amongst others he worked with Lubitsch on.
  • We also get a few minutes’ worth of snippets of home recordings featuring Lubitsch playing the piano, accompanied by some personal photos, introduced by his daughter (I think).

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Ernest Lubitsch; Writer Samson Raphaelson (based on the play Születésnap “Birthday” by Leslie Bush-Fekete); Cinematographer Edward Cronjager; Starring Don Ameche, Gene Tierney, Charles Coburn, Eugene Pallette; Length 112 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Wednesday 29 January 2020.

Criterion Sunday 290: Le Fantôme de la liberté (The Phantom of Liberty, 1974)

One of Buñuel’s typically absurdist late films, which narratively careens from one character to another almost randomly (like Linklater’s Slacker), a series of brief skits which fundamentally question the meaning we ascribe to narratives by constantly bamboozling one’s expectations. It may be one of his greatest films in fact, although the experience of watching it can necessarily be a little bit confounding, as familiar targets are satirised — like the bourgeoisie (sitting down to go to the toilet together), the police (the commissioner with his fixation on his sister, or the cadets being taught about polyamory in a class setting), men of religion (drinking and gambling in an inn), and just the general slew of human perversions and vices. There are some hilarious individual episodes as well as others which seem somewhat more of their time, but Buñuel stays above the fray dispassionately observing these foibles.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • The only significant extra is a short video introduction by the screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière which sets up some of the ideas he and Buñuel were playing with in the film.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Luis Buñuel; Writers Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carrière; Cinematographer Edmond Richard; Starring Julien Bertheau, Jean-Claude Brialy, Michael Lonsdale, Michel Piccoli, Jean Rochefort, Monica Vitti; Length 104 minutes.

Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 7 June 2000 (and most recently on DVD at home, London, Sunday 9 February 2020).

Criterion Sunday 288: F for Fake (aka ?, aka Vérités et mensonges, 1973)

There’s something seemingly inexhaustible about this (essentially final) film by Orson Welles, an essay film in the form of a documentary about fakery whose on-screen title is “?” and has Welles basically wonder aloud for 90 minutes what exactly defines art. In this sense, it’s his film about his own creative practice, which by this point in his career was largely smoke and mirrors anyway, given how few projects he managed to see to completion. Welles appears as the narrator, wandering around these various European locales in his heavy black cape, posing questions and telling tall tales, which even in the hour of film he claims is true, probably aren’t, or at least touch on people whose work has been all about elaborately lying. And then there are minutes-long stretches of the film where he just has guys staring at the semi-clothed body of his partner and muse Oja Kodar, which I suppose implicates the audiences’ desires somewhat in the production of these fictions, although she too is intriguingly a fiction of sorts (using a name Welles gave her). It’s all very clever, and I don’t doubt the care taken in its composition, but it also feels very spontaneous and even a little bit like something tossed off quickly, such that perhaps it’s impossible to know where the boundaries between truth and fiction lie, and whether they even really matter when it comes to art.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Probably the most interesting of the extras on the disc is the feature-length documentary co-directed by Welles’s former partner Oja Kodar, Orson Welles: The One-Man Band (1995), in which all the unfinished projects he was working on are presented as part of a wander through his life, as related by Kodar herself (and a German narrator). At least one of the projects covered in this documentary may have actually reached fruition in the 25 years since it was made — The Other Side of the Wind (finally completed and released last year) — but this assemblage of bits of Orson Welles’s unfinished projects still has a lot to fascinate. Kodar is seen reflecting a bit on their time together in some of the linking footage between the scraps of Welles’ own filmmaking, though more amusing is the footage of an onstage masterclass Welles seems to be leading, as he takes questions from the audience. The film footage itself runs the gamut from lost Shakespeare adaptations (him doing Shylock in a TV version of The Merchant of Venice) to a weird London-set comedy thing where Welles is the one-man street performer of the title (along with a guy getting fitted for a suit, and a cheerful copper), to his film of The Deep, an ill-advised Chinese character for… something, a cherished adaptation of Don Quixote, and then there are just the bits of him reciting random chapters from Moby Dick. All are infused with Welles’s own sense of impish delight at the pleasure of acting: for all his directing talent, he remained an exuberant performer above all else and that much is showcased here.
  • The nine-minute trailer (presented here in a black-and-white version) is essentially a separate short film that Welles made to support the American release of the film in 1976. (Incidentally, the film’s year of production varies somewhat, as it’s listed as 1975 on this disc, which is the year it premiered at the NY Film Festival, but it had been screened earlier in 1973 and 1974 at other European festivals, and is given as 1973 in most places.)
  • Peter Bogdanovich provides a filmed introduction, as he does for a number of Welles projects, and speaks a little about the background to the production and some of the trickery that Welles gets up to in the film.
  • Welles is interviewed by Tom Snyder in 1975 for his TV show Tomorrow, in which Snyder proves himself to be a fairly good interviewer, clutching a cigarette as seems to have been the way back then, and occasionally throwing out rather oddball questions, presumably designed to elicit something from Welles. Still, it nicely covers a lot of his more recent work and Welles remains as always an engaging presence.
  • One of the participants in F for Fake, journalist Clifford Irving, is interviewed by 60 Minutes in 2000, revisiting an earlier story about his Howard Hawks biography hoax, in which Irving fully admits to his fakery and talks about how it came about. There’s also an audio recording from 1972 of Howard Hughes speaking by phone to reporters, a fascinating part of the Hughes mythos if you are into that kind of thing, though he just seems like a slightly befuddled older man (and nowhere near as bonkers as half the things regularly said by the current US President).

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Orson Welles; Writers Welles and Oja Kodar; Cinematographers François Reichenbach and Gary Graver; Starring Orson Welles, Oja Kodar; Length 88 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 26 January 2020 (and originally on VHS at home, Wellington, November 1999).

Criterion Sunday 285: Popiół i diament (Ashes and Diamonds, 1958)

I’ve seen this film before apparently, but I really don’t recall it, which is odd. Visually, it builds on Wajda’s previous two films, particularly Kanal (1957), only deepening and enriching its monochrome tones, and setting up some beautiful and striking deep focus shots. It really is something to look at, helped along by Zbigniew Cybulski’s Maciek in his dark glasses. I don’t see him as particularly glamorous or attractive, though he has a certain screen appeal, and his work on behalf of the Communist underground in assassinating political opponents is hardly endearing either, but that’s the drama of the film. It all whirls by with a lightness of touch that recalls Renoir’s La Règle du jeu without perhaps the sense of absurdity (or without quite the same level of absurdity, because there’s certainly at least some humour at work here). It’s a film, a trilogy indeed, about the legacy of World War II in Poland, and as such these films by Wajda had a huge impact on the development of Polish filmmaking, somewhat akin to the French New Wave. I wanted to like this a lot more than I did, but it’s certainly a fine work.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Andrzej Wajda; Writers Jerzy Andrzejewski and Wajda (based on the novel by Andrzejewski); Cinematographer Jerzy Wójcik; Starring Zbigniew Cybulski, Ewa Krzyżewska, Wacław Zastrzeżyński; Length 103 minutes.

Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 3 April 2002 (and most recently on DVD at home, London, Monday 6 January 2020).

Criterion Sunday 278: L’eclisse (1962)

Antonioni, I feel, made a lot of films about boredom, or about people being bored, and it’s easy to slip into imagining they are boring films (to some, they are of course), but I love the moods he creates. Monica Vitti and Alain Delon slip into and around the frame in an almost endlessly reconfigurable number of ways, stopping only to look disconsolately off screen (and that’s how Vitti ends her screen performance in this film, last of a loosely-themed trilogy by Antonioni). She doesn’t seem to want love, or finds it boring perhaps, and then falls into the orbit of Delon’s stockbroker, whom she is equally unpassionate towards until near the end. Like the character halfway through L’avventura (1960), here all the film’s characters seem to disappear just before the end, as the world they’ve created continues, silent and without passion, in the places they have lived their lives and plan to keep living them, the water ebbing away from a rusted barrel, while the architecture blankly comments on the streets below. It’s a rondo of sorts between these two characters, and a movement through dead space, beautiful but always ultimately suffused with a boredom that emanates not just from the characters but from those around them, as if it’s the state of the universe.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Michelangelo Antonioni; Writers Antonioni, Tonino Guerra, Elio Bartolini and Ottiero Ottieri; Cinematographer Gianni Di Venanzo; Starring Monica Vitti, Alain Delon, Francisco Rabal; Length 126 minutes.

Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 16 October 2002 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Saturday 23 November 2019).

Criterion Sunday 277: My Own Private Idaho (1991)

It’s time for me to try something with my regular weekly Criterion Collection posts. I’m not changing the way they look or anything fundamental, but I have decided I am going to try to post two a week (both on Sunday, morning and evening). After all I’m fairly sure Criterion are adding around four new films every month, so it’s not looking like I’m going to catch up with them anytime soon. Therefore, I’ve taken the difficult decision to double my output on this, which means I’m going to need to watch twice as many each week if I’m to keep up. Therefore we’ll see how long this period of double-posting lasts.


It’s an odd one this, a film from the burgeoning independent gay cinema that was starting to move towards the mainstream, but looping in references (and sometimes entire speeches) from Shakespeare’s histories, without very much blurring between these two disparate registers. Its chief protagonists are Mike (River Phoenix), a directionless street hustler in Portland Oregon, who meets Scott (Keanu Reeves), who has chosen a life of hedonistic pleasure in defiance of his wealthy father, and both end up on a sort of road trip, though much of the trip seems to be more inside these characters’ heads. A Falstaffian figure is provided in the shape of Bob (William Richert), who acts like the boss of this loose coalition of street denizens, though beyond that it’s difficult to clearly set out what happens in the film given its fragmentary narrative structure, somewhat akin to the narcolepsy that afflicts Mike periodically. However, there’s enough looseness to allow small roles to odd and amusing characters, not least of all Udo Kier’s Hans, who does a dance with a lamp that’s probably the film’s comedy highlight. Elsewhere there are soliloquies and deadpan line readings that impart a rather glorious bathos to the proceedings, discursive as they are.

(Written on 8 February 2016.)


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Gus Van Sant (loosely based on the plays Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2 and Henry V by William Shakespeare); Cinematographers John J. Campbell and Eric Alan Edwards; Starring River Phoenix, Keanu Reeves, William Richert; Length 102 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Saturday 6 February 2016.

A Diptych about the Modern Philippines: “For Example, the Philippines” (2010/2015)

I’ve done a number of themed weeks around genres recently, and I wanted to get back to a country. This Friday sees the UK cinema release of Lauren Greenfield’s new documentary about Imelda Marcos, The Kingmaker, so my week’s theme is going to be the Philippines — mostly by Filipino filmmakers, but I’m starting with an American director looking in. Filipino history isn’t exactly well-known in the west, though a number of the country’s directors have told historical stories in film form, notably Lav Diaz with A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery (2016), in which independence leader Andrés Bonifacio’s wife is a central character (even if the film is more of a poetic-historical interpretation), and the question persists throughout about why Bonifacio was betrayed by his compatriots — one of the reasons why his birth of 30 November (and not his death) is the date used to celebrate him now in the country.

However, there are still questions about the extent to which the Philippines is truly independent from outside political influence (not exactly unusual amongst any country in our globalised modern economy, into one tangent of which recent documentary Overseas provides a fascinating glimpse). The Philippines may have overthrown its former Spanish imperialist masters, but the Americans quickly swooped in during the early-20th century and retain a presence. Over a hundred years later, in the early-2010s, American director John Gianvito put together a carefully-researched documentary diptych themed around the two largest overseas US military bases (at least, until their closure in the early 1990s), both of which were in the Philippines. He calls this diptych “For Example, the Philippines” and one can imagine similar stories in other territories in which the US (or other colonial imperialist powers) have meddled. It’s at once unsurprising, yet illuminating about this specific history, and also in the end utterly focused (even over its cumulative nine hours) about just who is paying the price for this century of imperial ambition. It gives voice to people never usually afforded time in grand political documentaries, and thereby extends the form.


Vapor Trail (Clark) (2010)

As a documentary this initially comes across as somewhat academic: lots of black leader, intertitles and subtitles with dense historical text and quotations, and an odd interplay of sound and silence, but over the course of its 4hr+ running time, it builds up a complex picture of the legacy of US imperialism in the Philippines, and more specifically the environmental and human cost of their abandoned Clark military base (used as the staging post for all of America’s wars in Southeast Asia and the Middle East until its closure in 1991). The interviews with the key modern players in this environmental crisis play out at length, supported by relevant clips and quotes where necessary, and there’s a constant throughline about the fraught history between the two nations (most notably the war with the US which took place after the Philippines declared independence from Spain in 1898), and director John Gianvito continuously probes his interview subjects about what they’ve been taught or know about this war, the answer generally being very little. And so the environmental catastrophe — with its toll on human lives (expressed through images of many many gravestones for children, many of whom never lived beyond a single day), not to mention some pretty harrowing interviews — plays out against a backdrop of historical erasure, the suggestion being perhaps that those who don’t pay attention to their history with respect to American imperialist and militarist ambitions are doomed to repeat it.

Wake (Subic) (2015)

Whereas the earlier film was set at the former Clark airbase and its nearby community, this follow-up in Gianvito’s diptych focuses on the legacy of Subic naval base. Both have some protagonists and interviewees in common, notably Teofilo aka “Boojie”, who leads several organisations dedicated to cleaning up the environment around these former bases, which have been so toxic and destructive to the communities (people who originally worked at the bases and even found some economic stability, but now live in great poverty afflicted by diseases brought on by toxic contaminants).

If it were just a journalistic piece about these families, it would be an angry indictment of governmental corruption and lack of responsibility. However, even more than the earlier film, Wake (Subic) weaves in the contested history between the US and the Philippines, in which the former was for a long time the aggressive imperialist power and which even now largely controls many of the political decisions being made in the country, with less direct responsibility than, say, in Puerto Rico (colonised around the same era) but every bit as much disrespect — much of it grounded in racism (alongside, of course, economic profiteering). Indeed, the documentary evidence of early-20th century US military interventions — part of a US-Philippine war which, it becomes evident, is barely taught officially in the country — are chilling, with a series of photos of near-genocidal acts of extermination, alongside written accounts from senior politicians (including a future President, Taft) minimising all this brutal repression in the language of smug westerns spouting their Christian civilising influence (in a country already devoutly Catholic).

CREDITS
Director/Cinematographer John Gianvito; Length 541 minutes (in two parts of 264 minutes and 277 minutes).
Seen at Close-Up Film Centre, London, Saturday 4 November 2017 and Sunday 5 November 2017.