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.

Friday, September 2, 2011

#393: Pitfall

(Hiroshi Teshigahara, 1962)

Pitfall is an investigation into the unseen forces in life. This means ghosts, for sure, but the film is not a ghost story. It's not about higher powers, either, but about the powerful and the powerless. It's a dark picture about a man in a white suit that doesn't bother to offer answers. Instead, it paints a picture of a world where we are all pawns in a larger game.

The only film of Teshigahara's I had seen before Pitfall was Antonio Gaudí, the mostly silent documentary about the famous Spanish architect. That made me ill-prepared for his fiction work, and the first few moments of Pitfall are akin to being forced to walk with a different rhythm. This comparison could be applied to many filmmakers in the collection - most notably Ozu, Bresson, and Renais - but it feels especially apt here because Teshigahara's work is so simultaneously allegorical and ultra-realist. Pitfall is a film about a miner attempting to make a better life for himself and his son. Through this premise the film explores the economic difficulties of the work, how mines are tied to the larger society, and the place of unions and their management in that society. But it's not really about any of this, because the film could be set anywhere and effectively convey the same themes of alienation, despair, and powerlessness.

That all sounds very depressing, but the way Teshigahara constructs the film is invigorating. His camera alternates between dirty close-ups and sweeping vistas, and his tone is surprisingly warm. This might be the only ghost story I've seen that lacks any sense of haunting mysticism. Because of this, the fact that the movie ends without a typically satisfying conclusion was not dissatisfying, but purely logical. Pitfall is certainly a challenging film, but it's most impressive because Teshigahara is able to balance the opaqueness with a sense of unity. The man in the white suit might be coming for you, but at least he's coming for all of us.

#170: Trouble in Paradise

(Ernst Lubitsch, 1932)

There aren't many of them, but Trouble in Paradise is a perfect movie. The movie is centered around the love affair of two thieves and the woman (or money?) threatening to tear them apart. The plot itself is light and entertaining but - like most Lubitsch films - the main appeal lies in the dialog. Everyone gets great moments here, but especially Herbert Marshall as celebrity thief Gaston Monescu, "the man who walked into the Bank of Constantinople and walked out with the Bank of Constantinople." Lubitsch would go on to work with much more heralded actors, but Marshall holds his own with charm, wit, and cunning, all achieved mainly by speaking 10% too fast and being naturally debonair.

The writing itself is the real star, however. People often speak of the "Lubitsch touch," and while it's in its infancy in Trouble of Paradise, it's everywhere - beginning with the visual joke of a garbage gondola in Venice and running through to the last moment, when the valuable handbag reaches its final owner. The handbag itself is a stunning device, used by Lubitsch and his frequent co-screenwriter, Samson Raphaelson, to establish the heiress's character, prompt the relationship between the heiress and Monescu, and finally reunite the two lovers - all with a handbag! Beyond structure, the film's one-off jokes are some of the best in Lubitsch's catalog (saying a lot):

"Marriage is a beautiful mistake that two people make together... But with you, Francois, I'm afraid it would just be a mistake."

"If I were your father - which fortunately I am not - and you made any attempt to handle your own business affairs, I would give you a good spanking - in a business way of course."
"What would you do if you were my secretary?"
"The same thing."
"You're hired."

"Yes, that's the trouble with mothers. First you get to like them, and then they die."

The biggest problem with the film (other than that it ends - this is one of those 80 minute movies that is the perfect length but leaves you desperate for more) is that it is decidedly uninterested in judging its characters. This led to the film being banned once the Production Code kicked in a few years later - it wasn't shown in the US until the late 60s, and at one point a musical remake was rejected. It simply wasn't possible during the code era to make a film about two thieves who are more charming and cunning than the good guys and end up getting away with it in the end (the sexual innuendo didn't help either).

This may be the main reason the film was never released on VHS, making this disc imho one of the greatest things Criterion has ever done. I first saw Trouble in Paradise at the Silent Film Theater in LA (it was a special talkie night). Years before, I had read about the film and was shocked to learn it wasn't available on video. I knew some movies obviously hadn't made the transition, but this was a purported classic by one of the greatest and most influential directors of all time. Having never lived in a time before VHS - when all movie fans were at the whim of the local repertory theater or TV schedule - it was extremely frustrating to have to wait to see a movie I knew I would love.

When I finally saw the film it surpassed all of my expectations. I love His Girl Friday, Bringing Up Baby, It Happened One Night, and The Lady Eve, (and Lubitsch's own Heaven Can Wait is a personal favorite and one of my few successful requests to Criterion for release) but for my money Trouble in Paradise is the greatest romantic comedy ever made. I only got to see it one more time before it was mine - a lucky channel surf that landed me on TCM. The day Criterion released this film I was first in line - possibly crying - and I think I watched it ten or fifteen times in the next few months. I loved Criterion before Trouble in Paradise, but rescuing this film from obscurity made me a fan for life.