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)

Tiexi Qu (Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks, 2003)

One of the things that cinema can do most powerfully (and it’s by no means the only thing, or something that all films can or should be doing) is to give a sense of what it’s like to be in a particular place at a time in history. It seems to me, as well, that this is a really valuable gift, as few enough of us get a real empathetic sense of what other people’s lives are like, and even travelling only gives us a partial understanding (as the places we go are most likely the places that are prepared and open to us as tourists). Well, Wang Bing’s 9-hour long documentary West of the Tracks is a glorious example of the empathetic power of cinema at its finest: a document of industrial decay in the north-east of China, and how it affects a community (or rather, perhaps, a series of interlocked and interdependent communities).

It’s split into three broad parts (“Rust”, “Remnants” and “Rails”) of roughly four, three and two hours respectively, the first and longest dealing with three large factories (dedicated to smelting, zinc sheets, and steel cables). Wang filmed over the course of 1999-2001, and even in the early sequences we get a sense of how these factories are on their last legs, far from the shiny glass and steel modernism we might be used to, but crumbling relics of a past era. Workers are seen not just on the factory floor, but bickering in the changing rooms and wandering around naked in and out of showers, playing mahjong and receiving rare visits from bosses. As the time goes by, the work becomes more haphazard, the permanent staff replaced by temps, all kinds of dangerous practices going on, and having often not been paid for months, there’s a flagrant disregard not just for safety but for property — so tenuous is the business that employess openly discuss what they’re going to try and make off with before inevitable layoffs.

The second part goes to a nearby residential community, as it too slowly disappears, with evictions quickly leading to rows of roofless properties, among the rubble of which the last few hardy souls make do without electricity, boiling up food on wood-burning stoves. It would tempting to say the only colour in their dwellings comes from the bowls of food which are served, but even this is sometimes just bland porridge and steamed buns. It’s evidently not an easy life, but somehow the people there just keep on going, while wondering with increasing resentment why the alternative accommodation they’ve been offered is too small for their families, and too expensive for them to afford. (It’s never really made clear why these settlements — where the factory workers and their families lived, paying no rent — are being demolished, but it’s obviously linked to the closure of the factories.) The focus here is on the teenage children of the families, growing up without a sense of where to work or what to do. They move around the streets and the makeshift street markets chatting and jostling with one another like any kids anywhere in the world, but having watched the four preceding hours, it’s clear that this is a changing world. The film’s third part is set amongst a small group of rail workers (specifically old Mr Du and his son), running up and down the single-track line serving all these factories, and using the job to scavenge materials, an occupation clearly destined for oblivion.

Obviously the idea of sitting down to a nine-hour film is a daunting one, but it also creates its own sense of time passing that’s at odds with a lot of the instant-reaction fast-cut media with which we are most often faced. It allows the space for reflection and, most interestingly, allows a sense of possibility that bite-sized news items can sometimes occlude: in watching these massive societal changes to this area, there is without question struggle and bleakness, but it’s also a powerful testimony to what might be called a certain indomitability of human endeavour (okay, that seems a little too portentous a phrase). Everyone we see is dealing with their lives and forever trying to move forward, however many obstacles are placed in their way. It’s just that some obstacles seem insurmountable.


FILM REVIEW
Director/Cinematographer Wang Bing | Length 551 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Wednesday 23 November 2016

Criterion Sunday 103: The Lady Eve (1941)

Preston Sturges has a knack for screwball comedy patter and pratfalls, all of which is very much in evidence here. It’s undoubtedly a very silly story — though that much is not unusual — about a father-and-daughter gambling duo working a cruise ship who spot an easy target in the foolish naïveté of Charles Pike (Henry Fonda), scion to a brewing fortune. However, their plans are complicated in that Jean (Barbara Stanwyck) falls in love with her mark. The action is all infinitely improved by the wittiness of Preston Sturges’ screenplay and the delivery of Stanwyck — a radiant light that keeps the film going through all its plot contrivances. Fonda acquits himself well too, even if he’s called on to be rather too clumsy in his frequent falls, and is supported by reliable character actors like Charles Coburn and the wonderfully gravel-voiced Eugene Pallette as the pair’s respective fathers. It may not be the greatest of Sturges’s films, but it certainly holds up to repeat viewings.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Preston Sturges (based on the story “Two Bad Hats” by Monckton Hoffe) | Cinematographer Victor Milner | Starring Barbara Stanwyck, Henry Fonda, Charles Coburn, Eugene Pallette, William Demarest | Length 94 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 22 August 2016 (and earlier on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 19 June 2016, and on VHS at home, Wellington, January 2003)

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 101: Viskningar och rop (Cries and Whispers, 1972)

The experience of working through the Criterion Collection is one of having a slightly patchwork introduction to the ‘great directors’. We’ve had a few Fellinis, a bunch of Kurosawas and a clutch of Bergmans, amongst smatterings of Hitchcock and Powell/Pressburger, so I’m by no means an expert on these grand old men of the artform. However, my feeling is that for Ingmar Bergman, having largely moved on from his early, funny stuff (and I’m a fan of his 50s comedies like Smiles of a Summer Night and The Seventh Seal), he went through a more bleak period of introspective psychodramas, and amongst these Cries and Whispers is perhaps a good — if not the archetypal — example. It’s a chamber film, largely set in a single home in the late-19th century, as two sisters, Maria (Liv Ullmann) and Karin (Ingrid Thulin), take care of their dying third sister Agnes (Harriet Andersson), with the help of the family’s maidservant Anna (Kari Sylwan). No one really has much love for anyone else, save for Anna’s love and affection towards Agnes, as we learn in flashbacks. These depict each of the four struggling with earlier relationships, such as that of Karin with her husband, or Maria with a young doctor, and each is bookmarked by a brief image of the woman’s face in close-up, looming out of a red-filtered darkness. Indeed, red is a key colour in the film: formally, Bergman employs frequent fades to red to mark scene transitions, and in terms of the set design, one of the room’s in the home is the “red room” — truly a vision of bourgeois hell, though at least each of the sisters makes sure to wear white when they’re in there. It’s hardly genteel either, as under this etiquette-ridden formally-dressed exterior are all kinds of roiling emotions, expressed most forcefully by one scene of Karin’s self-mutilation in order to escape her husband’s attentions (which I’m sure didn’t escape Michael Haneke either). It has a certain cumulative force to it, though whether you love it depends on how you respond to Bergman’s moralistic hand-wringing.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Ingmar Bergman | Cinematographer Sven Nykvist | Starring Liv Ullmann, Ingrid Thulin, Kari Sylwan, Harriet Andersson | Length 91 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 12 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)

Criterion Sunday 94: I Know Where I’m Going! (1945)

This is a light, frothy and rather silly romance from Powell and Pressburger, made towards the end of World War II. It’s not exactly a comedy, but the way that the ceaseless forward momentum of Wendy Hiller’s middle-class Joan founders on the rocks of Roger Livesey’s unflinching Torquil is a comic scenario expertly mined by the writer-directors. Joan is marrying a wealthy industrialist on the remote Scottish island of Kiloran he’s leased, while Torquil is the Laird of Kiloran, not rich but happy for the income. He’s staying with a friend in a mainland port town where Joan has become stranded due to bad weather, waiting to get out to the island. Where the comic setup gets silly is in a local curse that’s been placed on the Lairds, which is invoked in the denouement. Still, that’s all of a piece with this snappy film, which really conveys a great sense of the windswept bleakness of this stretch of coast: the viewer really feels all that rain and wind, especially in a boat-set scene so churning one is happy for the camera to return to stable land.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors/Writers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger | Cinematographer Erwin Hillier | Starring Wendy Hiller, Roger Livesey | Length 88 minutes || Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 5 May 1999 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 17 April 2016)

Criterion Sunday 93: Black Narcissus (1947)

Having recently revisited my previously low opinion on Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes, I’d hoped the same would happen for me with their big beautifully-coloured studio-bound epic of the year before. It’s an exoticist take on India, as Deborah Kerr plays Sister Clodagh, selected to run a new mountain outpost in rural India and swiftly despatched with a selection of other nuns, including the unstable Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron). The sets and filming is undeniably gorgeous, and there’s a lot of high camp to the proceedings, only heightened by that Technicolor. The fierce competition between Clodagh and Ruth largely takes place across their faces, with Mr Dean (David Farrar) stuck manfully in the middle, dispensing his sardonic advice about how best to get along with the locals. The film’s big misstep is in the whitewashing of Indian roles (with the exception of Sabu’s ‘little’ General), which may be a feature of contemporary filmmaking, but doesn’t make it any easier to watch, much though Jean Simmons in particular does her best to steal her scenes.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors/Writers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (based on the novel by Rumer Godden) | Cinematographer Jack Cardiff | Starring Deborah Kerr, Kathleen Byron, David Farrar, Sabu, Jean Simmons | Length 100 minutes || Seen at National Library, Wellington, Thursday 20 May 1999 (also on VHS at home, Wellington, April 1998, and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 17 April 2016)

Criterion Sunday 88: Ivan Grozniy (Ivan the Terrible, 1944/1958)

Eisenstein’s final film (he’d planned a third part but died after starting to film it) follows the now very much de rigueur pattern of splitting its story into two separate films, though one would assume given its Soviet origins this wasn’t done for commercial reasons. Indeed, the second part was shelved for 12 years following its completion because apparently Stalin was disconcerted with the portrayal of his great hero Ivan. Knowing this obviously lends some compelling subtext to Nikolai Cherkasov’s portrayal of the increasingly paranoid and despotic ruler, though the first film has him posing far more innocently, adopting all those heroic poses he’d already mastered in Alexander Nevsky (1938). There’s a huge amount of beauty to Eisenstein’s framing, all glowering black-and-white close-ups of the principal characters — a huge amount of the drama is conveyed not through dialogue but by the movement of the actors’ eyes, and the frenetic mien of their expressionistic faces. In many ways, it’s like a modern soap opera, as bitter rivals grimace at one another, or go for hugs while revealing their true feelings to the camera over the other character’s shoulder. Much of the film takes place indoors, in cavernous chambers and long hallways, which means the lighting design and use of shadows is at times spectacular. The second part gets progressively darker, until, in a moment of surprise, there’s almost a dance sequence in (slightly reddishly-degraded) colour, before things lapse back to the previous stark monochrome. With a lot of the thematic development done via acting and staging, it’s the kind of film which would surely repay repeat viewings, but the central thrust of its thesis is nevertheless as evident to us as it must have been to Stalin.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Sergei Eisenstein | Cinematographer Andrei Moskvin and Eduard Tisse | Starring Nikolai Cherkasov | Length 187 minutes (split into two parts of 99 and 88 minutes respectively) || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Monday 2 May 2016