Criterion Sunday 573: জলসাঘর Jalsaghar (The Music Room, 1958)

Probably still one of the world’s major filmmakers whose work I’ve never properly watched (aside from his debut feature, not even yet the trilogy), Satyajit Ray took some time to receive the critical acclaim that was his due, perhaps because his films were far outside the expectations for the local cinema. This is his fourth feature and it showcases the classical music of his homeland beautifully, as it revolves around a local aristocrat who basically spends up his entire income and sells off his wife’s jewellery, just to keep the talent and the guests coming through the opulent room of the film’s title that’s in his home. The film allows the performances the space to breathe, and along the way tells a story of class and privilege in this society, as he tries to retain his status even as his money dissipates and nouveaux riches non-aristocratic traders start to challenge his position. It’s all beautifully filmed and honestly every Ray film I see is another film I feel I need to have seen in a cinema (because at home, late at night, falling asleep a bit) is hardly the ideal viewing experience.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Satyajit Ray সত্যজিৎ রায় (based on short story by Tarasankar Bandyopadhyay তারাশঙ্কর বন্দ্যোপাধ্যায়); Cinematographer Subrata Mitra সুব্রত মিত্র; Starring Chhabi Biswas ছবি বিশ্বাস, Padma Devi শ্রীমতি পদ্মা দেবী, Gangapada Bose গঙ্গাপদ বসু; Length 99 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Monday 26 September 2022.

Criterion Sunday 561: Kes (1969)

The UK seems like a pretty horrible place to be right now — reading the news, there seems to be a lot of intolerance and judgment, and it primarily seems to flow from the top down (you just have to look at the current Prime Minister and those people vying to take over from him). Turns out none of this is new and you can hear this strain of small-minded authority figures lecturing down to poor working-class kids here too, in a film made at the tail end of the 1960s, in a mining community where young Billy doesn’t want to follow his family down the pit. There’s a lot of bleakness to this quiet story of childhood desperation, and then there’s the eponymous bird (a kestrel, of course) which seems to signify so much more potential to Billy’s world. I think Loach keeps this all in nice balance — the metaphors of freedom and the bleak reality of constraint — and though the grim constant grind that Billy lives under, the abuse of the school teachers (except for the one kind soul who encourages him towards the end), and his horrible brother, loom large they never quite become the whole story. Perhaps there’s hope, perhaps there’s not, you can read the film how you want to.

NB: This is listed as 1970 by the Criterion Collection, though it was screened at the 1969 London Film Festival.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Ken Loach; Writers Barry Hines, Loach and Tony Garnett (based on Hines’s novel A Kestrel for a Knave); Cinematographer Chris Menges; Starring David Bradley, Freddie Fletcher, Colin Welland; Length 99 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 20 August 2022 (and earlier, probably on VHS in the 1990s).

Criterion Sunday 555: Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

Watching this is very much an exercise in looking for the glimmers of hope and possibility in a story about people whose lives (all of them, really) have been derailed or sidelined, and who have turned to anger and sarcasm to get them through their lives (well those as well as drinking, lashing out, the usual kinds of things). It’s a film set in East London, not the trendy cool bit, but the Essex bit, out in Dagenham and Barking and beyond, stuck in a place where there doesn’t seem to be much of a way out. There’s an emaciated horse, the hope of five pounds stashed away to buy a few cans of super strength cider, dancing in parking lots with your friends, a sunny day away to a reservoir. Still, Andrea Arnold keeps it all moving along, just on the right side of hopelessness as our teenage protagonist Mia (Katie Jarvis) struggles to find some way to connect; Michael Fassbender as her mum’s boyfriend Conor seems to offer some hope for their family to come together, but then it turns out he’s just another rotten one, perhaps the worst, but yet somehow catalyses some feeling of change for Mia. You don’t want to watch it at times, but it hurtles forward with the brash energy of youth.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Alexander Mackendrick; Writers Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman (based on Lehman’s novelette Tell Me About It Tomorrow! in Cosmopolitan); Cinematographer James Wong Howe 黃宗霑; Starring Tony Curtis, Burt Lancaster, Susan Harrison; Length 96 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 23 July 2022 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, June 2000).

Criterion Sunday 543: Modern Times (1936)

I am, if I’m being realistic, more than halfway through my life, which for someone who watches as many films as I do, is late to be getting into Charlie Chaplin. Of his features, I’ve only seen A Countess from Hong Kong (1967), which is probably not considered the classic way to start (his last film, although it’s certainly interesting for its era). But Modern Times holds up: a lot of its critiques of workplace relations and management pressure hardly seem to have aged at all, even if some of the technology it imagines is rather fanciful. The comedy is focused mostly into those sequences with the machines — Chaplin’s Tramp on the assembly line, getting sucked into the cogs, and doing a variety of pratfalls around the factory. However, it does feel far more strongly as if Chaplin is interested in social commentary, as well as finding an emotional thread with his relationship with the similarly marginalised Paulette Goddard’s “Gamin” character (she’s also Chaplin’s real-life wife of the time, and though 20 years younger than him is at least in her 20s for a change, even if she’s playing a juvenile delinquent). Overall it has a clarity to its comedic setups that focuses attention on the mistreatment of labour and the fallout of the Depression on people in America, with an undercurrent of poverty and desperation that I think sharpens some of the satire. I think it will take me a little while to deepen my appreciation of Chaplin, though, and so I look forward to seeing more of his classics as my Criterion project goes on.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Charlie Chaplin; Cinematographers Ira H. Morgan and Roland Totheroh; Starring Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard; Length 87 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 12 June 2022.

Criterion Sunday 541: The Night of the Hunter (1955)

If I were in a less generous mood I would see this as a noble failure, a strange blend of folk horror and exaggerated camp that leans far too heavily into its fairy tale register, and to be honest it does often come across as faintly absurd while it’s playing out. But I’m not feeling grumpy today and I think the very staginess of the undertaking is exactly right for what it’s trying to do, which is not to scare in a traditional sense, but to evoke a mythic sense of dread that is as much a part of the canon of fairy tale literature as it is part of 20th century film history. Needless to say it wasn’t exactly embraced on release and probably prevented its director Charles Laughton from ever making another film, but what he does here with his collaborators (both in the writing and especially the monochrome cinematography by Stanley Cortez) is to evoke a curiously timeless — partially because in some senses it remains accurate — portrait of America, with its fascination with guns, religion and children and the way these three elements combine.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There are plenty of bonuses stretched over two Blu-ray discs, so it may take me a while to watch all of them, but I did look at the 15-minute piece on the BBC show Moving Pictures which has a few short interviews with various key cast members (Mitchum, Winters), some behind the scenes people like a producer and a set designer, as well as archival footage of Gish, speaking to the enduring power of the film sometime around its fortieth anniversary as well as the excellence of its director in bringing everything together.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Charles Laughton; Writer James Agee (based on the novel by Davis Grubb); Cinematographer Stanley Cortez; Starring Robert Mitchum, Billy Chapin, Lillian Gish, Shelley Winters, Sally Jane Bruce; Length 93 minutes.

Seen at the National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 6 June 2001 (also earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, July 1999 and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Monday 6 June 2022).

Criterion Sunday 536: The Thin Red Line (1998)

I have seen this film many times on the big screen, but have never tried to put into words what I love about it. And while it’s fair to say it’s one of my favourite films, and I’m happy to rate it five stars (or 10/10 or whatever metric you want, although apparently two green ticks is what I currently use here), I don’t particularly hold that it is perfect in every detail. Perhaps what I love about it is more some of the effects that Terrence Malick achieves as a filmmaker, poetic and empathetic achievements, the deployment of actors, the development of its narrative, and the way it stands in relation to other war movies. Because if we want to get into criticism, then I think some of the tropes are still a little bit underdeveloped — particularly Ben Chaplin’s Pvt Bell and his relationship with his wife back home (Miranda Otto), conveyed in largely voiceless flashbacks of them holding each other in pre-war times and followed up with an almost literal “Dear John” letter (his name is actually Jack in the film) and his anguished responses in the twilight and rain of the R&R following a major battle, all of which feels a little bit convenient and familiar.

What’s not so familiar is the elegiac tone, which differed wildly from the other major World War II-era film released that same year of 1998 (Saving Private Ryan). Where Spielberg’s film, or at least its opening, was forceful in its evocation of the brutality of combat, Malick’s film instead subsumes everything into a sort of continuum with nature. The voiceovers — which come from many different characters and create almost a shared voice of humanity joined in pain and confusion — cue this up almost from the outset, the very first words we hear asking “What is this war in the heart of nature, why does nature vie with itself?” while we look on gnarled old swampland trees, overgrown with vines and tendrils. Even when we see our first combat casualty, it’s part of a sequence of the new troops making their way quietly through the jungle, and so the brutality of the vision of a mangled body becomes just part of the evocation of the darkness within nature. The extended battle scenes too alternate Nick Nolte’s Lt Tall shouting down the phone at Cpt Staros (Elias Koteas) with long languorous shots of the Guadalcanal hills, long grass flecked with sun, winds blowing them aside as the troops advance towards the Japanese positions.

So when I say that the film’s imperfections don’t matter to me so much, it’s because this to me is a film about humanity (specifically men, of course) within nature, about death as part of a continuum of life, about the search for the light. This central metaphor of the light is clearly a religious one, and Jim Caviezel’s subsequent film work playing the Christ in Mel Gibson’s self-flagellating film of the Passion (and others) finds its origins here in what is undoubtedly supposed to be a Christ-like figure, rebelling against authority and trying to find the light and goodness in his fellow men. I’m not convinced about the way Malick uses the indigenous Melanesian people in the opening ‘paradise’ sections as well as the subsequent commentary on their fall due to the war which has been unwillingly brought to them, but for me it’s nevertheless a beautiful sequence that combines John Toll’s cinematography with Fauré’s Requiem and Melanesian choirs orchestrated by composer Hans Zimmer, to convey in musical and visual terms this search for the light that ends the film too. Again and again, the restless camera cranes away towards the sky and the sun, and either we see it through the roofs of the homes in the flashback sequences, or it’s obscured by the jungle trees, perceived only as light filtering through the crevices between the leaves, or in holes that nature has made through them.

So yes, while I cannot say that do not see flaws in The Thin Red Line, they are the flaws perhaps of overreaching, of Malick and his fellow collaborators on this film, trying to get at something essential in humanity or how they see humanity as part of the world. It’s a poetic evocation of a world that owes as much to the Bible as it does to James Jones’s novel or to (what I imagine is) the experience of war itself, and so it’s a film I love and happily continue to watch over and over again.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Terrence Malick (based on the novel by James Jones); Cinematographer John Toll; Starring Jim Caviezel, Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, Ben Chaplin, Elias Koteas, Dash Mihok; Length 171 minutes.

Seen at Manners Mall, Wellington, Tuesday 2 March 1999, at the Embassy, Wellington, Monday 7 June 1999, at Riverside Studios, London, Thursday 18 March 2004, and at the Embassy, Wellington, Sunday 15 November 2020 (and on VHS, DVD and Blu-ray at home, in Wellington and London, on several occasions in between).

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 512: Vivre sa vie: film en douze tableaux (aka My Life to Live, 1962)

I have of course seen this Godard film many times before (and written about it far more eloquently in the past than I can muster now) but it may be my favourite of Godard’s oeuvre. It limns the concerns of the contemporary 1960s world to something self-consciously archaic in cinema, using intertitles (the chapter headings for this most structural of films, composed as the subtitle says, in 12 tableaux), gorgeous black-and-white close-ups of Anna Karina’s face (not to mention the back of her head), and of course those images of Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc. But beyond that, it’s a film that deals with his eternal theme of capitalism, using the figure of Karina’s Nana as a way into a morally murky world. Nobody really ends up in a good place — shades of Breathless at the end — but the story of Nana’s falling into prostitution as a line of work and then into love (not a line of work) is almost sidelined by an aesthetic interest in the image. Indeed it’s very easy to miss the film’s ostensible plot, but also very easy (and equally pleasurable) just to look at the film as a series of tableaux vivants.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard; Cinematographer Raoul Coutard; Starring Anna Karina; Length 83 minutes.

Seen at university library (VHS), Wellington, October 1998 and June 2000 (later on DVD at home, London, Wednesday 14 August 2013, and most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Monday 7 February 2022).

Criterion Sunday 501: Paris, Texas (1984)

The Criterion Collection had just released Wim Wenders’s other big 1980s feature film Wings of Desire before this one, and though Wenders had garnered a fair amount of attention for his 1970s German road movies, I think it’s Paris, Texas that remains his most well-loved. And it would be easy for me to try and dismiss this as I wanted to dismiss Wings of Desire but both have a depth and complexity that is more than their slightly sentimental stories of family and healing might on the surface suggest. Here we have the poise and emptiness of the desert setting, the mysterious entrance of Harry Dean Stanton’s Travis and the unfolding of his story. Familial love is important here — the love of his brother Walt (Dean Stockwell) for Travis, the love of Travis for his son Hunter (Hunter Carson, the screenwriter’s son), and even the love he seems to have, however fleetingly, for his ex-partner Jane (played by the much younger Nastassja Kinski). The relationship they had is only really ever hinted at — and it seems like it must have been a strange, strained one, possibly one rooted in drugs and nihilism — but the story becomes far more one about the child they had together and what is best for that child, and this is the moral quandary that Travis is dealing with. Wenders of course, along with cinematographer Robby Müller, do a beautiful job of framing this quest, and a climactic scene is almost perfectly blocked between Stanton and Kinski. But beyond the technical credits the acting is exactly right for the setting, and so the film remains iconic almost 40 years on.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Wim Wenders; Writers L. K. Kit Carson and Sam Shepard; Cinematographer Robby Müller; Starring Harry Dean Stanton, Dean Stockwell, Hunter Carson, Nastassja Kinski, Aurore Clément; Length 147 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 30 January 2022 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, December 2000).

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.