Monday, February 8, 2010

#432: Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters

(Paul Schrader, 1985)

The Last Temptation of Christ is one of my favorite films ever made, and it's one of the twenty or so Criterion DVDs I actually own. Obviously, Taxi Driver is a great movie as well, and I love both of these scripts. But something about Paul Schrader's work as a director doesn't give me the same pull that I experience with his collaborations with Scorsese. So I put off watching this one perhaps more than I otherwise would have if the same film had been made by someone else.

The first part of the film takes a while to get going, but once it does, the film really opens up, and it's clear what Schrader's intention was with the movie. Here is an unconventional biopic that nevertheless achieves what most biopics never even consider: Mishima gives the viewer a sense of what its subject believed in, what his life was like, and what his work and death were about.

I feel like I know some things about Mishima after viewing the film, but most of the finer points of his life are not here. This isn't Ray or Gandhi, it isn't even really Che or Walk the Line. It's an interweaving of art and reality, life and death, and, as is so often highlighted in the film, action and words. The sets and cinematography are amazing, and the film's subtle technical flourishes (matched with some brief over-the-top ones) are beautiful and occasionally astonishing. Perhaps the best part of the film is the score by Philip Glass, probably my favorite by the much-heralded, much-ridiculed composer. Without being distracting, his hypnotic work is so woven into the fabric of the film that it becomes essential to the themes of Mishima's life. It's impossible to envision this film without it.

Still - and this should already be clear - the movie isn't going to be for everyone. The interwoven narratives are off-putting at times, and the theatrical sets that recreate his works could come across as distracting and articifical (precisely what Schrader no doubt intended). But for people who are interested in Schrader's work, I think the film says just as much about its maker as it does about its subject.

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