Kaili Blues (2015)

Watched this on Criterion to see what this Bi Gan guy is about, since Long Day’s Journey had apparently bypassed our city… then it opened the following weekend and we ran out to see it. They’re both set in the same area – Kaili is southeast of Chengdu, halfway to Hong Kong. Both movies center around an epic long take, the camera traveling all over town following a protagonist in pursuit of something. And they both have a slow, dreamy atmosphere. I thought of Tarkovsky more than once, and in the Kaili Blues extras he says watching Stalker changed his feelings about filmmaking, and I thought yes, of course.

Mirrors, watches/timepieces, a “wild man”, and talk of being in a dream. It’s kind of a journey film, as Chen heads to Zhenyuan (a two hour drive, if Chen had a car) to find his nephew. Characters are named Crazy Face and Piss Head, Chen gets rides from a rock band and a bullied guy, fails to deliver a shirt given by his doctor friend, also fails to pick up the nephew, though we’re led to believe the kid is fine. But there are ghosts and doubles along the way, subtle suggestions that we’ve become unstuck in time and narrative, and Shelly Kraicer’s Cinema Scope article does a good job sorting them.


A Long Day’s Journey Into Night (2018)

Darker, more sumptuously dreamy, and certainly longer than its predecessor (with a longer and more apparently complicated single take at the end). The Tara didn’t care to show it in 3D, I guess. Its New Year premiere in China was controversial for supposedly tricking people into seeing a slow art movie that nobody understood, but the one person I talked with in China who’d watched it said it was great.

Luo wanders Kaili, haunted by the deaths of his father and a friend, searches for a lost love (Wei Tang, Thor’s girl in Blackhat), and runs into his friend’s mom (Sylvia Chang the boss of Office, which IMDB has decided to rename Design For Living). We also meet people who may exist in alternate or dreamed timelines, which is to say that Luo beats his own non-existent son at ping pong.

Blake Williams in Cinema Scope:

By car and by foot, Luo follows her, much to her concern, and then loses her, much to his recurrent perplexion. Unable to grab onto anything solid in the present, he dips into his memories with her, flashing back to their days of being wild (circa the turn of the millennium), when her materiality was less unstable. Crime and jealous boyfriends adorn the architecture of Luo’s memories, which are presented in murky enough vignettes that we’re never sure if he’s recalling an actual event or some movie he once saw; most likely, he’s fusing the two together … If Bi’s cinema has been clear about anything so far, it’s that he is completely unburdened by narrative cohesion.

Lance Henriksen is sent by a corporate board of sinister white men to date and impregnate Barbara, who is afraid of her own eight year old daughter Katy, who caused an explosion to win Atlanta a basketball game. But first: bald children, wicked clouds, John Huston in an Obi-Wan robe and an unhappy-looking Franco “Django” Nero, who I found out from the closing credits was supposed to be Jesus Christ and whose opening narration sounds an awful lot like Star Wars with the names replaced by Bible characters. This all sounds nuts, and it is – a lost classic of cheesy/weirdo horror cinema revived by Drafthouse Films.

Unhappy Jesus:

After the bonkers intro it’s back to the family scene, which is playing out like We Need To Talk About Katy. Soon Katy shoots her mom (Joanne Nail of Switchblade Sisters and Full Moon High), who is then confined to a wheelchair and hires Shelley Winters (of Bloody Mama and Tentacles) as a housekeeper who might be working for God/Huston. Shelley affects nothing in the household besides bugging everyone by singing “mammy’s little baby loves shortnin’ bread” and saying things like “A great philosopher said that our characters are our fates. And some scientists now believe that planets somehow understand this.”

Shelley introduces herself and her finches:

Huston (the same year he made Wise Blood) is God, who works in mysterious ways, allows Katy to kill the Atlanta cop (The Big Heat and Experiment In Terror star Glenn Ford) investigating her mom’s shooting, then after many scenes standing on Atlanta roofs frowning at the sky (and after playing Pong on a projection screen with Katy) he finally kills her and Lance with a flock of pigeons.

Playin’ Pong with God:

Huston looks surprised at what he’s done:

Have I mentioned that Katy’s Satan-Falcon kills a cop by messing with the street lights?

Or that between Pong and the pigeons, there’s a Lady From Shanghai funhouse scene?

Lance was just off The Omen 2, which this movie is ripping off. We’ve also got Sam Peckinpah (who I just saw in Invasion of the Body Snatchers) playing Barbara’s ex, and the leader of Lance’s white-man cabal is Mel Ferrer (of two unrelated films both called Eaten Alive). Director Paradisi had bit roles in some Fellini films, also made a movie called Spaghetti House, and cowriter Ovidio Assontis also produced Pirahna 2: The Spawning, as his IMDB bio mentions proudly. And have I mentioned this was shot in Atlanta?

The narratively-straightforward centerpiece of the Orphic Trilogy. Like Beauty and the Beast before it, it’s full of visual effects, mostly with easily identifiable techniques – reversing the film, tilting the camera, a mirror, rear projection – but so handsomely shot and elegantly presented as to seem fantastically unique. I don’t quite understand the point of the Orpheus myth, why his wife is taken away as if she’s a toy, but Cocteau redeems it with his “it was all a dream” ending, the couple back together (and expecting a child) while their now-forgotten underworld lovers are punished for meddling.

Jean Marais (Cocteau’s ex-boyfriend, returning from Beauty and the Beast) is the title poet, nationally famous, but hated by the locals. I suppose they consider him a sellout. Cocteau makes these kids out as an unthinking mob always looking for the next new thing – a response to his own audiences after he’d become famous himself? He’s married to the beautiful Eurydice (Marie Déa of Les Visiteurs du soir), but mostly ignores her, concentrating on his work. Meanwhile, the kids are swooning over young poet Cegeste (Edouard Dermithe, Cocteau’s current boyfriend, also lead in Les Enfants Terribles).

Orpheus and his death:

But Death comes for Cegeste – Death in the form of Princess Maria Casares (Children of Paradise), who runs him over in the middle of a crowd, then takes him away along with Orpheus. Since the townspeople have never seen her, her car or the two motorcyclists that accompany her, but they see Orpheus’s conspiratorial-seeming involvement, they come after him with weapons towards the end. But first, either the Princess or her buddy Heurtebise (Francois Perier of Stavisky and Gervaise) kills Eurydice out of jealousy, H. leads O. on a tour of the underworld, and the agents of Death fall in love with the poet and his wife, and vice versa. Cegeste, meanwhile, is happily writing messages for broadcast on Death’s private radio network, and back in the real world, Orpheus sits in Heurtebise’s Rolls all day, listening and transcribing the poetry from the airwaves – which only gets him in further trouble with the mob when they realize he’s ripping off the unpublished work of their missing hero.

Cegeste gets carried away:

Quoth IMDB: “Orphee’s obsession with deciphering hidden messages contained in random radio noise is a direct nod to the coded messages that the BBC concealed in their wartime transmissions for the French Resistance.”

And quoth Cocteau, “I have always liked the no man’s land of twilight where mysteries thrive. I have thought, too, that cinematography is superbly adapted to it, provided it takes the least possible advantage of what people call the supernatural. The closer you get to a mystery, the more important it is to be realistic. Radios in cars, coded messages, shortwave signals and power cuts are all familiar to everybody and allow me to keep my feet on the ground.”

My favorite stills from this movie have been on my PC screen saver for years, so I tried to get some different ones. This is from a great subjective shot which seems simple until you realize those can’t be Marais’s hands, nor his reflection:

Cocteau again:

Among the misconceptions which have been written about Orphée, I still see Heurtebise described as an angel and the Princess as Death. In the film, there is no Death and no angel. There can be none. Heurtebise is a young Death serving in one of the numerous sub-orders of Death, and the Princess is no more Death than an air hostess is an angel.

The way the French words “my death” are pronounced in this movie, in combination with seeing those words on the subtitles, “my death”, and pondering their meaning. Does everyone have his own death? And like Cocteau is saying above, the Princess isn’t “Death” in the way he appears in The Seventh Seal. She’s an employee of a system, subject to judgement, part of a bureaucracy so vast that someone mentions orders bouncing from place to place, with no identifiable origin. It’s details like this which lift the movie from a well-shot retelling of an ancient myth into something original and exciting.

Orpheus glimpses his wife in the car mirror:

A chronological romp through Varda’s life and work. Exciting and wonderful and gorgeous and traumatic and mischievous. More inter-intra-self-referential than even 101 Nights of Simon Cinéma, which of course this references more than once. The perfect summary and closer to Agnes Varda Month, and possibly to the great woman’s filmmaking career (we’ll see).

EDIT Aug 2019: Nope, she had at least three more features in her. Watched this with Katy, and it turns out it’s great no matter how many/few Varda movies you’ve seen previously.

The missing link between Celine & Julie and Marie & Julien (with some Gang of Four thrown in).

Jane Birkin (under a decade before La Belle Noiseuse but looking two decades younger) and Geraldine Chaplin (eight years after Noroît) are working as actresses with Silvano (Facundo Bo) in a play performed in Silvano’s actual apartment. Play was ripped off from famous/rich playwright Clémont Roquemaure (Jean-Pierre Kalfon of L’Amour Fou and some Philippe Garrel movies). One day he’s in the audience, invites the three to perform a new play in his house, based on the sordid love triangle of himself, hanger-on magician Paul (André Dussollier, the realtor from Coeurs), and the now-missing Beatrice.

G. Chaplin and Paul:
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House-fellow Virgil (László Szabó of Godard’s Passion and Made in USA) doesn’t have much to do until the end, when he shares wacky scenes with Birkin. He spends his free time translating Hamlet into Finnish (predicting Hamlet Goes Business points out Glenn Kenny).
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Third-wheel Eléonore – Sandra Montaigu of Hurlevent:
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There’s not actually a ton of love here, but there are lots of triangles… the film is rich with triangles. And magic and mystery – the girls see visions and premonitions in mirrors and through keyholes. And the mansion is visually insane (D. Cairns calls that first screenshot the “streaky bacon” room). And the premise gives us enough of Rivette’s performance/identity motif for at least two movies… I mean, the actor characters are portraying the other characters in the film… it starts to fold in upon itself and collapse like Bjork’s Bachelorette video. That the movie even has a conclusion (public performance of the play culminating in Beatrice’s mysterious reappearance) seems moot. This is three hours gladly spent in Rivette Country… not his best movie, but one of his most Rivettian. Like his Wild At Heart.

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This was the full three-hour version, happily out on DVD. Jonathan Rosenbaum says: “Rivette’s 1983 two-hour Love on the Ground is a minor work, but at a 1989 Rivette retrospective in Rotterdam I saw a superior three-hour version–the first I knew of its existence. Rivette told me on that occasion that it was the only version he believed in; he implied that the release version merely honored his original contract.” JR later echoed that even the three-hour version is a minor work, and others would agree. Senses of Cinema calls it “a mere footnote”, Slant says “precious, lifeless, and ultimately meaningless.” Ouch. But J. Reichert at Reverse Shot, G. Kenny and D. Cairns all liked it, and I’m throwing in with them.

I haven’t found any online mention that the two lead actresses are named Emily and Charlotte – the names of the two famous Brontë sisters. Rivette’s next film would be an adaptation of Emily’s Wuthering Heights.

Barbet Schroeder makes an appearance after spending 20 years producing French New Wave films. He’ll spend the next 15 directing Hollywood thrillers.
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I passed up seeing The Scarlet Empress in 35mm for this, but it was probably worth it [later note after having finally watched The Scarlet Empress: nope].

Meshes of the Afternoon (1943, Maya Deren)
One of the great poetic movies of the 40’s. Love when she’s climbing the stairs, bouncing off the walls as the camera twists from side to side. Love the multiple Mayas sitting at a table in the same shot (technically impressive, too). Love the movement, the plot (avant-filmmakers take note: an actual plot), the look, that iconic shot of Maya at the window.

Fuses (1967, Carolee Schneemann)
Fairly rapidly-edited shots of director having sex with James Tenney, with other scratched and weathered colored filmstrips superimposed over it. The editing and content are exciting for about ten minutes, but the movie is twenty minutes long, and silent. Girl in front of me tried reading from the reflected light of Tenney’s alarmingly red-tinted penis on the classroom wall, then texted people for a while. I sat wondering why there were so many shots of her cat staring out the window. Maybe it was supposed to be boring, and that was the point. Worth watching on pristine 16mm, glad I saw it, just saying it felt long. Schneemann has few film credits, but they’re in collaboration with Andy Warhol, Yoko Ono and Stan Brakhage. The Brakhage influence can plainly be seen here, and the film process work makes for some wonderful images. This was apparently a reaction to the objectification of women in movies, with Window Water Baby Moving named as an example. The director: “I wanted to see if the experience of what I saw would have any correspondence to what I felt – the intimacy of the lovemaking… And I wanted to put into that materiality of film the energies of the body, so that the film itself dissolves and recombines and is transparent and dense – as one feels during lovemaking.” Won a special jury prize at Cannes.

Reassemblage (1982, Trinh T. Minh-ha)
Black with ambient sound. Then shots of a rural scene in Senegal with silence. More shots with narration. More shots with ambient sound. More narration. Eventually, more black. The sound is rarely commenting directly on the visuals, and even the ambient sound rarely seems to line up. Shots of bare-breasted African women, daily chores, kids (two albinos!), youth playing in the river, and so on, with comments about ethnography. The commentary might make sense written down, but as we heard it, all scattered and edited (the sound editing was pretty poor), it seemed to circle around some points without managing to make any. Got nothing against the film, was fine to hang out in Senegal for a while. L. Thielan: “By disjunctive editing and a probing narration this ‘documentary’ strikingly counterpoints the authoritative stance typical of the National Geographic approach.”

Reassemblage:
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First Comes Love (1991, Su Friedrich)
Pop music by the Beatles, James Brown, Willie Nelson and more, but someone please get this woman a cross-fader – it’s all so abruptly edited. The songs sometimes work really well with the images, though. Image is of four wedding ceremonies, astoundingly woven together into an ethnographic study of heterosexual marriage ceremony, interrupted by a text crawl of all the countries in which homosexual marriage is prohibited (every country but Denmark). Bell & Zryd: “This simple strategy, which contrasts the lush life of heterosexual ritual with the stark legal and constitutional realities of gay and lesbian relationships, reframes the anthropological text with political rigor.” Rigor isn’t something I look for in a movie, but avant-critics love to proclaim it. What rigor! Anyway, would like very much to see more of her work.

Girlpower (1992, Sadie Benning)
I hear the intro feedback of a Sonic Youth song and all is right in the world. Even though this movie (the shortest of the bunch, I expect) is a half-res crap-quality videotape, the music and narration are clear. About the narration – sounds like either a petulant girl or a woman in performance-art mode… an impressionistic video diary of disaffected youth, comfortable with herself but not with society. Aha, Benning was 30 at the time. Lotta shots of the television. Punk film, but with nicer sound editing than the Friedrich, weird. Short, enjoyed it. Ooh, she’s James Benning’s daughter.

Three Little Pigs (1933, Burt Gillett)
Musical short feat. “Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf” song. Great sound work by Carl Stalling. Uncle Walt did the voice of the brickhouse pig, one of only a couple credited non-Mickey voice roles. OMG, inside the brick house there’s a framed picture of sausage links on the wall with the caption “father”.
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Mirror of Holland (1951, Bert Haanstra)
Greeeeat movie. He shoots reflections of Holland on the river, then flips the camera so they’re rightside-up. Looks for cool subjects and cool effects off the water. All woodwind and harp music, no narration, gorgeous. Didn’t know there was a golden palm for shorts at Cannes, but this won it.
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Quiet As Kept (2007, Charles Burnett)
“That little-ass FEMA check sure don’t go very far”
Actors are real actorly, especially the kid (he’s in Ned’s Declassified). Video is real videoey. Script is real good, a sketch about a family of black New Orleans ex-residents post-Katrina, but the movie is ehhh. Oops, All Movie Guide calls it a documentary – bozos. Can’t find anyone talking about this online, probably because when Killer of Sheep came out on DVD, everyone got in line to praise it and didn’t want to look out-of-touch by talking about the not-great shorts it was packaged with.
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Mr. Frenhofer and the Minotaur (1949, Sidney Peterson)
Distorted film of actors, string music, and voiceover, none of which has anything to do with the other. “To pose, or not to? I love him, I love him not? Or rather, since I love him less already, why not? An old man mad about paint, Frenhofer…” Yep, definitely from the same source as La Belle Noiseuse. “Once upon a time there was an old man who had been painting one painting for ten years. His name was Frenho… for what? … He started looking for a model to compare. All he wanted was the most beautiful woman in the world to prove to himself that his painting was more beautiful than any possible woman.” It’s all in here: Marianne’s man (also a painter) offering up her modeling services, Porbus the art dealer.

The script/narration is pretty swell but I wouldn’t be following if not for having seen the Rivette, and the visual is just nothing to me… a clock, a fencing match, cats, blurry nonsense, movie would be just as good with a black screen. Sorry, Sidney Peterson. Hmmm, at the end a fencer stabs the painter.
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Eurydice – She, So Beloved (2007, Bros. Quay)
Very underlit ballet. Kinda dull. I preferred The Phantom Museum (and Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary).
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Victory Over The Sun (2007, Michael Robinson)
Weirdly shaped monuments and the whispering wind. Would probably help if I could understand what the chanting people are saying. There’s some abstract 3D Animation thrown in. Towards the end goes into sound from some cartoon… Transformers? Some very familiar symphonic music. Pretty nice… I didn’t love it by any means, but I like it better than the disappointing Light Is Waiting.

Waaait, I looked this up online and found all sorts of stuff about it, something about being shot on the former sites of Worlds Fairs, but now I can’t find where I wrote that down.
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The Wizard of Speed and Time (1979, Mike Jittlov)
Oh My God. This is three minutes of pure joy. Now that I have found this movie, I will watch it always. It’s my new The Heart of the World, using jaw-dropping stop-motion to express pure cinema love. The look is dated, but the music is swell, and Mike is a grinning god.
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