Heremias: Unang aklat — Ang alamat ng prinsesang bayawak (Heremias: Book One — The Legend of the Lizard Princess, 2006)

Right, you probably all know this film is long: it’s Lav Diaz, and events will unfold as they will. Once you get over that — and the title which playfully suggests some kind of mystical/fantasy epic poem — the movement of time isn’t really an issue, and there’s necessarily a sort of documentary effect to the extreme length, as we watch our titular protagonist (Ronnie Lazaro) trudge along endless roads with a group of vendors selling their wares from ox-drawn carts. Heremias at length peels off on his own, and, at length, gets caught in a typhoon, from which he takes shelter. When he wakes, his cow has gone and his cart is burnt. By this point, we’re at around hour four and this is the mysterious crime he’s trying to unravel (after a fashion), but things go off track again and there’s a criminal conspiracy which reveals the limits of power in an autocratic society. So there are political themes (present in much of Diaz’s work that I’ve seen), and then there’s the repeated motif of roads stretching off across the landscape, into which (or from the horizon of which) Heremias trudges, seemingly endlessly. At great, great length.


SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEW: Lav Diaz Journeys retrospective
Director/Writer Lav Diaz | Cinematographer Tamara Benitez | Starring Ronnie Lazaro, Sid Lucero | Length 510 minutes || Seen at London Gallery West, London, Friday 3 February 2017

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 105: Spartacus (1960)

There’s a certain quality to the classic Hollywood historical epic that by the mid-1950s had become pretty much fixed in the popular imagination, and is the kind of thing that is satirised in Hail, Caesar! (2016). In many ways, Spartacus feels like the culmination of these trends and a bookend of sorts, the sine qua non of the sword-and-sandals epic of the ancient world (aka the “peplum film” from those omnipresent flowing togas). The acting is largely excellent, with fine subtle work — when subtlety is required, but bombastic when not — from Kirk Douglas as the titular slave leader and Laurence Olivier as Crassus, a scheming Roman senator, not to mention Charles Laughton as his rival Gracchus. There are also more wooden efforts, but when they come, as with John Dall’s Glabrus, it’s a solid wood, a really finely-grained aged wood, the wooden hamminess of, say, Charlton Heston, which is after all very much within the generic convention. The direction is solid too, but this isn’t one of Stanley Kubrick’s usual films — he was brought on after production had started — and so it feels wrong to assess it as one of his steely auteurist pieces. Perhaps the strongest credit on the technical side is Russell Metty’s beautiful cinematography, particularly the shadowy interiors where deals are made and Spartacus’s will is most tested. In covering all these vicissitudes of fate (being set in pre-Christian Rome, religion is largely avoided), the film runs long, to be sure, but that’s hardly a criticism: it’s what the historical epic demands. There are the grandly-staged battle scenes, interspersed with smaller one-on-ones between Gracchus and Crassus, or Spartacus and his love interest Varinia (Jean Simmons). There’s also expert comedy relief from Peter Ustinov as Batiatus, introduced running a gladiator school but never one to stick around when things get tough. In short, it’s a fine film, a totem of Hollywood craft and large-scale organisation, and it’s never less than entertaining.

Criterion Extras: A full-to-bursting double-disc edition includes the usual commentaries, which I’ve yet to watch. There’s a clutch of deleted scenes, mostly just extra shots which were ditched, and a heavily cut version of the ending demanded by the Catholic Legion of Decency which entirely excises much of the pathos. There’s also a brief audio snippet of Gracchus’ death scene. There are a few minutes of vintage newsreels of the film’s production (it was one of the most expensive of its time hence the interest), including Kirk Douglas getting his chin print outside Mann’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. Promotional interviews with Peter Ustinov and Jean Simmons from the time of the film’s release (edited absurdly to allow local news programmes to interpolate their own ‘interviewer’) are joined by an interview with Ustinov from 1992 as he reflects on his time on the production, fairly informative about the change of director, and the script credit issues, including a number of amusing anecdotes about his fellow actors. There are some Saul Bass storyboards for the fight sequences, and a huge number of production stills (as well as advertising material and even a comic book) with brief contextualising intertitles. Finally, but still very interesting, is some silent footage taken during the making of the film as the actors are trained up as gladiators.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Stanley Kubrick | Writer Dalton Trumbo (based on the novel by Howard Fast) | Cinematographer Russell Metty | Starring Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov, Jean Simmons | Length 196 minutes || Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Monday 4 July 2016 (and earlier on VHS at the university library, Wellington, September 1998, and at the film department in April 2000)

As Mil e uma Noites (Arabian Nights, 2015)

Every so often a film comes along that gets a great consensus of positive critical reviews, but which I just can’t connect with, and Miguel Gomes’s austerity epic Arabian Nights is one such. It’s split into three volumes, probably for commercial reasons, and clearly states at the start of each that it’s not an adaptation of the Arabic folk tale collection, but merely uses its structure for a story about the economic vicissitudes of modern Portugal. Over its 6+ hours it builds up an intriguing blend of documentary realism and fabulist mythmaking, flitting between past and present (often with little distinction between eras even in the same scenes) as between fact and fiction. Sheherezade (Crista Alfaiate) is present, particularly in the third volume, but Gomes allows for myriad lengthy diversions, starting with a shipyard strike, but also including first-person testimony by impoverished labourers, and ending with bird-trappers who capture chaffinches and then compete their bird songs against one another. When he does feature a more overtly mythical register (as in the courtroom scene of Volume 2, or the seaside romantic diversions that open Volume 3), costumed actors are integrated into the modern world in sometimes surprising ways. It’s not that I find it to be a bad film, but it often tested my patience, and Gomes’s openness to surprising digressions and random juxtapositions can be both beguiling as much as distancing (there’s a propensity in volume 2 for interpolating naked women into the narrative, as one example). Perhaps if I should see all three volumes together in one long sitting I should find more to pull me in, for surely there’s no shortage of epic ambition to the film, and it’s this — that such a freewheeling dissociative attempt to grapple with urgent political issues got made at all — that’s most inspiring to me in the end.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Miguel Gomes | Writers Telmo Churro, Miguel Gomes and Mariana Ricardo (inspired by the folk tale collection Kitab ʾalf layla wa-layla) | Cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom | Starring Crista Alfaiate | Length 382 minutes in three parts: Volume 1, O Inquieto (The Restless One), 125 minutes; Volume 2, O Desolado (The Desolate One), 132 minutes; Volume 3, O Encantado (The Enchanted One), 125 minutes || Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Saturday 23 April 2016 [Volume 1] and Saturday 30 April 2016 [Volume 2], and at ICA, London, Tuesday 10 May 2016 [Volume 3]

Criterion Sunday 34: Andrei Rublev (aka The Passion According to Andrei, 1966)

© The Criterion Collection

Russian auteur Andrei Tarkovsky is certainly no stranger to grand portentous overlong films that seem to hold within their allegorical narratives some statement about society and the world, and in many ways this 1966 film (not released until 1969 due to problems with the Soviet censors) is the first of those to break through to an international audience. It did so in a series of increasingly shorter cuts of around 2.5 to 3 hours in length, but the full 205 minutes is restored here by Criterion and, assuming you’re already in for meandering stories about wandering monks in 14th century Russia, then it won’t disappoint. Although Rublev was a famous painter of icons in Russian Orthodox churches, there’s relatively little of that actually in the film (possibly the creation of art isn’t quite as compelling). However, it enacts a narrative of divine inspiration challenged by atheist philistines, and one can already sense why perhaps the atheist Communist Party of 1960s USSR might not have taken too kindly to Tarkovsky’s themes. The film is split into eight chapters, set in chronological order and dealing (if sometimes tangentially) with episodes from Rublev’s life — encountering a sarcastic jester, discussing art with his mentor Theophanes, enacting Christ’s passion, dealings with pagans and Tatars, et al. It’s probably best to think of these as each illustrating some allegorical lesson about Russia, but they are also quite often handsomely mounted and beautifully shot in sinuous long takes. The final section is perhaps the most impressive, wherein a young boy, the son of a bellfounder, is called on to forge an enormous bell for the Grand Prince, and does so by submitting blindly to faith, while Rublev watches from a distance in silence, having at this point given up on his art. Its message of the importance of artistic creation even under oppressive regimes is a valorous one, and though it may take some time to sink in, the film is a grand achievement.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Andrei Tarkovsky | Writer Andrei Konchalovsky and Andrei Tarkovsky | Cinematographer Vadim Yusov | Starring Anatoly Solonitsyn | Length 205 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 3 May 2015 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, September 1997, and at the university library in September 2000)

National Gallery (2014)


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Seen at ICA, London, Sunday 11 January 2015


© Zipporah Films

The veteran American documentarian Frederick Wiseman likes to point his camera at institutions and try to document the way that they work (or don’t work, as the case may be). His previous film, At Berkeley was set at the University of California, Berkeley, and dwelt a lot on the bickering of its board members about various minutiae of academic life — moreso, it sometimes felt, than the actual teaching of students.

In this new film about London’s National Gallery, the focus is very much on the pedagogy over the administration. Sure, there are some scenes featuring the then-director Nicholas Penny and his team, but the tenor of these is largely set up by an early scene of (I’m guessing) a marketing manager rather tediously (and vaguely) confronting Penny about the gallery’s public engagement strategies, as it’s this theme that’s picked up again later during a board debate about a charity event. Instead, when the camera isn’t on the paintings (generally briefly) or on people looking at paintings in the galleries, it’s mostly observing the staff engaging various audiences about the meanings in the paintings and their value as artistic works. These audiences range from public visits and school groups standing in front of the paintings themselves, students looking behind the scenes at restoration work (a vital yet sensitive part of the gallery’s function), educational events (for example, one in which blind people are given tactile versions of the paintings), and rather more stentorian groups of members and donors. These all combine to give a sense of how the gallery and its director must navigate these various interest groups, protecting the gallery’s function as a public space as well as its increasing need to keep revenue ticking over.

But it’s also a film about the limitations of capturing paintings on film. One educator talks to students about the difference between paintings and films in terms of time (what we might call their synchronic versus diachronic aspects, to exhume a bit of film studies lingo), that one is a moment in time whereas another can evolve over a duration. Wiseman gives as much prominence to the pictures as to those people in the gallery who are looking at or standing around these pictures. The documentary tries to convey a sense of what it is to confront art in a gallery setting, and about its value to society, but the nature of film makes it difficult to really do more than show people talking about the art, though the montage valiantly tries to break some of the works down during discussions in the way you might focus on different areas of the painting while thinking about its effects and the themes the artist is trying to convey. If the film then is reminiscent of the famous quote “writing about music is like dancing about architecture”, so Wiseman’s ending seems like a witty rephrasing of this with relation to filming art. Luckily, despite the film’s length, sitting through it to get to this scene is far from a chore, and the fact that I didn’t feel the need to visit the Gallery afterwards (despite it being just around the corner from the cinema) is — I hope — a testament to the breadth of its approach.


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Director Frederick Wiseman | Cinematographer John Davey | Length 181 minutes

Criterion Sunday 2: Shichinin no Samurai (Seven Samurai, 1954)

Kurosawa was the director who largely introduced Japanese cinema to Western audiences (with Rashomon a few years earlier), and that makes sense given his fondness for American genres and tropes. Seven Samurai, despite its 16th century feudal Japanese setting, has plenty about it to recall generic war movies and Westerns, so it’s appropriate that it re-entered the Hollywood vernacular a few years later as a Western, The Magnificent Seven. Kurosawa’s film concerns a small impoverished community terrorised by vagabonds, who need to hire itinerant samurai to protect them. If this is the core of the story, then its running time of well over three hours is concerned more with developing the identities of each of these samurai, though Toshiro Mifune’s over-eager youngster and Takashi Shimura’s patient elder samurai steal the show. There’s a showdown at the end, and amongst it all is plenty of solid character work and the same kind of unfashionably unshowy message about war that Renoir did so well in La Grande illusion.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Akira Kurosawa | Writers Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni | Cinematographer Asakazu Nakai | Starring Takashi Shimura, Toshiro Mifune, Isao Kimura | Length 207 minutes || Seen at Rialto, Wellington, Sunday 21 March 1999 (also previously on VHS at home, Wellington, May 1997, and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 5 October 2014)

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)

LFF: Kış Uykusu (Winter Sleep, 2014)

BFI London Film Festival FILM FESTIVAL FILM REVIEW: London Film Festival || Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Sunday 19 October 2014 || My Rating 4 stars excellent


© New Wave Films

The films of Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan certainly have the kind of big, sweeping qualities that attract a film festival jury, hence his Palme d’Or award at the Cannes Film Festival this year, which to my mind is overdue (his last film, 2011’s Bir Zamanlar Anadolu’da, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, still represents my favourite of his strong body of work). The camerawork is exceptional, picking out figures against the vast, beautiful landscapes he likes to work in, suggesting a harsh and difficult terrain for his characters, though the bulk of the film takes place in rather cosier indoor settings. There’s something of the epic quality that marked the films of similarly Cannes-feted Greek director Theo Angelopoulos — certainly a lot of the same kinds of weathered, world-weary faces — but with, to my mind, less pomp and less self-conscious artistry at work. The comparisons seem necessary as, quite aside from the award, Ceylan has inched beyond a three-hour running time with this latest work, a largely domestic drama set in the same Anatolian landscape as his previous film. What I enjoy about his films, which have for some time been co-written with his wife Ebru, is the precarious sense of relationships in turmoil and how that relates to a wider community. Here we have ageing ex-actor Mr Aydin (Haluk Bilginer), who owns a hotel on a beautiful hilltop promontory, and aspires to be a writer and academic. He has a younger wife Nihal (Melisa Sözen) who keeps her distance, largely due to Aydin’s pompous self-involvement — he can never let an argument go, and just keeps pushing at people, including his sister and a local imam who’s renting one of his properties. The imam and his family are living in poverty and their story runs alongside that of Mr Aydin and his wife’s charitable efforts, giving the lie to their own beliefs about themselves and the work they do. Even if Aydin is one of the more aggravating central characters of recent cinema, there’s still a sense of why he acts the way he does, and that it comes from what he thinks of as a good place, though more often than not the effect can be toxic on those around him. It’s all very subtly evoked and despite the excessive running time, I never felt bored with the way it unfolds, deliberately and at times slowly, but with a graceful majesty.


CREDITS || Director Nuri Bilge Ceylan | Writers Nuri Bilge Ceylan and Ebru Ceylan | Cinematographer Gökhan Tiryaki | Starring Haluk Bilginer, Melisa Sözen | Length 196 minutes

LFF: Mula sa Kung Ano ang Noon (From What Is Before, 2014)

BFI London Film Festival FILM FESTIVAL FILM REVIEW: London Film Festival || Seen at BFI Southbank (Studio), London, Tuesday 14 October 2014 || My Rating 3.5 stars very good


© Sine Olivia Pilipinas

The Filipino filmmaker Lav Diaz makes very long films. By all accounts, last year’s Norte, the End of History was among his most accessible features, and it’s three-and-a-half hours long. This new historical epic is a full two hours longer than that. It deals with a small coastal village (or “barrio”) in the early-1970s, in a period leading up to President Marcos’s declaration of martial law in 1972. However, if at a certain level Diaz seems to be railing against that regime and what it did to the country — and rather strongly too, given the occasional apocalyptic imagery (burning houses, cattle hacked to death, a treacherous rock with imputed healing powers) — it can also be seen as a rural drama of a community torn apart. The chief characters are Itang (Hazel Orencio) who cares for her developmentally challenged sister with little support or means to make money, a winemaker Tony (Roeder) with questionable motives, a tribal elder Sito (Perry Dizon) who despite everything wants to stick with his rice farming but also seems to be called upon to adjudicate community squabbles, and the priest Father Guido (Joel Saracho) who visits from time to time. Of course, over such a long running time, the interactions are developed in plenty of detail, and there are many other characters involved, but these are the chief ones, and it’s around them that the themes coalesce. The cinematography (also by the director) has a precise framing and its black-and-white palette is sometimes strikingly deployed. What drama exists is unforced and unravels slowly, the chief mysteries being what’s been going on around the village, and the arrival in town of first an itinerant woman selling goods, and then the military. It may not wow its viewers with big setpieces in the way of Hollywood thrillers, but over such an extended running time, it cannot help but linger in the mind for some time afterwards.


CREDITS || Director/Writer/Cinematographer Lav Diaz | Starring Perry Dizon, Hazel Orencio, Roeder, Joel Saracho | Length 338 minutes