The four films by Stan Brakhage that are part of the By Brakhage Criterion set that precede Dog Star Man.
Desistfilm - Stan and buddies hanging out, and if at first it feels like a drunken Beat home movie, it starts - via some clever camerawork - to evolve into something slightly more than a first person view of their party. Maybe it doesn't go quite as far as Scorpio Rising and maybe it was never meant to, but it's an influence that makes me think of Kenneth Anger's later film regardless. But it still kinda feels like a home movie with cool shots.
Wedlock House - Stan and Jane moodily lit in kitchen and other rooms, in something I'd call sexually explicit in intent, if not execution. It's not meant merely to arouse though, so maybe not. I guess it more sends out a mood of love and marriage, complete with not too heavy meanings, a lot of light and shadow, some pensive glances, some naughty parts - in short, a quick take on the ups and downs of a young person's marriage.
Cat's Cradle - I can't remember this as much, probably because of the abstraction level. While the previous two are certainly more emotive than plot-driven, this one goes further out. Stan and Jane again, plus two friends. They discuss, they move around the room and the frame. They get intercut with shots of the cat. Sound may also have been an element, though again I'm not drawing it to mind. Not my favorite of the early works.
Window Water Baby Moving - The big famous one - or one of them, anyway. Stan is there to document Jane's experiences (and his own) during the late stages of pregnancy. It gives more measure to her experience and joy though it does not exclude his own happiness and willingness to work through the labor with her. It's a really beautiful thing. I'd say everyone should see this to get a sense of the joy and wonder that's possible with a couple having a child, but I'm sure some people would find that idea in itself polemic.
Mothlight - And abstraction goes to its ultimate point. But even so, there's an intelligence behind the design. If you think of it like a moth, flitting from green grasses to colorful flowers to light and shadow and back, you get a sense of what the film's doing. Drink it in and don't worry about the details like that. And if you choose to view it frame by frame, you'll be treated to some lovely stills. But it really was designed to flow beginning to end and it does. Loverly.
Salo or the 120 Days of Sodom (dir. Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1975) -
Listen, I rent tripe sometimes, I admit it. This has a good reputation and co-stars the very handsome Vincent D'Onofrio - the only reason to watch the film. He's good (and handsome) and still isn't able to unburden this film from the concepts it applies to its secondary story of a small town writer (Robert E. Howard) longing for a more bohemian lifestyle than his tight relationship with his sick mother would permit. So his fantasy worlds are externalized on the soundtrack as he acts them out, talks in concepts that begin in capital letters and has an on-and-off relationship with Novelyne Price (played in typically so-so fashion by Renee Zellwegger) - and this constitutes the main story of the film. The basis of a good film is here, based on Price's own account of the pair's relationship, but the central focus on Price (and thus, Zellweger), the overall inability to follow its most interesting character or make its central character more interesting and its tendency to corny old-fashioned-isms makes it just annoying. All I could think was how much better a film this might have been if it were told from Howard's point of view, without the sound effects, the capital letter ideas, and without Zellweger. I'll say this - it's not your typical rom-com, though it's surely Romantic with a capital R, and I still wish they'd done more with it.
The Fall of the House of Usher (dir. Jean Epstein, 1928) -
Of course I wanted to see what Bunuel did on this, but it's really Jean Epstein's film all the way. Poe's story is shifted around a bit to meet his needs and an incestuous vibe radiates from the film that I don't recall from the story (though it's been forever since I read it). Anyway... the visuals are exceptionally striking here - the grand room with almost no furnishings, the painting that's sometimes portrait, sometimes model, and constantly changing regardless, the unrealistic (and I'd say deliberately so) image of the house in the foggy moor, the long hallway full of blowing curtains and leaves; they all go to engender the same kind of doomy atmosphere that Poe created, even if specifics of plot vary between the two versions. But as an adaptation it's quite good, at once honoring the story and making its own vision known. Poe fans ought to be able to overlook the minor story variances in favor of the major success at capturing the dread and horror that Poe sought so often.
Rio Bravo (dir. Howard Hawks, 1959) -
Spectacularly entertaining - so much so, and so well made that I didn't ever stop to think about politics, which fall into a typical "average folks of town vs. rich land/cattle/whatever baron," or to put it more bluntly, the common American theme of capital power and privilege vs. the underclass, represented here by the aged, the young, and sheriff John Wayne, representing the law. But also, interestingly, by Dean Martin (excellent here) who's a recovering alcoholic (from before that term even had any meaning in the public sphere of consciousness), a strong woman in Angie Dickinson, a woman whose past may be tainted but it's not held against her by any of the characters, and a Mexican who works with the Anglos and pays with his life for the transgression. But the siege on the jail where the thoroughly corrupt baron's utterly lawless brother is being held is terrific - a sustained set piece of rising and falling action that Hawks plays masterfully. And the baron himself is a terrific villain in a long line of bad Western characters who pay lip service to the law when it serves them but have no intention of actually following it if it impedes their progress. The more I see this the more I'm convinced it's a masterwork.
Early Spring (dir. Yasujiro Ozu, 1956) -
He Walked By Night (dir. Alfred L. Werker, 1948) -
A bit stiff for my tastes though two things really stand out as superb - Richard Basehart's performance as the sociopathic thief/killer and the big chase through the sewers at the end. Basehart is marvelous, predating the modern cold-blooded killers of any film I can think of by at least two decades. Maybe if I give it some thought... But still - his disinterest in how his actions affect others is chilling and his calculating methods point a line right to Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, to a way less glamorized Hannibal Lecter (like Brian Cox's Lecter, not Anthony Hopkins's), etc. There's no big flashy neon arrow pointing at him to say "Evil!" he's just ruthless in his pursuit of what he wants. And the sewer chase - terrific, and predating the famous Third Man chase by a year. My friend Josh suggests that Jacques Tourneur (or was it Jules Dassin? Sam Fuller maybe?) actually shot those scenes, and I'd buy that for sure - the visual flair of the climactic ending goes against the flat, documentary-type style of much of the police procedural that leads up to it. Anyway, an interesting and grim bit of noir with a couple touches that set it apart. I guess in that it's like most noirs that have a couple great ideas and then a lot of shadowy shots of L.A. to fill in the requisite moodiness. No sleazy private dick here though, and no femme fatale. Just a chilling sociopath who uses the sewers.
The Earrings of Madame de... (dir. Max Ophuls, 1953) -
And still more infidelity on parade, this time offered up cheerfully and with a good ultimate purpose - wife and husband both fulfill a fantasy and strengthen their marriage by sleeping with other people. How's that for a charming family comedy? This film gets away with murder, metaphorically speaking. Not only do husband and wife sleep with others and have their marriage not just intact but improved by the experience, on the way from point A to point B we get: tons of very physical humor that borders on the outright sexually provocative (gasp!); even more verbal humor and double entendres that do the same; a known prostitute as our main heroine and a wife who's happy to trade places with her (temporarily of course, but still...); Dean Martin playing a downright unflattering caricature of himself as a sex maniac unable to go one night "without it." And there's surely more I'm forgetting. Oh, like the insanely jealous husband assaulting the 14-year old piano student he's supposed to be teaching and accusing the kid of sleeping with his wife. I mean, this really pushes some heavy buttons for its time. My friend suggested that this film may single-handedly have been responsible for our modern rating system and though I don't think this was tit-for-tat responsible for giving us the "R," it'd be hard to argue that between the image of Dean Martin drinking out of Kim Novak's shoe and then feeling her up and the bawdy dialogue throughout that it provided some heavy ammunition for those who'd push for a more child-restricted theater environment. It's funny, yes, but it a really sly and tense way. Ray Walston's performance is a little on the creepy side and I'm sure it's 100% intentional from Wilder. Script is fantastic - good plotting and great dialogue throughout. Billy Wilder is sure to be someone I obsess about soon (though not like Walston's character, I hope).