Criterion Sunday 134: Häxan (aka Witchcraft Through the Ages, 1922)

As a key text in the development of the horror film (not to mention the pseudo-documentary), I found this all a bit underwhelming really, even once you get past the early PowerPoint presentation section about the history of witchcraft. There’s some gorgeous stuff in it, and a sequence with a penitent elderly lady was clearly cribbed by Dreyer for his The Passion of Joan of Arc. But as a film it’s text-heavy and didactic while also never really getting particularly insightful about the underlying context for all of it (the patriarchal structures oppressing women in the mediæval era). Still, the director does have a coda linking these mediæval methods of control to his own times (“in 1921!” an aside says, as if the modern world could never countenance such superstition), and he essays a pretty camp tongue-flicking Satan.

Criterion Extras: Aside from the original version and its commentary, there’s a shorter 1968 re-edit narrated by William S. Burroughs with a jazz score. In another short piece, the director Benjamin Christensen introduces his film for a 1941 re-release, addressed to camera in a stentorian manner while wearing a white lab coat, in passing explaining the magic of silent over sound cinema. There are a few outtakes from the filming, more notes towards the finished project rather than actual scenes that have been excised. Finally, there’s a gallery of images from the film as well as the sources for Christensen’s own slideshow.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Benjamin Christensen | Cinematographer Johan Ankerstjerne | Starring Benjamin Christensen | Length 107 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Wednesday 2 November 2016 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, February 1998)

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Sound Barrier: The Wind (1928) and Lady Macbeth (2016)

I’m stepping out a little from my usual editorial policy on this site to feature two films, separated by 90 years, because I was roped into a podcast by my friend Pamela who runs the fantastic Silent London website, and her collaborator Pete. It’s called Sound Barrier and is available at that link. I may have had little to contribute, but the others keep up a fine repartee.


This is a review of two films, both of which I’d only seen for the first time recently. And while one of them may have been available for some significant period of my life (i.e. all of it), and despite it clearly being one of those late masterpieces of the silent era (and an enduring film even now, able to stand alongside the already hymned greats of Murnau, Dreyer, von Sternberg and the like), it sadly seems difficult to find a copy currently. In The Wind, silent-era great Lillian Gish plays a frail if determined character, Letty, though her frailty, if anything, is the frailty of humanity in the face of Nature, and nature is duly windy and will destroy a (wo)man. If it’s suggestive of her sexuality (there are at least four men who fall for her, and one of them’s her cousin), it’s also even more suggestive of impending death that’s coming for everyone in the film, these people who have the temerity to stand on the frontier and try to make a life in such isolation. But the Swedish director, Victor Sjöström (aka Seastrom for his American films), also finds a really striking tone, with beautiful cinematography and a feeling of constant lingering unease, expressed via lap dissolves of rampant horses, a small play of feet, and that howling wind whipped up at every window and through every crack. I would love to see this film in a restored print on a big screen. I hope it happens soon.

There’s an even more unbridled emotional intensity in Lady Macbeth, much of which is held in Florence Pugh’s steely gaze, and that lingers over everything that happens. Of course, there’s a point at which she somewhat loses the audience’s sympathy (well mine anyway; it really depends what level of suffering you’re willing to tolerate your protagonists inflicting), but those eyes abide. Although there’s a stateliness to the scenes with her husband and father-in-law that are reminiscent of some of the more austere period films (like the recent A Quiet Passion, not least for largely eschewing a musical soundtrack), this more reminds me of Andrea Arnold’s interpretation of Wuthering Heights (2011), as the camera becomes looser in intense emotional scenes, but also for the range of actors represented — with prominent roles for black actors and actors of colour in particular (Naomi Ackie’s servant Anna, and Cosmo Jarvis as stablehand Sebastian only the most notable). Now there are still romantic/doomed/servile archetypes at play, but it seems to be reflecting on these a little, in the way that Pugh’s Katherine toys with them all as she finds some power. Nevertheless​ it remains Pugh’s film, and it’s a drama that by its close has gone full-bloodiedly Shakespearean in its destructive fancy.


THE WIND
Director Victor Sjöström [as Victor Seastrom] | Writer Frances Marion (based on the novel by Dorothy Scarborough) | Cinematographer John Arnold | Starring Lillian Gish, Lars Hanson, Montagu Love | Length 95 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Saturday 22 April 2017 (and again at home on DVD, Wednesday 26 April 2017)

LADY MACBETH
Director William Oldroyd | Writer Alice Birch (based on the novella Леди Макбет Мценского уезда, “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District”, by Nikolai Leskov) | Cinematographer Ari Wegner | Starring Florence Pugh, Cosmo Jarvis, Naomi Ackie | Length 89 minutes || Seen at Curzon Aldgate, London, Sunday 23 April 2017

LFF 2016 Day Twelve

Sunday 16 October was the last day of London Film Festival, sadly, and I only had two films to see, at a fairly leisurely pace, so I even got to sit down for lunch.


A Woman of the World (1925)A Woman of the World (1925, USA, dir. Malcolm St. Clair, wr. Pierre Collings, DOP Bert Glennon)
It’s not perfect, and moves all too easily into broad melodrama, but there’s a lot of genuine charm to this Pola Negri vehicle. Small town hypocrisy has always (always) been an easy target, but Negri with her — shock! — continental smoking ways and skull-shaped tattoo is a delight. She’s clearly a great actor for sly sideways glances and eye rolls at the ridiculousness of everyone else, but there’s a bumbling old chap with an enormous moustache and a great tattoo reveal of his own to match her in the later stages. Definitely good fun. [***½]


Women Who Kill (2016)

Women Who Kill (2016, USA, dir./wr. Ingrid Jungermann, DOP Rob Leitzell)
A sort-of-indie-comedy sort-of-thriller, this film attempts a difficult balance of competing tonal registers. I don’t think it always succeeds, but it has a dry humour, not to mention the presence of Sheila Vand, who proved she could do a darker character in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, hence she’s well cast here. In truth I was expecting something more along the lines of Jungermann’s web series The Slope (set in the gentrified Park Slope area of Brooklyn) and its co-creator Desiree Akhavan’s Appropriate Behavior. That it didn’t quite do the same thing is hardly a criticism — there’s only so many brittle takes on Brooklyn lesbian hipsterism one needs (though I adored Appropriate Behavior) — and it does revisit some familiar terrain in the Co-Op, but overall the horror-tinged mystery aspect is I suppose a fertile metaphorical terrain for dealing with post-break-up anxieties. Plus the leads nail their NPR/Serial-style podcasting voices for their premise. [***]

Criterion Sunday 62: La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (The Passion of Joan of Arc, 1928)

© The Criterion Collection

I don’t know there’s much more to add about this most famous of Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer’s films, a masterpiece of the late silent cinema and one of the greatest in all of film history. It may not even be my favourite Dreyer film (he had some fantastic later works in his native land), but it seems working in France with a bold and expansively modernist set, and some fine theatre actors, was no great obstacle to his vision. Amongst these actors are Antonin Artaud as one of the more sympathetic of Joan’s accusers, though of course — whatever Dreyer’s important contributions may have been to this film and to cinema as an art — it is Renée Falconetti in the title role who remains the film’s iconic and lasting presence (she was never to act in cinema again, preferring the stage). The film takes the transcript of Joan of Arc’s trial for heresy, and dramatises it, largely in a series of close-ups on the faces of these stern, judgemental men in their austere courtroom as Joan meets their gaze and responds with patience and unwavering belief in God, undiminshed by their taunts or by the mistreatment from her English captors. It’s a film which seems scarcely to have aged.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Carl Theodor Dreyer | Writers Joseph Delteil and Carl Theodor Dreyer | Cinematographer Rudolph Maté | Starring Renée Falconetti | Length 82 minutes || Seen at Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Friday 27 June 2003 (and earlier on VHS at the university library, Wellington, September 1999, an on several subsequent occasions at home, most recently at a friend’s home on DVD, Sunday 15 November 2015)

Schmutziges Geld (Song, aka Show Life, aka Wasted Love, 1928)

A screening of a silent film, especially one that’s fairly obscure, is always an occasion to rejoice, because it’s (usually) more than just a film screening, but a live experience. Multi-instrumentalist Stephen Horne didn’t disappoint either, seamlessly integrating piano, accordion and a few other exotic instruments — hinting at the pseudo-orientalist intrigue — into his score. It’s also wonderful to see the talented Anna May Wong on the big screen, still best known perhaps for her turn in the same year’s Piccadilly, but she is a luminous on-screen presence, and an underrepresented face in the pantheon of cinema. Wong doesn’t disappoint in the title role, as a lowly nightclub dancer in some vague Eastern city (Istanbul was suggested) who finds herself early on being attacked by a group of ruffians and saved by surly Jack (Heinrich George), a man seemingly on the down-and-out. Soon, Song forms an affection for Jack as they go into work together… for it turns out he is a knife-thrower! This is, however, where the film’s great weakness is exposed, for the script is full of this kind of scarcely believable whimsy, as it introduces a long-lost love for Jack in the form of the haughty ballerina Gloria (Mary Kid), her boyfriend, a rich impresario, and a plot line about Jack losing his eyesight after a heist gone wrong — although this does at least lead to some tension when he’s doing his knife act. By the time the impresario has promoted Song to lead dancer at his swanky club (shades of Piccadilly) and is asking her to choose between him and the cruelly-abusive Jack (who still pines for Gloria), the relationship drama has all become a bit ‘whatever’ for this viewer, but at least Anna May’s star still shines bright.


© Süd-Film

SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW
Director Richard Eichberg | Writers Helen Gosewish and Adolf Lantz (based on the novel by Karl Vollmöller) | Cinematographer Heinrich Gärtner | Starring Anna May Wong, Heinrich George, Mary Kid | Length 94 minutes || Seen at Regent Street Cinema, London, Sunday 15 November 2015

LFF: “Joanna Margaret Paul: I Am an Open Window” (2015)

BFI London Film Festival This compilation of short films was presented at the London Film Festival. It was given an introduction by Mark Williams, director of Circuit Artist Film and Video Aotearoa New Zealand, who helped curate the programme and who stayed for a Q&A afterwards that I sadly had to miss, again due to running off to another screening.


The last film I need to write about for my 2015 LFF is the one I’m probably least able to write about, as the world of artists’ film works is still largely obscure to me, experimental pieces more likely to be seen in a gallery installation than an actual cinema. Nevertheless, having grown up in Wellington NZ, I thought it only right to turn my attention towards the filmmaking of artist and poet Joanna Margaret Paul (1945-2003). Five of her short films from the late-1970s are presented here, and they are largely little snatched fragments of domestic life, further distanced by the silent black-and-white photography, grainy and indistinct, like messages from another world, which in a sense they are. Interspersed between these are recent works by New Zealand artists made in response to her films, emphasising both the mundane (“Third Revision” has a sort of provisional structure, as if hastily extemporised, though I don’t doubt there is plenty of work in putting across that impression) and the picturesque (“By Sea” is a particularly beautiful and strange film of oddly domestic seascapes). Whereas most of Paul’s original films are entirely without sound, rachel shearer — whose work has been as much with sound as image — finds poetry in the combination of these, and the other films also tend to use both aspects of their medium. It’s difficult to really write about, given the almost intangible evanescent presence of these works, but they are fascinating and even enjoyable if you’re willing to be open to this form of expression.


FILM FESTIVAL FILM REVIEW: London Film Festival
Contents: “Aberharts House” (1976); “Napkins” (1975); “Bosshard Family” (1976); “Jillian Dressing” (1976); “Thorndon” (1975, all by Joanna Margaret Paul); “I Am an Open Window (2015, Rachel Shearer); “By Sea” (2015, Sonya Lacey); “Still Light” (2015, Nova Paul); “Third Revision” (2015, Popular Productions); “Sky” (2015, Miranda Parkes); “Untitled (Epilogue)” (2015, Shannon Te Ao) || Length 68 minutes || Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Sunday 18 October 2015

LFF: “Make More Noise! Suffragettes in Silent Film” (2015)

BFI London Film Festival This compilation of early cinema short films was presented at the London Film Festival. It was given an introduction by one of the programmers.


What with the recent release of Suffragette, it being the opening gala for the London Film Festival, there’s been a recent resurgence of interest in the so-called “suffragettes”, a media term of derision originally, referring to the militant wing of women agitating for universal voter suffrage. Hence there’s this compilation film of early archival short films from 1899-1917 touching on their cause, which has had a short release at cinemas aside from its Festival screenings. The newsreel footage is relatively slender, but we get key events like the trampling of Emily Wilding Davison at the 1913 Derby (such a brief snippet within the coverage of the race overall that you need only blink to miss it). Padding out the running time are some comedy short films, including two featuring the ‘Tilly girls’, two young Edwardian women with little regard for the stuffy conventions of their era, not to mention a silly film in which a husband fantasises about violent retributions on his nagging suffragist wife. In any case, my friend Pam has written much more volubly and eloquently on its contents for The Guardian so you’d be better off just reading her piece. As for me, I found it largely likeable, if sometimes (necessarily) challenging in its period attitudes. The clips are well contextualised by modern intertitles, and there’s an excellent new piano score by Lillian Henley.


FILM FESTIVAL FILM REVIEW: London Film Festival
Length 75 minutes || Seen at Rich Mix, London, Sunday 18 October 2015

Criterion Sunday 33: Nanook of the North (1922)

© The Criterion Collection

It’s canonised as a progenitor of the documentary film, but I think it’s also now well-known that director Robert J. Flaherty made compromises in committing this story to film, ones that later documentarians would try to avoid — things like staging scenes, manipulating reality for filmic ends, even changing the names and relationships of the people seen on screen — making it more of a documentary-based drama. The story deals with “Nanook”, living in northern Quebec with two women and a daughter, as he builds an igloo and forages for food, trapping seals (an almost comic scene, if it weren’t so brutal) and hunting a walrus. There are a number of cute little vignettes — staged, of course — like him being introduced to a phonograph by a local trader, but the film is at its strongest when it depicts the simple act of living within nature that Nanook and his fellow Inuit must daily practise. Even if Flaherty has them using spears rather than (more accurately for the early-20th century) guns, it still depicts a way of life that’s far beyond the comprehension and comfort of most Western viewers.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Robert J. Flaherty | Length 79 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 24 May 2015

January 2015 Film Viewing Round-Up

I don’t write full reviews of every film I see, because I’d spend more time writing than watching, probably, and I’ve been seeing quite a few things at home. However, I thought I should offer some brief thoughts about my other January viewing, as I’m adding ratings for these films to my full A-Z list.


© The Weinstein Company

Big Eyes (2014, USA, dir. Tim Burton) [Tue 13 Jan at Cineworld West India Quay]. This is perhaps a slight film from Burton, but it marks a more grounded move in his storytelling of recent years, dealing with the real-life events surrounding artist Margaret Keane (Amy Adams), whose husband (Christoph Waltz) passes off her somewhat kitschy paintings of doe-eyed children as his own in order to enjoy success. Whatever truth there may be in his arguments — the film emphasises what a difficult time the 1950s was for a woman to be an artist — he’s a domineering husband, and Adams finds herself amongst all the shallow trappings of success.

The Craft (1996, USA, dir. Andrew Fleming) [Tue 13 Jan at home]. A trio of high-school witches led by suitably gothy Fairuza Balk welcomes a new member in the form of Robin Tunney, who’s transferred to their school. Things take a turn as their power increases and Tunney rebels against their increasingly violent actions, but the film remains a sort of campy pleasure, which gives plenty of agency to these four women.

D’est (From the East) (1993, Belgium/France/Portugal, dir. Chantal Akerman) [Thu 22 Jan at ICA]. You couldn’t get more different with Akerman’s East European travelogue, as she moves from Germany to Russia with her watchful camera. There’s an eeriness that’s evoked by its frequent extended tracking shots, whether across industrially-blighted scenery or along long ranks of people standing in the cold by roads, presumably waiting for a bus. There’s no dialogue as such, though a fair bit of unsubtitled talking emphasises that this is an outsider’s view of an only newly capitalist society, and the faces directed towards the camera speak volumes about their lives.

Get Over It (2001, USA, dir. Tommy O’Haver) [Sat 10 Jan at home]. It may hardly be inspired but it’s fun to watch this teen film, which fits into the contemporary trend for sort-of-adaptations of classic literature (in this case, Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a modern production of which features in the film). A young Ben Foster plays the rather bland leading man, and Kirsten Dunst pops up as a love interest, but the performances from a bunch of actors at the start of their careers are all enjoyable and the film moves along briskly.

Holes (2003, USA, dir. Andrew Davis) [Mon 5 Jan at home]. A very silly film with a good sense of its dusty desert location where the youthful protagonist (Shia LaBeouf) digs holes as part of some kind of Disneyfied child chain gang. As family entertainment goes, it’s fine, but the emotional epiphanies are all fairly cliched.

I Could Never Be Your Woman (2007, USA, dir. Amy Heckerling) [Mon 26 Jan at home]. Even lower in esteem amongst Heckerling’s recent work than Loser (see below), but this romcom featuring an older woman (Michelle Pfeiffer) and her younger lover (Paul Rudd) is still fitfully pleasing, despite the shmaltz of its premise. There’s an early role for the adaptable and talented Saoirse Ronan, and many odd and surprising cameos from various UK television celebrities, betraying that it was partly shot near London.

© Walt Disney Motion Picture Studios

Into the Woods (2014, USA, dir. Rob Marshall) [Sun 11 Jan at Peckhamplex]. I confess I watched this while somewhat drunk, so a lot of the details escape me. I’m not a huge Sondheim fan, but this is all mounted very handsomely, with particularly good performances from a delightful Emily Blunt as more-or-less the lead role, as a woman who must gather up a bunch of magical items from various fairytales in order to be able to conceive a baby, and Chris Pine as a deeply narcissistic prince with a great dance-off scene. Meryl Streep shows up too and steals scenes in ways that Johnny Depp can only dream about nowadays.

Loser (2000, USA, dir. Amy Heckerling) [Sat 10 Jan at home]. After the comedic high point of Heckerling’s Clueless five years before, this film came in for a bit of a kicking, and to a certain extent you can see why. Its story of gawky provincial kid Jason Biggs going to college in the Big Apple hits a lot of familiar notes, and bless her Mena Suvari is not convincing, but there’s still plenty to enjoy all the same.

Sheen of Gold (2013, New Zealand, dir. Simon Ogston) [Fri 2 Jan at home]. A documentary about New Zealand 80s garage punk band the Skeptics, one of the bands on legendary indie label Flying Nun and one I’ve loved since growing up in New Zealand. Like a lot of NZ music of the era, their angular sound borrows a lot from UK post-punk bands like the Fall while adding a certain Antipodean slant. The documentary itself is primarily talking heads, with archival material spliced in where available, including footage from the last gig by the band prior to the untimely death of their lead singer in 1990.

© Winchester Films

Slap Her, She’s French! (aka She Gets What She Wants) (2002, USA, dir. Melanie Mayron) [Tue 13 Jan at home]. The title sounds dire, the setup is familiar (French exchange student Piper Perabo comes to Texas and throws everything into disarray for the local teen queen Jane McGregor) and indeed some of the filmmaking is squarely in the clunky made-for-TV exposition mode, but there’s plenty to enjoy here. The performances are broad in a comically enjoyable way, and what seems initially like a bit of easy European xenophobia turns out to be a misdirect (though in any case, the film makes far more fun of Texans than French people).

Tabu (1931, USA, dir. F.W. Murnau) [Sat 10 Jan at home]. Often subtitled “A Story of the South Seas”, this sees expressionist German director Murnau filming on the island of Bora Bora in the Pacific, imparting a sense of untouched paradise fraught by forbidden love between a commoner and a princess. There’s hints of ethnographic condescension, but for the most part this is touching, and undeniably beautiful.


I also saw some early Eric Rohmer films (The Baker of Monceau and Suzanne’s Career), but you’ll have to wait until they crop up in the Criterion Collection for my review.

Les Vampires (1915-16)

FILM REVIEW || Seen at home (DVD), Saturday 25 October 2014 || My Rating 4 stars excellent


© Gaumont

The silent film serial is sort of like a precursor to the modern TV mini-series, but feels like it must have its roots in the serial publication of novels so popular in the 19th century. Les Vampires, too, was wildly popular in its time (although not with the contemporary critics, who dismissed its vulgarity), and it’s still possible to make out some of that excitement even through the almost hundred years of distance from us. Indeed much of its frontal staginess now seems quaintly archaic, though Feuillade was no slouch at composing his shots, even when writing and filming at such speed. There’s some great use of depth, as well as occasions when the camera is unmoored to present such scenes as a car chase through suburban streets. There’s a good use of location filming in and around Paris, as well as a formal playfulness, as our journalist-detective and hero Philippe (Édouard Mathé) and particularly his put-upon sidekick Mazamette (Marcel Lévesque) break the fourth wall to gesture towards the audience when things are getting particularly heated. To try and summarise the plot of 10 episodes’ worth of cinema would be futile, suffice to say it involves the titular criminal gang, who are not in fact vampires, but rather masked hoodlums — not just literal masks as frequently modelled by one of their key associates, Irma Vep (the delightful Musidora), not averse to prowling around Catwoman-like, but also the masks of respectable society figures like lawyers and aristocrats. The gang has inveigled itself into polite society, where it is causing particular havoc. The focus on this piercing of middle-class respectability hints at a political undertow on the part of Feuillade, who has a critical eye cast towards society’s entitled plutocrats and which is no doubt part of what resounded with popular audiences at a time of European war (and perhaps raised the hackles of establishment critics). However, even without this layer of social commentary, it’s still an enjoyable watch once it gets going for all its mystery thriller twists and turns, though not one perhaps for which you’d want to clear seven hours in one sitting.


CREDITS || Director/Writer Louis Feuillade | Cinematographer Manichoux | Starring Musidora, Édouard Mathé, Marcel Lévesque | Length 417 minutes (10 episodes)