Wellington-based, Gregory O’Brien is a full-time poet, artist, essayist, curator and cultural odd-jobs-man. Recent books include a monograph on Pat Hanly and a collection of poems, Beauties of the Octagonal Pool. His book length essay News of the Swimmer Reaches Shore (2007) was propelled into being by a strict diet of Fred Frith, The Necks, Olivier Messiaen, Heinrich Biber and Radio Birdman. More information about various activities can be found here and here. Greg was the recipient of a 2012 Prime Minister’s Award For Literary Achievement. His most recent book is Whale Years. Here are five films that have stayed with him…
1 – Step Across The Border: By a country mile, the best music movie ever made is Step Across the Border, a cine-portrait of maverick guitarist/composer Fred Frith, produced by two Zen-inclined independents Nicolas Humbert and Werner Penzel. Described as a ‘celluloid improvisation’, the film is a whirlpool-accumulation of sound, texture and buzzing humanity, at the very centre of which we find the immensely likable Frith. During the film’s 90 glorious minutes, Frith spends time as an improv-jazzer, thrash-metal-guitarist, orchestra conductor, befriender of seagulls and explorer of far musical horizons. The critics of Cahiers du Cinema got it right when, in 2000, they declared Step Across the Border one of the hundred most important movies in film history.
Among the transcendent moments: violinist/vocalist Iva Bittova is accompanied by Frith on Spanish guitar in the dappled shadow-light of Southern France. Later in the film there is a memorable encounter with Ms Bittova’s legs.
Through all this, the music is lilting one moment, furious the next… Cut of a similar cloth, Humbert and Penzel’s study of nomadism, Middle of the Moment (1995) is another masterpiece (with a Frith soundtrack). Associative rather than narrative-driven, both these films are visual essays, awash with metaphor and poetic juxtaposition.
I first saw Step Across the Border (on a beautiful DVD transfer from Winter & Winter) over a decade back. I have watched it at least once a year since then—and it always leaves me with a lingering impression of how good it is to be alive. If I’d discovered the film a few years earlier, my two sons—Felix and Carlo, born in 1996 and 1999—would have been named Humbert and Penzel instead.
2 – Nostalgia For The Light: Nostalgia for the Light is Chilean Patricio Guzman’s meditation on the legacy of the Pinochet dictatorship. Amidst the hard evidence and heavy symbolism of human history, Guzman finds forgiveness, wisdom and equilibrium. Back in the 1970s he wrote and directed The Battle of Chile, a series of documentaries about the military take-over (with French auteur Chris Marker in his crew). Nostalgia for the Light is far more than a return to that earlier territory—its view of humanity is sweeping and stretches to cosmic dimensions. The film becomes a meditation on stars, the nature of matter and the origins of life in the universe. But it begins very much on the ground, as Guzman follows a group of elderly Chilean women out into the Atacama Desert, where they search for bones, teeth or any trace of family members who ‘disappeared’ under the Regime. It’s heart-breaking yet, from the midst of utter devastation, Guzman conjures a sense of release and even rapture.
3 – Woodenhead: There’s a remarkable moment in Florian Habicht’s Woodenhead when the male and female leads break into a dance routine in the midst of a Northland forest. At that instant, the great edifice of Artistic Nationalism comes crumbling down. The scene is an audacious and mischievous revision of what Allen Curnow, in high nationalistic mode, referred to as ‘the trick of standing upright here’. The classic Lone Man of New Zealand culture has been replaced by an amorous couple (Twitchy meets Feisty) and the onward, sweaty march of the Man Alone has been replaced with a few steps of salsa, cha-cha and a little freestyle.
Woodenhead is playful, anarchic and unabashedly youthful. In the decade since it was made, Habicht has gone on to produce some other classics of a reinvigorated regionalism—among them Kaikohe Demolition, Rubbings from a Live Man and Land of the Long White Cloud. More recently, he has flown the coop and made Love Story (in New York, 2012) and Pulp; a film about Life, Death & Supermarkets (2014). Go Florian.
4 – Andrei Rublev: The grandest of cine-cathedrals, Andrei Rublev is slow, momentous and transformative. A church bell rings, a horse rolls on a dew-laden field, an icon-painter stares at a blank wall… The film comprises a number of loosely connected narratives based on the life of the iconic Russian icon-painter Rublev as he trudges through snow and doubt and the spiritual devastation of 15th century Russia.
Taken alongside Tarkovsky’s other features, Rublev is one of the greatest ever manifestations of cinema as poetry. In such company, I’d also place Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped, Bela Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies, Claire Denis’s Beau Travail and Sergei Parajanov’s The Colour of Pomegranates, Ashik Kerib and The Legend of Suram Fortress.
5 – The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou: The Life Aquatic might be enough to make you believe in Hollywood and the American Film Industry all over again. In Wes Anderson’s brilliant, idiosyncratic film, we might just be witnessing a rebirth of wonder. The Life Aquatic is comical but also touching; it’s gorgeous and very odd; and thermo-nuclear-powered by Seu Jorge’s acoustic versions of David Bowie songs.
Funny, sexy, exemplary…The Life Aquatic is the filmic equivalent of synchronised swimming. It’s stylish and the characters move in concert as the plot ducks and dives. The film is a homage to Jacques Cousteau, to sea voyages and Grand Adventures, to classic Hollywood set design and to Wes Anderson’s own childhood—and, it follows, the childhood of all of us.