Criterion Corner: The Piano (#1110)

I first saw The Piano at the cinema in 1993, when it originally came out. The film felt intense and erotic and physical. It felt adult – though, looking back, I’m surprised by how many films I’d seen as a child and teenager that I’d consider adult. Not because of nudity or sex, although they definitely featured those – I’m thinking of the likes of Milos Forman’s Amadeus or Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor -, but because of the characters and themes, and because they were more than happy to leave things unsaid. They were ambiguous. Certainly, I also spent the ’90s watching things like Aliens and Die Hard and Jurassic Park, and I enjoyed those (though I never loved Jurassic Park, which always felt like a more family-friendly Jaws to me, and Jaws should never be family-friendly) – but where these now feel familiar, like cinematic comfort food, The Piano still has that strange intimacy that is both thrilling and discomforting.

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I’ll be in my trailer… watching trailers: Pirates and the Art of Monkey Maintenance

Join us every week for a trip into the weird and wonderful world of trailers. Whether it’s the first teaser for the latest instalment in your favourite franchise, an obscure preview for a strange indie darling, whether it’s good, bad, ugly or just plain weird – your favourite pop culture baristas are there to tell you what they think.

While the Criterion Collection is basically catnip for a certain kind of film lover, not every Criterion film is an unreserved triumph, and while there are things to like about Czechoslovak New Wave fairytale Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, Matt wasn’t altogether enchanted. (What you’ll find isn’t so much a trailer as an introduction to the film that Criterion put together. Trust me: I’ve looked at the trailer that’s available, and you don’t want to see that one.)

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Criterion Corner: Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (#761)

Surrealism is tricky. Some dislike it altogether, finding it too random. Myself, I respond to some of it (as the name of this blog may suggest, I’m not altogether averse to a nice slice of Lynch), but there must be an underlying form, a sense that there is some form or logic at play, even if it is the dream logic of, say, Eraserhead or Mulholland Drive. As soon as it veers into the formlessness of Dada, I tend to disengage.

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, by the Czechoslovak director Jaromil Jireš, leans more towards the former; its surrealism is definitely more dreamlike and Freudian than it is arbitrary, and most of its images aren’t all too difficult to interpret: blood falling on daisies signifies the onset of the protagonist’s first period, vampires hungering for Valerie’s blood and its power to keep them youthful represent sexual desire and the lust of the old for the young. Valerie and Her Week of Wonders isn’t hard to read – yet its tone, somewhere between uncanny and camp, is quite effective at times. It is the kind of film that works better the less it is interpreted, perhaps, because interpretation reduces it into shopworn tropes of Freudian analysis.

Also, sadly, it is very easily reduced to a sexual fantasy whose object of desire is a thirteen-year-old girl.

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Criterion Corner: The Parallax View (#1064)

There are a number of classic paranoia films made in Hollywood in the 1960s and 1970s. The Manchurian Candidate is one of these, as is Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation.

The Parallax View (1974) by Alan J. Pakula clearly belongs on the list as well. It’s a classic, it’s memorable, it’s iconic. It has its finger on the pulse of a country and a culture where politics and murder have been intertwined for more than a century.

And sadly, I like it a lot less than those films.

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Criterion Corner: Harakiri (#302)

In January 2022, my favourite cinema ran a series of films that they gave the title Mythos Samurai (“The Samurai Myth”). We ended up seeing seven (how fitting!) out of eleven films, from Akira Kurosawa’s Shakespeare adaptation Throne of Blood via the Tarantino favourite Lady Snowblood to Hirokazu Kore-eda’s gentle anti-revenge film Hana – and, yes, Seven Samurai was also among the films shown. It was interesting to watch the films as different perspectives on the same motif: the samurai, the officer caste that protected the daimyo from the late 12th century to 1876. What was perhaps most interesting, however: how many of the films subverted the image of a noble warrior caste. The protagonists of these films were often ronin, masterless samurai who had lost their status, or samurai who doubted the tenets of their caste, and none of them presented a cool, badass ideal for easy consumption. The system that created the samurai was always presented in an ambivalent or downright negative light, even when the films clearly share a fascination with the aesthetics and iconography of the culture.

And that ambivalence towards the samurai, the feudal system they were a part of and the values they were meant to embody is represented best perhaps in Masaki Kobayashi’s Harakiri, a film that is grim and exhilarating, exciting and scathingly critical in equal parts.

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Criterion Corner: Beau Travail (#1042)

Before watching Beau Travail, French director Claire Denis’ 1999 film, I’d seen two of Denis’ films: the 2009 (post-)colonial drama White Material and the 2018 sci-fi oddity High Life. My favourite cinema showed the latter last year as part of a series on women directors, so I went to see it – and came away nonplussed. Certainly, there were scenes that I found intriguing, and Denis’ strange science-fiction tone poem is often beautiful to look at, but I didn’t know what to do with it, and I still don’t. While I had some ideas about the overall themes of the film, it remained too fragmented and elliptic and I felt too much of a disconnect from the characters I was watching and the things they were doing. I could imagine someone else, and perhaps even me at a different time and in a different frame of mind, getting more from High Life, but I left the cinema with a vague sense of frustration – or possibly a frustrating sense of vagueness.

I may not immediately wish to revisit High Life after seeing Beau Travail, but Denis’ film, a loose adaptation of Herman Melville’s novella Billy Budd, definitely makes me think that I should keep looking out for other films by her. I could imagine that the one or the other would leave me similarly nonplussed as High Life, but I can’t think of any other director like Denis.

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Criterion Corner: Original Cast Album: “Company” (#1090)

In 2019 (remember that time, a hundred years ago?), I nursed something of a briefish obsession with “Being Alive”, one of the songs from Stephen Sondheim’s 1970s multi-award winning musical Company – and perhaps like many others, I first heard it in Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story (2019), performed by Adam Driver. It’s perhaps something of an ironic use of the song: in Company, it is sung by the show’s central character Robert, an attractive but commitment-phobic man who, in the course of the song, comes to the realisation that he yearns for all of those things that make him shy away from an actual romantic relationship. In Marriage Story, the character who sings it is just coming out of a marriage via acrimonious divorce proceedings, and he mourns everything that he is in the process of losing. In spite of the very different contexts, however, the power of Sondheim’s song clearly comes through.

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Criterion Corner: High and Low (#24)

I’ve seen seven or eight films by Akira Kurosawa, but other than Ikiru and Dreams, the latter of which I saw about twenty years ago and don’t remember particularly well, it’s all been the Jidaigeki films, i.e. period dramas set during the Edo period (more or less) and featuring samurai, ronin and the like. Even Ikiru, which isn’t clearly set in the past, feels like it is about the past to some extent, as it is the story of an old man looking back at his life.

High and Low immediately makes for a striking contrast: it is set in the present day in a big city, its protagonists are businessmen and police detectives. More than that, while the film was released in 1963, there are many elements that would easily translate into our present day, and while High and Low comments on class in specifically Japanese contexts, much of its commentary could work equally well outside Japan. All of this comes together to make High and Low feel modern, in terms of the story, characters and the filmmaking itself – even almost sixty years after its release.

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I’ll be in my trailer… watching trailers: Planes, Trains and Automobiles

Join us every week for a trip into the weird and wonderful world of trailers. Whether it’s the first teaser for the latest instalment in your favourite franchise, an obscure preview for a strange indie darling, whether it’s good, bad, ugly or just plain weird – your favourite pop culture baristas are there to tell you what they think.

On Friday, Alan did a fascinating post on the Shirelles song “Boys” that was later covered by this small indie band, The Beatles – and how having Ringo Starr sing a song about “boys, now (yeah, yeah, boys)” made the lyrics take on a very different meaning. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to find trailers that directly relate to songs… but since another hit by The Shirelles was “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow”, YouTube revealed that there’s a 2013 Taiwanese rom-com of the same title, so that will serve as the first trailer for this week’s post.

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I’ll be in my trailer… watching trailers: I heard a Fly buzz –

Join us every week for a trip into the weird and wonderful world of trailers. Whether it’s the first teaser for the latest instalment in your favourite franchise, an obscure preview for a strange indie darling, whether it’s good, bad, ugly or just plain weird – your favourite pop culture baristas are there to tell you what they think.

There are a number of companies that still deliver great physical media for films – Arrow Films and Kino Lorber come to mind, for instance, companies that care about curation and quality. Here at A Damn Fine Cup of Culture, we’ve obviously entered the 21st century and we stream films and TV series, but we nonetheless like a good Blu-ray edition or boxset, and few do this as nicely as Criterion. Late this week, Matt announced a new feature that will have him working off his Criterion backlog – which should start next week with a Kubrick classic. So, while it’s not quite a trailer, here goes…

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