Websites Where You Can Watch Films For Free

Over the past few years, we’ve seen an explosion in movie streaming sites. Many of them are at least $5 per month and, if you are subscribed to a lot of them, that money can add up quickly.

However, there is a way to watch quality art house, classic, and independent films for free. Below is a list of all the free sites that I know of. I wanted to compile this list in case it’s helpful to other people. I’ve used most of them myself, and I provide some recommendations in case you’re wondering where to start.

Happy streaming!

 

PBS

Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) is a nonprofit channel in the United States that is free to the public. Each state has its own local PBS station that airs both national and local programs. PBS airs many shows, including American Masters, American Experience, Nova, Independent Lens, POV, and more. Right now, shows air live on television and are available to stream for free on the PBS website and app, usually for around 30 days. PBS has introduced the Passport service that is similar to an additional paid subscription that gives you exclusive access to the vast PBS catalog. You have to donate around $60 per year to get Passport. You can even break that up into monthly $5 payments.

My recommendations: The Independent Lens and POV programs are my favorites, often airing documentaries that address urgent social issues, like mass incarceration, racism, and sexism

 

TUBI TV

Tubi TV is a site that offers a huge array of films. It’s an ad-supported site. So, commercials do play during the videos. You’ll find everything on here, from television movies to art house cinema. It’s one of my favorite sites because of that diversity.

My recommendations: Check out the documentary LIGHT YEARS, which is about the making of Lucrecia Martel’s ZAMA or explore Sarah Polley’s  STORIES WE TELL or watch Jessica Hausner’s  AMOUR FOU. Give the foreign language category a good look. You might also like Dick Cavett’s interviews with famous directors, including Ingmar Bergman. You’ll find those interviews in Season 12. You also shouldn’t miss Hou Hsiao-hsien’s MILLENNIUM MAMBO.

 

LE CINEMA CLUB 

Le Cinema Club has one film available to stream for free for one week. The site spotlights both short and feature films, and primarily focuses on art house.

 

MOSFILM ON YOUTUBE

Mosfilm is a legendary Russian film studio that’s been around since 1920! Many of its films are available on its Youtube channel and do include English subtitles.

 

RVISION ON YOUTUBE

This is a great resource for lovers of old Russian and Soviet cinema. Many of the films have English subtitles.

 

KOREAN FILM ARCHIVE ON YOUTUBE

With Bong Joon-ho’s recent wins at the Oscars, people are even more interested in Korean cinema. The Korean Film Archive has made over 100 films available for free on YouTube, and many of them have English subtitles.

 

FESTIVAL SCOPE

Festival Scope is a site that offers access to film festivals online. Often, the films are free and available for a set period of time.

 

VUDU

Vudu is a video on demand site created by Wal-Mart. Films are available for purchase and rent. In addition, they have a section of free films that you can stream with commercials.

My Recommendations: Check out two films I’ve covered on the podcast: Nancy Savoca’s DOGFIGHT and Jonathan Glazer’s BIRTH. Or check out Kelly Reichardt’s MEEK’S CUTOFF and Ray Lawrence’s LANTANA.

 

IMDB TV

IMDB TV is a service provided by the popular Internet Database website. All the films are free with ads. You can also search for the titles on Amazon Prime and add them to your wishlist there, or you can create an IMDB account to watch the films. They change the films each month, and also offer television shows. The films tend to be more commercial and mainstream, but you never know what you might find.

My recommendation: Check out Niki Caro’s WHALE RIDER

 

THE ROKU CHANNEL

You don’t have to use the Roku app in order to watch the films and shows on The Roku Channel. It’s a stand-alone website that allows you to stream things for free with commercials.

My recommendations: Check out Ang Lee’s EAT DRINK MAN WOMAN or Agnieszka Holland’s THE SECRET GARDEN.

 

CRACKLE

Crackle has been around for a while. It offers both movies and television shows, many of which are mainstream, Hollywood hits. The selection usually changes every month.

My recommendations: Check out Campbell Scott and Stanley Tucci’s BIG NIGHT or Penny Marshall’s AWAKENINGS.

 

NATIONAL FILM BOARD OF CANADA

Many films on the website of The National Film Board of Canada are available to residents in the United States. I urge anyone to take advantage of this and explore the NFB’s vast catalog of documentaries, feature films, and shorts. NFB also has the films on its YouTube channel.

My recommendations: Check out THE LOST GARDEN: THE LIFE AND CINEMA OF ALICE GUY-BLACHE or  MARGARET ATWOOD: ONCE IN AUGUST

 

POPCORN FLIX

Popcorn Flix has a selection of films and shows that you can watch for free with commercials. The content is not always the highest quality but occasionally you can find some hidden gems.

My recommendations: Check out Thomas Vinterberg’s THE HUNT or Anna Biller’s THE LOVE WITCH or Gilles Bourdos’s RENOIR

 

SNAG FILMS

Snag Films has a large catalog. Many of the films tend to be documentaries that focus on social issues and people’s lives around the world. I think if you like documentaries, this is an excellent site for you to explore.

My recommendation: Heddy Honigmann’s FOREVER

 

ARTE IN ENGLISH

I’d give anything for the regular Arte channel to be available here in the United States. They do offer a version of it in English with some free programs. There isn’t a huge selection and many of the items are short, but it’s worth a look.

 

INTERNET ARCHIVE

Most people know about the Internet Archive. It’s been around for a long time. You can often find films on there that are in the public domain.

My recommendations: Check out Charlie Chaplin’s THE IMMIGRANT or watch Buster Keaton in THE GENERAL.

 

UBU WEB

If experimental film is more your thing, Ubu Web has a good variety of short films and documentaries, often focusing on artists and writers.

My recommendations: Check out Bas Jan Ader’s Selected Works or Hiroshi Teshigahara’s ANTONIO GAUDI or some short films by Agnes Varda as well as her interview with Susan Sontag.

 

LIBRARY OF CONGRESS ON YOUTUBE

The Library of Congress has a YouTube channel where you can find some old films, including many short silent films.

My recommendations: Check out this playlistof selections from the National Film Registry or these early Thomas Edison films.

 

MIDNIGHT PULP

Midnight Pulp has both a free and paid version. Look for “Pulp+” in the top left corner of the thumbnails to know which films you have to subscribe to see. The site has a surprisingly good selection of art house movies.

My recommendations: Check out Joshua Oppenheimer’s THE LOOK OF SILENCE or a documentary on Jean Genet or Ermanno Olmi’s THE LEGEND OF THE HOLY DRINKER.

 

ASIAN CRUSH

Asian Crush is very similar to Midnight Pulp. They share an almost identical website design, but obviously Asian Crush focuses on films from across Asia. There are free films on the site while others can only be accessed by purchasing a subscription. There is an “A+” in the top left corner of a film’s thumbnail to indicate that it’s only for subscribers. The films include English subtitles.

My recommendations: Check out MY LOVE, DON’T CROSS THAT RIVER or the documentary about New Taiwanese Cinema FLOWERS OF TAIPEI. There is also Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s HAPPY HOUR and Anthony Chen’s ILO ILO, as well as Hou Hsiao-hsien’s THE TIME TO LIVE AND THE TIME TO DIE and DUST IN THE WIND.

 

YUYU TV

YuYu TV has a similar layout as Asian Crush and Midnight Pulp. It too has films for subscribers and films that are free. The “YY+” in the top left hand corner indicates which films are exclusively for subscribers.

My recommendations: Check out Maïwenn’s MY KING or Ann Hui’s A SIMPLE LIFE. There is also a collection of Francois Ozon’s early short films.

 

KINET

Kinet is a website that offers free access to experimental and avant-garde cinema. Filmmakers can also submit their films to the site.

 

 

Disclaimer: The catalogs on these websites are subject to change. Many of them replenish and replace their offerings on a monthly basis. What is available today might expire tomorrow. I will recommend a film or two from each site, but by the time you read this post those films might not be available anymore. Also, I am located in the United States. I don’t know if these sites are free outside of my own country. Some of the sites require you to create an account using your email address, others do not. None of them require your credit card or any other financial information. Some of these sites do contain ads and commercials.

 

 

Have I left out a website? Let me know in the comments.

 

You Don’t Have To Care About The Oscars

I’m a broken record about my story. I have to say it over and over so that I can accept it. When I was 16, my father died. That’s the sentence I write to explain myself. You can’t understand me if you don’t know this part. Nothing about me makes sense unless I tell you that, when I was just a teenager, something deeply catastrophic happened to me. Ever since the moment of his death, I’ve struggled to live, to speak, to write, to survive. Only a few things have carried me from that moment to this one: my mother, books, music, art, and cinema. Those are what I clung to in the dark aftermath of his death and they are what I hold on to still.

I exposed a lot just now. You thought you’d read a little story about the Oscars and here I am laying my heartache bare. You don’t know me. I don’t know you. This is how I am. I can’t beat around the bush. I can’t pretend or hold back. I overshare, and the internet rewards that kind of thing. Maybe we all overshare, hoping someone sees what we are sharing. Maybe we’re trying to share the burden of the pain and find others shouldering the same thing. What does any of this have to do with film? It has everything to do with it.

After my father died, I went to cinema like others go to religion. My church was a dark movie theater, often empty except for me and my mom. In my rural North Carolina town, there weren’t too many theaters. This was around 2006. But there was a one dollar theater (it’s now closed) that miraculously would play some art house cinema. It also played its fair share of schlock, but I watched that, too. In my grief, I didn’t care what was on the screen as long as it was a story, another world that sucked me out of the horror I was living. I went to that theater because I wanted to escape an empty, haunted house, a home that no longer existed because my father was dead. I didn’t want to feel it or think about it or live it. I wanted to be in that theater, away from my new, unbearable reality.

What does this have to do with the Oscars? The Oscars have commodified films. The show advertises itself as a celebration of movies, but it’s just a spectacle that has nothing to do with the emotional, transcendent beauty of cinema that I found in that theater all those years ago when I thought I might die of grief and maybe I am slowly dying of it, but the films saved me then and they save me now. For me, the Oscars has no relationship to what I feel when I watch a film. What I see in that ceremony with the beautiful dresses (I do love them) and the fancy food and the golden statues has no connection to the essence of cinema, this glorious art form of light that transports us into other lives.

The moment I know a film is a work of art is when I feel my burden lighten, when I feel in the presence of something that represents the loneliness inside me, when I feel the director is sharing something from his or her own soul that touches my soul, when I feel just for that interval of the film that I am not alone in this senseless, chaotic, and terrifying world. The films that have made me feel all of that often never got nominated for an Oscar. It doesn’t matter. The lack of an Oscar nomination or win doesn’t make those films any less valid or meaningful. I still love those films and will always love them because of what they’ve given me.

I understand why the Oscars matter to many people. I absolutely believe that representation matters, that we need diversity in film, that all kinds of stories should appear on the screen. I know that an Oscar nomination or win can transform someone’s life, give them access to new opportunities, jump-start a career. When people talk about the lack of diversity in nominations and wins, that’s important, and I’d never belittle the fight against the sexism and racism in the film industry. I think all of that goes without saying, but I wanted to make it clear. Outrage is justified when so few women have ever been nominated (let alone won) in the directing category. Outrage is justified when people of color are consistently overlooked.

I’m talking about the need on the part of many to see the Oscars validate their film taste. Because they loved a certain film, of course it should be nominated! They believe their favorites are worthy of recognition. What I’m asking is why do we need this outward validation? Why do we need this institution to acknowledge the films we like? I’ve let it go. I’ve given it up because I do not believe the Oscars represent the vast majority of cinephiles who live and breathe film and dedicate the vast majority of their lives to it. I’m watching films for spiritual sustenance. Cinema is that serious to me. It goes back to that dark theater over a decade ago. That’s what I trace this obsession, this cinemania, back to. But it’s not just obsession, it’s love. Overwhelming love. Maybe it’s unhealthy. It probably is, but as I’ve gone through more loss and more pain and more fear, I’ve turned even more to films.

I could care less if any of the movies I love are ever nominated. Would it be nice for them to be more widely known and for the filmmakers and producers to get recognition for their work? Absolutely. But, for me, the film is enough. The experience of the film. The feeling of the film. The moment of connection. The lessening of loneliness that it provides. The beauty. All of it is enough. It’s what I live for. Somehow, in all the Oscar predictions and bets and watch parties and think pieces, the true meaning of cinema gets lost and forgotten. What it’s really about is your emotional experience of that film, what you see in the images, how the film becomes part of you, how you think about it for days or even years, how scenes come back to you at random moments. That’s what matters to me. Not the red carpet. Not the media coverage. Not the name that’s read aloud after the envelope is opened. Just me and the film and the way we become one.

Film and Flesh: On Kawase, Kieslowski, Varda, Akerman, and Tait

I wanted to say: film believes it can preserve what you are doing at this moment. But you, from where you are, wherever it may be, whether you have gone away still bonded to the sand, or the wind, or the sea, or the wall, or the bird, or the dog, you will realize that film cannot do that.

— Marguerite Duras, The Atlantic Man (translated by Alberto Manguel)

 

One of the most powerful things about the medium of film is its capacity to seemingly preserve the dead. Now that we have home videos, photographs are not enough. To see our lost loved ones walking and smiling, or to hear their voice, is an overwhelming experience. Film appears to capture the sensual reality of a person in a way that photographs cannot. The camera seems to contain the soul of a person, something closer to who they were when they were alive. Home movies feel like resurrection, like you can reach out and touch someone who is forever lost.

I no longer have any videos of my father. During an unexpected move in 2015, we grabbed the photographs but overlooked the VHS tapes. When he died in 2006, it was another world–one where smartphones were not yet ubiquitous and people still took photographs on disposable cameras. My family was working class, and we didn’t have a digital camera or camcorder when I was growing up in the 1990s and early 2000s. All I had were some VHS tapes with a few birthday parties on them. I watched the tapes shortly after his death. Even though I no longer have the tapes, I have the memory of what was on them. I have my own inner film constructed from the fragments that I remember.

It was a birthday party. I was maybe 2 or 3. We were at my grandma’s house. She’s dead, too. The images flash in my mind as I write. Me sitting in my mother’s lap, laying my head on her chest, putting her necklace in my mouth. My grandma in the kitchen holding me. My dad trying to assemble one of the presents I received. He’s around 30. I’ll soon turn 30. He doesn’t know he’ll be dead in a little over a decade. None of us know what’s coming. The movie captures us in that one moment that both is and isn’t lost. The movie caught it and, even though the tape has disappeared, I remember the movie.

I wish I had that film of him. I wish we’d grabbed those tapes. I wish he was still here. I can’t forget the experience of watching those home movies. Putting them in the VCR (I don’t even own one now), sitting on the living room floor, seeing the scenes flash on the large television (no flat screens back then). It felt like he was with me again, like it had all been reversed, he was back, he came home. But he never came home, and he never will. The movie was an illusion, a beautiful illusion.

The truth is, film is a lie. The dead are not alive, even though they move and smile on the screen in front of us.  A memory of a movie is a second movie that only I will ever see. I can only describe it in words now. I have language as a substitution for the lost film. But words can’t bring him back. Film can’t bring him back either, but the film at least let me pretend for a little while, it gave me a reminder of the physical reality of him. He was once right beside me. Now, his absence consumes every room. The film gave me his presence again.

If I could go back, I’d do what so many women filmmakers have done–I’d document the living before they die, record their skin and hair and voices so that I never forget them. The camera would defy death; it would tell death that you can take the body, but I have a copy, I still have this person with me that you stole. I could show the footage to other people. I could have physical proof of the dead’s existence. They were here. I loved them. They loved me. We knew each other. We were together.

I think of Naomi Kawase’s 1994 film Katatsumori. In it, she records her aunt who adopted her and who she also referred to as “Grandma”. In one scene, her aunt is outside and Kawase is standing at a window watching her, she reaches out her hand almost as a way of touching her from afar. It feels like a gesture of preemptive grief for the time when the aunt will be gone (she died a few years ago) and will be untouchable. The hand forever frozen in the act of reaching out for the person who is no longer there. She records her aunt’s face. I think about how sometimes we stare at a person intently, trying to memorize everything about them. In Katatsumori, the camera seems to function like Kawase’s own eyes, taking the aunt in, recording her face and body, committing her to memory for Kawase.

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I’m reminded of a scene in Kieslowski’s 1979 film, Camera BuffThe film is about Filip, a Polish factory worker who buys a camera for the purpose of filming his newborn daughter. But what begins as a personal endeavor steadily becomes something more when Filip’s employer asks him to film the company’s 25th anniversary jubilee and submit the film to a festival where it wins third prize. Soon, Filip is obsessed with his camera and instead of focusing its lens on his daughter or his wife, he places it on the gray, desolate world around him, producing insightful documentaries for the television news. In the early days of Filip’s amateur film making, he captures a poignant moment for his friend Piotrek. He briefly films Piotrek driving up to the apartment building where he lives, exiting his vehicle, and smiling up at his mother who leans out of a window. This moment will become even more important when Piotrek’s mother dies. After her funeral, in his time of intense grief, Piotrek asks to watch the film.

He sits in a darkened room with Filip and other friends and looks at the screen as that moment in time comes back to life. He watches himself drive up to the apartment building and smile at his mother. She appears at the window, her face materializing out of the darkness; she is a beautiful blur, resurrected for only seconds.

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Piotrek asks to keep the film. Then, he reflects on the meaning of the moving image. He most likely has many photographs of his mother, but this is the only film he will ever have of her.

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I think of Agnès Varda, who, in The Beaches of Agnès, shares profoundly intimate footage of her late husband, Jacques Demy. When she knew he was dying, she took her camera and recorded close-ups of his hair, face, and skin. The camera is almost more than an eye; it becomes a hand, caressing Demy, touching his flesh the way a lover would. Varda continually circles around to Demy in her work. She made several films about his life. His memory was precious to her, and she repeatedly engages with him through the medium of film almost as a way to keep him alive and present in her life. In The Beaches of Agnès, she explains why she had to film Demy before he died

 

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In her film, The Gleaners and I, Varda turns the camera on herself, filming her ageing body. She records close-ups of her hands, her graying hair, and reflects on the horror of growing old. In The Gleaners and I: Two Years Later, Varda says that it was only afterwards that someone brought to her attention the parallels between filming Demy and filming herself. She was not conscious of it at the time. Now that Varda is gone, this footage is all the more precious.

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It seems obvious, but, as filmmakers, these women needed to film. Film is how they understand the world and how they make sense of their lives. It’s understandable that their reaction to the eventual loss of a loved one is to record their “very matter,” as Varda says. These films are not just about the dead who are recorded but also about the one doing the recording, the women holding the cameras and their relationship to the subjects–the love they feel for their mothers and spouses. It’s that thread between the filmmaker and the person on screen that makes the documentaries so poignant, so haunting.

I think of Chantal Akerman’s final film, No Home Movie, which is an intimate look at Akerman’s mother, Nelly, who eventually passed away. In the film, the mother is already slipping away, and the camera seems to be a way for Akerman to hold on to her for as long as she can. Her mission is to dissolve distance. She even films herself video chatting with Nelly. It’s as though this is a rehearsal for the way that Akerman will interact with Nelly after she’s gone–only through video. In the scene, Nelly exists on a screen. She can’t be touched or held, and that’s ultimately all Akerman will have once her mother dies–a recording, a remnant, a face on a screen. But, in that moment of their chat, Nelly is alive and that’s what the camera captures. For that time, distance does not exist. Mother and daughter are still together.

 

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Ultimately, death is the greatest distance, the distance that cannot be dissolved or bridged.

Finally, I think of Margaret Tait’s A Portrait of Ga, a short 1952 film of the director’s mother. It’s a poetic documentary that shows Ga engaging in everyday tasks, like reading a book, tending her garden, and eating a sticky candy. Tait provides voice-over narration, but it’s not a particularly personal or emotional film. Rather, it’s a playful and light-hearted look at Tait’s mother. Unlike some of the other films I’ve mentioned, there’s a joyousness about it. It’s not grieving Ga, it’s celebrating her life and spirit.

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All of these films live together in my mind, along with the home movie of my father. They are films that try to arrest the corporeal essence of their subjects, mostly for posterity, as something to watch when the subject is gone, but are the films enough? Can they ever be enough?

I don’t want a film. I want him.

Movies are what we settle for in the aftermath of loss. Film is neither substitute nor replacement, it is artifact, something we salvage from the ruins. It is not the dead, it is not the person we ache for, but it is a connection to them, a moment of almost holding what is lost forever, and maybe that’s all we can hope for, even though the dead’s presence on film only seems to magnify their absence in real life. The artifacts and the ruins we are left with rarely comfort or soothe me, they are only reminders of what is missing.

Listen To My Guest Appearance on The Complete Kieślowski Podcast

For the first time, I’ve appeared as a guest on another podcast!  Every season, on The Complete Podcast, Matt and Travis explore the filmography of one director. Right now, they’re focusing on the work of my favorite director, Krzysztof Kieślowski. It was a pleasure to speak to them about Kieślowski’s 1985 film, No End, which is about Urszula Zyro, a woman mourning the recent death of her husband, Antek. The film is set in Poland in the early 1980s, during the time when martial law was declared in the country and many people were imprisoned. Before his death, Antek was representing a young man who was put in prison for organizing a strike. Urszula does her best to assist the young man and his wife while she also struggles with her intense grief. Matt, Travis, and I go into all aspects of the film, discussing its powerful exploration of grief and the complexities of the political narrative. I hope you enjoy it!

Listen to the episode

Grief in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s No End

There is a scene in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s No End that will always haunt me. The film is about a widow whose husband continues to haunt her after death. One day, the widow–Urszula–is at a bar. She sees an British man across the room. He has hands like her husband. The British man mistakes her for a prostitute, but she plays along and goes to a hotel room with him. After they have sex, she asks if he understands Polish. He says he doesn’t. As they lie in bed together, she starts to pour her heart out in Polish. He doesn’t understand a word she says, but that’s the point. She doesn’t want him to understand. She just wants to speak. It’s the first time in the film that she communicates her grief, says it out loud.

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There is such a rawness to the scene, an emotional nakedness that mirrors her physical nudity. Her silence says as much as her words. Her face expresses so much.

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Maybe sometimes we need to speak even if it’s to a stranger. Maybe it doesn’t matter if we are understood. Some of us–myself included–need to put experiences into language. We need to articulate, like Urszula, what it means for someone to be here one moment and then for them not to be here, how that sudden disappearance is profoundly disorienting and destabilizing. Absence, the void, the missing–these are things that, by their very nature, defy language.

I was thinking just recently about how I struggle with language, how I grapple with the unspeakable, how tired I am of words. I’ve filled notebooks with thousands of words and still I haven’t really written anything. What do I want to say? Do I have anything to say?

I write from need. I write from pain. I write from my body and my grief and my despair and my mad aching.

The director Su Friedrich said something interesting in an interview and I’ve been thinking about it ever since I read it. She’s talking about her film I Cannot Tell You How I Feel.

Marchini Camia: So there was a therapeutic aspect to making this film?

Friedrich: No, because this isn’t art therapy. Art therapy is something very particular: People have troubles and they go to an art therapist. They aren’t artists; they’re people with problems who use a paint brush. I’m a person with problems who also is an artist. I don’t disrespect art therapy, but it’s not at all the same thing. If I start thinking about working on a film because the subject has deep emotional resonance for me, I know it’s going to be really hard and that I’m going to have to go to places in my mind that I don’t want to. But it’s also going to be hard because I’ll have to get good footage, good sound, I’ll have to write good texts, and then I’ll have to edit so that it all makes sense and works well. There is a huge, huge, huge amount of craft and thought and planning and consciousness in the process that completely takes over from the emotional stuff.

Also I think the goal of art therapy is that you understand how you’re feeling and you get better. That never happens when you’re making a film!

 

Friedrich is talking about that age-old question of what makes art art. She makes a distinction between art as a form of therapy and art as a craft and a kind of intellectual process. She seems to suggest that people who create purely from a need for therapeutic release or who engage in a more automatic process are not legitimate artists.

I don’t think I agree. I think my idea of art is more expansive than that. Perhaps because my writing process is much more connected with the therapeutic, automatic, instinctual, and cathartic.

Grief blew me apart. Profound loss and mental illness have forever changed me and also changed how I write and why I write. There is a deep silence in me. There is so much that lives inside of me that I cannot articulate. I wonder if I will ever find a language for it, if a language is even possible. If I can’t find that language, have I failed as a writer? Am I a legitimate writer at all? Am I just, in Friedrich’s words, a person with problems who uses a pen? Could what I write ever have meaning beyond myself and my own personal issues? Is art that which transcends the artist and takes on a life inside other people?

Back to Urszula, naked and speaking her grief. Her act of speaking is so interesting to me because she does it on her own terms and in her own language, not in the British man’s. She’s not concerned with being understood. There is something in the act of saying the words. It doesn’t matter if the audience comprehends them.

When you write, you must be prepared to be misunderstood or ignored. You may create a language that few understand, but it is your own.

I also disagree with Friedrich that art therapy eases the pain and makes the practitioner feel better. I don’t write to cure my pain but to bear it.

I find it touching that Urszula is attracted to the British man because his hands remind her of her dead husband’s hands. We perpetually seek out the dead in the living, we watch as they are resurrected in everything, from songs to other people’s body parts. There is no easy way to bear grief when the dead can never be laid to rest, when they haunt us to no end.

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Two Films Chart the Rise of Mechanization

Alain Resnais’s 1959 short film, Le chant du Styrène, was commissioned by Society Pechiney and filmed in various French factories that made plastic products. We live in the age of consumerism. We can go into any store and walk down aisles filled with goods, many of which are made of plastic. It’s fair to say that Le chant du Styrène was the original “How It’s Made.” The film follows the process of how plastic products are created from molds inside massive machines. It also goes even further back, giving us a look at how the polystyrene itself is produced.

Resnais has a sharp eye, and he consistently discovers the striking, abstract art within the industrial setting of the factory. He captures how these plastic products have a strange and disturbing beauty when many of them are assembled together, how they almost look natural rather than man-made. Even the industrial landscape where the polystyrene is extracted holds an unusual allure; as the pipes snake across the sky, they resemble a superhighway.

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As I watched Le chant du Styrène, I was reminded of Bert Haanstra’s Oscar-winning 1958 short film, Glas. Created a year before Resnais’s film, Glas is set in the Netherlands and juxtaposes two ways of making glass: by hand and by machine. Haanstra is interested in both the industrial and the human, specifically in how the rise of mechanization impacts people, their livelihoods, and the production of certain kinds of vocational arts, like glass-blowing.

The first part of Glas focuses on the glass-blowers. The soundtrack features lively jazz music as we watch the men grab molten orange glass on the end of their poles and then blow to create the shapes that will become vases and champagne glasses. Their cheeks puff out, their hands twist the pole quickly. It’s mesmerizing to watch the birth of the glass sculpture. You get an idea of the intense labor that goes into making these glass objects, not to mention what an art form it truly is to be able to create these structures.

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In contrast, the second half of the film shows glass as it is made by a machine. It’s very repetitive and the machine does mostly everything. A few men are present in case a bottle breaks or the equipment malfunctions. Instead of jazz music, a more industrial soundtrack plays.

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Like Le chant du Styrène, Glas documents a rapidly changing world. Glass-blowers are replaced by machines. Then, glass itself is replaced by plastics. Many items once made of glass–like milk bottles and cups–are now made out of plastic. Both documentaries force us to think about industrialization, mechanization, and consumerism. They make us look at the relationship between humanity and machines.

As I watched the films I also thought about the people working in the factories and how hard those environments can be, how they are physically demanding and require one to perform repetitive work that is mind-numbing and exhausting. Neither documentary is overly concerned with the conditions under which workers labor, but it’s an important thing to think about. What is the toll to human beings in order for us to have all these products on the shelves of our stores? What’s the toll on the environment, on our health, on our way of life?

Cinematic Shadows: Fragments on Two Films by Bill Morrison

This post originally appeared at Burning House Press January 1, 2018

 

The Mesmerist (2003)

I used to think that art was eternal, that being an artist made you immortal. But I’ve come to realize that who and what gets remembered is often haphazard. Books are forgotten. Film reels are destroyed. So little survives.

James Young directed a 1926 silent film called The Bells, starring Lionel Barrymore and Boris Karloff. In 2003, Bill Morrison reconstructed a surviving nitrate print of the movie into a new short film, adding a soundtrack by Bill Frisell. The print is damaged, creating a fascinating distortion of the images. Faces blur. Splotches dominate many of the scenes, though there is still a story that you can follow. Morrison calls his film a “revision” of Young’s original.

In Morrison’s film, Lionel Barrymore plays a character who, on Christmas,  kills a Jewish man for his money. Boris Karloff is a mesmerist who tries to get Barrymore to confess his grisly crime. Morrison destabilizes the narrative by editing Young’s original scenes together in a way that suggests that much of what we are seeing is a dream. By the end of the film, we don’t know what is real and what is not.

The early silent films have a unique beauty about them. It’s still shocking to see a person from 100 years ago so alive. Death seems impossible. Here are Barrymore and Karloff moving right before us. We can almost touch them. They can’t be dead. Film has preserved them, made them immortal.

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But, as we watch the film and see the reels degrade, the men seem to be in the process of dissolving. The damage to the nitrate creates distortions in the film, almost giving it a watery quality. The actors merge together into a mass of liquid light. At times, they disappear entirely. Film preserves nothing. Film saves nothing. Barrymore and Karloff are still dead. All that remains are the cinematic shadows left behind after their bodies have vanished.

The imperfections of the nitrate are what make the film beautiful. What has partially destroyed the film has also made it captivating.

I watch the film on my laptop, pausing when I want. I control the experience completely, and I think about how that almost creates a third film. I take screenshots by pausing certain scenes. Every time I pause the film, I capture a different frozen frame, each unique and unrepeatable. The screenshots I take will most likely differ from the screenshots taken by another person. We create our own set of images that we use to navigate the film and our memory of it.

The film itself seems to mimic memory–the blurring, the distortion, the incompleteness, the gaps, the gradual degradation, the loss of whole scenes.

The opening scenes are of a crowd gathered at a fair to see Karloff as the mesmerist. All their heads blur into one sepia smear.

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Some of the scenes are perfectly intact with few blemishes. Time is indiscriminate, leaving certain parts untouched.

Has someone already said that cinema is an art of ghosts? Watching early silent films, I think it is.

The murder scene is shown in flashback. Barrymore gets drunk with the Jewish man and sees a belt he’s wearing that is filled with gold. We know this won’t end well.

As the Jewish man is leaving, Barrymore seems so concerned about him, buttoning up his fur coat like a mother bundling up her child. Of course, it’s all a charade. He’s probably planning the murder in his mind the whole time.

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The crime itself is committed outside during a snow storm. The scenes are tinted blue. At times, the screen is engulfed by snow. Barrymore attacks the man. Then, we see blood drops falling on the snow. Such a simple but poetic image.

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Barrymore drags the body to an incinerator. A shot of smoke and flames that resembles the earlier shots of the actors’ faces blurring. This is what the body is reduced to–blood on the snow, smoke in the air, a smear on celluloid.

The camera lingers on those flames, on the horror of them. It makes me think of all the early films lost to fire, how film is as fragile as flesh.

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A stunning cut from Barrymore covering his hands in the snow storm after the murder to him covering his hands as the mesmerist’s spell wears off.

The blue of the murder scene is the blue of memory.

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Barrymore visits a fortune teller, and the damage to the film intensifies. More distortion, more blemishes, the actors disappear.

It becomes a fire film. The reels seem to be combusting, erupting into flames. It’s not a film, it’s a conflagration.

Another scene where Barrymore is haunted by the man he murdered. His ghost appears and then melts away. The distortion takes over again, resembling the flames to which the dead man’s body was fed.

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I’m reminded of Yves Klein’s Fire Paintings, how he put fire directly onto the canvas, usually as a woman laid on it.

An art of burning bodies.

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Yves Klein

Light is Calling (2004)

A year later, in 2004, Morrison re-purposed another scene from The Bells to create a short film called Light is Calling. The nitrate print is even more degraded, but bits and pieces emerge from the distortions.

The pleasure and challenge of the film is catching the brief, recognizable parts that surface–a horse and buggy, a woman, a man.

I think of my own memories and how a face or an image will suddenly and momentarily rise out of the darkness. Gone before I can hold it.

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The viewer constructs the narrative with what they find. We are creating the film for ourselves.

It’s an unwatchable film that I can’t stop watching.

The actors are ghostly, ethereal. It’s like they’re in another dimension.

The film feels like a dream. I feel like I am dreaming it, or that it can only be a dream.

It was filmed with actors, but it looks more like an animated movie.

The swirling images remind me of the beautiful paintings that production designer Tyrus Wong created for Bambi. In his paintings, the animals are almost completely consumed by their blurry, dream-like environments.

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When I glimpse an actor, I feel like I’m seeing a photograph rather than a film. They seem frozen, immovable, fossilized, suspended in amber. It’s a miracle that their faces have survived at all, that they haven’t completely disappeared from the film.

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My experience of watching the film reminds me of how we always want to make order out of chaos. I want to find the human beings that live inside this disintegrating, unwatchable film. I search for them in the storm of splotches and scars.

In one scene, the man and woman are together. He has her arm. Is he forcing her to go with him? Is he kidnapping her? It’s impossible to tell.

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They are both lost and not lost. Time has almost destroyed the film but not entirely. Their ghosts, their shadows, survive.

On Grief and Lina Rodríguez’s This Time Tomorrow (2016)

I’m lying in bed, listening to the rain outside and watching the blades of my ceiling fan go round and round. White blades against a white ceiling–a monochrome that swallows me. It’s late at night. The house is silent. I can’t read or concentrate. I put classical piano music on. I want to cry. I think of looking at pictures of my father. His death, when I was a teenager, is the terrible seed of the present. I don’t take out the pictures. I keep lying in bed, staring at the ceiling and the fan and listening to the piano music.

Hovering over everything is this old and festering grief. My shame at how it persists. My longing to escape it. If only the past were manageable and not so messy; if only it didn’t spill into the present. Grief is ordinary, banal. It’s there in the room, radiating and throbbing. I think about all the lost moments, the ones that were so quiet the mind decided not to remember them–all the words, the touches, the drives in the car. I want them all back.

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I think about Lina Rodríguez‘s 2016 film This Time Tomorrow and how it shows a family–a teenage girl, her mother, and her father–in all its ordinary splendor and then cuts that family down to just the girl and one parent. That’s exactly what happened to my life. The loss comes in the middle of the film, like a line that bifurcates their lives into Before and After.

The teenage girl is Adelaida. We see her lying in bed with her mother and father. We see them folding laundry, arguing, eating ice cream, celebrating the mother’s birthday. Them just being together is central; it’s the point. The fact that they do nothing important is also the point. Our lives are made up of a whole lot of nothing important that becomes our everything–cooking dinner, commuting, watching television. These are the rhythms that we live by. Through these mundane tasks and experiences, we come to know ourselves, and doing them with family and friends is how we form bonds.

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Death fractures the ordinary. No more folding laundry together. No more fights. No more footsteps in the hallway or the whiff of his cologne when he enters the room, no more lip print on your skin after she kisses your cheek. No more together, now only apart. The ordinary becomes harder, marred by the phantom of the dead, the memory of what once was and can no longer be. Wholeness is now impossible.

Adelaida acts out in the second half of the film, loses herself. In the Before, she was carefree and happy. In the After, she’s sullen and spends little time with her remaining parent, who is always gone anyways. They are each isolated in their own pain. Everything is still the same–their home, the places they went together, the rooms–but now they must live as two instead of three. And how can they do it? Who are they now? Life goes on, always. Only we are altered, awakened to absence. God, the aching.

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Adelaida lies in bed, stares into space. Her dead parent appears at the door, a comforting mirage. And I’m in my bed, depressed, looking at the ceiling and the fan, wondering how to move, how to live. No ghost materializes. He isn’t coming back. I want us to watch television and go out to eat and tell each other good night, I love you. I want it all back–all the nothing that is everything, all that was once my life, all the glorious Before when I didn’t know there would be an After.

 

Where to watch This Time Tomorrow

A Beginner’s Guide to Her Head in Films

What Is Her Head in Films?

It’s a podcast created by me, Caitlin.  I am a writer, and I have a deep passion not just for cinema but also for literature and art in all its forms. I am a very dreamy, sensitive, and lonely soul who grew up (and still lives) in the rural South. I am a self-taught cinephile with no academic background in cinema. However, I do have a Bachelor of Arts degree in Literature, and Women’s and Gender Studies.

Her Head in Films is an unconventional film podcast that centers my emotional, personal, and subjective experience of cinema. The title comes from an email I sent a friend during a time of intense film-watching. I wrote, “My head isn’t in the clouds. My head is in films.” It seemed like the perfect way to convey how I am always thinking about cinema and how embedded it is in my life. On the podcast, I often tell stories about my life, and it’s always important to me to connect a film to my own feelings. The subjects that I explore on the podcast include grief, loss, trauma, poverty, mental illness, loneliness, atheism, ugliness, disability, misogyny, injustice, and alienation. I also like to include literature and poetry into my discussions of cinema when I can. I am a working class feminist. So, at times, I do address issues of race, class, sexuality, and women’s experiences.

Not every single episode revolves around my life, and I do try to provide details about the making of the film or other information when I come across it. I do intense research and try to track down filmmaker interviews, director’s commentary, and other things and then include them in my discussion. It just depends on the film itself. Some films are more emotional for me than others. I try to find a balance between my personal reaction and the larger issues that the film might address. I seek a marriage of the emotional and the intellectual.

This is not a totally feel-good podcast. It can be heavy at times, but I share my personal experiences with the hope that it makes someone else feel less alone and maybe comforts them. I repeatedly address the death of my father because it’s something that haunts me. He died in 2006, when I was 16 years old. I turned to cinema to help me cope with my grief, and I continue to seek comfort and solace in films.

I launched Her Head in Films in December 2016 with few resources and little idea of what it would become. I used my Chromebook microphone and knew nothing about podcasting. I just wanted to talk about the films I loved. Since launching, the podcast has grown and become more than I ever imagined. Over time, I enhanced the quality by adding an actual microphone and original artwork (by the great Dhiyanah Hassan) and music! It’s still a small, niche podcast, but I have a fan base and more people have listened than I ever thought would! I’m grateful for this outlet.

 

More About My Life

Because the podcast is centered around my life, I think I should go into more detail about my own biography. In each episode, I am, in many ways, narrating my own story. I am not trying to educate you about cinema. I’m not providing every detail of historical context to help you understand everything about the film. What I am trying to do is communicate my personal experience of the film, what it made me feel, what memories it conjured for me, why certain scenes resonate, why the film haunts me or moves me, why I loved it and think it matters. I only go by my own subjective judgment and can in no way guarantee that you will love a particular film that I talk about. I don’t think of myself as a critic but a guide, leading you to films that might also move and affect you.

My life has not been easy to say the least. My father died in 2006 when I was 16 years old. A year later, my maternal grandmother died. In 2009, my maternal uncle died. Within three years, I attended the funerals of three people who were part of my life. My father’s death alone was the most devastating thing I’ve ever experienced. It shattered me, and I have never recovered from it. Since I was a child, I’ve struggled with intense anxiety and depression. His death exacerbated those issues to the point where I was suicidal and agoraphobic for many years.

I still struggle with anxiety, depression, agoraphobia, and suicidal thoughts. My father’s death also plunged my mother and me into poverty for a long time. At times in my life, I have been without much food and nearly homeless. After I graduated high school, I went to work at a factory to help support my mother. It was a grueling experience that altered my health forever. So, I also have health issues on top of my emotional traumas. All these experiences have made me a very sensitive and empathetic person who cares about the plight of other people. I am fiercely anti-capitalist, anti-racist, and I would align my political beliefs with Democratic Socialism.

In 2015, I lost my house that I’d lived in my entire life–26 years, up to that point–and went through several moves to multiple states, completely destabilizing me. Losing my house was also very devastating because I lost most of my belongings in the process, including hundreds of books I’d accumulated and things that were owned by my father. At this time, my life is more stable, but years of hardship, fear, uncertainty, and trauma have taken a profound toll on my mind and body. I have somehow survived. At times, I’m not sure how, but I know that books and films and art and writing and my mother’s love have been essential.

When I talk about films, I do so from a place of deep appreciation for the power they have to keep us going, to keep us connected to life, to give us access to other worlds and stories. Cinema makes life worth living. I’m in a kind of love affair with films because I believe they’ve helped to keep me alive. After my father died, my mom and I went to a local movie theater often. It was cheap and would show films months after they were released. In that darkened theater, I was able to escape my pain and reconnect with life. It was my salvation.

 

My Taste in Film

The first time I realized that film was an art form was when I took a film appreciation class in high school. This was in 2004. We watched all kinds of classics, including Casablanca, Some Like It Hot, Singin’ in the Rain, and The Great Dictator. Up to that point, I had watched films on Turner Classic Movies, and I enjoyed movies very much, but this class showed me what cinema was and that it was an art, not just a form of entertainment. My eyes were opened, and I fell in love with film and started to collect DVDs when I could (this was before the internet really) and watch more classics on TCM. I distinctly remember seeing Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc on TCM one night and this was a big revelation for me. It was the first time I felt a sense of transcendence while watching a film. I’d never been so moved as I was by Renée Falconetti’s face. I was never the same. But because I did not have regular internet access, I was limited by how much I could explore cinema. I would watch TCM and even record films on blank VHS tapes. I also bought used DVDs at Blockbuster when they had sales. Being in a rural area, I didn’t have an art house theater and my local library did not have an extensive collection of great films.

In 2011, my life really changed again when I got more interested in European art house cinema. I saw Chris Marker’s La Jetée , and I was entranced by it. I started to watch many of the art house masters, like Kieslowski, Varda, Antonioni, Resnais, Godard, Truffaut, Kiarostami, Bergman, Tarkovsky, and more. Before this time, I had mostly seen classic American cinema on television and my access to the internet had been limited to trips to my local library. Now, I was in college and I had regular internet access and could more fully explore art house cinema on various streaming sites, like Netflix and Hulu, which both had more robust offerings of art house at the time. Since then, I’ve expanded beyond just Europe and become interested in more non-western cinema by directors like Ozu and Satyajit Ray.

My cinematic interests are diverse and idiosyncratic. I love contemporary world cinema. I also love both modern and classic French cinema. I’m drawn to documentaries about social justice issues, history, genocide, the Holocaust, fascinating people, and women writers and artists. It’s important to me to spotlight under-appreciated, even obscure, films and women directors. I also love the Criterion Collection and classic art house cinema. I am all over the place! The podcast is not exclusively about art house cinema, though that is my primary focus. I’ve covered films from my childhood, made-for-tv movies, television series, and historical dramas. What matters to me is the EFFECT a film has on me personally, not whether it is considered a classic or important film. It’s about what it means to me.

My favorite directors include: Krzysztof Kieślowski, Abbas Kiarostami, Satyajit Ray, Yasujiro Ozu, Andrea Arnold, Agnès Varda, Jane Campion, Larisa Shepitko, Ingmar Bergman, Andrei Tarkovsky, Michelangelo Antonioni, Jean Vigo, Marcel Carné, Jean Renoir, Alice Guy-Blaché, Lee Chang-dong, Terrence Malick, Michael Haneke, Jonas Mekas, Ken Loach, and many more.

My favorite films are: The Passion of Joan of Arc, The Double Life of Veronique, The Tree of Life, Wanda, The Apu Trilogy, The Three Colors Trilogy, Dekalog, Close-Up, Taste of Cherry, Late Spring, The Piano, The Mirror, L’avventura, Birth, L’atalante, The Ascent, Come and See, many of Ingmar Bergman’s films, Port of Shadows, Children of Paradise, and on and on I could go.

 

Where To Start

This is a kind of greatest hits of my episodes, the ones that I think are my best and that are a good introduction to me as a person and my cinematic interests. Please keep in mind that I did not start out with a lot of money and resources for the podcast. In the first year, the audio is not great, and I didn’t have a lot of confidence. It’s only as I kept doing episodes and got positive feedback from people that I started to believe more in myself and find my voice. It took time! The very early episodes from 2016 and 2017 are a bit rougher. I was not able to add music until Episode 64. I started a Patreon and that has given me the ability to improve the quality of the podcast tremendously.

Also, I go into all aspects of a film when I select it for an episode. There are always spoilers. I suggest watching the films before you listen to one of my episodes or else the plot twists will be revealed to you. It’s important that I go deeply into the films that I love. Episodes can often be very long, almost two hours sometimes. That’s just how I am. I talk and sometimes I can’t shut up! I just have to be true to who I am and discuss a film the way that feels right for me.

 

My Most Popular Episode

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Episode 64: Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher

This is my most downloaded episode and has been very popular with listeners. I talked about this film because I was astonished by Isabelle Huppert’s performance. I suspect the widespread love for her might be why the episode is so popular! Huppert plays a masochistic piano teacher who becomes involved with one of her students.  She gives what I consider to be one of the greatest performances of all time.

 

My Most Personal Episode

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Episode 66: Jonathan Glazer’s Birth

I first saw Birth when I was a teenager, and it immediately obsessed me. It’s the kind of film that is in my blood cells at this point. In this episode, I talk about the death of my father and why I identify with the main character of the film–Anna–who loses her husband and is destroyed by grief.

 

My Favorite Episode

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Episode 33: Barbara Loden’s Wanda

I put so much time, research, and heart into my episode on Wanda. It’s a film that I’ve championed for years now, well before many people even knew about it. I see myself in Wanda as she struggles to cope with life and to make her way through the world.

 

The Episode I’m Most Proud of

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Episode 83: Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours

For a long time, the podcast was about me. Then, in 2018, I branched out and started to add guests. My discussion with Carolyn Petit about Museum Hours was truly revelatory, and so much of what we talked about has stayed with me. We explored art, history, human connection, and so much more. I’m so proud of our conversation.

 

The Episode That Explains My Passion For Cinema

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Episode 52: Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc

I trace my cinephilia back to the moment I saw Renée Falconetti’s face in The Passion of Joan of Arc. She’s haunted me ever since. Watching this film was the first time I realized that cinema was an art form that had the power to move me. It was my awakening, and I’ve never been the same. In this episode, I talk about my love for the film, and I also give some background on the life of Joan of Arc.

Pair this episode with my interview with Mirko Stopar. He made Nitrate Flames, a film about the life of Renée Falconetti.

 

Episodes Specifically About My Life and My Struggles

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Episode 31: Vadim Perelman’s House of Sand and Fog

Sometimes, I talk about films because they give me a way to explore my own experiences and to give voice to my trauma. House of Sand and Fog provided a space for me to discuss the loss of my home and the way that it destabilized me. I also touched on why I think the film is so important, especially in the way it looked at the animosity and violence toward immigrants, a subject that resonates now more than ever.

 

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Episode 24: Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake

So many people today live with financial precarity. My experience with poverty, having to use government assistance, and struggling with the shame of all that is not unique. I, Daniel Blake was a way for me to talk about being working class, but it also let me give voice to some of what happened to my father when he became disabled and had to endure the dehumanizing welfare bureaucracy in the years before his death.

 

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Episode 61: Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth

After my father died, I sought comfort in a cheap local theater that got new releases many months after they came out. The theater even had the occasional foreign film. I have vivid memories of seeing Pan’s Labyrinth around that time, and this episode is about those memories and how cinema helped me cope with grief.

 

Episodes About Films That Will Forever Haunt Me

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Episode 55: Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’avventura

I didn’t immediately like Antonioni’s groundbreaking L’avventura. It took time for it to sink in, but, over the years, its mystery has utterly consumed me. I loved recording this episode because I was finally able to articulate why it made such an impression on me. Monica Vitti’s face looms large in my life, just like Falconetti’s.

 

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Episode 84: François Ozon’s Under the Sand

Like Birth, Ozon’s Under the Sand looks at a woman grappling with the loss of her husband. Charlotte Rampling is at her best and this film made me fall in love with her and realize what a gifted actress she is. There is an intangible, ineffable quality about this film. As soon as I saw it, I knew I had to talk about it on the podcast.

 

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Episode 48: Larisa Shepitko’s Wings and The Ascent

I’ve said for years that Larisa Shepitko is one of the greatest directors and yet so few people know her name. The Ascent is widely regarded as her masterpiece, but Wings is also exquisite. Both films deal with the Second World War, though focus on different aspects of it. It was an honor to explore Shepikto’s life and art for this episode and hopefully get my listeners interested in her work.

 

The 10 Most Underrated Films I Watched in 2018

The end of each year inevitably brings a deluge of top 10 lists. Of course, many of them include the same films. For 2018, we expect that Cold War, Burning, Roma, and Shoplifters will be on most lists. I wanted to do something a bit different and create a top 10 that highlighted films that probably won’t end up on all those best-of lists, but not because they aren’t great or they don’t matter. Instead, they’re films that flew under-the-radar or made a bigger impact in other countries or, for whatever reason, didn’t find an audience to champion them. So, I’m championing them.

These are films that moved me in some way because they focused on a singer I love or examined a problem or went deeper into a topic that interests me. Not all the films are technically from 2018, there are also a few from 2017 and even 2016. I am often behind on new releases and some films released a year or so ago haven’t been available until now. So, I’m just including all of them together. I hope the list can expose you to a few films you might not know about and inspire you to seek them out!

 

Barbara (2017)

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Mathieu Amalric and Jeanne Balibar have worked on many films together. I even covered one of those films–Le stade de Wimbledon–for the podcast. Over the years, Amalric has proven to be both a brilliant actor and talented auteur. I love his films because they’re often very idiosyncratic and different. In his latest film, Amalric plays Yves Zand, a director obsessed with the French singer, Barbara (born Monique Andrée Serf) who captivated audiences with her poetic and confessional songs. Balibar plays Brigitte, an actress playing Barbara in a biopic. While Brigitte can fluidly go in and out of character– one moment inhabiting Barbara, the next just being herself–Zand struggles to separate reality and fiction because of his intense connection to Barbara’s music. Amalric incorporates actual footage of Barbara into the film, leaving the audience unsure, at times, if we are seeing Balibar or Barbara–the two women almost merge, and the resemblance between them is startling. Ultimately, the film raises questions about the nature of biopics, the mystery of acting, and the deep devotion we feel for certain singers and artists.

Where to watch Barbara

 

God Knows Where I Am (2016)

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Few films have haunted me this year more than God Knows Where I Am. I first saw it on PBS where there was also a discussion with the filmmakers, Jedd and Todd Wider. The documentary is about Linda Bishop, a woman who starved to death in an unattended house in New Hampshire after she was released from a mental health facility without her family being notified. Bishop struggled with bipolar disorder with psychosis and often refused treatment. She was really hiding in the house and no one knew she was there. She kept diaries and purposely starved herself, only eating apples and surviving off snow until she died. Excerpts of Bishop’s diaries are read in voice-over in the film and there are interviews with her loved ones. More than anything, this documentary exposes the major cracks and dysfunction in the mental health system in the United States.

Where to watch God Knows Where I Am

 

Custody (2017)

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In the opening scene of Xavier Legrand’s Custody, Miriam and Antoine Besson are meeting with a judge to discuss who will have custody of their young son, Julien. Miriam claims that Antoine is violent toward Julien and their older daughter, Josephine, but Antoine denies it and, along with his lawyer, paints Miriam as a liar. The audience is immediately unsure of who to believe, and the film maintains that tension until the very end in a final scene that is one of the most shocking and intense I’ve ever witnessed. It’s best not to say too much more, and I recommend avoiding reviews until you’ve seen the film for yourself.

Where to watch Custody

 

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Charlotte Rampling continues to construct a body of work that is filled with quietly powerful performances. Hannah is another triumph in her career. She received the Best Actress award at the Venice Film Festival for playing Hannah, a woman whose husband is put in prison for sex crimes, leaving her alone, adrift, and isolated from both her family and the outside world because of how she remains by his side. Hannah is directed by Andrea Pallaoro, and he created the role specifically for Rampling, allowing her to bring all of her formidable powers to a film that is slow, subtle, and concerned with a woman’s agonizing diminishment. Hannah rarely speaks and hardly interacts with people. She is deeply coiled within herself, but Rampling conveys the interiority of Hannah through small gestures and quiet moments, like when Hannah sees a beached whale or sits alone on a subway. The silence and slowness of the film suggest great depths and brought to mind a film called Everything Else, which also focuses on a woman gradually receding from the world.

Where to watch Hannah

 

Quiet Hours (2018)

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When Donald Hall died in 2018, the world lost a truly important poet. For decades, Hall wrote poetry that bore witness to life and loss in all its complexity. His wife, fellow poet, Jane Kenyon, died in 1995, and he wrote many books about her death. He never got over losing her and, it seemed, turned to poetry and language as a way to mourn, celebrate, and survive. Quiet Hours is a short film directed by Paul Szynol that captures Hall in the last years of his life. It shows him at his home in New Hampshire. He talks about Jane. He talks about writing. We even see the women who help him in his daily chores. In his late 80s, he has a gravity and presence that remind me of Walt Whitman. Maybe it’s the beard. I’m grateful for this film and grateful for the contributions of Hall and Kenyon, two poets who have deeply affected my life.

Where to watch Quiet Hours

 

Amanda (2018)

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Amanda is a simultaneously beautiful and heartbreaking film. Visually, it is dreamy and sun-soaked. Thematically, it is devastating. Vincente Lacoste plays David, a young man whose sister is killed in a terrorist attack in Paris. David must face this terrible loss and also take care of his sister’s young daughter, Amanda, who is grief-stricken and lost without her mother. David and Amanda were already close, but their bond deepens as they turn to each other for love and support. Every day on the news, we hear about horrific acts of violence, but we rarely get a sense of how these events impact the lives of the survivors, how the loss of a loved one changes them forever. Amanda goes beyond the headlines. It even questions the ability of the news to convey the real life of the victims when, in one scene, David tries to talk to a journalist about his sister and abruptly ends the interview because he can’t find the words. How can he explain who she was? How can he make people understand? Amanda shows that perhaps fiction is, at times, a better medium for telling these stories and for conveying the rich and complex life of a person and how their death can affect the loved ones they leave behind.

Where to watch Amanda

 

A Season in France (2017)

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On the news, we hear about the plight of refugees around the world, but, often, they remain nameless faces on a television or cellphone screen. Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s A Season in France takes us directly into the lives of a father and his children as they seek asylum in France after leaving their home in Africa. Eriq Ebouaney gives a powerful performance as Abbas Mahadjir, a man trying to navigate the complicated bureaucracy of immigration law and provide for his family but, at every turn, he faces daunting obstacles and systemic barriers. He falls in love with Carole Blaszak, played by the always-wondrous Sandrine Bonnaire. Blaszak had her own immigration issues because of her Polish background. So, she symapthizes with Mahadjir and tries to help him, but all his appeals for asylum are rejected. Who will take him and his family in? Where will they go? How will they survive? Through one story, Haroun makes us think about the larger experience of migrants and refugees, how precarious their lives are, how traumatic it is to leave their homes and to be unwanted in every country they enter, the inhumanity and dehumanization they face just for trying to survive. I think this period will go down as one of the most shameful times in human history when millions of people fled war, violence, and environmental collapse and so many countries closed their borders and showed no decency. Often, the countries closing their borders are the ones that helped create the very conditions that refugees are trying to escape. A Season in Hell is vital and important and forces us to stare that shame directly in the face.

Where to watch A Season in France

 

My Journey Through French Cinema (2016)

 

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The single most important film I watched this year was Bertrand Tavernier’s My Journey Through French Cinema. Some films are catalysts leading us in new and unexpected directions that change our lives forever. For me, this is that film. Tavernier takes us on a personal and in-depth journey through the French films that he loves. He talks about directors like Jean-Pierre Melville, Jean Renoir, Jacques Becker, Marcel Carné, and many more. Because of this documentary, I decided that I want to go even deeper into French cinema, that I want to watch as many classic French films as I possibly can, and learn all I can about the history of French cinema. I went on to watch other French films, including Melville’s Army of Shadows, Carné’s Port of Shadows and Children of Paradise, and Duvivier’s Un Carnet de Bal, and I’m not stopping there. I look forward to watching many more, and I have Tavernier to thank!

Where to watch My Journey Through French Cinema

 

Sylvia Plath: Inside the Bell Jar (2018)

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Discovering the poetry of Sylvia Plath when I was around 16 years old was one of the single most important events of my life. I was immediately electrified by her art, and my love for her has only grown over the years. I’ve devoured her poetry, her journals, The Bell Jar, her short stories, and biographies about her. However, I’ve always been baffled by the lack of documentaries about her life and work. There was one made shortly after her death that features interviews with people who knew her and even her mother, but, other than that, few films have come to fruition. This makes me all the more grateful for the BBC documentary Sylvia Plath: Inside the Bell Jar, directed by Teresa Griffiths, which takes a look at her life, specifically the period of her internship at Mademoiselle in the 1950s. The events would inspire her to write The Bell Jar. The documentary includes interviews with the other women who were also interns with Plath, childhood friends, and Plath’s daughter, Frieda Hughes. Scholars also provide important historical context, discussing the struggle many women faced in the 1950s, how limited their lives were, how Plath resisted that and struggled to create the life she wanted at a time when women had few options. I found myself in tears by the end of the film because Plath felt so real to me. It also brought home to me what a ferocious woman she was. We talk too often about Plath’s suicide. It looms so large. What gets lost is Plath’s life. What gets lost is how vivacious and funny and beautiful and ambitious she was, how she endured horrendous depression and even worse treatment by mental health professionals  but despite it all she wrote poems and a novel that stand the test of time and continue to astonish, inspire, and influence countless writers to this day. Her life was extraordinary. She was extraordinary, and this documentary reminds us of that.

Where to watch Sylvia Plath: Inside the Bell Jar

 

Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda (2018)

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I love film scores. I listen to film music on a regular basis. One album that has stayed with me for years is Ryuichi Sakamoto’s score for The Revenant. It’s a stunning work of art that Sakamoto actually composed while he had cancer. The documentary Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda takes us into the life of a talented and fascinating composer who seems deeply connected to the world around him. In the film, we go all over the world with Sakamoto, from the wasteland of Fukushima to the icy landscape of the Arctic. We hear stories of Sakamoto’s life, including the day he was in New York City on 9/11 and why he loves Andrei Tarkovsky’s films. Sakamoto takes inspiration from a variety of sources-from history, cinema, the sound of rain, nature, human and environmental disasters, and his own personal struggles. I was in awe of this documentary. It inspired me to seek out more of Sakamoto’s work and to pay more attention to the world around me.

Where to watch Ryuichi Sakamto: Coda

 

Honorable Mentions

Letter from Masanjiaa Chinese prisoner at a labor camp smuggles an SOS letter into a box of Halloween decorations, and the letter is found by a woman in Oregon, triggering a haunting series of events

Drift a meditative and contemplative film that incorporates the beauty and rhythms of the ocean

Before Summer EndsAfter several years of living in France, a young man must return to Iran, but takes one last trip with his friends

BPM (Beats Per Minute) – a fierce look at the courageous activists of ACT UP in Paris in the 1990s

The Dead Nation – a harrowing examination of the rise of nationalism and fascism in Romania in the 1930s and 1940s

Yours In Sisterhoodwomen read unpublished letters from the archive of Ms. Magazine, exposing how much and how little has changed for women over the last few decades

Mug a construction worker receives a face transplant and is subsequently shunned by his conservative Polish village

They Shall Not Grown OldPeter Jackson colorizes old footage from the First World War, bringing history to life in new and powerful ways

Dawnland a documentary about the first ever truth and reconciliation commission in the United States that looked at how Native American children were taken from their families in Maine

Chavelaan insightful documentary about the vibrant life and music of Chavela Vargas, who was once the lover of Frida Kahlo

Into My Life – a daughter preserves her mother’s home movies that show the life of the African American community in Brooklyn in the 1970s and beyond