Monday, December 21, 2015

#727: The Innocents

(Jack Clayton, 1961)

Much like its characters, The Innocents seems to exist between worlds; England and Hollywood; code cinema and modern authenticity; reserved mystery and psychological horror; proper literature and exploitative pulp; art film and studio product. It straddles these worlds in such a way that makes the film feel even more off-kilter and terrifying, underscoring the strengths of the story rather than weighing it down. It's certainly one of the most significant horror films in the Collection.

The movie is immediately surprising for a Fox film from 1961. It opens without any picture as a young girl sings a folk song without accompaniment. This continues even over the 20th Century Fox logo (rare enough for it to be striking) and leads into a brief shot of a woman praying before moving to the opening scene of the plot in which Kerr is hired as the governess. The opening sets the creepy, old-fashioned tone for the film but is largely forgotten until the song pops up again, and finally is explained as the end doubles back on the moment, leaving one to wonder how much of what's happened was a flashback, a dream, or a psychotic fictionalization of what happened.

The original story of Henry James's Turn of the Screw, on which the play was based that was then adapted into the film, is able to create a larger mystery because when the governess sees ghosts they are simply from her perspective. A film cannot show a ghost to a character without the viewer seeing it, unless the ghost is always offscreen, which even then would prove as suspicious as seeing the ghost is assuring. This means the mystery of whether of not the governess is a reliable narrator is deeper and the book is consequently more psychological. Still, there is something about Kerr here that feels off, and I don't think it's impossible to argue that her own actions are a bit unhinged, even if it is easier to take everything literally. In a way, the movie is more appealing if there are no ghosts, because the story of the evil couple that possessed the children is so puritanical and superstitious.

My favorite thing about the film was unquestionably the cinematography, and it's this aspect of the movie that makes the mystery richer. There's an explanation of why the film was shot with a blurred border in the Criterion set, but the end effect is satisfying on its own. The movie seems to exist in a beautiful fever dream, with the characters isolated from each other and reality. I thought of two Kubrick films while watching The Innocents. The first, The Shining, came up for obvious reasons - a woman stuck in an isolated giant building haunted by ghosts. But the film I was most reminded of was Barry Lyndon, another candlelit masterpiece with stunningly beautiful (albeit color) photography. Both films use their natural lighting to heighten reality and set the mood for the time period. The Innocents delivers candles that seem to create the photography on their own, resulting in the soft edges and mysterious glow of the film's nighttime scenes.

Although there were a handful of "creepy children" films before The Innocents, this is the oldest film I've seen that uses most of the elements of this subgenre in the modern way (children singing simple songs, music boxes, possessions, creepy dialogue that has multiple meanings, etc). This doesn't necessarily make it a better film (though all of these elements are executed better than in most subsequent films) but it does help its case as an important step in the evolution of horror.

If I was going to hesitate to canonize The Innocents (and I am), it would be because of the somewhat creaky plot machinations of Kerr's character. It's not entirely clear why her character seems to know with great certainty every step needed to free the children of her curse - though of course this makes the case for her insanity - and the way she goes about explaining it all to Mrs. Grose is the kind of exposition that hurts the film rather than helping the viewer. Kerr's performance is difficult to pick apart considering it was done in 1961, but she can occasionally come across as inauthentic and dated in today's eyes, something I've always thought about her and was hoping to avoid with this performance. That said, these are minor quibbles that do not overshadow the remarkable accomplishments of The Innocents, and it's worth underscoring just how vital the film feels to modern horror and supernatural filmmaking. I'd put it on the shortlist for any director interested in learning more about horror technique, and I look forward to watching it again to see how it's all put together.

One other interesting note about The Innocents: I decided to watch this now basically at random - it was the next film by spine that I don't own and isn't on Hulu - unaware that it was written by Truman Capote. Of course, In Cold Blood was just released in the past few months and covered by David Blakeslee over at Criterion Reflections, where I expressed mixed feelings about that much more famous and based-on-a-true-story thriller. Interestingly, Capote wrote the script for The Innocents while researching In Cold Blood, further tying the two to each other. Putting The Innocents in this context might make my positive response to a movie that ends (spoiler alert) with a dead child seem a bit hypocritical (despite the obvious excuse that the film is purely fictional). But I think it's important to put the entertainment value of horror in the context of the themes its intending to explore and expose for the viewer.

Monday, December 14, 2015

#798: Death By Hanging

(Nagisa Oshima, 1968)

When it is released next year, Oshima's Death by Hanging will join an Eclipse set and three main line titles, In the Realm of the Senses, Empire of Passion, and Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, in the Collection. Interestingly, the director's two most generally well-regarded films, The Ceremony and Boy, are available on Criterion's Hulu page but remain unreleased on disc. Although there is an obvious excuse for this, which is that it's likely this film was simply ready for blu-release before those two films, Death By Hanging also represents a drastic departure from his films already in the mainline collection, making it a valuable additional facet of Oshima's oeuvre.

What's most interesting about Death By Hanging is its tone, which swerves from straight-faced documentary to vicious satire to broad farce to biting social commentary, finally settling on a haunting ending that implicates the viewer in the crimes of the film. This wide range might initially feel like it's drowning the film in metastructure. It's worth noting that every review I could find on the film (including ones by Donald Richie and Vincent Canby, both of whom gave the film a slightly negative review) mentions Godard. In fact, Richie's first sentence is a direct comparison between Oshima's role in Japanese cinema and Godard's similar role in France. This connection is significantly less likely to be noticed when viewing Oshima's later films already in the collection, while the tone, overt politics, and surreal structure of Death By Hanging makes the comparison almost obligatory.

Despite its complexity as both a narrative and a political statement, the movie can be roughly divided into two sections. The first focuses on the crime and punishment expected by the title of the film. The convicted murderer, named simply R, is set to be executed, but the hanging does not go as planned and he survives. Oshima uses a documentary style as he leads up to the execution, mimicking the supposed removed and somber role the state plays in implementing the death penalty. This makes the failure of the execution stand out and gives the swing toward chaos even greater heft: when we switch from documentary to farce, it's as if the whole movie - and therefore the world it depicts - has fallen apart. The scenes where the men argue over what to do in order to avoid trouble (they seem less concerned with the right thing to do) are often laugh-out-loud funny, and this stretch of the movie plants a flag firmly in the dark comedy camp.

But once the deeper reenactments begin, as the men attempt to reconnect R with his past to get him to acknowledge his crimes, the film takes its tongue out of its cheek and begins to tear down more than just the question of whether or not the state should kill a person. Much as it would be impossible to ignore the relationship between black people and the American death penalty, Oshima confronts the larger issue of race in Japan, weaving in R's experience as a Korean raised in Japan. This second half is not as tightly plotted as the first - and it often suffers from dated intellectual signposts like Freud and Brecht, two other figures inevitably cited in reviews of the film - but it opens up Oshima's statement and in many ways makes the film harder to ignore.

There have been countless films against the death penalty over the years, just as there were countless intellectual films in the 60s that flirted with radical structure and politics. The value in Oshima's film is its willingness to go where the material takes it and avoid settling into an easy opposition to the status quo. For me, this makes Oshima less of a parallel Godard and more of a clear compatriot of Masaki Kobayashi and Kaneto Shindo, a rebel even among these iconoclastic legends. Godard's form certainly began to be tied directly to his politics, especially from Pierrot Le Fou on, but Oshima's form was from his very first film inseparable from his politics. Although he never lacked for technical skill, none of Oshima's work seems to love movies the way Godard's early films do. He is intently focused on what is on screen, using cinema as a tool rather than an art itself. Death By Hanging makes this relationship clearer than Oshima's later films, and it's what makes the movie both an admirable condemnation of state-sponsored murder and a vital addition to Oshima's Criterion films.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

#758: The Merchant of Four Seasons

(Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1971)

Goddamn I hated this movie. Ugh, it was so bad. Who the hell wants to watch this asshole for even 80 minutes? I don't get the point of this movie beyond its technical proficiency in storytelling and framing (though it even lacks many of the impressive traits of Fassbinder's later work). Yes, we get insights into Hans in novel and often unexpected ways. But there's little redeeming value in these insights, and Hans's behavior even with his friends - let alone with his wife and child - is absolutely atrocious.

Can someone explain why Hanna Schygulla's character defends Hans in this film? Can someone tell me why we should care at all about what happens to him, or even really what happens to his wife? What is the point of Fassbinder's obsession with his daughter? Where does any of this go?

Fassbinder has replaced Godard as the director that elicits the widest range of reaction from me. Something like World on a Wire or The Marriage of Maria Braun would be a strong candidate for inclusion on my best-of list for the 70s, while this or the unbearable Berlin Alexanderplatz immediately come to mind as the most difficult slogs in the Collection.

It's also interesting how much I disliked this movie considering how recent of a release it is. Most of the movies I have a strong dislike for were released early in Criterion's run. The last movie in terms of spine numbers I both didn't like and really didn't think should be in the Collection was probably The Four Feathers, way back at #583 (though The Canterbury Tales is a pretty bad middle chapter in Pasolini's Trilogy of Life). So maybe I'm just missing something here, I don't know. All I can say is that even at 80 minutes I was more than happy to see the final card even if it came at a most random and unsatisfying time.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

#772: Blind Chance

(Krzysztof Kieślowski, 1981)

Blind Chance is a very enjoyable movie and it's well made if a tad dated. But what ultimately makes it essential viewing is that it is in many ways a dry run for the rest of Kieślowski's career, most notably his masterpiece, The Three Colors Trilogy. But the film's use of alternate realities recalls his great film The Double Life of Veronique, while the issues of moral obligation and politics call to mind the Decalogue - encompassing nearly all of his late-career output. The three projects can be seen as their own alternate paths taken from this seminal moment, and many of the grand ideas of those films - from issues of identity and personal responsibility to social protest and the unavoidable fact that we are all in this together - are explored here first.

The movie opens in an immediately gripping but untethered manner, as we are treated to a clue of the final reveal, followed by brief flashes of the protagonist as he grows up. I went into the movie cold, so I didn't know the significance of the train station scene until the film doubled back to it. In fact, for the first hour I wasn't quite sure I knew what was going on, though as is usually the case I eventually realized I'd been following it all along. This can sometimes make for a stressful viewing, but here it felt like part of the fun as so much of what is appealing about the movie is how out of control Witek is.

Despite really enjoying the film, I don't think it approaches its follow-ups in terms of standing on its own as a major cinematic work. Each subsequent iteration of Witek's journey seems less developed, and I found the relationship in each to be a bit overplotted and awkward. The final moment was also a tad predictable, even if (or more likely because) it made total sense within the context of the film. But there are also real philosophical questions explored here, and I found some of the narrative choices to be interesting if a bit heavy handed. This is especially true when looking at the overarching message of the film, which is that Witek would have survived had he picked a side, and remaining neutral - which might bring him happiness - would mean his certain downfall. Perhaps because Kieślowski abandoned specific political issues (to a certain degree) in his later films he was able to free himself of such obvious metaphors, and I think his later films are much better for it.

#740: The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant

(Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1972)

The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant is a master class in filmmaking and film loving alike. Fassbinder and his cinematographer Michael Ballhaus (who went on the work with Scorsese on two of his most beautiful films, The Last Temptation of Christ and Goodfellas) use every opportunity within the walled world of the story to display their cinematic technique. It saves the film from the drudgery of some of Fassbinder's most difficult films, and while this is by no means an easy watch, by the end I rather enjoyed it and would put it on the upper end of the Fassbinder films I've seen to date.

The stated influence on the film is Douglas Sirk, but the director I was reminded of most often was Bergman, whose similar background in modern theater helped him produce many of his 60s masterpieces, and the comparison to Persona is hard to avoid. In fact, as you would expect after viewing the film, Fassbinder originally produced it as a play. Both the story of the film and the direction of the acting also called to mind another European master, Carl Dreyer, and his final film, the singular Gertrud, where another independently minded woman is bogged down by romantic entanglements and the inability of anyone in her universe to look at another person while talking.

But the cinematic style on display overwhelms the theatricality of the performances, particularly after the slow first act of the film before Karin is introduced. Once the conflict kicks in, the camera swoops and glides, and the blocking becomes so precise and artful, that the modernity of Fassbinder's eye takes over. It's also impossible to avoid talking about the impeccable use of music, which rivals and perhaps even bests the strongest of subsequent filmmakers in this regard like Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson. Even as the story becomes more interesting, it's these moments behind the camera that gripped me. The movie is stunningly beautiful and might be even more enjoyable on mute, but the moments when the film and music line up and hit the perfect emotional note are the ones where you know you are in the hands of a rare kind of filmmaker.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

#783: Pather Panchali

(Satyajit Ray, 1955)

I watched Pather Panchali a few years ago in a version that was so bad that I decided to wait for the restoration to watch the next two films in the series. The quality of the film's image - which was worse than many budget restorations of silent films I have seen - was so bad that it was difficult to get into the story even. So when I blind bought the trilogy at the most recent B&N 50% sale, I decided I had to rewatch Pather to get the full effect. I was absolutely right - this viewing was a revelation of the kind you rarely get, and Pather Panchali is certainly one of the great films of cinema.

Pather Panchali begins before its supposed protagonist is born, and in many ways the film is a passing of the torch from one Ray child, the sister who steals fruit from an orchard that once belonged to her family, to another, Apu, a young boy whose watchful eye and innocent perspective are a stand-in for that of the viewer's own lens. Although my own children are younger than this pair and reversed in gender order, the relationship is immediately recognizable, comprising both battle-weary enemies and siblings with an unbreakable bond of love. The sad deaths that consume the final third of the film are of the gut-wrenching variety, though the simple poetic framing of Ray's camera gives us the big picture and never lets us forget the larger story at work.

The fact that Ray didn't initially plan on making the other two films in the trilogy lend the final moments an ambivalence that the knowledge of subsequent films has replaced with hope and a sense of beginnings. Apu only knew this world for a short time and it will be difficult for him to recall many of the things that shaped him. As a complete story, however, the film's structure shifts away from establishing details to a portrait of a family struggling to free themselves from poverty. Until Apu finds the necklace, the true protagonist of the film is the mother, desperate to transcend the shame her daughter and husband have brought upon her and struggling to make a life in difficult circumstances. She is a remarkable character only because Ray chooses to make her remarkable, and it lends the film its humanist qualities, a trait that defined world cinema post-Rome, Open City and pre-Breathless.

But even in the context of a thriving international film community, Pather Panchali is striking. The movie stands out immediately just by nature of its subject matter, swimming in a wave of European and Japanese films that crashed into American arthouse theaters in the 50s. But the film distinguishes itself actively rather than through its mere existence. Perhaps the two things that stand out most to me are the sophistication of Ray's technique and the intimacy of his depiction of rural India. Although they are linked, it is worth addressing each separately.

Ray's technical proficiency was by no means predestined. Though he came from a distinguished family with a tradition of artists, he had never made a film when he began work on Pather Panchali, using his own money in initial shooting. The fact that India was almost non-existent on the international film scene further underscores the uphill battle Ray faced. Although Indian cinema began producing neorealist work after independence, Ray's film was the first to generate any notable attention in the West, meaning he no roadmap for this kind of success (which is not to imply he was expecting it or crafting the film with this in mind). His crew had little experience, his actors were mainly amateurs, and his funding meant that many techniques and multiple takes were often unavailable. Still, the film manages to deliver a style that was both elementary and intellectual. The way Ray blocks his characters and the moments he chooses to move the camera have rarely been improved upon in the ensuing 60 years. Many of his shots in the fields and the forest are stunning displays of black and white cinematography. I was particularly struck by his balance of Japanese formalism, often with minimal cinematic flourishes when in intimate household moments with the family, and Western naturalism, both in his scenic shots and in the way that the village sinks into the forest and water around it. The camera is both the documentarian and poet

Ray was famously inspired by Bicycle Thieves to make movies, and this is clear in his depiction of the family's struggles in his debut film. Yet the jump for De Sica from his stature in Italian society (he was raised in poverty in Lazio outside of Rome) to the world of Antonio and his son in Bicycle Thieves is not hard to contemplate. Although it was certainly impossible for Ray to ignore poverty in his own country, the jump from his own bubble to the world of Apu is extraordinary. That Ray was able to enter this world without presenting it as "separate" from that of the viewer is even more impressive. Part of this is the proximity of such living conditions - Ray only needed to go a few miles outside of the city to shoot Pather Panchali, something that would be difficult to achieve in Europe or America. But most of it stems from his gentle hand with the camera and his dedication to the universality of his characters' struggle. Pather Panchali is not about a poor Indian family any more than Home Alone is about the difficulties of life in the wealthy Chicago suburbs. Yes, this is a world very different from our own (and from Ray's), but it is also about people who love, work, gossip, mourn. They are petty or angry sometimes and elated and entertained others. The way Ray reserves judgement allows us to see these emotions through their eyes instead of through our own or Ray's. When Apu goes to see the train, we begin to feel what it must have been like to see a train for the very first time anywhere in the world, what power and beauty one could experience with the revelation of industry. It frees the moment from a contrast in societies and allows it to simply stand. It's consequently one of the great scenes I've ever seen.

I won't be watching these in close viewings - I've decided to space them out over a few weeks to give each film time to breathe. But I am certainly looking forward to the next two films, and I remain grateful that Criterion and its partners put so much love into the finished product. Pather Panchali's place in history can be hard to overstate and seeing it look this beautiful reminds even the most jaded cineaste that there are still treasures to be uncovered and rediscovered.