Criterion Sunday 470: Wise Blood (1979)

This is an odd film, sufficiently so that I’m convinced I either have it completely wrong and it’s actually a masterpiece beyond my meagre understanding, or else maybe it’s just plain odd, but in its oddness it sits apart from most of contemporary cinema. It deals with what I can only call very American themes — of a sort of autochthonous religious mania, where the open spaces of the American heartlands blend seamlessly with Christianity, sex and death, and become somewhat messed up in the head of Brad Dourif’s war veteran Hazel Motes — which war is never quite specified, though the headstone of his father, played by the director, has a birth year that suggests maybe it’s a future war, yet in tone and costuming it feels very much like World War II or maybe something earlier even. It is, in short, a very American film about something buried deep in the white American psyche, and so perhaps it is a masterpiece, but it’s one that takes a hard route to follow. One that’s perhaps worth following, but it does its best to frustrate anyone trying to do that and the hard face of Hazel, his angry bitter mien is right at the heart of that attempt, a bleak and brutal film of the American mid-20th century experience.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director John Huston; Writers Benedict Fitzgerald and Michael Fitzgerald (based on the novel by Flannery O’Connor); Cinematographer Gerry Fisher; Starring Brad Dourif, Dan Shor, Amy Wright, Harry Dean Stanton; Length 105 minutes.

Seen at a bed and breakfast (DVD), Takaka, Saturday 16 October 2021.

Criterion Sunday 466: 愛のコリーダ Ai no Korida (aka L’Empire des sens) (In the Realm of the Senses, 1976)

Truly, the ‘is it art or is it pornography’ debate is the most boring and irrelevant lines of discussion regarding this film. It certainly does intend to push boundaries, but it’s a film about primarily a sexual relationship, about two people who are inescapably, tragically drawn to one another and so they do spend a lot of their time at it. The filmmaking never feels exploitative though or even prurient, but its clear that as the story goes on and as (in the background) Japan becomes more militarised and drawn towards war, things take on a frantic and slightly dangerous note in their sex. The whole thing is gorgeously staged and filmed, and the leads are compelling to watch, even if they’re just mooching about at home, doing little more than drinking and fvcking, but it’s doomy and evocative, a fascinating way into a peculiar time period where everything looks set to break apart.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Nagisa Oshima 大島渚; Cinematographer Hideo Ito 伊東英男; Starring Eiko Matsuda 松田暎子, Tatsuya Fuji 藤竜也; Length 102 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 3 October 2021 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, March 2001).

Criterion Sunday 459: El ángel exterminador (The Exterminating Angel, 1962)

It’s difficult to imagine from the plot summary how this is going to play out, given the set-up is fairly thin: a bourgeois group of high society socialities go for a slap-up dinner after the opera and find themselves unable to leave the home they’re in. But Buñuel, of course, knows what he’s doing, and mixes jabs at the aristocrats, at complacent bourgeois values, and at the church itself (the ending is bitterly directed and something he developed further in Simon of the Desert and Viridiana, amongst other works). It’s a psychological horror of sorts, at least in the way its structured: there’s an invisible force seeming to prevent them from leaving, but this seems to be a deeply-ingrained sense of decorum. At the end it feels like they are able to leave when the correct formula of words is uttered: the entrapment is very much a social one, as everyone is constrained by their own sense of what’s allowed, what’s considered polite, and it’s that in the end which is their tragedy, the pathetic sadness of this entire class of people. It’s all beautifully acted and staged, and ends up — in a low-key way — being perhaps Buñuel’s strongest film.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Luis Buñuel; Cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa; Starring Silvia Pinal, Enrique Rambal; Length 93 minutes.

Seen at the National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 18 August 1999 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, April 1999, and most recently on YouTube streaming at home, Wellington, Sunday 12 September 2021).

Criterion Sunday 456: La Prise de pouvoir de Louis XIV (The Taking of Power by Louis XIV, 1966)

Of the major post-war ‘neorealist’ directors, I think that Roberto Rossellini remains the most mysterious to me, not least because I haven’t seen a great deal of his films. However, it strikes me that his move into historical dramas isn’t necessarily as far from his roots as one might think (at least at the superficial level I have to draw on; I certainly look forward to immersing myself in more of his work, as it comes up in the Criterion Collection). While Rossellini’s focus in this historical film does certainly dwell on details of location and costume, it’s not in order to provide some kind of glamorous backdrop to melodrama, but rather as facts that are used to understand characters and motivations (when Louis insists on florid wigs and extravagant clothes for his court, it’s as part of a plot to bankrupt them and make them dependent on his own largesse).

Dramatically, this seems to share more with avant-gardists like Straub and Huillet (if not quite with their radical focus on the text) and studiously avoids the melodrama you might expect with this film’s title to instead focus on the essential humanity of the characters in the midst of these machinations. Louis (Jean-Marie Patte) has a doughy youthful face and delivers his lines flatly, moving around not heroically but nonetheless with the expectation borne from wealth and privilege, while his mentor Cardinal Mazarin (Giulio Cesare Silvagni) lays dying in bed. The events of the film stick closely to this period around the early-1660s, with much discussion of past dangers still an active threat to Louis’s reign (the Fronde, particularly) and to Louis’s strategy for consolidating his power, but amongst this there are forays into court intrigue (featuring his faithful courtier Colbert, played like everyone by a non-actor, Raymond Jourdan) and his love interests. But it’s almost like a social realist filmmaker’s eye (and camera) is being cast over the past. The work of those around Louis becomes as important as his own presence — the cooks in the kitchen preparing a banquet, or the courtiers ushering these figures between rooms, helping the Cardinal to vainly apply his makeup even on his deathbed — memorable little details that help to place us as viewers into the midst of this grand court. In the end, it’s a rather effective way of presenting history.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Roberto Rossellini; Writers Philippe Erlanger and Jean Gruault; Cinematographer Georges Leclerc; Starring Jean-Marie Patte, Raymond Jourdan, Giulio Cesare Silvagni; Length 100 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), Wellington, Thursday 5 August 2021.

Criterion Sunday 455: White Dog (1982)

It’s interesting to see the way that the pulpy, B-movie aesthetics of Samuel Fuller, developed from his earliest films as director in the late-40s and 50s and present in his 60s classics like Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss, translated to the filmmaking scene of the 1980s. This could stand alongside any kind of straight-to-video exploitation horror/thriller movie, of the kind being reclaimed by any number of home video labels nowadays, with its murky colour palette and zooms. It just so happens that having Sam Fuller’s name attached gives it a slightly higher profile (although not enough to give it much chance at success when it was released). But Fuller retains a roughness to it that feels right for the material, dealing with a young woman who takes in a stray dog, that turns out to have been trained to attack Black people. Obviously there’s a racial thematic that Fuller is pursuing and it certainly seems appropriate that for all the havoc and death the dog wreaks, it remains protected by those around it, who are earnestly trying to save the dog from itself and unlearn it of its attack programming. The film comes across as earnest in the way it treats this material, though it’s understandable from the formal qualities (scuzzy exploitation cinema) why it remains challenging.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Samuel Fuller; Writers Fuller and Curtis Hanson (based on the novel by Romain Gary); Cinematographer Bruce Surtees; Starring Kristy McNichol, Paul Winfield, Burl Ives; Length 90 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 8 August 2021.

Criterion Sunday 445: Madame de… (The Earrings of Madame de…, 1953)

It feels a little as if historically this penultimate film by Max Ophüls has been somewhat undervalued due to its focus on jewellery, dancing, grandiose set design and its melodramatic storyline, but of course I think we can all rate it as one of his finest achievements now. Truly, his visual style reaches its apotheosis in his last few films, with the famed sequence of ballroom dances over time to convey the development of a romantic relationship just being one of the great sequences that Ophüls devises for the camera of Christian Matras. It also has an intricate plot construction, with the final movement achieving a certain emotional pitch that feels satisfying even as events unravel for all our major characters. It’s a glorious piece of work.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Max Ophüls; Writers Marcel Achard, Ophüls and Annette Wademant (based on the novel by Louise Lévêque de Vilmorin); Cinematographer Christian Matras; Starring Danielle Darrieux, Charles Boyer, Vittorio De Sica; Length 100 minutes.

Seen at Te Papa, Wellington, Sunday 16 July 2000 (earlier on VHS at the university library, Wellington, May 2000, and most recently on DVD at home, Wellington, Wednesday 30 June 2021).

Criterion Sunday 439: Trafic (1971)

Jacques Tati, in all his films but most notably his outings with his character of Mr Hulot, makes incredibly dense films that defy easy categorisation. They are comedies at a certain level, but they’re also performance pieces that could be video art in a contemporary art gallery. The way they take apart the space of the modern European city, radically decontextualise it, and then make fun of its inhabitants is awe-inspiring, if not always entertaining per se. However, the way he layers incident and movement within the frame is something he developed throughout his work but was especially evident in Play Time, and this subsequent film has a rigorousness to it that makes watching it almost superfluous; certainly I think you’d need to see it several times to pick up everything that’s going on. Right from the start, he sets up his style perfectly with an extreme long shot within an enormous and cavernous warehouse space where there are wires criss-crossing the floor. We can’t really see them, but we see these figures, engineers holding blueprints, moving around and carefully stepping over the wires with almost balletic precision, staged in several parts of the frame at the same time. It’s drolly amusing yet it’s somehow abstracted from humanity at the same time.

I can’t really explain as well as others the way Tati uses the frame of the film as much as anything within that frame: there’s his own physical presence of course, which recalls Keaton or Chaplin; technically, there’s a plot too (he’s transporting a prototype camping car from a factory near Paris to a car fair near Amsterdam) but it’s just a way of hanging on a series of set-pieces that advance a sense of farce more than story. Tati doesn’t hate humanity, and I’m not even sure he hates modernity, but his mission seems to be to find the ways in which this modern world (the one being constructed in the utopian 50s and 60s) resists human-shaped interactions. And in its saturated colours and hyper-stylised action it feels like what Godard was doing around the same time, but without the party politics, just the terror of the capitalist abyss.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • The main extra on this disc, aside from a French trailer, is an episode of a British TV series (Omnibus), “Jacques Tati in Monsieur Hulot’s Work” (1976), which has critic Gavin Millar sit down with Jacques Tati to talk about his Hulot films and his idea of filmmaking. Millar starts out at the hotel where the first Hulot film was set back in 1952 and then moves to Tati’s office. He’s a genial presence, certainly very different from the character he portrays on-screen, who puts forward his ideas in fluent English, and even if Millar seems more interested in focusing in on specific gags as seen in the various films, there’s plenty there about what Tati was trying to do told in his own words, which makes it worth watching.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jacques Tati; Writers Tati, Jacques Lagrange and Bert Haanstra; Cinematographers Eduard van der Enden and Marcel Weiss; Starring Jacques Tati, Maria Kimberly; Length 97 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Tuesday 15 June 2021.

Criterion Sunday 437: Vampyr – Der Traum des Allan Gray (Vampyr, 1932)

I can imagine this film at the time seeming quite quaint and old-fashioned. It very much still feels like a silent film: most of the exposition is done via text-heavy images of book pages like a silent film’s intertitles and there’s very little in the way of spoken dialogue. It also, even for the period, feels rather slow with a minimum of plot drama; much of the film revolves around the atmospherics that Dreyer and his production designer and cinematographer are able to evoke. It is the very cinematic expression of the uncanny/unheimlich, as many of the images are filmed with a heavy grain, almost washed out and shot through veils, like the title character’s dream (which is after all the subtitle of the full German original title). It’s a morbid, imagistic and fantastic dream or nightmare, a reverie of the waking dead, and vampirism just seems like part of the heavy folk stylistics being conjured here, only added to by the heavy somnabulistic movements of the amateur aristocratic socialite (Nicolas de Gunzberg, credited as Julian West) in the lead role. Certainly the vampirism doesn’t seem to connote the blood-sucking of capitalists as it can in more modern interpretations, but instead evokes the sense of an ancient rural curse and restless vengeful spirits. It’s all very mysterious and beautiful, whatever inspires the horror, and while it doesn’t conjure the same kind of frightfulness as modern works, it has its own sense of the uncanny.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Carl Theodor Dreyer; Writers Christen Jul and Dreyer (based on the collection of short stories In a Glass Darkly by Sheridan Le Fanu); Cinematographer Rudolph Maté; Starring Nicolas de Gunzberg [as “Julian West”], Maurice Schutz, Sybille Schmitz, Rena Mandel; Length 73 minutes.

Seen at the Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Sunday 29 June 2003 and at the BFI Southbank, London, Monday 19 March 2012 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Sunday 13 June 2021).

Criterion Sunday 431: The Thief of Bagdad (1940)

The Criterion release of this film has a commentary by Scorsese and Coppola, and you can understand when you watch it what might appeal to them. Would that every era of cinema had such a colourful and inventive spectacle and I can see that children exposed to this in the 1940s or 50s might have had little to compare it to in terms of the effects it achieves. There’s a gloriously saturated colour scheme in the filming and the production design and costuming that heightens the magical wonder of the storytelling. It’s just that watching now makes for a more problematic experience and it’s not that I’m out here calling for any ‘cancellations’ or whatever your term du jour is when you read this for the idea that maybe art has certain responsibilities. After all, things that seem a bit racist now (or orientalist or just a bit misguided, depended on your point of view) might have been equally so back then, it’s just that there was an unexamined expectation that putting dark makeup on very white English actors and having them enact Middle Eastern-set stories was perfectly fine and nothing to be concerned about. Of course, compared to some contemporary films, there was certainly worse racism in othering depictions of such parts of the world and their people, but that doesn’t excuse what at best just seems a little painful now, however well-meaning it might have been. There’s plenty to enjoy here, and those who find it easier to tap into the childlike spirit at play will be rewarded more handsomely than those hatchet-faced killjoys like myself who’d rather not watch fully-grown and very English gentlemen (along with a German, an Indian and an African-American) play dress-up as Arabs.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors Ludwig Berger, Michael Powell and Tim Whelan [as well as Alexander Korda, Zoltan Korda and William Cameron Menzies, uncredited]; Writers Lajos Biró and Miles Malleson; Cinematographer Georges Périnal [as “George Perinal”]; Starring Conrad Veidt, John Justin, Sabu, June Duprez, Miles Malleson; Length 106 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Thursday 27 May 2021.

Criterion Sunday 423: Walker (1987)

Alex Cox certainly makes distinctive films. I’m not sure that they always gel with me, as I have a sort of in-built resistance to the carnivalesque and maximalist spirit he has (along with, say, Terry Gilliam). But I can’t fault Cox’s determination to bitterly present a satirical view of American involvement in central America, spurred by the contemporary exploits of such hucksters as Oliver North, and the film does everything it can to collapse one into the other. The mid-19th century setting increasingly becomes indistinguishable from the modern day as cars and helicopters, US tabloid news magazines and other anachronistic features start to become impossible to ignore. In the midst of all the pyrotechnics and madness is a very undemonstrative performance from Ed Harris, a tall blue-eyed blond man in a tailored black suit whose very stillness and composure in the midst of everything helps him stand out and grounds all the madness that swirls around him.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Alex Cox; Writer Rudy Wurlitzer; Cinematographer David Bridges; Starring Ed Harris, René Auberjonois, Richard Masur, Peter Boyle, Marlee Matlin; Length 94 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 7 May 2021.