We continue our exploration of the Arturo Ripstein films currently available on MUBI with a discussion of The Black Widow/ La viuda negra. The film is based on Debiera haber obispas/ There Should Be Female Bishops, a novel by Rafael Solanas. It’s a film we urge all of our friends interested in exploitation cinema to see. From a producer/audience point of view, the film is all about showing as much of the female star’s body in as many sexual poses as possible. Arturo Ripstein has bypassed and exceeded the expectations of both producers and audiences by providing a film that is a corrosive critique of the pieties of bourgeois life, of the malignant influence of class and of the hypocrisies of the Church. There’s a very powerful moment where the protagonist, punitively shunned by the whole village, dons a priestly cassock to reveal all their secrets and condemn them all to hell. It was made in 1977 and perceived as so blasphemous that it was originally prohibited release. It was released five years later to much acclaim and many Ariel nominations, the Mexican equivalent of the Academy Awards, with Isela Vega winning for best actress. We loved Castle of Purity and think La viuda negra even better. Why this is so is the subject of the podcast.
We were so impressed by Metin Ersksan’s Dry Summer (Susuz Yaz, 1963), that we decided to continue exploring his work. We’ve just seen A Time to Love/ Sevmek Zamani (1965), and remain impressed. This is the first in-house restoration by MUBI and fully understand why they chose this particular filmmaker and this particular film as a calling card for this new venture. Indeed we are grateful that they did so.
A Time to Love is an easy film to parody: an artsy, philosophical film about love and art, distinctions between being and appearances, class and alienation, traditional and modernity; greatly influenced by the art cinema of its day, particularly the work of Antonioni. But, if one gives oneself over to the style and sensibility of the work, one finds it’s a work of depth, texture and beauty as great as any produced in Western Europe in the same period. We talk about all of this and more in the accompanying podcast:
A melodrama about two brothers, Osman and Hasan. Osman is the eldest and has power and rights over how their land is run. Hasan obeys until he realises Osman has broken every rule that binds. A complex film about patriarchy in agrarian culture and the damage it does to all the individuals involved whilst also tearing a community apart. A melodrama that seethes with sexual desire, and where that desire overrules familial relations that would normally be considered taboo. A complex film depicting a way of life that is not so distant, probably still current in some parts of the world and which is not afraid to be poetic and allegorica. It is instantly and thoroughly engaging in spite of two incidents involving animals that inadvertently act as a distanciating device and might make some think twice about watching it. Much of the podcast is devoted to exploring why we recommend people do so.
The first fiction feature made in the Ivory Coast. A land-mark film. But is it good? And by what criteria? And if not good, how is it nonetheless very interesting? Art cinema, post-colonialism, and psychoanalysis as imbibed through Hitchcock films, all get an airing in this podcast.
We discuss the last two days of the Cinema Rediscovered 2022 program at Bristol’s Watershed; and then take a step back to discuss the event as a whole. We praise the variety of programming, the extraordinarily efficient organisation and the very welcoming community feel to the whole event. I’m very jealous we don’t have anything like this in Birmingham, and it really is made possible by the contributions of so many committed individuals. So many thanks to all of them for making this such an intellectually stimulating and socially welcoming event. We highlight the workshops and talks (the one on film criticism led by MUBI; the 40th anniversary discussion of Twentieth Century Flicks, Mark Fuller’s Sunday Cinema Walk)and then evaluate the many different strands that constituted a superb programme. We discuss Fury, Paris Blues, Chess of the Wind , Baby Face; Spencer Tracy and Barbara Stanwyck, Josephine Baker and Sidney Poitier; …and much else, not the least Richard and his pals winning the film quiz!
A discussion of the first Cameroonian feature film, a story of a doomed love, marriage made impossible by patriarchal structures shored up by tradition. Ngando and Ndomé are young and crazy about each other. Ngando’s uncle has promised him the dowry for the marriage, which he has a moral obligation to provide, as he inherited everything Ngando’s father owned upon his death, including Ngando’s mother. But the uncle takes one look at Ndomé and wants her for himself. Ndomé thinks the way forward is for her to have a child with Ngando, which would shame her and her family but might get the uncle out of the way – he already has four other wives — and allow her to marry her love. Instead, the uncle forces Ndomé into marriage and claims the child as his own. The film begins as Ngando kidnaps the child, setting up an inventive flashback structure that allows the film to unfurl as if that moment is the film’s continued present, a present where tradition enables injustice after injustice and in varied dimensions: social, sexual, economic, affective. The film is currently on MUBI and the podcast an array of reasons to view this wonderful film.
The Criterion Collection calls SOLEIL Ó/ OH, SUN , ‘A furious cry of resistance against racist oppression and a revolutionary landmark of political cinema’. The Celluloid Liberation Front, writing for MUBI, calls it ‘one of the most dazzling debuts in the history of cinema’; ‘A work of erudite formalism and incendiary refinement’; ‘never didactic’. We dispute all of this. The film is definitely, flamboyant, anti-clerical, modernist, anti-colonial, deploying folklore and experimenting with style. An important film then, very much of its time, but which can now seem to lack complexity and subtlety, though perhaps subtlety was never its aim; and perhaps we should also acknowledge that our perspective is that of two white men. Richard appreciated it more than I. We both urge everyone to see it. It’s an interesting companion piece to Ali in Wonderland and Mandabi. We discuss all of this in the accompanying podcast. Part of the series of important restorations being screened on MUBI.
A gorgeous film, shot in a quasi neo-realist style that nonetheless aims squarely at poetry and critique; clearly influenced by John Ford Westerns in its use of landscape; with shoot-outs staged amidst minarets and water fountains, horses vying with jeeps. A structure reminiscent of Angels With Dirty Faces in that two childhood friends end up on different sides of the law. With the great Yilmaz Güney as a father caught between a rock and a hard place — does he continue smuggling sheep across the border; the only option to feed his people; or does turn to farming that might not render enough to feed everyone but allow the school to come in that might offer a better life for his son? It’s a film where one feels the heat, the thirst, the despair; an existential noir amidst the barren landscape; with a great feel for places and the people who inhabit them. Güney as the father has something of Clint Eastwood’s granite iconicity about him but with life and feeling behind the eyes. Restored in 2013 by Cineteca di Bologna/L’Immagine Ritrovata laboratory, in association with The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project, Dadaş Films, and the Turkish Ministry of Culture. Restoration funded by Doha Film Institute
We continue with our discussion of the MARTIN SCORSESE’S WORLD CINEMA strand on MUBI, this time focusing on Kim Ki-young’s THE HOUSEMAID (South Korea, 1960). MUBI’s take is that it influenced Bong Joon-ho’s PARASITE – clearly evident – and that it ‘changed the course of South Korean cinema forever. An immense success when released in 1960, this striking masterpiece is a blend of sexual obsession and class struggle, horror and social critique’. In the podcast, we agree with most of what MUBI says about it but question the claim that it’s a masterpiece,’ finding the film deeply misogynistic in ways that go even beyond the patriarchal norms of its time and culture. The very handsome version being screened by MUBI is the 2008 restoration by the Korean Film Archive and is a real pleasure to see, making visible the film’s very real inventiveness with light, composition and movement.
Pasolini’s Love Meetings is on MUBI at the moment and I highly recommend. What do Italians think about sex, love, marriage, prostitution, homosexuality, divorce, etc. in 1964? Pasolini goes all over the country and asks them. He covers north and south; city and country, peasants and proles; people in the big cities — Milan, Rome, Palermo; the middle classes; men and women. There’s an attempt at representativeness which he acknowledges is not comprehensive. Those pictured have clearly been given a say on their representation as one occasionally gets a ‘self-censored’ notice as they speak. There’s a bit of voice-over narration, but most of the film is given over to hearing what people have to say, including the prostitutes; so the film never suffers from ‘Voice-of-God’ certitude; and half-way through Pasolini interrogates the veracity of what he’s been presenting: it’s clear many people are not telling the truth, and for various reasons; also all the speakers have been self-selected, what about those who were silent or didn’t get a chance to speak, he asks Alberto Moravia?
Love Meetings is an imaginative and ethical film; one sees the filmmakers grappling with so many of the concerns that would become central to documentary for the next twenty years, including the filmmaker putting himself in the picture, questioning how to represent and whether the representation is truthful, and giving those a represented a say in their representation. Plus it’s all such fun. The analysis is Marxist; the tone humorous, respectful, inclusive. A film that seeks knowledge and radiates intelligence and empathy.
We discuss four Pere Portabella Shorts on MUBI: Don’t Count Your Fingers (1968); Play Back (1970); Acció Santos (1973); Premios Nacionales (1969) focussing on their play with form, the conceptual cleverness, the surrealist aspects; the sensuousness of the imagery; the potency of their critiques.
Portabella seems to be in touch with all the leading painters, poets and musicians of the day; and their collaborations evoke a spirit of community and resistance that seems particularly powerful considering they were made under a fascist dictatorship.
I made a gif from part of a satirical ad in Don’t Count Your Fingers which you can see below:
An excellent article by Rosalind Galt contextualising Pere Portabella’s work and indeed that of the ‘Barcelona School’ , both in national and international aesthetic and political currents, may be accessed here.
We talk Ali in Wonderland (1975), currently on MUBI. It’s an avant-garde political documentary directed by Djouhra Abouda, and Alain Bonnamy. Its play with form is intended to punch the spectator into awareness, and thus very much part of the Deconstructionist zeitgeist of its time. We discuss the use of split screen, distortions, slow motion on beat, juxtapositions; its rendering of historical memory; the way the film connects colonialism with migration. It’s a work you’d perhaps now expect to find more readily in a gallery rather than in a cinema, like an installation, and worth seeing for many reasons, which we discuss in the podcast below.
Writing in Le Monde on the 3rd of January, Tahar Ben Jelloun described the film as:
‘Ali is a film on time and wear. The derision and melancholy of history. The directors well demonstrate the political link between colonialism and migration. It’s not a militant film. It’s something else: a look which derails the quotidian and returns to the misery and exploitation, of which migrant workers are the victims, an element of the fantastic. The real, edited and displayed, is more powerful and surprising than fiction; it is also more violent than political discourse (translation is my my own and possibly thus imperfect).
“Ali au pays des merveilles est un film sur le temps et l’usure. La dérision et la mélancolie de l’histoire. Les auteurs montrent bien le lien politique entre la colonisation et l’émigration. Ce n’est pas un film militant. C’est autre chose : un regard qui détourne le quotidien et redonne à la misère et à l’exploitation dont sont victimes les travailleurs émigrés, les dimensions du fantastique. Le réel donné et découpé est encore plus fort, plus surprenant que la fiction : il est aussi plus violent que le discours politique”
Tahar Ben Jelloun , Djouhra et Ali au pays des merveilles, Le Monde, 3 janvier 1977
In 1975, caring for her infant son and unable to spend much time away from home, Agnès Varda turned her camera on her neighbours on her street, Rue Daguerre in Paris. In Daguerréotypes – the title a pun on the photographic process for whose inventor the road is named – she both observes them at work, running their shops and providing their services, and asks them questions about their lives, discovering where they’re originally from (most are not Paris natives) and how they met their husbands and wives. It’s a gentle, relaxed form of portraiture, one that combines imagery of the practicalities of daily work with the subjects’ descriptions of dreams and histories – although the use of a travelling magician’s show is arguably a little too precious. We discuss the different ways in which we respond to their stories, José commenting on Varda’s clear affection for the subjects, Mike arguing that there’s a tragic dimension that overhangs the film, with talk of dreams and escape.
Daguerréotypes is a sensitive portrait of a local community and a time capsule of an era that is now half a century old, and worth watching.
We return to the work of Youssef Chahine, spurred on by by MUBI’s decision to screen a selection of his works, in what turns out to be marvellous copies. We focus on two of his films, Daddy Amin (1950) and The Devil of the Desert (1954), we compare the visual quality of the MUBI versions to those we saw previously, confirm our admiration for Youssef Chahine’s skills as a director, José takes a dig at the arrogance of a British film culture that assumes one can just move from writing or directing for the stage to directing a movie, and not even Richard can stop José from sighing over Omar.
I´m too distracted at the moment to write even a note on Yuzo Kawashima´s great ‘Sun in the Last Days of the Shogunate’, currently on MUBI, so I merely urge those who can to see it. It´s set in a whorehouse at a time of great social change where everyone seems to be running through the corridors and up and down staircases, very bawdy and funny, with a handling of diverse characters even Altman might envy, and with a nonjudgmental look on the very questionable things people often have to do to survive. It´s a picaresque film with a typical rascal hero, Saheiji, who lives by his wits. One of the things that makes this film great is that it lacks the cynicism of the picaresque: everyone has their reasons here, understanding and usually sympathy are offered to almost every character, and the look on the situation is that of humour tinged with a bit of nostalgia. Times of change are difficult ones and everyone needs to get by as best they can. The film usually comes out third or fourth in lists of favourite films in the history of Japanese cinema and one can understand why after seeing it.
Two thoughts on watching The Host, currently on MUBI: the first is that the film is unimaginable before digital both in terms of its aesthetic and in terms of its country of origin, or more precisely put, no small national cinema could have afforded such sheen, such beautifully realised f/x on a monster movie previous to digital. Of course the Godzilla phenomenon is proof that these films were made, and often more successfully made, outside Hollywood. However, part of the charm of watching those old films is the creakyness, the way that imagination often had to compensate for lack of means. I´m sure compromises were made on what could be shown in The Host . One could see them: the way the monster is often seen only partially, how much of the eating of people and so on happens offscreen, or behind things, or inside trailers shot from outside, etc. Economies were clearly made. But economies are made in every film. And this one seems to me fully realised.
In The Host one is dazzled by skill. The look of the opening sequences in the lab, the way the light hits on chrome as we´re told that chemicals are being dumped into the river by Americans with the Korean scientist having no option but to comply. Then the scenes on the river as a person goes to commit suicide, the people chasing him, his look downwards as he detects a shape. It´s not just that we get all the information and feel the tension. Look at how expressive the shot of the two fishermen below is, the city in the background, in a fog, the vast expanse of river, the two vulerable and unware fishermen discovering something. The compositions are so clever and expressive, the colour grading just right. It looks beautiful.
But the look is only one aspect. Listen to the sound design, note how the sound disappears or is altered in relation to moments of tension. Note also the structure of of the film, how it begins in a lab with Americans, how it´s resolved on TV but with our remaining protagonists too concerned with their meal to care about the larger issues.
The story is told with great intelligence, Bong Joon-Ho focuses all of the narrative on a working-class family who live off a convenience shop by the beach. And as in Parasite, we are shown how their are families even worse off than they. Am I wrong in thinking that so much of American horror focusses on the middle class, sometimes even on scientists who instigate or try to resolve the problem? It´s nice to see working-class people at the centre, embodying and speaking a nation and a dilemma. Themes of class, gender, the environment, an inept South Korean government and oppressive US imperialism are woven in throughout the film.
Aside from being smart, the film is also witty, and on various levels, not just dialogue or situation but visually also. See the still below where the monster rampages through the park and leaps onto the river and we get the contrast between the twee ducks and dolphins and the rampaging mutant squid that´s about to devour everything.
The intelligence, the know-how, the though in relation to sounds and images, makes one realise how little we settle for in cinema. If we were more sophisticated viewers we´d appreciate that 90% of the time we´re watching the visual equivalent of Harold Robbins or virtue tracks by a provincial preacher who knows very little of the world and even less of how to express it. This film is on completely different level altogether, and with all of the coronavirus coverage on the news, more timely than ever. .
Lovely also to see Bae Doona of Sense8 fame as a champion archer in an early role.
Luis Ospina, the influential Colombian filmmaker who died very recently, was last month the subject of an mini retrospective of his work by MUBI, who showed three of his films: Agarrando pueblo/The Vampires of Poverty (1977, co-directed by Carlos Mayolo), Un tigre de papel/A Paper Tiger (2008), and his final feature documentary, Todo comenzó por el fin/It All Started at the End (2015), and we’re grateful to them for making these works available to us with subtitles. We begin by considering how such an influential filmmaker, not only in Colombia but across Latin America, remains so little known in Anglo-American film cultures. We talk about the ‘Caliwood’ group and how we’re so used to talking about structures that we forget how individuals make a difference. A group of young friends with shared interests get together and share a house, turning it into studios, an art gallery, a publishing house and a cinema. This group happens to include, amongst others, Luis Ospina, Andrés Caicedo and Carlos Mayolo. We’re shown how shared cinephilia leads to collaborative cultural production, one that’s left an imprint, proven to be very influential and now become part of the cultural history of Colombia and Latin America.
In Todo comenzó por el fin/It All Started at the End we see how the friendships and shared interests of these irreverent, druggy, countercultural dissidents bore fruit and left a legacy – which is not to say that structures are not important (they wouldn’t have been able to do so had they not been of a particular class, one with relatives who could afford to lend out empty houses). The film serves as an important reminder that individuals can make a difference and that collaboration is essential. Harold Innis’ observation in Empire and Communications that colonised people need to be fully conversant with their colonisers’ culture as well as their own is amply evident in the conjunction of the group’s programming and their own production.
All three of Ospina’s works are concerned with documentary, representation, ethics. In Un tigre de papel/A Paper Tiger, the Zelig-like mockumentary about an imaginary person, the form itself acts as a way of commenting on broad strands of cultural and political movements internationally that had an effect on the local and synthesises and evokes all of the virtues we admire: the playfulness, quirkiness, intelligence, the concern with politics and ethics but also fun, a pin-prick to pomposity. And we share admiration for the savage satire of Agarrando pueblo/The Vampires of Poverty, a statement against the exploitation of the poor, unfortunate and mentally ill on the streets of Cali, by filmmakers keen to sell their work, and the image of Colombia that goes along with it, to Europe.
José is in thrall to Ospina’s work and the culture to which it speaks, and has boundless thoughts; and although Mike asks questions of the ethics at play in Agarrando pueblo/The Vampires of Poverty, even in a film so clearly well-intentioned and with such a valid point, and comments on weaknesses he perceives in the cinematic quality of Todo comenzó por el fin/It All Started at the End, finding it less expressive artistically than simply informative of a time, place and culture, he’s glad to have spent this time exploring Ospina’s work.
This episode has been released early (keen listeners will have noticed a jump from number 196 to 200), and that’s to coincide with yesterday’s homage for Luis Ospina, hosted by the Filmoteca de Catalunya, one we hope will be but the first of many to come.
The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.
Agarrando pueblo/ The Vampires of Poverty, directed by Luis Ospina and Carlos Mayolo is a scathing satire of poverty porn, very funny, quirky, self-referential and multi-faceted. A crew of filmmakers working for German TV are tasked with filming poverty. They chase after poor people on the streets, pay children to take their clothes off and go swimming for money, pin the most vulnerable to their poverty, all the while thinking ahead to the whorehouse they hope to visit later. The film alternates between black and white and colour film to startling effect, showing the differences in information conveyed and experience incited by a simple change of stock, Throughout bystanders interrogate the filmmakers: ´why always focus on the worst. Is this the only aspect of our culture Westerners are interested in? If you´re making money off our suffering, shouldn´t we be paid? ´At the end some of the real people who were performing the aspects of their lives most desired by Western consumers have a good laugh about it all, but not before one of them wipes his ass with the filmmakers money. Essential viewing for those of you interested in poverty porn and documentary ethics. A prime exemplar of Colombia´s ´Caliwood´filmmaking group.
There are broadly two large cinephiliac discourses on cinema currently, each with a multitude of sub-divisions: a global, festival-based one, with internationally shared points of reference, largely inaccessible in the UK outside London. And the other, a more populist but also more insular one, also with many sub-divisions, which surrounds Hollywood, commercial British cinema, and the odd Indie or foreign film that gets nationwide distribution in the UK. In this very interesting podcast the discussion focusses on how MUBI might help bridge that divide.