Criterion Sunday 531: The Docks of New York (1928)

Sternberg’s last surviving silent film reaches a feverish peak that he would sustain over his next run of sound films starring Marlene Dietrich. It conjures the atmosphere of the titular location, beautifully using light and shadow, smoke and fog, and gliding camerawork. The actors are pretty great too, with George Bancroft giving his ship’s stoker character, Bill, a burly menace softened by his evident warmth of feeling towards Betty Compson’s suicidal prostitute Mae. There’s a generosity towards both characters, a lack of moral judgement, and the drama is in whether Bill will overcome his compulsion to fulfil the manly archetype he seems to hold of the sweaty stoker committed to his backbreaking labour, and whether Mae is willing to accept the possibility of a better life for herself. It’s all fairly compact and stays focused on the poetic evocation of this setting, doing a beautiful job of capturing what ultimately is a romance — and a hopeful one at that.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Josef von Sternberg; Writer Jules Furthman (from the story “The Dock Walloper” by John Monk Saunders); Cinematographer Harold Rosson; Starring George Bancroft, Betty Compson; Length 75 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), Wellington, Monday 7 March 2022 (and earlier on VHS in the university library, Wellington, July 2000).

Criterion Sunday 525: 一人息子 Hitori Musuko (The Only Son, 1936)

Ozu’s later works are among some of my favourite films and it’s probably fair to say that a lot of the elements in his style were already in place by the time of this, his first sound film. He punctuates shots with images of socks and linen fluttering in the breeze in neatly-arranged rows, a clean organisation that belies the relative poverty the characters live in, and those tatami mat shots are very much in evidence. I also think his attitude to his characters is already fairly complexly laid out: the disappointment of the mother (Choko Iida) in her son (Himori Shin’ichi) is something she buries pretty deeply and when she does express it and try to find some way to accept her son’s life (which is, outwardly, pretty happy despite his lowly career), she is still left with a pain inside, expressed via a final shot. These emotional resonances are largely not expressed via dialogue, and that method of hiding sadness behind a smile is something Ozu would do a lot in his films with Setsuko Hara. Still, for some reason I find it difficult to embrace the film and I don’t think it’s just the slightly indifferent preservation of the elements (there’s a lot of noise on the image and soundtrack). Perhaps it’s the insistency with which the big city is seen as a corrupting influence (but then again the mother is struggling just as hard out in the countryside, having lost her family home), or perhaps I just feel out of step with the moral quandaries — though again I don’t think the mother’s internal struggle is impossible to imagine today. Still, it marks a step on the way to some of cinema’s greatest films.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Yasujiro Ozu 小津安二郎; Writers Tadao Ikeda 池田忠雄 and Masao Arata 荒田正男; Cinematographer Shojiro Sugimoto 杉本正次郎; Starring Choko Iida 飯田蝶子, Himori Shin’ichi 日守新一, Yoshiko Tsubouchi 坪内美子, Chishu Ryu 笠智衆; Length 82 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), Wellington, Tuesday 25 January 2022.

Criterion Sunday 519: کلوزآپ ، نمای نزدیک Kluzap, Nema-ye Nazdik (Close-Up, 1990)

I do love the late Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami’s works, and this isn’t even my favourite of his. It is however, the film that, perhaps more even than his celebrated Koker trilogy (the first of which pre-dates this film), shows the power of his craft. Once again he approaches a real-life incident but loops in so many layers of storytelling that it’s unclear where documentary ends and fiction begins. Perhaps there is no truth, or perhaps it is all true: there’s a court sequence that seems like it must be unmediated reality but that itself feels like a construct (the grainier image hinting at some more ‘truthful’ technique, like that video-shot sequence at the end of Taste of Cherry, but then there’s also an abundance of very prominent camera equipment, lights and boom operators, that moves us away from cinéma vérité). There are also sequences which must surely be reconstructions, but the classical filmmaking style gives the impression of being there, such that you have to catch yourself occasionally. Is our lead character Hossein Sabzian a foolish figure, a grifter out to make a buck, or is he the one ultimately being conned? You could make an argument for any of these, and all are possible within Kiarostami’s film. Ultimately this is a film asking where the truth lies, and certainly in Close-Up — as perhaps, we are led to believe, in all filmmaking — there is truth and there are lies.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • This is an excellent release for those who love Kiarostami because you get an entire early feature film as a bonus extra, The Traveller (1974), which is claimed in some sources to be his debut feature although it appears from others to be his second film (the first was an hour long, which may be where the confusion lies). In any case, like many of his early short films, this focuses on kids and football. A boy in a small town loves it to the exclusion of his schoolwork and is focused on getting to see the national team play in the capital Tehran. Thereupon he embarks on a series of ruses (mostly of dubious morality) to get the money to go. You can see Kiarostami’s indebtedness to Italian neorealism here, but there’s a lot of what would later become his familiar style present also. It ends in an almost shockingly abrupt way, but it works, especially when we consider its production by a childhood education institute — though there’s nothing overtly didactic about the script (aside from an amusing scene where he’s trying to do some maths, then promptly skips his maths lesson).
  • Another extra is Close-Up, Long Shot (1996, dir. Moslem Mansouri/Mahmoud Chokrollahi), a 44 minute video-shot companion piece that revisits Hossein Sabzian some years after he’d been the focus of Close-Up. With his greying hair (he’d made a reference in the earlier film to dyeing it black) and time to reflect, he cuts a quite different figure from the slightly foolish and diffident man of Kiarostami’s film — suggesting yet another layer on top of those presented in Close-Up of how truth has been manipulated. Certainly Sabzian does feel here — and expresses it with some eloquence — as if he was the one being conned ultimately, and if his story isn’t exactly triumphant, he at least has his wits about him (though sadly he died 10 years later). The filmmakers of this documentary give a sense of his life and family, talking to his friends, and it’s an interesting extra piece of what was already a multi-faceted cinematic puzzle.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Abbas Kiarostami عباس کیارستمی‎; Cinematographer Ali Reza Zarrindast زرین‌دست علیرضا; Starring Hossain Sabzian حسین سبزیان, Mohsen Makhmalbaf محسن مخملباف; Length 98 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Tuesday 12 April 2022 (and earlier, probably at home on VHS, Wellington, early-2000s).

مسافر Mosafer (The Traveller, 1974)
Director/Writer Abbas Kiarostami عباس کیارستمی‎; Cinematographer Firooz Malekzadeh فیروز ملک‌زاده; Starring Hassan Darabi حسن دارابی; Length 71 minutes.

Seen at Close-Up Film Centre, London, Monday 5 June 2017.

Criterion Sunday 511: Juventude em Marcha (Colossal Youth, 2006)

I’m not sure is this is the best of Pedro Costa’s three films grouped together as the “Fontainhas trilogy” after the Lisbon slum/shanty town where they take place, but after spending so much time with these characters in this place, its quiet reflectiveness feels the richest, perhaps because of that time spent. Costa too has developed his video aesthetic that he began with In Vanda’s Room, recapturing some of the painterly contrast that was at play in the first of the three (Ossos) but without the conventions of the narrative. The characters are still slouching around going nowhere, interspersed with the tall and elegant elderly man Ventura narrating a letter to someone long gone it seems. and there’s not much in the way of plot to speak of, but it swaps out the crumbling buildings of the previous films for the new apartments built in their place, which have a sort of antiseptic quality, though there’s still plenty enough places for Costa to find his crepuscular shadows. I can’t really explain too much why I like it, but it’s an experience that just needs to sort of wash over you, and at that level I find it rewarding.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Pedro Costa; Cinematographers Costa and Leonardo Simões; Starring Ventura, Vanda Duarte; Length 156 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 12 March 2022 (and I’m fairly sure I saw it a cinema in London, probably the ICA, back in around 2007, but I don’t have a record of it).

Criterion Sunday 507: Bigger Than Life (1956)

Nick Ray has no shortage of great movies in the 1950s especially but this one feels like his most distilled statement. On the surface it’s a social problem film, about a man addicted to painkillers, but in some ways that just feels like a convenient excuse for Ray to lay out all the ills of conformist 50s domesticity, as James Mason’s underpaid schoolteacher starts letting loose about all the big shibboleths: the stranglehold of the church, the stagnancy of the nuclear family, and in a scene that has scarcely aged in 65 years, the political correctness and cosseting of education. Of course, we’re hardly expected to go along with him, and his single-minded destructiveness about everything around him does lead him down the path of murderous semi-religious incoherence, but along the way the film throws out broadsides against all the institutions that bind society together and leaves everyone’s happiness hanging at the end with a resolution that doesn’t really deep-down seem to resolve anything. Because unlike in a TV sitcom of the kind this film seems to be satirising, when you’ve opened up the very foundational blocks of western culture to question, it’s very hard to pack that Pandora’s box all away and pretend that it’s all happy families once again. There’s a brutality to this film that’s difficult to take at times because it feels so very angry, but it hits the marks it’s going for, I think, in the unhinged melodrama it offers.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Nicholas Ray; Writers Cyril Hume and Richard Maibaum (based on The New Yorker article “Ten Feet Tall” by Berton Roueché); Cinematographer Joseph MacDonald; Starring James Mason, Barbara Ray, Walter Matthau, Christopher Olsen; Length 95 minutes.

Seen at the NFT, London, Monday 8 December 2003 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Friday 18 February 2022).

Criterion Sunday 505: Make Way for Tomorrow (1937)

I guess the Tokyo Story comparisons are obvious — it clearly is an inspiration on that film (Ozu loved his American melodramas, as is clear enough from film posters that show up in his early films) — although stylistically it’s rather different of course, but it hits just as hard in many ways. There’s a lightly comedic way it has of setting up its characters and their situations, and then when the families get to fussing and arguing, it could be straight out of 50s Sirk or 70s Fassbinder in the bitter undercurrents, the glances shared between the elderly mother’s son and daughter-in-law, the wearied sighs and desperate attempts to shift the burden of care amongst one another. But actually it’s the kindness that strangers and even sometimes family show one another that makes it most difficult to take, because nobody here is trying to be horrible or difficult, and the way the elderly couple at the film’s centre are forced apart is almost inevitable once it begins. They do get one last chance to revisit their youth and their love, but by the time the train trip beckons, there’s an overwhelming sorrow that puts it firmly among even the Criterion releases that precede it (films like Germany Year Zero and Hunger). Somehow even the sentimentality and humour makes it even more bleakly relatable, because tomorrow is always coming, and at an ever faster pace.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Leo McCarey; Writer Viña Delmar (based on the play by Helen Leary and Noah Leary, itself based on the novel The Years Are So Long by Josephine Lawrence); Cinematographer William C. Mellor; Starring Beulah Bondi, Victor Moore, Thomas Mitchell, Fay Bainter; Length 92 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 6 February 2022.

Criterion Sunday 503: Lola Montès (1955)

This is one of those grand European follies (like Les Amants du Pont-Neuf in more recent times, perhaps) which burned up money in its production and then failed spectacularly at the box office, but it’s the last film by the great director Max Ophüls and if it’s a failure, it’s a spectacular and beautiful one, immaculately staged and choreographed. Of course, as a film, it’s not a failure at all, but perhaps it just didn’t suit the tastes of the mid-1950s audience. It’s set a hundred years earlier, around the time of the revolutions of 1848, and tells a story of a courtesan and (apparently fairly indifferent) dancer known primarily for her liaisons with rich and powerful men, such is the way of that era’s stardom. Martine Carol in the title role is a glamorous presence but, when seen from the vantage point of her later years performing in a circus, a curiously voiceless one, as the ringmaster Peter Ustinov puts most of her words into her mouth. I don’t think that’s a failure of acting, though: if she feels underwhelming, it’s because her life has pushed her to this, and the flashbacks in which her story is told find her with more agency and a more vibrant presence. But acting aside this is a film peculiarly constructed in the staging and shooting, as beautifully framed widescreen images are composed, and the emotional movement of the story is as evident from the camerawork as from the screenplay or acting. Undoubtedly a film to lose oneself in on the big screen, it’s one of cinema’s great films by one of the medium’s finest directors.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Max Ophüls; Writers Ophüls and Annette Wademant (based on the novel La Vie extraordinaire de Lola Montès by Cécil Saint-Laurent); Cinematographer Christian Matras; Starring Martine Carol, Peter Ustinov, Anton Walbrook, Will Quadflieg, Oskar Werner; Length 115 minutes.

Seen at Te Papa, Wellington, Sunday 30 July 2000 (as well as earlier on laserdisc at the university, Wellington, April 1998, and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Friday 7 January 2022).

Criterion Sunday 499: Germania anno zero (aka Deutschland im Jahre Null) (Germany Year Zero, 1948)

After two Italian films (Rome Open City filmed during WW2, and Paisan after it), the third in Rossellini’s “War Trilogy” turns to the bombed-out ruins of Germany, with not a word of Italian spoken throughout. And somehow it manages to be not just the bleakest of the trilogy but perhaps amongst just about any film. That’s not evoked by anything graphic, though, but merely through the pathos of this character he follows, a young boy called Edmund (Edmund Moeschke) who is torn between childhood and the need if not the desire to be a man and help his impoverished family. In the background there are all kinds of hints towards the kind of behaviour that flourishes in this environment — albeit none ever spelled out, but left as rather disturbing little asides — such as of women and girls like Christl turning to prostitution, and of predatory older men. The most disturbing characters are probably thus Edmund’s former teacher Herr Henning (Erich Gühne) and a mysterious almost aristocratic figure he seems to be sending boys to (it’s unclear exactly what’s happening there), but who seem to express their feelings pretty clearly in the way they caress Edmund. Henning is still openly devoted to Hitler and has Edmund flog recordings of the Führer to occupying troops on the down low, while feeding him lines about sacrificing the weak to ensure the strong can survive, which gives Edmund ideas when he sees his father slowly dying and drives him to the film’s denouement, a bleak trawl back through everything we’ve seen as Edmund looks for some kind of absolution. Even more so than in Rome, perhaps, this is a city of bleak finality and that’s where the film leaves Edmund and us as viewers.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Roberto Rossellini; Writers Rossellini, Max Kolpé and Carlo Lizzani; Cinematographer Robert Juillard; Starring Edmund Moeschke, Erich Gühne, Ernst Pittschau; Length 73 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 5 February 2022.

Criterion Sunday 498: Paisà (Paisan, 1946)

This film of Rossellini’s is less contained than his first in the “War Trilogy” that started with Rome, Open City. After all, it tells six separate stories rather than the one, across the length of Italy in the period leading up to the end of the war, as the Americans and British are found fighting the Germans on Italian soil. We see stories of partisans but also of women and children — whether living in poverty and desperation (as in the second and third stories), or helping out on the frontlines (as in the first and fourth) — and their encounters with the Allies. It’s not a film of hope, as there’s plenty of bleakness, but it feels like a series of stories that is trying to say something about the experience of war rather than (perhaps more usual) propaganda-friendly stories of triumph against adversity, or victory against fascism. In most of these stories, there is no victory because there aren’t really any good or bad guys, there’s just the struggle to survive when there are so few opportunities, and then in the fifth story there’s a different struggle that seems entirely abstracted from the war, of a group of Catholic monks whose primary interest is in ensuring the souls of the non-Catholic Americans can be saved. There’s a bit of humour in it, but a wealth of humanity, and even if the individual stories can sometimes seem a little bit moralistic, as a whole it offers a sweeping view of wartime struggle that it may be my favourite of his works.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Roberto Rossellini; Writers Sergio Amidei, Klaus Mann, Federico Fellini, Marcello Pagliero, Alfred Hayes and Vasco Pratolini; Cinematographer Otello Martelli; Starring Carmela Sazio, Dots Johnson, Maria Michi, Gar Moore, Harriet Medin, Renzo Avanzo, William Tubbs; Length 126 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Tuesday 25 January 2022.

Criterion Sunday 484: Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)

I’ve seen this film before, though it took me a long time between first reading about it (when I was first getting into film in the late-90s) to actually getting to see it (in 2007, by the time I’d moved to London, at the NFT). I loved it back then yet in thinking about rewatching it, what stuck in my head was the boring quotidian rituals that Jeanne goes through robotically at home. And indeed the first half of the film is largely just this: her doing the chores, at great length. However, Akerman and cinematographer Babette Mangolte frame and light her home as carefully as a video art installation in a gallery, and there’s still something hypnotic about her actions. Even her welcoming a client into the home is part of the everyday ordinariness — sex work is neither glamourised nor ridiculed, it’s just part of the ritual of her life.

But for all its peculiar fascination, this is just a set up for the drama that takes place when, having become used to Jeanne’s rituals, things start to fall apart. She has a long (for the film) chat with an unseen neighbour outside her door, and then a second client seems to put her off her rhythms. This quickly leads to the rituals of her life, the chores and the busywork she does to keep the home tidy for her and her son, starting to unravel a bit. There’s an obvious feminist message about the toll that this work takes on women’s lives, though for all that happens, it’s not clear that Jeanne ends up in a bad place. That final shot, of her in the dark, the weight of her life seemingly somehow lifted, makes it feel like she has been freed of something, though I concede that perhaps everyone has a different reaction to it. That’s part of the film’s beauty, in allowing those readings, because it does still feel like an open text, that hints at things without playing its hand, and it’s another role for Delphine Seyrig (after Last Year at Marienbad, which preceded this by a few titles in the Criterion Collection) in which her character’s reality seems open to question.

In short, this is a film filled with wonder and misery, which is very much about everyday life, about the mundanity of it all but also about the choices we all make every day in every moment of our lives.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Chantal Akerman; Cinematographer Babette Mangolte; Starring Delphine Seyrig; Length 201 minutes.

Seen at the NFT (now the British Film Institute), London, Wednesday 21 March 2007 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Friday 3 December 2021).