Wednesday, July 27, 2016
Monday, April 25, 2016
"You can't even tell real from fake. How can you make movies?"
Art is objects made to look like symbols, or perhaps the other way around. Ceci n'est pas une pipe. In cinema, this takes the form of actors and sets and music and title cards, but the most interesting thing in film has always been the illusion of fantasy made real; the rudimentary science fiction of A Trip to the Moon; the Depression-fighting glamour of The Thin Man; the television-fighting Christian epics of The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur; the current kid-fantasy comic book deluge. All of these genres are wildly different and intended for different audiences. But they represent the history of cinema as an artform primarily concerned with the artificial and imagined conceits of society turned literal on screen.
The real and the fake constantly bleed together in Edward Yang's A Brighter Summer Day, his four-hour masterwork finally available in the US on home video (or any kind of wide release) after 25 years of bad bootlegs and fleeting repertory screenings. The blurring starts at the top. Taiwan itself is a simulacrum of China, a "republic" in exile, convinced that it will return to claim its country. The generation that lost China's civil war, represented as parents in the film, dreams of retaking the mainland, yet seems more intent on displaying to themselves their readiness than actually delivering on it - a false show of force rather than the implementation of it.
The implications of this myth - and the dependence upon it - are all around the characters of the film, despite the fact that the movie's core story is not overtly political. S'ir's family lives in a house formerly occupied by the Japanese, a constant reminder that Taiwan is a nation in flux and without the ever-present history of their former country. Tanks roll down the street to nowhere in particular. The night school S'ir is demoted to uses military-style uniforms that mask the ganglife reality of its students (a layer of deceit later extended by Honey's return, where he wears a military uniform to avoid the police).
Within this context, it's no wonder that S'ir and his classmates would turn to American culture, a worldview created by the children of immigrants in a land where tradition is constantly erased. Elvis's disciples in the film, particularly Cat, present renditions of his work that are difficult to visually reconcile: young Chinese men and boys singing like, posturing like, hoping to move like American rock-and-rollers. Cat, subtly one of the most important characters in the movie, does not understand the words but uses phonetic translations of the music to recreate nearly perfect renditions. Is it "a brighter summer day" that Elvis sings, S'ir's sister wonders? The film's English title, it seems, could itself crumble under closer scrutiny.
S'ir and Ming are the false lovers at the center of this story of misunderstood run-ins and quiet injustices. The relationship is built out of imagined connections, mainly because Ming is so obtuse that she allows any boy (or man, in the case of the doctor) to ascribe to her whichever need they have the urge to satisfy. In the case of S'ir, this plays out as the role of protector. Ming's early acquiescence to this dynamic illustrates the typical peril women face in innocent games; what is taken as flirtation and innocence by S'ir is actually Ming's defense against the already typical pull men feel toward her. In Ming's shoes, their interactions are superficially meaningful. She is drawn to S'ir because she thinks he doesn't want precisely what her attention is stirring within him. Look at the final crime that brings their dalliances to a final tragedy: S'ir does not intend to stab her until the very moment he does it. This crime of passion was originally (presumably) intended for Ma (whose own power over Ming by employing her mother casts further tragic light on the girl's facility for choice outside the intentions men place on her). Even this most-real moment is something far different than it looks. As S'ir stands over Ming's body, with the surrounding shoppers as oblivious to what has just happened as they are to the world of teenage games that we've lived with for nearly four hours, he looks down and screams at her that she is not dead. It's hope for reality to pull him out of his nightmare despite the fact that we know it's the other way around.
This final moment couldn't have come without the interrogation S'ir's father experiences. In the most jarring narrative shift in the film, Yang cuts from the white-knuckled terror of the pool hall massacre to the White Terror of Taiwan's purging of suspected Communist sympathizers. This rug pull is addressed in the essay accompanying the Criterion release, though Rayns seems to take it at face value. It doesn't seem like a coincidence that Yang timed the massacre for the halfway point of his epic, nor does it seem surprising that he would follow it with the rest of S'ir's world crumbling around him; this film is a symmetrical arc with a second half that descends into emotional chaos for father and son alike. But the fact that Yang chooses to avoid any of the immediate aftermath of the massacre is the mark of a true storyteller. Like, Ozu, Hitchcock, or Resnais, Yang knows when his viewer can make a narrative jump more elegantly than the average filmmaker does. And here, too, the film's reality bumps up against artifice.
S'ir's father is of course a good citizen of the Republic of China. Though he's taken the same kind of hit most middle class former Chinese men have in the move to Taiwan, there's no indication in the film that he regrets his decision. We even meet a woman whose husband opted out, returning to Mao's China in the 50s to attempt to open up the country during the Hundred Flowers Campaign. This is also why Zhang is interrogated, of course. He happened to be friends with the wrong people, who are really just the people that anyone would know in a messy separation like that of the Communist revolution (mirroring the lower stakes HUAC era in the States). Zhang is a true citizen of Taiwan's Chinese government, yet fear of Communism has turned citizens into spies. Zhang's friend Wang talks a big game, but it's not clear if he is able to back up this posturing; S'ir's mother wonders aloud to her husband if he wasn't behind the kidnapping himself. The ultimate façade crumbles as Zhang is pulled from his interrogation room to glance in on another interrogation - just like his own - taking place in the next room over. It's an assembly line of false confessions, designed to blur the line between truth and fiction and serve up a generation of traitors to excuse the sorry state of the resistance, long since exiled to a tropical island.
As the film's devices extend into metaphor, so too does the push and pull between real and fake. The most overt example of this is the flashlight, a wonderful display of Yang's deliberate plotting and delicate hand with symbolism. S'ir steals the flashlight in the early moments of the film from the movie studio that sits next to his school. From there it winds its way through the plot as doggedly as S'ir himself, almost immediately playing a key role in illuminating Sly's makeout session, but then bleeding into events at school, encounters with Ming, and perhaps most notably in the chilling massacre S'ir is witness to at the pool hall. In the commentary included with the film, Rayns posits that S'ir initially intends to steal the flashlight simply to read in his bed. But this seems far-sighted for a clearly impulsive kid like S'ir, who likely just grabbed the first thing of value on the guard's desk when he was unattended to. Still, the ways in which S'ir (and others) use the flashlight are often childlike and innocent, even when what it reveals is more sinister. S'ir returns the flashlight (where he says the line at the beginning of this post) just before his final act; he's put away childish things and turned toward his fate.
Flashlights are frequently metaphors for truth, shining a light on what was dark. Yet their light is artificial, cutting through the natural darkness to glare at things that were meant to be hidden. The pool hall massacre takes place in the dark because the Taiwanese government is unable (or more likely unwilling) to keep the lights on. S'ir's flashlight cuts through this darkness to reveal the truth hidden by his government. As the tanks roll by, Ming turns the light on and off, bouncing the fake beams off the giant machines lumbering through their world. A war has become a game (just as the doctor accuses Ming of turning love into a game), and the normalization of violence persists. The flashlight's origin in the movie studio extends the metaphor: this light is from a temple of light, a place where without exposure there is nothing. The coincidence of the flashlight motif and the concept of a brighter summer day no longer seems so coincidental.
Yang's basic premise for A Brighter Summer Day, using a real-life tabloid murder from his childhood to construct a wholly fictionalized narrative about his and his father's generation, is filled with potential for exploring the battle between real and fake. Of course, the very nature of cinema, referenced literally in the studio subplot of the film and in the quotation at the beginning of this post, is ripe for examination of the duality - the technical process of individual frames implying motion is just as much of an illusion as the developed method of storytelling within the medium (editing, set design, acting, post manipulation, etc.). Yet there are many conscious and unconscious layers of narrative piled on top of reality. The film's Chinese title is "The Murder Incident of the Boy on Guling Street," yet the boy is not the boy (his used name in the film is not his "real" name in the movie - yet his "real" name is the real name of the actor who plays him, just as his fake father is played by his real father) and the street is not Guling street, but rather an elaborate set constructed for the film. Real-life events are either inserted into the film to anchor the fictional story to history (the Nixon/Kennedy election) or altered to fit the narrative's momentum (the massacre that serves as its turning point is loosely based on a real-life crime that occurred years after the film is set).
The concept can be extended to Yang's directorial style, one that was in line with many of his peers in New Taiwan Cinema. Long takes, amateur actors, and stories that detail the real lives and political context of everyday life are all devices frequently used to eliminate the "lies" of cutting, method acting, or wish-fulfillment and/or pure entertainment in mainstream films. This was not necessarily the conscious intention of these filmmakers, many of whom took their influences directly from previous titans like Ozu, whose frames within frames are on full display here, and Herzog, who showed Yang that film can be deeply personal and need not conform to commercial standards. But they nevertheless reject both Hollywood and what the filmmakers were seeing within their own industry, where romance pictures and war propaganda were being churned out by a tired studio system out of touch with the realities of second- and third-generation life in Taiwan.
The real/fake relationship can be felt everywhere in the film, both literally and metaphorically. The implications of this dichotomy, pulled throughout the film's mammoth running time, are less straightforward. What does this continual process of illuminating obscured truths say about the world Yang wants to depict? Rayns mentions on the commentary that Taiwan's history was tightly controlled through the first thirty years of its history under Chinese rule, to the point where huge massacres like the one that inspired the pool hall incident were not even covered in the paper. So perhaps Yang's intentions were political, a statement about the struggle of Taiwanese 2nd and 3rd generation children to decode their past. Told lies and half-truths for so long, it would seem cathartic to experience a film like A Brighter Summer Day. This political slant ties nicely into the rest of the New Taiwan Cinema movement, where films shed light on similarly papered-over but significant events like the February 28 Incident where thousands of native Taiwanese were massacred by the Chinese government.
However, I think Yang's intentions were much more personal, and therefore universal. At the end of his brilliant commentary, which, as would indicate its impressive scale, I've already referenced quite a bit, Tony Rayns says that he believes the film is about both father and son and their inability to reconcile their own personal system of beliefs with that of the authoritarian state under which they live. This is as good an explanation of the film's larger purpose as any that I have heard or read, but I'll offer one more.
A Brighter Summer Day seems to be not so much about the individual versus a social or political structure as it is about the fundamental nature of identity - "who am I?" not "how can I be myself?" The rocky path father and son find themselves on is not laid exclusively by the powers that be, but partially by their own doing. One of the key moments in the film is Zhang telling S'ir "if a person will apologize for the things he didn't do, he is capable of anything." This is directly relevant to the situation both find themselves in, where the father is accused of sympathies he does not harbor and the son is associated with the gangs to which he does not belong. But it's also indicative of their internal struggle to make a place in the world. Yang once said that the film was made to address the unspoken choice Taiwan must eventually make, to declare independence or reintegrate into China. Either approach is an acceptance of defeat, and for me this is why the film is not so much about the destruction of the individual as it is about the struggle for a moral and certain dignity within any state, though particularly an oppressive one.
In this regard, both men have fought a losing battle by the second half of the film. Zhang is a shadow of his former self walking home from his son's former school, recreating the scene from earlier where he laid down his stand against false confession. As Rayns notes, S'ir himself is pushed out of the film by the camera, depicted either outside the frame or with his back to us for the final stretch. This is not the oppression of the state - we've seen that come down on him for the first three hours of the film - but the elimination of identity, his final chance for redemption pushed aside with him. The movie opens with S'ir's fate being discussed by other people as he sits outside. The value of education in the world of the film makes clear the role the radio broadcasts of graduating students play in the film's bookends: this is tragedy of lost potential, of sacrifices made that were never redeemed. Of course, virtually none of the children we've met during the film will be included in any broadcast like the ones we hear, so there are certainly social implications here, the idea of a lost generation. But the continuation of the Zhang family's household chores (and the absence of the men) in the final moments points toward a more personal tragedy. S'ir's cinematic dissolution is a democratic call to Yang's generation, and a tribute to the failed struggle of his father's. These are statements with far-reaching political implications, but they apply first to the individual.
Many people have talked about the novelistic qualities of A Brighter Summer Day; the detail in the setting and plotting; the huge number of speaking parts; the many threads of story that are intertwined so tightly that the running time could not be reduced without sacrificing key moments, a rare case of a four-hour film without any fat. In the modern era, this is most reminiscent of the praise surrounding The Wire, David Simon's five-season examination of the American City at the turn of the 21st century. I am not the first to compare this film to The Wire (on the day of the blu-ray release, Tony Zhou of Every Frame a Painting made an illuminating comparison chart of gang names on Twitter) but I do so here because the theme of the individual within a system, as A Brighter Summer Day also alludes to, was at the heart of that show's run. But where the two works part ways is on the issues of identity that I think are so vital to the purpose of this movie.
Unlike the father and son of A Brighter Summer Day, the characters of The Wire were unapologetic about who they were. McNulty, the central character of the series, is almost wholly driven by his inability to play by the rules, yet the small amount of impact the wire has on both the drug system and/or policing in Baltimore comes directly from the supreme confidence in his own nature. In fact, attempting to pretend your identity can be altered is often punished. Many of the most significant deaths in The Wire - Wallace, Omar, Stringer - come when the character attempts to change and get out of "the Game." But their deaths do not come from the system, they come from their own conscious choices to drift back into their old habits, their true identities. There are of course exceptions to the rule; Bubbles and Pryzbylewski have significant character arcs in the show where their identity becomes an awakening. But these exceptions are intentional, and point to the insidious nature of the system, where expectation of even the most revolutionary individuals (McNulty, Marlo, Carcetti) is baked in.
Ultimately, The Wire is a cynical show, not about human nature but about the economic and political structures humans have created. People are people in The Wire, not good, not bad, but flawed and resilient. Partially because it's set in the past, A Brighter Summer Day is something else entirely. The individuals in the film have long since passed the point of change, but it's not too late for the 90s. The movie's events seem so detailed and familiar that they must be real. But they are not. They are constructed around a false memory and lost identity that does not need to be fate and the individual alone can transcend. Yang is telling the viewer that honesty can change Taiwan.
The comparison still continues to hold water because the superficial comparisons are also apparent - a portrait of society as told through its young gangs, storylines we enter midway with a narrative uninterested in providing exposition to ground the viewer, sprawling casts with fully realized biographies just offscreen. It's these elements that in many ways make the two works so appealing (and so seemingly authentic) to such a wide number of people, despite the fact that they never make any attempt to adjust people to lives of the characters - they simply are, and in so being, we recognize humanity. But these similarities - the ones that make them still so popular and vital to outsiders - belie the individuality of each work. These complex, richly symbolic narratives thrive on their dedication to the truth of their characters and the hyper-local world that surrounds them. Unsurprisingly, A Brighter Summer Day was embraced by the Taiwanese youth on its release, just as The Wire found favor with inner-city drug dealers in the 2000s. Specificity and detail go a long way toward tearing down the barriers between real and fake.
The basic premise of this blog (which was never expected to last long enough to need to stick to any sort of premise) is to record my thoughts immediately after my viewing of a film without any additions or editing beyond typos in a second pass-through (many don't even get this low level of editing as you may have noticed). I've broken this rule a handful of times, usually with something like Last Year at Marienbad or Shoah that affected me a great deal but required more reflection to translate my feelings into words (though both went largely unedited - I just took my time writing them). A Brighter Summer Day is so complex and thought out that both approaches seem unworthy of the movie, which is what prompted me to write what I have written here after seeing the film a second time with commentary and watching some of the extras, not to mention spending a few weeks sitting with it. While I don't consider the observations I've made here to be the final word on the meaning behind the film, I haven't seen this aspect of the movie explored yet, and I think it's an approach to the sprawling story told here that helps illuminate the psychology behind both this film and Taiwanese cinema in general. Any movie with such a rich tapestry of characters, plotlines, and consciously implemented symbols (the radio, the flashlight, the baseball bat, the use of knives and swords, basketball, Elvis, etc.) leaves room for many interpretations. But this is a particularly impressive feat here because Yang's execution is so detailed and both time- and place-specific.
I don't think any of us fully comprehend the impact this film will have in the coming decades now that it is widely available, not just to an American audience, but to international viewers (including those in China) who are willing to import it. Although Yang is not doing anything particularly revolutionary with his camera work or story structure, the complexity and depth of his achievement here unlock the door to cinematic perfection through brute force. Furthermore, his dedication to the world he constructed and his insistence on the specific without concern for internationally familiar context should serve as an inspiring roadmap for developing cinema all over the world. In the last Sight and Sound poll, A Brighter Summer Day ranked #84 overall and placed behind only In the Mood For Love in terms of Chinese films. I expect to see it grow in estimation with its newfound exposure, similar to the current #1 film (and long my go-to choice for my own personal favorite movie), Vertigo, which was also "lost" for decades. In fact, I expect to see this movie in the top ten by the 2032 poll. It's that good, that massive.
One final thing - I don't particularly care to compare the film to Yi Yi, Yang's more successful (internationally) and widely available final film, because they are very different works and are intended to reach the viewer in different capacities. That later movie had a deep emotional impact on me and it continues to be a personal favorite. A Brighter Summer Day is the more important film, however, and this Criterion release will cement its reputation as Yang's masterpiece. As this post likely implies to the reader, I'm perfectly fine with the distinction.
Friday, April 15, 2016
It says Leon Russell's name on the cover, but A Poem Is a Naked Person might as well have "A Snake" in its place (or any one of the other myriad characters here) for all the movie is about Leon Russell. This might be chalked up simply to the style that Blank has used in his many shorts, most of which can be found on Always for Pleasure, the superb retrospective Criterion released a few years ago. But as that collection showed, Blank was more than capable of giving a subject its proper due, most notably on Sprout Wings and Fly and The Blues According to Lightnin' Hopkins, the latter of which was likely the film that got him this for-hire gig after Russell and his business partner landed on a wild idea that was likely matched with equally impressive amounts of illegal narcotics.
The more likely reason Blank drifted away from Russell says little about the nature of Blank's talents and more about where his interests lay. Most notably, Blank was a student of tradition and the dying micro-cultures of America. Music was one of his major pursuits, and this is why his pairing with Russell made at least some sense. But Russell's primary musical success came with a very trendy at the time style of blues rock merged with gospel and country underpinnings, something that likely horrified Blank more than it interested him. It's easy to see where Blank's interests overlap with Russell's: a full George Jones acoustic performance (and a superb one at that) is given its due, as is a rousing session musician rendition of "Goodnight, Irene," a standard country song. When Blank talks to Ambrose Campbell or the man the film's press release claims to be a suspect in the famous D.B. Cooper hijacking case, you get the sense he really wishes the movie was about them, not Russell. On the other hand, Russell's concert performances are often shot haphazardly and rarely played out for more than a short beat. If you didn't know the movie was supposed to be about Russell, you wouldn't know watching the film, though you might think Blank was a little more into the guy than it seems considering he was ostensibly paid to film him.
Like Blank, I won't be taking much Leon Russell away from A Poem Is a Naked Person, despite enjoying the film very much. I have mixed feelings about Russell, who wrote some great songs and did a lot of session work for great musicians, but never seemed like much more than an average performer for his times. He was often susceptible to the common indulgences of the times both in his recordings (which are uneven) and his live performances (which are dated). Still, I do think he comes off well enough here, and as mentioned the performance of "Goodnight, Irene" that he leads is one of the highlights of the film. What's most memorable about the movie is the infusion of Oklahoma and Texas, particularly the balance of traditional conservative middle America and the offbeat revolution that was sweeping the country in the early 70s. It's wonderful to see the crowd at Willie Nelson's performance at Floore's, priceless to hear from the everyday folks coming out to see buildings get taken down in the city, and the way Blank balances it all on the precipice of art and commerce, yesterday and tomorrow, makes the film more than just a movie about someone it doesn't want to be about.
Code Unknown is accurately titled. The movie is constructed out of a loose collection of scenes that wouldn't be that disconnected if it wasn't for the slow fades that separate them. The way Haneke constructs each scene requires the viewer to get his or her bearings in the first moments, unsure of who we are with, how it is connected to what has come before, and when we are with Juliet Binoche, if the scene is part of the movie or the movie within the movie. Films that are about how the world is big and diverse and we are all disconnected from each other often hit you over the head with their message - think Babel or Crash - like a person you already agree with yelling at you too close. Code Unknown takes another route, leaving the viewer feeling as detached from the movie as the characters within it are from each other.
I'm not a huge Haneke fan, though I haven't seen many of his most famous films like The Piano Teacher or Amour. I feel like in a lot of ways Cache is the more accessible version of this film, and I liked that one much better, though again it didn't really stay with me. He has obvious technical skill, but I find his work very cold and, like Lars von Trier, he often seems more interested in how his films make the viewer feel than in what is happening on screen. That's certainly okay, but I think there's a higher bar for provocative cinema, and I don't think Code Unknown clears it, not the least because I wasn't particularly provoked by what I was seeing. I was bored.
Friday, April 1, 2016
The New Land picks up immediately where The Emigrants left off, yet it is a distinctly different movie. First off, it's significantly darker, with two specific sequences that are incredibly disturbing. Secondly, and more importantly, its momentum is on the decline, with a distinct backward-facing focus.
In an interview Treoll gave recently, he mentioned that there was one sequence in the book that convinced him to make the movies. It involved Ullmann's character remembering a doll she had dropped down a well in Sweden, and how the doll got more beautiful in her memory as the years went by. This sequence didn't end up in the movie after all, but he used this when developing this second movie (and during the swing scene at the beginning of The Emigrants, which is a sort of placeholder metaphor for the sequence, and one I have to think inspired Malick when he made Tree of Life and really all of his films). If The Emigrants was about beginnings and potential, The New Land is about endings and regrets. The final scene in which von Sydow is shown surrounded by his descendants in a picture just before his death will forever be etched in my memory, particularly the line about how his children no longer speak Swedish. This, to me, represents the heart of the film, the idea that all that has come before it means nothing.
The symbol Criterion chose for its cover backs this up. Here is a massive tree that has stood in Minnesota for generations, simply taken by von Sydow with a crude etching on the trunk. It is a uniquely American idea (At least in the West) and alternately inspiring and tragic. The tragedy is of course most stark in the sequence involving the American Indians who attempt to fight back against the injustice brought down on them, only to fail and be executed. But it's here in even the most innocent of encounters, like when von Sydow first meets his new neighbor.
The most noteworthy sequence in the film is surely the flashbacks to the brother's journey toward California, one of the most intense and jarring sequence I've seen from this era of filmmaking (surely Inarritu has seen this film many times). It makes you remember just how conscious of a filmmaker Troell is, something that is easy to overlook given his loose and seemingly instinctual style, but it's also simply a pleasure to watch because it's so rhythmic and visceral.
After six hours of this story, I felt genuinely sad and moved when this was over. I was a little worried about the length of this story, especially after having a mixed response to Here Is Your Life. But this is a great movie (it really should be considered one full movie, as it was sometimes shot concurrently and always intended as a full story), and one that was consistently engaging and surprising. I read one person's comment somewhere on the internet calling the film "the prequel to Fargo," and I like that characterization even though it belies the universality and scale of the film. This is a movie about the making of our country that fits nicely next to El Norte as a superior humanist depiction of the immigrant experience.
The Emigrants is that rare sprawling epic that feels persistently human-scale. Despite covering thousands of miles, many characters, and countless sets and structures, the film never feels like anything more than the story of three people, a husband and wife and his brother, struggling to make a place for themselves in the world. The entire first half of the film takes place in Sweden, with the intermission hitting as they first glimpse the ship that will take them to America. Yet these early scenes never feel superfluous or slow because the characters are so vivid and the filmmaking so poetic.
Like many directors who are their own cinematographer, Troell uses his camera in a primal, instinctual fashion. His work consequently feels less refined than most directors, but his eye and talent for drawing the camera toward the most interesting thing in the field elevates this tactic and gives his work a unique feel. Despite the fact that film is an adaptation (of one of Sweden's most popular series of novels) and Troell was approached to adapt the book rather than choosing it on his own, the film always feels like it has just one hand at the helm. This approach underscores the affection for the characters, making this a movie about the experience of these people rather than just a story about specific individuals. We are emigrating along with them.
There is criticism of The Emigrants from some for painting a picture of the journey of American immigrants in the 1800s as too rosy, framed by a sentimental nostalgia. I actually agree with this characterization of the film. Yes, there are horrible deaths and crushing labor here, and certainly the experience of traveling far away from your home in awful conditions with only slight hope of making it is conveyed effectively. But even this negative experience pales in comparison to what people like this actually went through to get to America in the 1800s. An actual film about this experience would have likely been substantially darker and more explicit, something that likely wouldn't have flown in the early 70s, but more important would have made for a far different movie.
Rather than damn the film, however, I think this more lyrical approach elevates it. The Emigrants isn't meant to depict the true experience of the journey as much as the emotional and psychological effect on these characters. The delivery of this content is meant to underscore the things that are lost and gained by the family along the way. The naturalism of the scenery and Troell's technique fit with the devotion to the land and the Earth they move across. The movie isn't about learning how awful people had it in the mid 1800s, but about the potential in these leaps of faith, potential that we all know was fulfilled by subsequent generations. That the movie comes from Sweden and not the United States makes it more bittersweet - this is a generation of Swedes that saw their system broken and strove for a better life. Sweden itself would soon modernize just like the US, but these were the people who couldn't wait. In this way, The Emigrants is a story of striving, not struggling.
Monday, March 28, 2016
The French Lieutenant's Woman has to be one of the biggest surprises for me in the Collection in some time. When it first appeared in the coming soon section, my response was "uhh, ok." I've been putting it off because I assumed it was classy award-bait, a film that lacked real heft propped up by the presence of Meryl Streep and a strong pedigree from a popular novel. I had seen Karel Reisz's Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (which would be a great addition to the Collection) but I had never even heard of this movie.
I loved this movie. It's approach to the adaptation (written by Harold Pinter) is brilliant, one of the best techniques I've ever seen to take a novel's structural device and translate it into cinematic grammar without losing the thematic thrust of the original text. It reminded me a bit of Adaptation, but where that movie drifted completely away from the source material to examine the process of creation, Pinter's script is consistently true to the book (at least as far as I can gather from what I've read). The cuts back and forth between the Victorian setting and modern day are seamless and provocative, highlighting the struggle of Streep's characters to assert themselves in very different ways throughout.
What's funny about my unexpected response to the film is that the movie still kind of is that film I had expected to dismiss. As would be expected from this cast, the performances are great, and both Streep and Irons deliver surprises and deep emotion without stressing the flashiness of the roles they have been given. Similarly, the film's Victorian story is somewhat straightforward, and the movie generally does have a sort of staid Oscar feel to it, even when its structure eschews convention. But this would rank with the best of Victorian-set films for me even without the inclusion of the modern day components. Both Pinter and Streep lost to On Golden Pond, and while it's nice to have another Oscar for Kathrine Hepburn this film is significantly better than that one, and miles ahead of Chariots of Fire which won the Best Picture Oscar that year (this wasn't nominated for the big one). These losses likely contribute greatly to the film's lower profile, but I'm very happy to have seen it
A note on the cover - I love the concept behind the artwork, discussed in a post on Criterion's site, but the lack of color and subtle appearance of the type online has likely hurt this film's profile in the Collection. I'd love to see more talk about this one, as it might be the most underrated release of 2015 and one of the best.
After more than 800 spine numbers and nearly twenty years, there are few titles that can compete with The Apu Trilogy for the title of most significant achievement in the Criterion Collection. As the spectacular (but brief) documentary on the supplements explains, the three films' negatives were heavily damaged in a fire, leaving Criterion and its partners with a painstaking task of restoring the damaged film and/or reconstructing a master print from various prints sprinkled throughout the world (the process used most generally for Apur Sansar). The finished versions of the films we see on these blu-rays are absolutely stunning, especially Pather Panchali, the crown jewel of the set. This film - certainly one of the ten or fifteen most important works in cinema history - has been transformed from a barely functional relic of a forgotten era to a pristine jewel in cinema's rich history. There have been glorious transfers in Criterion's day. But it is quite clear that nothing compares to this.
But what's most amazing about the story behind these restorations is that the stature of the films themselves is equal to this remarkable product. These are living breathing artifacts of a crucial turning point in cinema, monuments to a new era yet every bit as relevant today as they were when they were released. Quite simply, if you are receptive to the average Criterion film, The Apu Trilogy will have an enormous impact on you. It's the kind of movie experience that brings to mind only a handful of comparisons that can compete with its humanism, its cinematic sophistication, and its importance to one of the five major centers of filmmaking. You owe it to yourself to watch these movies.
Links to individual reviews:
783. Pather Panchali
785. Apur Sansar
Sunday, March 27, 2016
The final chapter of The Apu Trilogy is the most affecting. This is partially because of the commitment already put in to this character, the emotional stakes that come with four prior hours spent with a human and watching him grow from his first moments to a grown man. But the film also features the biggest gut punch of a death in an already formidable line of gut-punch deaths. Compounded by the fate of the relationship between Apu and his new son, the film's central turning point is quite overwhelming. But even as the film turns toward a poetic third act and a hopeful ending, the emotions of the thing never feel forced or manipulative. Apur Sansar is heartbreaking and uplifting. This trilogy is, like Yi Yi, the story of what encapsulates all of human experience in the era of cinema - family, modernity, art in an age of technology, love, education, belief, and most of the all the individual struggling with all of this to grasp at meaning in existence.
As the father of a boy who is about to turn five, Apur Sansar is a complex emotional ride. On the one hand, I've watched Apu's whole life - I've seen the loss that has come from being close to people, and I've seen his struggle to define himself as an individual. Through this experience, the impact of his wife's death hits so hard that it isn't a surprise that he walks away from the son he hasn't met - nor is it a move that turns me against him. Yet I know the joy and rewarding existential moments he is missing by rejecting his child. I also know the dependence of a child on their parents and the bond between a father and a son, so his logical decision is nevertheless tragic. I cried through the second half of this movie, both for Apu and for his son.
Apu says that he abandons his son because he couldn't bear to be reminded that he lived because his mother died. It goes much deeper than this, of course, back to his home village and the death of his sister, through to the moment when he had no one and nothing and decided to do something he deemed honorable in a naïve and romantic moment of foolishness. It's impossible for virtually anyone reading this post or watching this Criterion release to fully understand Apu's motivation, yet Ray has lent his life such a universal humanism that it's impossible not to relate. The final moment does not feel forced because we know this human, we know it is inevitable he will open his heart to this boy, and we root for them as they walk off into the distance even though there is almost certainly more heartbreak to be had.
Friday, March 25, 2016
The main thing I kept thinking throughout Lady Snowblood: Love Song of Vengeance was how impressive Zatoichi was. Over the course of eleven years, 25 Zatoichi films were made centered around the same character and every single one of them is better than this mess of a film. The sequel pulls double duty as a study in contrasts when considering the drop in quality from the original, which looks even more impressive after replicating its tight structure and freewheeling style proved so difficult.
The film fails on multiple fronts, but the worst crime it commits is useless voiceover. The first third or so of the movie includes this vapid narration used to explain things that we mostly already know and illustrate things that were are simultaneously watching. It's awkward, lazy, and unbefitting the original film's inspired delirium. The other flaws in the film are less fatal, but leave it wounded beyond repair: the political story is admirable and interesting, but requires too much exposition to make for a good story for this character; the fight scenes are significantly less creative here, and no one in the film is much of a match for Snowblood, leaving the outcome preordained; the attempt to expand Snowblood's character beyond her simple original plan for revenge is not earned, so we're left to just assume that she would turn to the light and use her powers for justice.
There are some redeeming qualities of Lady Snowblood 2. The music stands out most - though not as focused and perfect as the theme from the original, the score here is consistently impressive and extremely reminiscent of RZA's work in Ghost Dog. Similarly, Fujita has moments of inspiration and is constantly attempting to do something with the material. There's just not enough to carry his enthusiasm in either story or performances. These sorts of forced sequels are extremely common now, but it wasn't always that way. As a spine number, then, Lady Snowblood 2 represents an early failure in this regard, and the best that can be said about it is that they didn't take the easy way out and remake the first movie - though in this case that might have been what sunk them from the beginning.
Thursday, March 24, 2016
Aparajito is the middle film in the Apu Trilogy, but like Pather Panchali before it, it was not assumed there would be a follow-up. This makes the film different from the majority of second films in a trilogy, even though it also has a bit of the abrupt ending that many middle films have. One similarity it does share with such movies is the leap in technical skill on display that often come from maturity, larger budgets, and a confidence to take risks borne of success. I mentioned the talent and sophistication Ray brought to Pather Panchali in my thoughts on that film, but a small budget and the enormous challenge of doing the shoot in the village where it was set meant some things were destined to be compromised. Aparajito has significantly fewer barriers, and as a result it is a slicker and more complex film - though not necessarily a better or more important one.
The pacing of Aparajito is particularly noteworthy. The film starts out with Apu not much older than he was in the final moments of the first film, still spending his days exploring and getting into harmless trouble. However, this time it's in the streets of a well-populated town where his father has moved the family to make a better living. The first half hour or so of the film is spent establishing his new life and that of his mother's while building up the signifiers and thematic underpinnings of what is to come both in this movie and the next. (Many of these signifiers needed explanation for me, provided by the solid short special feature on the disc.)
The movie takes a dramatic shift when (spoiler etc.) Apu's father dies, and this is really where the momentum for the rest of the trilogy gets going. Apu's journey into adulthood through education and independence is a story of modernity and the toll it takes on humanity, something that comes into focus even more in the evolving relationship with trains in the third film. But it's also a humanist story of a cultural awakening in the midst of a changing society. This is the core strength of Aparajito on its own, and the film would be quite impressive separated from its beginning and ending chapters simply because it depicts this evolution so gracefully.
Monday, March 21, 2016
Italy was in a very dark place in the 1960s. Despite the hair, the short skirts, the tailored suits and slim ties, the go-go-influenced pop, the exploding construction industry stretching high rises across the country, the Italian soul was corroding in the sun. Just a quick look at the 25 or so Italian films from the 60s that are in the Collection puts the country's attitude front and center: Antonioni's modernist trilogy. Fists in the Pocket. Il Sorpasso. Seduced and Abandoned. Rosi's two political masterpieces, Salvatore Giuliano and Hands Over the City. Dillinger Is Dead. Fellini's work is in a category all its own, but even the king of Italian cinema spent the decade dabbling in sharp socio-political commentary with Juliet of the Spirits, 8 1/2, and the iconic La Dolce Vita. These are angry films attacking both the status quo in Italian culture and the modern "solutions" to traditional social barriers.
Masculinity is particularly skewered across these films, though Antonioni's work in particular puts Vitti and company front and center more often than not. None of these films come close to the almost complete focus on the protagonist in I Knew Her Well, a lesser-known Italian entry from the swinging 60s that was released by Criterion last month. But the shift to issues of femininity and the struggles of beauty and youth does not soften the tone. I Knew Her Well can easily sit next to those other films in the dark Italian 60s, even before the film's upending final moment.
I Knew Her Well is a dark comedy, but for the first half or so it's mostly just comedy. Adriana's early dalliances are harmless enough - a great early joke is when she is filing a woman's nails at a beauty salon where she works and unconsciously shifts to her own nails as the customer looks on in disbelief. Later moments are more profoundly sad if thought about, but can be treated as playful easily enough if you ignore the ending. When Adriana wakes up in the hotel where her one-night stand has abandoned her, she must pay for the night with a bracelet he gave her - which later turns out to have been stolen. It's not funny ha ha, but funny ouch.
I was also reminded of Scorsese's work in the later sequences, particularly the party scene, which has to be the saddest and cruelest tap dancing sequence ever. Pietrangelli places him just at the edge of the table so we don't know if he's going to topple over, further embarrassing himself. The dance is cruel enough though. The scene might be more difficult to watch than most of Salò, but it's reminiscent of the ball-busting sequences in Goodfellas, moments that underscore the poisonous culture that emerge from the social acceptance of the characters' more sinister actions. This sequence is interesting because Adriana is absent from the scene, instead being interviewed as a set up for her own later humiliation.
The parallel is hard to miss, and most of the metaphors in the film are similarly heavy handed. But what makes these moments more complex is the realization at the end of the movie that Adriana's final fate is still shocking despite the preceding two hours of humiliation and empty human interactions. We are so accepting of the portrayal of young and beautiful women as empty vessels bouncing from thrill to thrill that the idea that they could have inner lives (especially in movies) is barely considered until it's too late.
Although I had no serious issues with the portrayal of Adriana in the film, I was somewhat annoyed by the framing of Pietrangelli in the extras as a "director who loved women." I think it's great that he was especially concerned with the female experience, and this is a very sensitive and complex take on a woman's psychology that never feels like it's pretending to be coming from any place other than the male gaze - the title even gives it away, explaining the misguided perception of the omniscient man certain he's figured Adriana out right until the final moment when she takes over and we finally get a POV. But I can't help but think it comes across as "surely a woman herself couldn't make a movie, so it's a good thing we have men who are sensitive to women." Women and people of color are not horses or super heroes or children or dead historical figures - they can make movies about themselves if given the opportunity. I Knew Her Well shouldn't be at fault for that - Pietrangelli never pretends he is inside Adriana's mind, and his purpose is often precisely the opposite of what can be achieved by gaining insight into characters that can only come from relatable personal experience. But I think it's important to note what we've missed all these years and wonder what a movie about this same character could have been like if it was made by a woman, particularly in Italy.
Friday, March 18, 2016
Patricia Highsmith looms large in cinema when it comes to 20th century novelists. Her greatest contribution to the medium was Hitchcock's 1951 masterpiece Strangers on a Train, but Purple Noon (which is in the Collection) and Talented Mr Ripley are also significant works, both based on the same novel with different takes. Just last year, Todd Haynes delivered Carol, which was just hastily voted the best LGBT movie of all time in a BFI poll (the film's portrayal of lesbians stands in contrast to Strangers on a Train's homoerotic portrayal of the evil Bruno, a Freudian and outdated psychosis that mars an otherwise near-perfect film).
The American Friend is a loose adaptation of one of Highsmith's other Ripley books, one that hadn't even been published by the time Wenders bought the rights and decided to adapt it for the big screen. Unsurprisingly, Wenders did not stick to the novel closely, and The American Friend is consequently closer in style to Wenders's other films than to Highsmith's other adaptations. That said, there remains a bit of homoerotic subtext and many of the tragic undertones of ordinary people caught up in a story that propels them toward ruin that are present in most of Highsmith's work. The movie is a much richer noir tribute because of it.
Wenders makes movies that seem to exist in their own realities, a trend that culminated in his greatest film, Wings of Desire, which straddled the border between waking state and dreamworld, this life and the one after, cinema and transcendence. The American Friend is no different, though it desperately wants to belong to the long tradition of American noir and lost 60s idealism of Hopper's own films. Although Hopper was not Wenders's first choice for Ripley, he matches the tone of the film perfectly, and I don't think it would be as meaningful with a pure actor in the role. There's very little in the way of suspense here, though the two murder sequences are tautly constructed, and Wenders is instead more interested in the layering of emotional connections and the quiet descent into noir-styled fatalism. Many noir films unfurl like dreams, which has often led to surreal entries in the genre. Wenders opts for gritty and deliberate realism, which elevates the drama to mythical levels anyway.
The American Friend is most notable as a Wenders film, but it's still an excellent thriller with existential charm. It's a minor entry in his catalog that sets the stage for the recently announced Road Trilogy and likely more Wenders in the coming years. (The State of Things? Until the End of the World? There have been rumors of Buena Vista Social Club.) Hopefully that set will match the towering charms of Wings and Paris, Texas, but for now this will do as a holdover.
Sunday, March 13, 2016
I have no business writing anything on this movie, so instead I'll talk about the boxset that was released at the same time, which lacks a spine number. Andre Gregory & Wallace Shawn: 3 Films includes three very different movies from three separate decades that come from a collaboration between two very talented actors focused primarily on the theater and ways in which its structure can inform life. Two of the films included in the collection were directed by Louis Malle, while Jonathan Demme directed this third installment, released to festivals in 2013, making it one of the more recent films in the Collection.
Of the three films, there is no question that My Dinner with Andre is the one that I like best. I'll quite easily admit that part of this is my general disinterest in theater, though there are some theater-focused films in the Collection that I like very much. Both Vanya and A Master Builder are older plays that have been tweaked or updated for their respective film adaptations, but Vanya takes a significantly more radical approach that at least let the film stand out from the average filmed play that many traditional stage-to-screen adaptations are.
My Dinner with Andre similarly flouts conventional filmmaking, but it does so in way that to me is highly cinematic - though I haven't seen it in years, it's one of my favorite Malle films. The conversation the two actors have is extremely engaging, and the way Malle shoots it underscores the simple drama of an enlightening human-scale interaction. It's a film like Waking Life or the documentary The Power of Myth that gets creative gears turning and makes you think about the potential of art and human creation. It's also just a fun experience, like sitting alone eavesdropping on people who are far more interesting than whoever didn't show up to have dinner with you.
This isn't a box for me - I don't like theater as I've made clear on this blog before - but for people who do like this sort of thing, A Master Builder is deserving of its place next to the other two films, even if it's clearly the weakest of the bunch. Shawn in particular is such an engaging and unpredictable actor that even I was occasionally entranced by his performance. With one straight classic, one extremely strong swan song from one of the most important directors in the Collection, and a final film from another major director to round out the journey, this is an admirable set, and one that could mean a lot to a certain kind of fan of acting and the process.
Thursday, March 10, 2016
It's impossible for anyone my age to understand the impact of World War II, but it seems to me like people have spent far too little time putting the French New Wave in the context of postwar Paris. This might be because of the core group of filmmakers that helped define the New Wave, only Resnais directly grappled with the thing in two of his films in the collection, Night and Fog and Hiroshima Mon Amour, and even those aren't about the French experience. The surrealists who were surely the most famous Parisian artist movement until Godard and Co. were famously influenced by the horror of World War I, yet the New Wave does not have the same immediate connection to World War II despite the war's arguably more severe impact on France in general and Paris specifically. This may be because the filmmakers had other more apparent influences, most notoriously the American (though often by way of Europe) filmmakers of the 30s and 40s but also the modernist artists of the time and the political revolution of the 60s. Of course, all three of these things were also directly influenced by World War II, so even the movement's deepest origins come back to the war.
This is not to say that the shadow of World War II is never connected to the New Wave. Godard in particular is frequently linked to the political effects and philosophical ramifications of the war; the filmmaker himself has often referred to World War II (quite obviously correctly) as the key event of the 20th century. But I'm less interested in how these filmmakers handled the war in their art than I am with how it informed their desire to make art and their decisions about what kind of art they would make. Some of this was likely conscious (see Resnais again), but a lot of it was surely subconscious, an involuntary reaction to the world they had witnessed and were inheriting from the previous generation. What is it like to live in a city that for hundreds of years dominated the world's urban attention, and yet for one brief moment of history was itself nearly consumed by that same world? How does that inform your being, your worldview, your voice? The setting becomes even more complicated when you consider the post-war politics of France, where the more political faction of the New Wave was practically a declared enemy of the de Gaulle government that had been the de facto leader of the resistance.
In this context, Rivette's first film, Paris Belongs to Us, makes significantly more sense - it's no surprise that even the Criterion description of the film mentions "post-WWII disillusionment," as this seems to be the driving force. The conspiracy element of the film that springs directly from this disillusionment apparently runs throughout much of Rivette's work in the 1960s (I have yet to see any of his other films from the era) and parallels the same spontaneous generation in Thomas Pynchon's work of the era. In some ways, Pynchon's postmodern prose plays the same role in his web that Rivette's interest in the theater rehearsal process plays in his films, pulling back the curtains on the gears that make reality turn. I'm far from the first person to compare Rivette with Pynchon, but I do find it interesting that both artists are more commonly identified with the counterculture movements of the 60s and 70s when so much of what they are talking about is a direct result of the past generation's more literal battles. Like so many social and political movements, the context and groundwork is often sacrificed in order to deliver a cleaner story.
There's much to like about Paris Belongs to Us as a film. It's not as flashy as the other debut films of the New Wave, but it's packed with fully formed characters and smart dialog as much as it is open plot threads, missing pieces. Betty Schneider holds the film together as Anne - just as Rivette's style walks the line between familiar and fractured, her performance is often relatable even as I continued to feel like I didn't know her two hours into the running time. This blog is (mostly) intended to reflect my initial feelings about a movie after watching it for the first time, but films like Paris Belongs to Us are not intended to be understood on first viewing. I don't know if I'll be ready to go back into this one for some time, but I do look forward to diving into the rest of Rivette's catalog to see how his worldview evolved as the war grew more distant in both his own memory and that of the city he called home.
Monday, March 7, 2016
How you respond to Here Is Your Life will largely depend on how much you believe film should reflect the natural rhythms of reality. As a conventional piece of cinematic storytelling, Here Is Your Life is a crushing bore. But that's primarily because the film is more interested in the simple and identifiable (not through other cinema but through IRL) experiences of growing up, struggling to find a calling, and awakening to the responsibilities and conflicts of adulthood. It's a pretty fascinating approach considering the film was the debut feature from its director.
The two Criterions that came to mind while watching the film are extremely different, but get at the respective flaws and strengths here. Berlin Alexanderplatz is another direct adaptation of a novel that features a great deal of internal dialog that is lost in translation, resulting in an aimless and undistinguished plot. It's very easy for nothing to happen in a book because the prose and characters' internal thoughts can make anything interesting if done well enough. In film, the routine and unremarkable nature of everyday life becomes excruciatingly dull. Though Here Is Your Life is thankfully one fifth the running time of Berlin, it still drags on for a difficult three hours that will be brutal for any but the most dedicated of slow cinema fans. The beautiful imagery (especially in the opening logging sequence) can go a long way, but at a certain point the returns on the investment of time become negligible.
The other film that Here Is Your Life reminded me of is I Am Curious (Yellow), one of the worst films in the Collection. Made a year after this infinitely superior film, I Am Curious (Yellow) followed a similar coming of age political and sexual awakening, though the later film gained notoriety because it was about a(n occasionally naked) woman, while this film languished in obscurity until Criterion released it last year. Both movies however represent a conscious cinematic jump from earlier Swedish film, though Here Is Your Life does so in a more subtle and appealing way.
I wish I liked Here Is Your Life more than I did and can certainly respect viewers who are blown away by the film's leisurely pace and quiet confidence. I actually quite liked Everlasting Moments, the first Troell film in the Collection that snuck in thanks to the IFC deal, and I'm very much looking forward to The Emigrants. But Here Is Your Life felt more like a movie to be endured than an epic to savor.
Monday, February 29, 2016
The Bridge is reminiscent of two very different Criterion World War II films from other key players in the war: Twenty-Four Eyes from Japan and Ballad of a Soldier from Russia. But it might be most similar to a movie from America that was used for entirely different purposes. I'll address them separately.
Like Twenty-Four Eyes, The Bridge is about a class of boys who would have to go off to fight in a war that was not their making, but that they believed in nonetheless. The teacher in each is a pacifist, but this does them little good - in fact, you could argue the teacher here inadvertently leads the boys down their path to ruin, though his plan seemed pretty sturdy when he first puts it into motion. Unlike Twenty-Four Eyes, however, which is about the death of soldiers only in as much as these deaths are felt by the women who stay at home, The Bridge is very much focused on the soldiers themselves. Or rather, these children, who aren't soldiers at all but are instead collateral damage in the German suicide mission that is the tail end of a war whose tide has turned.
Ballad of a Soldier was told from the winning side, though the USSR's losses in the war were enough to question that characterization. It differs substantially from the other two films in that it is a propaganda piece, designed as a universal parable. The Bridge occasionally reminded me of that film in its depiction of the boys, but ultimately it was the elemental and poetic style Wicki utilizes that reminded me of Soviet imagery of the era. The grammar here is basic, which is what the movie demands, allowing the boys' stories to unfold gradually and naturally, which leaves the final sequence that much more heartbreaking.
This is where the final film comes in, The Sullivans from 1944. Based on a famous American tragedy during World War II, the film concerns five brothers who were stationed on the same boat when it sank in the Pacific, killing them all (the event is referenced in Saving Private Ryan, where the mission to return home the only surviving son is a response to this tragedy). I'll refrain from spoiling the film's final moments, which are remarkably powerful regardless of your feelings about war, since this isn't a post about that movie and I urge anyone reading this to seek it out, as it's both a pretty good movie and an important political moment in American film (its release was a cathartic sensation and there were reports of people literally falling into the aisles crying). But I will say that the structure of that film mirrors this one, and while the two films are at odds with each other over the value of battle, they both want you to feel deeply the sacrifice of war and the tragedy of life ended too soon.
The final stake in the heart that is the card at the end of the film underscores the insignificance of what just happened. But it also raises an interesting question about the purpose of the film and the autobiographical novel it was based on. Obviously the fact that this is (roughly) a true story means it doesn't have to have a direct Animal Farm-style metaphor at its core. But the significance of the film in German history (and its success outside of the German borders) indicates it hit a pretty raw nerve. The simplest parallel is between the uselessness of the war in retrospect and how many men (and boys) were lost to a cause that was not just misguided (as it is here) but evil. But one could also see the film as a larger condemnation of masculine rhetoric around the honor of being a soldier. The kids in The Bridge are never taken seriously - by anyone in the film or by the film itself. Though they are teenagers, they often come across like they are much younger. When they find a liquor stash it doesn't seem certain that any of them know what to do with it. Their views on the war are expectedly simplistic, and the film never hesitates to condemn their attitudes - the same attitude that seals their fate in the final attack.
The Bridge could have very easily been a very sad film, but I think think it's mostly an angry one. The final card is meant to stir up that anger, the idea among what was undoubtedly a huge percentage of Germany that they had been had, with the consequence of sending their sons to the slaughter while their daughters burned in fire bombings. It's hard to feel bad for the country that perpetrated the greatest crime of the 20th century, but The Bridge at least effectively struggles with Germany's own scars. I don't think this is a great film, but it's an important one for film history and with so few obscure titles being pulled up by Criterion these days, it's easy to be thankful for its inclusion in the Collection.
Friday, February 26, 2016
The three films that catapulted Costa-Gavras onto the international film scene in the late 60s and early 70s are all political statements about the use of violence and authoritarian power. Technically, however, they range greatly. Z, the best of the three and the most successful, was shot it a documentary style that put the viewer on the street as events were happening. The Confession was more composed and painterly, lending the story a deep sense of tragedy through its timeless qualities.
State of Seige, on the other hand, is more subdued than both and settles into the territory between the two extremes. The way it shifts smoothly between the various players and lets its story unfold with minimal hand-holding is reminiscent of the best crime thrillers of the past few decades, but ironically the film is perhaps less of a thriller than either of the other two Costa-Gavras films from this period. This is both because we find out the end of the story within a few minutes and because as the final moments suggest so little of what we are seeing is of any real significance. There's an illusion of suspense that Costa-Gavras purposely exposes by eliminating the question of whether or not Montand will survive in order to emphasize the futility of the rebels' fight.
The role of the US in South America politics is something that I've spent an enormous amount of time reading and thinking about, whether it's the CIA-sponsored coup that toppled Allende's government in Chile (where, in a sad coincidence, this movie was filmed prior to the coup and which would later become the topic of another Costa-Gavras masterpiece, Missing) or the Sandinistas in Nicaragua who faced off against a contra force financed in part by the CIA's illicit drug trade. The topic is also well-worn territory within the Criterion Collection, both in docudrama form and surrealist commentary. Outside of slavery, there are few more difficult sections of America's history to reckon with as an informed citizen than our systematic destabilization and promotion of authoritarian dictatorships throughout South America, and one of the great tragedies of American education is that this history is essentially unknown by the vast majority of the country.
With this personal history - both intentional and unintentional - I can only look at State of Siege through the eyes of an American, which is important because the film is so unconcerned with this perspective. In a typical well-meaning American film on the same topic, there would be substantially more humanizing of the Americans, and the only voices of Americans we heard for any notable amount of time would not be limited to the central figure played by Montand. Similarly, there would be substantially more explanation of the situation, even in a nameless country like the one used here. Costa-Gavras is unconcerned with these things because he is not trying to stop America from doing the things it's doing - he know that will never happen. State of Siege is entirely about the movement to fight against these invasions - what is sacrificed, what is deserved, and what it means to fight against an invisible and unending power.
The essay that accompanies the film from Criterion sees the ending as hopeful. There will always be a determined underground resistance ready to fight the new boss, same as the old boss. I see it as defeating and tragic. These men have given up their souls for what they believed could save innocent lives, only to see that there is a never-ending supply of evil and oppression. Costa-Gavras realizes the futility of the fight and the charade of a clear, graspable enemy. Despite a central villain in Montand, the title's state of siege refers to a mentality and a literal state, an amorphous government impossible to destroy because it is always out of reach. Its many heads can be chopped off, but a new one will grow in its place.
Watching movies made for other people about your people is not a typical experience for an American white male. The fact that State of Siege was made in the middle of when these events were happening (though you can argue similar events are still taking place in countries like Venezuela and Bolivia) makes the document even more difficult to handle. We don't do much reckoning with history in this country, but what makes State of Siege so disturbing is its lack of interest in holding our hand through its world, the dark side of American international affairs. We don't see the boss behind the curtain pulling the strings and tearing apart both sides because it's us.
Wednesday, February 24, 2016
When I watched Amarcord, I thought it was an enjoyable distillation of Fellini's unmistakeable style, the concept of "Felliniesque" taken to its logical conclusion. One of the reasons I didn't truly love the film was that I thought his excesses of style and aesthetics were taken to such an extreme that the movie lost its grounded intentions amidst the surreal and flamboyant visuals. I assumed Fellini would be well-served (as he had been in his masterpieces from the late 50s and early 60s) by taking it down a notch.
Little did I know that Amarcord had already come down a substantial notch from the pinnacle of Fellini's Felliniesque period two films earlier. In fact, Fellini Satyricon likely represents a stratosphere several notches above Amarcord, at a height where only Fellini would dare to Fellini. I said in my post on Juliet of the Spirits (a film I have come to regard very highly since my mixed initial response) that that may be the most Fellini movie Fellini ever made. I was deeply, deeply mistaken. Here is Fellini in all his Fellini glory, when a director has produced so many masterpieces and establish such an identifiable style that he becomes a brand, applicable to whichever genre he deems Felliniable.
How you feel about Fellini Satyricon will largely depend on how nice of a TV you have. Ideally, you don't own a TV but have a really great repertory theater near you that will play whatever you want; get them to run this one through their projector. Fellini Satyricon is a visually awesome experience. The sets, production design, and cinematography are gorgeous and surreal. They reminded me strongly of Jodorowsky's work of the same era both in terms of basic beauty and surreal depth (though El Topo is probably one of the few films I've seen that would make this movie seem downright commercial).
The story of Fellini Satyricon is less exciting. As a serial, I found it fairly uneven, with a success rate of about 40% and no strong connection to carry me through the stories that were less compelling. I think seeing this movie in a theater would improve its value tremendously, but I don't know if even this extra effort would propel the movie, as style-heavy as it is, into the upper tier of Fellini's work.
Monday, February 22, 2016
Jellyfish Eyes is one of the few unique films in the collection, a pop-tribute guerrilla blockbuster that hovers between so many worlds it's almost impossible to pin down. My interest in the film overshadows my affection for it, as some of the filmmaking falls very short of the excellence typically seen in a Criterion film. Still, it's a fascinating risk on the part of Janus - and therefore Criterion - and it will be interesting to see if it pays off.
Now that we've gotten that out of the way, let's start with the basics. Jellyfish Eyes is built out of four main influences: the Japanese kaiju tradition, pop anime like Pokemon, the family friendly blockbusters of Spielberg and Hollywood, and the high-art world of director Takashi Murakami's day job. All four are almost equally present in the film, but the most obvious to any film fan that approaches the film without any information will be the kaiju grounding of the film's structure. Although it establishes the creation of the monster in a decidedly anime fashion, melding secret society visuals with pop-spiritual mumbo jumbo, and frames the story around a child, the connections to Gojira are immediately apparent, even before the lumbering giant monster appears on the scene ready to destroy the city. The Fukashima disaster stands in for the atomic bomb, while Mr. Potato Head stands in for Godzilla, and there's a palpable sense of loss in both films, not just for an individual (in this case a dead father, an approximation of the absent father in E.T.) but for a way of life.
This kaiju connection is quite easily tied to the basic framework and visual aesthetic of the Pokemon franchise (and other similar Japanese anime and video games), which is similarly easily linked to "kids with buddies" films like E.T. (and less fantastical films like Shiloh or other kid/animal movies). The idea that Jellyfish Eyes was conceived as a live-action anime is not novel, and in fact the film was originally conceived as an animated movie before Murakami shifted to live action. Indeed, the movie cribs camera angles, sound effects, and quick cutting techniques in the action sequences almost directly from the low-rent anime he is intending to mimic. These connections are almost as obvious to even a casual viewer of the genre as the clear influence of the Pokemon creatures on the F.R.I.E.N.D.s of the story. In fact they are even more specific, considering the idea that each protagonist would have a protector or kindred spirit is a timeless archetype of literature and film, from the spirit animal of Native Americans to the patronus of the Harry Potter books.
The biggest problem with the use of this style is that, from a technical and critical perspective, it isn't especially good - particularly when incorporated into a real-life (low-budget) format. A good comparison film here is the Wachowskis' hideously underrated Speed Racer, where a similar transference from cheap Japanese anime to live-action kids movie met with success purely because they were able to pour lots and lots of money into the outcome. Without this opportunity to deliver anime-perfect compositions in a real-world playground, part of the presumed ambition of the film collapses before it can even get off the ground.
Despite this fatal flaw in the film, there's a really good argument to be made that all of this was intentional - that Murakami didn't especially care that his film was not shot well and came across as a bit stilted and underbaked. This is where the director's art career comes into play and debating the merits of the film must be done on several levels. Is Murakami as conscious and in command of his style behind the camera as he is in front of the canvas? Is the low art of Jellyfish Eyes intended to match disjointedly with the sophisticated social commentary of the film's politics? If you believe Murakami that he was indeed making a kids movie, does this negate any attempt to judge the film on a deeper level - especially if that level demands a rejection of the movie's effectiveness on its most basic surface?
These issues may have all been considered when Janus purchased the North American rights to Jellyfish Eyes, but I could just as easily see someone in the company respecting the film as an oddity impossible to deconstruct. The essay Criterion includes in its package for the film spends a great deal of time talking about Murakami as an artist, and less time evaluating the film itself. This doesn't mean that Criterion doesn't value the movie on its own, but I think it's safe to say they wouldn't have given it a second thought had Murakami not been attached. Still, its mere inclusion in the Collection demands a higher level of examination than it may get otherwise, and I do think there's a good case to be made that this isn't just a genre exercise.
Along with the tsunami references, the elements that hint that Murakami might have had something deeper and more subversive in mind here primarily stem from the iPhone-like devices each child is given when they receive their F.R.I.E.N.D. and the ominous Christian cult Saki's mother belongs to. The former is perhaps more congruent with the presumed intention of producing a movie accessible to kids, but it's impossible to let the latter slip by without pointing it out. This aspect of the story will supposedly play a bigger role in the future films, which indicates its importance in the larger story, a profile that seems totally incongruous with the family movie genre. The satire of this element is at the very least a nod to the adults dragged along to the movie, but it seems much more likely that it is just the most obvious aspect of the film that keys in viewers to the larger plan, that the movie was made more for adults who like these kinds of movies than for the kids these kinds of movies are ostensibly for.
So what to make of the devices and the religious material? After a first watch, I don't know if the themes are that compelling, and like a lot of the movie, their executions feel underbaked. Like so much of Jellyfish Eyes, the conceptual underpinning is very strong, but what ends up on screen feels a bit like some smart talented kids dicking around. The devices are not developed beyond their initial introduction, and only serve to highlight the division between Masashi and the other kids. Similarly, the church seems like the most basic of contrasts with the main conflict, and any potential social satire that might come in subsequent installments would not have much to build on here.
Of course, the one immediately appealing aspect of the film is one I have yet to discuss: Murakami's creature designs. Although the film doesn't exactly impress in the effects department, the basic designs of the creatures and their personalities are highly appealing and enjoyable. Although I am partial to Saki's Ludo-like F.R.I.E.N.D., the smaller Pokemon-style majority is also a step above most of what we see in this kind of film, and it makes the movie pretty consistently fun to look at.
Still, you can't help coming away from the movie with the idea that there wasn't anyone who knew how to make a movie in a position of power. According to many stores about the movie there were massive reworkings after an initial screening for friends was deemed incomprehensible, and I dont know that they turned it around in subsequent versions. In a lot of ways, this feels very much like an experiment from a talented artist that lacks the technical know-how to implement his vision. Most movies of this nature are seen by only a handful of people, and almost never seen by the wide and discerning audience Criterion has at their disposal. But because Murakami is not the average just-starting-out filmmaker, that circle of potential viewers expanded significantly, and the movie's reputation has suffered because of it.
There are a lot of arguments for why Criterion shouldn't have released Jellyfish Eyes, and unlike Tiny Furniture I definitely don't have a spectacular reason for dismissing all of them. As I mentioned in that post, I'm not one to argue that Criterion shouldn't release a film because they could have released other better films (though recent releases slates have me concerned for lesser-known older foreign films). That's like arguing the Academy got every Best Picture wrong because the best movie of that year wasn't even nominated - there are always amazing, better movies out there to be discovered. And I don't think every movie they release needs to be a masterpiece - only about a quarter of the films I've posted about here would I consider to be five-star masterpieces, yet I could count on both hands the films I would say don't deserve to be Criterion films with room to spare.
I do, however, think that Jellyfish Eyes feels more like a pick made out of aspiration and association. Murakami might very well turn out to be an impressive filmmaker with a uniquely odd eye for family cinema. Similarly, this might be the best chance Criterion gets to bring anime into the family, considering how difficult it is to license the best of that genre (Akira was released on Laserdisc, but will almost certainly never see the light of day on Criterion blu). These two facets of the film certainly have the potential to improve with sequels and other projects from Murakami, which makes this a bit of a bet on future returns. That's a risky proposition, and it's likely there were some detractors within the company on this choice - the film currently sits at 18% on Rotten Tomatoes (though it has just 11 reviews) - and their concerns were certainly echoed by the vast majority of Criterion fans, making this one of the most controversial releases of last year (though for my money Mister Johnson is far more unwarranted). But I think the best reason for this movie to be included in the Collection is more simple than the tangential connection to anime or high art: there's simply nothing else like it in the Collection.