All 35 entries tagged Films

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December 01, 2007

The River (Renoir, 1951)

Random thoughts from elsewhere:

Jean Renoir’s The River is a truly wonderful piece of work that caught me very off-guard. I have to say, I’m not really acquainted with later-period Renoir at all, so to bear witness to this in all its technicolor glory… I mean, wow. Few films can rival this for sheer beauty in that sense. In actual fact, the one that immediately struck me as comparable was Powell & Pressburger’s Black Narcissus – which I then found out was written by the same author as Renoir’s film! Madness.

It really does strike me as something of an anomaly within his oeuvre tho: a gorgeous mood piece, which – unusually for the director – places its women at the forefront. However, it’s nonetheless equally adept at deconstructing the role of masculinity in alien environments: I love how the four principal male characters (the father, Capt. John, Mr. John and Bogey) all utilise India for different gains (imperialism, escapism, immersion and mastery of nature, respectively.)

The awkwardness inherent in pretty much all of the performances is completely offset by the beauty of the film itself imo. It’s amazing to note just how static Renoir’s camerawork is here, it’s as if he’s got the painterly images of his father on the mind at all times. Moreover, the film gently but brilliantly exploits its dichotomy between the documentary-style exposition of the camerawork + the narration which memorialises the past as some sort of artificial reality.

September 05, 2007

Raise the Red Lantern (Yimou, 1991)

Raise the Red Lantern is surely one of the finest films of its decade? It’s visually spellbinding, as expected, but unlike Yimou’s recent efforts Lantern’s style is less to do with our being blitzed with special effects and more to do with the director’s ability to exploit his setting’s potential to the max. Almost the entire film takes place in a palatial complex of enormous proportions. When we first arrive here along with our protagonist, Songlian, it’s difficult not to be overawed by the extravagance of a residence that apparently branches out in all directions. Nevertheless, it’s the banality of this sparsely-inhabited space that emerges as it’s most resounding feature, and the narrative’s direction ensures that what first seems magnificent later morphs into little more than a stifling human compound. The greys and browns that dominate the palette of Yimou’s exteriors contribute to this nullifying effect, forming a brazen contrast to the copious use of reds that paint internal space. That colour’s primary connotation here is a sexual one: the lighting of the red lantern indicates that the Master will spend the night, and the bathing of each wife’s apartment in the colour places further emphasis on the fact that these women’s rooms (and their roles) are conceived as purely eroticised areas.

The prevalence of red also works on another level, foreshadowing the inflamed passions that take centre stage later in the film. Lantern is, perhaps above all else, a brilliant melodrama rooted in the vindictive hearts of its central characters. The film plays out like an intricate web of power battles: Songlian vs. the other wives, Songlian vs. the Master, Meishan vs. Zhuoyan, Yan’er vs. Songlian etc. These people exist in an enclosed world dominated by mind-games that reach unrivalled heights of spitefulness. Initially, one can’t help but react with glee at some of the bitchiness that takes place – not to mention the wicked irony of each wife continually referring to the other as “sister” – but as the action progresses it becomes apparent that the women are toying with one anothers’ lives and the intrigues resultantly take on a far more threatening dimension. Yimou’s great achievement derives from his ability to utilise these already gripping dilemmas as a platform for a wider and more scathing commentary on various facets of the Chinese experience.

Women are at the heart of this film and accordingly it’s their plight that the director is primarily concerned with. Although they’re privileged to an extent, Lantern deftly shows us that wealth by no means equates to freedom – as previously stated, their opulent surroundings actually serve to entrap and even destroy them. Female roles are confined to the sexual spheres of their bedrooms where they are expected to satisfy their Master and provide male heirs to maintain the patriarchal lineage, or alternatively they’re limited to a domestic sphere that requires complete subservience. The vapidity of such expectations is incongruously validated by the male guardians of this realm, with the housekeeper telling Songlian: “The Chen family’s customs go back many generations. It is important that you obey them.” Clearly, an all-pervasive faith in the integrity of tradition is what motivates this code of conduct. How ironic then, that those very traditions should breed the friction that disrupts the fragile unity of the household. The repeated use of one specific ritual demonstrates this to agonizing effect: every evening, custom dictates that the four wives stand outside their gateways to anticipate whether or not the Master will spend the night with them. His decision is marked by the placing of a red lantern outside the chosen wife’s house, thereby divulging the titular object’s status as a power symbol alongside the aforementioned sexual intimations. The entire process serves only to degrade all concerned: the unsuccessful wives face humiliation whilst the ‘victor’ in the power struggle is forced to contend with the underlying resentment of her fellow concubines. This scenario is especially pitiful when one considers the chosen wife’s scant rewards: a foot massage, the ability to set the next day’s menu, and another chance at producing an all-important male heir. The fact that all of these women consider such meagre scraps worth fighting for speaks volumes about the extent to which their silent repression has permeated their mindsets.

That Songlian, an educated woman confident enough to frequently exert her authority over the Master, should resort to engaging in these games is disheartening – although only on a surface level. The character as Gong Li so magnificently plays her is obstinate, petty and as caustic as her rivals: in short, she’s far from the most likeable of heroines. Regardless, if one considers her hostile new environment and, perhaps more importantly her youth (the girl is only nineteen, after all) it’s possible to develop a basic understanding of the motivation behind her dubious actions. Certainly, her age and her education combine to beset the film with a lingering sense of squandered potential. Moreover, should we dare to see Songlian’s predicament as a figurative representation of the fate of Chinese women as a whole (in the film’s early 20th-century setting, if not the present day), then this wilful loss of female promise is lent much greater relevance. Bearing this in mind, certain other aspects of Yimou’s portrayal warrant further analysis: for example, what of the film’s ignorance towards the forces that led to Songlian’s degradation? Yimou shows us the downfall but, minor allusions aside, keeps us unaware of the background and thereby hints at its irrelevance in a domain where female oppression is simply another fact of life. Another important feature is the ‘reward’ of the foot massage which evokes an inevitable comparison with the more controversial act of foot binding. My knowledge of the procedure is somewhat limited, but it’s clear that Yimou’s use of the act is fundamental, for although the two practices seem polar opposites on paper the massage assumes the same problematic implications of its predecessor: binding has, rightly or wrongly, often been viewed as an instrument of patriarchal enslavement and this is reiterated in the film through the massage which is awarded to the wives solely for them to “better serve their man.” In other words, Yimou astoundingly parlays the intellectual negativity associated with the pain of foot binding into the deceptive comfort of the foot massage. Nonetheless, he also draws from the alternate viewpoint: binding has conversely been seen as a desirable yardstick for women due to its functioning as a status symbol and, of course, the massage in Lantern performs exactly the same role by affording one wife privilege over the others. It’s emblematic of the film’s trademark complexity that an event so seemingly insignificant could penetrate such depths of meaning.

Yimou’s directorial decisions, and their ability to illuminate his story, surely reach a daring peak with his refusal to grant us an unobstructed view of his film’s most powerful character. The ‘Master’ is central to the narrative, yet Yimou hides him behind painted veils, obscures him through long-shots and even denigrates him to the rank of a mere off-screen voice. The Master’s literal role in the film forms a stark contrast to his metaphorical role as the patriarchal head – and perhaps this is the point that Yimou is trying to make: the Master’s authority is omnipotent to the point where his presence is no longer necessary to enforce his will. He presides over a system where gender roles are strictly defined, as is class status – one recalls how the servant Yan’er is used as sexual fulfilment but is admonished for aspiring to be a mistress. The third wife Meishan’s affair with the doctor both threatens the Master’s sexual supremacy (extra-marital relations are reserved to the male realm) but more importantly it deviates from the prescribed norms, and is subsequently punished with brutal force. This incident in particular, and the categorical denials of Meishan’s fate that follow, induce memories of similar acts of brutality that have been quietly whitewashed by authorities in modern Chinese history. Little wonder then, that the film was banned upon release in Yimou’s homeland.

Raise the Red Lantern is as visually striking as it is intellectually invigorating, but one couldn’t truly love it unless it struck an emotional chord – and that it does, to haunting effect. Whilst the film brilliantly critiques the oppressor, it also finds fault in the oppressed as it’s the lack of empathy between the characters that affects us the most. The general inability to forge human connections of substance is almost countered by the mutual understanding between Songlian and Meishan – but Yimou repudiates even this faint glimmer of hope, by holding the former responsible for the latter’s tragic end. It’s as if the mechanical hand of the patriarchy not only subjugates the women, but additionally erodes their humanity thus rendering them incapable of uniting against it. It’s this lack of compassion in Lantern’s enclosed world that makes for such riveting yet painful viewing, and one can’t help but wonder: could Songlian’s descent into insanity be a refuge from all the madness of reality? The way in which the latter is presented suggests that such an idea may not be totally implausible, and surely that’s the most devastating indictment of all?

Onibaba (Shindo, 1964)

Has anyone else ever wanted to watch a film solely because of it’s DVD cover? This was the case pour moi when I came across the Criterion edition of Kaneto Shindo’s Onibaba:

Surely a front cover like that would tempt anyone, right? Well, it tempted me anyhowz.

Onibaba isn’t quite the terrifying frightfest that I expected. While it certainly has its fair share of unbridled horror moments, the film struck me more as an atmospheric mood piece characterised by its entrancing-but-unsettling imagery. The dominant forces are the primal concerns of survival, sex and death. To this end, Shindo situates the action in a bygone era of Japanese history where these simplistic interests can feasibly serve as the characters’ main focuses. He also makes us aware of the period’s discords, which he uses to weave in a critique of war and additionally, to justify the characters’ more repugnant qualities: the mother/daughter-in-law duo at the film’s core (referred to simply as ‘Woman’ and ‘Young Woman’) kill resting soldiers in order to sell their armour. In this way, they ironically live off death but the film makes the point that in such a turbulent environment their actions are necessary for plain survival. War has reduced them to this, although the unnerving willingness with which the characters execute their livelihoods suggests that they have allowed themselves to become totally consumed by a thirst for blood.

The primary ‘thirst’ here isn’t a homicidal one though, it’s completely sexual. Onibaba’s English-language title is “The Hole”, a reference to a gaping black hole in the earth where murdered soldiers meet their gruesome end. Surrounded by susuki grass, it’s difficult to miss the more carnal implications of this image, with the hole itself acting as a hybridisation of all the film’s aforementioned concerns thanks to its sexual connotations and its consumption of death. The film doesn’t just infer however, it also depicts sex with an explicitness that’s refreshing given it’s context, and it continues Shindo’s theme of stripping everything down to its basest, most naturalistic instincts. The sex here is ugly, sweaty and not in the least bit arousing. Moreover, it provides the main source of conflict within the plot: the arrival of the male character, Hachi, eventually triggers the friction between the two females – he awakens the sexuality in both, but especially the daughter-in-law whose carnal desires drive her to see him despite the presence of ‘demons’ later in the film. Her pleasure invokes competition with the mother-in-law that’s dependent on her: this feral and aged woman is spurned by Hachi in the film’s closest flirtation with poignance, and thus desperately pleads with him: “I can’t kill without her!”

In spite of the conflict, Hachi’s introduction also leads to a temporary stalemate within the narrative, as Shindo does overtime on the underdeveloped tensions resulting from his presence. Indeed, the story as a whole is prone to fluctuations, with the introduction of the film’s notorious ‘mask’ (and thus, the entire final act) coming across as particularly contrived. Fortunately, Shindo’s visual hand is enough to counter any lulls in his tale, and its brimming with great moments: the masked soldier falling into the death pit – as filmed from inside the hole; the frequent shots of the sharp susuki grass that pierce the landscape; deft plays with light and shadows, particularly during the night sequences; even shifting to negative film stock for heightened effect; and of course, the conception of that damned mask itself – certianly one of the most bizarre props that I’ve ever come across on film. Backed up by a terrifically shrill score that punctuates the high drama, and the absence of which results in the eeriest of silences, Shindo creates nothing less than a captivating experience. For someone whose experience of Japanese cinema to date has been limited to the Holy Trinity (Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, Ozu) and second-rate horror movies, I found Onibaba a bold and exhilarating contrast to what I’m familiar with: an evocative and indelible work whose arresting images linger in the memory long after film’s end.

September 04, 2007

Under the Roofs of Paris (Clair, 1930)

René Clair’s Le Million may well be my favourite musical ever, although it doesn’t fit the mould in the traditional sense – either way, it’s also one of my favourite films full stop, so it was only a matter of time before I got to another of Clair’s fabled early 1930s trio. So here I sit, having given the first of those flicks a spin…

Under the Roofs of Paris [Criterion Collection]

Under the Roofs of Paris was Clair’s first venture into the world of sound, Much like Le Million, Paris forms something of a bridge between the silent film and the talkie, although it’s definitely rougher around the edges than that later masterwork. Paris’ greatest flaw is almost certainly its paper-thin excuse for a story, which sees a man (Albert) fall in love with a woman (Pola) only to go to prison and lose her to his best friend (Louis). It’s as simplistic as it sounds, and the plot mechanisms are all too evident: the robbery that leads to lead Albert’s imprisonment appears out of nowhere, and briskly propels the narrative forward by a month whereas previously it had focused on a 24hr period. Moreover, the explanation for Pola and Louis’ relationship is provided to us in that swift time slot – in other words, we don’t get much explanation at all and their so-called ‘love’ for one another comes across as distractingly undercooked. And then there’s the fact that all the characterisations bar Albert are similarly destitute: Louis is practically unknown to us; and Pola, the romantic interest of three characters in the film, is little more than a fickle whore. The intended ‘bittersweet’ ending is instead rendered purely sweet as a result of her irksome presence. Gaston Modot, the delightful actor who played a role in many of France’s greatest films of the 1930s (La Règle du jeu, L’Âge d’Or, La Grande illusion) makes a typically comical impression as the film’s ‘villain’ but is eventually sidelined in favour of the banal love story.

In spite of all this, I wouldn’t hesitate to describe Paris as a great film. This is primarily thanks to Clair, whose craftsmanship is on full display here. His experimentation with sound was still in its earliest stages (compare this to the smooth polish of Le Million) but already his creativity is more than apparent. One of the film’s earliest shots finds a camera panning across Clair’s artificial Parisian rooftops, before slowly descending towards ground level to uncover the source of the song that we hear on the soundtrack. With these opening minutes Clair already conveys his intent: to recall the greatness of the silent era whilst at once hinting towards the possibilities offered by sound. A number of bravura sequences bravely execute this objective: a bedroom sequence where Albert and Pola shout and bicker to hilarious effect despite being in the dark; a tussle between Albert and a pickpocket that takes place with appropriately-timed background music, thus playing like a Chaplinesque comedy sequence; or the climactic fight between Albert and Fred that takes place in darkness and without dialogue, but is accentuated by disorienting angles and the thunderous movements of a passing train.

Although the director’s mélange of mobile camerawork + song + slapstick + minimal dialogue succumbs to the occasional awkward moment, for the most part it’s a triumph that successfully creates the lyrical romanticism so absent in the screenplay. Clair’s envisioning of working-class Paris looks as if it’s ripped out from a picturebook, and this near-oneiric conception of the city – accordions, berets and all – does little in the way of providing substance to potentially serious concerns. This is not the most significant of hindrances however, because Paris functions best as another slice of that charming-yet-sophisticated brand of French confectionary that Clair seeks to recreate (Jean-Pierre Jeunet should take notes.) Taken as a whimsical romp through a working man’s daily affairs, one can see it as an early filmic embodiment of joie de vivre. Despite the setbacks, we’re informed at film’s end that life continues to plays on as if like a beautiful song. It’s an irresistible finale to a film that, despite its own setbacks, justifies its conclusions by enamouring us in its own world, if only for a brief moment in time.

August 25, 2007

Pickup on South Street (Fuller; 1953)

My only experience of Samuel Fuller prior to this was a viewing of The Big Red One which I managed to catch upon it’s re-release a few years ago. It was probably my lack of experience more than anything, but I remember being distinctly underwhelmed. Oh, and there was also his memorable cameo in Godard’s Pierrot le fou which I found quite groovy (“Emotion!”) but yes, point is that I’m underversed in my Fuller. Pickup on South Street has always been on my radar for some unknown reason, so when I noticed the Criterion edition going on the cheap I instantly snapped it up with the intent of rectifying my Fuller-heresy.

Anyway, I’m really really impressed. I find the film’s concerns surprisingly fresh, particularly with regards to its focus on the New York underclasses. The precision with which Fuller details his principal characters’ humble lifestyles is complemented by a no-holds-barred approach, frequently allowing for a sort of brash realism to rear its head underneath the layers of style: as if Joey’s attack on Candy wasn’t horrifying enough in its own right, the fact that it feels so plausible in the precarious world that they both inhabit imbues the scene with a sense of tangibility that results in an even more sobering effect upon the viewer. Fuller has clear empathy for those on society’s fringes which motivates his consistent refusal to sentimentalise – if we, as the audience, are to understand these characters at all then it should be on their own difficult terms.

Much of the film’s success in this respect lies in the art of performance. Richard Widmark, an actor with whom I’ve been unacquainted until now, turns his Skip McCoy into a terrific anti-hero. He readily displays the pugnacious belligerence that the role requires, yet there’s also an air of childish insolence about him – an endearing cockiness that demands our affection even though he rarely warrants it. Unsurprisingly however, it’s the divine Thelma Ritter who creates the most memorable impression here. Her character, Moe, is pivotal to the film: she provides the crucial link between both the police and the so-called crooks, as well as Skip and Candy. More than that though, because of the actress’s quiet skill she serves as the film’s pre-eminent tool of audience identification. Ritter flaunts her irresistible knack for wisecracking early on in the film, and that’s especially advantageous here where her character’s an über-streetwise informer. Her bluntness is an extension of the overall tapestry of the film, e.g. the matter-of-fact way in which she states: “I have to go on making a living so I can die.” It’s Moe’s world-weariness however, and the dignity that persists in spite of it, which Ritter excels in communicating. Her final scene is utterly heartbreaking because of her success in conveying such traits.

As much as I adore Thelma here, it’s the film’s engagement with its wider contexts that thrill me above all else. Initially, despite loving what was on-screen, I had issues with the discussion of Communists within the film which made me question whether or not the entire thing was simple McCarthyite propaganda (I know, I know!) However, my basic love of the material convinced me to look deeper and after listening to Fuller’s charming interview on the Criterion DVD, I was reassured: the microfilm at the plot’s core could easily be substituted for another controversial item and little of the film’s meaning would have changed. Or would it? After giving this some further thought I’ve decided that I actually prefer to read the film as a subversive indictment of the dominant institutions’ failure to protect their citizens, and I see the whole “Red Scare” as playing into this?

The characters’ prevailing attitude towards the threat is appropriately summed up by Moe: “What do I know about Commies? Nothing. I know one thing, I just don’t like ‘em!” These words speak volumes, for they underline how clueless these people are about the actual nature of the threat, not to mention how entrenched the fear is – even at the very lowest levels of the social hierarchy. Admittedly, the Communist characters in the film are very much designed as the villains which is perhaps enough to justify Moe’s comments in itself. However, consider also the way in which the all-American police force is portrayed – Fuller hardly depicts them in the most positive of lights: they resort to bribery to gain information, suspiciously lurk in street corners as if they were agents themselves, and angrily wield the threat of treason at Skip when he refuses to conform. It’s this latter point which specifically piques my interest thanks to Skip’s response to the accusation: “Are you waving the flag at me?” His dismissal of his patriotic ‘duty’ reveals the furthest extreme of America’s disconnection from its populace: when allegiance to one’s country is a defunct concept thanks to more pressing issues (in this film’s case, that of plain survival.) Taking this into account, Moe’s blind commitment to society becomes ironic as it is this very (capitalist) society that has worn her down and reduced her to selling ties for a dollar. There’s an element of wryness in the plot as a whole too, if we’re willing to view America as defended and saved by it’s petty criminals. The depth to which the film’s socio-political concerns seep is remarkable, and allows for a multitude of complex readings.

So, um, watch it now! And for those who’ve seen it: enlighten me with comments plz!

Kiss Me Deadly (Aldrich; 1955)

I’d be surprised if noirs get more badass than this? Robert Aldrich’s conception of 1950s Los Angeles is savage in its debauchery and unsparing in its nihilism. His film’s visual coarseness infiltrates almost all of the characterisations and every strand of his labyrinthine plot, resulting in an utterly bleak experience for the viewer. That bleakness is both the film’s greatest strength as well as it’s most insurmountable flaw imo: Kiss Me Deadly is probably the best exemplification of “noir” that there ever was, audacious in its ultra-stylistic exploration of the ideal’s extremities – and yet simultaneously it’s that pitch-perfect embodiment of the term that makes it such a grotesque and alienating experience.

Of course, that fact doesn’t prevent the film from being brilliant by any means. Aldrich is on delectably vicious form, grabbing the audience’s attention from the opening shot where Cloris Leachman frantically attempts to hitch a ride, causing a minor crash that’s emblematic of the film’s frenetic thirst for violence. It’s impossible to dispel that initial journey for it’s gruesome conclusion reverberates upon Aldrich’s much more troubling voyage through a post-war LA that’s dominated by its corruption: doctors and policemen are revealed to be as amoral as gangsters, whilst our protagonist isn’t even an anti-hero – he’s simply a plain cunt, through and through. Perhaps the only redeemable character is Christina, apparently LA’s most literate and thoughtful resident, but she doesn’t even survive beyond the first few scenes. There’s no place for her in Aldrich’s vision, not in a world that’s run by the materialistic tough-guys that she correctly typifies Mike Hammer as during the opening minutes.

Stylistically, there’s so much here that it blows my mind. It will surely take another viewing to properly digest the multiple facets of Aldrich’s visual assault upon the viewer, so unfortunately I can’t go into too much detail (maybe a more astute fan of the film would like to comment?) but there are a couple of things that I noted: the use of angles both low and high, not to mention the regular tilting of the frame; that staircase shot (woah!); an interesting use of light that emphasises the characters’ paleness against the night skies (opening shot); the initial credits that move top-to-bottom but demand to be read from bottom-to-top etc. etc. The quantity and quality of Aldrich’s visual manipulations create a disorienting experience for the viewer, perhaps reflecting the confusion of post-war urbania? Perhaps.

Either way, Aldrich saves his best stylistic flourish for last: a cataclysmic conclusion that is probably the only way to solve the mysteries that the poses. For almost the film’s entirety, Mike Hammer and his tormentors have been searcing for the so-called “great whatzit”, an unknown object that’s finally revealed to be some sort of radioactive substance. All are in the chase for personal gain – note how Mike’s investigation into Christina’s murder has nothing to do with justice and everything to do with the fact that “she’s connected to something big!” Without getting too out of my depth, it’s clear that there are parallels to the myth of Pandora’s box, and the blind curiosity of Hammer and his tormentors unleashes a modern-day equivalent to the original evils: the realisation of all the Cold War paranoia in a nuclear apocalypse that will (presumably) destroy everyone and every thing that we’ve encountered. The finale is a startling solution for all the violence and materialism that Kiss Me Deadly criticises – it’s almost as if the film cannot handle any further demoralisation and implodes in itself as a result thereby causing a series of powerless flashes and explosion that memorably engulf Lily (our “Pandora”) before concluding with a shot of Mike and Velma hugging in the ocean, powerless against the ferocious consequences of their actions. An electrifyingly brutal outcome then, for a cold-hearted but nonetheless exemplary film.

To Be or Not to Be (Lubitsch; 1942)

I’m surprised it took me this long to watch To Be or Not to Be, to be honest. I’ve always been fascinated by Lombard, and my love of Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise meant that further investigation into his oeuvre was a necessity. Anyway, I watched it, I loved it, quelle surprise!

Of course, To Be or Not to Be is/was understandably controversial for lampooning the Nazis. But, this was not an issue for me? It’s the rigid structure and formality of the Nazis that Lubitsch ridicules (e.g. “Heil Hitler!”, “Heil Hitler!”, “Heil Hitler!” etc.), and I don’t believe that he loses sight of the atrocities that they committed. If I recall correctly, the first time we see Col. Ehrhardt he’s signing death warrants? Moreover, the fact that these are Nazis is something that inherently creates tension with the benefit of hindsight anyway, and this affects many of the film’s scenes (“to be or not to be” can be read on an existential level too, no?) Plus, the more risqué jokes act to underline the extent of their cruelty: “We do the concentrating, and they do the camping.” Lubitsch dares to tread a fine line here, which we should applaud him for, but not as much as we should for his success in getting away with it.

That success is down to the film itself being a pure delight from beginning to end. Lubitsch’s trademark charm gradually gives way to greater and more hilarious farce with every passing minute, and I really love the way in which the actors manage to save the Resistance through what is ultimately the use of art – it’s a theme that I find irresistible, and one that I think might even be slightly self-referential? Perhaps Lubitsch hoped this comedy was a means by which he could raise awareness. Regardless, art’s ability to save the day is something that makes for joyous viewing imo – and the same goes for the script’s sly little comments on the vanity of actors (particularly through the character of Joseph Tura.)

As for the actors themselves – what a delicious way to pop my Lombard-cherry, so to speak. She was utterly charming here, and I completely see the fuss and fully intend to check out more of her work. Still, as radiant as she was it’s Jack Benny who impressed me the most – uproarious in all his various guises (Joseph Tura, Hamlet, Col. Ehrhardt, Prof. Siletsky etc.) And the supporting cast were terrific too, most notably Sig Ruman as the actual Col. Ehrhardt. An appropriately brilliant ensemble, considering the theatrical troupe at the film’s core.

If it wasn’t for the clunky montages during the first half of the film, I’d call this flawless. As it stands, it suits me just fine.

August 17, 2007


Follow-up to The Greatest Films According to Reehan from My Blog.

01 Persona (Bergman, 1966)
02 Stalker (Tarkovsky, 1979)
03 Sansho the Bailiff (Mizoguchi, 1954)
04 Madame de… (Ophüls, 1953)
05 Ordet (Dreyer, 1955)
06 Au hasard Balthazar (Bresson, 1966)
07 Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (Murnau, 1927)
08 In the Mood for Love (Wong, 2000)
09 La Règle du jeu (Renoir, 1939)
10 Le Notti bianche (Visconti, 1957)

11 Marketa Lazarová (Vláčil, 1967)
12 Vertigo (Hitchcock, 1958)
13 City Lights (Chaplin, 1931)
14 La Dolce vita (Fellini, 1960)
15 Sátántangó (Tarr, 1994)
16 Le Mépris (Godard, 1963)
17 Tokyo Story (Ozu, 1953)
18 L’Âge d’Or (Buñuel, 1930)
19 Dogville (von Trier, 2003)
20 The Seventh Seal (Bergman, 1957)

21 Mulholland Dr. (Lynch, 2001)
22 The Leopard (Visconti, 1963)
23 Last Year in Marienbad (Resnais, 1961)
24 The Night of the Hunter (Laughton, 1955)
25 Bringing Up Baby (Hawks, 1938)
26 The Godfather & The Godfather: Part II (Coppola, 1972 & 1974)
27 Cries and Whispers (Bergman, 1972)
28 Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Fassbinder, 1974)
29 Mother and Son (Sokurov, 1997)
30 Sullivan’s Travels (Sturges, 1941)

31 Hiroshima mon amour (Resnais, 1959)
32 Fanny and Alexander (Bergman, 1982)
33 Casablanca (Curtiz, 1942)
34 The Piano (Campion, 1993)
35 Raging Bull (Scorsese, 1980)
36 The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer, 1928)
37 Solaris (Tarkovsky, 1972)
38 Raise the Red Lantern (Yimou, 1991)
39 The “Three Colours” Trilogy (Kieslowski, 1993-94)
40 Aguirre, the Wrath of God (Herzog, 1972)

41 Wild Strawberries (Bergman, 1957)
42 The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Buñuel, 1972)
43 The Age of Innocence (Scorsese, 1993)
44 The Philadelphia Story (Cukor, 1940)
45 Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Lee, 2000)
46 Shame (Bergman, 1968)
47 Les Enfants du Paradis (Carné, 1945)
48 Touch of Evil (Welles, 1958)
49 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick, 1968)
50 The “Apu” Trilogy (Ray, 1955-59)

51 Days of Heaven (Malick, 1978)
52 Sunset Blvd. (Wilder, 1950)
53 Ran (Kurosawa, 1985)
54 Andrei Rublev (Tarkovsky, 1969)
55 Modern Times (Chaplin, 1936)
56 Manhattan (Allen, 1979)
57 Nights of Cabiria (Fellini, 1957)
58 La Belle et la bête (Cocteau, 1946)
59 Brokeback Mountain (Lee, 2005)
60 L’Atalante (Vigo, 1934)

61 Inland Empire (Lynch, 2006)
62 The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (Greenaway, 1989)
63 Underground (Kusturica, 1995)
64 Chinatown (Polanski, 1974)
65 Jules et Jim (Truffaut, 1962)
66 Brief Encounter (Lean, 1945)
67 Belle de jour (Buñuel, 1967)
68 Pickup on South Street (Fuller, 1953)
69 To Be or Not to Be (Lubitsch, 1942)
70 Dead Man (Jarmusch, 1995)

71 American Beauty (Mendes, 1999)
72 The Red Shoes (Powell & Pressburger, 1948)
73 Letter from an Unknown Woman (Ophüls, 1948)
74 Journey to Italy (Rossellini, 1954)
75 Death in Venice (Visconti, 1971)
76 2046 (Wong, 2004)
77 (Fellini, 1963)
78 Le Million (Clair, 1931)
79 Werckmeister Harmonies (Tarr, 2000)
80 His Girl Friday (Hawks, 1940)

81 The Silence (Bergman, 1963)
82 Gertrud (Dreyer, 1964)
83 The Marriage of Maria Braun (Fassbinder, 1979)
84 Taste of Cherry (Kiarostami, 1997)
85 Pierrot le fou (Godard, 1965)
86 The Scarlet Empress (von Sternberg, 1934)
87 Hail the Conquering Hero (Sturges, 1944)
88 Eyes Wide Shut (Kubrick, 1999)
89 The Golden Coach (Renoir, 1953)
90 Faust (Murnau, 1926)

91 Winter Light (Bergman, 1962)
92 Chungking Express (Wong, 1994)
93 The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Demy, 1964)
94 North by Northwest (Hitchcock, 1959)
95 Trouble in Paradise (Lubitsch, 1932)
96 Viridiana (Buñuel, 1961)
97 Holiday (Cukor, 1938)
98 Bicycle Thieves (De Sica, 1948)
99 Ugetsu (Mizoguchi, 1953)
100 Freaks (Browning, 1932)

July 31, 2007

Ingmar Bergman (1918–2007)

Ingmar Bergman

My love of cinema is inextricably linked with my love of Bergman. Had it not been for that beguiling of image of Death and a medieval knight playing a game of chess, then I may never have taken the time to watch The Seventh Seal (1957) – and had I not watched the first of his many masterpieces, then I would perhaps still be unaware of the ability of film to function as art.

Film is a huge part of my life and thus, so is Bergman. An absolute giant of the arthouse cinema that he helped popularise from the 1950s to the 1970s, recent years saw his stock diminish amongst critics’ circles as his work became seen as too theatrical, too dated. Perhaps his death will provoke an overdue reassessment of his unrivalled oeuvre?

What continues to set Bergman apart from the legions of admirers and imitators is the fact that his cinema is unique . The man lived and breathed through his films, pouring his own doubts and concerns into his work. He thereby created a distinct cinematic language that was entirely personal to him, whilst the films themselves plumbed depths of feeling that no one else would even dare to conceive.

The stereotype of the gloomy Swede was perpetuated by Bergman, but those who relegate his work to types have evidently yet to experience the complexity of his brand of darkness. Only after one has undertaken the breathtaking emotional rollercoaster of a film like Cries and Whispers (1972) can one begin to grasp why his followers are so staunch in their dedication. Bergman was a filmmaker who dared to explore and expose the most horrific aspects of our mental anguish, and who at the same time had a propensity for successfully tackling the grandest of moral and spiritual questions. The fact that his work continues to strike such a resonant chord is a testament to the lasting relevance of his themes. And as for the doom-and-gloom aspect, it’s telling that even the arduous Cries is a film that concludes with a positively life-affirming note – something that, contrary to public perception, is a hallmark of Bergman’s cinema: take a look at Wild Strawberries (1957) or Fanny and Alexander (1982) for further proof.

For all his theatrical roots, Bergman was also a remarkable visual stylist. From the lush expressionistic devices he employed in The Seventh Seal or Wild Strawberries , through the bleak austerity of his “Faith Trilogy”, to the magnificent chamber dramas of Cries and Whispers and Fanny and Alexander – his films were consistently striking upon the eye. Never was this more the case than in his greatest work, Persona (1966) – a film so radical in its innovative use of the film form that it almost makes Godard and Welles look like mice in comparison.

Bergman, for me and so many others, was the embodiment of what cinema could achieve. His films demand our utmost attention, but the voyages of empathy, understanding and even self-discovery that they provoke as a result serve as apt rewards. Losing Ingmar is a tremendous blow to the world of film, in spite of his enviable and lengthy career. It’s a metaphorical loss of that aforementioned embodiment – Bergman’s presence, even if silent, was at least a reassurance that the sanctity of cinema was still safe, still guarded. Without him, it’s as if the world of film seems more vulnerable, more susceptible to the homogeneity, to a loss of feeling that he so ardently worked to establish.

Thankfully, Bergman left us with a legacy that can’t be erased: his films. Amidst all the mourning, it’s those brilliant accomplishments that we should look towards. Certainly, it’s what I’ll be turning to to remind myself that all is not lost, that art can and will survive. For The Seventh Seal, for Cries and Whispers , for Wild Strawberries , for Fanny and Alexander , for Persona and for so many others I will be in eternal gratitude to Mr. Bergman.

So yeah: Thank You, Ingmar. R.I.P.

Sansho the Bailiff (Mizoguchi; 1954)

Sansho the Bailiff
Without mercy, man is like a beast… even if you are hard on yourself, be merciful to others.

This sentence, uttered by the film’s magnanimous patriarch and moral cornerstone, lingers over the protagonists of Sansho the Bailiff forming a tremendous weight upon their shoulders. It’s an affliction because the film devotes much of its length to proving only the first half of the statement, consequently highlighting just how difficult it is to practice the second part. Mizoguchi’s world-view has probably never been this bleak, yet the film is nonetheless one of the most compassionate works that I’ve ever seen. The director utilises his strengths – craftsmanship and storytelling – and adds in a heavy dose of lyrical humanism that is overwhelming in its cumulative power. Gone are the writing flaws that affected Ugetsu, and instead we’re left with a tightly-focused and beautifully-filmed piece of art that comfortably sits alongside the likes of Persona, Stalker et al. as one of the greatest films ever made (at least as far as I’m concerned.)

Sansho opens with a caption that describes it’s literary forebearer as: “one of the world’s great folk tales.” Right from the outset then, we’re given an example of the film’s intent on mythologizing the past. This is applicable to both Mizoguchi as well as his content. The scenes that immediately follow this prologue serve as demonstrations of the characters’ needs to commemorate: Zushio seeking reassurances about his father’s nobility; Tamaki’s memories of Masauji shown in flashback sequences that emphasise the past’s influence on the present; the brief close-up of the Kwannon heirloom; and finally, Tamaki asking Zushio whether he remembers his father’s face and his teachings (reinforcing his values.) Later in the film, Tamaki is also memorialized by her children, notably through the use of song. These compulsive requirements do much to emphasise the timeless qualities of the story – something that is augmented by the film’s focus on travelling: from the passing of the fable as outlined in the prologue; to the initial trip made by mother and children; the separate paths that they take into the worlds of prostitution and slavery; Zushio’s escape; Anju’s spiritual ascendence; even Zushio’s journey up (and down) the social hierarchy. With Masauji’s aforementioned words judging the characters at every step of their respective travels, it’s clear that Sansho has a (probably self-referential) concern with the act of storytelling and the effects that this has upon an audience.

More importantly, in narrative terms, this concern with legends (father, mother, ideals) consigns the film’s principal characters, Zushio and Anju, with a goal to work towards in the unforgiving world that they inhabit. And it really is a harsh life that Mizoguchi depicts here. Sansho’s labour camp makes for a dismal environment with its muddy desolation, forming a stark contrast to the picturesque reverence with which the outside world is often filmed in. Any attempts to escape slavery are met with torture that manifests itself as branding with a hot spear – leaving a mark that permanently erases/standardises one’s identity, a particularly relevant concept considering Zushio and Anju’s struggles with their own identities (note the name-changes.) Sansho himself is the complete antithesis to Masauji, explicitly stating as such: “Have no mercy on them!” he commands, after encountering the young siblings for the first time. Moreover, the camp continues the film’s theme of punishing those characters that dare to display any such mercy – the kindly Namiji is branded, whilst the sympathetic Taro feels compelled to leave.

Much like Ugetsu, Mizoguchi’s situation of the story in the Japanese past means that comparisons with recent history are inevitable. Taking this into account, the labour camp that Sansho so brutally administers reads as an allegorical condemnation of the concentration camps inherent to WW2 and Sansho’s administration is equated to militarism (on a quick side note: if one bears this in mind, the rebellion of the emancipated slaves takes on a thought-provoking new dimension.) Zushio’s loss of ideals then, can be equated to brainwashing as best exemplified by Anju’s pleas for him not to take the dying Namiji away, to which he responds: “It’s the bailiff’s orders.” The erosion of Zushio’s morality is crucial as it heightens the reality of his situation by placing him on a par with those that were engulfed by blind allegiance during wartime. Anju’s preservation of her own decency represents the alternative direction: enduring with dignity. Pervading through all these analogies is another line from the prologue: “The origin of this legend… goes back to the Heian period, when mankind had not yet opened their eyes to other men as human beings.” Mizoguchi’s figurative application of the legend to the decades that immediately preceded Sansho hints at this sentence’s own relevance: in 1945, had mankind really opened its eyes much more than in feudal Japan? The previously discussed mythologizing of the piece means that we can pose another question: has mankind even managed to open its eyes today?

In spite of the historical setting then, Sansho is a thoroughly modern (timeless) film that engages with socially relevant issues. It meditates on the difficult relationship between the humanitarianism at its heart and the political framework that’s necessary for implementing it: “Is it unlawful to love your people?” asks Zushio, “No, but one must obey his superior officer” is a minister’s response. Mizoguchi concludes that both are useless without the other. There’s also an examination of class structures. As Namiji is carried away by Zushio, an old friend prays for her reincarnation: “Be born to a rich family!” This statement oozes with irony when we note the fate of the “rich family” at Sansho’s core. Zushio’s later ascension to, and resignation from, a position of authority accentuates the precariousness of the social hierarchy – although the rest of the slaves’ inability to break out of the mould is arguably a testament to its rigidity? Perhaps what is underlined here is the hypocrisy of such hierarchies – only if one has the right name and knows the right people is mobility an option. Refusing to free the slaves allows the powered elites to protect their own positions. Regardless, it’s an interesting paradox and, as is always the case with Mizoguchi, it provides food for thought.

The thematic complexity of Sansho the Bailiff should, I hope, be clear by now. But much like Ugetsu, this is a film where style is inextricably linked to substance, and I wish to conclude by quickly focusing on three of the film’s most successful sequences: the forced separation of mother from children; Anju’s self-sacrifice; and the reconciliation between mother and son that closes the film. I’ll say now that I don’t just consider these the best sequences in the film, I esteem them as some of the finest moments in cinema full stop.

Sansho the Bailiff

I mentioned Mizoguchi’s aptitude for scenes of horror when discussing Miyagi’s harrowing death scene in Ugetsu. The parallel with Sansho’s most horrific scene is difficult to ignore: same actress playing the mother (Kinuyo Tanaka), same concept of mother being wrenched apart from offspring, the main divergence being that in this film the mother doesn’t die – she’s condemned to a life of constant suffering instead. Sansho’s scene is the more overtly stylised of the two, and it’s perhaps that which lends it the greater power, as the director flaunts the entire range of his cinematic weaponry. His setting is perfect, with ominously disfigured trees and a mist-ridden lake dominating the scenery-as-filmed by Kazuo Miyagawa. The sound design is a marvel, with sharp-pitched flutes screeching over the soundtrack as the scene itself crescendos with the intensity provided by the screaming children calling for their mother, and Tamaki and her servant Ubatake’s desperate protests to go back to shore. Framing? As good as it ever was, the pinnacle being when Mizoguchi exploits two deep-focus shots to show us: first – Tamaki fighting in the foreground and the children desperately attempting to escape in the background; and then – the same shot, but a few seconds later and in reverse, revealing the rapidly-growing distance between the boat and the shore. These shots are profound in the dual urgency that they provide. It’s perhaps Mitsuzo Miyata’s editing that deserve particular merit here, though. Mizoguchi is known for the serenity in his style, characterized by the long-take, and up until this sequence, there’s nothing to dispel that myth. Here, however, the director chooses to take his audience by surprise and Miyata’s editing allows him to probably come as close as he ever did to flirting with the concept of montage. It’s a breathtakingly beneficial u-turn in style, The velocity of the cutting rate, and the variety of the shot-making, means that the sequence is comparable to a swift shot to the body – we can’t comprehend what’s hit us until after the event (if that.) Finally, there’s a helping of vicious irony thanks to the gratitude that the family express to the ‘priestess’ before they’re about to depart. Even later, in the midst of the sequence’s terror, the good-natured Ubatake naively asks about the slave-traders rowing her away: “Priestess, are you sure they are reliable?” That the sequence should conclude with a pictorial framing of her death makes this line even more tragic. As a whole, these two-and-a-half minutes terrifyingly, but concisely, expose the absolute worst facets of humanity. Already, so soon after the flashbacks that taught us to be merciful, Mizoguchi is showing us the grimmest of realities – the polar opposite of what we’ve witnessed before, and a sign of things to come.

Sansho the Bailiff

Upon a second viewing, Sansho’s horror sequence is permeated with greater sadness as we realise that it will be the last meeting of Tamaki and her daughter Anju. Of all the characters in the film, it is Anju who best exemplifies her father’s morals and values. It’s important to register the fact that she’s a weaver at the labour camp for this plays into her significance within the narrative. Aside from weaving basic materials together, she also unifies (what’s left of) her family at the cost of her own life. By doing so, one could argue that she’s even weaving the contents of the film, but I’ll stop that mode of thought before I get carried away. It’s easy to forget that Anju’s self-sacrifice allows not simply for Zushio’s escape, but also for the peaceful death of Namiji thanks to her request. The loss of the film’s sole embodiment of compassion (at this point) is a heartbreaking one, all the more so because of the respect with which Mizoguchi films her death scene. Again, a mist-ridden lake is at the fore, this time with less menacing trees framing Anju at the centre. In the distance, her mother’s sorrowful refrain can be heard (“Isn’t life torture?”), as Anju slowly enters the water. We then cut to her old friend, again exquisitely framed in the centre of our screens (this time by the bars of the camp, a contrast with Anju’s natural transcendence), who collapses to her knees in prayer – paralleling Anju’s own submission to the lake, and death. Another cut back to the lake reveals perfectly concentric ripples, our lasting memory of her, before merging into a shot of a Buddha in the temple where Zushio finds safety.
This is a sequence that’s emblematic of Sansho’s curious religiosity. The film’s concept of mercy is rooted in Buddhism, as illustrated by the figure of the Kwannon. Anju embodies this in the real world, and Mizoguchi accordingly treats her death with simplistic veneration as opposed to the dramatics that he could easily cave in to. The fact that an explicit link is made between Anju’s death and a religious symbol that safeguards her brother is suggestive of her own ascendence into the realm of the spiritual – not to mention the fabric of mythology that the film is actively concerned with.

Sansho the Bailiff

For years now, I’ve maintained that Chaplin’s conclusion to City Lights is unrivalled within cinema. Upon my first viewing of Sansho the Bailiff I bawled my eyes out, without really understanding why. I re-watched the ending to try and comprehend… and ended up bawling my eyes out again. I then gave the film itself another viewing and still the tear-ducts were in action. Finally, before writing this I viewed that ending for a fourth time and cried again – although this time I managed to limit myself to only two or three tears and a controlled amount of sobbing. Anyway, all this leaves me with the possibility of two evaluations: a) that I’m simply a shameless cry-baby and that I need a shot of testosterone, pronto; or b) that Sansho’s ending is the most perfect finale in all cinema, trumping even Chaplin’s masterstroke. I’m guessing that both these statements are correct?!

Mizoguchi’s conclusion allows for the cathartic release that we, as the audience, have been waiting two hours for. The origins of its pathos are inexplicable with mere words, but I’ll nevertheless attempt to make some sense of it. First of all, it marks the long-anticipated reunion between Tamaki and Zushio. Mizoguchi’s success at conveying the arduousness that has allowed for this reconciliation makes it all the more poignant, as if the sight of a child reunited with his long-lost mother wasn’t enough. Instead of restoring them to their former glory, Mizoguchi refuses to romanticise and presents us a family in its most pitiful state. The heavy toll that a burdensome life has taken on Tamaki is especially heartbreaking because it manifests itself visually through her appearance. During Zushio’s search we’re led first to expect that she’s a prostitute, then to expect that she’s dead. What we find is more degrading than we could have imagined: a blind and decrepit woman worn down against the seaweed, barely managing to gasp out the song that her children so beautifully memorialised (compare this Tamaki to the woman who we encounter at the film’s beginning.) And then there’s the agonizing dialogue – upon announcing himself, Tamaki mutters: “You wretched being! You’ve come to try and fool me again!”, suggesting that she’s a woman who’s been taken advantage of many a time before as a result of the blindness that prevents her from seeing her own child. And then, the gut-wrenching obliviousness of her statement after learning that Anju has joined Masauji: “Your father? Is he doing well?” The scene concludes with the mother’s reaffirmation of the father’s teachings, before the overwhelming melodrama forces the camera’s gaze away from the reunited family, towards an indifferent image of the horizon as a man goes about his daily work.

This final endorsement of “mercy” is extraordinary when one contemplates exactly what “mercy” has accomplished for Zushio and Tamaki. As a result of this simple concept, they lost almost everything that they ever had, risked losing one another, and were forced to endure countless humiliations. To find the film advocating it in spite of such atrocity is humbling, and again allows us to make a parallel between the then and the now. That Mizoguchi should then summon up the nerve to pan away from this moment of astounding plaintiveness, in order to communicate how even this most significant of filmic events is but a tiny speck in the grand scheme of life… well, it takes guts. More than that, it requires the ability of a confident director absolutely in control of his art. Throughout Sansho the Bailiff, Mizoguchi never once loses hold of his mastery – thus leaving us with an impeccable achievement, an evocative tribute to humanism that startles with its deceptively simple complexity.

Sansho the Bailiff

And if you’ve managed to make it to the end of this shamelessly long-winded review then I thoroughly recommend that you congratulate yourself by viewing it. NOW!

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