It is an exceedingly good time to be in Sydney for cinephiles. The Art Gallery of New South Wales recently announced its Pop Art/Cinema retrospective, which runs in conjunction with the upcoming Pop to Popism exhibition (Nov 2014 – March 2015). It follows the fantastic recently completed Japanese Classic Cinema program, which ran in anticipation of the Sydney leg of the Japanese Film Festival.
Curated by the festival’s director, Masafumi Konomi, the screenings focused on the two decades of Japan’s cinema history where the nation’s filmmaking gained the greatest prominence on the international stage, the 1950s and 60s.1 Running for just under two weeks, the eight film program was one of the best and most satisfying retrospectives to play in Sydney in recent years.
What was perhaps most refreshing was the programmer’s restraint in not choosing the absolute most canonical works of the period – no films by Ozu or Kurosawa. Granted, celebrated works by other major figures such as Mizoguchi, Naruse and Teshigahara meant that we were by no means in uncharted cinematic territory, but there were enough unexpected picks to satisfy both the uninitiated and the Japanophile.
Another undeniable positive of the program was the quality of the 35mm prints sourced from Sydney’s Japan Foundation, continuing the AGNSW’s excellent record when it comes to playing film on film. Though not entirely free of wear and tear, each print looked fantastic, from the autumnal colour palette of Naruse’s Daughters, Wives and a Mother (1960) to the blown-out whites of Teshigahara’s classic Woman in the Dunes (1964).
The focus on women and their often tragic fate due to the strictures of a male-dominated society tied together many of the films thematically, from the filial piety of Naruse’s Daughters, Wives and a Mother (embodied in Setsuko Hara’s brilliantly understated performance), to the “rock-and-a-hard-place” quandaries of the world’s oldest profession in Mizoguchi’s Street of Shame (1956). Even in Teshigahara’s Woman in the Dunes – whose existential angst and modernist trappings made it something of a black sheep of the program – the Sisyphean nature of existence is felt (and accepted) first and foremost by a woman.2
Special mention must go to Shirō Toyoda’s sublime tragic melodrama Wild Geese (1953), which was an unexpected highlight from a director that I knew nothing about before the screening. Recounting the story of a daughter stuck in a loveless relationship in order to provide for her ailing father, the film is a beautiful and cruel examination of self-sacrifice and the inescapability of social mores. Hideko Takamine (who featured in three of the program’s films) gives a heartbreaking performance that carries the film.
Pop to Popism Film Series (29th Oct 2014 – 1 Mar 2015)
The films running in conjunction with the Pop to Popism exhibition are divided into three programs that correspond roughly to ideas of late 50s to early 70s popular (Western) culture, counter culture, and Pop Art designed to give us “an authentic flavour of the era.” It’s an admittedly broad set of criteria, but all the better for the variety of films on offer.
The first of these – Pop cinema – has just got under way, and focuses on some of the key figures of 50s and 60s popular culture as they appeared in the movies that would furnish the iconography of the Pop Art movement. Thus, feature films starring Elvis, Marilyn Monroe and The Beatles kick off the proceedings, accompanied by a fantastic set of short animations from the legendary Tex Avery and Chuck Jones. Mick Jagger features in Nicolas Roeg’s frankly bizarre Performance (1970), while D.A. Pennebaker’s cinéma-verité portrait Don’t Look Back (1965) takes us behind the scenes of Bob Dylan’s famous 1965 tour of England. The European art house zeitgeist gets a look in with popular classics from Godard (Breathless, 1960 and Alphaville, 1965) and Antonioni (Blowup, 1966), while two iconoclastic Americans – Malcolm X and JFK – are treated in biopics by Spike Lee and Oliver Stone. No retrospective of 1960s American pop culture would be complete without Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), which will no doubt draw a big crowd, and a cult film quartet of Easy Rider (1969), Boogie Nights (1997), Pink Flamingos (1972) and The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) closes out the program. Full listings can be found here.
Pop artists on screen is a smaller scale affair, offering a series of portraits of artists associated with the Pop Art movement, including Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Richard Hamilton and Jim Dine. These are all fairly intimate documents of the artists, showing them at work, reflecting on their artistic philosophies. From the home front, the Ubu portraits that round out this series give a rare glimpse into Sydney’s own counter-cultural art scene, all in the low-budget experimental style that defined the Ubu collective’s work (more on them below). Read more here.
I’m most looking forward to the Pop Saturdays series, which will give us a weekly weekend dose of experimental cinema, looking at the alternative currents of documentary and non-narrative filmmaking in the 1960s and early 70s. It kicks off with a selection of short films from Sydney’s own experimental film collective, Ubu films, “Australia’s first truly underground film movement.” This is a great opportunity to revisit one of the most adventurous and stimulating periods of filmmaking in Australian cinema history, and a very rare big screen experience to boot. Featured as well are two documentaries by Direct Cinema pioneer Richard Leacock, including the landmark civil rights document Crisis (1963). Opposition to the Vietnam War across the Atlantic produced the criminally under seen Far from Vietnam (1967), which brings together an important collective of engagé French filmmakers including Jean-Luc Godard, Chris Marker and Alain Resnais. Another highlight will be the experimental short films of some of the giants of American post-war avant-garde cinema, including Kenneth Anger, Bruce Conner, Jonas Mekas and Jeff Keen. The jewel in the crown of the series might just be Andy Warhol’s Chelsea Girls (1966), the artist’s three-hour-plus split-screen document of the bohemian personalities of New York’s famous Chelsea Hotel. Closing out the program is James Bidgood’s queer cinema classic and peon to the male form, Pink Narcissus, another rarity for the big screen. Full program details are here.
All films are free and play at the AGNSW’s Domain Theatre.