Tuesday 23 January 2018

The Ten Best First films (9) - Scholar, critic and film-maker John Conomos reveals magic moments

John Conomos
Cinephilia is such a complex, dreamy, life-shifting experience like clouds forever changing their shape. And, like clouds, cinephilia can keep one entranced through one’s circuitous life journey. Trying to select your ten best first films is akin to trying to freeze frame your life’s memory-laden feelings, experiences and the countless encounters one has with the cinema in their public and private, fugitive moments of existence.

As a parlour game trying to work out which of a director’s films came first and when and where, seeking out their half-forgotten filmographies is worthy of Vladmir Nabokov’s playful forensic temporal imagination. So one’s list will inevitably recall some of the selected films by the previous participants to this parlour game. Hence Terence Malick’s Badlands (1975), Andre Delvaux’s  The Man Who Had His Hair Cut Short (1967  and one of J. G. Ballard’s own favourite directors), Jerzy Skolimowski,’s Walkover (1966), Errol Morris’s  Gates of Heaven (1978) - the list can be quite endless, but in this context I have mentioned a few examples that fellow cinephiles Bruce Hodsdon and Tina Kaufman have recently listed in Film Alert 101. How else can it be different given that all of us one way or another have been immersed in cinema, in the main over the years, as a communal-going experience with the ever–hypnotising cone light dancing above our heads in the darkened realm of a movie theatre? 

Since the mid 1950s as a young kid I have been watching movies in cities like Sydney, London, Paris, New York, Athens and elsewhere and besides the usual art cinemas of these cities, film festivals, NFT (Australia ), university film societies and clubs, WEA, etc, I must include that, for me , my own cinephilia also is seriously indebted as well to watching cinema on late night television in Sydney in the 1960s and onwards. In this specific context, my mother who was a Hollywood classic cinema fan encouraged me to follow my passion for films. Hence, if I may say so, one substantial reason why I have become such a chronic insomniac.

For my first-time feature films selection what follows is, certainly, not cast in stone but may vary according to my memory, biography, feelings, time and place.

Werner Herzog
Werner Herzog: The two earliest narrative feature films of Herzog’s that come to mind are Signs of Life (1968) and Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970). Both tend, over the years to intermingle with each other, but I do recall seeing the former film with together with Barrett and Bruce Hodsdon one hot sweltering summer’s day.  As for Herzog’s documentaries I first saw Fata Morgana (1971) at the Opera House, then I caught up much later with his early third documentary Land of Silence and Darkness (1971).

Errol Morris
Errol Morris: Gates of Heaven (1978) : Morris’s documentary about a pet cemetery embodies the director’s surreal approach to filmmaking but it was ten years later with his very critically acclaimed The Thin Blue Line ( 1988),  (1977) Morris established his major status as an auteur concern with the experimental postmodern potential of the medium itself.

Terence Davies
Terence Davies: Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) Davies’s poetic masterpiece about a working class family in Liverpool in the 1940s and 1950s incarnates the director’s abundant resonant creative imagination as a screen –writer director. In 2008 Davies ‘ lyrical essay documentary about Liverpool “Of Time and the City “ is not to be missed as is his more recent accomplished narrative feature about the American poet Emily Dickinson A Quiet Passion (2016).

David Lynch
David Lynch: Eraserhead (1977) First saw it at the Valhalla Cinema, Glebe. My first reaction to this cult surreal horror film was “What in the world was that?” Saw it about five times in the first year of its general release. Lynch, like the three preceding directors, is an uncompromising horizon-expanding artist and in Lynch’s case his oeuvre is always alert to the intertextuality of cinema, painting, and drawing.

Michael Oblowitz
Michael Oblowitz: King Blank (1983) Oblowitz’s  ‘New York Wave” is a far-reaching cult examination of modern alienation and heterosexual couples that transcends genre amounting to an existential biopsy of the human condition. Unforgettable.

(the young) Aleander Kluge
Alexander Kluge: Yesterday Girl (1966) was one of the defining New German Cinema films of its era “This film tells of the social and psychological problems that its female protagonist experiences from migrating from East Germany to West Germany. Kluge’s rigorous post-Brechtian reflexive style of filmmaking is very unique in European art cinema.  Kluge is one of the few public intellectuals (television, literature, philosophy) of European art cinema.  

Theo Angelopoulos
Theo Angelopoulos: The Travelling Players (1975) Strictly speaking, the highly acclaimed The Travelling Players which is Pt 2 of  the director’s Trilogy of History, was the first feature film of Angelopoulos that I saw, then I caught up with his debut black and white feature Reconstruction (1970) and two years later Days of 36.

Bernardo Bertolucci
Bernardo Bertolucci: Before the Revolution (1964) Again, this film was not Bertolucci’s directorial debut film. That was  The Grim Reaper  two years before but it was the first feature that I saw in the 1960s and early 70s before anything else of Bertolucci’s.

Chantal Ackerman
Chantal Akerman: Akerman’s oeuvre covering both her films and installations, like Agn├Ęs Varda, and to a much lesser extent Sally Potter, is something fairly dear to my trajectory as a cinephile. (Both Akerman and Varda truth be told have both film played their respective vital roles in contributing to the aesthetic, cultural and historical features of my cinephilia. In Akerman’s case, I saw her internationally acclaimed Jeanne Dielman , 23 Quai Du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles ( 1975) – that has Henri Storck, the pioneering Belgian filmmaker  in a cameo role in the film -  about the same time I saw her 1972 Hotel Monterey and, much later on I saw Akerman’s other internationally acclaimed film The Golden Eighties (1983) when it was first released.

Jacques Rivette
Jacques Rivette:  Of all the French New Wave directors, it was Rivette’s first feature film Paris Belongs to Us ( 1961) that I saw a few years later in the 1960s that had,  along with Godard’s Breathless (1960) , such an impact on me as a cinephile , like it did for many of my immediate peers of that generation. First began in 1958 Rivette’s film has all the classical tropes of his approach to the cinema: improvisation, long takes, paranoia, and ‘house of fiction’ aesthetics that explore often the intricate nexus between the cinema, literature and most particularly the theatre.

Paul Schrader
Paul Schrader. Blue Collar (1978) Schrader’s film was written by him and his brother Leonard and it is a powerful,  highly kinetic crime drama dealing with union practices and issues located in a working class  ‘rust bucket’ locale. Schrader as a director, screenwriter, and producer who has contributed in such significant terms to other directors including Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, and Sydney Pollack, amongst others , wrote in 1972 “Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer” , which was a very influential book in shaping my cinephilia regarding these three giants of world cinema. A fellow cinephile recommended I look at it when it first came out. Which I did reading it virtually in two sittings.

Victor Erice
Victor Erice: His small but poetic oeuvre should also be noted on this list. Particularly The Spirit of the Beehive  (1973), a painterly haunting study of a young girl’s fascination for James Whale’s 1933 horror classic Frankenstein and its impact on her family life including schooling, etc.  Also, we need to mention his masterly reflective short narrative documentary film The Quince  Tree Sun (1992) about a painter and the things that matter to him in getting his painting done like the weather, light, etc . It is hard to believe that it has been ten years since Melbourne’s ACMI put on a brilliant exhibition “Correspondences  Victor Erice and Abbas Kiarostrami “ concerning itself with Erice’s fragile, poetic and illuminating small oeuvre and Kiarostrami’s films and installations since the 1990s. It made him a master (like Erice) of world cinema. I saw the enchanting show together with Adrian Martin. One was absolutely dumbstruck by the simple lyrical beauty of the show and its immense importance to cinema as we know it today.
David Cronenberg
Finally, in terms of horror/ exploitation/ independent cinema, two directors whom I encountered in the 70s were the Canadian David Cronenberg and Larry Cohen. With Cronenberg the feature that spoke to me of his ample talents as a writer/director shaping horror was Shivers (1975 ) and two years later Rabid (1977) of which one of the earliest screenings I saw was in San Francisco in a flea-pit theatre with a black American audience. Quite an experience it turned out, for me and Carol to see the spectators in question riffing and intervening with meta-commentary about the film, its characters, plot, etc.
Larry Cohen
And with Larry Cohen, after seeing his early two films Bones (1972) and Black Caesar  (1973) in NYC in the late 70s,  I then, also in NYC at MoMA, caught up with a Cohen retrospective season. There I can recall the American/Cuban critic Carlos Clarens standing up and questioning Cohen on the thirties and  G-man films, etc . Thanks to Robin Wood and Tony Williams, Cohen’s cinema became more critically recognizable.

John Conomos, Monday 22 January 2018.

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