For July Melbourne Cinematheque has a three-week retrospective of Claire Denis films. A French-filmmaker who spent much of her childhood travelling throughout France and Africa, Denis’ films are noted for their long-takes, photography, the locations in which they are shot and their entwining of philosophical ideals and literary ideas.
Through her repetitive images, natural settings, and the way she captures the human body, Claire Denis will seduce you. She is able to engage the viewer through all their senses, slowly drawing them deeper into her films and closer to the characters and situations playing out within the often isolated worlds she has created.
Also, the jewellery company Philos-o-Face has a Claire Denis brooch. It’s awesome.
L’Intrus (2004) is such a film that draws strongly from philosophy. Taken from French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy’s autobiographic essay, Denis films the life, dreams, hopes, fears, and nightmares of Louis Trebor (Michel Subor). Trebor lives in an isolated cabin and, after a heart transplant, decides to find the son he sired in Tahiti many years ago. The intruder here is everybody and everything. Trebor for suddenly turning up on the island and wishing to have a relationship with his son, Trebor’s new heart for infiltrating his body and attempting to adapt to him, and the viewer for being present to Trebor’s public and private thoughts. With sparse and disconnected dialogue, coupled with disjointed and disorientated images, Denis creates an elliptical journey for both Trebor and the viewer.
Beau Travail (1999) is perhaps my favourite of Denis’ films. It is also her most well known. Told non-chronologically by Galoup, a Foreign Legion officer played by (the amazingly committed) Denis Lavant, and set in the Gulf of Djibouti in Africa and Galoup’s apartment in France, the film presents Galoup’s fall from grace. A loyal soldier who is in control of his platoon, Galoup’s personal demons rise to challenge his leadership when new cadet Sentain joins the group. Determined to prove that Sentain is only out to cause trouble, Galoup goes out of his way to humiliate and debase him.
Military life is the perfect forum for Denis to show her love of repetition and disorientating images of human bodies. The sequences of the soldiers’ physical activities appear to be choreographed like a dance, contrasted highly with Galoup’s own dancing, representative of his final actions. Shot on the open desert planes and salt fields of West Africa, these men have nothing to do but practice for an undecided and undeclared war, unaware that it has already started within their own ranks.
Nippon Katsud Shashin (‘Nikkatsu’ for those in the know) was founded in 1912, making it Japan’s oldest major film studio. With over 3,300 productions to its name Nikkatsu studios has been pivotal in the development of sound within cinema in Japan, helped the emergence of numerous directors, screenwriters, producers, and actors, and worked hard to survive the fallout of World War II. Becoming known for its youth film of the 1950s and crime films of the ‘60s, the studio eventually fell prey to the invasion of home video in the late ‘70s, forcing the company to focus on ‘Roman Porno’- soft-core erotica- before eventually declaring bankruptcy in 1993.
But never fear- Nikkatsu is back! In 2010 a new-look studio was opened and production began on a film series, ‘Sushi Typhoon’.
Home Village (1980) follows the rise of Yoshio Fujimura, a talented young singer noticed by a “society lady” who helps him achieve his dream, and the fall of his maid Ayako who is in love with him. Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi, the film showcases his love for long takes and the perfect mise-en-scene whilst also incorporating an uncharacteristic (for Mizoguchi) amount of close-ups and montage sequences. Home Village also marks the first use of sound in a Nikkatsu film.
Profound Desires of the Gods (1968) is a culmination of Shohei Imamura’s pre-occupation with the lower strata’s of Japanese society, dominant throughout his work in the 1960s. Set on a seemingly lost and incredibly small island, the film follows the Futori family who are greatly inbred, believe in the Old Laws, and are ridiculed by the other few families on the island. With the arrival of an engineer to build a well, the barely-there truce shatters, sending the island into disaster.
The Blue Angel (1930) was the film that introduced Marlene Dietrich to the world. It was also one of the last films silent star Emil Jannings completed. Filmed simultaneously in German and English- and being considered the first fully sound German film- the plot follows Professor Immanuel Rath (Jannings) who, after confiscating a photograph of a cabaret dancer from his students, goes to the bar later that evening to meet her. Upon catching sight of the notorious Lola (Dietrich) Rath’s life spirals out of control, forcing him to leave his teaching position and become a clown in the troupe. Rath is now nothing more than a man driven insane with humiliation, poverty and Lola’s infidelity.
Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who we all know and love from previous Cinematheque experiences (BRD Trilogy, anyone?), based his feature Lola (1981) on von Stenberg’s work. He didn’t remake it as such, rather he played homage to von Stenberg’s vision. Also, Antony Hegarty has a song entitled ‘Blue Angel’. I’m not sure if it is related but it is a good song, so you should all get on to that too.
The Last Command (1928) again features Emil Jannings, this time in a role that won him the first every Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role. He plays Sergius Alexander- a poverty-struck extra in Hollywood who is cast as a Russian general in a film about the fall of the Tsarist regime by director Leo Andreyev. Unknown to others, Alexander and Andreyev share a history causing Andreyev to humiliate him. Ten years previous Alexander had indeed been a Tsarist general who sent the revolutionist actor Andreyev to prison, who now commands the exiled man who relive the past he would rather forget.
To end the Josef von Sternberg retrospective is the short The Town (1943), a documentary on the effect war has had on life in Madison, Indiana.
To finish off the Francesco Rosi season at Melbourne Cinematheque is Many Wars Ago (1970) and Carmen (1984).
Many Wars Ago was funded by Rosi himself and the gritty, angry and unforgiving story presented to the viewer could explain why no one else would fund it. Based on the memoirs of Emilio Lussu’s experiences as an Italian troop in World War I, Rosi tells the story of front-line soldiers facing the Austrian army in the Alps. When they are ordered by their general to enter the Austrian camps- despite their lack of provisions- the Italians mutiny. Not only drawing on class-conflict and struggle, Rosi also looks at the personal anguish soldier’s face between obeying military orders and obeying their conscience.
Carmen is Rosi’s film adaption of Bizet’s opera and, clocking in at 152 minutes, it is a forced to be reckoned with. Keeping with Bizet’s well-known opera of a soldier falling in love with a factory worker who does not reciprocate his feelings (and yet flirts with him relentlessly) the film was shot on location in Andalusia by Pasqualino de Santis who was also responsible for the photography in Many Wars Ago. Just as Carmen does not shy away from Don Jose, Rosi does not relent from highlighting the similarities between unresolved sexual attraction and violence, all in highly stylised and choreographed shots.
Next week Melbourne Cinematheque will begin a three week retrospective of the films of Josef con Sternberg.
Another three week retrospective starts at Melbourne Cinematheque this week, this time focusing on Italian filmmaker Francesco Rosi. Having worked under Antonioni, Monicelli, and Visconti, Rosi took guidance from all whilst creating his own distinct style, often incorporating real life figures, events, and issues. A frontrunner of the Italian Post-neorealist movement, Rosi’s films are often overlooked. Thankfully Cinematheque has a vast array of his works in the coming weeks.
To begin we have Illustrious Corpses (1976). Formatted to be a film that follows along Breton’s surrealist drawing game Cadavre Exquis, the film is set in the political upset of Italy in the ‘70s, with leftists clashing with the conservative government and riots, disappearances, and murder becoming commonplace. Inspector Rogas is trying to find who killed two high-profile judges, the case leading him to realise that many prisoners the judges incarcerated were actually innocent. Whilst Rogas looses faith in the government system he has sworn to protect the revolutionaries he is investigating are also forced to face up to their ideals and recognise that the implementation of them can change them
Whilst set in West Germany, I Magliari (1959) still deals with the trials and tribulations constantly present throughout Italy and its inhabitants. Mario Balducci (Renato Salvatori) is first presented as living in Hannover. He then settles in Hamburg to sell cloth on the advice of a gregarious new acquaintance who turns out to have connections with organised crime. A beautifully shot exploration of the exploiting of immigrants and the marginalised.
“My movie is born first in my head, dies on paper; is resuscitated by the living persons and real objects I use, which are killed on film but, placed in a certain order and projected on to a screen, come to life again like flowers in water.” -Robert Bresson.
Let us talk about Robert Bresson. A French filmmaker who inspired many of the Nouvelle Vague, Bresson himself was influenced by three major aspects of his life; his Catholic childhood, his time as a painter, and his experiences as a prisoner of war. Over forty years he completed thirteen feature films, all distinctively his own. His characters battle against the situations they find themselves in as they search for redemption and meaning in life. They try to find if their life is being driven by their own free will, or by the determinism of a higher power.
Bresson is also noted for having his actors (often non-professional actors to begin with) rehearse scenes so often that the actions of the characters became seamless and second-nature, thus allowing Bresson to capture some of the most naturalistically shot acting sequences in cinema. Bresson also attempted (and essentially mastered), through cinematography, the fusing of sounds and images together in order to create an effect that he believed could only be found within the cinema.
Based on the memoir of Andre Devigny, a prisoner of war held by the Nazis at Fort Montluc, A Man Escaped (1956) follows the plight of captured French Resistance fighter Fontaine. Filmed within the walls of the actual prison, Bresson captures the actions of a man sentenced to death who will now stop at nothing to escape. Filmed with outstanding precision, attention to detail and a shared understanding between director and subject, the film won Best Director at Cannes in 1957 and was Bresson’s most critically and successful film.
Au Hasard Balthazar (1966) follows the lives of two beings; Marie a girl growing up on a farm, and Balthazar, her donkey. Eventually the pair becomes separated and the film follows both as they are mistreated and victimised by various people they encounter, passively taking the abuse. Balthazar’s suffering allows him to become a saintly figure in death, a faint that is not so certain for Marie.
Photographer Helen Levitt is the focus of this week’s Melbourne Cinematheque with two feature films and two shorts she worked on screening. Levitt, a staple of the New York arts scene from the 1940s to her death at 95 in 2009, has been noted for her ability to capture the everyday life and moments of joy and heartache in the working class lives of those in New York. She also transferred to colour prints quite early, experimenting with overexposure, saturation, and dyeing the image. After being introduced to Luis Bunuel she took an interest in film and worked for many years as a consultant and cinematographer on various low-budget and collective films.
The Quiet One (1948) is a semi-documentary directed by Sidney Meyers which follows the life of a ten-year-old African-America boy growing up in Harlem. Having never been shown kindness or compassion in his home or school life Donald Peters lashes out against society. Eventually he is sent to the Wiltwyck School for Boys which focuses on rehabilitation and reform where psychiatrists try to find out what is ‘wrong’ with him, never realising that it was societies neglect that meant that Donald never had a chance.
Following this feature is the short In the Street (1948) which Levitt worked on, showing life in Spanish Harlem.
The Savage Eye (1959) is an essayistic documentary, the product of a four-year long collaborative between various directors (Sidney Meyers, Ben Maddow, Joseph Strick) and cinematographers (Helen Levitt, Jack Couffer, Haskell Wexler). Barbara Baxley is recently divorced and looking for a fresh start in Los Angeles. The film takes the viewer to various instances in Barbara’s new life from car accidents, to religious fanatics, to burlesque shows- all beautifully shot.
Following is Emotions of Everyday Living: The Steps of Age (1950), a short directed by Ben Maddow and produced by Levitt that focuses on the retirement of a crane driver and the effect this has on the relationship he has with his wife.
Blazing Continent (1968) is a Japanese film by Shogoro Nishimura that was filmed in New South Wales but never officially released in Australia. It follows the trip taken from Japan to Australia by Keiichi (Tetsuya Watari), an artist who wishes to explore the barren Australian landscape. When he arrives, however, he runs into an ex-lover who is now engaged to an Australian mining engineer. This meeting leads all three into a downward spiral and into events that they cannot control.
Fun Fact!- The Man From Hong Kong was the first ever Australia/ Hong Kong co-production. It is also one of my favourite Brian Trenchard-Smith films.
Anyway, to begin with, the film stars Jimmy Wang Yu and George Lazenby (Australia’s own James Bond) and has the two of them fight it out, martial arts style, around an open fire place (spoiler alert: it doesn’t turn out too well for ol’ Lazenby and his hands).
Secondly, the film opens with a fight scene on Uluru. Not just at the site of Uluru but literally on Uluru and the fight is complete with cartoon influenced sound-effects. Ahh, the things you get away with in 1975…
Wang Yu plays Inspector Fang Sing Leng, a Cantonese martial arts specialist who has come to Australia to help clean the Sydney streets of drugs. Whilst doing this he is also wooing a journalist, showing Jack Wilton (Lazenby) who is boss, and up-showing the Australian police (Hugh Keays-Byrne and Roger Ward) every chance he gets. He also manages some hang-gliding and horse riding in his down time.
Cantonese actor Tony Leung Chiu-Way is really awesome. I mean, he’s just great. Whether he is moping around his apartment in Chungking Express, flipping through the air in Hero, or playing an undercover cop in Hard Boiled he has an amazing presence on screen. If you’re not familiar with his work, you should be, because he has starred in some of Asia’s best film offerings for over two decades.
And now, Melbourne Cinematheque is showing two of his films.
First up is acclaimed Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Flowers of Shanghai (1998) wherein Leung plays Wang, a regular visitor to a flower house, the Shanghai term for brothel. Set in the 1880s and taking place across four flower houses the film follows several relationships between the girls kept at the brothel and the men who use them. As well as this, Hou explores issues of gender and class, whilst also drawing attention to the relationships that go beyond what is considered socially acceptable, all through impeccable images presented to the viewer.
In Wong Kar-Wei’s 2046 (2004) Leung reprises his role as Chow Mo-wan, the character which one him the Best Actor award at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival for In The Mood For Love. Chow is a writer who places memories of his past life in the future of 2046 whilst in the present he recounts the comings and goings of those who share the hotel he is staying in. Shot in Wong’s distinctive style, and containing his usual preoccupation with time, memory, and repetition, 2046 also stars Maggie Cheung, Faye Wong and Ziyi Zhang.
Three very personal directors are being screened at Cinematheque this week under the banner ‘Experimental Tribute’. George Kuchar, Jordan Belson and Robert Breer have all contributed greatly to the various and large experimental movements in America and the world at large. All are American, all passed away towards the end of 2011, and all left a great legacy to the film world.
George Kuchar, often with his brother Mike Kuchar, was a staple in the New York underground factory scene of the 1960s where they made no-budget 8mm films. many of these films payed homage to the Hollywood melodrama films they had seen growing up, coupled with the distinct visual style the two brothers developed. Kuchar was asked to move to San Francisco where he taught film at the San Francisco Art Institute where he continued to make short films until his death in September 2011. Cinematheque will be showing Hold Me While I’m Naked (1966), Pagan Rhapsody (1970), and Wild Night in El Reno (1977).
Jordan Belson is another San Francisco-based filmmaker. Belson’s work often revolves around the Spiritual in various representations and forms. Throughout the 1950s he collaborated with Henry Jacobs and the two, along with the Morrison Planetarium, showed a series of electronic music concerts played simultaneously with images and short films of space. Screening will be Allures (1961), Cosmos (1969), Meditation (1971), Chakra (1972), Cycles (1975).
The films of key avant-garde figure and animator Robert Breer finish the night. After early experimentation in animation, and working with avant-garde artists in Europe, Breer combined a vast collection of filmic techniques to his shorts, coupled with exact rhythm and form. Fist Fight (1964), Jamestown Baloos (1957), 69 (1968), and Fuji (1974) will be shown.