Criterion Sunday 141: Les Enfants du paradis (aka Children of Paradise, 1945)

It’s a grand achievement; any review you look at will tell you that. Made when it was, at the scale it was made, it shouldn’t have been possible, but yet it’s a big, bold, crowded film teeming with life. Of course, it’s still a grand handsome well-mounted epic that trades on all those classic (and classical) qualities of Cinema Art: a woman whose amorous conquests, or those attempts of her suitors, seem to allegorise a political situation; a witty script of over-talkative thespian types exploring the power of art; big camera moves; and mass crowd scenes for spectacle. I admire it even if I (philistine that I may be) never quite love it, but admiration goes a long way so I expect I’ll watch it again some day and admit it’s a masterpiece.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Marcel Carné | Writer Jacques Prévert | Cinematographers Marc Fossard and Roger Hubert | Starring Arletty, Jean-Louis Barrault, Pierre Brasseur, Marcel Herrand, María Casares | Length 190 minutes || Seen at Paramount, Wellington, Thursday 25 June 1998 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 29 January 2017)

Criterion Sunday 140: 8½ (aka Otto e mezzo, 1963)

It’s not that I don’t appreciate what Fellini is aiming for here — portrait of the artist as a narcissist with mother issues, one of his abiding themes — it’s just that there’s so much whirl and spectacle that I find it difficult to keep up with why I should care about Marcello Mastroianni’s Guido and his many women (and memories of women, and fantasies of women). I’ve apparently seen this film before but I don’t remember it at all, not that I’m holding up this response as any kind of proof of anything. It’s undoubtedly a well-made film which does all those reflexive filmic things (he plays a film director) that critics love when compiling their all-time lists, and the cinematography by Gianni Di Venanzo is fantastic. I just struggle to find what’s in it that I can connect with. To each their own.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Federico Fellini | Writers Federico Fellini, Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli and Brunello Rondi | Cinematographer Gianni Di Venanzo | Starring Marcello Mastroianni, Anouk Aimée, Sandra Milo | Length 138 minutes || Seen at Rialto, Wellington, Tuesday 31 October 2000 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 15 January 2017)

Criterion Sunday 139: Smultronstället (Wild Strawberries, 1957)

Another one of those classics that always crops up on lists (I’ve been watching a few of them recently, not least on the Criterion Collection) but it succeeds on the basis of Victor Sjöström’s performance as the old professor close to death. He’s looking back on his life, often watching scenes from 50-60 years earlier, and seeing — as we are — what a difficult man he’s been and how he needs to open up. There’s heavy-handed use of the various women he meets (and has known) to drive the point home, which works if you accept this is very much told not just about him, but from his point of view.

Criterion Extras: There’s a commentary track by Stephen Prince, who covers many of the themes, although I am not such a huge fan of his style, though he appears on plenty of Criterion’s Bergman releases. There’s also an introduction by Bergman, which I gather is an outtake from one of the many documentaries about his life and work.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Ingmar Bergman | Cinematographer Gunnar Fischer | Starring Victor Sjöström, Bibi Andersson, Ingrid Thulin | Length 91 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 8 January 2017

Criterion Sunday 138: Rashomon (1950)

Though it may be one of those films that’s always on a best-of list somewhere, and therefore has the sense of being a boring dusty old classic, thankfully it’s for many good reasons and none of them involve being bored. Whatever else, it must be one of the most influential movies ever, not least for its audacious structure, moving back and forward in time and presenting overlapping testimonies on a rape/murder, each of which conflict with the others. It’s a film about the power and responsibility of storytelling, and of the infinite variety of interpretation, made by a filmmaker who — more than most others — has utter mastery over narrative exposition in filmic form. Kurosawa really is peerless in this regard; every cut and every scene moves the narrative forward in some way, or develops a theme of the film. The acting is iconic (suitably so) and much has been written about the sun-dappled cinematography. But for all the exegeses and critical plaudits, it stands up as a film which still entertains and educates.

Criterion Extras: Chief among the extras is a documentary called A Testimony as an Image (2012). This is, essentially, a making-of extra, albeit with the benefit of over a half-century of hindsight. The few remaining living crew members who worked on Kurosawa’s film come together to discuss their memories of its creation, so we get plenty about how the script came together (from one of the assistant directors, and a script supervisor), then about the set construction (from one of the lighting people), about that notable cinematography and the challenges of shooting in a dark forest, and about the stresses Kurosawa was under to get the release finished despite setbacks include a studio fire. It’s based around these reminiscences, with a few archival shots and some explanatory text, but these elderly men (and one woman) retain vivid memories and their recollections are worth listening to.

Also on the disc are around 15 minutes of excerpts from a documentary about cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa, and a short address to camera by Robert Altman about how all the influences he stole from Kurosawa and from this film in particular. There’s also a halting radio interview with Takashi Shimura from around 1960, which is interesting if not especially enlightening. Donald Richie’s commentary track helps to pull out a lot of the themes, and engages the viewer with an awareness of all that Kurosawa and his team achieve in the film, making it even better and more interesting (I rewatched it with the commentary immediately after the film, and it didn’t get boring at all).


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Akira Kurosawa | Writers Akira Kurosawa and Shinobu Hashimoto (based on short stories “Rashomon” and “Yabu no Naka” [In a Grove] by Ryunosuke Akutagawa) | Cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa | Starring Toshiro Mifune, Machiko Kyo, Masayuki Mori, Takashi Shimura | Length 88 minutes || Seen at Paramount, Wellington, Wednesday 14 April 1999 (as well as earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, November 1997, and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 1 January 2017)

Criterion Sunday 137: Notorious (1946)

Top Hitchcockery here from the master of morally-dubious controlling men — and all the men really are very bad people (Cary Grant as government agent Devlin included, handsome a figure though he may be). Ingrid Bergman is lovely even as the daughter of a Nazi enlisted to spy on her father’s friends, and proves you don’t have to have done much to have a reputation. Then again, perhaps it is more than just she who befits the film’s title. She also brushes past all the insinuations with aplomb, at least until she cannot. Plenty of great but unostentatious camerawork and thrills aplenty, especially in an excellent wine cellar scene.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Alfred Hitchcock | Writer Ben Hecht | Cinematographer Ted Tetzlaff | Starring Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, Claude Rains | Length 101 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 11 December 2016

Criterion Sunday 127: Gertrud (1964)

I’ve always loved this film, ever since first watching it, transfixed, on a 16mm print at a film society. It has a transfixing power, specifically in the way the actors interpret their lines, the fugue-like oneiric monotone and constant off-screen gaze of the title character (Nina Pens Rode), moving about her world as if nothing exists — indeed, if she had passed through a wall like a ghost, I’d hardly be surprised. Every element is controlled, not just the acting and movement, but the placement of decor, the use of paintings as counterpoint to the discussion, the ripples on the pond as Gertrud and Erland speak (pathetic fallacy, I suppose, but not even that overdetermined), the lighting, just everything. It’s also uncompromisingly about a woman who rejects the men in her life — not least by barely ever even looking at them — and I don’t blame her.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Carl Theodor Dreyer (based on the play by Hjalmar Söderberg) | Cinematographer Henning Bendtsen | Starring Nina Pens Rode, Bendt Rothe, Ebbe Rode, Baard Owe | Length 116 minutes || Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 23 June 1999 (also the Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Sunday 6 July 2003, and the BFI Southbank, London, Saturday 17 March 2012, as well as on VHS at home, Wellington, January 2001 and most recently on DVD, home, 3 December 2016)

Criterion Sunday 126: Ordet (aka The Word, 1955)

I’m never quite sure how to respond to the characters in this film, though over time I’ve come to accept it as a great and profound work (on my first viewing, in my early-20s, I was distinctly unimpressed, and it took seeing it on the cinema screen to appreciate its artistry). Everyone acts at times like a fool, at times with grace and acceptance; it’s religious, not in a simple way, but at a fundamental level — Ordet (which when translated means “the word”) seems hardly about creed so much as the underlying belief in the value and beauty of all life. And on the evidence here, Dreyer is surely, too, one of the greatest directors for use of lighting, somehow too coordinating effects of nature into his mise en scene.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Carl Theodor Dreyer (based on the play by Kaj Munk) | Cinematographer Henning Bendtsen | Starring Preben Lerdorff Rye, Henrik Malberg, Birgitte Federspiel, Emil Hass Christensen | Length 126 minutes || Seen at Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Friday 4 July 2003 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, August 1999, and most recently on DVD at home, London, Saturday 3 December 2016)

Criterion Sunday 125: Vredens dag (Day of Wrath, 1943)

Obviously a Danish film made in the 1940s and set in the 17th century about living under an oppressive regime intent on suppressing individuality, victimising women and blaming them for society’s ills couldn’t possibly have any modern relevance, but I suppose historical fashions come back around periodically. Dreyer is on his usual fine form, finding a core of empathy (if not always compassion) for all his characters, whether Anne (Lisbeth Movin), a young woman who has married the older Reverend Absalon (Thorkild Roose), and his grown son Martin (Preben Lerdorff Rye) who falls for Anne. An opening sequence with the elderly Herlof’s Marte being chased down by the villagers and taking refuge at Anne’s home introduces the information that Anne’s mother was also a witch, and it is strongly implied that Absalon suppressed this fact in order to marry her (or perhaps the marriage was arranged to head off criticism of Anne’s mother; it’s never quite clarified). In any case, the accused witches clearly do actually profess some form of magic — and this was presumably a response to the position of women within their societies, not to mention the level of scientific understanding available — but that scarcely diminishes Dreyer’s harsh judgement of the town elders (shot like the old men in The Passion of Joan of Arc) for their treatment.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Carl Theodor Dreyer | Writers Carl Theodor Dreyer, Poul Knudsen and Mogens Skot-Hansen (based on the play Anne Pedersdotter by Hans Wiers-Jenssen) | Cinematographer Karl Andersson | Starring Lisbeth Movin, Thorkild Roose, Preben Lerdorff Rye | Length 100 minutes || Seen at Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Monday 23 June 2003 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, February 1999, and most recently on DVD at home, London, Saturday 3 December 2016)

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