Thursday, 7 January 2021

Defending Cinephilia 2020 (10) - Serious cinephile Michael Campi overcomes lockdown in pursuit of his calling

 Editor's Note: This is the final post in this series for 2020. If you would like to read the others CLICK HERE TO TAKE YOU THROUGH TO A PAGE WITH LINKS TO THEM ALL 


A calendar year of sudden, unexpected upheaval and tragedy is nearly at an end as the pandemic continues to sweep the world regardless of the timelines we set ourselves. For some, the passing of these many months has been slow but for many of us engaged in following our various paths of cinephilia, the weeks and months proceeded curiously at quite a pace, especially in the many weeks of being confined to home for 23 hours a day with specific short-term exemptions. Much of our passion for cinema has been directed to the ever-increasing range of material on line, posted generously for free, by one payment per view or through longer term subscriptions. 

Marlene Dietrich, Angel

Melbourne Cinémathèque's weekly screenings through more normal years are always a high point for cinephiles in that city. In March 2020, the Cinémathèque followed its six film cross-section of the work of Vittorio de Sica with the announcement of three programmes devoted to the career of Marlene Dietrich. During the second screening which included Lubitsch's ANGEL, the potency of Dietrich's line "Travelling's becoming quite complicated, isn't it?" was only just becoming apparent.  Indeed, within days, cinemas had closed. Planned trips were cancelled or deferred. The final Dietrich programme couldn't be presented. Two festivals running in Melbourne cinemas were stopped in their tracks and the masterpiece with some of the greatest of Lubitsch touches was the last film I saw in a cinema until December.  


One of the most disappointing consequences was the postponement of an eight film season of some masterworks of Shimizu Hiroshi, one of the great Japanese filmmakers especially from the 1920s to 1940s. A collection of his major films had been in development stage for quite a while but was stifled by the increasingly destructive path of the virus. While three of the programmed films have been more broadly available on disc and otherwise through Criterion and Shochiku, several of the titles have been extremely difficult to see more recently such as the silent films ECLIPSE and A HERO OF TOKYO along with sound masterpieces like FORGET LOVE FOR NOW and the almost indescribably affecting A WOMAN CRYING IN SPRING, Shimizu's first talkie before he returned to silent films for a few more years. The failed opportunity to see these works in three programmes over a couple of weeks in a cinema setting is truly disappointing. Let's trust this can be rectified before too long.

Shimizu Hiroshi


Online viewing


Leaping ahead a few months to the end of August, when Bologna's Il Cinema Ritrovato became a part real and part virtual event, a later Japanese master's work was also out of view for most of the people who couldn't attend the films in real cinemas in that welcoming city. The Bologna festival's notes tell us Kawashima Yuzo "is the 'missing link' between the classical Japanese cinema and the New Wave." They screened six of his features theatrically but none in their online event. Only BAKUMATSU TAIYODEN (1957) is available on English subtitled commercial disc to my knowledge. Others have appeared on the MUBI streaming platform but only in certain territories and I don't believe they have become part of their continuing library. Let's hope the Bologna celebration will help to highlight the versatility and importance of this large body of work: nearly fifty features made in less than twenty years from the final months of World War 2 until the director's early death in 1963 at the age of 45. More on Il Cinema Ritrovato below. 


From May the deluge of online film festivals and other curated film events was burgeoning from its previous steady stream of mostly subscription viewing to become a visual tsunami of choices that's been ongoing ever since. This huge change to the cinephile's regular ways of watching old and new cinema seems irreversible. For some, watching a variety of great movies on one living room screen tended to have a dulling sameness of environment. Changing surroundings could be beneficial. Choices might be made to watch more visually spectacular films on a larger screen, Q&A and lecture sessions on the laptop, other material, less demanding visually, might be seen on a Tablet or iPad.  


The first of the curated festivals to take over a week of my viewing was "We are One: A Global Film Festival" in May with contributions suggested by over twenty film festivals, from the major A class events to exciting other suggestions from Annecy, Guadalajara, San Sebastian, Tokyo, Jerusalem, Sarajevo and more. A mixture of short films and features reminded us that over recent years some imaginative work makes its mark in a couple of festivals but doesn't become part of the more publicised global trail.  Specially rewarding films from a few years ago were two contrasting dance films, DANTZA (2018) by Telmo Esnal and LOS PASOS DOBLES (2011) by Isaki Lacuesta, both designed to work magical rhythms into the viewers' legs along with MARY IS HAPPY, MARY IS HAPPY (2013), the second film  by Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit whose wonderful latest film HAPPY OLD YEAR is streaming in many places on Netflix now. Fukada Koji's THE YALTA CONFERENCE ONLINE (2020) is a wry look at that historical event by the theatre troupe Seinendan:  history seen through videoconferencing with women as Stalin and Roosevelt. Athina Rachel Tsangari's 24 FRAMES PER CENTURY (2013), Mati Diop's short film ATLANTIQUES (2009), her first short film and a precursor to the feature ATLANTICS, which is streaming at the moment, and the multi-director BRIDGES OF SARAJEVO (2014) were also highlights of a very stimulating week.


Mati Diop

Other festivals, some partly in cinemas and online, some completely virtual, provided some fine ways to see new films contrasted with curated older ones. The Far East Film Festival in Udine presented early chances to see Derek Tsang's BETTER DAYS (2019) with its school bullying theme, Layla Zhuqing Ji's VICTIM(S) (2020), a Malaysian Chinese noir thriller and Thop Nazareno's EDWARD (2019), which engages as we watch a quickly maturing adolescent caring for his father in a public hospital.  Sadly, some promising titles were geo-blocked and haven't reappeared. 


As another example of extended and generous cinephilia, part of the annual Locarno Film Festival could be streamed in August. Again we could see significant older and some newer films. Top of my list was another opportunity to see Garin Nugroho's magnificent MEMORIES OF MY BODY, first on view in 2018-19, a rich look at a very personal journey and a cinema counterpoint to Nugroho's second live performance event in Melbourne: THE PLANET - A LAMENT,  part of Asia TOPA just days ahead of the first Covid-19 restrictions being introduced in March. 

Garin Nugroho

I was also pleased to see again Yeo Joon Han's vivacious 2008 musical SELL OUT! while Mouly Surya's WHAT THEY DON'T TALK ABOUT WHEN THEY TALK ABOUT LOVE reappeared after some festival screenings back in 2013.  It was timely to be reacquainted with Riri Riza's ATAMBUA 39 DEGREES CELSIUS from 2012. Several of Riza's other films are on Netflix at the moment. However, APPARITION (2012) was new to me, a potent tale of an order of Catholic nuns believing they would be undisturbed by the rigours of the new Marcos regime. The film's credits show the director as Vincent Sandoval, a fascinating filmmaker whose recent impressive new LINGUA FRANCA, part of the online Melbourne Queer Film Festival Interrupted is signed by Isabel Sandoval.  I was also impressed by new shorter works streamed from Locarno such as Hirai Atsushi's RETURN TO TOYAMA (the final image at bottom of this post), Viet Vu's AN ACT OF AFFECTION, Pham Ngoc Lan's THE UNSEEN RIVER and Ratchapoom Boonbunchachoke's AININSRI DAENG which takes a wry look at Thai cinema traditions and gender roles.  Locarno also provided online, though geo-blocked locally, films by Pasolini, Tanner, Rossellini, Duras, Yang, Akerman and many more. 


Closer to home, the Melbourne International Film Festival decided many months before opening night that this year's event would be completely virtual and available across Australia. In retrospect, this was a sensible decision rather than to find, as some other international festivals experienced, some films had to be dropped as producers or sales agents wouldn't give permission to show their work once festivals moved from cinemas to home screens. MIFF presented about a quarter of its usual number of features. However, of the three dozen films I watched, almost all were of a most pleasing high standard, sometimes conveniently grouped in booking bundles, making online purchase easier. Standouts were Catarina Vasconcelos' METAMORPHOSIS OF BIRDS with its beautifully textured 16mm colour images revealing a woman's relationship to the father who was almost nearly absent from his children, Jayro Bustamante's eerie third feature LA LLORONA, mixing ghost film horror with the exposure of rightwing political atrocities, and Valentyn Vasyanovych's ATLANTIS (one film that really needs a larger screen for our eyes to wander a very wide landscape). Three other highlights shared the filmmakers very personal experience: Myriam Verreault's KUESSIPAN, Faraz Shariat's NO HARD FEELINGS and Ulrike Ottinger's PARIS CALLIGRAMMES.  


Catarina Vasconcelos

This year Venice Film Festival also shared an online selection with some fine premieres such as Pedro Collantes' ART OF RETURN, Uberto Pasolini's NOWHERE SPECIAL, Ahma

Bahrami's THE WASTELAND, Adilkhan Yerzhanov's YELLOW CAT, while Shahram Mokri's CARELESS CRIME is his third feature after making an impact a few years ago with the one-take noir FISH AND CAT.  The new film experimentally looks at the awful event of nearly fifty years ago when a group of men decided to lock patrons in a cinema and set fire to the building during a screening of Masud  Kimiai's THE DEER.  Not long after Venice, a kind university streaming programme gave us the chance to see THE DEER in context with Ehsan Khoshbakht's FILMFARSI, an authoritative look at aspects of Iranian pre-revolutionary cinema. It's been interesting to see some of these films' journeys through later festivals.


Khoshbakht is also a curator of Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna. After nine successive editions, I had decided to take a break from another trip at Bologna's usual festival time. Of course the travel didn't happen.  Though postponed for two months, Bologna's legendary festival went ahead with indoor social distancing and more cinema screens to accommodate audiences.  The regular massive catalogue was produced and arrived with incredible speed to be consulted by those who opted for a certain payment level of the much reduced virtual event encompassing restored features and a couple of live presentations each day.  


Maureen O'Sullivan, Henry Fonda, Let us Live

Excellent copies of familiar Henry Fonda films were one focus of the programme: John Ford's THE GRAPES OF WRATH and YOUNG MR. LINCOLN looking specially fine. Bologna also gave us a rare chance to see John Brahm's LET US LIVE, something of a forerunner of Hitchcock's THE WRONG MAN. One of the most impressive inclusions was the restoration of another Iranian film, THE CHESS GAME OF THE WIND (1976) by Mohammad Reza Aslani, seen in a visually sumptuous restoration from recently rediscovered picture and sound elements which many thought lost for decades.  Since Bologna, the film has blazed a trail through international festivals and smaller Iranian events.  


Chess in the Wind

Meanwhile there was a continuous and often overlapping parade of other online festivals plus screenings from national events like the local Korean (sadly abandoned before the end) and Japanese film festivals.  The Taiwan Film Festival in Australia streamed some fine titles midyear while Taiwanese dialect films of half a century ago could be found from some specialist university and festival sites with a series of Taiwanese noir films streaming with discussions elsewhere on line as well. It's commendable that a selection of the unique Taiwanese dialect features of half a century ago has been restored and issued on disc with English subtitles.  However, its purchase from outside Taiwan seems complicated if payment is not by Taiwanese credit card.


One boutique festival designed for cinephiles was The Calvert Journal: 7 Days of New East Cinema online. I was specially impressed by George Itzhak's short film from Uzbekistan, WAITING FOR THE SEA, which asks the question if an electronic music festival can be powerful enough to draw attention to the disaster that caused the Aral Sea to dry up. Damjan Kozole's HALF-SISTER is a serious and sometimes humorous look at a divided family in the Balkans while Bulgarian filmmaker Hristiana Raykova's THE PIT is a 2019 documentary set around a communal mineral pool on the Black Sea, a popular meeting place for locals but its free access is threatened by developers. 

Mark Rappaport

As a bright contrast to much of the year's viewing, the Munich Filmmuseum can't be thanked enough for streaming, a few at a time, a large number of the features and shorter essay works by Mark Rappaport, probably best known for his feature ROCK HUDSON'S HOME MOVIES (1992). It was a refreshing delight to explore the imagination in Rappaport's I, DALIO, THE VANITY TABLE OF DOUGLAS SIRK, JOHN GARFIELD and L'ANNÉE DERNIÈRE À DACHAU among many more. These demonstrated a particularly devoted passion for the history of cinema together with an extraordinary memory for detail and nuance. For several weeks, this was a glorious tribute to our love of and inspiration from the movies. 


Several contributors to this year's Cinephilia series have commented on Pordenone's Le Giornate del CInema Muto, the long-running silent film festival held in the beautiful Friuli district in North-East Italy around early October.  Because of clashing festivals and mostly because of other travel arrangements, I've managed to attend this event only once, back in 2017, when the timing was perfect between ending a trip through the Balkans and starting some real relaxation around Lake Maggiore. This year's festival was mostly a virtual event but one developed in the most inviting way by cinephiles as an online substitute for actually being in the city. Each day festival director Jay Weissberg introduced the programme from a different attractive part of town: reminders of the visual beauty of the place for those unable to be there this year and acting as a potent lure for newcomers. Eleven film sessions were presented over eight days, seemingly a light load compared to other weeklong events but when factoring in many hours of zoom-like discussion sessions each day,  it was quite an immersive time. The explanatory Giornate video sessions included regular daily discussions on the presentation of music for and new books about silent film plus a panel of critics and archivists talking about each film programmed. 


Festivals such as those in Pordenone, Bologna, Locarno etc. offering streaming options this year have broadened their audiences, some of whom could never be there in person (distance, timing) and others who may not have been as encouraged as this year when the excitement of the programmes was brought into their homes. 



In this year of unusually restricted movement, it was an inspired idea to begin Pordenone's week with a programme called "The Urge to Travel", a collection of short actuality reels showing New York, Kraców, Bruges, Trieste and Ostend among other locations that nearly a century ago were viewed keenly by armchair travellers in cinemas around the world. Other contributors have discussed their favourite Pordenone features this year. My own highlights were GUO FENG (NATIONAL CUSTOMS), a late Chinese film from 1935 co-directed by Luo Mingyou and Zhu Shilin co-starring the legendary and tragic Ruan Lingyu (in her final screen appearance) with the sprightly Li Lili best known for her films directed by Sun Yu.  Pabst's ABWEGE from 1928 with Brigitte Helm glowed in a luminous restored copy.  A lively roster of musicians for silent films can be heard in both Bologna and Pordenone each year.  There's a rich range of performance styles and informed choices of interpretation.  Of all of these, the accompaniment which impressed me the most this year was the one for ABWEGE by Mauro Colombis who should be familiar to those in Sydney who have been fortunate to hear his work there. Colombis' piano accompaniment of great subtlety and introspection was ideal for a film of many contrasting moods and striking visuals, deftly creating an atmosphere that never called attention to itself.  Let's hope silent film enthusiasts in Melbourne and other cities can hear his work soon.


Guo Feng

Blu-ray releases of special interest. 


WIth so much streaming to many sizes of home screens, let's not overlook some outstanding releases on Blu-ray and DVD.  One of the casualties of Covid-19 in the second-half of the international film festival year, KRABI 2562 premiered at Locarno in 2019 but its normal festival trail was interrupted by the pandemic.  It's the first joint feature by two directors with significant followings: Ben Rivers and Anocha Suwichakornpong.  Just released is a Blu-ray disc from Anti-Worlds in the U.K. which adds a commentary by the directors to a very fine copy of the feature film. The disc is packed with extras from an experimental perpetual loop of a sequence taken from the film, GHOST SONATA which is Ben Rivers' diary film about KRABI 2562, THE AMBASSADORS - the directors' first collaboration, some short films by Anocha Suwichakornpong along with several contributions by the sound designer. 

Ben Rivers and Anocha Suwichakornpong

Another other essential purchase reflects cinephilia at a peak with Criterion's Blu-ray and DVD third box set in their Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Project series. The six titles will be familiar to those who have followed one of the recurring strands at Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna. For most of the films, it's their first first release on disc at least with English subtitles. Solás' LUCIA, Ismail's AFTER THE CURFEW, Babenco's PIXOTE, Oro's DOS MONJES, Hondo's SOLEIL Ô and Beyzaie's DOWNPOUR.  A wide international selection from filmmakers whose other works we should be able to see more easily. The usual Criterion extras are bountiful including a booklet and many disc supplements.


Much has been written about Bong Joon-ho's reworking of two of his colour films into monochrome versions: MOTHER and PARASITE.  Ash Mayfair's THE THIRD WIFE (2018) enjoyed success at international festivals and some commercial release including in Australia following its screening at the Sydney Film Festival. In its original colour version, the film is a sumptuous portrait of strict traditions in 19th century rural Vietnam. The director decided to rework her film into the monochrome BETWEEN SHADOW AND SOUL, in the process eliminating the original soundtrack including the dialogue, replacing them with a completely new atmospheric score by the same composer An Ton That and occasional English subtitles. As only a little of the dialogue is translated, various interpretations may develop in some scenes adding another layer to the experience of the original film. The film is also available for streaming in some territories. 


Ash Mayfair on DVD

Moving image celebrations in gallery spaces


For a month from early August, the Tate Modern gallery in London presented the first major Steve McQueen exhibition for twenty years since he won the Turner Prize in 1999. Over a dozen works contrasted his sculpture, photography and film. Let's hope this will travel widely as a reminder that McQueen is such an important visual creator. His most recent SMALL AXE cycle has been hailed for its five narratives which powerfully investigate aspects of the sociopolitical situation in the U.K. in the latter part of the 20th Century. The urgency of their heartfelt stories extends beyond the shores of Britain.  McQueen's narrative films have such strong scripts that what is not discussed so much is the cinephile aspect of the impressive visual appearance of his work extending beyond his installations. SMALL AXE develops five unique and separate films in a far more imaginative way than many a usual longform episodic series.  Each work is presented in a different aspect ratio (although reports suggest the small screen reality might reduce this to three) and the running times are very different for each film.  Three of the films have music by one of the most striking of today's composers, Mica Levi whose scores for MONOS, JACKIE and UNDER THE SKIN have added much to the success of these works. 


Steve McQueen

Cinephilia much closer to home for me, the Art Gallery of Ballarat, west of Melbourne, is presenting MONTAGES: The Full Cut 1999-2015: Tracey Moffatt and Gary Hillberg, running until March 14, 2021. This exhibition presents together for the first time the eight montage films by artist Moffatt and her collaborator Hillberg, spanning sixteen years of their working together. The gallery announces "The exhibition is an ode to cinema and its form, offering unprecedented insight into the stereotypes that populate our collective cultural imagination". The films include LIP (1999), ARTIST (2000), REVOLUTION (2008) and the most recent THE ART (2015).


Tracey Moffatt

A long awaited in-depth volume in English on a great European filmmaker. 


The Films of Douglas Sirk: Exquisite Ironies and Magnificent Obsessions.  Tom Ryan's enquiries into the work of Douglas Sirk have extended through the course of the many years of his exploration of writings about cinema history, styles and authorship. I still have the passionate and enthusiastic correspondence from the time of his first arrival in the UK in the early 1970s to study with Robin Wood. His excitement at  discovering the wonders of the films of Douglas Sirk, which his research could access through archives in London, are still very palpable.  Through his many longer articles and shorter weekly film reviews, the author has engaged using his elegant prose to exquisitely reveal elements which excite him in the cinema.  This is highlighted in this unique volume in English to examine every film directed by Sirk in Europe and the U.S.A.  Every film is discussed in detail with chapters devoted to contextualised groupings of the American films. When the writer first began his study of Sirk's work, only a few films were available generally in cinemas, 16mm prints or shown on television before the age of video recordings. Today's readers should celebrate the fact that the majority of Sirk's most pivotal films are now easy to access in various video formats and with deeper investigation all of his films can be seen one way or another. 

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