Criterion Sunday 118: Sullivan’s Travels (1941)

Of all Preston Sturges’ output — he had a glorious run in the 1940s, in particular — this is the film that tends to get most often featured as his pinnacle. And yet, and yet. I assume I’d be missing the point to say this is a film about an absurdly privileged paternalistic condescending white man, a film director no less, who learns a Truth about poor folk: that comedy films are what the people want and that he’s been wrong to speak down to his audience. I mean, as far as Lessons go, it’s a good one, but it does rather require sitting through a lot of Joel McCrea being a pampered, pompous cretin. After all, he’s been wanting to make a serious work of Art, a disquisition on the plight of Man: O Brother, Where Art Thou? (it was left to the Coen brothers many years later to imagine just how this director character might have fused drama and comedy). Of course, yes, Sullivan’s Travels is a commentary on the operation of class privilege, but yet there’s plenty in the film that still irks me (as just one example, that he showed no contrition whatsoever for assaulting a railway worker with a rock). The ending suggests Sturges’ intentions are good — and the scene in the church with the black pastor is beautifully moving — but as a comedy it has a streak of meanness to it that makes it a frustrating film for me at least. Veronica Lake as “the girl” (nice work with that name) doesn’t impress as a great actor on this outing, but I love her character’s attitude for much of the film, at least, and could have stood to see more of it. I don’t wish to dispute the film’s Great-ness overly, but it just impresses me less than Sturges’ other films upon rewatching.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Preston Sturges | Cinematographer John Seitz | Starring Joel McCrea, Veronica Lake | Length 90 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 4 September 2016 (and earlier on VHS at university, Wellington, March 1998)

Pisutoru opera (Pistol Opera, 2001)

Unquestionably a singular and odd film by veteran filmmaker Seijun Suzuki, revisiting themes in his early-career masterpiece Branded to Kill, albeit with a woman assassin. The ‘opera’ aspect of the title shouldn’t be underestimated, as, although without songs, it has a lot of the theatricality of that format: the frontal staging, addresses to camera, the high-key lighting in a very clear and uncluttered frame, and the very frugal use of movement. Suzuki at times prefers to use empty shots with strong sound effects over people doing things in frame. So in short, it’s not your ordinary film. Like opera, though, the plot is actually fairly straightforward: an assassin (Makiko Esumi), ranked #3 by her Guild, has to contend with her fellow assassins (not least the mysterious Hundred Eyes, #1), in order to claim the first place, while also being stalked by a 10-year-old wannabe (Hanae Kan). It may be filmed in a very idiosyncratic way, but it’s never without visual flair and parades an array of gorgeous saturated colours.


FILM REVIEW
Director Seijun Suzuki | Writers Kazunori Ito and Takeo Kimura | Cinematographer Yonezo Maeda | Starring Makiko Esumi, Sayoko Yamaguchi, Hanae Kan, Masatoshi Nagase | Length 112 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 17 January 2017

Criterion Sunday 112: Play Time (aka PlayTime) (1967)

The films of Jacques Tati have never really been about the plot. Even his earliest efforts are more interested in the visual gag, how it’s set up and how it is executed, far more than in finding any kind of narrative-led justification for getting there. Play Time (or the camel-case PlayTime as Criterion prefers) is arguably Tati’s greatest achievement — it’s certainly my favourite of his films — and the refinement of his lifelong work on this pure gag-based visual technique. It’s essentially an absurdist avant garde film, almost entirely lacking in any kind of plot aside from having Tati’s familiar Hulot character bumbling around a gargantuan modernist set of his own devising. He encounters various people — bureaucrats, attendants, service workers and tourists — but it’s never clear what he’s trying to do or where he’s trying to go. Maybe I just missed something, but I’ve seen the film four times now and I’m no more the wiser. That said, I don’t really care. The visual world he creates is an advance on Mon oncle (1958), which contrasted the futuristic minimalist modernism of the nouveau riche upper-middle-classes with a decaying old world of Hulot. That latter world is entirely gone, aside from brief sightings of various familiar landmarks (like the Tour Eiffel and Sacre-Cœur) as reflections in the glass doors of Tati’s grim, grey concrete and steel office blocks. Hilariously, even tourist posters of other world cities just show these grey office blocks with their familiar tourist sights in the background.

A lot of the humour is of this variety and requires an active viewer scouring the many corners of the image to find them. Rarely is there a close-up to focus our attention, and many gags are played out across the space, sometimes with multiple different gags happening at the same time. One example might be when M. Giffard, a bureaucratic functionary, needs to give some data to a visiting American businessman, who calls his office from another in a series of hive-like cubicles viewed from above; Giffard then proceeds to leave his cubicle, open a filing cabinet on the outside of the office the American is calling from, and then returns to his own to relay the information back. All the while Hulot is standing in the extreme background waiting for Giffard to leave so he can speak to him (about what is never made clear). It’s this kind of long-shot staging that means the film is best seen on a 70mm print in the cinema, so for viewing at home, a big screen is almost required. Thankfully the Criterion edition presents the film in a pristine digital restoration that makes these kinds of setups clear, but no viewer will get everything going on in a single viewing, especially during a scene as hectic and extended as the bravura restaurant sequence that dominates much of the second hour.

Just recounting all the ways in which Play Time brilliantly uses its space to tell visual-led gags would take up far too long. Not all viewers will connect with this style, and I’ve certainly heard some say the film is boring or arid. It certainly makes little concession to the audience and requires an active, attentive viewing of the film — for example, there’s a 10 minute sequence inside an apartment which is viewed entirely from the street outside, and so we hear nothing of what is said by the characters. That said, it develops some of the most beautifully understated comic sequences in all of cinema, few of which even require the subtitles to be understood (there is some language-based humour emerging from the babble of voices, amongst which French, German and English dominate, but Hulot barely speaks at all), and all of it takes place on a set presenting a vision of modern times so self-contained and overwhelming that the experience can be a little deadening. Nevertheless, it’s a remarkable achievement all the same, and one that Tati would never again be given the same budget to achieve.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jacques Tati | Writers Jacques Tati and Jacques Lagrange | Cinematographers Jean Badal and Andréas Winding | Starring Jacques Tati | Length 124 minutes || Seen at Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Friday 12 September 2003 (and before that on VHS at home, Wellington, December 1999 and August 2001, and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Sunday 24 July 2016)

Criterion Sunday 111: Mon oncle (aka My Uncle, 1958)

Jacques Tati, having gained access to a more significant budget, paves the way towards his later masterpiece Play Time (1967) with this film, in which he constructs a large minimalist modern house almost all powered by electricity to contrast with the shabby, crumbling old world harking back to Les Vacances de M. Hulot (1953). The central character of that earlier film, played as ever by Tati, returns here as brother to Madame Arpel, the aspirational wife of a besuited businessman, seen in these fancy new digs. Hulot’s role is mainly to bumble about looking confused, and indeed many of the characters seem waylaid by all the confusing trappings of modernity. There is little enough plot, but elaborating on the theme of social class mobility and the depersonalising effects of the modern world, there are some wonderful running gags — not least that of Mme Arpel’s decorative fish-shaped fountain, which she turns on every time there’s a buzz at the door, and then turns off depending on the social class of the visitor. For me, it feels like notes towards Play Time, but it’s still an excellent film in its own right, and will no doubt also repay further repeat viewings.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jacques Tati | Writers Jacques Tati, Jacques Lagrange and Jean L’Hôte | Cinematographer Jean Bourgoin | Starring Jacques Tati | Length 111 minutes || Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 24 July 2016

Criterion Sunday 110: Les Vacances de M. Hulot (Mr Hulot’s Holiday aka Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, 1953)

The Mr Hulot character is probably director-writer Jacques Tati’s most enduring comic creation. He’s a bumbling, almost speechless chap bent over a cane, with a distinctive floppy hat and long pipe, who wanders around getting involved in comedy situations, though just as often merely witness to the these (certainly by the time of later films like Mon oncle and Play Time, he’s more audience than actor). With a plot that sees Hulot off on his holidays in a rickety old car to the beach, we get to see him striding around the guest house, eating in the restaurant, taking sun on the beach — all very reminiscent of, and undoubtedly mined by, later British comedies like Fawlty Towers and Mr Bean. There’s an implicit contrast between Hulot’s backward ways and the big modern cars, private cabins, and antisocial behaviour of the aspirational holidaymakers. It all moves along in a very likeable way, with nice careful use of sound effects, creating a very quiet, almost contemplative, atmosphere in which the comedy unfolds.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jacques Tati | Writers Jacques Tati and Henri Marquet | Cinematographers Jacques Mercanton and Jean Mousselle | Starring Jacques Tati | Length 86 minutes || Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 24 July 2016 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, December 2001)

Criterion Sunday 109: The Scarlet Empress (1934)

After some genre-defining silent films (which we’ll get to much later on in the Criterion Collection), Austro-Hungarian émigré director Josef von Sternberg did a run of films with Marlene Dietrich — the first in Germany (The Blue Angel, 1930) but the rest in the United States. In some ways these defined something else in cinema, every bit as important as a narrative structure, which is a sense of the fetishisation of the actor as icon. Obviously there had been stars before Dietrich, but the quality that Sternberg gets across in his run of films with her is something else, something more profound, something almost magical. His penultimate film with her was The Scarlet Empress, and alongside the shimmering beauty of Dietrich — the burnished close-ups, the flamboyant dress — this must rank as some kind of masterpiece of set design. Every image is crammed with baroque detail, every shot framed by grotesque sculptures presiding creepily over the action. This latter largely revolves around Dietrich on her road to becoming the Empress Catherine II, “Catherine the Great”, married into Russian nobility (the mad Peter, played with wide-eyed intensity by Sam Jaffe) and learning the ways of the court and methods of extending her power. The camerawork and lighting is bravura, but it’s those stylish set touches that only heighten the film’s giddy campness and emphasise how much Sternberg has given to the cinema in the 20th century. Stars would never again shine quite as brightly.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Josef von Sternberg | Writer Manuel Komroff (based on a diary by Catherine II) | Cinematographer Bert Glennon | Starring Marlene Dietrich, John Lodge, Louise Dresser, Sam Jaffe | Length 104 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 31 July 2016 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, April 2001)

Criterion Sunday 105: Spartacus (1960)

There’s a certain quality to the classic Hollywood historical epic that by the mid-1950s had become pretty much fixed in the popular imagination, and is the kind of thing that is satirised in Hail, Caesar! (2016). In many ways, Spartacus feels like the culmination of these trends and a bookend of sorts, the sine qua non of the sword-and-sandals epic of the ancient world (aka the “peplum film” from those omnipresent flowing togas). The acting is largely excellent, with fine subtle work — when subtlety is required, but bombastic when not — from Kirk Douglas as the titular slave leader and Laurence Olivier as Crassus, a scheming Roman senator, not to mention Charles Laughton as his rival Gracchus. There are also more wooden efforts, but when they come, as with John Dall’s Glabrus, it’s a solid wood, a really finely-grained aged wood, the wooden hamminess of, say, Charlton Heston, which is after all very much within the generic convention. The direction is solid too, but this isn’t one of Stanley Kubrick’s usual films — he was brought on after production had started — and so it feels wrong to assess it as one of his steely auteurist pieces. Perhaps the strongest credit on the technical side is Russell Metty’s beautiful cinematography, particularly the shadowy interiors where deals are made and Spartacus’s will is most tested. In covering all these vicissitudes of fate (being set in pre-Christian Rome, religion is largely avoided), the film runs long, to be sure, but that’s hardly a criticism: it’s what the historical epic demands. There are the grandly-staged battle scenes, interspersed with smaller one-on-ones between Gracchus and Crassus, or Spartacus and his love interest Varinia (Jean Simmons). There’s also expert comedy relief from Peter Ustinov as Batiatus, introduced running a gladiator school but never one to stick around when things get tough. In short, it’s a fine film, a totem of Hollywood craft and large-scale organisation, and it’s never less than entertaining.

Criterion Extras: A full-to-bursting double-disc edition includes the usual commentaries, which I’ve yet to watch. There’s a clutch of deleted scenes, mostly just extra shots which were ditched, and a heavily cut version of the ending demanded by the Catholic Legion of Decency which entirely excises much of the pathos. There’s also a brief audio snippet of Gracchus’ death scene. There are a few minutes of vintage newsreels of the film’s production (it was one of the most expensive of its time hence the interest), including Kirk Douglas getting his chin print outside Mann’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. Promotional interviews with Peter Ustinov and Jean Simmons from the time of the film’s release (edited absurdly to allow local news programmes to interpolate their own ‘interviewer’) are joined by an interview with Ustinov from 1992 as he reflects on his time on the production, fairly informative about the change of director, and the script credit issues, including a number of amusing anecdotes about his fellow actors. There are some Saul Bass storyboards for the fight sequences, and a huge number of production stills (as well as advertising material and even a comic book) with brief contextualising intertitles. Finally, but still very interesting, is some silent footage taken during the making of the film as the actors are trained up as gladiators.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Stanley Kubrick | Writer Dalton Trumbo (based on the novel by Howard Fast) | Cinematographer Russell Metty | Starring Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov, Jean Simmons | Length 196 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Monday 4 July 2016 (and earlier on VHS at the university library, Wellington, September 1998, and at the film department in April 2000)

Criterion Sunday 102: Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie (The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, 1972)

As Criterion in this period increasingly starts to look back to the great directors of history, it’s no surprise to see some representation for Spanish surrealist Luis Buñuel. His style has never been as flashy as some of the more vulgarian of auteurs, forever delighting in camera effects, but rather it’s the sly sense of humour which comes through so well, especially in his late period French films, which I adore. Much has been written about this film — still one of the best, though maybe if I were being stubborn I might opine the only great film, to have won an Academy Award in the US (for best foreign film, obviously) — but it stands up over forty years on. Some of the set design and costume choices are a little dated, but at heart this remains a delightful anarchic satire on the self-regarding, classist, greedy bourgeois class, forever just looking for a catered meal but, here at least, forever thwarted by Buñuel’s satirical ire.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Luis Buñuel | Writers Luis Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carrière | Cinematographer Edmond Richard | Starring Fernando Rey, Delphine Seyrig, Bulle Ogier, Paul Frankeur, Julien Bertheau | Length 102 minutes || Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 16 August 2000 (earlier at home on VHS, Wellington, November 1997, but most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 19 June 2016)

Criterion Sunday 98: L’avventura (1960)

Like a lot of filmmakers favoured by the Criterion Collection, Italian modernist auteur Michelangelo Antonioni has been through his critical ups and downs, but I think his minimalist dramatic style makes him more apt for modern reassessment than the carnivalesque spirit of his compatriot Fellini. For a long time, L’avventura was his quintessential work, and looking back on it around 55 years on, its shimmering monochrome has held up well. It still resists easy enjoyment though, primarily due to its still-radical narrative aporia (though perhaps less controversial than it was upon its release): not unlike the same year’s Psycho, it builds up a central character for the first half hour (in this case, Lea Massari’s Anna), only to have her disappear suddenly from the narrative. Antonioni doesn’t appear interested in why she disappears — it’s more of a narrative device than anything else — but in the way the remaining characters, Anna’s boyfriend Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti) and best friend Claudia (Monica Vitti), react to her disappearance and find solace in one another. I readily admit, though, that this is a simplistic assessment of the way things progress; this is no grand romance, so much as part of a game played by the bored bourgeois upper classes, reminiscent of the dissipated world of Dickie Greenleaf in The Talented Mr. Ripley (another almost contemporary story in its original form). In this sense, a character disappearing seems more like a statement of feelings (lost, disconnected from her friends), than a tragedy to be solved. Much of the emotional turmoil is rehearsed not through words but via formal means, using the carefully-controlled mise en scène, framing characters against landscapes and buildings, while others leave or re-enter the frame in a sort of choreography of passion. It’s wonderfully strange stuff, and is undoubtedly one of the finer and more classically-balanced achievements of a cinema starting to become obsessed instead (via various New Waves) with the energy and brashness of youth.

Criterion Extras: Aside from the commentary, there’s a 25 minute piece with Olivier Assayas gushing over the film, excitedly throwing out ideas in a quintessentially French way, illustrated with clips from the film. It’s quite informative and does suggest ways into what is a notoriously opaque and difficult film. There are also a couple of essays by Antonioni, one about the film and one about acting, which are read by Jack Nicholson, who also contributes his thoughts about working with him.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Michelangelo Antonioni | Writers Michelangelo Antonioni, Elio Bartolini and Tonino Guerra | Cinematographer Aldo Scavarda | Starring Monica Vitti, Gabriele Ferzetti, Lea Massari | Length 143 minutes || Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 8 May 2016 (and previously on laserdisc at the university library, Wellington, April 1998)

Criterion Sunday 97: Do the Right Thing (1989)

It’s been over 25 years since this film was first released — the film that very much put Spike Lee on the map, even if he’d had a few features before this which had garnered attention. It still fizzes with energy, a bold primary-coloured work of cinematic joie de vivre that, thanks to its sterling cinematography from Lee’s collaborator Ernest Dickerson, has a warm filter placed over everything. Every surface seems to drip with sweat and refract with the heat of this, the hottest day of the year. It’s shot and set in the Bedford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn NYC, and presents a warm-hearted portrait of a community that certainly isn’t perfect but is trying to get along. There’s a foothold to an older generation of Italian-American immigrants (the traditional white working class of Sal and his sons, running a popular corner pizzeria), whose ancestors may have made up much of the original population but who by the late-20th century have also largely fled to other areas further out in Queens and on Long Island (so-called ‘white flight’). There are the Black Americans who’ve also been there for some decades, and who are the beating heart of the modern community. There are Puerto Ricans in the mix, there is a newer influx of Asian immigrants (the Koreans who own the corner grocery opposite Sal’s, somewhat stereotyped), and there are even signs of a monied white middle-class moving in to start gentrifying the block. And everything would largely be fine except for the blasted heat which seems to fry everyone’s brains, leading to the film’s denouement. The one thing the heat can’t fully be blamed for — and the one area where Lee’s generosity to his characters is notably absent — is the action of the New York city police.

If the film still feels contemporary, still feels like a relevant angry broadside, it’s not just because fashions come back around, or that the urgent music of Public Enemy never really dropped out of style, or because of the stridency and subtlety of much of the acting. There’s Danny Aiello as Sal who tries to get along but is still marked by his racist upbringing, Richard Edson and John Turturro as Sal’s divided sons, Spike Lee in the central role of the rootless Mookie who can’t really manage his adult responsibilities, Rosie Perez as his angry girlfriend, angry as much from Mookie’s inaction as from the stress of raising their son, and the range of Greek Chorus figures like Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee as the elderly witnesses to their neighbourhood, the unemployed men sitting out on the sidewalk commenting on the action which passes them by, and Samuel L. Jackson as Mr Señor Love Daddy, the radio DJ. These are all very strong performances, and keep the film seeming fresh. But mostly it’s still contemporary because the interactions between American police and the neighbourhoods they are supposed to be policing doesn’t appear to have moved on, even as a generation has since passed by. Do the Right Thing testifies to the illegal deaths of Black men in police custody (not to mention a passing graffito reference, “TAWANA TOLD THE TRUTH”, to a notorious rape denial case of the era), and the sad thing is that news headlines of 25+ years later have scarcely moved on. The film makes the useful point, one that never really becomes tired, that racism and injustice affects everyone in a community. Hence: do the right thing.

Criterion Extras: It’s a packed edition, one of the early tentpoles for the growing collection. Most notably is the hour-long documentary Making “Do the Right Thing” (1989, dir. St. Clair Bourne), which is more than just a puff piece making-of that you’d get on a mainstream release. This is very much a cinematic work, one that tracks the progress of the shoot from its very earliest beginnings, but also talks to and gauges the response of the locals who’ve been affected for almost six months by this production, as Lee’s team builds sets along a block, and then for eight weeks is out there filming, shutting down the street and calling for silence for chunks of the summer. Suffice to say, not everyone is happy, and the film hears their voices, but is also watches carefully as the actors grapple with their characters (Danny Aiello in particular has trouble grasping the essential racism of Sal). It’s a very fine bonus feature indeed.

Alongside this, there is also a significant amount of (somewhat shakily amateur handheld) videos documenting the rehearsal and filming process with Spike Lee and his actors. The 1989 Cannes press conferences is reproduced in full, replete with slightly confused questions from the white European journalists present, and a short piece in which Lee and his producer revisit their locations 12 or so years on. There’s Lee’s video for Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power”, which contextualises their words within a tradition of protest as seen on archival film footage. And there’s an interview with Lee’s editor Barry Brown talking about the challenges of the work. Each of these extras is prefaced by a short Spike Lee introduction, and he also wraps up with some final words.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Spike Lee | Cinematographer Ernest Dickerson | Starring Spike Lee, Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis, John Turturro, Rosie Perez, Richard Edson | Length 120 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 22 May 2016 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, February 1997, and at university, May 1998)