Searching the Ashes: Post-War Scepticism in Christian Petzold’s ‘Phoenix’

This essay is by our guest writer, Harrison Hughes.

When it comes to capturing the complexities of human relationships, there are few directors as bold and profound as Christian Petzold. Born in Hilden, Germany in 1960, Petzold graduated from the German Film and Television Academy Berlin in the mid ‘90s with his debut feature Politinnen (1995). Released on German television to critical acclaim, Politinnen depicts the close relationship between two working women as they drive across Germany selling cosmetics. Although distant in age, the two women bond over their mutual exploitation and grow closer as they navigate the German landscape. With Politinnen, Petzold establishes his cinematic approach to human relationships and interactions as they develop and unfold on screen. Jump forward 19 years and nine films later, Petzold directs Phoenix (2014), his most ambitious and successful work to date.

Set in the rubble of post-war Berlin, Phoenix explores similar themes to Petzold’s early films such as the confusion of identity and the uncertainty of love, but with a much more ominous tone. The second film in his self-proclaimed “Love in Times of Oppressive Systems” trilogy, Phoenix, is not so much about love, but the distrust that surrounds it. In the wake of WW2 and its horrors, post-war society was afflicted with a great scepticism that haunted the bombed-out city streets like a spectral reminder. From religion and politics to modern civilisation and the nature of mankind, everything was questioned, and nothing remained the same. Phoenix explores this scepticism on an individual level by questioning the extent to which we can truly know ourselves, the world, and the ones we love.

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Criterion Month: Breathless and the Anti-Manic Pixie Dream Girl

This essay is by our guest writer, Shea Vassar. 

The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is the cute and quirky love interest that skips around in films that feature moody men who long to escape their current mundane lives. This archetype has existed since the beginning of cinematic history, but did not receive a proper title until Nathan Rabin’s 2004 review of Elizabethtown (Rabin, 2007). Rabin says that “The Manic Pixie Dream Girl exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” Though he later apologized for coining the term, Rabin was critiquing the one-dimensional female characters that are constantly displayed in the movies (Rabin, 2014). Many viewers enjoy the whimsical, fairy-like girls that seem to skip around due to their unexplainable amount of confidence. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl lacks motivation, significant or human-like flaws, and the ability to grow past their state of being simply adorable.

Many female characters that seem a bit out of the ordinary by dressing with a unique sense of style or reading a certain poet wrongly receive the Manic Pixie Dream Girl label. Sadly, viewers have grown used to seeing underdeveloped female characters who are only there to propel forward the male protagonist. This is where Breathless differs. Patricia Franchini, played by Jean Seberg, displays the Manic Pixie Dream Girl aesthetic: her blonde hair is cut in a short pixie style and she studies journalism at the Sorbonne. She also enjoys talking of romanticism and philosophy and her American status just adds to her appeal. But Patricia is not a Manic Pixie Dream Girl.

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Criterion Month: Andrea Arnold’s Short Films… From ‘Milk’ to ‘Wasp’

This piece is by our guest writer, Shaun Alexander.

As a part of the Criterion collection release of Andrea Arnold’s 2009 film, Fish Tank, you are treated to not only the Jury Prize winning film, but also three short films Arnold directed previously: Milk (1998), Dog (2001) and Wasp (2003). When you watch these shorts as a collective it is clear to see how they became stepping stones for Fish Tank and Arnold’s other future films, which tackle themes that can disturb viewers at times with intense depictions of sexuality, poverty and family relationships.

The reason for my own personal interest in Arnold’s work is due to the socio-economic setting. Set in and around East London / Essex, Fish Tank has a number of locations which are within walking distance from where I have lived the majority of my life. These are streets I have walked down, these are roads I have driven past and that level of familiarity is not just with the setting but with the characters we see. I am friends with, worked with and went to school with the people that Arnold often focuses on in her filmography – good-hearted people with the weight of the world on their shoulders. Having these personal investments in Arnold’s work has made it fascinating to rediscover these short films and the way in which their ideas are clear influences on her later work.

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Criterion Month: The Erotically Delibrate Body in ‘In the Mood for Love’

This essay is by our guest writer, Amanda Walencewicz.

Selecting the most indelible images from In the Mood for Love is somewhat of a fool’s errand, as Nathan Rabin alludes to in his review of the film for The Dissolve: “A coffee-table book commemorating every unforgettable image in In the Mood for Love would run many thousands of pages long and include literally every frame of the film,” he writes. But I would venture that for most viewers it is the gently swiveling hips of Maggie Cheung as she walks in her qipao, with her placid face and perfect coif. Her partner in the film, Tony Leung Chiu-wai, conjures a similar image, of impeccably tailored suits, slicked-back hair, and a face that displays only the quietest renderings of emotion. From their impenetrable physical presences comes not a stilted or awkward romance, but one that is deeply seductive.

Romance would seem to stem from openness, from unburdening oneself from the superficiality of one’s surroundings, from releases of tension and admissions of attraction. In the Mood for Love, instead builds that tension and never releases it, creating an unbearable longing for the characters and the viewer, which is satisfied only through the decadent visuals of the body. It is not a cheap tease, however, that director Wong Kar-wai goes for. It is not the idea of finding great pleasure in the small concessions given out of deprivation, the glimpse of the ankle on a fully-covered woman as it were. The body is a constant presence, a surrounding in which the viewer is immersed, excessive and lingered upon. It is both a counterpoint to the restraint of the characters and a result of it – the unintended byproduct of their very conscious actions.

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Criterion Month: The Wild and Traumatized ‘Godzilla’ Universe

Horror films are poignant, cultural commentaries, reflecting our fears back at us. Yes, you may want to sit back, turn on a scary movie, turn off your brain, and just watch giant mutated animals fight each other, but you can’t ignore what they’re saying about their cultural contexts. Take Ishirō Honda’s 1954 classic, Godzilla. At face value, it is a silly movie about a giant lizard stomping on Tokyo while crowds point and scream, “Gojira!” However, it’s more than just an old monster movie — it is a cutting reaction to the 1945 bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and a condemnation of nuclear power. Godzilla is literally awoken by underwater hydrogen bomb testing. But even more, Godzilla’s destruction is reminiscent of these bombings. As he crushes buildings and demolishes cities with his nuclear breath, images of devastated cities are conjured up. Characters in the 1954 film even reference the bombings when discussing their fears of the giant lizard. While these films are weird and wacky, they also serve as a reminder of the atrocities Japan has suffered at the hands of Western society.

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© Toho Co. Ltd. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

The puppetry is ridiculous and writing can be laughable, but there’s no doubting Godzilla’s influence on the monster movie genre. These five films are the best Godzilla movies Criterion has to offer, from their message to outright monster-fighting hilarity.

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Criterion Throwback Review: ‘The Great Dictator’

This essay is by our guest writer, Haden Cross.

The first time I watched The Great Dictator, it was four days after the inauguration of Donald Trump, and the only remark on that context in my Letterboxd review was that it had been a “hard day in the real world” that prompted the viewing. Eighteen months later – the timeline of political news long turned into a blur – I assumed that particular hard day was the start of the infamous travel ban. It wasn’t. That was to come three days later. The headlines from January 24th were not good by any means, but since then, the standards of what was considered notably bad had changed; the context in which I saw Charlie Chaplin’s 1940 anti-Nazi masterpiece had altered, and I was curious to see how it had held up in the meantime, and whether it would convey the specific sense of determined hope as it had in my first viewing. In the wake of the last year and a half, the way in which I related to the film shifted dramatically, from revering it as a valiant act of protest to seeing it more as a time capsule to a parallel moment in the past, an emblem of the cyclical nature of history.

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The Great Dictator does not shy away from who and what it is trying to skewer. Adenoid Hynkel’s regime in Tomainia, with its double-cross motif, assembles a visual parallel that is instantly understandable even in just a freeze-frame image. With that established, the film’s primary method of criticism is turning these stand-ins for Hitler and the Third Reich into the height of slapstick. As Hynkel, Chaplin tumbles down stairs, climbs catlike up a curtain, and throws temper tantrums that make him impossible to take seriously as an autocrat. The German language itself devolves into a world salad peppered with nonsensical sounds during the parodies of Hitler’s bombastic speeches. Much in the same way outlets like Saturday Night Live have taken potshots at the Trump administration, The Great Dictator sought to cut down power through humor, offering an image of a powerful international figure that cannot possibly earn one’s respect.

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Criterion Month: Nine Gay & Lesbian Filmmakers to Support

The Criterion collection is not the most inclusive of lists. The majority of films introduced into the canon belong to cisgender and heterosexual filmmakers. While the lack of representation reflects cinema as a whole, and Criterion tends to lean towards an era not known for acceptance, it’s still a disappointing fact. Regardless of this, there are a handful of gay filmmakers whose works have been given the Criterion seal of approval, a trusted sign of the contributions they have made, not only to the art of filmmaking, but to the gay cinematic community as a whole.

 

Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Mysterious Object at Noon (2000)

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Apichatpong Weerasethakul © Vogue Italia, photo by Tommy Andresen

Weerasethakul, affectionally known by his fans as “Joe”, is an experimental filmmaker whose interest in the unconventional makes his feature-length debut, Mysterious Object at Noon, a must-watch from Criterion’s archive. Taking the concept of exquisite corpse (a surreal method by which art is assembled based on chance), Weerasethakul combines documentary filmmaking with art-house style, pushing the boundaries of cinema and successfully creating a patchwork story from various interviewees across Thailand.

Though Weerasethakul’s debut does not explicitly address sexuality, the theme is often explored across his work, alongside various subjects such as nature, Western perceptions of Asia, and dreams. His passion for looking beyond the expectations of the mainstream is undoubtedly influenced by his homosexuality. “For me, the word queer means anything’s possible,” Weerasethakul explained in an interview, allying himself immediately with the concept of queer cinema.

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