Over the past few days, we’ve been enjoying the Criterion blogathon they’re hosting over at criterionblues.com. In fact (hoping no-one minds us
stealing paying tribute to the idea) we asked some MostlyFilm writers to tell us about their favourite films in the Criterion Collection.
La Belle et la Bête
It’s hard not to read Jean Cocteau’s recounting of the making of La Belle et la Bête in his book, ‘Diary of a Film’, without imaging some ghastly post-apocalyptic scenario, with a rag tag crew trying to ignite a spark of creativity amongst the gloom of post-occupation France. After all, during the shoot, Cocteau is infected by horrible skin disease on his face, while his partner, Jean Marais, suffers from a painful reaction on his hands caused by the Beast makeup. There are blackouts, hastily cobbled together sets and a dead stag no one knows what quite to do with.
And it’s easy, too, to see Cocteau’s decision to adapt the classic Perrault tale as a way to turn his back on the murky politics that had enveloped the country over the last six years. (Cocteau was arraigned on charges of collaboration after the war, though he was cleared of any wrongdoing.)
However, Cocteau’s intention in choosing a fairy tale was not to create a dreamy fantasy world. He refuses to pander to the audience. In fact, he rejects the idea of soft focus filming, initially suggested by cinematographer Henri Alekan, for something more hard-edged and more grounded in reality. (As a result, La Belle et la Bête just sparkles. As Beauty, Josette Day’s dresses, by Christian Bérard and Escoffier, shimmer; water glitters, candles gleam and jewels scintillate. Besides Reinhardt’s 1935 A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I can’t think of another film where the viewer feels an urge to reach out to feel if the screen is fizzing.)
The film is also full of fascinating grown up touches, such as the surreal special effects (done mostly by running the film backwards), smoking-breathing statues, gorgeous Vermeer backgrounds and Marais’ heart-felt performance as a suffering, heroic Beast. As other Beasts come and go, demanding varying degrees of sympathy, Cocteau’s Beast grows more strange and compelling with time. At a distance of 70 years, one can better appreciate the efficacy of the weeping, puppyish makeup, and the power of Marais’ half stately, half stumbling performance, hoarsely whispering like one in extreme pain (as indeed to all accounts he was).
He was not the only one. During the shooting of the film, Jean Cocteau actually became so ill and he had to be hospitalized. While he was recovering, René Clément served as the director. While the idea of the film wholly directed by Clément would be fascinating, La Belle et la Bête remains one of Cocteau’s masterpieces – and the undercurrent of pain, whether physical or existential, serves to give it a depth only enhanced by its beauty.
Les Blank’s film about bluesman Mance Lipscomb opens with the 75-year-old Lipscomb arduously ploughing his sharecropped land, trudging behind a pair of horses, and the hand-written title A Well Spent Life. Modern sensibilities will immediately question the intent here.
The answer’s not long in coming. Lipscomb describes his early experience of working for white employers: “Mule die, they buy another. N****r die, they hire another. We were skeert to say anything, wrong or right, ‘cos there were men to ride over us, knock us down, shoot us down. We had to put up with it.” Blank’s framing of a group of well-dressed white people in the deep background as Lipscomb speaks cues us that the world he describes isn’t dead, or past.
Blank is mostly known for Burden of Dreams, his chronicle of Werner Herzog’s troubled (to say the least) Fitzcarraldo. But for many years, he spent his time in the Southern states of America, chronicling things that were seemingly beneath the notice of other filmmakers. Criterion has collected fourteen of these shorts in a beautiful box set, Always For Pleasure.
A Well Spent Life is often referred to as Kurt Vonnegut’s favourite film (citation needed). It’s easy to see how Vonnegut would have loved it. This is a portrait of human dignity, decency and wisdom. Lipscomb, filmed at dusk singing with his guitar, or sitting in the kitchen while his wife fries chicken, speaks in an unfettered way about his life and what he’s learned.
Watching it feels like a cool clear drink of water on a hot day. There’s a simple approach here that’s very difficult to pull off. Blank knows he doesn’t belong but he watches and he listens, and his patience and openness pay off.
The films are full of extraordinary moments. A Cajun man pulls his own tooth at a Sunday picnic. A one-legged man rides past as another man in voiceover describes how the man’s wife shot his leg off for beating her “and it made a man out of him”. Werner Herzog explains why he eschewed garlic in his Nosferatu remake. Bluesman Billy Bizor breaks down into helpless weeping in the middle of a song.
It’s hard to describe the outline of a Les Blank film except to say that there will be music. In his films Cajun picnics, polka dances, New Orleans second lines and Zydeco Saturday nights all blend together, not the same, but no different either, America’s underclass united despite differences of colour or language.
His films are joyful but any nostalgia is undercut by the characters’ own insistence that their time, which looks Arcadian to us, is only a debased version of ‘the time before’ – most films include a moment when an older person shakes their head, saying ‘things move too fast, now – it was better before.’ By including these moments, Blank underlines for us that these fascinating people we’re watching are looking back nostalgically at their own lost Eden, and if they are, then maybe instead of just looking back, we should be looking at our own ‘now’ and finding the joy that’s around us?
Nostalgia is a disease, and these great films carry within them their own inoculation against it.
I’m at a loss to describe Nobuhiko Obayashi’s extraordinary psychedelic post-Hiroshima ghost story, House (Hausu) (1977). It’s absolutely the strangest film I’ve ever seen, but, as anyone who’s ever spoken to me will tell you, I am passionately fond of it. House is the product of a studio that wanted a film similar to Jaws and a director who consulted his young daughter to “come up with things that can’t be explained.” The genius of it is that it reminds you of being scared without actually scaring you. The story is of seven teenage girls (Gorgeous, Prof, Kung Fu, Melody, Fantasy, Sweetie, and Mac) who go to Gorgeous’ aunt’s house for a summer holiday when weird shit starts happening to them. Ostensibly because of a haunted cat. The house attacks them and the girls’ identities begin to drag them down. Gorgeous is too vain, Sweetie is too naïve, Mac is too greedy. The film’s imagery, of which there is probably more than enough, oscillates between the macabre, the tragic, the fantastical, the grotesque. It’s a metaphor for accepting new realities and changing to adapt them, for growing up, for Japan after the bomb.
But mostly it’s a weird, trippy, cool movie to enjoy with your friends. And your cat.
Spank the Monkey
I’ve got the email from Amazon in front of me here to prove it: on September 7th, 2000, I bought the Criterion three-DVD edition of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil for just $19.99. The usual retail price was around sixty bucks. It wasn’t a special promotion, so I can only assume that it was a pricing glitch, one which my fellow inhabitants of the Guardian‘s Film Unlimited talkboards rapidly shared between themselves.
Amazon sold a lot of copies of Brazil to us that day (and, to their credit, honoured the advertised price). That’s only to be expected, as the denizens of Britain’s best movie discussion board were a precise match for Criterion’s demographic, and doubly so in the case of a cult classic like this one.
Three discs, you say? Well, yes. Disc one is the film, which we all know: a rare example of Terry Gilliam’s manic worldbuilding having a solid story to support it. (You suspect that Tom Stoppard’s rewrite gave the script a backbone that’s generally missing from Gilliam’s work.) But we also know that this is the film where he developed the victim complex that’s plagued him ever since: the first in a series of creative battles with studio heads.
In amongst all the making-ofs, storyboards and trailers that you’d expect on disc two is a splendid documentary that showcases Gilliam’s clash with the executives. The Battle Of Brazil is hosted by LA film critic Jack Mathews, and is in essence the video version of his eponymous 1987 book. Not enough is made of the biggest piece of evidence Gilliam had in his favour: 20th Century Fox had released his 142 minute cut around most of the world, and had no problems with it at all. But Universal owned the US rights, and president Sidney Sheinberg’s insistence that the film was “too long and too depressing” kept it out of American cinemas for nearly a year.
Gilliam eventually triumphed, thanks to some pre-emptive awards from the LA Film Critics Association and his own cheeky campaigning. And it’s fun watching all the whiny execs in Mathews’ documentary insisting they were hard done by. But any sympathy you may have for them goes out the window when you learn that Sheinberg supervised a 94 minute re-edit of Brazil which took out all that ‘depressing’ stuff. This is where the Criterion edition really earns its stripes: the ‘Love Conquers All’ edit is on disc three. A terrific commentary by David Morgan wryly concludes that if you look at it in terms of McKee-style story development, and ignore the evidence of your own goddamn eyes, then Brazil has now become a classic hero’s journey with a romantic ending. It’s a perfect illustration of the yawning chasm between what Gilliam wanted from his film and what Universal thought they were getting.
I’ve always associated Criterion with high-quality films backed up with detailed supplementary material: for my (ludicrously small amount of) money, Brazil is their best one.
‘I’m lost,’ says Lord Hidetora Ichimonji. ‘It’s the human condition’ his fool grumpily replies. Akira Kurosawa’s Ran stands so confidently in relation to King Lear that it is able to acknowledge their shared thematic territory with a deadpan joke. The film’s title means ‘disturbed’ or maybe ‘confused’. And this is a film about what it’s like to be human, lost and confused: Hidetora spends a lot of the film stumbling around, continually assaulted by the consequences of his mistakes, desperately feeling the loss of his loyal servant Tango. Disturbed, guilt-ridden, wandering aimlessly through the wreckage of your past and needing Tango? If you’ve ever been hungover, you know what that feels like.
By the end of the film Tatsuya Nakadai, who plays Hidetora, looks rough as. He doesn’t so much look like a frenzied madman as something painted by a madman in a frenzy: his face is as pale as paper, pain marks it with charcoal black lines.
When the film was released in 1985, some critics, including Roger Ebert, saw that haunted face as a kind of self-portrait. Kurosawa first had the idea to make film in the mid-70s, not long after he had attempted suicide. He was supposed to have directed the Japanese sequences of Tora! Tora! Tora! but the studio ousted him and after that he found it increasingly hard to get people to give him money to make films. So you can see why folk saw this story of a powerful Lord losing control of his dominion, scrambling around in the wasteland, as a depiction of the master director losing control of his art, having to scramble around for funding.
But as well as meaning disturbed or confused, Ran also means rebellion or insurrection. The title unites personal turmoil with wider sense of upheaval. This is also a war film (and maybe a scared of the Cold War film). During the battle scenes where Hidetora realises he has been betrayed his sons, all diegetic sound disappears, swallowed by Toru Takemistu’s ominous, mournful score. We witness a series of apocalyptic images of violence and death. The world seems to be made of broken bodies, mud, blood and fire. When the sequence ends, and we once again hear the sounds of conflict, it is, inevitably, the explosion of a musket that marks the transition. In the 16th Centruty the musket was a new, crude weapon – but round about the time he made the film, Kurosawa said ‘All the technological progress of these last years has only taught human beings how to kill more of each other faster. It’s very difficult for me to retain a sanguine outlook on life under such circumstances.’
If Shakespeare gives us a foolish old King, forced to confront the consequences of his mistakes, Kurosawa gives us a cruel old warrior, forced to confront the bloody consequences of his sins. The film ends with the image of a blind man on the edge of a precipice. First time I saw the film, I thought ‘oh, that’s me’. But it’s not, it’s us.
The joy of having an easily accessible library dedicated to independent and arthouse films is that if, like me, you fancy looking up something you saw in a film festival a long, long time ago, there it is.
I can’t remember seeing my first Ozu, but it was around the time of a teenage fad for all things oriental. Kurosawa brought majesty and drama to the screen but Ozu was more considered, almost leisurely in his long, dialogue-free shots of people apparently caught not ‘acting’, just being. Browsing through the Criterion catalogue, I picked Floating Weeds, the 1959 technicolor remake of his 1934 silent film. No particular reason; I just remembered that the actor who played the main character looked a lot like my late grandad.
The opening shot of Floating Weeds shows an empty harbour, wine-dark sea and blue sky with a white lighthouse. Snuck in almost accidentally in a corner is a lone black bottle on the concrete harbourside. It’s off-centre and jarring: a little heart of darkness in the serene seascape. Something isn’t quite right here.
Komajuro (Ganiro Nakamura) is the middle-aged Master with a younger girlfriend in a travelling Kabuki troupe, Sumiko (Machiko Kyo), who relishes her position as the ‘leading lady’. At the start it’s all about Sumiko, the actors and looking forward to the next gig. The arrival of the troupe brings a splash of noise and colour to the deserted streets of this tiny coastal town; the actors in gorgeous costumes, trailing an ever-growing band of small children in their wake as they process up to the theatre at the top of the hill.
But then the camera lingers in a side street, watching one of the actors who has broken away from the procession to distribute handbills and check out the local bar girls. He leers, lounges and smokes his way from shop to shop, his Kabuki make up smeared and his short kimono revealing spindly, middle-aged legs. Maybe this lot aren’t so glamorous after all.
The town is as vital an actor as the humans in Floating Weeds. Ozu and his DP, Kazuo Miyagawa, depict it as a warren, with plenty of places to hide and shortcuts to take. The houses are small, traditional and confined, with everybody living on top of each other and full of longing and secrets. The boats on the shore dwarf and slightly intimidate the characters, implying a dangerous, thrilling life outside the tightly packed but empty streets. Komajuro and Sumiko argue across a rain-soaked alley, their positions fixed and never to meet.
Komajuro navigates the maze to meet in secret with his ex-girlfriend, a sake shop owner called Oyoshi (Haruko Sugimura) and their illegitimate son, Kiyoshi (Hiroshi Kawaguchi). It’s a curiously domestic arrangement: Kiyoshi thinks the visitor is his uncle and they bond over fishing trips and games of Go on rainy days; Oyoshi serves him as you would an honoured family member, but every night he trots back to an unsuspecting Sumiko. And here is the dark heart of the film: should Kiyoshi be told that his ‘uncle’ is his father, a lowly itinerant actor, shuffling through half-hearted performances of outdated plays watched only by children and old people, or should they keep up the fiction that his father died when Kiyoshi was a baby. Kiyoshi is ambitious. Would the knowledge that his parents have been lying to him all his life affect his chances in some way?
Love, choices and their consequences are at the heart of this film. Komajuro’s choices prove ultimately disastrous to everybody close to him. Theirs is a little world, bound together by love and tradition, but as the traditions fall away, this little world has to change, starting with Komajuro.