Tuesday, January 31, 2012

#596: Three Outlaw Samurai

(Hideo Gosha, 1964)

Generally speaking, most well-regarded samurai movies are either sprawling epics like the Samurai trilogy or Kagemusha or veiled social commentary like Harakiri. But the vast majority of samurai movies are meant as pure, rousing entertainment. Three Outlaw Samurai certainly falls into this last category (though, as might be expected, few movies are confined to just one purpose, and the film has a healthy dose of rebellion and tradition to reflect upon).

The film's story is vaguely related to Seven Samurai's archetypal story of samurai committed to protecting the downtrodden, but the premise here is much more straightforward, with a clear villain in the evil magistrate and a specific conflict in his kidnapped daughter. The movie's action, too, is far more contained, both in running time (the movie is less than half as long as the earlier epic) and scope, as much of the fighting takes place between two individuals facing off.

The movie is a solid adventure flick, but beyond any basic appreciation of the action, it comes up a bit short. There's never any doubt of who is going to win the battle, and the magistrate is a boring and generally unthreatening character. The samurai at the center of the film are appealing and fun to watch, but their characters never seem especially original or memorable. I enjoyed Three Outlaw Samurai, but in (an unfair) comparison to a straight-ahead action masterpiece like Yojimbo, it fails to transcend the genre.

#279: Young Törless

(Volker Schlöndorff, 1966)

The spectre of World War II - the horrors perpetrated by the German army and the culture which allowed Hitler to come to power - hangs over Young Törless, even though the film is set thirty years before (and made 20 years after) these things come to pass. Many of the great films about Germany's experience in World War II are about the country after the war rather than the war itself - Germany Year Zero (made by an Italian) and The Marriage of Maria Braun come to mind. So it's interesting to see a film that is about the German culture which produced the Third Reich. The film is not about Nazism, or even - as was Seijun Suzuki's Fighting Elegy, perhaps the Japanese equivalent of this film - about fascism, but about the banality of evil, the lack of empathy for the weak, and the inability of the rational individual to overcome the irrationality of the mob.

Apart from the obvious political allegory - which of course was not present in the original novel, set in contemporary Austria in 1906 - Young Törless takes its place next to other films that center around a boys boarding school such as If..., Au Revoir Les Enfants, and the grandaddy of them all, Zero for Conduct, which depicted a similarly repressive system. The relationship between the teachers and students in all of these films is key to their understanding - something even more true of less pessimistic boarding school fare like The Browning Version and Goodbye Mr. Chips. But here, that relationship is somewhat unclear. The teachers seem more absent than complicit, and the final scene where Törless is confronted by a panel of his elders makes it clear they are totally unaware of what is happening in their school and unable to understand it.

Young Törless was Schlöndorff's first film, and he's clearly established his point of view right from the beginning as he continued to make political, intense movies that focused on society's destruction of the personal, all focused on his native country. There are some truly harrowing moments in the film, though it never becomes graphic or even especially violent. The story itself becomes engaging because of these moments, but the movie's place in German history is what makes the film worth seeing.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Saturday, January 7, 2012

#386: Sansho the Bailiff

(Kenji Mizoguchi, 1954)

Over the course of this little journey of mine, there have been a handful of films about which I often wonder whether or not I gave them a fair shake. I certainly try to evaluate each movie on its own terms and give it time to sink in rather than casually check it off my list in a rote and emotionless factory-line manner - something which would seem to defeat the true purpose of watching all of these films and reduce it to some bragging point, seeing them just to say I have seen them. But occasionally a movie can hit me on the wrong day or I can miss some small moment or context and a great movie becomes a merely good one in my memory.

Mizoguchi's Ugetsu is one of those films - an oft-praised, extremely beautiful movie that I felt very b-plus/a-minus about after my first viewing. However, there remained a little seed in the back of my mind that kept telling me "you've missed something there! You didn't give it the chance it deserves!" Still, my lack of enthusiasm made me put off watching the director's other film in the collection, Sansho the Bailiff (he also has an Eclipse set and a crapload of stuff on Hulu, a handful of which I expect to see get actual releases). Mizoguchi's follow-up to Ugetsu is a folk story about a family torn apart by the father's moral stand, and it's a very different film from its predecessor. It's also a masterpiece, one of the most moving films of its era, and a simple but powerful message movie - it certainly makes me want to take another look at Ugetsu.

But this post isn't about Ugetsu, it's about Sansho the Bailiff. Set in medieval times, the film focuses on a brother and sister who are separated from their mother on the way to join their exiled father and sold into slavery. Though the film is initially about both of them, the early scene in which their father basically lays out the moral backbone of the film's story to the son is a big hint upfront that he is the true protagonist of the film. He, too, is the only character with any substantial internal arc, moving from innocent child to faithful - even vindictive - slave until he finally redeems himself on the path to reuniting with his heartbroken mother. Their final reunion is one of the great emotional peaks in the Collection, and Mizoguchi shoots it with a gentle, poetic touch that manages to combine the best of Ozu's light hand - something often identified as stereotypically Japanese - with a more impressionistic eye.

Much of the contrast between this moment and Ozu's work can be found in their settings. Ozu's characters are often tied to their cosmopolitan - or at least domestic - surroundings. They move across these spaces in gentle and unobtrusive ways, yet they are bound by them and the social responsibilities they represent. Even taking into account Sansho the Bailiff's earlier setting, the film clearly delineates between the sharp angles of the Japanese structure and the soft oneness of nature. The film is deeply spiritual - not in terms of personal faith, but instead in the grand tradition of social justice at the core of many of the essential teachings of Buddhism (and Christianity for that matter). But there's also a political undertone that is most apparent in the film's title - Mizoguchi has chosen to name the film after the slave holder who is essentially a bureaucrat without power and banally evil. This clear choice to shift a timeless and (at least nationally) well-recognized folk tale toward an emphasis on the nature of this side-character is a strong indication that Mizoguchi had more contemporary concerns in mind when making the film - namely, the Japanese role in World War II.

These more intellectual intentions - which could be explained by someone much more engaged with Japanese culture than I - don't take away at all from the core emotional impact of the film. This is of course as it should be; no movie that strives for greatness can let its message get in the way of its engagement with the audience or it ceases to be a film and becomes an intellectual exercise. The fact that Sansho the Bailiff succeeds on both levels is what makes it such a notable masterpiece, and it's what will keep me engaged with Mizoguchi's work long after I've checked every spine number off my list.

Monday, January 2, 2012

#521: Mystery Train

(Jim Jarmusch, 1989)

I don't like Elvis very much. I've always found his music to be watered down and often cheesy, like a second-hand, pop-focused depiction of what rock and roll should or could be (and this is his early stuff - needless to say I don't care for his later music at all). I never thought he took it to another place musically in the same way the Beatles and Stones would do later. I realize this is a minority opinion that even the Beatles and Stones themselves would vehemently disagree with, but I bring it up here because I think Mystery Train loses a little bit of its magic when you don't believe in the central character. Elvis looms large over the film. He watches over the rooms in which the protagonists of each of the three stories find themselves, and his legend follows these characters around Memphis like the haunting score of the film that comes creeping back every time someone tracks through the dilapidated streets of the world-famous music capital.

Any time a film is split into separate (but often intertwined, as they are here) stories, it's natural to gravitate towards one or two of them as more appealing. Here, it was the first story for me, about a young Japanese couple making a pilgrimage to the home of the King - though for the man there seems to be some debate as to whether that king is Elvis or rockabilly legend Carl Perkins. The segment tracks their journey into and out of Memphis with a cold distance that is typical of Jarmusch's films, but the care with which he chooses their moments together makes the experience immediately relatable. This is their journey to a place that exist in perfection in their imagination, and the reality is at once more thrilling and anti-climactic than you could ever expect. Memphis, like any city, is a real place where people live, make art, have sex, die. Life is typical and beautiful, and this foreign experience that they are having together will last them forever, no matter what didn't happen or what will happen yet. Watching this segment after a stretch of Japanese films about World War II made it especially interesting because here - three decades after those films (and the songs they love) were made - are two Japanese kids completely separated from that history, yet beholden to its forward thrust.

The other two stories are less enjoyable, but still managed to maintain my interest in the film. Jarmusch in many ways represents for American independent film in the 80s what Cassavetes did in the 60s, a DIY style that totally eschewed the commercial trends of the time and instead focused intently on attempting to depict American life as it was in the moment. While Cassavetes mostly focused on characters, however, Jarmusch often emphasizes specific ways of living. The former highlights acting, while the latter zeroes in on places, or at the very least tones. You can see his influence clearly in early 90s indie start-ups like Clerks and fellow Criterion entry Slacker, but in general his work is even more influential. Having even his lesser work in the Collection is worthwhile, even if Down By Law and Stranger than Paradise are more impressive.

As a side note, I watched this on Hulu, and - damn - it looks good. Maybe the best Hulu transfer I've seen so far, giving me hope for the future of the collaboration - if it continues, considering the lack of additions to the catalog in the last few months.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

#378: Fires on the Plain

(Kon Ichikawa, 1959)

...On the other hand, Fires on the Plain - Ichikawa's follow-up to The Burmese Harp - is one of the darkest war movies I have ever seen. It's also so violently anti-war as to seem nearly nihilistic, torn apart by the very notion that humans are capable of killing other humans. The film's ending - in which the protagonist, the tuberculosis-ridden Tamura, struggles and seemingly fails to continue his journey over the harsh landscape towards an abstract home - mirrors that of Kobayashi's The Human Condition, made the same year. Both films make the point that the nationalism and subservience to society which drove the Japanese war machine ultimately led to the isolation and defeat of each individual, symbolized by the respective protagonists stumbling towards infinity, completely alone and ultimately too exhausted to carry on (though in Tamura's case it is unclear whether or not a bullet has taken him down).

However, despite this larger driving force between the two endings, Kobayashi's socialist message ultimately leads the viewer towards optimism for the future - his Kaji is a noble sacrifice for the greater good that will triumph over the fascist military establishment, and the conclusion is a call to action. Ichikawa's film concludes nothing of the kind; there is no hope that comes from sacrifice, only more death and destruction. We are introduced to his protagonist with a slap to the face from a superior officer, yet the film doesn't intend to depict him as a relatable or even sympathetic character. Tamura never succumbs to the ultimate horror of conscious cannibalism, but he does shoot a woman in cold blood. Kaji's motivations are made abundantly clear in the first act of The Human Condition, and - stripped of everything else by cynicism and pure human need - his desire to get home to his wife is all that's left in his dying moment. Conversely, we know little to nothing about Tamura - not in an intentionally metaphoric way, as in some films which avoid naming their protagonist to make a point about universalism or anonymity, but in a cold and calculated way. War and starvation and depravity care little for the identities of men who perpetuate and inevitably fall victim to them.

Watching The Burmese Harp and Fires on the Plain back to back is an odd experience. Despite some similar technique, the two films are totally different, and it's hard to imagine that they were made by the same person, just three years apart. I think Criterion does them a disservice by syncing up their packaging, despite the shared topic of the aftermath of World War II in Southeast Asia (it's also odd that they gave Fires on the Plain the lower spine number, but it's obviously a minor point). Though I was much less impressed with The Burmese Harp, the two films stand on their own as grand statements about the nature of war and the impact of Japan's most significant defeat not only on its soldiers but on humanity.

#379: The Burmese Harp

(Kon Ichikawa, 1956)

The Burmese Harp is a complex movie delivering simple themes. It's based on a book originally published in a children's magazine in Japan, and this makes sense because - while the film is anti-war - it portrays pacifism as a higher calling and a great responsibility and sacrifice, as opposed to condemning war as a great evil.

The whitewash of the Japanese presence in Burma in the film doesn't seem as scandalous as it might because of this origin. Furthermore, comparing the film to similar Hollywood war films of the time makes it seem both less outrageous in its historical inaccuracies and more typical in its melodramatic heavy hand with regards to its themes. The protagonist's journey from soldier to monk certainly has realistic and complex moments that hint at the dark side of such a journey. But too much of the story seems devoted to the kind of straight-faced do-gooder style ethical stances that seem more at home in a Douglas Sirk film (where Sirk, of course, would slyly parody them).

Ichikawa was a studio journeyman before The Burmese Harp, making this film and its subsequent international success his opportunity to cross over into artistry - something he would capitalize on frequently afterwards. But here, he still seems very much encumbered by a desire to avoid challenging his audience. Despite its deeply religious and anti-war themes, The Burmese Harp ends up overly sentimental and toothless - more Saving Private Ryan than The Thin Red Line.