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Birds of September – Review


The title of lebanese-born Sarah Francis’s film-debut suggests that the main theme of the film is movement, evoking thoughts about migratory birds searching for warmer territories in the cold Autumn months. Quite possibly a familiar wish of the CPH:DOX spectators, who’ll instead begin to search in the farthest parts of their dressers for their warm winter coats.

Birds of September is also the title of an Arabic novel from 1962 by Touyour Ayloul describing the saga of village people in Beirut who witness their loved ones depart for far away more promising lands and countries.

The film is, like the novel, set in the streets of Beirut. We are introduced to the city through a slow moving camera, passing buildings and shopfronts that look neglected, while equally sprawling with life. We see the city through what initially appears to be a car window, which for someone unfamiliar with small advertising vans often used in the streets of Beirut, seems like an unusual mobile, glass bubble, protecting us from the outside world.

The ‘bubble’ turns into a confession room for random locals who bluntly speak about their life experiences, while ‘floating’ through the city in the vehicle. It seems like Francis’ camera is constantly searching for something, lurking behind the window, zooming in on different people outside. It’s like the camera wants to get to know these people, while at the same time keeps a distance to them. Maybe this is Francis’ experience of living in a big city, where you can live next to people for several years, without really knowing who they are?

Inside the ‘confession bubble’ outside noise fades, creating a very intimate, isolated environment. The confessions create a closeness between you and the locals as you get to know them and their lives. The confessions are desynchronised with the images of the people inside the confession bubble, challenging us to synchronise them in our imagination. The film’s poetic logic portrays the architecture of Beirut and random people’s movement as a story of a city, the story of a people and the personal story of Sarah Francis. Francis’ story seems to be one of longing for change, being afraid of standing still, and a comment on the swifts of time while people move in different paces.

You are left with a feeling of familiarity to the city of Beirut, but distance to it as well. Maybe this is symbolising Francis’ own feelings toward her home, and how she’s travelled to the point of no return – being close, yet far from it. You also sense a fear of getting stuck in a city, but also in life. As we float through the city, we feel like floating through life. The film is beautiful and poetic, while at the same time very real. It deals with modern issues such as stress, death and self-discovering. It’s a personal journey that translates to everyone who have a longing for exploring new places — spiritual as well as physical ones.
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The Woman Behind Lolita

There is something magnetic, deeply mesmerizing about the opening paragraph of Nabokov’s Lolita. It takes three dainty steps of the tongue to pronounce Lo-li-ta, which is all the time Nabokov needs to showcase his dazzling writing skills and his love for clever word play and literary gimmicks. Extraordinarily simple yet highly ingenious, down-to-earth and “physical” yet brimming with an excess of desire, the controversial novel’s first paragraph draws in the reader in the bat of an eyelid, yet keeps her at an intriguing distance because of the morbid topic, because of the moral boundaries that are so brashly overlooked by the narrator’s thoughts and actions.

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

Image from Stanley Kubricks 1962 adaptation of Nabokov’s Lolita.

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What style! ‘You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style’, Humbert warns us at the outset. That may be true, for a murderer, but in Nabokov’s case it was someone else he could count on for advice, help and inspiration. Vladimir Nabokov wrote his first draft of Lolita (published in 1955) while on butterfly-collection trips in the Western United States with his wife, Véra Nabokov. Not many know the crucial role she played in drawing up the scandalous masterpiece: surprisingly enough she acted as his “secretary, typist, editor, proofreader, translator and bibliographer; his agent, business manager, legal counsel and chauffeur; his research assistant, teaching assistant and professorial understudy”!. It was Vèra who prevented Nabokov from burning the unfinished drafts of Lolita; she believed in her husband’s creative genius, privately encouraging and standing by him all his life — he called her “the best-humoured woman he had ever known.”

Vladimir and Vèra Nabokov

Vladimir and Vèra Nabokov

Now, putting aside the fear of sounding like a despicable child-abuser, have a go at composing a short paragraph in homage to Nabokov’s incredible style, and dedicate it to your own Vèra. Think about your loved one’s name (wife, husband, girlfriend, boyfriend, companion or lover – it doesn’t have to be a paedophiliac, semi-incestous infatuation that drives your passionate immagination), find inspiration in its soothing sound and the meaning it acquires as you spell out the letters. Say it out loud a few times. Now break it up in syllables, listen to the consonants and vowels, draw shapes with the letters and go with the rhythm of the name. Though Nabokov, as Vèra herself admitted, always “had the good taste to keep me out of his books”, we — who lack his fervid imagination and literary status – are free to playfully smuggle our loved one’s real name into our imaginary word game. Try it as a very personalised and poetic card, as a humourous note to leave on the fridge before leaving for work, or as a romantic text message for a high-brow surprise during the day.

Vladimir and Vèra Nabokov

Vladimir and Vèra Nabokov

Sources:
Amis, Martin. Visiting Mrs Nabokov: And Other Excursions. pages 115–118. Penguin Books (1993)
New York Times obituary, “Vèra Nabokov, 89, Wife, Muse and Agent”, 11 April 1991
Brian Boyd’s biography, “Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years” (Princeton University Press, 1990)

Hush

Betty Compson in The Docks of New York

Sometimes you don’t need sound. You just need the glamorous world of film noir, it’s excessive use of soft light and cigarette smoke. This is one of those times. The Docks of New York (1928) by Josef von Sternberg starring George Bancroft and Betty Compson is a silent film noir drama about stoker Bill Roberts who gets into trouble during a brief shore leave when he falls for Mae, a dance-hall girl. The film comes together in the combination of cinematography by Harold Rosson, expressionist set design by Hans Dreier, and the sensual performances by Bancroft and Compson.YouTube Preview ImageYouTube Preview Image

Betty Compson and George Bancroft in The Docks of New York

The Dante Quartet

Imagine an eye unruled by man-made laws of perspective, an eye unprejudiced by compositional logic, an eye which does not respond to the name of everything but which must know each object encountered in life through an adventure of perception. How many colors are there in a field of grass to the crawling baby unaware of ‘Green’?
— Stan Brakhage

Stan Brakhage is known for his experimental films created by painting or glueing images directly onto celluloid. This way he opened up a different way of seeing, challenging our perception and bringing us back to a child-like way of seeing unruled by man-made laws of perspective. The Dante Quartet is one of his experimental short films from 1987 it was inspired by Dante’s The Divine Comedy, and took six years to produce. The effect of the images being painted directly onto the celluloid is both meditative and challenging for the viewer.
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A Woman Under the Influence

This film from 1974 by John Cassavetes is without doubt one of my all time favourites. Gena Rowlands immediately became my idol after seeing it. I really don’t want to say much more about it, I just hope this clip below encourages you to watch it!

The dying swan scene:
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Daisies

Daisies was made in 1966 by the Czech filmmaker Věra Chytilová and was considered a key film of the Czech New Wave. It was banned in 1968 shortly after the “Prague Spring” by the Soviet Communist regime, as was Chytilová from making any new films in Czechoslovakia until 1975.

Věra Chytilová

The Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact stopped the creative and social freedoms of “Prague Spring” when they decided to invade Czechoslovakia in the summer of 1968. Therefore, many Czechoslovakian artists’ reactions were to employ metaphors, humour, and radical narrative play to express the dangers and hypocrisies of life under a repressive regime. In order to make subversive political statements, ambiguity was a necessity.


Daisies depicts the two female protagonists Marie and Marie, who are claiming that the world is “bad” and therefore they will be too.

The story is structured with a non-linear narrative, and via jump cuts we are thrown between incoherent scenes, never quite knowing what will come next. The film consists of montages of contradictory imagery, a baffling dialogue, asynchronous sound, colours that change from full to monochrome to psychedelic, anti-naturalistic optical effects and sudden accelerated motion.

The Maries want to go against the norms of society, and act out as they see fit. They do this when they date older men, get particularly drunk in a fancy nightclub and steal food, drinks or money from other people.

Many aspects of Daisies make it appear like a feminist film. The Maries are constantly sexually teasing older men, making them pay for expensive dinners only to send them away in trains afterwards. At one point the Maries cut up phallic-looking food with a pair of scissors and eat it. Many of the men they meet seem like symbols of the patriarchal society, and the Maries’ actions therefore become a symbol of how they “castrate” it.

The main thing the Maries like to do is to eat, and they do this in a manner that also goes against the norms of society. They eat almost all the time, and if not, they ask people for food or talk about it. They even seem to confuse the meaning of love with food, and they question why men do not simply say “egg” instead of “I love you”.

Daisies is a film with many possible interpretations, and Chytilová is concealing an important message underneath the veils of ambiguity. The veil Chytilová has chosen is highly Dadaist. With Daisies Chytilová challenges our conventional understanding of ourselves and the world we live in.

In a nod to the Maries’ challenge of societal norms, the final title of the film reads: “This film is dedicated to those who only get upset over a “messed-up trifle””. It is a stab at the passivity of the bourgeoisie society, underlining Chytilová’s belief that instead of being provoked by a step outside of the rigid borders of etiquette, they should be provoked by much more pressing issues such as the Soviet occupation, the constant threat of violence that follows with the occupation, destructions of war and the lack of freedom of speech.

Watch it here:

Mr. Anger and the Puce Woman

Yvonne Marquis in Puce Moment

A lot have been said about Mr. Kenneth Anger. Over the years he’s been called many things, none of them particularly flattering: a satanist, a racist, a weirdo but whether he is one thing or another we can’t really tell. What we only know for sure is that he was, and still is, one of the most intriguing experimental directors ever. Demonic, provocative, way ahead of its time, Anger’s visual work is powerful and gentle at the same time, like suspended in time yet truly mesmerising.

“Puce Moment”, a short film by him from 1949, was meant to be a celebration of ladies of the silent screen (the original title was “Puce Women”). Puce is the name of a colour, the pale red-violet that permeate the six-minute filming of a lady in her boudoir, what is left of the original project, failed because of lack of funding.
Yvonne Marquis is the woman who plays the role of the “diva”, in real life she would later move to Mexico and become the lover to former Mexican president Lázaro Cárdenas. Yvonne’s resemblance to old film stars such as Clara Bow and Barbara La Marr is striking and her whole action is a tribute to the rich, decadent life of the Roaring Twenties.

“Puce Women was my love affair with Hollywood…with all the great goddesses of the silent screen. They were to be filmed in their homes; I was, in effect, filming ghosts”

— Kenneth Anger

Puce Moment

Clara Bow & Barbara La Marr

Everything is perfect in this “puce” moment of pure visual pleasure…from the vivid colours of the sequinned gowns, that once belonged to Anger’s grand-mother, to the languid expressions of the silent Yvonne. Her alternate acts, slowed-down or speeded-up, are combined with beautiful and haunting psych-folk soundtrack (added in 1966) by mysterious musician Jonathan Halper. The power and immediacy of this unusual, dream-like film make it look so up to date after all those years. A post-modern celebration of the past, way before post-modernism really had a name.

Colleen Moore in her boudoir

Puce Moment

Enjoy the film…

It Takes Two

Jean-Marie Straub was an extrovert and a visionary. The public face of the prolific filmic duo she and her husband Danièle Huillet formed, she is one of the cinematic legends of the twentieth century. Their career, which started when the couple were students in Paris in 1954, spanned four decades and includes over two-dozen films. Dividing their collaborative work equally, Straub’s focused her attention behind the camera lens. Her enigmatic camera-work, focussing on long takes their films ‘un-write’ the visible through the arrested movement of the camera. Most notably perhaps in their first full-length feature, Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach, which appeared in 1968 as the couple’s second feature length film.

Jean-Marie Straub and her husband Danièle Huillet

Not Reconciled, 1965, their first feature length film, illustrates the proponents of minimalist cinematography that Straub experimented with in her cinema.

Straub and Huillet’s films have not, however, gained the deserved recognition for their contribution to cinema and cinema politics, critics have noted. In spite of their being the “darlings” of the Cahiers du Cinéma, numerous collaborations with legends such as Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, Robert Bresson to name only a few, and occupying a substantial portion of Deleuze’s infamous book Cinema I their films have not made their way into the hearts of the revivalist film watchers of today. 

Not Reconciled (Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet, 1965)

Not for the faint-hearted

Many critics hastily concede of Straub’s minimalist style that it’s “inaudible” and “unintelligible” and even those admirers of her work dub the films as “dry and intellectual”. Their films are, however, part of a body of cinema, a body that pertinently probes a social and historical backdrop in France’s ideological past. Straub and Huillet’s films are notoriously imbued with Marxist ideology, this is something that manifests in the textually on screen, objects, figures and music all bear equal weight, and indeed make watching these films a sensory marathon.

Class Relations (Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet, 1984)

“The films of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet are best understood in the context of contemporary developments in radical, materialist cinema. They offer what many people see as a genuine alternative to both dominant narrative cinema and conventional art movies. Their work is formally austere and demands attentive, intellectual participation from audiences.”  (Quote from The New Biographical Dictionary of Film by David Thomson.)

The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet, 1968)

As with running a marathon, I can only imagine, great satisfaction follows from watching these films. Straub-Huillet’s films are challenging but they incite an obscure reward beyond the sensuous towards the ‘sensible’ in the image, something like the Idea. Objects on screen are extended beyond their formal, prescribed and allocated positions and allow new forms to come forth on screen. As the infamous philosopher of cinema writes..

…the Straubs, are probably the greatest political filmmakers in the West, in the modern cinema. But, bizarrely, this is not due to the presence of the people; on the contrary, it is because they know how to show how the people are, what is missing, what is not there.

— Deleuze

Straub and Huillet’s film The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach:

And God created woman

The innocent, sometimes naive childlike “baby-doll” character has always been a popular one in cinema, certainly amongst the male audience. With the 1956 film “And God Created Woman” that gave Brigitte Bardot her breakthrough, Roger Vadim invented a modern version of “the eternal female” and launched a new type of eroticism.

Simone de Beauvoir explained the interest in this new “child-woman” in her book “Brigitte Bardot and the lolita syndrome”:

The adult woman now inhibits the same world as the man, but the child-woman moves in a universe which he cannot enter. The age difference reestablishes between them the distance that seems necessary to desire.

— Simone de Beauvoir

Brigitte Bardot is a perfect example of the merging of the “green fruit” and “femme fatale” type in the film ”And God Created Women”. She is playing the 18-year old ophan, Juliette who is very sexual and attracts all men – young and old. Juliette knows that all men find her attractive and play along with them. But the only one she really loves doesn’t love her back, so she is never quite happy.

Brigitte Bardot is the most perfect specimen of these ambiguous nymphs. Seen from behind, her slender, muscular, dancer’s body is almost androgynous. Femininity triumphs in her delightful bosom. The long voluptuous tresses of Mélisande flow down to her shoulders, but her hair-do is that of a negligent waif. The line of her lips form a childish pout, and at the same time those lips are very kissable.

— Simone de Beauvoir

Photo by Kary Lasch

We see the popularity of “the lolita syndrome” in cinema many times for example with Audrey Hepburn, Leslie Caron and Francoise Arnoul amongst many others. Not to mention in the hugely popular book “Lolita” by Nabokov.

Audrey Hepburn

 

Leslie Caron

 

Francoise Arnoul

Five “Three Reasons”

The video-distribution company Criterion Collection, a “continuing series of important classic and contemporary films” has since 1984 been dedicated to gathering the greatest films from around the world and publishing them in high quality. If you are interested in films, I definitely recommend you to have a look at their site and blog where they write critical film reviews, discuss the newest film theory and create lists of recommended films to see.

They also maintain a YouTube channel where I recently stumbled upon their “Three Reasons” videos. If you sometimes find it difficult to pursuade your partner to watch a black and white film or a film from before the 21st century with you, these videos are amazing. They often sell the films better than the original trailers. Of course I’m not forgetting that Criterion Collective is a company who are promoting the films they sell, but because I actually agree with them in their film choices, I find these videos very useful. Also, after looking through the videos, I have added many films to my “I need to watch this” list.

Anyway, here are five videos from their Three Reasons channel. I highly recommend all these films, so I hope these videos will inspire your next film choice.

 

Breathless (1960)

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Belle de Jour (1967)

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The Children of Paradise (1945)
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Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
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In the Mood for Love (2000)

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See more of Criterion Collective’s Three Reason’s here.