Criterion Sunday 253: A Woman Under the Influence (1974)

In my ongoing Criterion watching project, I stalled a bit before this film. I’d seen it before, and I’d rated it highly, but it’s one of those films that you need to take a big breath and a bit of time before you launch yourself into it because it is unrelenting. It’s not bleak exactly, but it’s exhausting because Gena Rowlands — who utterly dominates the film — just fills every empty space with her presence. She’s Mabel, the mother to three kids, and the wife to Peter Falk’s construction engineer Nick (or some kind of municipal worker), and if the way I’m defining her life seems a little regressive, well that’s the world of the film, and it’s strongly implied that part of her problem is the way that she has been pushed into this role, and the way she comes apart at the seams trying to live up to expectations made of her. That’s also partly why it’s so heartbreaking, because although she’s clearly become unhinged, it’s Nick who’s the bully and the bad person. He can be sweet and understanding at times, but every time he loses control of Mabel, he starts shouting and gets pushy and violent, and the kids, who are there most of the time, can’t do much about it. Cassavetes keeps the camera tight in on them for much of the film, only at the end disappearing behind a closed curtain as he leaves them. It’s a film of towering acting performances, not least from Rowlands, although Falk is also on brilliant form. There are these characters around the edges (parents, kids, co-workers of Nick’s), who feel almost like non-actors and perhaps they are, but for all its age, it feels continually fresh and perceptive about its characters, and about mental health.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer John Cassavetes; Cinematographers Al Ruban and Mitch Breit; Starring Gena Rowlands, Peter Falk; Length 147 minutes.

Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 12 May 2002 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, February 2000, and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Thursday 4 July 2019).

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Criterion Sunday 252: Faces (1968)

This is in some ways the ur-Cassavetes picture, which came after a few unsuccessful studio pictures in the early-60s as a return to the improvisational quality of Shadows, not to mention developing the verité-style black-and-white high-contrast camerawork into a grander form. Although it was all scripted, it does still feel like the actors are using the script as a means to finding the emotion, and that’s what Cassavetes is ultimately most interested in, those unforced moments of feeling that come through in the actors’ performances. Frequently the scenes as written feel rambling or unfocused, and often the actors are playing drunk, which doesn’t always pay off, but it captures something that a lot of cinema wasn’t doing in the US of the 1960s (Bergman is namechecked within the film, and that feels like a more fair comparison point). Thus, for all that it’s a film about an older man confronting mortality and a fairly unremarkable working life, as well as people trapped somewhat in the past, it also feels quite fresh and honest in a way.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • As with most of Cassavetes’ films, there are multiple versions that exist. The original cut was around three hours, and there was also a 147 minute cut, from which 18 minutes of an introduction feature here as an extra.
  • Making ‘Faces’ (2004) is a fairly standard making-of Criterion extra, which is structured around interviews with four key members of the production who were still alive: the cameraman/editor Al Ruban, and actors Gena Rowlands, Seymour Cassel and Lynn Carlin. All of them provide stories from the film’s set that suggest Cassavetes’ methods, how he helped actors to find the performance, as well as the way his artistic direction manifested itself (he wanted actors to find their own way into the characters, rather than providing notes, as one example). Al Ruban (the cinematographer and editor) expands on some of the technical challenges, such as finding all the sound was un-synched at the end, or having too few lights to film the big club scenes.
  • Ruban also contributes a separate 12-minute extra just about his choice of film stock and lighting for the film’s relatively restrained number of locations, which is probably more for those with an interest in lighting.
  • Finally, there’s a two-part interview for the French TV series Cinéastes de notre temps, conducted during the making of and after the release of Faces. We get much of his credo and philosophy of filmmaking — and one which has informed a lot of independent cinema ever since: the idea that even if you don’t have any money, you should go out and make your vision, in the hope that at least someone will share your passion somewhere down the line. Cassavetes comes across as supremely relaxed and chatty in the first part, filmed presumably in some manic period during production, as he paces around his offices and home, and introduces the people around him, all bonhomie and gregarious host, which the filmmakers cannily intercut with footage of laughter and joviality in the film he’s made, suggesting the direct line from his lived experience to his art.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer John Cassavetes; Cinematographer Al Ruban; Starring John Marley, Gena Rowlands, Lynn Carlin, Seymour Cassel; Length 130 minutes.

Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 8 May 2002 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, March 1999, and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Monday 27 May 2019).

Criterion Sunday 249: La battaglia di Algeri (The Battle of Algiers, 1966)

Over 50 years on and there’s still an enormous amount of clarity and power in this film set against the backdrop of the last few years of the French occupation of Algeria, during the Algerian War, effectively a battle for independence. Pontecorvo’s style emphasises its indebtedness to documentary, by using handheld cameras and a grainy high-contrast black-and-white image that suggests newsreel footage at times. But its thematic achievement is in treating both sides with some semblance of equality, even if it’s clear that the moral force is on the side of the Algerians. While the FLN agitators are not dismissed as mere terrorists, there’s also clearly conflict about their methods and targets, and they are hardly romanticised as freedom fighters. Meanwhile, the film does not in any way exonerate the French in this conflict either, who are ultimately the aggressors, as the colonialist power. The French commander, a tall man in shades, strikes a heroic figure, but despite his successes against the Nazis, his tactics are questioned here, and he remains morally compromised as a player in the drama. The central character arc is for Brahim Haggiag’s Ali, who ascends from petty thief to a figure of central importance within the FLN resistance as a result of prison radicalisation. The film’s narrative takes his story, starting with the end and looping back in time to bring the story full circle, all the while moving the action forward propulsively. As such, the film never slows down for much of its two hours, a very watchable film about a complex struggle that never feels like it’s taking an easy way out.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • The first disc includes a documentary called Pontecorvo: The Dictatorship of Truth (1992), a fairly brief TV piece which has Edward Said reflecting on the relatively few films of Pontecorvo, and why he should have largely disappeared from the cinephile conversation by the 1990s. There’s an interview with Pontecorvo himself, who suggests some reasons (a fear of failure seems to be chief among them), and there’s some good context on the making of all three of the features mentioned, particularly The Battle of Algiers.
  • There are interviews with five directors who speak about the film’s importance to their own craft, picking out elements of the style and its production, not that you’d necessarily expect it from people like Steven Soderbergh or Mira Nair.
  • There are also loads of other films and contextualising documents, which I’ll add here as I watch them.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Gillo Pontecorvo; Writers Pontecorvo and Franco Solinas; Cinematographer Marcello Gatti; Starring Brahim Haggiag براهيم حجاج, Jean Martin; Length 120 minutes.

Seen at National Library, Wellington, Thursday 20 May 1999 (also earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, January 1998, and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Sunday 19 May 2019).

Criterion Sunday 248: Videodrome (1983)

I had this idea that I watched this film with my stepbrothers when I was a kid, but if I did I certainly didn’t get it at the time (nor do I remember any of it upon rewatching so I may just be imagining it). However, as a result, I’ve probably spent more of my life than is reasonable believing I wasn’t really ‘into’ David Cronenberg’s brand of body horror combined with media satire. That said, I’ve seen plenty of his films since, and I’ve liked most of them quite a lot, but yet still retained some core of that original belief, perhaps modified somewhat into some idea that he’s just an outré auteur who panders to horror-soaked fanboys’ wet dreams… and clearly — look, you all know this already — but I’m wrong.

Videodrome looks from the outside as something nasty and exploitative, but it feels more like an advance warning from a Nostradamus of the early-1980s about everything we have in our culture now. The technology may look a little clunky but the effects still hold up really well. It’s the kind of film that you probably need to rewatch a number of times to figure out its particular configuration of the televisual exploitation of sleaze, sex, sexual violence and depravity, the way that links to notions of masculine performance (James Woods, who nowadays probably really is that guy he’s playing here, hallucinates a literal vagina opening across much of his torso), added to which there’s the fetishisation of videotapes. There are also so many layers of hallucinatory dream life that it stops being clear what’s real and what’s just in the head of Max/Nicki/Prof O’Blivion/Cronenberg/whoever else might be imagining this stuff.

In short, it opened up my head like Barry Convex’s in this film, and I don’t know if I can be the same again. The 1980s was the decade of Cronenberg, no doubt.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer David Cronenberg; Cinematographer Mark Irwin; Starring James Woods, Debbie Harry, Sonja Smits; Length 89 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Monday 6 May 2019.

Criterion Sunday 235: Il gattopardo (The Leopard, 1963)

There’s something about Visconti’s The Leopard that makes it feel like a relic from a previous era of filmmaking, or perhaps its ultimate summation in many ways. Of course, it’s set in the past (the 19th century), and tells a story of an aristocratic family headed by Burt Lancaster’s paterfamilias, confronting a new era of Italy’s reunification under Garibaldi. However, it has that period detail and a certain patina of widescreen cinematography and big, lush melodramatic action that suggests the prestige Hollywood pictures of the 1950s. The confrontation between the aristocracy and the middle-classes — the resigned sense of a world that’s changing beyond one’s control (which plays out primarily across Lancaster’s face) — is very much the kind of grand theme that feels of its time, rather less common in modern cinema (though entitled aristocrats will also be a staple of the costume drama). The way the film works best comes down in large part to Lancaster’s stillness while everything whirls around him — literally so in the last third, which is set amongst a grand ball. Those who are attentive to acting, as to sumptuous set design, will find a lot to like here, and there’s something about the grandeur of the entire undertaking that feels like it will only become more suggestive and richer the more times one watches it, so perhaps by the time I reach Lancaster’s age, I will unreservedly love this. For me now, the film feels like an exemplar (a glorious, expressive one admittedly) of a certain decadent form, just as Lancaster (and his nephew played by Alain Delon) represent that decadence in practice.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Luchino Visconti; Writers Pasquale Festa Campanile, Enrico Medioli, Massimo Franciosa, Visconti and Suso Cecchi d’Amico (based on the novel by Giuseppe Tomasi de Lampedusa); Cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno; Starring Burt Lancaster, Claudia Cardinale, Alain Delon; Length 185 minutes.

Seen at Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Friday 6 June 2003 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Sunday 6 January 2019).

Criterion Sunday 231: Das Testament des Doktor Mabuse (The Testament of Dr Mabuse, 1933)

Fritz Lang’s last film in Germany is this reprise of his silent film character, a venerable archetype of the genre (a mad scientist locked up for his criminal mastermindery). This film takes the character and creates a mystery thriller with another mad scientist who appears to have been possessed by the spirit of Dr Mabuse, inspired by Mabuse’s detailed writings into committing a series of heists and crimes. There’s a lot of gripping cross-cutting, and some genuinely thrilling scenes as characters look like they’re done for, many of which have been reprised in subsequent cinema history. It’s a top jaunt, and good fun too. Of course, there’s also a subtext about Nazis there if you want to find it (it may have been too early to be specifically about the rise of Hitler, but it’s certainly premonitory and presumably tapped into the stirrings within contemporary German society).


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Fritz Lang; Writers Thea von Harbou and Lang; Cinematographers Karl Vash and Fritz Arno Wagner; Starring Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Otto Wernicke; Length 124 minutes.

Seen at Paramount, Wellington, Thursday 25 June 1998 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 21 October 2018).

Criterion Sunday 222: Journal d’un curé de campagne (Diary of a Country Priest, 1951)

I remember first watching this when I was a university student and finding it quite tedious, then a few years a later completely reversed my opinion of it with a fine new celluloid print in a cinema, and as such I believe it is a film that ages well with its audience. After Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, it finds Bresson coming into his own in terms of the way he choreographs his actors, while still holding a little of that melodramatic form of his previous two features. It’s held together by a central performance by Claude Laydu recalling Falconetti in La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc a little — the intensity of suffering, held in the eyes. Indeed, Laydu generally moves across the whole gamut of emotions from merely apprehensive through melancholy, baleful, anguished, pained and tormented. One of these tormentors is a Mouchette-like young girl, and another is also a young woman, though perhaps it’s his own self-doubts that torment him the most. Even as the film moves towards an ending that reminds me of Ikiru (the film before it in the Criterion Collection), it’s the grace in which Laydu holds himself — and which Bresson’s filmmaking captures, in beautiful, ethereal and softly contrasted black-and-white — that most marks out our country priest, and which lend him and the film a touch of the divine.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Robert Bresson (based on the novel by Georges Bernanos); Cinematographer Léonce-Henri Burel; Starring Claude Laydu; Length 115 minutes.

Seen at Te Papa, Wellington, Saturday 16 June 2001 (also earlier on VHS in the university library, Wellington, August 1998, and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 22 July 2018).

Criterion Sunday 221: 生きる Ikiru (1952)

Clearly one of Kurosawa’s greatest films, it’s also perhaps a little forgotten — possibly not amongst hardened cineastes, but that at least is the feeling I get when talking about Kurosawa with other casual film lovers. Part of this is undoubtedly that it’s not set in the shogun era of samurai and peasants (like, say, Seven Samurai), but rather contemporary Japan. It’s about a humble bureaucrat (played by Kurosawa regular Takashi Shimura) who mournfully realises the failure of his life as he gets a cancer diagnosis, and has to deal with that. There’s a hint of Rashomon to the latter half of the film, as people argue at his wake about his lasting achievement — the construction of a children’s playground — but the framing of it, as flashbacks from his funeral, clearly indicate that it is altogether too late in his life. It is, however, poignant and heartbreaking, and feels like a movie that’s not so much depressing in its accounting of a person’s life, as perhaps a little hopeful that some may at least achieve something despite all the obstacles placed in their way.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • A fairly easygoing documentary (an episode of a TV series, It Is Wonderful to Create, which pops up on most of Criterion’s Kurosawa releases), which uses interviews with surviving members of Kurosawa’s cast and crew to shed light on how he made his films. This one features Miki Odagiri (the young woman who befriends Kanji after his illness is diagnosed, and then finds him a little creepily intense) talking about Kurosawa’s methods of inspiring her performance, as well as screenwriters and technicians. There’s not a huge deal of insight, but it’s pleasant enough.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Akira Kurosawa 黒澤明; Writers Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto 橋本忍 and Hideo Oguni 小国英雄; Cinematographer Asakazu Nakai 中井朝一; Starring Takashi Shimura 志村喬, Miki Odagiri 小田切みき; Length 143 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 8 July 2018 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, June 1997).

Criterion Sunday 219: La strada (1954)

Nights of Cabiria remains my favourite Fellini film, but of course Giulietta Masina was pretty great in everything she did with Fellini. Here she plays a wide-eyed naïf, but almost a caricature of that, so very ingenuous does she appear, so simple in manner and trusting in affect. Of course, the story takes her down some bleak narrative turns, as she becomes hitched to a travelling sideshow performer (Anthony Quinn, looking unwashed), and the film follows in the footsteps of that profession by itself becoming something of a picaresque journey narrative. It’s a little bit winding and sometimes goes down dead ends, but for the most part it is carried by its performances, as well as the simple generosity of the writers towards their characters.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Federico Fellini; Writers Fellini, Tullio Pinelli and Ennio Flaiano; Cinematographer Otello Martelli and Carlo Carlini; Starring Giulietta Masina, Anthony Quinn; Length 104 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 24 June 2018.

Criterion Sunday 217: 東京物語 Tokyo Monogatari (Tokyo Story, 1953)

Oh sure, yes, it is deliberately paced, as so many Ozu films are, but for all its acclaim (it used to regularly show up on best-ever lists, and I think it still does), it is one of those films that really does deliver. I’m not even personally very good at communicating with my family sometimes, but I still get all up in my feelings whenever I see the way all these grown children act atrociously towards their elderly parents, who are visiting Tokyo from the countryside. Obviously Ozu is, to an extent, commenting on modern society, and we get interstitial shots of trains and built-up urban areas, but none of that is particularly forced, and this works very well too on simply an emotional level — what it means to get older, the responsibilities you continue to have to family, showing respect for the elderly. Only Setsuko Hara’s character (the daughter-in-law) seems to make much of an effort, and the way she radiantly smiles at the camera even when she’s clearly upset just seems to make it all the more poignant.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Yasujiro Ozu; Writers Ozu and Kogo Noda 野田高梧; Cinematographer Yuharu Atsuta 厚田雄春; Starring Chishu Ryu 笠智衆, Chieko Higashiyama 東山千栄子, Setsuko Hara 原節子; Length 136 minutes.

Seen at Victoria University, Wellington, Monday 27 April 1998 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, April 1997, and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 27 May 2018).