Top 5: films about the sea


At the beginning of March I am showing Jean Epstein’s Finis Terrae in Kilburn’s beautiful boat-cum-church The Tin Tabernacle. I thought long and hard about what nautical film I could show in this setting and though I settled on the underrated French gem, I wanted to share some of my other favourite films about the briny. To buy tickets and read more about the event go here.


1. Beau Travail

Claire Denis’ film has developed a sizeable following for its hypnotic telling of a bitter obsession in the French foreign legion. The walls begin to close in on officer Galoup (Denis Levant) as he fixates on Sentain (Gregoire Colin), for reasons that are uncertain. Yet the claustrophobia created by the film is not a matter of enclosure. Instead, Denis gives us the infinite abstract space offered by the sea. The draw distance is limitless, but that only makes the actions on land seem all the more futile, and yet inescapable.


2. I Know Where I’m Going!

Powell & Pressburger’s I Know Where I’m Going! is largely an island film rather than a sea film. Made while the Second World War was raging, we follow Joan Webster (Wendy Hillier) as she tries to reach her fiancé on a remote Scottish island. Torquil Macneil (Roger Livesey) is on shore leave, and when Joan is prevented from making the final leg of her journey to her betrothed, they begin a romance that makes her question her sensible marriage. Powell & Pressburger had a genius at capturing the depth of emotion underneath the stiff upper lip. This is no better seen than in the film’s climactic scene. Joan is saved by Torquil as she tries to make the perilous sea voyage, fleeing her new-found feelings for Torquil. The whirlpool she finds herself drawn into is an obvious but powerful metaphor for the risks of passion, though Torquil is able to navigate them both to safety and eventual happiness.


3. The Green Ray

As I’ve written before, Eric Rohmer’s The Green Ray is an unusual film that treats a holiday like the burden it can often be. One of the most poignant sections has Delphine (Marie Riviére) finally go to the beach. The sun is shining, she has the companionship of a Pollyanna-ish Swede and even attracts the attention of a brooding, leather-jacketed man. Needless to say, Delphine is awash with ennui at this turn of events, her intractable sadness only more sharply in relief as pleasure seems so close. For a French view of the joys of the seaside, see Jacques Tati’s meticulous and joyful Le Vacances de Monsieur Hulot.

4. Ponyo


Ponyo is maybe the gentlest film in anime god Hiyao Miyazaki’s repertoire, which is ironic given how often the sea is seen as a space of constant threat in animation (Pinocchio‘s whale sequence, Finding Nemo‘s notably harsh view of nature red in tooth in claw). The world it creates is as visually charming as a full rock pool and it has the playful flow of water across the land. It’s hard to think that the same mind produced this delightful parable as made his grand canvas films such as Princess Mononoke or Laputa: Castle in the Sky. Miyazaki took a strong hand in the film’s wave animations and it pays dividends for this underrated gem.


5. The Fog

John Carpenter The Fog has slowly been creeping up the ranking in the horror master’s canon and it’s easy to see why. Although the ultimate reveal of the secrets the sea has been holding is not as satisfying as its set up, the monsters have the satisfyingly rank tang of the sea itself. The opening shots of a town being disturbed by invisible forces are so meticulously framed that the sea itself becomes to seem an invading force, surrounding the town like a threat.

Come along to here and celebrate all that is great in sea and cinema.


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Cute Animals in Film 2013: The Year in Review

Theodora Goes Wild 5

I would never do that to you. You know I never would. This past year I kept up the tireless search to gather together the Venn sweet spot of cute and cinematic.  (See 2011’s selection and here’s 2012’s). I still feel the great work on screwball films’ animals is yet to be written, and the donkey is actually up there with the goat as cinema’s emblem animal of choice.

2 Days in Paris 12 Days in Paris (Julie Delpy/2007).

3 Iron3 Iron (Kim Ki-duk/2004)

48 Hrs48 Hrs. (Walter Hill/1982). Watch it Nolte, I’m on you.

BallastBallast (Lance Hammer/2008)

BedlamBedlam (Mark Robson/1946)

Boudu Saved from DrowningBoudu Saved from Drowning (Jean Renoir/1932)

Computer Chess Computer Chess 2Computer Chess (Andrew Bujalski/2013). An enigmatic subplot in the film has the conference’s hotel infestated with cats. They promise they’ll have the problem sorted for next year.

ContagionContagion (Steven Soderbergh/2011). This heroic pig is on his way to kill Gwyneth Paltrow.

Devil & Daniel Webster 4 Devil & Daniel Webster 5The Devil and Daniel Webster (William Dieterle/1941)

From Beyond 1 From Beyond 2From Beyond (Stuart Gordon/1986). They all seem cute until they’re eating your face off.

George Washington 1 George Washington 2George Washington (David Gordon Green/2000)

HausuHausu (Nobuhiko Obayashi/1977)

I Like Killing FliesI Like Killing Flies (Matt Mahurin/2004)

Killing them Softly 1 4 Killing them Softly 1Killing Them Softly (Andrew Dominik/2012)

King KellyKing Kelly (Andrew Neel/2012)

L'atalante 2 L'atalanteL’Atalante (Jean Vigo/1934)

Le Cercle Rouge 1

Le Cercle Rouge 3Cat Man and Dog Man in Le Circle Rouge (Jean-Pierre Melville/1970). Grey coat, grey eyes, grey film, grey dog.

My Favorite Wife 2My Favorite Wife (Garson Kanin/1940). Someone is very glad to see Irene Dunne after her time on the desert island.

Notes on Marie MenkenNotes on Marie Menken (Martina Kudlacek/2007)

Nothing SacredCarole Lombard not happy about her bedfellow in Nothing Sacred (William Wellman/1937)

PhantasmDreamin’ Wild in Phantasm (Don Coscarelli/1979)

Prince AvalanchePrince Avalanche (David Gordon Green/2013)

RedsDiane Keaton chuffed about a puppy present in Reds (Warren Beatty/1981)

The Deadliest GameThe Most Dangerous Game (Irving Pichel/1932)

The Leader, His Driver and the Driver's WifeThe Leader, His Driver and The Driver’s Wife (Nick Broomfield/1991)

Theodora Goes Wild 6Reunited and it feels so good! Irene Dunne tries to introduce Melvyn Douglas to an old friend in the BRILLIANT Theodora Goes Wild (Richard Bolewslawski/1936)

Animal in film of 2013 goes to…

Igi, Jafar Panahi’s pet/cell mate in his This is Not a Film (2011).

This Is Not a Film 1

This Is Not a Film 3 This Is Not a Film 4 This Is Not a Film 5

Wild Life – Wendy Tilby


Two disapproving looks, one for including the beautiful SHORT film Wildlife (Wendy Tilby & Amanda Forbis/2011); the other for featuring the TELEVISION show Girls (Lena Dunham/2012).

That’s quite enough for now. A little ugly aftertaste to get rid of you.

O Lucky Man!

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Women Animators Lecture supplements

Pencil Booklings – Kathy RoseHere’s my selection of films from my recent lecture on women’s animation at the South London Gallery. It’s two playlists: one is for Youtube, the other for Vimeo. There are overlaps between them, mainly because Vimeo has much better resolution and also because I’m conscious that very few of these films are uploaded with the author’s consent. While I’m all for availability of content, I do really recommend that you purchase DVDs of the artists who have them. As I hope I made clear from the lecture, this is work that is often financially unrewarding (if not artistically).

Youtube playlist (41 videos)

Vimeo playlist (13 videos)

Buy Suzan Pitt’s films

Buy Sally Cruikshank’s films

Buy Caroline Leaf’s films

Thanks to everyone who came. I’m going to be writing a lot more on this subject and documenting it in other avenues, so keep checking back here if you’re as hopelessly interested in this subject as I am.

Suzan Pitt Asparagus cel

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Scalarama Picks 2013 – London

Besides my own contribution, I wanted to highlight some great films from the Scalarama season this year. For those who aren’t familiar with it, Scalarama resurrects the ‘anything goes’ programming spirit of the Scala Cinema in King’s Cross (RIP. Gathering together the best and most daring film programmers to show the best cinema across September, it all culminates in Home Cinema Day at the end of the month. One of the saddest things in modern exhibition is how widespread the opportunities to see cinema there are, but how few there are to see good cinema. While there’s never a bad time to throw on Jaws or Reservoir Dogs, it’s necessary and important that programmers offer up to eyeballs something that broadens their tastes. As a result, all my picks are films I haven’t seen before, and produced by passionate advocates, which is what I leave the house for.

Notes from a Cinematic Cesspool – The Films of Mike and George Kuchar – Presented by Little Joe – Tuesday 3rd September @ 7:30, The Cinema Museum
George and Mike Kuchar’s work is some of the best underground filmmaking you haven’t seen. A little bit John Waters (camp excess), a little bit Kenneth Anger (cracked Hollywood) and charmingly artful, this selection is sweet as much as it is ballsy and profane. Little Joe, your outlet for the best in queer cinema, have offered their curated programme to the Scalarama core programme.

Screen shot 2013-08-29 at 19.16.42

Amazing illustration courtesy Pete Thomson

Margaret – Extended Director’s Cut – Presented by Look at Me Film Club  – Thursday 26th September @ 7:30, The Others
Look at Me Film Club, usually offering a brilliantly diverse selection of films at the Stag’s Head, is offering the UK cinema debut of Kenneth Lonergan’s director’s cut of Margaret. Definitely not a money exercise afterthought, the film was in editing hell for years before finally limping into theatres in 2011. If Lonergan’s previous work (the amazing You Can Count on Me) isn’t enough to convince you, there’s the cast: Anna Paquin, Matt Damon and Mark Ruffalo (and a brilliantly hideous role played by the director himself). Mummified in its own time, this deserves to be seen.

Z/ Medium Cool – Presented by Genesis Cinema – Tuesday 17th September @ 7:00, Genesis Cinema FREEEEEE
Both Z and Medium Cool have been inspirations for successive waves of radicals (perhaps explaining why the powers that be keep them off Region 2 DVD, right?). Haskell Wexler (owner of a name that is far more than medium cool) produced the semi-documentary film against the backdrop of the Democratic National Convention riot of 1968, prescient in his belief that violence would ensue. Z is a grim satire on Greek politics. Is it relevant to the current mess? The price is right to find out: the Genesis’ screening is FREE!

Peckham and Nunhead Free Film Festival – 5–15th September
An embarrassment of riches, right on my doorstep, at my favourite price. My picks of the programme are Pasolini’s Gospel According to St Matthew in All Saints Church, Japanese drumming and the nature of sound in Japan in the Asylum, Chaplin and Keaton on Peckham Rye and Jacques Costeau at the Centre for Wildlife Gardening.

Variety –  Presented by She Shark Industries –  Sunday 15th September @ 7:00, ICA
Speaking of unknown classics, I have really, really high hopes for this one. An amazing collection of people (Kathy Acker, Nan Goldin, Luiz Gusman, John Lurie, Tom DiCillo etc) created this film about a porno theatre and its inhabitants. Don’t disappoint me now!


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Hausu GIFs

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August 24, 2013 · 2:19 pm

Torture Device Survey: Notes on Benjamin Christiansen’s Häxan

Devil's laying on of hands

Later this month I’m screening two films at a former asylum in Peckham (CLICK HERE TO BUY TICKETS). I wanted to give some context about why I’ve chosen the two films I’m showing. You can read about Obayashi Nobuhiko’s Hausu (House) here but today we’re talking about the later showing of Benjamin Christiansen’s Häxan

Woman greets sex with devil

Benjamin Christiansen’s Häxan has had a chequered history. It was a luxurious production (apparently it proved the most expensive Danish silent ever, though the money came from Sweden), became a huge hit in its native land and was banned in many parts of the world. In 1968, a bowdlerized version with narration by William Burroughs brought it to a new audience (though played at a sped up 24fps rather than its original 20fps, giving the production an unintentionally uncanny effect). Then the Criterion Collection did their usual sterling work on it at the turn of the last century and its been a fixture in the growing silent scene ever since.

Devil's party 4

Christiansen is surprisingly clear eyed when it comes to the source of demons and other black arts. His wildly imaginative approach ultimately serves to underline the source of the magical: the human imagination. Scandinavia has always been far ahead of the curve in abandoning organised religion, but also has a vibrant folklore culture. Häxan is incredibly modern in its scepticism towards three successive systems of human faith: pantheism, monotheism and the dawning hegemony of rational psychology. I the film’s final scenes, Christiansen seems to be suggesting that we are reaching a new level of rationalism with psychology, in which we can understand possession, haunting and apparition as identifiable pathologies (epilepsy, schizophrenia and hallucination). Yet he steers away from this conclusion, leaving us with a remarkably post-modern void. Before even the horrors of the Holocaust, Christiansen explains that 8 million people died at the hands of witch hunters.

Woman greets sex with devil
The format of the film reaches into even earlier forms of ‘cinema’. The opening of the film is a fairly faithful reproduction of a magic lantern lecture, albeit one with very high quality dioramas. Christiansen himself appears to present this lecture and one can easily imagine him hovering over proceedings, either benshi style or with ferrule in hand.

The director himself, looking fairly possessed

The director himself, looking fairly possessed

Apparently Christiansen spent two years researching the black arts prior to filming. His main source was the Malleus Malifacarum (amazingly awesome translation of the full title: The Hammer of Witches which destroys witches and their heresy as with a two-edged sword). The publication of the Malleus Malifacarum by a Heinrich Kramer precipitated a wave of bloody and intense witch persecution in Europe. The book gave the tools not only to refute the scepticism that surrounded witchcraft at the time, but also how to identify witchcraft and how to punish it. Aided by Gutenberg’s relatively new printing press, the book’s ideas became widely spread, including its emphasis on witchcraft as predominately female fault. This meant that the majority of victims of this persecution craze were women.

Torture device demo 2

The film has an admirably permeable approach to documentary. There is little attempt to settle into a final form: although the reenactments dominate, there is still room for a demonstration of torture devices by Christiansen’s assistants. It’s unresolved and unsettling elements like this, besides its ornate visual style and surprisingly modern mindset, that means it’s still a big hit with audience 90 years later.

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A Hausu is Not a Home: Notes on Obayashi Nobuhiko’s House

Disembodied limbs

Later this month I’m screening two films at a former asylum in Peckham (CLICK HERE TO BUY TICKETS). I wanted to give some context about why I’ve chosen the two films I’m showing. You can read about Benjamin Christiansen’s Häxan here but today we’re talking about the later showing of Obayashi Nobuhiko’s Hausu (House)…

Hausu was director Obayashi Nobuhiko’s first feature film. His route to his debut charts the post-war fluctuations in Japan’s cinema. Obayashi began his career as an experimental filmmaker working with super 8 film, alongside many of the most famous names of the Japanese avant garde. After a showcase of this movement’s films, a producer of television commercials approached many film makers, offering them the opportunity to direct commercials at Toho Studios. Obayashi was the only figure who accepted the offer, keen to capitalise on the higher budgets, better facilities and opportunities to broaden his craft.

Giantess 1

Obayashi worked with many, many celebrities, among them Ringo Starr, Sophia Loren and an infamous commercial for Mandom cologne with Charles Bronson (see above). While today advertising is seen as a fine apprenticeship for filmmakers keen to hone their craft and make a living (figures as diverse as Roy Anderson, Ridley Scott and Tarsem Singh all spent time producing commercials before graduating to features) this was not an option open to Japanese directors at the time. The studio system – like most crafts in Japan – was highly hierarchical, with a seemingly endless and arbitrary apprenticeship an absolute prerequisite.

Cat painting

Obayashi bypassed this long road due to the desperation of studio executives who were panicked by their lack of contact with youth markets and consequently plummeting profits. Obayashi prepared his script in consultation with his grade school daughter and when he presented it to Toho head Isao Matsuoka, he is reported to have said, ‘This is the first time I have seen such a meaningless script. But maybe it’s a good thing that I don’t understand. Please do not try to make it into something I can comprehend.’

Scattered self 2

Watching the film, one is in full contact with Matsuoka’s consternation. Indeed, the film debuted as a supporting feature, but enthusiasm among its intended audience – teenagers – was strong enough make it the main attraction. Reportedly, Obayashi spent equal time crafting the film’s marketing campaign as he individual scenes. The freneticism of Obayashi’s advertising work is apparent: every frame offers the maximum possible expression of his vision and makes no distinction between the natural and the blatantly artificial. Given that the style most associated with Japanese horror in the West at this time were folkloric ghost story adaptations, the shock must have been palpable. Films like Onibaba, Kuroneko and Kwaidan all have a brooding, intense, even monotonous feel (and are shot in black and white), committed to building tone through suggestion and careful composition. Hausu is an electric, bubblegum treat with as much dedication to scaring as Scooby Doo. Repeated viewing does little to cut down its relentless desire to surprise, and that is why Hausu has become a worldwide midnight movie favourite 35 years after its debut.

Train animation 2

This article is heavily indebted to both Paul Roquet’s brilliant Midnight Eye overview of Obayashi’s work and Chuck Steven’s article on the Criterion Collection site.

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