The Terence Davies Trilogy (1976-1983)

terence davies trilogy film review

Three short films by one of England’s and cinema’s most highly renowned directors. I decided to explore his first three films based on the strength of the superb The House of Mirth (2000), the only other Davies film I’ve seen. All three films, Children (1976), Madonna and Child (1980), and Death and Transfiguration (1983) are autobiographical depictions of his ordeals growing up poor, Catholic, and gay in Liverpool. Davies originally wanted to act and write. Unsuccessful in his attempts to sell the screenplay for Children, he eventually received an offer from the British Film Institute to direct the film himself despite the fact that he had absolutely no experience directing. Based on that film he managed to get accepted at the National Film School where he created the second film as his graduation project. The final film, made on a minuscule budget, demonstrates his maturation as a filmmaker and establishes his signature cinematic style which has been described as poetic. His first two feature films, Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and The Long Day Closes (1992) are also autobiographical. On the commentary track Davies claims that being gay and Catholic ruined his life. “I am celibate, although I think I would have been celibate even if I was straight because I’m not good-looking; why would anyone be interested in me? And nobody has been. Work was my substitute.” Even though he renounced Catholicism and became an atheist at age 22 he says he cannot lose the sense of guilt instilled in him by what he calls “that pernicious religion”. The films and commentary may strike some as being full of self-pity though Davies would probably say he was just being brutally honest, trying to convey his frame of mind in the period of his life depicted in the films. The films are bleak and challenging and as one American critic put it, “make Ingmar Bergman look like Jerry Lewis”. Considering how many of the world’s greatest artists led miserable lives, it almost seems as though a tortured soul is a prerequisite for great art. Though making films about his past may not have had a cathartic effect for Davies, it has led to the creation of some great cinema.

★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ (6/10)

The Terence Davies Trilogy at imdb.com

As of September, 2016 The Terence Davies Trilogy is available to buy on a Region 2 DVD from Amazon.com.

The Juniper Tree (1990)

the juniper tree film review

Nietzchka Keene (1952-2004), writer and director of The Juniper Tree, had a background in Old Icelandic Studies and won a Fulbright Fellowship to make a film in Iceland. She ended up making a different film than she had proposed which upset some of the people at the Fulbright Program but the actors felt the story was essentially Icelandic even though it was based on a fairy tale collected by the Brothers Grimm. The fairy tale is the evil stepmother variety in which a widower with a young son marries another woman who gives birth to a girl. The stepmother, jealous of the boy, kills him, cooks him in a stew, and serves it to her husband. The stepmother also manages to convince her daughter that she killed her half brother. Keene adapted the tale to include witchcraft which is an undercurrent in many of the Grimm tales that involve women. She also made the role of the little girl and her experience the focus of the film. She and her older sister are forced to flee their village after their mother is accused of being a witch and burned at the stake. They seek the protection of a man in order to survive and when they come across the widower with the young son the older sister casts a spell which prevents him from ever leaving her.

In an interview included on the Rhino Edition DVD Keene explains that she isn’t making a statement about witchcraft noting that the film never shows that the spells actually work. She feels that many who were accused of witchcraft in the early 17th century were merely practicing folk medicine. The sisters use the only knowledge they have in an effort to control an environment in which they are extremely vulnerable. Keene was more interested in creating a fairy tale world and a mood of melancholic loneliness which is part of the reason she chose to shoot in black and white on bleak locations.

The film was shot in 1986 but due to financial difficulties not released until 1990. Originally a 13 year old girl was cast to play the lead role but when that didn’t work out Keene was able to get 19 year old Björk to play the part even though she had just given birth to her first child. This was Björk’s and Keene’s feature film debut.  Björk’s subsequent international success as a singer is the main reason this film is still in circulation. Keene made one more feature film which was first shown four years after her death.

★★★★★★★☆☆☆ (7/10)

The Juniper Tree at imdb.com

As of April, 2016 The Juniper Tree is available to rent on DVD from Netflix.com

Maidstone (1970)

maidstone 1970 film review

Norman Mailer noticed in the late 50’s that the novel was no longer a hot medium, started visiting the Actor’s Studio, and adopted “The Method.” By 1967 he felt he was ready to write, direct, and star in his own films using John Cassavetes’ improvisational approach despite the fact that he had no screen presence nor acting ability. Criterion has included three of Mailer’s films in Maidstone and Other Films by Norman Mailer as part of their Eclipse Series. Mailer’s only other directorial effort was Tough Guys Don’t Dance (1987). Maidstone, Mailer’s third film, stars Mailer as Norman Kingsley (Kingsley was Mailer’s middle name), who makes soft core porn and is also running for president. Mailer assembled a large cast on several estates in the Hamptons, provided drugs and alcohol, and shot 45 hours of material over five days in cinéma vérité style with a crew that included five cameramen. Things apparently fell apart during what was to be a climatic ballroom scene with one cast member seemingly suffering a psychotic episode. The following day Mailer assembled his cast and crew and tried to explain what he was trying to do. This was also filmed and included in the final cut and followed by footage of actor Rip Torn and Mailer having an actual violent and bloody confrontation. Unsurprisingly, the result is a train wreck of a film that must have been or still is an embarrassment to anyone involved. Only recommended to the curious or fans of bad cinema.

★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆ (4/10)

Maidstone at imdb.com

As of April, 2016 Maidstone is available on DVD from Amazon.com and also on YouTube:

Wanda (1970)

Barbara Loden (1932-1980) was the first woman to write, direct, and star in her own feature film, Wanda, which was never widely released and has remained somewhat neglected even though it won the International Critics Award at the 1970 Venice Film Festival and was praised by New York film critics. Wanda is semi-autobiographical for Loden who grew up in an environment similar to the film’s eponymous central character. Loden left her impoverished life in North Carolina at age sixteen for New York where she worked as a pin-up girl, dancer, and eventually started acting in Broadway productions. She met Elia Kazan in 1955, became his mistress, and they married in 1967. Kazan cast her in his films Wild River (1960) and Splendor in the Grass (1961). She won a Tony Award for her performance in Arthur Miller’s After the Fall (1964) which Kazan directed.

Loden got the idea for Wanda from a news article about a woman who was sentenced to twenty years in prison for her part in a bank robbery. What struck her about the story was that the woman thanked the judge for sentencing her. As the film begins, Wanda has left her husband and children and sleeps on a sofa at her sister’s house. She passively grants her husband a divorce and relinquishes her rights to the children saying they’d be better off with him. After getting shortchanged and fired from her job at a factory she starts wandering, has a one-night stand with a traveling salesman in exchange for a glass of beer, and has all her money stolen when she falls asleep in a movie theatre. When she enters a bar, unknowingly interrupting a robbery in progress, we are introduced to Mr. Dennis, played by Michael Higgins, the only other professional actor in the film besides Loden. This is where the film takes on a narrative structure that feels familiar as Wanda and Dennis embark on a road trip in a stolen car committing petty thefts. Asked if she was influenced by Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Loden responded, “I wrote the script about ten years before Arthur Penn made Bonnie and Clyde,” replied Loden. “I didn’t care for [it] because it was unrealistic and it glamorized the characters… People like that would never get into those situations or lead that kind of life – they were too beautiful… Wanda is anti-Bonnie and Clyde.”

Not only is Wanda anti-Bonnie and Clyde but it’s also anti-Hollywood. Loden despised slick Hollywood films and found the acting style in them to be too theatrical. As for her performance in the film, Loden is Wanda. You never get the impression that she’s an actress playing a part. In fact, if one was unfamiliar with Loden and Higgins as actors it would be easy to get the impression that the film is a documentary. The film was shot in cinéma-vérité style and edited by documentary filmmaker Nicholas Proferes with 16mm film that was blown up to 35mm. Proferes was responsible for the framing, camera placement and movement while Loden concentrated on the actors. The film most closely resembles the early work of John Cassavetes though the performances are much more low-key in Wanda. In an interview Proferes stated Loden “was very self-effacing, and never intended the film for release… This was a way to take the pressure off – the pressure to produce a work of art – if it didn’t turn out half-way decently.”

Though critical response was generally favorable, one writer, Marion Meade, found what she perceived as the “message” in Wanda disturbing. “But now Barbara Loden arrives at the crux of the problem, which is, where do you go after you reject the only life society permits? And once a woman gains her freedom, what can she do with it? The answer: nowhere and nothing.” I don’t think Loden intended Wanda to be a statement or convey a feminist or anti-feminist message. Wanda is a character study of someone whose plight in life Loden related to. As Loden said about the character, “She doesn’t know what she wants—but she knows what she doesn’t want. And she’s trying to get out of this very ugly type of existence. But she doesn’t have the equipment.” In her in-depth review For WandaBérénice Reynaud writes, “Loden wanted to suggest, from the vantage point of her own experience, what it meant to be a damaged, alienated woman – not to fashion a ‘new woman’ or a ‘positive heroine’.”

After Wanda won the award at the Venice Film Festival Loden began to think of herself as a director. Kazan wrote in his autobiography, “when I first met her, she had little choice but to depend on her sexual appeal. But after Wanda she no longer needed to be that way, no longer wore clothes that dramatised her lure, no longer came on as a frail, uncertain woman who depended on men who had the power… I realised I was losing her, but I was also losing interest in her struggle… She was careless about managing the house, let it fall apart, and I am an old-fashioned man.” Kazan “didn’t really believe she had the equipment to be an independent filmmaker” and didn’t encourage her to make more films. After Wanda the only films she made were two shorts for The Learning Corporation of America in 1975 though she continued writing screenplays, directing Off-Off-Broadway productions, and taught an acting class until her death from breast cancer at age 48 in 1980.  Like her character in Wanda, Loden found that once she gained her independence most doors were closed to her in the film business. Like Wanda’s husband, Kazan had convinced her to divorce him as they had grown apart but the breast cancer was discovered shortly afterwards and they remained married until her death.

★★★★★★★☆☆☆ (7/10)

Wanda at imdb.com

As of February, 2016 Wanda is available to rent on DVD from Netflix.

 

Between Christmas and New Year’s (2000)

between christmas and new year's film review

Ultra low budget film (under $5,000) with some passable performances and good for a few laughs. It was shot in seven days and the acting improvised. The suicidal main character, Jimmy, is a superintendent in a Hollywood apartment building which provides the setting for a series vignettes involving the eccentric tenants. Among those tenants is a washed up actor played by the film’s only veteran actor, Bert Kramer, whose performance is easily the best in the film. Kramer passed away in the year following the film’s release. Seems like a dry run in director Stefan Lysenko’s quest to break into commercial filmmaking rather than something that was too unique for Hollywood. In particular, the use of songs and montages to develop the character and create atmosphere is reminiscent of a trend in mainstream American films. The biggest problem is that the story is half-baked. The premise of a man contemplating suicide and searching for a reason to go on living sets up an expectation for some profound insights but apparently Lysenko had none to offer and the resolution of the story’s central dilemma is too superficial.

★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆ (4/10)

Between Christmas and New Year’s  at imdb

As of August 2015 Between Christmas and New Year’s is available to stream at Vimeo