Medea (1969)

22 04 2013

Recently, I’ve begun wrestling with my interpretation of Pasolini as a sloppy filmmaker. I’ve always been a fan of his films and I’ve appreciated his contributions to other fields, but I’ve always viewed his work as being earnest in terms of content but rough around the edges when it comes to form. I feel like I’m still being unfair because there was once a time where such camerawork would have been greatly appreciated by myself, and I still enjoy Pasolini’s documentary impulses. The reading of his work as “sloppy” was never strictly an aesthetic one, but one that also addresses the way his ideas manifest. In this particular case, this might be his sloppiest movie, a nearly incomprehensible mess, but it’s filled with such life that it ultimately works.

1

A centaur appears to us sets up the story with a fair amount of economy: Jason must retrieve a golden fleece from a barbaric colony that is ruled by Medea. The barbarianism is represented with great detail: a main is sacrificed and his blood is used as something of a fertilizer. Jason arrives, which alerts Medea. She gets her brother to help her retrieve the fleece and the two then give it to Jason. Later, Medea kills her brother to distract the reinforcement that the kingdom sends. Medea and Jason become romantically linked, which leads to her being stripped of her ornate clothing replaced with a more traditional dress.

2

I only describe the film up to about the one hour mark, and it’s at this point that it begins to lose me. The plot happens a bit more organically than my description implies. For a solid 2/3 the film serves as an almost ethnographic documentary about a group of people who never really existed. Pasolini recreates a fictional civilization in a thoroughly convincing way, not unlike the way he does in Oedipus Rex. A visual comparison between him and Herzog might not be unwise, but I wouldn’t force a further connection between the two filmmakers. It’s to Pasolini’s credit that he’s able to construct something that feels like a document of another time, but a consciously fictitious one. The costuming here is so bizarre and silly, but the audience is expected to digest it as easily as it is expected to digest a graphic human sacrifice.

3

For all of the energy in Pasolini’s images, it is hard to deny that he does still get around to them in an odd, idiosyncratic way. It might not be that Pasolini’s camera work is sloppy, but instead that his editing is. It’s not nearly as noticeable here as it is in his earlier films, but the film does appear to be constructed in a clunky way. The aforementioned documentary tone persists for most of the film, but the final thirty minutes sort of drag just because they seem to be constructed in a fairly different way. This might be intentional as Pasolini’s own Porcile switches between two stories, which are very different formally. Even if it was a conscious decision, it doesn’t exactly seems like a particularly smart choice on Pasolini. Then again, it’s this sort of stuff that sort of contributes to the way people (myself included) have mythologized him.

4

This is not a film I feel comfortable engaging on a particularly deep analytical context from only one viewing. Ideas from the rest of Pasolini’s career seem to pass through so quickly, like a river flowing with the filmmaker’s ideology and personal indulgences. The most superficial of which is the way he photographs Giuseppe Gentile, who plays Jason. The sensual connection with the male body is a far too  attribute  commonly credited to queer male filmmakers (see also Murnau’s Tabu, any of Gus Van Sant’s artier films) and I hesitate to make a big deal of it here. Instead, I find more interest in the way he photographs Maria Callas, which with some reverence. Like many of the women in Pasolini’s films, she is a saint, if only in the way she’s photographed. Earlier in the film, I subconsciously started linking Medea as the mother, perhaps through associating it with Oedipus Rex.  I’d like to think it comes from Pasolini’s framing of Callas. It makes sense when the film’s vocabulary builds almost entirely on visuals, without much dialogue.

5

I hope the last sentence resonates as I find the true vitality in Pasolini’s film present in this impulse. There’s so much going on here and it’s easy to get lost in the insane trappings of the film’s fantasy world (it opens with a centaur and never really “settles” down afterwards) especially when Pasolini’s presentation kind of expects the audience member to accept this as something of a realistic study. My biggest problem with the film is that it ultimately can’t maintain its momentum long enough to be just a weird, visceral experience. If so, I might be tempted to call it the filmmaker’s best. Instead, it’s an interesting expression from one of cinema’s truly fascinating personalities.

6

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To Rome With Love (2012)

21 04 2013

I’ve never been a particularly big fan of Woody Allen, but I’ve never really had a big problem watching his films. After all, who wouldn’t want to be able to a young adult living in New York, Paris, or in this particular case, Rome? Personally, there’s a bit of wish fufillment in my enjoyment of his movies and perhaps it’s that slant that also prevents me from seeing most of his films as really artistic or resonating in my head after the film itself ends. To Rome With Love might be the worst offender, but it’s Allen at his most transparent: he’s never been more self-conscious. In a weird twist, his biggest problems being magnified have produced his most interesting movie in years. I hesitate to call it great, hell to even call it “good” but it’s not a film I regret watching in the least.

1

Middle-aged and married, John returns to Rome with intentions of revisiting where he once lived. There, he meets Jack, an American student living with his girlfriend, Sally. Her best friend, Monica, moves in with the couple, which throws their relationship into question. John continually confronts Jack about his potential feelings for Monica, but Jack manages to brush them aside. Meanwhile, Hayley’s parents come in from New York to meet her fiance. Meanwhile, a middle aged businessman becomes celebrity apropos of nothing and a rural couple loses each other in the big city, each getting involved in another romantic situation.

2

I try to be vague in a lot of these plot descriptions, but here, I saw myself particularly trying to recount the vignette involving John and Jack. In a way, it seems to be a slight retread of Allen’s Midnight in Paris as John (played by Alec Baldwin) seems to be reliving his youth through Jack. It could be deduced that John is something of a ghost, as he converses with Jack about a scene’s subtext as the scene itself is unfolding. These scenes can be uncomfortable in their smug nature, but I can’t help but believe that is intention entirely. After all, is there a better word than smug to describe Baldwin as a performer? As Jack and Monica slowly develop their affections, he is always there to scrutinize her behavior. One wonders why only Monica is given this treatment, but this might be more indicative of Allen’s problematic women characters, more so than the usual superficial criticism that he just lives out a fantasy with his films.

3

The film is still very much a fantasy, perhaps Allen himself coming to terms with his age in a way that is the antithesis to that of his hero, Ingmar Bergman. The film even acknowledges this idea, as Allen’s wife in the film does little more than provide a psychoanalytic reading of her husband’s actions. This all might seem too meta, since Allen is either removing the interpretative power of the viewer or he’s just adding another layer of self-consciousness.  I have often felt that his films seem to be made with a fear of criticism, as if he anticipates common criticisms and then teases those ideas with the hope that the audience might feel guilty about arriving at such a thought. This is certainly how I’ve digested a great deal of Allen’s work, but it seems to be less of the case here. Perhaps the breezy tone to this film’s proceedings make it seem less obnoxious in its occasional intellectual posturing.

4

I find it funny that the most frequent problem I have with Allen (especially his comedies) is a sentiment echoed by himself. Be it the Fellini conversation in Annie Hall or this bit in Manhattan, there is also a character in Allen’s films that attempts to sound more intelligent that they actually are. Ellen Page’s Monica character is given this negative characteristic here, and it’s this trait that Baldwin’s John constantly tries to point out to Jack. Almost halfway through the film, Monica and Jack have an exchange about architecture, she brings up Gaudi and speaks about him in a fairly stilted way. John tells Jack this, “she knows certain cultural phrases that imply she knows more than she does.” To me, this hits fairly close to my own problems with Allen. It’s more that he feels compelled to demonstrate his knowledge (and do so through with conversation) than that I think he’s actually a fake smart person. Still, this moment implies an awareness. Sure, it’s been in his earlier films, but it feels oddly poignant here.

5

This isn’t to say the film is perfect, or even particularly good. The two non-English segments seem particularly hollow, perhaps just Allen indulging in the perceived “exotic” nature of Italy. The Roberto Benigni story has a nice surrealist touch to it, but it ultimately becomes a boring criticism of celebrity culture. In such a situation, it’s hard to see Allen as anything more than a Dad complaining about an issue of Us! Weekly. The other one is a serviceable comedic bit that is charming. The real appeal for me is when Allen confronts his demons, not because he’s particularly articulate or pointed about them but more than he presents them in an entertaining fashion. This isn’t a great film, but Allen has something a little bit personal here and he manages to proceed with it in a “charming” way. This is a film that goes down easy, and it actually does have something to say. It’s not the most substantial film, but it’s nice. Sometimes you just want something nice.

6





Anata kaimasu / I Will Buy You (1956)

15 04 2013

I haven’t been shy in expressing my distaste for Masaki Kobayashi’s films in the past. I find his heralded masterpiece, The Human Condition to be, in spite of some impressive visuals, a far too  schmaltzy experience. Kobayashi’s mentor was Keisuke Kinoshita, who I believe suffers from the same problem. For whatever reason, I find myself going back to their work, perhaps because there’s something apparent that warrants such re-visitation or maybe it’s just a personal interest in Japanese film from this time period. Whatever the case, I give these two more chances than they probably deserve considering my personal experience with their best-known work. I do so for the off-chance I come along a film such as this one.

1

Daisuke Kishimoto is a young baseball scout for the Toyo Flowers. He and several other club scouts are in the middle of a bidding war with the country’s hottest prospect, Goro Kurita. The recruiting process is highlighted by crafty maneuvers against rival scouts, some suspicious gifts, and a constant interaction with Kurita himself. In the process, Kishimoto, convinces himself that he has something of a relationship with Kurita, but their interaction never escalates beyond a sales pitch.

2

I will take a step back and acknowledge that this film isn’t exactly a masterpiece and it certainly suffers from some of the things I’ve personally come to expect from Kobayashi as a director. That said, though, his style seems to translate better in a film like this, which can build upon his aesthetic without forcing a rather contrived type of humanism. That impulse actually creeps in towards the end of this film, but most of it is a fairly compelling study of the state of popular sports in 1950s Japan. It’s obviously not a flattering portrait, but it is an engaging one.

3

Considering the film’s content and the fact that Kobayashi would follow up with Black River in 1957, their might be a pull for some to classify this as a noir. I’m not against this theory, but I think Kobayashi is emulating another classic American genre here, the science fiction film. Obviously, there is nothing remotely science fiction about this, but the film’s tone seems to be not unlike that of such American films from the same period. Kishimoto is frequently flying to and from certain location, and this information is given to us in a fairly simplistic, slightly plastic looking shot of a plane that is repeated frequently throughout the film. The “establishing shot” of the airplane is always followed up with a shot of Kishimoto in the airplane and he’s usually mulling over the possibility of convincing Kurita to sign with the Toyo Flowers. These sequences are accompanied by theremin music.

4

The planes eventually land, and we’re transported to a world with images that seem other-worldly. Baseball stadiums filled to capacity seem to suggest an almost industrial spaceship, ones that have managed to benefit from the nature of the baseball world. The front office people involved with baseball are almost all crooks. We see them frequently gamble, rather innocently at first with a sumo wrestling match, but then they bet of horseracing, and lter, dogfighting. As it tends to be the case with Kobayashi, the intentions are clear, arguably to a fault, but his critique here is buoyed by some humor to the proceedings. The film doesn’t quite reach the satire of Yasuzo Masumura’s very similar Giants and Toys from 1958, but it does shy away from Kobayashi’s ham-fisted tendencies.

5

As I already mentioned, this still suffers from some traditional Kobayashi problems. The film ends with [spoiler but not really] Kishimoto failing to sign Kurita. In the process, he’s become close with another scout, Kyuki, who is much older and his fallen ill. He is disgusted when Kurita decides to sign with neither of their teams. He goes into a tirade, calling Kurita a monster. It’s not because he didn’t get to sign Kurita himself, but that Kurita betrayed Kyuki as well. This seems to be the most problematic stretch of the film. For 100 minutes, we’re conditioned to believe that the world of baseball is a nasty one, but the film’s discourse seems to shift with the embodiment of the problem: Kishimoto. The audience is to take up his cause: that Kurita might be the root of the problem and he’s too young to realize how much trouble he caused everyone.

6

As the film concludes, we’re given a scene of Kurita’s approaching his first at-bat, but we never get to see the first at-bat. This might be one of Kobayashi’s strongest moments ever. My problems with him tend to suggest that he shows and tells us too much, but the fact that he withholds Kurita’s actual participation in the big leagues is crucial. Throughout the film, there is a side plot involving the actual baseball world and we get some impressive archival footage of some Nippon Professional Baseball games. The rest of the film is about everyone stumbling over each other just to get closer to Kurita. All it does is give one professional baseball player. It’s a clever bit on Kobayashi’s part and it provides a powerful statement. Within something as specific as professional baseball, he has made something more constructive and interesting than what he did working within a more important context.

7





Kiri no hata / Flag in the Mist (1965)

11 04 2013

For whatever reason, Yoji Yamada has yet to really catch on with the arthouse crowd. I suppose the narrative of Japanese cinema tells us that this was the time period of “radical filmmakers” like Nagisa Oshima and Yoshishige Yoshida. I use the quotes somewhat sarcastically, because when it comes to aesthetic, Yamada is just as evolved as any of them. He hasn’t gotten a larger critical evaluation because it’s his content, which lacks the edge of filmmakers like Oshima and Yoshida. He makes, at the risk of using an already overused phrase, more of a “humanist” and a lot of dramatic works are grounded within the home life. This is not the case with Kiri no hata, a stylish thriller, that is a bit less sensitive (at least superficially) than Yamada’s more gentle work. It’s a perfect fit as his usual merits manage to stand point even within a genre piece.

1

Masao Yanagida is on trial for the murder of a loan shark, and the evidence is not in his favor. His sister, Kiriko Yanagida testifies on his behalf, but the fact that he owed the loan shark an enormous amount of money that he didn’t have is enough to send him away to prison. While there, he dies only a year into his sentence. Kiriko, obviously frustrated, finds a golden opportunity when the mistress of the lawyer who essentially put her brother to jail is seen at the scene of a different murder. Kiriko can now use the justice system to her advantage and perhaps avenge her brother’s death.

2

One of the problems with writing a plot synopsis comes when one can’t capture the same spirit with which the story itself unfolds. I would note that my description of the story is not at all like the way Yamada tells it. Instead, he takes a more elliptical approach, cutting in between the trail, the events leading up the murder, and the year following the trail. He does this all rather flawlessly, perhaps not with the dizzying Roeg-like precision of his contemporary, Yoshishige Yoshida, but in a more restrained way, which still manages to serves the film’s function as a genre piece. It’s hard to think that Yamada didn’t see Kurosawa’s High & Low before making this picture, while that one is ultimately more complicated and intricate, Yamada seems to move the pieces of his film around in the same way. The compositions are cut tightly in a way that evokes a similar tension.

3

This is still a film that represents Yamada’s work, even if it not representative of the genre he spent most of his time. His “humanist” streak still shines through, although one might argue that the film’s conclusion is a fairly cynical one. I don’t think the two aren’t mutually exclusive. Yamada’s portrait of Kiriko, played by Chieko Baisho, is so rich and complex that her final decision plays out not like Yamada and the film’s writers winking at the audience (like twists tend to do) but instead, like a radical and empowering decision by Kiriko.

4

Yamada’s position as a more conservative filmmaker (not ideologically, but in form) compared to the New Wave isn’t an inaccurate one. While all of his films are beautiful, they lack the formal playful of the ATG crowd. Instead, his aesthetic is more in service of the film’s other parts, which sounds like a way of saying he isn’t cinematic, but I hope to not be implying that. He’s extremely cinematic, and this film might boast his most “cinematic” scene. A wonderfully constructed, completely wordless sequence of Kiriko following a man around from a Ginza bar  to his house. It has an Antonioni quality and actually anticipates Antonioni’s Blow-Up by being in the context of a suspense film. It’s one of Yamada’s best moments as a director in a career that is full of them.

5