Sunday, February 26, 2012

#207: The Pornographers

(Shohei Imamura, 1966)

There's one pretty major problem with this project that I haven't really addressed on this blog. Watching every Criterion movie is largely viewed as a "completist" mission, and obviously in one way it certainly is. But because Criterion only picks (for the most part) individual films, many of these "important" releases are unmoored from their context. This is less of a concern with filmmakers who are well represented in the Collection like Kurosawa, Godard, or Bergman. Even Ophüls or Melville - who have large swaths of their careers unavailable even on non-Criterion DVD - at least have their most fruitful creative periods represented to a significant enough degree that each film's place within a body of work can be largely understood. But with lesser-known filmmakers and/or more seemingly standalone films, this process means missing some of the understanding that comes with viewing a piece of art with a firm understanding of an artist's themes, career-trajectory, and historical context. (In case anyone doesn't know, one completist, Dave Blakeslee, is doing a pretty good job of avoiding this pitfall over at Criterion Reflections.)

This is where Shohei Imamura's The Pornographers sat until recently. The film was released by Criterion years before they packaged Imamura's previous three films as a boxset. This is not especially surprising as it is certainly his best-known film in the US. But I think watching the film out of the context of Imamura's body of work would lead to a huge misunderstanding of its point of view and (no pun intended) intentions. Knowing Imamura's fascination with the lower depths (both socially and physically) and his persistant focus on both women and the overlooked protagonist makes the film's dark humor and ironically casual attitude toward serious issues like rape, prostitution, and incest feel much less irresponsibly provocative and instead thoughtfully satiric.

All that being said, I didn't love The Pornographers. The film's characters all have such twisted motivations and backwards world views that it becomes difficult to sympathize with anyone - which can be difficult in a film world that lacks any similarity to my recognizable reality. And this movie is dark - like Fat Girl dark, only with a sly tone that persists even when the protagonist unknowingly attempts to shoot a smut film between a mentally challenged girl and her father - so there isn't a lot of room for sympathy to sneak in. There's still one more Imamura film I've yet to see and I'm hoping I enjoy it more. Even so, the 60s-era Imamura selections in the Collection make up a challenging but rewarding set of works.

Monday, February 20, 2012

#471: Pigs, Pimps & Prostitutes: 3 Films by Shohei Imamura

(Shohei Imamura, 1961-1964)

As you may have guessed, Pigs, Pimps & Prostitutes is all about one movie for me, Intentions of Murder. What's so rewarding about stumbling upon this film from a personal perspective is the unlikelihood of finding it without first taking on this seemingly unending task of watching every movie in the collection. Even assuming I would have heard about the film or its director is a stretch considering Imamura's relatively low profile in the US. But  Intentions of Murder is also the third film in a boxset that consists of two other films I respected a great deal but didn't especially like, so the chance of actually sticking with the set all the way through so I could watch a two-and-a-half hour movie about woman who is sexually assaulted is even less likely.

In general, it's not especially surprising that this is one of the more overlooked boxsets in the collection. Imamura's work is not as obviously allegorical or universal as that of Hiroshi Teshigahara, and his emphasis on female protagonists certainly hurts his accessibility in a male-centric film community. But Criterion's work here - both aesthetically and technically - is no less impressive than in their Teshigahara set, and it's a reminder that they insist on a high level of quality across their catalog regardless of the core feature's profile. The fact that I enjoyed Intentions of Murder as much as I did makes me only that much more excited at the prospect of more undiscovered gems to come.

Individual reviews:
Pigs and Battleships
The Insect Woman
Intentions of Murder

#474: Intentions of Murder

(Shohei Imamura, 1964)

Buried in a lesser-known boxset as the third entry in a stretch of female-centric work from Shohei Imamura is one of my favorite films in the Criterion Collection. Intentions of Murder is completely riveting, pitch-black intense, and - yes, I know this is a cliché but I was literally on the edge of my seat - edge-of-your-seat filmmaking. Two separate times during the movie I had to remember to breathe. Another time I thought to myself, "Is this the best movie I've ever seen?"

OK, I wouldn't go that far. Certainly Intentions of Murder is not for everyone, and I'm sure a lot of people will watch this movie and wonder what all the fuss is about. I'll try my best to convey my thoughts on why this movie deserves a bigger following than it currently has, but this is a richly complex film that doesn't settle into any easy answers. The plot and grammar Imamura constructs for the film are uniquely cinematic, allowing for an experience that loses a lot in translation; this is a movie that demands the medium, it needs to be seen to be fully understood.

There are a few basic truths about the movie I should get out of the way first. Undeniably the cinematography is not just gorgeous but nearly flawless. The motif of the train as both a literal and metaphoric giant in the protagonist's life is most obviously evocative of Hitchcock (The Lady Vanishes, Strangers on a TrainNorth by Northwest), but its use here surpasses its purpose in any of those films, serving as Sadako's potential tool of suicide, freedom, and - in one of the most suspenseful sequences where she wrestles with her attacker on the end of a train car - ultimate tragic fate. Imamura films the iron giants with both reverence and dread, and the shot in which Sadako nearly leaps in front of one in slow motion is both visually striking and deeply unsettling. The climactic sequence in an abandoned tunnel evokes Orson Welles's final chase sequence in another suspense masterpiece, Carol Reed's The Third Man, but again the move is not so much referential as it is parallel, a coincidence signaling another descent into the depths of society.

Then there's Masumi Harakawa's performance as Sadako. Although Harakawa had been in a number of films before (including Insect Woman), this was her first lead performance. She's in nearly every scene, with just a handful of moments with her attacker and a few scenes with her husband and his mistress serving as the narrative breaks from her character. Her performance appears effortless, and might go unnoticed without the proper reflection on just how much she has to do here as a wife, a mother, a victim, a desperate, lonely person, and simply a deeply troubled woman. Both of the central women in the other films in this set are complex characters portrayed memorably by the respective actresses, but Harakawa provides the humanity and grit her character desperately needs. It quietly sets her performance apart from the others.

Beyond these core technical accomplishments, however, Intentions of Murder confirms its director's assertion that he makes "messy films." The story strains credulity on more than one occasion. Would Sadako's husband's mistress really go to such extremes to gather evidence on her rival? How likely is it that she would wander into the street, regardless of how wrapped up in her mission she is? Most importantly, would Sadako really succumb to such an emotional torrent at the provocation of a rapist and a thief? It would be very easy for this last irrationality to sink the film in different hands. At the very least, the controversy of such a relationship threatens to overwhelm any semblance of reality in the characters' situations, and the movie would turn into an intellectual exercise designed to provoke the viewer (see: Irreversible).

I fully expected to dislike the film based on this central story of a woman who must plot her escape from/revenge on a man who breaks into her house and rapes her. This would seem like a particularly difficult story to tell in Japan, where the traditional attitude towards rape is essentially barbaric if not actively evil (i.e. the victim's shame transcends her attacker's horrible deed, and she must commit suicide in order to restore her family's name). Thankfully, Imamura's respect for his characters - particularly Sadako - prevents the film from being reduced to a tiresome and potentially grotesque commentary on rape like so many films about the topic are, whether they come from the East or the West. Because Imamura believes in the humanity of his characters and is fully committed to showing their truths, it's much more difficult to generalize about her rapist's actions, much less those of Sadako. It's not that Imamura gives her attacker equal redemption, or even sympathy, but that Sadako's reality is not shied away from and is instead given the honest, deeply emotional portrayal it deserves. It saves the movie from its excesses, but it also seems especially refreshing in modern America where the topic of rape has been reduced to the recurring subject matter of a weekly entertainment television series.

From an historical perspective, Intentions of Murder is a reminder that foreign films were not always the realm of cinema buffs and audiences who are often dismissed as pretentious or overly concerned with multi-culturalism. The winner of the Oscar for Best Picture the year Intentions of Murder was released was My Fair Lady - there just simply weren't intelligent, emotionally complex films that addressed adult themes being made in 1964 in America. (Yesyes, I know, there still aren't, but remember that's just Hollywood, we still have a huge independent film industry producing movies that aren't based on board games - something that came out of the loosening of censorship demanded by the American film industry when they realized they could no longer compete artistically with other countries if they couldn't address adult issues. Also, I realize Dr. Strangelove was made in 1964, but that was still essentially PG - if genius - work.) When viewers went to see a foreign film, they knew they would often be getting an exploration of a theme or subject matter that couldn't be depicted or often even discussed elsewhere.

This movie provides an outlet for adult themes, and it's an explicit and disturbing look at one woman's place in her society. But it couldn't be less interested in sensationalizing her or her experience. This isn't a movie about rape - the psychology of its victims, the impact of its violence - it's a movie about a person. Even if the structure of the story is ambitious, this simple focus keeps it grounded in a complex reality and emotional maturity. Its messiness only confirms its authenticity.

Friday, February 17, 2012

#473: The Insect Woman

(Shohei Imamura, 1963)

Even though Pigs and Battleships spent nearly as much time with its male characters as its females, my guess is that it came as little surprise to his audience that the next film Imamura made was trained intently on the fairer sex. The Insect Woman is far from a typical portrait of femininity, however - especially within Japanese culture. Tomé, the protagonist of the film, is a forced opportunist, and the metaphor of the English title is clear: she will do what it takes to survive.

Despite moments of dark humor, this a depressing ride. Tome's life runs parallel to the great upheaval of the middle of the 20th century in Japan, and while she doesn't herself participate in the happenings, her life is caught up in the current of history. Even moments where Tomé gets a leg up are at the expense of others, but most of the time she is being continually beaten down. This happens because of events out of her control, usually by men though not infrequently by other women. Her own survival seems improbable from the beginning, but her daughter's life - which would have been ended just as it began by other women, fighting for their own survival - reinforces resiliency, the only redeemable theme of the film. When we learn that her daughter has pulled one over on Tomé's sleazy john, it's a reminder that evolution is alive and well. In fact, it's the daughter who receives a possibly happy ending with her boyfriend on a tractor, while Tomé herself is left climbing a hill broken and nearly finished.

After Pigs and Battleships, The Insect Woman confirms Imamura's lofty ambitions with regards to women and their place in Japanese society. Stereotypically, Japan is not a place that is often thought of as friendly towards women and certainly not reflective on their role in society and the sacrifices they make. Imamura proves this assumption wrong here, but his take is so grim that the movie becomes soul-crushing long before it's over, turning into overkill. The final insight doesn't seem nearly valuable enough to withstand the journey there.

Monday, February 13, 2012

#276: The River

(Jean Renoir, 1951)

The River is based on a novel by Rumer Godden, the same author who wrote Black Narcissus, which was adapted by Powell and Pressburger a few years before. I mention this up front because I think most people who know both Renoir's work and Powell's and Pressburger's work would think the British duo had made this film as well. Along with the technicolor cinematography and British central character, the film has the global reach and dignified air of their previous films. Interestingly, Godden was apparently dissatisfied with their adaptation of Black Narcissus but enjoyed this movie. I found Black Narcissus to be a visually appealing and fascinating psychological exploration of the edges of Western civilization, while I found The River extremely forgettable.

The biggest problem I had with the film was the narration, which seemed both unnecessary and overused. It certainly doesn't help that the lead character of Harriet is arguably the least interesting character in the film. Especially today, with The Help nominated for a ridiculous amount of awards and the still-evident impossibility of a mainstream film with a non-white character at the center of a movie about non-white people, it is difficult for me to get past the core gravity of the story's narrative.

One major reason I came away so disappointed in The River was that I had high hopes for the film's ability to convey a sense of place in a location that is underrepresented in Western film (and in the Criterion Collection - only a handful of films are set in India, only two films out of over 600 were bankrolled there). While I wouldn't expect a French filmmaker like Jean Renoir to be able to deliver authentic, specific insight into Indian culture, I had hoped that his eye would be trained on Indian culture, rather than the colonial culture that had been overthrown in the previous decade. This is not the fault of the film - which has no responsibility other than to be the best version of itself it can be - but it contributed to my apathy anyway. The film's documentary qualities (depicting the river, various ceremonies, the life of the locals) helped redeem it somewhat, but overall it wasn't enough to draw me in completely.

Monday, February 6, 2012

#472: Pigs and Battleships

(Shohei Imamura, 1961)

Between Seijun Suzuki and Shohei Imamura, Nikkatsu unintentionally produced some of the greatest genre-busting revolutionary films of the 1960s. Pigs and Battleships is equal parts Raymond Chandler and Jean-Luc Godard, a twisted crime story that upends its own momentum. If noir is the pinnacle of the American cinema, Pigs and Battleships is meant to turn its powers on itself, with the monster finally expelled in the messy aftermath.

The pig-centered plot which propels the film's male protagonist, Kinta, to his inevitable demise isn't really the point of the film. This is a good thing, because it's so convoluted that it would necessitate multiple viewings to understand the whole story. Instead, the film is ultimately concerned with two things: the romance between Kinta and his girlfriend Haruko (who is the real protagonist of the film), and the relationship between post-war Japan and the Americans stationed there. Stylistically, the most memorable moment occurs when these two elements collide in a spinning hotel room deep into the movie's running time, but metaphorically the American occupation hovers over everything in the film, from small criminal ambitions to intimate personal dynamics.

Pigs and Battleships is an extremely dense film that hints at a simpler solution. The beauty of a Japanese noir about the impact of Americans on the lower depths of Japan is that it confirms the insidious domination of American culture in film. Even Godard's Breathless cannot help but embrace this cultural dominance (some would argue in order to lovingly smother it to death). Imamura's film is no different; as Haruko merely strives for a better, freer life, Kinto yearns for immortality through infamy, the ultimate noir-drenched American dream.

#438: Mon oncle Antoine

(Claude Jutra, 1971)

What is it about movies featuring children that give the viewer such a sense of place? Mon oncle Antoine might be just another impeccably made story of the childhood transition from boy to man based on story alone. The plot points are delivered effectively and movingly, the cast is affectless and sympathetic, and the direction alternates between gritty neo-realism and whimsy with a deft and confident hand. But all these things could be said about any number of movies: Ratcatcher, My Life as a Dog, Murmur of the Heart, Kes, The 400 Blows - and that's just movies in the Criterion Collection. What unique about this film - and many others in that list - is the priceless opportunity to be exposed to a life unlike any seen on the big screen. For some reason, this tends to happen frequently when a child is at the center of the story.

Here, it's Benoit, a boy being raised in the mining towns of Quebec in the 1940s by his aunt and uncle, who run the local general store. There are elements here that are recognizable from other films about mining towns, poor country villages, nostalgic coming of age tales. But the culture and geography are uniquely Quebecois, and its this remarkably detailed look into a relatively close but seemingly impossibly distant world that makes the film so gripping. In fact, most of the first half hour of the film is devoted to characters other than Benoit, like a man frustrated with his English-speaking boss who leaves his family to work in the forest where he will be happier. Benoit and this family converge in the end in a very moving sequence that had me frozen, staring at the screen.

The story of Benoit has plenty of intense emotional moments, but it's the little details and broad strokes of the place where the movie becomes more than its story. We see a rundown bar the local workers congregate at, the thoughtless Christmas presents the local boss has tossed into the mud by workers too lazy to get out of their truck. It's the 1940s, but Benoit's uncle still makes his trek to pick up bodies (as part of the store, they run a funeral home) by horse and carriage. The film might be a coming of age story like any other until these concrete touches elevate it to the realm of essential world cinema.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

#333: Fists in the Pocket

(Marco Bellocchio, 1965)

Fists in the Pocket is a "fuck you" movie, the kind that could only be made by a young director. Bellocchio was just 26 when he made this debut, and like so many famous examples has been unable to match its heights in the nearly fifty years since. There are a lot of dysfunctional families in the Collection, but this one ranks right up there, with a mentally challenged brother, a blind mother, and a brother who just might be homicidal and appears to be having an affair - or at least an unconsummated one - with his sister. Attempting to hold them all together in his worst Jason Bateman impression is a brother who would much prefer to get in his girlfriend's pants than deal with his ball and chain of a family.

The performance at the center of the film is a brilliant one (though I did frequently think throughout "that guy really doesn't look Italian" - and in fact he's Swedish). Lou Castel's ability to hold rage and insanity just under the boiling point makes the film seem always on the edge of descending into parody in the best way. Because you never doubt for a second that he is capable of what he threatens, the suspense builds from the beginning. But it manages to take nothing away from the shock and chills of seeing the deeds actually done. The scene in which he races another car on a cliffside after telling his brother he is going to kill the entire family is one of the great suspenseful sequences I've seen.

Fists in the Pocket is a dark, angry movie about family, morality, and the crushing responsibility of social obligation. It's also unlike any other Italian movie I've seen, certainly up to that point in history. Buñuel called the movie over-the-top, which is kind of like Spielberg calling a movie too sentimental. But I think what his comments about the film reveal is that the old guard didn't really have a place for this kind of open lashing out. It borders on nihilism, certainly, but doesn't get there because it's so totally unconcerned with the end goal. Fists in the Pocket is a brash act of violence within its frames, but really against the establishment both filmic and societal, something that is greatly needed in every generation. It's also riveting cinema.

#389: WR: Mysteries of the Organism

(Dusan Makavejev, 1971)

After watching Sweet Movie, Makavejev's follow-up to this more highly regarded film, I pretty much knew what to expect here: a bunch of freeform scenes tied together simply by association that confront the dual threats of capitalism and communism that clash with the sexual freedom demanded of the late 60s and early 70s. Spoiler alert: that's exactly what the movie is.

Maybe it's because I watched it after Sweet Movie so the novelty was lost, but I liked the later movie much more. Though both films have plenty of characters shouting their sexually tinged political statements into the air at no one and everyone in particular, WR: Mysteries of the Organism seems a little bit more weighed down with these moments, unable to merge form and content as seamlessly as Sweet Movie. And unlike a similarly unconventional biopic, Mishima (which looks like a by-the-numbers Hollywood blockbuster compared to this movie), I don't get a sense of the subject's beliefs or life through the specific choices in the film.

I get why these movies are in the collection, but I wonder how much relevance they have in the modern world, and I especially wonder how much audiences will connect with them once people who were born after the fall of the Berlin Wall begin to examine cinema more closely. This doesn't make the films any less worthy as historical artifacts, but it lessens their impact as timeless artistic statements.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

#595: The Moment of Truth

(Francesco Rosi, 1965)

Stripped of its bullfighting scenes, Rosi's The Moment of Truth is a fatally conventional story. At the time, his post neo-realist visual style was modern and fresh, but here the cinematography has lost its uniqueness thanks to the decade and a half that followed it. Rosi and his Italian brethren influenced New Hollywood maybe more than anyone else, so the full impact of the film's scope and technique has been seriously blunted. The plot itself is at once predictable and so steeped in love for the working man's lot in life that it veers toward cliché, saved only by the skill with which it is relayed.

But, oh, those bullfighting scenes. It helps that Rosi cast a real bullfighter in the lead role, so the only awkward cuts are when he gets seriously hurt. The rest of the time, the camera simply observes - in the way only truly gifted filmmakers seem able to do - a visceral, cruel, ceremonial, uniquely human performance. There are few things which are truly and unavoidably barbaric left in our accepted civilized Western society, but bullfighting - in which a bull is violently tortured, bled out, and finally dragged lifelessly through an arena as audiences cheer on the man who drove the final blade through its spine - is perhaps the most obvious. (Certainly there are crueler things done to animals throughout Europe and America, but only behind closed doors - which tames the barbarism, if not the amorality.) So watching the fights is simultaneously terrifying and horrifying. You don't want the men to get hurt; you know the bull must die, slowly and painfully. People will cheer regardless.

But the pure sadism of the sport makes watching a man sacrifice his safety and potentially his life for a paycheck less moving than it might be, since at least he has some semblance of a choice in the matter. In an era when football has become a serious question mark in terms of head injuries and long term damage to its players - threatening to lead it down the path boxing has taken to irrelevance - it would be much more interesting, if less cinematic, to see this story told about a man who chooses to play football. Perhaps this is me looking in on a sport that is not of my culture. Yes, we kill many cows in this country on our quest toward paving the world with McDonald's. Rosi's real intent with the film (other than to make a hit after a string of artistically successful/commercially disappointing pictures) was to shine a light on the exploitation of the common man. The metaphor, I suppose, is ironic oneness with the bull. It's not an easy sell.

#442: Twenty-four Eyes

(Keisuke Kinoshita, 1954)

A lot of women cry in Twenty-Four Eyes. They cry in just about every segment, and the film is two-and-a-half hours long, so it really adds up. It's Japanese, so it's never over-the-top crying. And the film is shot in that Ozu-style-melodrama way, so everyone is sitting around crying quietly while they talk in hushed tones and move through domestic spaces. This makes the crying easier to take; while Twenty-four Eyes is sad, it's not emotionally overwhelming.

I don't begin with this observation as a slight to the film, but simply because that was my perhaps overly superficial thought throughout its running time: "Jeez, this scene ends with crying, too." The film is on the longer side, covers a wide stretch of time, and has a great deal to say about the most important Japanese generation of the 20th century, the men who went to war and then came home defeated, intent on rebuilding their country into a global force. This makes it a capital "I" Important film, and really there are two kinds of those: the ones like Boys Don't Cry or Do the Right Thing which very consciously challenge audiences with their social statements, and the ones like Schindler's List or Philadelphia that are geared towards a larger audience, uninterested in complex realities and confronting their viewer with their own role in whatever "issue" the film centers around. Twenty-four Eyes belongs to the latter category, firmly targeting the better angels of Japanese culture both before and after the war. I wouldn't go so far as to call it a "Women's Picture," but it has that air around it.

The irony, however, is that this ostensibly "safer" anti-war film is actually more radical than any later Japanese film that questioned the actual actions of the Japanese soldiers during the war. When anti-war films are made about war crimes or even just the horror of actual combat and the tragedy of innocent fallen soldiers, it leaves room for interpretation. Surely there must be some legitimate fight worth fighting? But when war is engaged on a more personal level, as a question of fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, it becomes more difficult to find the good fight, the worthy cause. Twenty-four-Eyes makes its most powerful points in this regard - not by questioning Japan's motives or actions in the war, but by questioning the values of war itself. No country is served by sending its sons to death.

Most tear-jerker teacher movies are sentimental love letters to youth and the infinite paths the future offers. The tears come in when someone - usually the teacher just before dying or retiring - regrets greatly the path he (as in most movies, it's almost always a he) has chosen, only to realize he has touched so many other lives due to his own self-sacrifice. It's like a mini It's a Wonderful Life. Thankfully, Twenty-four Eyes is fairly uninterested in this (though that shot of the bike at the end is a killer). Sentimentality has its place in the film, but the purpose of the story has everything to do with the war and its impact on civilians, especially women who failed to understand the macho fascist culture that rose up around them, the dark side of the quiet honor of the average Japanese person. It might be a whitewashed story of the Japanese role in World War II, but it doesn't whitewash war itself - in fact, refuses to acknowledge it on its own terms altogether. This redeems the film's melodrama and makes Twenty-four Eyes relevant war viewing even after much more graphic and honest films have followed.