School is going wonderfully for those who are curious and now that I’ve finally settled down into a pace, I can catch up here. My post will still be less extensive and probing, but I will still find time to write moderately sized capsules.
Ningen no jôken I (Masaki Kobayashi, 1959) DEFINITELY NOT AWESOME
It’s okay for what it is. Nakadai is great (as usual) and the cinematography is really wonderful, but other than that, it really is a lazy movie. It really upsets me that everyone considers this (rather tame) epic to be some big, serious, daring political statement when time had actually made Kobayashi completely safe to express his personal views. The same can not be said for Tomu Uchida, Tadashi Imai, or even Sadao Yamanaka — all three of whom have yet to be recognized in the west. In addition, they expressed their far more radical political sentiments with far greater subtlety than Kobayashi could ever dream. The “bad guys” are so obvious to identify and they represent nothing more than a narrow-minded symbol of what Nakadai is fighting against. Say what you will about bad guys in westerns, but at least their relationship with the main character is usually interesting. Take Lee Marvin in Seven Men From Now as an example. He’s the “bad guy” but he doesn’t have a big neon sign declaring that you’re not suppose to like him. In fact, he’s a brilliant and full breathing character. Meanwhile, the villians here are so dramatic and simple it makes the characterizations feel like a cartoon. There is seriously a sequence in which an official demonstrates the new security by throwing a dog into a electrical fence. Well, that doesn’t leave much for that character to operate with. I can see Kobayashi sitting in his writing room worrying that the audience might not fully comprehend what’s going on and saying to himself, “why don’t they kill dogs. That will remind them who we’re rooting for!”
Can I just mention again that Uchida, Imai, and Yamanaka (among others) were dealing with similarly heavy material, but in a far less operatic fashion. I mean, this movie is three and half hours long, and that’s just part one of three! Humanity and Paper Balloons says more, risks more, and just flat out works more with two hours less. The concept of complexity seems to be one completely missing from Kobayashi’s cinematic vocabulary. One only needs to look at the never-ending series of bitch slaps and needless fights that take place. If he really is an action director, then he is the worst action director of all-time and if he’s in “art” director than he is one of the most obnoxiously obvious ones. This makes Mizoguchi look like a peaceful director. Hell, it makes The Shawshank Redemption feel almost like Ozu. There are some good things about it. I mean it does look pretty good. The widescreen + b/w cinematography is gorgeous and I already mentioned, Nakadai even the most ham-fisted sequences come alive. Overall, though, it’s not enough make up for a truly silly film.
Fiona (Amos Kollek, 1998) NOW THIS IS AWESOME
Perhaps it’s the amount of more, shall I say, conventional movies that I’ve been watching lately, but this really hit me hard. In all honesty, it doesn’t really do anything, at least not on a superficial level, that I hadn’t already seen in Paul Morrissey’s trilogy (which it shares many elements with) but it still pretty much blew my mind. Like Morrissey, and unlike Cassavetes, Kollek manages to capture these moments that are so bizarre and surreal yet are oddly intimate and touching. A perfect example would be the extended sequence in the crack house, which is like just a montage of crazy (but amazing) people laying around telling silly stories and stupid jokes. I know that sounds simple, but that’s the sort of stuff that made me fall in love with film in the first place. In all honesty, I wish all movies had sections like this, in which the characters just goof around and do nothing to advance any sort of typical narrative. More moments with an emphasis on the atmosphere, which this film has plenty of. It helps that Kollek is just brutally honest and objective about everything. This is probably the most accurate prostitute movie of all-time. At the very least, it’s the least dramatic. Don’t get me wrong, I’m certainly a fan of Mizoguchi and Fassbinder but both of their prostitute dramas are oozing with tragic notes. That’s not to say that there isn’t any sort of emotional thrust here, quite the contrary actually. The mushy subplot about the titular character finding her mother could easily have been some Hallmark / Lifetime movie of the week, but instead of some sentimental get-together, they encounter each other by circumstance. The end result is that Fiona eats out her mother’s pussy. The film definitely earns points for putting its protagonist through plenty of transgressive situations as the one previously mentioned. Obviously, said sequence work perfectly with Kollek’s documentary like execution. Something should also be said about the voiceover here, which is a hundred times more touching, poetic, and heartbreaking than anything David Gordon Green could write. My most favorite line comes when Fiona meets a woman not unlike her, “She got hit in the face with a pole or something. I just wanted to hold her in my arms and tell everything was going to be okay.” It’s moments like these that make me want to overlook some amateurish flourishes and call this movie an all-time favorite. For now, it’s pretty close.
S.V.D – Soyuz velikogo dela (Grigori Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg, 1927) REALLY GOOD
Like with The New Babylon, I’m not sure what exactly is going on here but Kozintsev and Trauberg are so great at capturing these simple, fleeting, beautiful, and poetic moments that just inexplicably get to me. Ultimately, these moments are too few and far between, which makes them more precious but also makes the movie a little tedious at times. Probably in my Soviet top ten.
Hitler – ein Film aus Deutschland (Hans-Jürgen Syberberg, 1977) NOT SURE, BUT IT IS GOOD
So, what is this exactly? I mean, it’s not really a movie, at least not in the conventional sense. It’s like some odd artifact, or maybe even a document (but not a documentary) covering Hitler’s career in the most idiosyncratic way possible. I kind of want to call it a masterpiece just because it is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. Really, I haven’t had such a “unique” and potentially eye-opening cinematic experience since I first saw Gummo a couple years back. On the other hand, though, calling this cinematic is a little bit of a reach. Sure, there’s some nice Marker-esque freeze-frame montages, but most of it is people talking into a camera on a stage. Every film that has crushed my expectations of cinema’s possibilities did so because it was able to express things without words, while the opposite is true here. Again, it doesn’t even feel like a movie at all. Instead, it’s some weird middle ground between performance art and poetry. It sounds terrible on paper, and in theory, it should be unwatchable (which it sort of is until one adjusts to Syderberg’s odd aesthetic) but there’s something so goddamn fascinating about it. Maybe it’s the voice overs. Sure, in modern cinema the technique has become pretty much a tool for lesser directors to channel Malick, but Syderberg manages to maintain the same type of poignancy but producing images that are nothing like Malick’s, or Green’s, or whoever else is comforted by poetic narration. I don’t mean to be attacking Malick or his disciples, as I still do like his means of expression, but one has to admit that the “poetic voiceover” has become something of an art film cliche, closely reaching a level of parody. Syderberg’s words all the more riveting because they connect to us on a level untapped by an filmmaker. This doesn’t make him a genius, though he might be, but it does at least produce a very interesting experience. Honestly, I have no idea what to think of this movie. It didn’t blow my mind, but maybe it did? Does that make sense? Probably not, but I’m having a difficult time making sense of this oddly touching seven hour experience.
The Prince and the Pauper (William Keighley, 1937) ENJOYABLE
I wasn’t expecting anything all from this, which is probably why I was moderately impressed. Sure, the story has been death (or maybe it just seems that way to me because I watched the Mickey Mouse version hundreds of times as a child?) but it is handled very well here. What little drama is present is kind of toned down by the really great cinematography, courtesy of Sol Polito. Between this and Sergeant York, I’m more than convinced that he was one of the most talented DoPs in the classic Hollywood system. It’s nothing much different from Alton, Lawton Jr, or anybody else you want to throw in but I think there’s something slightly “grittier.” It might just be because the work I’ve seen from him requires characters to have faces covered in mud. Combine that with the shaky, primitive yet beautiful Vidor-esque tracking shots and you have enough ingredients for this to pass as a “glue-sniffing” movie. Of course, there’s plenty of formalist stuff involving the 16th century, which is foreign and a little awkward to me, but I think that Keighley manages to place his personality over the work. Manny Farber probably wasn’t thinking of this movie when he called Keighley one of the greatest action film directors, but I can see how this aesthetic could easily be transferred to something a bit more …chaotic? Bullets or Ballots and Each Dawn I Die are definitely high priorities, anyone recommend anything specific?
I also read this last week…
Nippon Modern (Mitsuyo Wada-Marciano, 2008)
Very, very good. Absolutely essential for anyone remotely interested in the history of Japanese cinema. There’s lot of academic stuff regarding modernity that doesn’t fascinate me that much, but its information of pre-war Japanese cinema is indispensable. It’s still one of the fastest readings film-related reading I can think of, but that’s because the subject (which I am so fascinated by) has very little critical writings. Not only did this make me want to see countless films, but it also enhanced my appreciation of many films from the time period. Nothing could really make me love I Was Born But… more than I already do, but there’s a few selections that remind me exactly why it is so great.