Criterion Sunday 468: “Science Is Fiction: 23 Films by Jean Painlevé”

The Criterion Collection may generally be known for championing the great auteurs, but they also do some rather left-field choices, whether that’s Michael Bay (albeit early on in their existence; I’m not sure they’d give his films much time now), weird low-budget 50s sci-fi and now this set of short films about animals, which somewhat defy any straightforward description. The first disc presents his “popular films”, which is to say those made for the public (and not academics).

There’s a certain wonder to the first, Hyas and Stenorhynchus (1927), about little weird algae-like creatures with their spindly spines. The photography is obviously not as advanced as now, or even Painlevé’s later films, but there’s something luminous about the grainy, ethereal monochrome of these aquatic close-ups that has a magic to it. Sea Urchins (1954) has a lot of the same tentacles and marine weirdness but is somehow slightly unsettling, perhaps from the pulsating 1950s electronic score or just the better closer photography available. It’s co-directed with Painlevé’s partner, Geneviève Hamon, like a lot of his later films and sadly she seems not to get mentioned much in writing about him and his work. Clearly, though, both had a fascination with jellyfish, or with the category of weird gelatinous and tentacle-y things, because it feels like a number of his films deal with them. How Some Jellyfish Are Born (1960) also shows an interest in some unusual methods of conception and birth, with perhaps some hints towards other orders of gender and sexuality in these creatures which could probably have been developed more.

One of his better works, and certainly the creature with which he’s most linked (given the set’s box art), The Sea Horse (1933) makes clear just how extremely weird these creatures are. Just watching them is like gazing upon some Ray Harryhausen stop motion animated monster, but in a cute sort of way, though maybe there’s a bit of Lovecraft to them. Certainly Painlevé gets much more into the reproduction here, with the males gestating the babies, and seeing the tiny little ones come out is so fascinating (though I could have used without the shock cut to them cutting a pregnant seahorse open, even if I recognise this is ultimately a scientific film). Anyway, this is the kind of thing that Painlevé excels at, the intersection of science and the oneiric, which is also where The Love Life of the Octopus (1967) seems to sit. Truly octopuses are the most terrifying of creatures. Slithering yet smart, and, like so many of Painlevé and Hamon’s scientific studies, they have many tentacles. This particular short sets up our subject before getting into reproduction, and that too is strange and creepy, with thousands of little octopuses swimming away from these loose threads of gestating eggs. I remain properly terrified by this animal.

Further short films continue their fascination. With Shrimp Stories (1964), the directors acknowledge how ridiculous shrimp look with an overtly comic introduction, before we get into these (once again) elaborately tentacled sea creatures. Well in the case of shrimp, less tentacles than waving antennae and frantically moving little feet. If Acera, or The Witches’ Dance (1972) were merely an excuse to orchestrate the delightful aquatic ‘dance’ of these tiny snail-like organisms, then that would be enough (they swirl about, all but hopping up and down), but we also discover their hermaphroditic reproductive rituals and the gestation of tiny new acera. The photography is luminous and, as ever, these animals are strangely compelling. Sadly Freshwater Assassins (1947), despite its title, just seems a little bit duller, more like the orthodox nature shows you might get on TV, with less of the ugly weirdness of his other animals, mostly being just bugs living and fighting under the water in a pond. In Sea Ballerinas (1956), though, there’s a sense of humour, with it ending on a brittle fish seemingly conducting an orchestra, but otherwise there’s a lot of tumbling, shuffling and crawling around.

Stepping away from the sea creatures to watch something far more abstract is Liquid Crystals (1978). This is in fact closer to a late Stan Brakhage film than the kind of natural science pieces Painlevé did earlier on. It’s beautiful, though, as is an earlier film about the blood-sucking vampire bat, The Vampire (1945), which contextualises it in a short history of entertainment before letting it loose on an unfortunate guinea pig. There’s the customary blend here of limpid beauty and a sense of mystery in the photography, an informative voiceover and the dull academic subject matter, but the first enlivens the latter. Back to the abstraction in Diatoms (1968), but partly because the creatures under the (literal) microscope here are single-celled algae-like things, of various shapes, floating around on their own or in colonies. I’m still not exactly clear what a diatom is or does but I certainly got an almost trippy vision of their lives.

The final film on the first disc, and the latest film collected in the set, is Pigeons in the Square (1982). Pigeons get all kinds of bad press, and though this (relatively long) short film has a comical edge to it, Painlevé comes from a science background so he’s not interested in adding to the negative propaganda about pigeons. They are by turns majestic, beautifully patterned, comically silly, strutting, hopping, fluttering and pecking. Sure some of the urban varieties are a bit bedraggled and their seduction attempts wouldn’t pass muster by human standards, but this film just enjoys watching pigeons, and I enjoyed watching this film.

The second disc starts with “early popular silent films”, some of his earliest works. There’s The Octopus (1927), which has sort of a structure, but is mostly just the octopus slinking around (because if there’s anything we learn from the first disc it’s that Jean Painlevé loves a tentacled sea creature). The fragile beauty to these silent films is exemplified by Sea Urchins (1928), a creature he returned to in the 1950s (on the first disc), with luminous oneiric cinematography and no sound to distract (even if I did put some music on). The urchins wave around but also move and burrow. One thing I could do without is watching one get cut open but I guess there is at least some scientific method here. I am, though, prompted to wonder if my response to these short films is related to how much I like the creatures rather than a dispassionate critique of the filmmaking. I mean we may all know and love a seahorse, and even have opinions on octopuses, but what’s a Daphnia (1928)? Still for all its tiny bug like size — and there’s some serious magnification happening here — there’s even a bit of drama when the hydra comes along. A lovely little film.

Under the heading “silent research films”, there are a couple of Painlevé’s scientific shorts included and you can see immediately the difference from his “popular films”. The Stickleback’s Egg (1925) deals with a less than thrilling subject (microscopic organisms) and is pretty dry. There’s some great close-up photography that must have been very advanced for the time, and being silent I was able to put on a jaunty score, but this is mainly interesting as a comparison. Meanwhile Experimental Treatment of a Hemorrhage in a Dog (1930) is only four minutes, and exemplifies his specifically scientific focus in the silent era, but I really did not need to see this. The dog was fine after the procedure the film is clear to point out and that’s good, but it’s pretty graphic.

Unlike his more famous short films about animals (often underwater tentacled ones), Jean Painlevé also made a series of films dealing with various abstract concepts, here collected as “Films for La Palais de la Découverte”. The Fourth Dimension (1936) covers that idea, suggesting ways in which it could be understood, possibly as something beyond our own conception, something almost magical. It’s hard to really get to grips with it but Painlevé is serious and educational and it’s a lot to take in. More abstract scientific ideas are on show in The Struggle for Survival (1937) although this film is heavy on the text, which almost overwhelms the film with detail. He’s talking about population growth and certainly covers some ideas about it. Turning his cinematic attention to the Earth’s place in the universe is the subject of Voyage to the Sky (1937), which seems to conclude that in the grand vastness of space, we humans are almost ridiculously insignificant. It’s a rather bleak conclusion but nicely illustrated. Finally, Similarities Between Length and Speed (1937) is a rather abstruse short film on a topic I don’t really understand (which is to say, anything to do with mathematics). However, Jean Painlevé is an engaging filmmaker and tries to grapple seriously with his subject, which is about how bigger things aren’t exactly proportional.

Finally comes the single film under the heading “animation”, Bluebeard (1938), and it certainly a departure from Painlevé’s other films, being for a start not a scientific study of animals but instead a gloriously colourful claymation animated film about the bloodthirsty titular pirate, chopping off heads hither and yon. It’s all rather jolly and odd, and dark too and a fine way to round out the set.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection

My custom on this blog has not been to give ratings to short films, so the list below is just of the films included in the order they are presented. However my favourite was probably The Sea Horse, with the two academic research works and the mathematics film as my least favourite.

Hyas et stenorinques (Hyas and Stenorhynchus, 1929) [silent film] | Director Jean Painlevé | Cinematographer André Raymond | Length 10 minutes.
Oursins (Sea Urchins, 1954) | Directors Jean Painlevé and Geneviève Hamon | Cinematographer Claude Beausoleil | Length 11 minutes.
Comment naissent des méduses (How Some Jellyfish Are Born, 1960) | Directors Jean Painlevé and Geneviève Hamon | Length 14 minutes.
Cristaux liquides (Liquid Crystals, 1978) | Directors Jean Painlevé and Geneviève Hamon | Length 6 minutes.
L’Hippocampe ou ‘Cheval marin’ (The Seahorse, 1933) | Director Jean Painlevé | Cinematographer André Raymond | Length 14 minutes.
Les Amours de la pieuvre (The Love Life of the Octopus, 1967) | Directors Jean Painlevé and Geneviève Hamon | Length 14 minutes.
Histoires de crevettes (Shrimp Stories, 1964) | Directors/Cinematographers Jean Painlevé and Geneviève Hamon | Length 10 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 26 September 2021.

Acera ou Le Bal des sorcières (Acera, or The Witches’ Dance, 1972) | Directors/Cinematographers Jean Painlevé and Geneviève Hamon | Length 13 minutes.
Le Vampire (The Vampire, 1945) | Director Jean Painlevé | Length 9 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Monday 27 September 2021.

Les Assassins d’eau douce (Freshwater Assassins, 1947) | Director Jean Painlevé | Length 24 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Tuesday 28 September 2021.

Les Danseuses de la mer (Sea Ballerinas, 1956) | Directors/Cinematographers Jean Painlevé and Geneviève Hamon | Length 13 minutes.
Diatomées (Diatoms, 1968) | Director Jean Painlevé | Cinematographer Catherine Thiriot | Length 17 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 1 October 2021.

Les Pigeons du square (Pigeons in the Square, 1982) | Director Jean Painlevé | Cinematographer Vincent Berczi | Length 27 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 2 October 2021.

La Pieuvre (The Octopus, 1927) [silent film] | Director Jean Painlevé | Length 13 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 3 October 2021.

Les Oursins (Sea Urchins, 1928) [silent film] | Director Jean Painlevé | Length 10 minutes.
La Daphnie (Daphnia, 1928) [silent film] | Director Jean Painlevé | Length 9 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Thursday 7 October 2021.

L’Oeuf d’épinoche (The Stickleback’s Egg, 1925) [silent film] | Director Jean Painlevé | Length 26 minutes.
Traitement éxperimental d’une hémorragie chez le chien (Experimental Treatment of a Hemmorhage in a Dog, 1930) [silent film] | Director Jean Painlevé | Length 4 minutes.
La Quatrième dimension (The Fourth Dimension, 1936) | Director Jean Painlevé | Length 10 minutes.
Images mathématiques de la lutte pour la vie (The Struggle for Survival, 1937) | Director Jean Painlevé | Length 14 minutes.
Voyage dans le ciel (Voyage to the Sky, 1937) | Director Jean Painlevé | Length 11 minutes.
Similitudes des longueurs et des vitesses (Similarities Between Length and Speed, 1937) | Director Jean Painlevé | Length 10 minutes.
Barbe-Bleu (Bluebeard, 1938) [colour film] | Directors Jean Painlevé and René Bertrand | Length 13 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 10 October 2021.

Criterion Sunday 433: 憂國 Yukoku (Patriotism aka Patriotism or The Rite of Love and Death, 1966)

I am genuinely clueless as to why this short film co-directed by Yukio Mishima wasn’t just an extra to the Paul Schrader film. I can somewhat understand it having its own release, given it’s his only film as a director and he is a totemic and divisive cultural figure, even just as an author. However, his interest in nationalist ideology, including the formation of his own militia group, made him something of what would presumably today be called a cultural influencer (and I can’t be the only one who can imagine him complaining about being silenced if he were still around), but this all becomes very clear in Patriotism. It’s a silent work with an elegant filming style that self-consciously draws on Noh theatre, but my god is Mishima not fixated on the ritual honour of seppuku, which takes up the bulk of the running time (after a long text-based introduction). Perhaps in other hands this might have functioned as some kind of critique of Japanese militarism, and certainly it’s not unreasonable for there to be critiques about Japan and its treatment after World War II, but in Patriotism the militarism and death just feels fetishised, an extreme of gore that doesn’t feel like it adds much beyond illustrating Mishima’s own pathology.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors Yukio Mishima 三島由紀夫 and Domoto Masaki 堂本正樹; Writer Mishima (based on his own short story); Cinematographer Kimio Watanabe 渡辺公夫; Starring Yukio Mishima 三島由紀夫, Yoshiko Tsuruoka 鶴岡淑子; Length 27 minutes.

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

Criterion Sunday 406: “Martha Graham: Dance on Film”

There are three films in this collection, each around half an hour in length and made for American public television at a time when this kind of programming was possible. The first, A Dancer’s World (1957) is intended as an introduction to the Martha Graham Dance Company and her place in American dance, something I appreciate given my lack of knowledge of this major area of cultural work. Dance always seemed rather forbidding to me, and even if it’s more often seen on-screen nowadays in its contemporary street dance varieties, it still has a beauty and sophistication that is only amplified by the ballet-like compositions seen here. Graham narrates while fixing her make-up and costume in the dressing room; she introduces her company who enter the dance studio to illustrate some techniques, but it’s presented as a sequence with only the barest commentary. Instead, it’s the dancers’ limbs and actions that provide the context, with Graham delivering in his imperious way the diktats of her craft: control over the body, the elevation of the genius through a decade or more of practise. And in the end, for all her own resistance to filming it, and the fact this was made for public TV, the effect is rather cinematic after all, elegant yet mysterious.

The other two films are productions of her work presented without commentary (or any contextualisation or, indeed, any speaking at all). I don’t know how Appalachian Spring (1958) ranks as a film; it’s clearly a filmed piece of staged dance theatre and while certainly the blocking has been done with an eye towards its reproduction on screen, it’s still essentially a stage piece. That said, this is the kind of thing, a strange curio that stands somewhat to the side of the film history, which intrigues me, because it mainly exists to showcase the work of pioneering dancer, choreographer and artist Martha Graham to a wider world. She’s technically too old to be playing this role of a new bride (having entered her 60s), but avoiding close-ups alongside the modernist staging means it works perfectly fine. The language of dance, though, quite aside from the language of cinema, is its own thing and is rather opaque to me, but it seems that within these movements and this choreography, the motion of bodies, the gestures and contortions, there’s an entire world of feeling. There’s a certain awe to watching the long loose limbs of Matt Turney as the Pioneer Woman, so elegant (glamorous even) and so aware at every moment of how her motion will affect her clothing or how she interacts with those around her, or the gentle little skips of Bertram Ross’s Preacher, and soon enough it’s all over because this is still just 32 minutes in length, but it’s a lovely 32 minutes.

The final of the three is Night Journey (1960). I found this filmed performance less successful than Appalachian Spring, though I remain as yet without any significant status as a dance expert. There is so much that is mysterious to me about the form, but somehow this piece, derived from the story of Oedipus and Jocasta via Sophocles, seems a little bit more mannered, or perhaps Graham’s movements feel a little stiffer — though that may be as much to do with the subject matter, the studied formality of the tragedic mode. But then the group of chorus dancers come in, and somehow they create a sense of wonder, seemingly floating above the stiffness of the tragedy, so long and thin and with such easy movements. However, it certainly makes an impression as part of a trilogy of three films about Graham and her work.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There are a large number of extras which contextualise the work of Martha Graham, which is just as well for me. Perhaps the most illuminating on the first disc is a comparison piece by dance critic and historian Deborah Jowitt, which contrasts the 1958 filmed version with a silent 16mm film made in 1944, starring Merce Cunningham as the Preacher. Jowitt is very good at detailing how the gestures and movements are supposed to come across, and what changes were made for the filming, and it becomes rather engrossing, bringing out details that my untrained eye was unable to detect the first time around.
  • Another extra is a short few minutes’ excerpt from a TV programme (perhaps from the 1970s or 80s) in which composer Aaron Copland touches on Appalachian Spring and his work with Graham.
  • Aside from Graham, the other important figure in these films is producer Nathan Kroll, who negotiated with Graham to get her on screen, and who tells the story of working with her to realise this three-part project. We only hear his words, but they are illustrated by stills and clips from the films.
  • There’s a bit more about Kroll in a 12-minute interview with Ron Simon, who discusses Kroll’s important place in television. His work with Graham was just part of an interest in masterclasses with key cultural figures (like cellist Pablo Casals, or opera singer Luciano Pavarotti), showing a deep and abiding interest in how masters of their art teach students. Kroll himself was it seems a thwarted violinist and wanted to imagine himself via these surrogates as an expert of sorts.
  • The first disc is rounded out by interviews with the two editors who worked on the three films, Eleanor Hamerow and Miriam Arsham, who speak about their work on the films and also touch on why women were so frequently found as editors.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 14 March 2021.

A Dancer’s World (1957)
Director/Cinematographer Peter Glushanok; Writers Martha Graham and LeRoy Leatherman; Starring Martha Graham; Length 31 minutes.

Appalachian Spring (1958)
Director/Cinematographer Peter Glushanok; Writer Martha Graham; Starring Martha Graham, Matt Turney, Bertram Ross; Length 32 minutes.

Night Journey (1960)
Director Alexander Hammid; Cinematographer Stanley Meredith; Starring Martha Graham, Bertram Ross, Paul Taylor; Length 30 minutes.

Global Cinema 28: Burundi – Nothing’s the Same (2008)

I’ve put this entry off for quite a while now, but then again there aren’t, to be fair, a huge range of Burundian films to choose from when one’s looking for something from this country. If you speak French there are one or two features online, but there are also a handful of short films from the Burundi Film Center, of which this is one.


Burundian flagRepublic of Burundi (Republika y’Uburundi)
population 11,866,000 | capital Gitega (42k) | largest cities Bujumbura (497k), Gitega, Ngozi (40k), Rumonge (36k), Cibitoke (24k) | area 27,834 km2 | religion Christianity (92%) | official language Kirundi, French (français) | major ethnicity Hutu (85%), Tutsi (14%) | currency Burundian franc (FBu) [BIF] | internet .bi

A landlocked country in the Great Rift Valley, part of the African Great Lakes region (with Lake Tanganyika along its southwestern border), its former capital is Bujumbura, now the economic capital to Gitega’s political capital. The name derives from the Kingdom of Burundi and possibly ultimately from the Ha people. This kingdom is also the earliest evidence of a state with these borders, dating to the late-16th century, with a distinction between Hutu and Tutsi not just on ethnic but also socio-cultural lines (with the Tutsi being the ruling class). The area was annexed by Germany in 1881 as part of German East Africa, and ceded to Belgium as Ruanda-Urundi after World War I. It gained its independence on 1 July 1962, instituting elections still under a constitutional monarchy. A 1966 coup deposing the king in favour of his teenage son then led to another coup later that year deposing the monarchy itself and declaring the country a republic (albeit essentially a dictatorship by Michel Micombero). A civil war and genocide in 1972 of Hutus led to another coup in 1976, then again in 1987, followed by another civil war and genocide in 1993 (this time of Tutsis). The first democratic election was in 1993 leading to a 12-year civil war, though sporadic unrest continues. The government is led by a President, also head of state.

Burundi is one of the poorest countries in the world, and given the ongoing civil unrest and human rights abuses, does not have a well-developed media infrastructure, and needless to say very few films are made there.


Le Tournant d’une vie (Nothing’s the Same, 2008)

This short film deals with a pretty heavy subject — the pre-marital rape of a devoutly Christian young woman (Ginette Mahoro), who has to deal with the fallout from this and how it affects her relationship — and there’s really no way to do that in a satisfying way within 10 minutes, it turns out. The actors are called on to go through such a huge journey in this time that even the finest and most well-trained would be hard-pushed to pull it off. Still, it’s all played with earnest emotions and even if it feels all too easily wrapped up, it’s certainly a good sign of some film talent in the country.

CREDITS
Director Linda Kamuntu; Writer Lyse Elsie Hakizimana; Cinematographer Emmanuel Heri; Starring Ginette Mahoro; Length 11 minutes.
Seen at home (YouTube), Wellington, Tuesday 23 February 2021.

Criterion Sunday 387: La Jetée (aka The Pier, 1962) and Sans soleil (aka Sunless, 1983)

Unquestionably a classic of the French New Wave, though it somewhat stands apart from the other familiar films of that period what with it being un photo-roman, driven by still photographs. It’s a canny technique for a low-budget science-fiction film, and director Chris Marker exploits it fully, with a range of photographic effects matched by the familiar poetic narrational style from his documentaries. The plot hinges on its central time-travelling dichotomy, which I think is well-known enough that it’s not exactly a spoiler any more (especially after its reimagining as 12 Monkeys, but look away if so): the man who remembers witnessing his own death. Having seen this sub-30 minute film several times, it’s still enormously affecting the way the film loops around to this, hopping back and forth through time, evoking an apocalyptic Paris through simple effects: dungeon-like settings, a bleak high-contrast photography and the simple foam pads over the eyes that hint at the only technological resources the future still possesses, whereas the present is in a softer monochrome, flickering briefly to life in the eyes of the woman our protagonist is fixated on. I think it’s Godard who is often quoted as saying his films have a beginning, a middle and an end though not necessarily in that order, but La Jetée exemplifies that in practice.

I think Chris Marker’s poetic documentary style of film essay has been incredibly influential, and Sans soleil (1983) is one of his key works, the title also translated on screen as Sunless (and, strangely, in Russian if I recall correctly). It’s a documentary after a fashion, but really it’s a reflective personal essay about memory and understanding, put into the words of a fictional Hungarian cameraman in letters to the narrator, who may be understood to be an alter ego for Marker himself I suppose, as this film was made after a period in which Marker and his New Wave compatriots had been in various leftist collectivist political groups that eschewed authorial credit. In any case, you can see a lot of what has been inspiring about the film though it remains something of a product of its times. It’s mostly concerned with a travelogue around Japan, from the point of view of someone who grew up during World War II, and so turns back every so often to the remnants of the war, probably more in the narrator’s mind than those he films, but it makes for slightly uncomfortably viewing. This kind of othering, or exoticising of foreign people (and the film also flits occasionally to Africa and Cape Verde), sits oddly but really it’s a film about memory that loops in travelogue and even a bit of film criticism (of one of Marker’s favourites, Vertigo, a film which had a strong formative role in La Jetée also) and as such occupies a sort of poetic imaginary. Certainly, it’s not a film that will necessarily help you understand Japan except as it figures in western consciousness of the mid-20th century perhaps.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection

La Jetée (aka The Pier, 1962)
Director/Writer Chris Marker; Cinematographers Jean Chiabaut and Marker; Starring Jean Négroni; Length 27 minutes.
Seen at the Paramount, Wellington, Wednesday 30 July 1997 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Thursday 7 January 2021).

Sans soleil (aka Sunless, 1983)
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Chris Marker; Length 103 minutes.
Seen at the Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Tuesday 10 June 2003 (and before that on VHS at home, Wellington, August 1997, and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Saturday 9 January 2021).

Criterion Sunday 370: The Emperor Jones (1933) and Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist (1979)

The first film on the first disc of Criterion’s Paul Robeson box set is reserved for The Emperor Jones (1933), not Robeson’s earliest work featured on the collection but probably the most famous of his film roles. The acclaim is certainly warranted when it comes to his acting, though to be fair he is given not just a big role (being the title character, Brutus Jones) but a very big character too (shot as if towering above everyone else on the set). Having gained the rare distinction of a job among the white world as a Pullman porter, Jones womanises and gambles his way to serious trouble, and upon escaping finds himself on an island (Haiti, allegorically), where he proclaims himself Emperor. Eugene O’Neill’s source play is what we would nowadays call ‘problematic’ I suspect and certainly leans heavily on a certain depiction of Black people (soulful, primitive, a little bit magical) in a script laden with racial epithets. Still, there’s stuff there that in the context of the early-1930s feels bold, like having him lord it over a white capitalist, even if things don’t end up going his way, and there’s even a showcase for Robeson’s fine singing voice.

The most remarkable thing about the accompanying documentary about Robeson’s life and work, Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist (1979), is that it’s so short. It could be a thirty part mini-series but instead it’s a jaunty 30 minutes, narrated by Sidney Poitier, and touching ever so briefly on so much of his work that there’s no real room for his legacy. We do, however, get a careful delineation of the shifting lyrics to his iconic song “Ol’ Man River” as he sang it repeatedly over the years, as well as his involvement in political struggles not just in the USA but across Europe and the world (though very little engagement with the nature of those political beliefs, aside from the fact that they were enough to warrant him being denied his passport for 10 years). There is certainly room for a longer more detailed work about the man, but this will have to suffice along with his many films.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Seen at an Airbnb flat (DVD), Lower Hutt, Sunday 8 November 2020.

The Emperor Jones (1933)
Director Dudley Murphy; Writer DuBose Heyward (based on the play by Eugene O’Neill); Cinematographer Ernest Haller; Starring Paul Robeson, Dudley Digges, Fredi Washington; Length 76 minutes.

Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist (1979)
Director/Writer Saul J. Turell; Length 30 minutes.

Global Cinema 18: Belize – Yochi (2017)

The problem with the challenge to watch a film from every country around the world is that there are all too many that basically have next to no film industry or even film production, and Belize is certainly one of those countries with a very short list of films. I might have chosen a Hollywood production set there, like The Mosquito Coast, but this short film popped up on a YouTube search, and it was made in Belize for the country, ostensibly to showcase a problem with poaching native birds.


Belizean flagBelize
population 408,000 | capital Belmopan (14k) | largest cities Belize City (57k), San Ignacio (18k), Belmopan, Orange Walk Town (13.7k), San Pedro Town (12k) | area 22,966 km2 | religion Christianity (74%) | official language English | major ethnicity Mestizo (53%), Creole (26%), Maya (11%) | currency Belize dollar ($) [BZD] | internet .bz

A small Central American country bordering the Caribbean Sea, Mexico and Guatemala, with the lowest population density in the region. The earliest reference to the name is in the late-17th century, in relation to the river, and is possibly derived from the Mayan belix meaning “muddy-watered”. It was one of the areas where the Mayan civilisation first emerged in the 3rd millennium BCE, which continued through to the arrival of Spanish explorers in the 16th century CE, though despite Spanish claims over the territory, it was the British who first settled the country in the 18th century. After repelling Spanish attacks, it was integrated into the British Empire as British Honduras. Self-government was granted in 1964, and the country renamed as Belize in 1973. Full independence was granted on 21 September 1981. The head of state remains the British monarch, with an elected parliament led by a Prime Minister.

Although music and even theatre are part of the cultural life of Belize, there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of a local film industry, so very few films have been produced there.


Yochi (2017)

This short film has clearly been made with an interest in drawing attention to the illegal trade in exotic birds, specifically the yellow-headed parrot found in Belize. However, it’s also a story — and at 25 minutes it can’t really be more than a fairly simple one — about two indigenous brothers. The younger brother lives at home and doesn’t speak, while his older brother comes to visit from the city, slipping easily between the local Mayan language and English, as he disburses electronic gifts to mother and brother. So there are a few tensions in play — not speaking vs saying too much, city vs nature, the corruption of money (the brother, it turns out, is loaded down with debt) — and the film has resolutions to these, but even if it’s not surprising, it is very nice to see the lush jungles of Belize, its wildlife, and get a sense of life for some communities there. Plus, if like me you’re trying to watch films from countries around the world, there’s not much for Belize.

Yochi film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Ilana Lapid; Cinematographer Robert Dugan; Starring Kerry Johan Landero, Evan Martinez; Length 25 minutes.
Seen at home (YouTube), London, Tuesday 18 August 2020.

Criterion Sunday 343: La Boulangère de Monceau (The Bakery Girl of Monceau aka The Baker of Monceau, 1963)

Eric Rohmer returned to filmmaking (after a period editing Cahiers du cinéma followed by the relative disappointment of his delayed feature debut) with this short film, the first in a six-part cycle he called the ‘Contes moraux’ (‘Six Moral Tales’). If the story seems somewhat slight (a man pines for an elegant woman, while flirting with a shopgirl), that doesn’t make its execution in any way simplistic. There’s some of that familiar nouvelle vague charm to the location shooting, which all takes place in one neighbourhood, on its grand boulevards, as well as its smaller byways and street market, and there’s charm too in the simplicity of the storyline. Indeed, the narrative pattern of a man in love with two women would be repeated in the later moral tales, but the differences in the women here is telling — Sylvie is a tall woman he passes regularly in the street, who holds herself with a slight hauteur, while Jacqueline (Claudine Soubrier) is a young shop assistant in a bakery who works every day. Our protagonist (played by the producer Barbet Schroeder) thinks he has a shot at Sylvie but he stops seeing her around for a while and, in her absence, makes a romantic move for Jacqueline. It’s significant too that our male protagonist isn’t named, and that the title of this (and most other films in the cycle) is after one of the women. In a sense, the man is a stand-in for the filmmaker and an audience surrogate, but if so, it’s a deeply critical portrait. He may have some success in love, but he’s shallow and frankly a bit creepily stalky too, and his voiceover makes it clear that his motives are pretty flawed. Rohmer’s sympathy is with the boulangère.

(Written on 7 January 2015.)

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • The short film Présentation ou Charlotte et son steak (Presentation, or Charlotte and Her Steak, 1960) is a supplement to The Bakery Girl of Monceau. This is the earliest short film by Rohmer, starring Jean-Luc Godard and filmed apparently in 1951 although not finished until the end of that decade. Like a lot of the early New Wave films, it’s a slight premise, just two people hanging out and talking. She’s waiting for a train to leave, he’s killing time, chatting her up, hoping for something. Slight, but certainly not lacking in interest.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Éric Rohmer; Cinematographers Bruno Barbey and Jean-Michel Meurice; Starring Barbet Schroeder, Claudine Soubrier; Length 23 minutes.

Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Tuesday 6 January 2015.

राजा हरिश्चंद्र Raja Harishchandra (1913)

This is just a brief post, since I’m doing an India-themed week, to cover the first known Indian feature film, albeit one from which only two reels survive (so actually all we have is essentially a short film). However, a recent Indian season at the BFI in 2017 presented it with live accompaniment as part of a programme introducing the season as a whole, and it’s still rather fascinating to a see a glimpse of filmmaking from over a hundred years ago.


Being only a remaining reel or two of what was originally a longer film, and one which touches on Indian mythology at that, meant that I’d never be likely to follow what’s going on. That said, it sticks (as myth often does) to the grand themes of love, betrayal and the restoration of order by a divinity. The screening I saw also had a fantastic performance by a number of excellent traditional musicians so that will stay with me. The film itself, being (what survives of) the first ever Indian feature film is a fascinating document, though it has some nice effects too for what was an industry in its absolute infancy.

CREDITS
Director/Writer Dadasaheb Phalke दादासाहेब फाळके; Cinematographer Trymbak B. Telang திரிம்பாக் பி. தெலாங்கு; Starring D.D. Dabke दत्तात्रय दामोदर दबके, Anna Salunke अण्णा सालुंके; Length 12 minutes [original length 40 minutes].
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Saturday 20 May 2017.

Criterion Sunday 330: Au revoir les enfants (1987)

The title is taken from the final words of the priest, Father Jean, headmaster of the Catholic boarding school to which its protagonists are sent from Paris at the height of World War II, but it could as easily be bidding goodbye to them from where they live with their parents, or indeed to their innocence of course. The film builds up its picture of these wartime kids leaving the city, and shows the mysterious appearance of a few more kids to their classes early on, one of whom, Jean Bonnet (Raphaël Fejtö), sits next to our main protagonist, Julien (Gaspard Manesse), who can be taken as something of a stand-in for the director, given this story is based on his own experiences. It soon enough becomes clear that these new kids are Jewish, and so the tension builds and remains through otherwise quotidian scenes of playing with the class, or eating food together. Characters who seem to be on their side are revealed to have secret collaborationist tendencies, and even refined upper-class spaces seethe with barely-hidden prejudice. However, it’s all handled in a way that allows us as audience to come to that realisation with Julien, without overburdening the narrative, and the acting is naturalistic. The film is shot by Renato Berta, who worked with Straub/Huillet, and brings a certain starkness to the imagery, avoiding sentimentality. This is a very fine film about a bleak period in history.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Extras which had been on a supplementary disc as part of the original box set are included on the Blu-ray reissue, most notably the Charlie Chaplin short The Immigrant (1917), which is seen being screened to the kids within the film, with musical accompaniment from Irène Jacob in her first film role. I’m hardly a connoisseur of Chaplin’s films (I’ve only seen a small handful), but you can see a certain virtuosity in the staging of this, in which Chaplin’s familiar “Tramp” character is an immigrant on a ship bound for New York. We’re introduced to him leaning over the side while the ship rolls dramatically, suggesting he’s heaving his guts out, but the first gag reveals no, he’s just catching a fish. This continues with all kinds of physical comedy — there’s a particularly nice scene in the mess hall, where food slides between the immigrants — and a sweet bit where he anonymously helps out a young woman (Edna Purviance) who’s had her money stolen by a gambler whom he’s won it off. The ending with Purviance is rather abrupt, but it caps a film with a number of solid comedy setpieces.
  • Another extra is a five-minute visual essay about one of the more troublesome characters, an outcast named Joseph, trying to locate and understand what drives him, and the difficulties that drive him to his final decisive action in the film.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Louis Malle; Cinematographer Renato Berta; Starring Gaspard Manesse, Raphaël Fejtö, Francine Racette; Length 104 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 28 June 2020.