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.