Friday, December 16, 2011

#413: Drunken Angel

(Akira Kurosawa, 1948)

Drunken Angel is the second early Kurosawa film I've watched in recent days, the first being Stray Dog. The two movies share a lot more than their director and leading man, Kurosawa and his favorite leading man Toshiro Mifune. Their post-war Tokyo settings make the perfect backdrop for noir that is distinctly Japanese, and each film is about the lead characters struggling to reconcile their position in life with the person they want to be.

Structurally, the biggest similarity is the fight that becomes the final confrontation in each film. They are both shot impeccably and deliberately, but the fights themselves are clumsy and realistic. Mifune's movements seem desperate and authentic, something we so rarely get to see any more now that fights must be slick and impressively choreographed (ironically, this trend comes from Eastern films).

But despite these similarities, I enjoyed Stray Dog much more. Part of this is the noir-styled mystery at the heart of that later film - it's more exciting and engaging than the melodramatic relationship between the two leads here that is the core of the film. But I also really loved seeing Kurosawa execute a film in such an experimental fashion in Stray Dog. That movie just seems so much more illuminating with regards to Kurosawa's developing voice whereas Drunken Angel feels more like a talented director making a movie before he had an identity. I enjoyed Drunken Angel, but it's Stray Dog that in my opinion kicked off Kurosawa's renaissance.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

#233: Stray Dog

(Akira Kurosawa, 1949)

Kurosawa's easy counterpart in the West is John Ford. Just as Ford made the Western internationally iconic, Kurosawa popularized the samurai film outside of Japan - and just as Ford would eventually demythologize the genre he was most known for later in his career, so too did Kurosawa. Likewise, both directors made classics outside their respective comfort zones.

But the comparison I come back to over and over with Kurosawa is Hitchcock. There are the critical parallels - both directors made more classics over a longer period of time than perhaps any other filmmaker in history. And certainly the two filmmakers made some of the most unapologetically entertaining films of their era. Kurosawa was definitely the more socially minded of the two - Hitchcock was nearly always more concerned with the inner-workings of the human psyche (Kurosawa's 20th century-style tendency towards socialism mirrored Hitchcock's own timely fascination with Freud and psychoanalysis) - but their work was filled with troubled fractured heroes tasked with redeeming themselves in their own minds.

Stray Dog makes the comparison more apt by presenting Kurosawa's Japanese take on a Western genre. But the film takes its cues not from the suspense thriller genre, but from film noir. Replace the fan in each character's hand in the early scenes here with a cigarette, and you could be looking at any number of potboilers from the same post-War era in Los Angeles. The social conventions at work in the interactions between the cops and lowlifes in the film make for fascinating comparisons with their Western counterparts, the stuff of graduate theses. Gradually however, the film sheds its purely noirish structure and becomes more of a social picture exploring post-War Japan and the nature of good and evil. As is alluded to in the essay accompanying the DVD, Kurosawa flips the traditional noir theme of the individual being consumed by society and instead argues that we are all connected, even one. The final showdown in the film is both intense and moving - there is a desperation to both men which reduces them to animals in the final, clumsy encounter.

Speaking of connections, there are two modern films that owe a great debt to Stray Dog. One is Magnolia, where Paul Thomas Anderson obviously used the core premise here of a cop losing his gun for John C. Reilly's subplot. The other is Body Heat, one of the few modern noir masterpieces. The two films share their once-removed noir status (Stray Dog's is geographical, while Body Heat's is temporal), but where they clearly overlap is sweat. Both films take place during a suffocating heatwave, and I'm not sure I've seen many other films that convey the sluggishness of the experience so consistently (one Criterion film that does so in a different way - by use of color and light - is Do the Right Thing, thanks to brilliant cinematography from the masterful Ernest Dickerson). Here, as in Body Heat, the temperature puts a weight on each character's shoulders - everyone in the film has something else on their minds other than the task at hand except Mifune himself.

There is another Criterion connection here. The sequence in which Mifune goes undercover to find a gun dealer is remarkably similar to the scene in which Joel McCrea goes undercover as a hobo in Sullivan's Travels in order to learn what it is like to live poor and despondent. Both scenes last an unusually long amount of time with little to no dialog. They convey the emotions of the characters through their experiences, but also through the experience of the viewer - each would be far less effective at half the running time.

Overall, Stray Dog was a bit of a surprise for me, an early masterpiece from Kurosawa which flirts with many of the themes of his later work (particularly The Lower Depths and High and Low) but sees the director flirting with many more openly complex techniques and displaying his influences more overtly, which may be why he later dismissed it as an early failed experiment. He's extremely wrong, of course, as Stray Dog turns out to be another classic from a man who - particularly in a fifteen-year-period around the 50s - seemed to have an endless supply of them.

#556: Senso

(Luchino Visconti, 1954)

Senso probably would have hit me more if I hadn't already watched Visconti's masterpiece, The Leopard. After that film, released nine years later, Senso feels like a dress rehearsal for the movie Visconti was born to make. This is unfair, not just because Visconti had other great films (Obsession and Rocco and His Brothers would make great additions to the collection, and I've yet to see his third entry, La Notte Bianchi) but because Senso is a spectacular, extremely entertaining period melodrama.

In terms of story, the film reminded me a great deal of The Earrings of Madame De... Both films have powerful independent women destroyed by extra-marital, all-consuming love. Both are also sumptuously filmed by directors that don't spend a lot of time worrying if someone is going to find their production "a little much." Like Ophüls, Visconti is a showman before anything and the costumes, set design, cinematography, and writing (by way of narration in particular) are extremely flashy, verging on over-the-top. The "twist" in the final act can be seen a mile away, but Senso isn't really about who's putting one over on whom. The countess's decision in the final moments remains satisfying, though.

As in Burt Lancaster did in The Leopard, Farley Granger speaks English in Senso and is dubbed into Italian - which is then translated back into English in the form of subtitles. While it would certainly be strange to have Granger speaking English while everyone else spoke Italian, it might be interesting to see, just as I am looking forward to watching The Leopard in English as a pure novelty.

Monday, December 5, 2011

#299: Story of a Prostitute

(Seijun Suzuki, 1965)

Along with one of the films Suzuki made the following year, Fighting Elegy (as a contracted director at Nikkatsu, the director was extremely prolific), Story of a Prostitute represents in the Collection the more personal side of the director's work with the studio. Though its protagonist shares a profession with the main characters of Suzuki's Gate of Flesh made the previous year, Story of a Prostitute is a very different movie - more reminiscent of Harakiri or In the Realm of the Senses than any other Suzuki film in terms of anti-authoritarian themes.

But the style of the movie is classic Suzuki, incorporating a number of flashy techniques (choppy editing, freeze-frames, expressionistic lighting - at one point a character is literally broken into pieces as a visual manifestation of another character's feelings) in the service of a fairly conventional - if politically subversive - story. The doomed romance at the film's core is reminiscent of a whole host of films about unlikely love connections, making its impact somewhat muted. This is especially true because the film isn't really concerned with making any kind of grand statement either about prostitution or the war - something which probably wasn't a choice considering the limitations of the studio but nevertheless makes the film more subtle for better (i.e. it avoids preaching) or worse (i.e. it's a bit forgettable).

The story and Suzuki's modernistic flourishes aside, Story of a Prostitute is most appealing because of its cinematography. This is an extremely compelling black and white. While it is helped along by Suzuki's framings and editing selections, the film's lighting and finishing are simply beautiful - the scene of Harumi running across a battlefield has to be one of the most strikingly gorgeous shots in Suzuki's catalog, possibly all of Japanese cinema. It's this visual impressiveness that keeps the film appealing throughout its running time.

Friday, December 2, 2011

#500: Roberto Rossellini's War Trilogy

(Roberto Rossellini, 1945-48)

Without a doubt, Rossellini's War Trilogy is the greatest box set Criterion has released. Dave Kehr said it much better than I ever could, but let me just add that you don't need to look any further than this set to explain the importance of Criterion in film history. There are other things Criterion does well - highlight notable and overlooked modern films, present classics with excellent supplements that place them in a new light, impeccably package and legitimize the physical product - but the most vital impact they have had over the last decade is on truly significant works that were previously unavailable or underavailable, that is to say only presented in poor transfers or even decaying prints.

Rossellini's War Trilogy kickstarted not only neo-realist cinema and inspired three generations of filmmakers, it single-handedly revived Italian cinema and invigorated European film after the industry had been decimated in the war. There are only a handful of films in the collection that are more important and none of them were as desperate for an impeccable and high-profile release as these three. Rome, Open City, Paisan, and Germany Year Zero are all masterpieces and must-sees, and this set stands among Criterion's best, most significant releases.

Individual reviews:
Rome, Open City
Germany Year Zero

#499: Germany Year Zero

(Roberto Rossellini, 1948)

Germany Year Zero is the logical conclusion to Rossellini's War Trilogy and a masterpiece that is equal to its two predecessors. Perhaps more than any other movie, it deals with the concept of guilt, of living with your past even as it crumbles around you. It's also a remarkably compassionate movie and perhaps the truest Neo-Realist film I've ever seen. After all - any Italian communist can make a film about a poor man who gets his bicycle/livelihood stolen. It takes a true humanist to look their enemy in the face and see themselves.

Much has been said of the film's preface, which begins "This movie, shot in the summer of 1947 in Berlin, aims only to be an objective and true portrait of this large, almost totally destroyed city." Aside from the obvious philosophical problems with believing any fictional (or really even non-fictional) film could be an objective assessment of anything, the movie still clearly takes a stand for and against a number of its characters. Certainly the two main Nazi sympathizers in the film - Edmund's brother and teacher - are portrayed as the dregs of society: his brother is too cowardly to turn himself in to face his punishment for crimes he may have committed and chooses instead to feed off other people's rations, while his teacher is quite clearly and disconcertingly a pedophile. And Edmund himself is undoubtedly portrayed in a sympathetic light - even aside from the fact that Rossellini dedicated the film to his son who had recently died.

But Rossellini was making a political statement more than a narrative one by including the preface. Objectivity might not have been his goal, but he used it as a shield for his true purpose: to ask his audience to stand in German shoes for 75 minutes. The most chilling moment of the film (and probably all three in the series) is when Edmund plays a now-illegal recording of Hitler on a portable turntable in order to sell it to some Allied collectors. The words echo through the bombed out building in which they stand and a man with his son hears the sounds of a dead leader that destroyed and terrorized his country resurrected. Germany Year Zero is a heart-breaking look at the moment when your history reaches a dead end, but your future has yet to reveal itself. Ultimately, Edmund decision to kill his father - as the old man goes on about his regret for his generation's tragic decisions - and then Edmund's final decision to end his own life represent the corner Germany's next generation has been painted into, regardless of their own lack of any real connection to their country's atrocities.  We may be through with the past, but the past ain't through with us.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

#498: Paisan

(Roberto Rossellini, 1946)

I didn't think it was possible, but Paisan is even better than its predecessor, the better-known (primarily because the original cut was more readily available in the US before Criterion's trilogy release) and generally more highly regarded Rome, Open City. After the worldwide success of that film - made in the final moments of the Nazi occupation of Italy and the first moments of liberation from Italy's fascist regime - Rossellini had much more freedom in determining the subject of his next feature. He picked an extremely ambitious anthology that intended to document the path of US troops through Italy during the invasion, from Sicily to the Po Valley.

Each of the six stories Rossellini tells feature at least some American and (with the exception of the fifth story, and relatively speaking the third) ends tragically, though beyond that there isn't much of a connection between the segments. In the US, the film was broken up with unnecessary maps charting the progress of the army - here there is just a narrator as the camera sets the stage for the next story. Yet the juxtaposition of the slow progress of the Allied forces with these small tragedies makes the impact on the viewer's perception of World War II and war in general that much more visceral. Tragedy is the common bond of all participants in war - we connect with the Italians and the British and the French in a much more authentic way when we face hardships together than when we celebrate victories.

Of the six segments, the first was the most compelling to me from a narrative perspective. The relationship between the soldier and the teenage girl is so clumsily moving, both for his unfounded confidence that if he talks more she will understand him easier and for her gentle ability to struggle to make a connection despite being in the middle of the most traumatic experience in her short life. It's these human connections - made in mere minutes of screen time - that are so impressive and ultimately make the conclusion of the sequence so heartbreaking.

And yet it is the fourth that had the largest impact on me. I lived in Florence for a semester in college and while I didn't spend much time near the Uffizi I know the Piazza della Signoria fairly well. This makes the experience of seeing the Uffizi's square turned into a war zone a truly shocking sight, the kind of personal connection (however tenuous) that makes something so abstract seem very, very real. Every sequence here is excellent however - and appeals in notably different ways (though the third and fourth lean somewhat toward melodrama) - making this stand quite easily next Rome, Open City as one of the definitive films on World War II.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

#579: The Phantom Carriage

(Victor Sjöström, 1921)

Taken at face value, the villain in The Phantom Carriage is the drink. This was exploited when the film came to America (during Prohibition no less!) but it does not especially seem to be the intention of the film - alcohol is a means to an end both for the drunkard at the center of the story and the story itself, which seems to owe a great deal to A Christmas Carol.

The myth at the center of the film - the last person to die on New Year's Eve must take over as Death for the following year, with each day feeling like 100 years - has timeless appeal and could easily feature as the center of a modern horror film. But the film is actually more about a man being shown the light and changing his wicked ways. As a result, there wasn't much here I could become invested in on a narrative level.

Technically, however, The Phantom Carriage is an immensely impressive silent film. Sjöström uses multiple exposures to get his ghosts just right, and he pops back and forth in time in an impressive fashion. The horror-style scenes - of which there are few - are shot well, and if it hadn't been ruined for me, the clear influence the film had on The Shining would have been a pleasant surprise. While it's not one of my favorite silent films I've ever seen, The Phantom Carriage makes a solid case for early cinema as a major treasure trove of ideas and techniques that is essential to understanding not just early talkies but the modern film landscape. For this reason, it's a worthy successor to Nanook of the North as the oldest film in the Criterion Collection.

#190: Throne of Blood

(Akira Kurosawa, 1957)

Throne of Blood is not Kurosawa's best movie - or even his best samurai movie - but it is a superb adaptation of one of Shakespeare's best-known plays, Macbeth. In fact, even with the vast number of times filmmakers have taken the Bard's plays and morphed them into different times and settings for the big screen it's hard to think of a better one.

So much of this comes from the core performances in the film that it's easy to overlook Kurosawa's craft. Toshiro Mifune verges on (and often achieves) iconic status in every role he played for Kurosawa, but his performance as Washizu aka Macbeth is an obvious stand out, both for its complexity and the fact that the film almost entirely revolves around him. But he is matched by Isuzu Yamada as his wife. Lady Macbeth is one of the juiciest roles in all of Shakespeare (and arguably all of English theater), and Yamada shows why here. Her machinations are so coldly logical and yet diabolical that it's hard to tell if she truly believes what she is saying or she is propelling her husband toward death through her own thirst for power. The combination of the conventional feudal Japanese female demeanor and the Lady Macbeth persona is an especially chilling one, bringing something intellectually unique to a role that has been endlessly explored as a representation of femininity (or at least the male perception of it).

Kurosawa's hand still manages to impress, though. He is at his flashiest when he needs to be, like in the moody scene in which Mifune encounters the spirit or the flat and striking compositions that enclose Mifune at his celebration as he begins to lose his mind. Throne of Blood was made at the height of Kurosawa's career, with Criterion entries Rashomon, Seven Samurai, and Ikiru behind him and Hidden Fortress, Yojimbo and The Bad Sleep Well still to come. This confidence shows in the straightforward way he presents the material here, but he can also sometimes be too acquiescent to the source material. This is where the film fails to transcend its stage roots (something which would prove to be a crucial flaw in Kurosawa's next film, The Lower Depths). The final death scene, too, is so over the top (and vaguely reminded me of the absurdly long horse scene in his later masterpiece Kagemusha) that it nearly turns to parody - saved only by Mifune's complete disappearance into his role.

I think it says something remarkable about Kurosawa as a filmmaker that this movie ranks somewhere in the upper-middle of the pack for his films. Taken on its own, Throne of Blood is a superb film, better than 95% of the movies released this year (even that is probably a conservative estimate). Within Kurosawa's (and Mifune's) catalog it's just another classic, even if it's essential viewing as Shakespeare on film.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

#240: Early Summer

(Yasujiro Ozu, 1951)

One of the most satisfying results of this Criterion journey has been my budding appreciation for and even love of Ozu movies. I don't think any director deserves to be enjoyed by everyone as a prerequisite to appreciating cinema. But I do think that there are a handful of directors in history that deserve a close evaluation of their work regardless of the initial impression one has of them. Kubrick, Lubitsch, Tarkovsky, Fellini, Godard, Bergman come to mind. These filmmakers are so (rightfully) praised and so integral to the understanding of cinema history that giving their work a second (or third, or fourth...) try is not something of which any movie nerd needs to be convinced. There are other directors as great as these, of course, but most of them (e.g. Kurosawa or Hitchcock) work with generally accessible pacing, genre, and theme as to make their work much less of an acquired taste - it's the equivalent of comparing bacon to sea urchin.

Of the most essential filmmakers, Yasujiro Ozu was the last to move me. Maybe it was my own hardwired perceptions of how a film should be properly paced, shot, and edited. Certainly, too, Ozu's films are not just unusual in their technique but in the simplicity of their stories (their plots, on the other hand, are actually rather complex, and can sometimes take reflection to piece together - maybe never more the case than here in Early Summer). But I ultimately think it was the shock of the new - even within the relatively non-rigid world of iconic cinema. When people think of the revolutionary filmmakers, names like Lang, Godard, and Lynch spring to mind, but Ozu's style and grammar are so deceptively unique that an evaluation of his work requires a very open mind and time to devote to transition to his rhythms. It took time, but my confusion has blossomed into genuine pleasure.

Early Summer is a confirmation of this metamorphosis. Made just after Last Spring and just before his most well-regarded film, Tokyo Story, Early Summer tells the story of an average family and their desire to find a husband for an unmarried daughter. There are other plots woven into the family tapestry - a visit from an Uncle, a plot involving the children and their desire for a train set clearly presaging Good Morning - but these are meant to give the core plot of the daughter finding a husband (and inadvertently breaking up the family) more heft. We are meant to care about this family and recognize our own lives in their daily existence. As an outsider - with time, culture, and geography between me and the characters - I am exposed to a world rarely seen both in what takes place on the screen and in how it is presented. Once the rhythms of Ozu seem comprehendible if still unfamiliar, the viewer can appreciate his films for their unique insight into the human condition, both within the Japanese culture and universally.

From a technical standpoint, the most compelling thing about Ozu's films for me is without a doubt his trademark camera angle, which is on full display here in Early Summer. Ozu films his actors from a floor-level angle - often filming their entire bodies from afar - yet it does not appear as if we are looking up at them. The effect is one of Japanese domesticity and elemental cinema. The director manages to pack the maximum amount of information into each shot; his editing might be seen as choppy and crude if it didn't have such a logical flow to it. He writes poetry with his camera, the kind that rivals the barest of all personal verse. Stripped-down prose is so rare in cinema today - and in American film in general - that this work seems over-simplistic to the unaccustomed eye. Ozu is often defended against charges of boredom, but it's not the glacial pace of his stories that troubled me, I think, but the lack of pomp surrounding his cinematic grammar. His worlds simply exist and exist simply.

The common refrain about Ozu is that he is the most Japanese of Japanese directors. This is often used as a reason why Western viewers aren't able to fully appreciate his work. Certainly his stories center around the intricacies of a culture that is substantially different than American culture. Not only can it be difficult to adjust to the pacing, there's also a host of subtle plot points that are undoubtedly lost in translation. But simply chalking it up to a cultural misunderstanding gives Ozu short shrift. Japanese filmmaking, from Kurosawa and Suzuki to Oshima and Miyazaki, is hardly known for its austere productions and absence of style, so it's not really fair to classify their cinema as less Japanese than Ozu films. Ozu, in fact, is the most Ozu-like of any director. That's the real challenge to overcome - one well worth the reward waiting for you at the end of the tunnel.

Friday, November 25, 2011

#352: Jigoku

(Nobuo Nakagawa, 1960)

I just wish more of the characters in this movie died.

So Jigoku is a dark movie, a fable divided into two halves. The first is set in the real world, though the characters seem like they are walking through a dream (and the production design is oddly minimalist - in a good way). The second half is in the titular Hell, and it's here where the movie makes its reputation. This Hell is an abstract nightmare-scape. Its inhabitants move zombified through a swirling infinity that weirdly reminded me of Solaris - though that film's visuals owe much more to the divine than the damned. Jigoku is a fairly terrifying movie, full of gore and ghosts, even if the moral lesson of the first half has already been beaten over your head before the protagonist's real punishment is doled out in the second.

Despite the visual appeal of the movie, I was left somewhat cold by the philosophy behind it. Perhaps I would have preferred a more realistic in-depth look at the self-guilt that surrounded the first half, or a more expansive look at the nature of spiritual punishment from the second; maybe I just didn't want both in the same movie. After The Flowers of St. Francis, a gentle look at religion made a decade earlier half a world away which I watched right before this film, Jigoku seems almost silly, a naïve case for scaring people into the righteous path. Personally, I don't get it - why would acting like a good person because you don't want to burn in Hell for all eternity make you a good person? Doesn't that just make you a prisoner?

Anyway, some cool gore in this one and it did make me have a nightmare, which is pretty impressive.

#293: The Flowers of St. Francis

(Roberto Rossellini, 1950)

Just as Job is the athiest's Bible book of choice, Francis of Assisi is their saint. Of course, this isn't because the fictional character of Job or the real Italian monk shared a disbelief in God. St. Francis was very much a devout Catholic, going so far as to allegedly receive stigmata. But the form his beliefs took in his daily practice shared a great deal with humanism - care for the poor, love of nature, a dedication to poverty that would later be co-opted by anti-capitalist movements. Like most Catholic historical figures (and saints in particular) his real-life zeal mainly focused on conversion and preaching the gospel (I don't mean this in a negative way - if I believed in a god I'd probably want everyone on board, too). But as is so often the case this has fallen by the wayside in retrospect, and what is left is the grand side of Christianity - quite simply the teachings of Jesus, particularly on the social issues.

This is where The Flowers of St. Francis resides. Roberto Rossellini's film is more a meditation than a narrative, a series of vignettes that have no specific destination and are only connected by the recurring characters, particularly Francis himself and a young disciple named Ginepro. As a result, your reaction to the finished product will largely be a result of how you choose to interact with the teachings of Francis and how that compares to Rossellini's understated and gentle presentation. Personally, I don't entirely feel qualified to review the film - Christianity is kind of like opera for me - so I'll just say I think The Flowers of St. Francis gives you a pretty good idea of where the saint was coming from, or at least where Rossellini thought he was. For a heathen like me, that makes it more of a picture of Italy post-WWII and the humanist aesthetics of neo-realism married to the Catholicism that remains infused in Italian culture today - making it a nice companion piece to Rossellini's war trilogy.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

#298: Gate of Flesh

(Seijun Suzuki, 1964)

With all progress comes inadvertent negative effects. In film, the move towards auteurism has been rightly hailed as a major development with almost universally positive results for artists and filmgoers alike. However, the ability of talented directors to work outside of the contract system has rendered films like Gate of Flesh archaic, nearly impossible to recreate.

Seijun Suzuki's notorious run with Nikkatsu meant he was forced to make films regardless of his opinion of the material. Like many contract Hollywood directors before him, Suzuki chose to make the most of his situation and undermine the simplistic intentions of his employer at every turn. What the script for Gate of Flesh provided for him was notably less than the finished product.

In fact, the studio merely wanted a soft-core sexploitation flick, the kind of film that would have been set in a women's prison in America. Here, it's bombed-out Tokyo after World War II as a defeated and occupied Japan barely scrapes by, struggling through the hard times before the boom of the 50s and 60s. The story - about a gang of prostitutes trying to maintain their sanity - is a minor one, infused with melodramatic character backgrounds and ordinary arcs that seem overly familiar for 1964 let alone today.

But there's nothing ordinary about Suzuki's work. There's no doubt in my mind that Suzuki's films had a huge influence on Nobuhiko Obayashi when he made House, and I wouldn't be surprised if Gate of Flesh specifically was in regular rotation in the crew's screening room. There's so much here that is bursting with ideas, from the color-coordinated girls to the various superimposed profiles that appear to be in the same frame but slowly fade from view. Then there are the sets - gorgeous, colorful, surreal sets (created under a tight budget with discarded wood on the Nikkatsu lot) - that are unmistakably theatrical, but somehow make the film's characters seem all the more vivid. It creates a film that is constantly at war with itself - struggling to burst out of its typicality - which oddly makes the story much more powerful because the characters themselves are trying to achieve the same thing.

This battle is probably also true of Suzuki's later Nikkatsu masterpieces, Youth of the Beast and Tokyo Drifter, but the gangster genre lends itself so much to the studio system (and on a personal level, I just happen to enjoy it so much more) that I don't notice the dichotomy as much. That makes Gate of Flesh a sort of intellectual exercise in pre-auteur film history class - one that highlights the law of unintended consequences.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

#350: Seduced and Abandoned

(Pietro Germi, 1964)

Seduced and Abandoned is Germi's follow-up to his big hit Divorce, Italian Style. That film's sly satire has been quadrupled here, and is now boiling over into a rage - it's hard to think of many comedies that have this much contempt for their characters and the universe they inhabit. Maybe that's why I enjoyed the movie so much.

The film revolves around a sexual encounter between a man and the underage sister of his fiancee, whom he impregnates. When the father finds out what happened, rather than turn the man in to the police for statutory rape, he expends all of his energy struggling to get them married and keep his family's honor intact. Despite being only 16, the sister is seen as a "slut" or "whore" - at one point, someone explains that "It is a man's right to ask, a woman's duty to refuse." In fact, even the man who seduced her refuses to marry her because she is not a virgin.

The story would be tragic if the film didn't take this archaic and barbaric mindset to its logical extreme, turning the situation into high farce that takes a dark path through statutory rape, suicide, kidnapping, and attempted murder. I've always felt satire is more effective at exposing hypocrisy than drama - which can get preachy very, very fast - and this film is a perfect example of why. The final shot of the gravestone in a drama would have been deemed too far over the top, but here it's a cherry on top of an arsenic sundae.

Like Mafioso, another early 60s film that lampooned Sicilian living as out of step with modern society, Seduced and Abandoned plays unspoken codes of conduct for laughs. Yet Mafioso had an enormous amount of sympathy for its main character - the film could easily be regarded as one of the core humanist comedies of Italian cinema - while Seduced and Abandoned depicts its protagonists (or maybe antagonists) as willing participants in their society's unjust, misogynistic system. Ironically, despite the somewhat upbeat hope for humanity to triumph in Mafioso and the dark cycle of Seduced and Abandoned, it's the latter film that comes off lighter, though both are equally entertaining.

I've done a lot of thinking about comedy, and one really difficult thing about making a compelling and relevant comedy in modern America is that most of the taboos that can be depicted in a light-hearted fashion have been torn down. Movies like The Miracle of Morgan Creek or even The Graduate don't have the same bite they once did (though both are still great movies), and today all we're left with are decidedly unfunny taboos like rape and incest and overplayed semi-taboos like homosexuality and blasphemy and holdovers from our childhoods like saying bad words and farting. It makes broad comedies of this nature much more difficult to pull off, and it's one reason why satire is somewhat marginalized in our culture. Germi's work here is a prime example of the pleasure that can be drawn from the style.

#241: Stage and Spectacle: Three Films by Jean Renoir

(Jean Renoir, 1953-56)

Stage and Spectacle is both a somewhat random box set and a respectably logical one, straddling the line somewhere between the 3 Films by Louis Malle set, which is linked through vague themes of childhood, and clearer "sets" like The Adventures of Antoine Doinel, which features one character in continuing sequels. Renoir's technicolor hues and light touch run through all three of these films. The multi-pronged romances in each film center around legendary stars, too, leading to the films evoking similar emotions. And each film could easily be perceived as slight, entertaining distraction from daily life.

Yet all three films are much more substantial than surface viewings might imply. The Golden Coach and French Cancan explore the life of the performer, while Elena and Her Men has a darker edge to its depiction of Bergman's muse - the question lurks behind all three as to what is reality and what is fantasy and who holds power in the performer/audience dynamic.

Of the three, I enjoyed French Cancan the most by far. The film has the most straightforward heftier themes, but it is also the most entertaining and evocative. All three films hinge on a certain level of cinematic magic, but French Cancan does the best job of matching this theme with a fantastical tone which recalls the best of Hollywood's spectacles. Conversely, The Golden Coach and Elena and Her Men tilt towards farce a little too often for my tastes. Stage and Spectacle in general is not my favorite Criterion box - and it's probably one of the least essential - but I admire the presentation of this lesser-known section of Renoir's career. The presence of French Cancan alone (not to mention its added appeal when seen in the context of the other two films) makes me happy to see the set in the Collection.

Individual reviews:
The Golden Coach
French Cancan
Elena and Her Men

#244: Elena and Her Men

(Jean Renoir, 1956)

Elena and Her Men completes an informal trilogy in the Criterion Collection of Renoir's light, worldly, colorful musical comedies during the mid-1950s. However, this film eschews the most obvious connection between the two earlier films - the stage and an exploration of theatrical performance - in favor of a more elemental one (fanciful love carried on by dazzling women who assert their power through their traditional feminine guile) and a more cerebral one (the notion that "all the world's a stage" - or at least Paris is). Despite the presence of Anna Magnani and Jean Gabin in the other two films, it is Elena and Her Men that features the most legendary star front and center, the incomparable Ingrid Bergman. I could be wrong, but I think this is her first film in French (one of five languages she spoke), and the first film she made after separating from Roberto Rossellini.

Renoir's work here revolves almost completely around Bergman, and her character's development relies almost entirely on the fact that it is Bergman playing the role - we believe that her flower can bring any man luck simply because it was given to them by Ingrid Bergman. In this regard the film is not so far off from And God Created Woman, made the very same year. Of course, Bardot is not Bergman, just as - no, I can't even say it. Renoir. Vadim. They don't belong in the same sentence. So Elena and Her Men is far superior to that other film, even if it is somewhat underwhelming following the superb French Cancan. The various political machinations at work are often secondary to the sexual farce, making the film perhaps more akin to Rules of the Game than the other films in the trilogy, though no one would argue that it reaches that film's profound heights.

Ultimately, Elena and Her Men seems more relevant to Bergman's career than Renoir's, which makes it somewhat unusual in the Criterion catalog. The actress is certainly better represented elsewhere in the Collection with the perfect Notorious and the heart-wrenching Autumn Sonata. But Elena and Her Men is a celebration of her shine - a somewhat stereotypical investigation into the allure of her sexual presence, yes, but a breezy and notable one nevertheless, particularly for fans of the actress (like me).

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

#243: French Cancan

(Jean Renoir, 1955)

French Cancan was a pleasant surprise after the relatively unmemorable The Golden Coach. It's the middle film in Renoir's spectacle trilogy, often categorized as his films about the relationship between art and life. For me, French Cancan isn't about life so much as it is about art, specifically art for art's sake. It's also an extremely entertaining film - maybe one of the most entertaining in the Collection - making it a kind of counterbalance to the intense and tragic artist's dilemma of The Red Shoes, a film which is only French Cancan's superior if you believe that drama is inherently "Greater" than comedy. Both films revel in the question of sacrificing for your art, specifically as a woman, though The Red Shoes is certainly a more feminist interpretation of the theme (or at the very least can be easily perceived in that way).  

French Cancan, on the other hand, chooses to celebrate the choice of the artist rather than wallow in its sacrifices. Jean Gabin (who is at the top of his game here) provides the message of the film quite clearly in the final moments as his budding star is on the verge of leaving before her big debut, threatening to quit if she can't have him exclusively. Rather than say anything to make the show go on, Gabin clearly explains that no one can have him, because he belongs to his art. Rather than degrade or demean Nini, his honesty has freed her to make her own decision about what matters in her life. Her decision, coming after such a speech (and such a film, in which Renoir lays out the best case for entertainment at face value since Sullivan's Travels), is not surprising but it is validating and invigorating. What makes it especially appealing is the lack of pretentiousness which can so often sink a film about the "importance" of art. French Cancan does not argue that art is a valuable pursuit because of the impact it has on the outside world (though certainly this can be a persuasive argument). It focuses on the urge within the artist to create - at the expense of everything else in their life and regardless of the impact of their work on the outside world.

Despite this powerful and elegant statement, Renoir's French Cancan is not a weighty film, but a profound pastry, that light and effortless end product which belies its skill and labor. The love affairs at the center are archetypal but insightful and thoroughly entertaining, and Renoir's hand is almost imperceptible but purposeful. The spectacle of the final sequence when the Moulin Rouge is finally opened is especially impressive but the whole film crackles with 50s cinema energy reminiscent of another technicolor masterpiece set in Paris from that decade, Vincente Minnelli's An American in Paris. It's a joy to watch, and for me ranks high among Renoir's films despite its relatively gentle touch.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

#282: Andrzej Wajda: Three War Films

(Andrzej Wajda, 1955-58)

Three War Films was one of the most unexpected surprises in the Collection for me. I had heard of Wajda before (and remember when he received his special Oscar), but had not seen any of his films. I expected this set to be much more Soviet influenced, laced with dark symbolism and allegorical characterizations that would seem creaky today (I should probably note here that I actually love a lot of Soviet films). Instead, the films were alive with energy and rebellion, clear-eyed reflections on the tragedies that had befallen Poland just a decade before the films were made.

A Generation undoubtedly moved me the most. Not just because it came first and so I was least likely to see it coming, but because I had a strong, almost physical response to the depiction of young adults being thrown into a situation that was way over their heads. I can't think of many films that were able to so clearly depict the plight of the able-bodied non-soldier male in wartime, and many of the images and characters have stayed with me weeks after seeing the film. Kanal and Ashes and Diamonds were also moving, but the former was for me a much less ambitious film and the latter was clouded in the complexity of the essential social context.

Still, I'd probably pick Ashes and Diamonds as the essential viewing here, even if I enjoyed the first two much more on my initial viewings. The film combines the historical vibrancy of the earlier two films with a more assured (some might argue heavy) hand behind the camera, resulting in a complex and powerful story. But really, all three of these films should be added to any film fan's list of must-sees, whether their focus is World War II, eastern Europe, 50s foreign cinema, or, um, humanity.

Individual reviews:
A Generation
Ashes and Diamonds

#285: Ashes and Diamonds

(Andrzej Wajda, 1958)

Ashes and Diamonds is the most accomplished (and consequently beautiful) of Wajda's mid-50s war films, but it's also his most obtuse for the viewer far separated from the political realities which inform it onscreen and off. Even though Americans have not been widely exposed to the experience of Poland during the second World War, it's easy enough to identify the struggle - Nazis bad, non-Germans good. Even the experiences of the soldiers in Kanal are clearly laid out within the framework of the film, so the average person with a casual knowledge of world history has an easy way into the film's universe.

Ashes and Diamonds, on the other hand, is set after the Germans have surrendered, when the Polish faced a new, far more complex struggle between the pro-Soviet Communist regime that was being installed and the freedom fighters who were looking to bring true democracy to the decimated country. To make things more complicated, the film was shot while that regime (albeit a thawed post-Stalin one) was still in power, meaning the filmmaker's true sentiments (and presumably those of most of the film's audience) - which unquestionably lay with the Polish Home Army resistance fighters - needed to be obscured. This paved the way for a film that is flawed propaganda in the most invigorating way. Wadja's depiction of the resistance fighters and their enemies is incredibly complex. We are clearly meant to root for Maciek; he's struggling for what he believes is right and we see much of the film from his perspective. But we are introduced to him as he kills innocent people. We see the damage he has caused, yet we are given a portrait of the Communists as useless bureaucrats and compromised patriots, concerned with appearances and their own survival (and advancement) more than their fellow Poles. This is emphasized by the juxtaposition of Maciek and Szczuka dying alone as the party in the hotel reaches its apex.

The tightwire act muddies the film's message for the modern American viewer (i.e. me), but it must have been clear as day to the Polish and surrounding Europeans when the film was released. This begs the question of how successful a film can be when its context must be understood for it to be appreciated. In my opinion, very, since technically every great movie needs the context of one culture or another. Add onto this political significance the sheer beauty of the film in moments both expected (Maciek's walk through the burned church, the lit vodka glasses) and not (the reflection of the fireworks as Szczuka lays in the streets), and Ashes and Diamonds becomes Wadja's essential film, even if I initially enjoyed it less than the other two films in the "trilogy."

Friday, November 4, 2011

#284: Kanal

(Andrzej Wajda, 1957)

Kanal - a film made in remembrance of a grand tragedy in the middle of the grandest tragedy of the 20th century - is ironically about forgotten people. Within the first few minutes of the film we are told to pay attention to the characters because they are about to die. Within 90 minutes, we see most of these deaths.

Unlike the vast majority of films about the Holocaust, there is no one fighting against the massacre depicted in Kanal. We rarely see the enemy and they speak few if any words, certainly nothing to indicate there was anything but a cold calculated strategy to what they were doing. We are not asked to save the soldiers in the film, but merely to be witnesses to their destruction. We know they will all die - they know it, too - but we watch their struggle for survival anyway, not because we see a way forward for us to combat against indifference to human suffering but because hundreds of thousands of Polish people were killed within a few months and it shouldn't be forgotten.

This does not make for easy viewing, but after reading a horribly offensive and ignorant article in the New York Times today, I feel a strong urge to defend films like this. The most simple way to defend Kanal is to point out that the film is extremely entertaining, filled with passionate characters and suspenseful moments (like the one depicted on the cover) that recall the tense sequences of Wages of Fear or Notorious (two supremely entertaining films that would also be rejected by the sensibilities of modern audiences). But today I am unwilling to meet halfway people who believe art is only art if it is there to entertain and amuse them. Maybe it's just the fact that the writer happened to use Solaris - one of my ten favorite movies of all time - to prove the point that people only like to say they like "important" movies, they don't actually like them. Actually, maybe YOU only like movies to say that you like them. Maybe other people - gasp! - actually like them. Maybe everything isn't supposed to seem the same as every movie before it, maybe movies aren't made so the audience can pass the time, or feel good about themselves, but rather because they speak to the human condition.

If I have been guilty of saying in the past that a movie in the Criterion Collection is enjoyed only by people who like to think it is important and it makes them superior consumers (and at 300 posts and over 100,000 words, I probably have somewhere on this website), then I suppose I am as guilty of this as that writer is. The truth is, movies are hard to make. They take time, money, energy, and an incredible number of people to produce. There are movies that are made simply to make money and movies made just to win awards. But every single movie in the Criterion Collection (except two - you know who you are) and 99% of all movies ever made were made because someone was passionate about the work they were doing. Claiming that people who enjoy that work are pretentiously lying to themselves or other people about their opinions is not only disrespectful to those people, but disrespectful to art, period. Like what you like, for sure - and I would never begrudge someone for enjoying mainstream Hollywood and/or whatever is the most conventional storytelling format in their culture - but when you decide that your taste somehow determines the nature of the things you are categorizing, when you decide that foreign films or art films or dramas or slowly paced films are "vegetables" you have to eat, you are going too far.

Remember when I was reviewing Kanal? Anyway, that just annoyed me today, and I had to write a review of this incredibly moving, deeply unsettling piece of historical fiction so it seemed like as good a time as ever to go off. If you are reading this far (or really if you are reading this blog at all) you probably agree with me, so I'll take my soapbox and go home. Just remember next time someone tells you they don't like foreign films that judging them will only create more animosity towards the unknown, like that seen in that article (written in the goddamned New York Times of all places! Harrumph). Hopefully, things like the Criterion Collection make accessible the work that anti-intellectuals tell you is all pretentious nonsense, and viewers who have an open mind can give films like Kanal an honest shot. Who knows, they might get wrapped up in it just like I was - not because it is entertaining or nerve-wracking or crackling with energy (though it is all of these things) but because it makes you witness to a history that can only be conveyed in this way through cinema. It might be dismissed as boring by some filmgoers, but to me, film can do nothing more exciting - more invigorating - than that.

Monday, October 10, 2011

#242: The Golden Coach

(Jean Renoir, 1953)

Jean Renoir made two of the greatest films ever in the 1930s, The Grand Illusion and Rules of the Game. While they reside in different genres, both films were about class, and both dealt with the core of human nature, speaking to universal truths that go beyond cinema and infiltrate every facet of life and art. They are towering achievements in cinema, just two of the many jewels in Renoir's catalog that is one of the five or ten most widely praised oeuvres in film.

Because of these works, Renoir's later-stage trifle The Golden Coach seems to demand serious consideration from critics, who assure that something deeper lurks beneath the colorful veneer of Renoir's universe. They may be right: certainly the film's central character, played by Anna Magnani, represents the larger struggle of the actress, really the performer, perhaps the artist But I think these in-depth deconstructions of the film do a disservice to its more overt intentions. The Golden Coach may be an exploration of the artist, but it's also a wacky farce that plays with the barriers between stage and screen, reality and fantasy, what happens onscreen and what happens in the dark as we see the story unfold. These can all be heavy topics, for sure, but Renoir deals with them in such a light-hearted and entertainment-minded way that dwelling on them would seem vulgur next to the purity of the film's story.

Not that The Golden Coach is virginal. While not necessarily a sex comedy, the film has its share of nudge nudge wink wink moments. And by the time Magnani is shuttling back and forth between her prospective lovers, the movie has made it clear that higher aspirations are not particularly of interest. Like the colorful and apt Criterion cover, the purpose is to dazzle, if only for an hour or two.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

#283: A Generation

(Andrzej Wajda, 1955)

A Generation is an almost annoyingly ambitious title for a film, particularly one that is 90 minutes long. How do you encapsulate the experience of an entire generation in any narrative? Yet because World War II was so all-consuming - and perhaps more tragic than the experience of any other country - in Poland, it seems like the perfect title for Andzrej Wajda's first film. The kids (for that is what they are, regardless of age) depicted in A Generation do not ask for their roles in the war but have them thrust upon them. Wajda's two protagonists, Stach and Jasio, meet different fates during the course of the film (one of them chillingly depicted in the cover of the Criterion disc) and approach their engagement with their country's struggle in different ways. But their attitudes reinforce the basic message of the film: there was a real, interpersonal experience behind the myth of war, a reality that was elevated through happenstance to historical proportions.

This manifests itself in two ways. First, on a micro level, Wajda gives his characters authentic motivations that rarely have much to do with politics or nationalism. They fall in love, they take care of their families. They are selfish, cowardly, angry, seen putting on gangster personas and speaking of concepts beyond their understanding, constantly reminded of the war that is burning the Earth in the background. But on a micro level, this message demands attention because few films in history have been so genuine in their depiction of a reality transformed by war. Though America has been fighting wars since the 1940s on virtually a continual basis, war hasn't actually been felt by the US since the 1860s. This means it is impossible for Americans who were born and raised in this country to know what it would be like to live every day experiencing war on your own soil. Obviously a movie cannot hope to change this, but the moment when Jasio begins to be chased by soldiers and ends up in a shootout is an escalation of what has come before to such an enormous degree that (especially when coupled with the metaphor of the spiral staircase) the true experience of this generation begins to set in.

The tragedy of Poland's experience in World War II (something that is cleanly explained and explored in Criterion's essay on the film) can often be overlooked in history because of the parallel - and  inextricably intertwined - tragedy of the Holocaust. Without argument, nothing towers over the various atrocities of the 20th century like the Holocaust - an organized, pathological extermination of almost an entire race of people. One of the most incomprehensible tragedies of the Holocaust is how few Europeans (especially of course Germans) rose up to prevent this mass murder, but the notion is especially terrifying because it is impossible to know what truly could have been done and whether or not you personally would have been able to sacrifice yourself to stop it. Certainly Poland and its inhabitants had a great deal of guilt - justified and/or unjustified - after the war because of their inability to prevent the elimination of virtually their entire Jewish population. But they also had an enormous amount of suffering to overcome themselves, equally measured against their own abandonment by the international community throughout the war (peaking with the Warsaw Uprising, which was the subject of Wajda's next film, Kanal).

A Generation is especially impressive because it was made primarily by Polish people in their 20s in 1955 just a decade after the end of the war - an incredibly short amount of time to process such an immensely destructive experience. Yet Wajda's reflections on the impact of the war among countrymen who were not much older than him seems so fully formed that this alone makes the film an incredible accomplishment. Technically, A Generation might be regarded as a shade below classic, the work of an artist blooming but not quite at his peak. But in terms of historical relevance, A Generation joins Au Revoir Les Enfants, Rome, Open City, Ballad of a Soldier, and Army of Shadows as essential Criterion portraits of World War II, helping to form a fuller picture of the most transformative and tragic event of the last century.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

#225: Tunes of Glory

(Ronald Neame, 1960)

Tunes of Glory belongs to the long tradition of classy productions which has defined British cinema for many viewers in - depending on one's views - either a derogatory or exemplary fashion. I choose to place myself somewhere in the middle, recognizing these works for their superb technical achievements (which ironically mostly consist of hiding the technicality of filmmaking) but often bemoaning the starched thematic constructs and old-fashioned pacing.

Characteristically, then, Neame's Tunes of Glory is alternately quite moving and somewhat emotionally distant. The film contains some truly fine performances, including one from Alec Guinness at the center which may be his best I've ever seen. But the script can get bogged down in the development of the characters' motivations and interactions. This often leads to the film feeling oddly theatrical at times, despite its origins as a novel. Even the worst of these moments, however, are carried by Guinness and John Mills in particular and the cast in general, as films of this nature so often are. Neame's direction, in a similarly typical fashion, is invisible to the casual viewer, but manages to reinforce the separation Mills feels from his men and the arrogant camaraderie Guinness employs so naturally to his benefit.  It's a thankless task in a field too often judged only on auteurism - and it's why his work has largely fallen into the middle of the historical pack - but it makes Neame an admirable craftsman.

Judging a film like Tunes of Glory - or for that matter any film of a similar nature - by modern standards of drama can often be unfair. Today's audience is used to seeing protagonists of either common or particularly exceptional nature - the everyday middle-class professional or the famous musician/politician/artist. Very rarely are we exposed to emotionally distant men tasked to a higher calling who are struggling within their own humanity and social constraints, and when we are (as in work like Mad Men) it is often through the prism of modern rhythms and perspectives. So when a film like Tunes of Glory explores lower-c conservative life it is more difficult for the broader audience to see its message as a timeless one beyond the social construct it inhabits - one of those "forest for the trees" situations. In this case, it's a beautiful forest, it's just that some of the trees have lost their luster.

Monday, September 26, 2011

#506: Dillinger Is Dead

(Marco Ferreri, 1969)

Dillinger Is Dead doesn't actually have any moments that - when taken out of context - would imply the film is surreal or even unusual. The closest would probably be the moment when the lead character (only named in the script) paints his new-found gun red with polka dots. Instead, the film's plot is about as straightforward as it comes, and could probably be told in a film one tenth the length of the movie.

The two biggest questions surrounding Dillinger Is Dead then become 1. What is happening in the negative space around the plot? and 2. How do these elements combine to form a film which is distinctly out of the ordinary - even separated from reality?

The film I was first reminded of while watching Dillinger Is Dead was Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. However, while both films revel in the monotony of the moments between conventional cuts and (spoiler alert) ultimately climax with an unexpected and cold-blooded murder, their messages stem from different realms of modern living - one the domestic space, the other the commercial/industrial one (even though ironically both films take place primarily in a home). This of course highlights the contrast between the depiction of women in Akerman's film - often cited as one of the towering masterpieces in feminist cinema - and in Ferreri's Dillinger Is Dead - at best a provocation meant to expose the inner misogynistic tendencies of the primitive man a la Fight Club, at worst a rejection of the supposed "feminization" of mod society. Ferreri's protagonist uses one woman for honey sex (a new phrase!), harasses and then murders another, and manages to metaphorically replace his need for a woman by making himself a damn good dinner to enjoy over a nice television show about how even teenage girls have bought into The Man's plans for us all.

If I didn't think Ferreri was aware of the nature of these plot points and the ways in which they would be received it would be much easier to dismiss the film. But it is clear that they were intentional. It's just that while the satire of the film is thick and evident, it's not so cut and dry at whom the gun is pointed. Ferreri teases the viewer early on for attempting to interpret his film in full by essentially laying out the gas mask metaphor with a purposefully brutish clumsiness - it couldn't have been more obvious if Ferreri himself came on the screen and explained the symbolism of his protagonist's job. He achieves this so thoroughly that the obliqueness of the rest of the film seems that much more intentional (Ferreri once said he was 50% misogynist and 50% feminist, which is kind of like saying "fuck you").

Really, then, everything is happening between the plot points - everything that matters, anyway - and this is precisely what makes the film so hard to pin down. It's enough to make you resent Ferreri for the same reason Lars Von Trier seems like such a colossal asshole, playing an eternal joke on his viewer. Only Ferreri seems vastly more interested in connecting with his audience - he just isn't sure what his audience is or, like his protagonist at the end of the film, what he's going to do when he figures it out.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

#232: A Story of Floating Weeds/Floating Weeds

(Yasujiro Ozu, 1934/1959)

After coming to America, Hitchcock remade his 1934 film The Man Who Knew Too Much in 1956, with Jimmy Stewart in the title role. George Sluizer remade his 1988 masterpiece The Vanishing just five years later because Hollywood wanted an English version with a happy ending. Sam Raimi all but remade his cult hit Evil Dead as its sequel, Evil Dead 2, just so he could have a bigger budget the second time around. Film history is filled with great (and not-so-great) directors remaking films that they had made earlier in their career - almost always with a good reason. For Yasujiro Ozu, that reason is sound.

By 1934, talkies had almost totally overtaken silent film in Hollywood but the medium was slower to die in Japan, and A Story of Floating Weeds became a big hit for Ozu early in his career (he made three more films without sound, two of which are lost). Interestingly, the early film is so effective that - despite the fact that a shift from silent to sound seems like the most drastic adjustment in terms of a remake, almost like book to film - Ozu changed very little when he remade the film a quarter century later. Both movies are extremely moving in the subtle and beautiful way Ozu managed to achieve throughout his career, and it would be hard for me to pick between the two films as to a preference.

The earlier film is most likely more melodramatic. As Donald Richie points out in his essay, Ozu seems more invested in the fates of his characters in the earlier work, while he has resigned himself to observation by the time of the remake. The reason melodrama so often seems overdone and forced is primarily because of its superfluousness in evoking a deep emotional response - something so clearly demonstrated by these two films. A great deal of this is indicated by the way Ozu handles certain scenes - whether he lingers on characters or not, how he chooses his actors and utilizes them, etc. - but much of the contrast lies in the gap between the two cinematic eras. The use of music in particular (and specifically in the climactic scene where the true family dynamic is finally revealed) is a necessity in the earlier film, where music is a constant which must inevitably color the viewer's impression of the story, while Ozu is able to use pauses in dialog and inflection to elicit a response in the remake. This makes for a much more subtle work, but for those who have become accustomed to Ozu's themes and rhythms a much more satisfying one as well.

One of the true pleasures of this journey has been finally understanding the appeal of Ozu. For the modern Western palate he is an acquired taste. But once you begin to understand his intentions, there are few more impressive directors.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

#461: Hobson's Choice

(David Lean, 1954)

I had one serious problem with Hobson's Choice. Maggie Hobson, in many ways the pivotal character in the film, is played by Brenda De Banzie, an actress who was clearly 45 at the time. Yet multiple times during the film they assure us that she is, in fact, 30. In many films this wouldn't be a serious problem - for example, the only slight difference in age between Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft in The Graduate is easily overlooked. But here, Maggie is supposed to be wise and mature beyond her years, making the character more sympathetic and giving her plan to branch out on her own more of a sense of risk. Instead, she just seems expectedly wise and mature, and it often feels like she has more experience than her father, played by the great Charles Laughton, who was only ten years her senior in real life. It hurts the film because this is undoubtedly the most important relationship in the story and the casting decision makes it weaker.

Apart from this one misstep, however, Hobson's Choice is a breezy comedy in the classic British tradition. Lean was hardly known for his light fare, but this film - adapted from a play of the same name - shares many of the traditionally British elements around which his other black and white films are centered. It's also a beautiful and whimsical movie, particularly in moments when Laughton is left alone to wander the streets and roam through his imagination. It's not up to par with early Lean works like his adaptation of Great Expectations or Brief Encounter (my favorite Lean film), but it's not the kind of film made with these ambitions in mind. Then again, I'd rather watch the superb and sharp-witted Kind Hearts and Coronets when I'm in the mood for a quintessential Ealing comedy.

Friday, September 16, 2011

#392: Three Films by Hiroshi Teshigahara

(Hiroshi Teshigahara, 1962-1966)

This boxset collects the first three of four collaborations between Hiroshi Teshigahara and Kôbô Abe. The excluded film probably explains why it wasn't branded as the true collaborations that they are and is instead simply "three films," and it's not entirely clear why Criterion chose to ignore the fourth collaboration, 1968's The Man Without a Map, especially since that film remains unavailable in the US. The easy explanation would be that Teshigahara's fourth film finally gave in to modern trends and moved to Cinemascope and color, making the film aesthetically incongruent with the earlier films. Furthermore - though I have yet to see the film - its reputation is not as impressive as those of the three films collected here (then again, a film like Love on the Run managed to be included in the Antoine Doinel boxset, despite being greatly inferior to the earlier films in the series - though obviously that movie was more closely linked and essential to its series). Still, it would have been nice to see all four films collected here, particularly since the three films included are so accomplished and Teshigahara's oeuvre is so small.

Of the three movies, I don't think there's any doubt that the most impressive film is Woman in the Dunes. The film has certainly received more attention from Western critics than any of the director's other films, but don't hold that against it - it's as impressive thematically as it is visually, and the intense plotting complements the film's worldview impeccably. Still, Pitfall is just as entertaining - and could fill just as many philosophy theses. On the other hand, while Face of Another was extremely well made and equally interesting from a philosophical perspective, the protagonist's cold cynical demeanor - and the film's subservience to this sentiment - makes it a difficult viewing that isn't necessarily worthwhile.

Three Films by Hiroshi Teshigahara is another great boxset from Criterion. I'm not sure how many times I'd want to pull this out, but as a reference set it is a(n almost) complete look at a unique voice in Japanese cinema. Here are the individual reviews:

#393: Pitfall
#394: Woman in the Dunes
#395: The Face of Another

Saturday, September 10, 2011

#395: The Face of Another

(Hiroshi Teshigahara, 1966)

The Face of Another is the final film in Criterion's Teshigahara boxset and his third collaboration with novelist/screenwriter Kôbô Abe after The Woman in the Dunes and Pitfall. It's also my least favorite of the three, partially because its pitch-black tone leaves no room for optimism, but mainly because its protagonist is so soul-crushingly depressing. It's difficult to see what we would like about Mr. Okuyama, who spends the film constantly complaining about his (admittedly shitty) situation, ultimately bumming out everyone around him and guaranteeing his already resigned-to fate. It doesn't help that the immediately welcome face of the legendary Tatsuya Nakadai, playing Mr. Okuyama, is hidden under scars and gauze.

This is all a shame, because The Face of Another is strangely moving and Roeg-style beautiful. Teshigahara combines a modern formalism with striking abstract special effects, making it easily the flashiest of the three films represented in the boxset. A viewing alternates, then, between fascinating moments that strike at worthy themes of loneliness, alienation, and self-perception and frustrating stretches where those same themes feel like nails on a chalkboard.

Ultimately, I would say I liked The Face of Another, mainly because its well-intentioned investigation into the human condition is in fact successful and accomplished. But I wouldn't say it's an easy viewing, or even necessarily an enjoyable one.

#272: La commare secca

(Bernardo Bertolucci, 1962)

I'm not especially familiar with Bertolucci's storied career, having only seen Last Tango in Paris, The Last Emperor, and a handful of his more recent, less impressive films. With only this cursory familiarity with his work, La Commare Secca feels like an unusual debut, more indicative of Pasolini - who is credited with the story upon which the screenplay was based - than of Bertolucci himself. However, when you consider that Bertolucci was only 22 when he made this directorial debut (22!), it's less surprising that he had yet to establish a thematic or technical identity - and the film can certainly be appreciated on its own as a moderately enjoyable Rashomon-style mystery.

La Commare Secca revolves around the death of a prostitute, seen in the opening moments of the film as her body lies motionless in a park. The plot is a familiar one: the police interview suspects, who recount their story in flashbacks, leading the investigation from person to person and eventually circling back to the guilty party. None of the stories are especially different from the others in terms of facts, so the film is less about the arbitrary nature of perspective or the difficulty in arriving at one truth (as films of this nature so often are) and more straightforwardly thrust towards the final solution to the mystery in the style of a CBS procedural.

The movie can seem quite conventional when focusing exclusively on the plot or the story in 2011, but Bertolucci's exuberance and talent make the film oddly visually striking. I have to assume Gaspar Noe has seen and loved La Commare Secca, as the film certainly reads as a precursor to the reckless and much less graceful Irreversible. There are also nice touches that show a director interested not so much in narrative pull but in pacing and cinematic evocation, most notably the moments during the rain shower that links the stories together in which each narrator takes shelter from the storm. La Commare Secca is one of the less impressive films in the Collection when viewed as a standalone work, but like many other selections of a similar nature, it seems to have been included because it points a way forward for a budding talent of memorable stature.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

#571: Black Moon

(Louis Malle, 1975)

One of the difficult things about consuming so many movies in such a short span - particularly films that are often singular or at least unconventionally noteworthy - is that a movie like Black Moon doesn't seem quite as strange as it might in the context of normal, everyday moviegoing. One need not look further than Malle's own catalog to find a stranger movie, but if you were so inclined, there are plenty of Sweet Movies and Antichrists to go around.

The irony of this whole argument is that Black Moon isn't especially weird when you consider the large debt it pays to Alice in Wonderland. That story, so ingrained in our collective subconscious, seems perfectly normal for some reason. Yet something about this grown-up version that lacks red queens and talking rabbits (though what's wrong with a giant rat and talking unicorn?) makes it feel stranger. Certainly there are odd elements - the near absence of dialog (badly dubbed when it happens anyway), the lack of any real plot, and an abrupt freeze frame finale that had me checking my TV connection like the Sopranos finale. It just seems like those elements are so woven into the fabric of the film's technique that things stop feeling strange fairly quickly.

That's not to say Black Moon is a boring movie or a bad one - and it's certainly not a safe or conventional movie in any respect. I actually rather loved the film once I adjusted to its rhythms and almost playful insistence on defying expectation. And while those other films are equally strange (or more so), they are not actually similar to this film, and in this sense it is a unique entry in the collection, and sticks out as a fresh approach to cinema even among hundreds of other films.

One thing that was interesting about the creation of Black Moon was that it was apparently inspired by an actress suggesting to Malle that he make a movie entirely without dialog. This is an extremely hard thing to do - after all, even most silent films have dialog! So I don't mean to discount Malle's accomplishment when I say that even apart from the fact that people do speak in the film he kind of cheated by making a fantasy/stream-of-consciousness film rather than a movie set in the real world. Has this challenge ever been accomplished? Could it be? If so, how? If not, why?

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

#394: Woman in the Dunes

(Hiroshi Teshigahara, 1964)

Like Teshigahara's first film, the elusive Pitfall, Woman in the Dunes is a neo-realist allegory, a fable told in earth-bound cinematic language. But where Pitfall managed to tie its strange occurrences into the world around it, Woman in the Dunes creates a self-contained world, a purgatory literally within the earth.

The film begins in the real world, following a bug expert as he treks his way through the desert to find a rare beetle he can call his own. But even in these early scenes the film's star is the sand, shifting and undulating against a washed-out sky - later, it sticks to flesh as the heat closes in and the film's scope tightens. The movie is about sand like no other movie - it's erotic, it's threatening, it's futile, and finally it is life.

Woman in the Dunes is the first film that is mentioned when Teshigahara's name comes up, and this is not surprising. While I may have enjoyed Pitfall a touch more, the director's follow-up is sexual, philosophical, and incredibly alive with texture and grit - it's clearly a masterpiece. Where Pitfall had so many open windows to crawl out of its logic, Woman in the Dunes manages to gain status as a surreal epic while still being tight as hell. It's a thoroughly impressive feat, and I'm looking forward to watching this one again to see how it's all done.

Monday, September 5, 2011

#534: L'Enfance nue

(Maurice Pialat, 1968)

L'Enfance nue is a sad, beautiful movie. It's also an extremely realistic and heartfelt depiction of the foster child system and its limitations. While I had serious problems with the first Pialat movie I watched, A nos amours, I was impressed with the director's technique, and therefore had a positive attitude going into this film. I was rewarded with an emotionally satisfying coming-of-age journey that lacked the unintentional romanticization of Pialat's later film.

L'Enfance nue was Pialat's first feature, and it's structurally odd. Rather than watch Francois being shuttled through multiple foster homes - or perhaps a more conventional three or four - Pialat has chosen just two: his first long term landing with a couple that decides he is too much to handle, and a real-life-foster-parent couple that ends up being the closest he will seemingly come to feeling like he has a family. The film shifts between moods, showing Francois at his most vulnerable and empathetic before revealing the rage and misguided rebellion of his darker moments. It also looks away from Francois just enough to give us a broader idea of the foster system in France without overloading the film with message moments that would read like a wannabe documentary. Finally, the movie ends extremely abruptly, as Francois's voice is heard reading a letter he has sent his foster parents. It's an uneasy finale - we all know despite his best intentions that Francois cannot be fully "saved" - but the movie is not intending to wrap up his story any more than Truffaut wrapped up Antoine Doinel's story in The 400 Blows (though, unlike Truffaut, Pialat never felt it necessary to literally revisit Francois's story).

The comparison between these two coming-of-age films - released nearly a decade apart - is especially apt because each director's touch runs parallel to the stories of their respective films. Where Truffaut was all bluster and moviemaking flash, his Doinel was intent on ruining the relatively stable (emphasis on relatively) life he led at home and at school. Conversely, Pialat is careful to avoid leaving a fingerprint anywhere on his film, and Francois's story is similarly gentle and reactive rather than aggressive. Of course, it's impossible to avoid leaving your mark on a film you made, just as it is impossible for us to know how Francois is feeling without seeing the destructive or downright cruel things he does. Pialat is extremely aware of both of these things. His care when dealing with each is what makes him a superb filmmaker, even at this early stage in his career.