The COVID-19 pandemic landed in North America in March of 2020 and, for those of us living here, the world as we know it ended. The crisis took the lives of the physically vulnerable, plunged the economically vulnerable into a financial nightmare and, for those of us lucky enough to have nothing like that to complain about, either inspired a belief in conspiracy theories and a need to take part in a series of increasingly inane marches or, as in my case, imposed more than a year of boredom that involved plenty of time to watch television and face my own life’s failures. It always sounds churlish to whine about having to stay in your living room when that’s a marker of privilege in the pandemic atmosphere, but it’s likely that those of us to whom this applies won’t truly know how lucky we are until it’s over. (Whatever “over” means.)
The Criterion Channel, always ready to serve up a good, topical theme, remind us that some of the most memorable creations can happen no further than your own domicile even if you’re not forced to stay in it, and that under the constricted of circumstances, necessity is still the mother of some pretty nifty inventions. Throughout the decades, many filmmakers, some financially broke, some experimental (and therefore also broke) have made films using the resources at hand, filming in their own neighbourhoods, houses, living rooms, enlisting the efforts of their roommates, family members and, quite often, themselves. The films that Criterion has assembled around this theme in their Close to Home collection range from highly influential (Maya Deren) to niche curiosities (Doris Wishman), with some the starting points of very successful careers (John Waters) while others represent, for the director’s fans, the filmmaker at their best and most iconic (John Cassavetes).
If you’re hoping to beat the stay-at-home blues, this collection may not be for you. Many of these projects stick to their impressively strict DIY concepts and as such are, even at their most brilliant, not in the least bit comforting. They do, however, comprise of more than a few notable classics in the artform and a number of them should be watched on those days when you are seeking something that’s good for you.
The Mend (John Magary, 2014)
Magary’s first feature is a masterful debut in which Josh Lucas gives a dazzling performance as Mat, an irresponsible loose cannon who takes up residence at the apartment belonging to his more responsible brother Alan (Stephen Plunkett), who has gone away on a trip with his girlfriend (Mickey Sumner). Alan comes back early from his trip, alone and without explanation, and finds his apartment (actually Magary’s) taken over by Mat’s slovenly ways and the installation of his girlfriend Andrea (Lucy Owen) and her young son. The friction caused by these three being holed up in this one place eventually bursts the bubble between the romantic couple and leads the brothers to have a wild, almost surreal night on the town. Every moment is vivid with original expression in this magnificent study in dysfunction (both familial and masculine), Magary constantly surprises with his highly inventive yet always organic new take on an old tale.
Meshes of the Afternoon (Maya Deren, Alexander Hammid, 1943)
Avant-garde pioneer Maya Deren collaborates with husband Alexander Hammid on this surrealist short that features a whole bevy of in-camera tricks that never feel gimmicky. She appears on screen as a woman moving about around and about her house and encountering potent imagery such as a plucked flower or a key issuing from her mouth. (But does it unlock the front door and set her free?) The haunting beauty of a cloaked figure with a mirrored face is also part of the jigsaw puzzle as Deren explores her psyche contending with various aspects of the domestic sphere.
Faces (John Cassavetes, 1968)
John Cassavetes’ fourth feature as director is the first to introduce the style that would make him beloved among film students forever, the seemingly formless investigations of characters who make you feel like you too have stayed up too late and had too much to drink. John Marley and Lynn Carlin play a couple who avoid dealing with their disintegrating marriage and instead take up with other lovers, he with a party girl played by a luminous Gena Rowlands, she with cool cat Seymour Casssel after he picks her up at a nightclub. Shot in the director’s home and paid for with his acting salaries in bigger-budget films (this came out the same year he starred in Rosemary’s Baby), it could easily be written off as the same kind of rambling indulgence as Norman Mailer’s Wild 90 (also this year) except that Cassavetes has a love for actors’ souls, not just their shells, and rather than celebrating the exaggerated behaviour of his characters, he effortlessly locates the pain at the centre.
Multiple Maniacs (John Waters, 1970)
Few filmmakers have combined their rebellious anarchy with a love for life as consistently as John Waters has done throughout his career; here in only his second feature he already manages to be tastelessly extravagant while clearly demonstrating his bent wit. Divine is, as always, divine as a local carnival host who lures people into her sideshow of freaks as an excuse to rob them of their cash. Her latest score goes awry when her carnival barker husband runs off with a gorgeous blonde; she goes after him but her mission is interrupted by two street junkies who rape her on the sidewalk, prompting her to go to church and have a religious conversion that, of course, involves Mink Stole shoving her rosary beads up her ass. The thrilling climax sees mass murder and cannibalism in the living room followed by the presence of a giant lobster (the answer to your question is “Why not?”) before our heroine takes to the streets like a kaiju monster and terrorizes the good people of Baltimore. Waters wrote, directed, produced and photographed, and does it all with the kind of maniacal glee for which his fans have never stopped loving him.
Italianamerican (Martin Scorsese, 1974)
Martin Scorsese interviews his parents about their lives as the children of Italian immigrants growing up in the tenements of Manhattan. The director’s fans will know Charles and Catherine Scorsese from their occasional appearances in his film. His mother in particular was featured quite admirably in his 1990 film GoodFellas, but here we get to know them much more personally. Their recollections of their younger days are warm and their stories, some remembered, some part of family lore, are full of colourful characters who come to life in your imagination thanks to the spirited personalities of the two people recounting them. One of Scorsese’s most purely heartfelt projects, one made with a great deal of reverence and humorous affection.
Portrait of Jason (Shirley Clarke, 1967)
One of landmark documentarian Shirley Clarke’s most celebrated signature films, this candid experience saw Clarke hole up with her subject, Jason Holliday, for twelve hours in her room at the Chelsea as he enjoys some cigarettes, drinks vodka straight from the bottle and spins tales that are punctuated by his free and frequent laughter. He speaks of his childhood and his coming into awareness of himself and his sexuality, his adventures as both domestic servant to rich people and hustler to a variety of clientele and even performs re-enactments of Funny Girl and Carmen Jones. The subject dazzles for two hours as the camera never leaves his face, subtly stripping layers away as the time passes until he is at his most raw and vulnerable in the devastating conclusion. It’s not for all tastes–it’s too experimental to be entertaining for everybody, but it is essential viewing at least once.
Saute Ma Ville (Chantal Akerman, 1968)
Chantal Akerman was only 18 when she filmed this experimental short, in which she herself stars as a young woman who rushes home to seal herself in her kitchen, make dinner, eat it and then do dishes all in an almost destructive level of erotic frenzy. Expertly shot and edited, it features an eccentric soundtrack, something that would not later be a habit, but the presentation of domestic chores as passionate ritual certainly points to many of her works to come.
That’s Life (Blake Edwards, 1986)
Edwards made this film independently and ignited controversy by using a non-union crew, prompting picket signs on his front lawn for a film he was shooting in and around his own house (he eventually settled things with the unions). None of the trouble shows in the finished product, a polished, intelligent and thoughtful comedy in which Jack Lemmon is more or less Edwards’ alter ego, dealing with his fears of aging as he prepares for his sixtieth birthday. As he rages irrationally against all who care about him and descends into a hypochondriacal frenzy, his wife Julie Andrews (also the real Mrs. Edwards) quietly awaits the results of a biopsy, tending to her husband’s needs and the crises in the lives of her children (played by her two daughters and Lemmon’s real life son) without mentioning her own worries. Featuring beautiful cinematography of the Malibu coast and given great depth by the subtle complexity of Andrews’ performance, it threatens to derail thanks to the director’s usual penchant for slapstick humour (the whiskey-swigging priest and the ridiculous fortune teller played by Lemmon’s real life wife Felicia Farr) but never does so enough to destabilize the film’s intelligent examination of the beauty of life’s impermanence.
The Garden (Derek Jarman, 1990)
Derek Jarman sits in his garden and conjures up images that speak to his rage over his country’s conservative reaction to the AIDS epidemic. He himself was diagnosed HIV positive two years before this film’s release, a hypnotic collage piece in which images of Tilda Swinton as the Virgin Mary and Jesus wandering beneath power lines are interspersed with a central narrative of a gay couple, who begin a passionate romance and end up being killed in a manner that likens dying of AIDS to Christ’s crucifixion. The themes are not overtly stated but filtered through Jarman’s high concept imagination, creating a blend of provocative, sometimes gorgeous, sometimes grotesque imagery that will enchant some and frustrate others. The film represents Jarman’s last large-scale project, as his failing health meant his subsequent projects would be more stripped down affairs until his death in 1994.
Momma’s Man (Azazel Jacobs, 2008)
French Exit director Jacobs films his real-life parents, artists Flo and Ken (whose short film is also in this collection), as fictional versions of themselves and shoots it in their real home. Their son Mikey, played by Matt Boren, leaves after a short visit with them in their cluttered New York City artists’ loft to return to his wife and child in Los Angeles. His flight is cancelled and he goes back to his folks, then finds himself slowly regressing into lackadaisical teenage behaviour, avoiding his wife’s phone calls and even goes as dark as developing agoraphobia. Artlessly photographed and populated by blandly unmotivated performances, this one has a dampened energy that actually amplifies the director’s subtle, specific revelations and contributes to its low key charm and wry sense of humour.
A Loft (Ken Jacobs, 2010)
A sixteen-minute short in which Jacobs, assisted by his wife Flo, applies beautiful digital effects to footage of his New York City loft. Stacks of books, cluttered shelves and a skylight become images of wonder and fascination as he applies his signature “stroboscopic” effect and creates an otherworldly space of his personal domicile. In a time where many of us have gotten sick of being in the same few spaces for so long, applying this much imagination to the numbingly familiar represents a fascinating escape. Watch the film in full here.
And Nothing Happened (Naima Ramos-Chapman, 2016)
Naima Ramos-Chapman directs and stars in this stunningly photographed short that deals with the aftermath of trauma in a manner that goes nowhere near manipulative sensationalism. She lounges in her bedroom, unsuccessfully trying to masturbate, then pads around her apartment annoying her family members before taking a shower and making a call to a lawyer who is representing her in an upcoming case. What we soon realize is that all her activity has been in the name of avoiding what she’s afraid to do, which is go outside. The simplicity of everything contributes to the power of the narrative, but it’s given such vivid life thanks to the capturing of bright, gorgeous colours in almost every frame. Watch it here.
ONLY FOR THE BRAVE
Bad Girls Go To Hell (Doris Wishman, 1965)
An exploitation classic by the formidable Doris Wishman in which Gigi Darlene putters about her apartment after her husband goes to work on a Saturday against her wishes. Stepping into the hallway to take out the trash, she is assaulted by her janitor and, after killing him and getting away, is terrified of the consequences. She packs a bag and heads to New York without a dime to her name, first meeting a nice man who puts her up until whiskey turns him Jekyll into Hyde, then becomes roommates with an amorous young woman who assures her she’ll “earn her keep”, then finally catches a break and goes to live with a sick woman as her companion. The production values are very basic and plot isn’t the focus in a film whose female cast all look like burlesque dancers, but despite the constant emphasis on near-nudity (as much as the censors will allow) there is a cool atmosphere reminiscent of the likes of Carnival of Souls, in which Wishman ties her character’s shaky mental equilibrium to her constantly being hidden away in one apartment after another.
Pink Narcissus (James Bidgood, 1971)
Performer and physique photographer James Bidgood originally removed his name from this film, upset that the producers released it before he was finished shooting and used a soundtrack he hadn’t approved. It’s a pure art experience with little in the way of narrative, a gay fantasia in which a dewy young man (model Bobby Kendall) lounges around his apartment and indulges in fantasies of ancient Rome and Arabian harems as well as artistically rendered landscapes of half-naked men cruising poetically rendered urban landscapes. Shot entirely in Bidgood’s apartment using lighting effects and crafty set design, it might not have much appeal for those who don’t enjoy the sight of the luscious nudity.
La Chambre (Chantal Akerman, 1972)
Chantal Akerman’s inventive and curious eye could transform the most commonplace objects and spaces into worlds of wonder, something she amply displays in this 11 minute silent short. As the camera turns 360 degrees around the room, we witness the clutter of furniture, the bright colours of varying pieces and Akerman herself lounging in her bed, the image spinning from the centre around and around as we look for new things to discover each time we revisit the same spaces.
Oxhide (Liu Jiayin, 2005)
Jiayin Liu casts herself and her real-life parents Huifen Jia and Zaiping Liu as fictionalized versions of themselves, filming them in their cramped and seemingly dingy apartment. She relays each scene through lengthy, static shots that are often close-ups with little context, creating a claustrophobic feeling that is suitably accompanied by the tension in the family as the couple’s business, creating and selling leather purses, is slowly dwindling towards bankruptcy. The filmmaker captures the details of their work with leather with the same intricacy that she charts the dissolution of the family unit, their fears for the future causing them to react more impatiently with each other with each passing scene. Slow and dark and not at all easy to sit through, this one has merits for strength of concept and execution that make it well worth experiencing.
Oxhide II (Liu Jiayin, 2009)
Jiayin Liu follows up her startling debut with an even more rigorous exercise in formality four years later. Her camera never leaves the table at the centre of the apartment that she shares with her family, first capturing her father tempering leather with which he will create a purse before he clears the space for the preparation of that night’s dinner. Liu slowly switches angles as the family kneads dough, prepares meat and makes dumplings which they fry directly before your eyes. It’s incredibly boring, but in a manner that feels comforting and soothing, with a sense of warmth emanating from the lively centre of their home (and those mouth-watering dumplings).
Words, Planets (Laida Lertxundi, 2018)
A conceptual piece filmed almost entirely outdoors but in an intimate manner, this short’s liner notes state that it is referencing eighteenth century painter Shih-t’ao, the writings of R.D. Laing and Lucy Lippard. If you show up to it unaware of these references, you will simply watch eleven minutes of seemingly randomly assembled footage of figures in close-up, long shots of beautiful landscapes, and a few moments of experimental animation (plus a few clips inserted from Wong Kar-wai’s Days of Being Wild). Highly conceptual, likely representing a depth of intelligence creating it, but not particularly satisfying.
The Big Trim (John Magary, 2020)
Made during the pandemic last year, this film has director Magary and lawyer Kalle Condliffe cooped up in their Brooklyn apartment and doing their best to survive not just the health considerations but also the psychological effect of lockdown. She takes her clients’ calls while he plucks away at his guitar a few metres away, the friction eventually leading to petty squabbles about their friends, with a little phone-based infidelity on both their parts thrown in to relieve the tension. The film, taking inspiration from Scorsese’s The Big Shave, culminates in an at-home haircut whose dark results are the only possible outcome of two people trying to survive each other’s constant, intimate company. Shot and edited with the same inspired madness that made Magary’s feature The Mend so marvelous, this is a very funny film.