Monday, October 31, 2005


All this movie going - I have to empty the notebooks now and then. This weekend, a couple things got to me - so...

1) I saw two new Asian films this weekend, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Three Extremes. I saw the first at 5 PM Saturday - in a very spare house. Saw the second at a Sunday matinee - up until 5 minutes before showtime, there was only one other person in the theater (and he happened to be sitting exactly where I would have wanted to sit - terrible!) At the Saturday Park film, when I bought my ticket, another person asked me if the ticket taker said whether the film was likely to be crowded or not; the ticket taker hadn't said anything about it. It didn't turn out to be a problem.

But I understand the question. 10 years ago, Asian films - specifically (at the time, in Boston, at least), Hong Kong films, kung-fu or gangster films mostly, were mobbed. A film like this Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, with the reviews it's gotten, with Oldboy leading the way, with Tarantino's endorsement, would have had lines around the block. Not - what? a dozen or two people filtering in... I had a row to myself.... What happened? I suppose it could have been other factors - the weather - it was snowing, for chrissakes! (Sunday it hit 60 though, and today is supposed to get up to 70! god bless New England weather!). Or maybe the real crowds were coming out for the 7:30 PM shows, which was a double feature with Oldboy - could be. But I didn't see lines around the block when I left... so I don't know.

This might be exactly the sort of thing that is killing The Brattle. I don't know, of course, what kinds of crowds they got over the whole weekend - but if mine was typical - that is not going to keep anyone in business. And especially since this is exactly the kind of film that, for years, could fill the place, without fail. Is this just part and parcel with declining film attendance? That's one possibility... Or maybe - the vogue for Asian films is passed. Or maybe, the enthusiasm for Hong Kong action (John Woo/Ringo Lam type shootemups, and martial arts films) never translated into enthusiasm for Korean blood soaked morality plays. (It never translated for me into enthusiasm for anime or J-horror - though it did translate into enthusiasm for Beat Takeshi and Takashi Miike.) I have noticed similar patterns at other screenings - the Museum of Fine Arts has shown a few Kim Ki-duk films - which are attended okay - but not like the Hong Kong films (poppy or artsy) they'd show in the 90s. Why would this be? I see as much buzz about Korean films now as I saw about Hong Kong films in the early 90s. Is it just the fact that those films were pushed as cult films, as much by cultists as critics, while the Korean films tend to be pushed primarily by critics, by the film world? I don't know. I'm probably not one to judge.

I am one to worry though. I worry that the Brattle didn't make any money on Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, and so will not book Sympathy for Lady Vengeance when it comes out - and that no one else will take it either... and I'll be left waiting for the MFA or HFA to bring it in for a one shot (or the Brattle - if it's still around - or Coolidge to bring it in for a midnight show). I am somewhat resigned to that sort of thing with Hou Hsiao Hsien films - I understand! the audience for those films will probably all fit in one of these theaters at the same time... I know. But how is it possible that a visceral (and intelligent) action film like Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (or Oldboy - what kind of audiences did Oldboy pull, anyway? ca. $700,000?) can't find some kind of audience? And if these films can't fill places like the Brattle, if nothing else - how can places like the Brattle survive?

2) Meanwhile, at the Kiss Kiss Bang Bang show.... saw previews for Memoirs of a Geisha, and that has set me off. I fear the worst. No, I don't fear the worst - I am positive of it. Here is a film about Japan, about Japanese women, in a profession that is, really, fairly unique to Japan (in that form) - and yet - all the main roles are played by Chinese women. And - in Zhang Ziyi and Michelle Yeoh - Chinese women who do not look in the least Japanese. And furthermore - no attempt has been made to make them look Japanese. The whole film (or, what shows up in the trailer) is like that - it seems to have lifted its look wholesale from Hero and House of Flying Daggers - lots of brightly colored cloth flying in slow motion wind, my friends! lots of flowing garments and hair.... In short - while it is grossly unfair to abuse a film based on its trailer - this one, I think, is going to reek to several heavens. From the very first line of the trailer - "a story like mine has never been told" - well, no, not by American hacks with Chinese actresses perhaps - but the story of geisha, at more or less all stages of their careers, is a perfect staple of Japanese film, and if you must Americanize such things, shouldn't you at least pretend to try to see the era and the characters as they were seen by the people living them? It's a 20th century story - 20th century geisha fill Japanese films. They do not look like Zhang Ziyi.

3) Another trailer that had me in conniptions - is it my imagination or is Ice Harvest a parody/remake of Charlie Verrick? Oh god! say not so! for I fear it is true.

4) And while I generally sit back and take the advertisements at films as they come - this show was a bit excessive. Worse, the string of ads came on after an announcement thanking the audience for watching the "pre-show entertainment" (or whatever they call it - mostly ads for the Discovery Channel, in any case), and promising previews. Instead - one of those stupid Coca Cola sponsored "short films" followed, and then a bunch of plain old fashioned ads. Very confusing.

Hopefully this bit of bitching will hold me for a while...

Happy Halloween! (I think it's Halloween - feels like Memorial Day; 2 days ago it looked like Christmas. Oh, the temporal confusion wrought by the local climate!)

Sunday, October 30, 2005

This Week at the Movies

Another big weekend on the movie front. Naruse, Bresson, and 2 significant Asian films - very nice.

More Naruse: Mother and Late Chrysanthemums. Probably not much I can add to my previous comments, so I'll leave it at another confirmation of their greatness. These two have been available on video - I don't know if they are in print anymore, but they might be kicking around the more enlightened video stores.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang **1/2 - entertaining trifle, playing miscellaneous metafictional games with detective movies, buddy movies, Hollywood movies.... amusing, with Robert Downey Jr. in a very welcome large role - but just another movie, really.

Three Extremes *** - an anthology horror film, with segments directed by Fruit Chan, Park Chan-wook and Takashi Miike. Chan's piece ("Dumplings") features Bai Ling selling rejuvenating dumplings to Miriam Yeung. What might those dumplings contain? Fans of Anthony Wong in the Untold Story (or Maggie Cheung in Dragon Gate Inn) might be able to guess. It's witty, rather gruesome, and might stand as a warning against back alley abortionists, if such a thing is needed. Park's segment ("Cut") is the most conceptual - a famous director is kidnapped by a jealous extra, who whines that the director is not only rich, famous, a genius, but he's a good guy as well. He sets up a terrible choice for the poor man, to try to force him to be evil for once in his life. It's very metafictional, almost an allegory, arch and gory, and of a piece with Park's Vengeance films (one of which is reviewed below) - the price of a guilty conscience again.... Finally, Miike turns in what is a rather conventional seeming horror film of nightmares, dreams, hallucinations, circus tents, and exotically beautiful but sad young women ("Box") - or something like that. It's sleek and mildly deranged, but never quite goes off the deep end the way his films inevitably do. And then - it does..... Taken together - it's good - it's not great. All three segments work, and there are some nice echoes between the first two (which are even linked through the sound editing), but there's not much more to say about it. The Miike section is probably the best on its own - the Park section is probably the most interesting in relation to his other films.

Mouchette ***** - for my money, Bresson's best. Story of a teenaged girl in a nasty home situation, an outsider at school, who suffers from all sides until she takes matters into her own hands. I found that I was remembering it wrong - I thought I remembered that Mouchette was always alone in the film - that's not true. She is never alone (almost never alone) - she is surrounded and can't get away from people. Her sick dying mother, her drunken lout of a father, the bullying kids at school, the cruel teachers, the preying men, the nosey busybodies of the town.... She can't get away - she can't even go to fetch a bottle of milk without everyone nagging at her. She is pressed down down down, and every offer of kindness comes with a cost or is snatched away.

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance **** - This might be the best Korean film I've seen. (The closest contender is Memories of Murder.) The story is roughly - a deaf mute factory worker has a sister who needs a kidney - he can't donate hers because their blood types don't match, so he tries to buy one on the black market - only to lose one of his and the money that would pay for her operation. So he and his anarchist girlfriend decide to kidnap the daughter of his boss (who recently fired him.) This goes as well as one could possibly hope until the sister finds out - she does not condone kidnapping, and takes drastic measures to stop this one. From there it is all bad, as vengeance leads to vengeance, and everyone is drowned in a torrent of blood, death, piss, water (yes, there is a motif there.)... Park talks about these film as being about guilty consciences: "My films are stories of people who place the blame for their actions on others because they refuse to take on the blame themselves." (Quoted by Filmbrain - I'm not sure of the original source.) It's clear. Everyone in this film behaves badly - and everyone here definitely has good reasons - but what they do is very dumb, careless, selfish - and every act is ruthlessly punished by someone else with a guilty conscience. That's basically what happens in Oldboy as well - there's a circle of punishment and vengeance, with every act adding to the list of sins to be avenged or expatiated. To this is added politics and religion - more politics than religion here, with the conflicts between rich and poor, the relationships between employers and employees, the interest in how people live, the rich and the poor. All made a bit more explicit by the ravings of Ryu's anarchist girlfriend... The same political themes are present in Oldboy, with the resentment between the rch kids and poor kids and so on - and in his segment of Three Extremes. ("Cut", though, makes the guilty conscience theme - and the religious themes - even clearer. Along with more overt references to one of the best thrillers ever made - High and Low.) These themes were present in Oldboy - but seem clearer in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance - or maybe it's just the cumulative effect of seeing both.

In any case - Sympathy... is the real deal. And so, I think, is Park. I've now seen 3 1/2 of his films - he has a relatively distinct style and set of concerns, but each film looks and feels different. The style in Sympathy fr Mr. Vengeance is much plainer, more direct than in Oldboy, and far more basic and harsh (though also a bit more experimental) than in the fairly slick Joint Security Area. And "Cut" adds a Kubrickean [is that a word? is there any excuse for that kind of word?] look, and heaps of metafiction to the brew... (And from what I've read, in Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, he expands his style again.) He is one of the good ones, and might get to be one of the great ones.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Inspired By IMDB's Anniversary

Via Girish Shambu, I see a chance to make a list: IMDB is celebrating their 15th anniversary by posting their staff's top 15 films of that period. well - that's a game we can all play! Now Girish (and others) have been cheating - listing their favorite directors from that period - not me! I shall play the game in by the letter of the law! On the other hand - I thought I had posted a list of contemporary directors (best directors of the last X years), back in a post linking to a Guardian list of contemporary directors. But no! I did not! But I should! So I will!
But first - the 15 best films since 1990.

1. Rushmore - dir. Wes Anderson
2. Breaking the Waves - Lars Van Trier
3. Goodbye, South, Goodbye - Hou Hsiao Hsien
4. Yi Yi - Edward Yang
5. Fallen Angels - Wong Kar-wei
6. 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould - Francois Girard
7. Through the Olive Trees - Abbas Kiarostami
8. Flowers of Shanghai - Hou Hsiao Hsien
9. Beijing Bastards - Zhang Yuan
10. 2046 - Wong Kar-wei
11. White - Kristof Kieslowski
12. The Sweet Hereafter - Atom Egoyan
13. Once Upon a Time in China - Tsui Hark
14. A Moment of Innocence - Mohsen Makhmalbaf
15. Dead Man - Jim Jarmusch

And now, pour les auteurs.... judged solely (as solely as I can make myself) on what they have done since 1990. What rules have I set myself otherwise? Well - they have to have made, and I have to have seen, at least 2 films - though I think 3 is a better gauge; the exceptions (there may be only one) will be filmmakers who have done something genuinely extraordinary, and have a reputation of excellence that has been borne out by what I have been able to see - but whose films are grotesquely under-released in the States. That is, Edward Yang.

1. Hou Hsiao Hsien - his last 2 haven't made it to the states yet, but he got 2 on my list above, and could have had 3 easily, so, really, it's an easy pick. One of my 10 favorite directors ever.
2. Wong Kar-wei - for some reason, for a while, I was taking him for granted. But he's another director with no soft spots - every film does something remarkable, every film is an event, worth studying, savoring, returning to. He was the director of the 90s the way Godard was the director of the 60s, making historical films as the history happened. I still haven't mustered any lengthy appreciation of 2046, which I was promising back in the summer - but it's one that deserves it.
3. Edward Yang - I feel a bit guilty about this: I've only seen 2 of his films, Yi Yi and Mahjong - Mahjong is fine, Yi Yi is transcendent - he's here as much on reputation as that. Though the films certainly justify the reputation. I'll live with the guilt. Maybe praising him will somehow move someone to release his earlier films on DVD.
4. Abbas Kiarostami - when I did try to write up a list of contemporary directors, I think I set my limits as 1995-2005. In that period, he has been good, but he seems a bit soft - go back to 1990, and he has simply produced a body of work that ranks with the best...
5. Jia Jiang-Ke - another director who hit the ground running - from Xiao Wu on he has worked with complete confidence, documenting his world...
6. Tsai Ming-Liang - going back to 1990, he too has worked consistently among the best of the best. I hesitated some about the positioning of these directors...
7. David Lynch - ... but put Jia and Tsai above Lynch, mostly because Lynch was not at his best in the early 90s. Wild at Heart and the Twin Peaks movies are okay - but nothing like Children of a Neon God or Viva L'Amour - or Lynch's subsequent films. (Let alone his earlier films.) But he's been in fine form since Lost Highway...
8. Wes Anderson - Rushmore and the Royal Tenenbaums stand with any films; Bottle Rocket is a fine work; the Life Aquatic is amusing, but... his resume is a bit thin yet, but....
9. Kiyoshi Kurosawa - I haven't seen anywhere near enough of his films - but they are very impressive, the half dozen or so I have seen.
10. Hirokazu Kore-Eda - I was wondering if I should put him on this list, and where. I have liked all his fiction films, some of them immensely (After Life and Nobody Knows ar magnificent - the other two ar ver good as well.) Then I remembered, I have seen Without Memory - a devastating film. So yes.
11. Takashi Miike - sometimes, you just need to see a guy swallow someone's head.
12. Dardennes Brothers - I've only seen their 3 features from this period, but again - no let ups...
13. Aki Kaurismaki - sometimes easy to overlook, but has a strong body of work in the last 15 years, and before....
14. Guy Maddin - this is way too subjective - I don't know if I could justify this by any other standards than that his films are as enjoyable as they come. As are his DVD commentaries, his books, his reviews, everything.
15. Mohsen Makhmalbaf - hurt mostly by the lack of availability of his films in the states, and the scarcity of the films - as he's turned to educating his children, it seems.

The truth is, I can't do this. I don't know what my criteria are, they'd change every day anyway - the exact order probably depends on the last film I saw, or the last film I read about, or something random. I would say the following directors have every bit as good a claim to be in the top 15 (or 20 or whaever) as the ones I listed:

Jim Jarmusch
Alexander Sukorov
Michael Haneke
The Coen Brothers
Atom Egoyan
Hal Hartley

and maybe Anaud Desplechins (whose disadvantage is that I have only seen 2 of a relatively large body of work - 2 Great Films, though - but still)... Bruno Dumont (I have some mixed feelings, though his first 2 films are extraordinary)... Lars von Trier (some inconsistency?)... Jane Campion (why not?)... maybe Jafir Panahi (whose films have deepened as his career has progressed).... and I feel guilty not listing Francois Ozon or Olivier Assayas.

And am I really justified in leaving Altman off? Herzog? and another one I need to see more of from this period, Jacques Rivette - the 2 I've seen (Haut Bas Fragile and Va Savoir) have been delightful. So?

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Sunday Night Movie Post

Another week, another bunch of movies. Kind of short, these notes, but that's okay...

Capote : **1/2 - Philip Seymour Hoffman in a star turn as the writer, in the process of writing In Cold Blood. Focusing on the identification between Capote and one of the killers, Perry Smith, and Capote's investment in the project, sometimes at their expense. At times, it creeps close to preachiness, taking a kind of judgmental attitude toward Capote - but Hoffman's performance, his ability to convey Capote's self-awareness, carries the film.

Burden of Dreams (DVD): ***1/2 - Les Blank's documentary about Fitzcarraldo. Unforced, economical, very beautiful and fascinating - and making its own points, shadowing Herzog's film, while exploring Blank's own interests.

Pistol Opera (DVD): ***1/2 - 2001 film from Japanese cult film master Seijun Suzuki. It owes something to Suzuki's classic, Branded to Kill, with its ranked assassins and over the top style - somehow, it manages to be less coherent, and more intense.... In Pistol Opera, the #3 killer, Stray cat, is assigned to kill #1, Hundred Eyes, who nobody knows - meanwhile, a seemingly endless array of associates appear - more killers - "Teacher", "painless surgeon", "dark horse", and number 0, "the champ", who may be the same character as in Branded to Kill... plus stray cat's mother, a little girl named Sayoko, an old woman selling guns, a guy in charge of an exhibition of terror, an agent in a white robe and purple mask, and so on. People die, or don't, dream, meet the dead, deliver speeches on stages, pose with guns, and move with the magic of cinema. They fight and scheme and talk and flirt, there are puns about sex and guns and masturbation (stray cat likes to do it alone - she won't teach the little girl) - pass through charged, beautiful spaces... it's strange, one of the strangest films I have ever seen - but beautiful, and hypnotic and wonderful.

Scattered Clouds: ***1/2 - the last of the Naruse series (there are a couple more showings, at the MFA, of films that have already played at the Harvard Film Archive), the last film Naruse made. Color, widescreen, the story of a woman whose husband is killed in a car accident - the driver of the car tries to send her money, tries to help her - she resists but sooner or later they end up falling in love. But this inevitably causes someone else to be in a terrible car accident, which they witness, and she panics, and doesn't go away to Pakistan with him. The, um, hint of melodramatic nonsense does not distract from the film making, which as always with Naruse is breathtakingly beautiful, clean precise and powerful.

Little Fugitive: **** - pioneering independent film by Morris Engel. With a specially made camera (35 mm, handholdable, in 1952), a crew of 2, and, for most of the film, one 7 year old actor, he went to Coney Island, and made a film. Influenced by the neo-realists, an influence on the new wave, it stands on its own - funny, moving, revealing of the popular entertainments of the day - it works fine as a documentary, as well as a story. A great film.

World Series

So I'm sitting here, watching the world series while I'm writing my weekly movie post... and - it's like clockwork: Ensberg just hit a home run - while Fox was running a promo. They did this all last year - they do it all the time. They never get back for the start of the inning, and if anyone swings at the first pitch... Amazing. The reasons Fox sucks are too many to list - but that's one....

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Weekly Movie Roundup

Kind of back to normal this week. Still some Naruse's showing, but not the solid block like last week. So then...

A Countess From Hong Kong - * - Charlie Chaplin brings Marlon Brando and Sophia Loren together on an ocean liner. He's a politician, she's a white russian countess who's been hustling in Hong Kong and sees a chance to smuggle herself to America. Hilarity and romance - is supposed to ensue, but what ensues is pretty bad. Lots of talk, lots of glowering from Brando, bits of stained farce. Poor Charlie.

Wife! Be Like a Rose! - **** - some Naruse left... seeing this the second time, I am more sure than before that it is among his best films. He had the filmmaking thing down pat - he still moves the camera a lot in this film, but has lost the mannered showiness of the silents I've seen - he had figured out how to use sound already - and he shows a complete mastery of tone. The way the film shifts - tone, style, pace - when Kimiko goes to the mountains is first rate. (The story, roughly, is this: Kimiko is a modern girl, working in a office, in love with a boy - in an unneurotic way almost completely missing from Japanese films of the day - hell, missing from most American films, then or now; her mother, meanwhile, is a poet, a teacher; her father has abandoned them for an ex-geisha. Eventually, Kimiko heads into the mountains to bring dad back - where she meets his other woman, and her family, and gets a new perspective on things.) It' a great little film - funny, sweet, masterfully made, and probably should be considered among the better films of the 30s...

Wallace and Gromit in The Curse of the Were-rabbit - *** - amusing tale featuring Nick Parks' claymation stars... W&G here are running a humane pest-riddance service - but when Wallace tries to branwash the rabbits out of liking their veg - bad things happen... All very amusing indeed.

Thumbsucker - **1/2 - I don't know what I think of this exactly. Story is - a 17 year old who still sucks his thumb - his father, his orthodontist (Keanu Reeves! in full hippy-mode!), the school nurse all have ideas... the thumbsucking isn't all that important tot he story - it's about the kid navigating though his senior year... I don't know what to think. It's an honorable effort - it features a Magnificent Cast, who are all on top of their game: Keanu Reeves gives it some star power, and sends himself up - while Tilda Swinton, Vincent D'Onofrio and Vince Vaughn provide the acting chops. Lou Pucci (as the thumbsucker) acquits himself well in this company... But for all it has going for it - it still seems disjointed - jumping from one setup to the next, sometimes offering a rather pat set of oppositions (speed/pot, notably) which give the film a certain by-the-numbers feel. I don't know. I can't tell if I liked it more or less than I should have....

Friday, October 14, 2005

Friday Random Ten Time

1) Charlie Parker - Charlie's Wig
2) Pere Ubu - Kingdom Come
3) X-Ray Specs - Identity
4) Linda Ronstadt - You're No Good
5) The Kinks - Days
6) Sly and the Family Stone - Family Affair
7) Big Boi - Knowing
8) Sleater-Kinney - Al Hands on the Bad One
9) Gang of Four - Guns Before Butter
10) Carter Family - No Depression

Making for a nice commute...

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Movies (Not Naruse)

It is true that I promised (myself mainly) to post weekly reviews, Sunday nights - this is a bit late. Naruse, of course. Anyway, here we are - capsules... a pretty good week for it, really - I don't know what the star ratings mean, really - all three films were very enjoyable and thought provoking.... Anyway, here you go...

History of Violence **1/2 - I am not a big Cronenburg fan, but I had high hopes for this. Everyone loves it, right? All the reviews and comments I've seen have been gushing. I am not sure. I don't mean that it is a bad film, or even not a good one - but it seems to be freighted with a lot of intellectual and political baggage, and I don't think it's quite deserving of it. It's a well made film - efficient and subtle, it is easy to admire the skill in its making. But what is it: the story is standard issue gangster material, given a little bit of bite by coming at it from a somewhat unusual angle. But that angle - the peaceful, small town utopia the family lives in at the beginning of the film - is itself perfectly recognizable from the movies. It's David Lynch lite - every bit as ironic, but without the underlying sense that these people (however deluded the may be) are, first, real, at least in their universe, and second, deserving of our love. The opening section is all set up - then the plot kicks in - and then, Cronenburg keeps coming back to the family as if it were some kind of alternative to the gangster plot - as if it were connected to the "real" world. It's not. The film almost works as an exercise in metafiction - a character from a TV dramady about a small town suddenly finds himself in a mafia movie - someone keeps flipping channels on him. But it's being read as more than that (or different than that) - as being about the real world in a more direct way than that.... Now - complaining aside, it is the kind of film I'm likely to change my mind about: solid genre work mixed with first rate filmmaking - like a Clint Eastwood movie, only a bit more pretentious. Give it a couple views and - maybe... But right now? And while it was playing? It reminded me of a few too many Japanese gangster films, where someone always seems to be in the same fix this guy is in - and which, almost as explicitly as this one, use gangsters to critique (mock) conventional society. I kept thinking, I wish Takashi Miike were directing this. Of course I feel that way a lot, but that's another story.

The Corpse Bride ***1/2 - beautiful, moving, funny - a Johnny Depp lookalike is about to marry ad Emily Watson character, but gets pulled into the underworld by Helena Bonham Carter, who is dead, but willing... things have to work themselves out - and do so with remarkable grace and sympathy. I think this and the Nightmare Before Christmas probably are the best things Tim Burton has ever done. The stop motion animation fits his breed of wistful strange menace just right - it's haunting, nostalgic, obsessive, and moves with the impurity of dreams. I love those films. Of course, I love old Rankin/Bass shows - Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer - Santa Claus is Coming to Town - but Burton adds a level of artistry to the animation and sets... great stuff.

Good Night and Good Luck *** - George Clooney and David Strathairn take on the media. Strathairn plays Edward R. Murrow, (also Wikipedia) taking on Joe McCarthy - a fine, controlled performance. Handsome looking film, black and white, with a clean, efficient script, and political seriousness. And Joe McCarthy himself, overacting outrageously...

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Naruse Week 2

This is a full slate, indeed. 9 more films, in 4 days - of a possible 10. The 10th, Yearning, played Columbus day at 9:15pm, and I found myself staring to lose it about 8:30 pm.... Alas! even I need sleep! I had another chance to see it last week, at the MFA - but skipped it in a pique when they asked me to check my backpack before going into the film. Figuring, of course, that I'd get to see it later... oh well. 17 films is a lot to absorb in 2 weeks as it is...

(As I warned last week - this is kind of a notebook dump, and I will probably give away some plot details. Naruse's films don't exactly depend on their plot twists - but if I spoil some effect by talking about it here, I'm sorry...)

Late Chrysanthemums - This is another of the three Naruse films I had been able to see before this series: it's been on video. It's about 4 ex-geisha trying to make it in 50s Tokyo. One is a money-lender, one operates a business, the other two are poor, and work as maids - one is sickly and dreamy, the other is carefree and careless. The latter two have children, though they are rather disappointing, marrying on their own, moving to Hokkaido... This is a pattern Naruse returned to many times - telling the story of a group of people - a family, the workers at a geisha house, or former colleagues - who represent a certain range of attitudes toward the world. There's usually a stingy money-grubber, usually a partier, usually one or two practical types, someone romantic and dreamy, someone resigned and ineffectual, trying, maybe, to preserve tradition... These roles are usually distributed among a group of women - if men are around, they're usually layabouts or drunkards or fool or cheats. At best, a married lover of one of the women, waiting to go back to his wife... In this film, the men manage to do all of those things - drink, loaf, beg for money, and go back to their wives...

It's a great film - one of the best, I think, though I might think that because, having seen it before, I was able to pay more attention to the details of how Naruse put it together. He does interesting things with transitions - he as a way of including shots that are completely logical syntactically, but don't fit semantically. For example - if someone leaves a house, he will cut to a shot of a person walking along the street. It's a normal, logical, transition - except the person shown on the street will not be the person who left the house, or the person who is shown entering a house when the next scene starts. That's a rather banal example - but it's a pattern he often exploits. There's a scene toward the end - Okin (the money-lender) is talking to her long ago lover Tabe - he's after money, but he's also angling for a night with her: they talk about staying the night, she's less enthused (since he's after her money), he's trying... Then Naruse cuts from the conversation to a shot of 2 people in bed: but we soon realize, it's not Okin and Tabe, it's Otomi and Tamae (the maids - who have been drinking and complaining about their children (and Okin, of course)). They're drunk, and talking about Tamae's daughter's honeymoon. Then it's back to Okin and Tabe... In this film, the effect is to bind the 4 women together - they are different, and their differences work out the possibilities available to them - and the various ways that they can suffer. It also indicates the bonds between people - this is probably more obvious in the family films (Lightning or Summer Clouds, for example), where the cross cutting (and the thematic blending, like that linkage of sexual suggestiveness, between Okin and Tabe, then the other two women talking about Tamae's daughter's wedding night) tends to emphasize their interconnections, their inability to escape from one another.

Repast - Setsuko Hara stars as the unhappy wife of a Tokyo man working in Osaka. His niece turns up - she's run away from home, and in Osaka, she hangs around the house, flirts with the husband and a neighbor kid, spends money, smokes cigarettes and loafs while Hara works works works... Hara finally can't take it anymore and heads home to mother. Of course her husband's niece goes as well, and son starts flirting with the man Hara is considering flirting with... It is, typically, a handsome, quiet film. It is interesting how Naruse makes the story seem to turn on food - the couple talks about what they are eating, about the cost of food, about how it tastes; the first fight (involving the niece) is precipitated by the girl not cooking anything for the husband. People buy food for each other, talk over meals, break up or get back together again over food, and so on. Naruse does something like this in a lot of his films - weaving threads, some significant object, through the story: money plays this role in Late Chrysanthemums... (money as objects - coins and bills and such... money in general is an inescapable presence in all of his films.)

Summer Clouds - a sprawling drama about a farming family, centering on a war widow running a farm. She survives, while her brothers sink into money difficulties and capitalism. We can see Japanese society changing in front of our eyes. Another gorgeous film, this one shot in scope and color. Another ensemble drama - a dozen or so significant characters, with the film taking time with most of them. Building sympathy for most of them, even when they have directly contradictory ideas - even after they do horrible, destructive (and usually self-destructive) things to one another. Naruse seems to subscribe to something like Renoir's statement - "the terrible thing is, everyone has good reasons" - even if he does take sides. Here, the brother tries to do things the way the did when he was young - hurting everyone around him, and failing to hold anyone in place... Naruse manages to make him sympathetic, understandable, even if he doesn't pull punches on what a disaster the old guy is for his family when he gets his way...

Floating Clouds - Hideko Takamine stars as the mistress of a married man played by Masayuki Mori, who made wartime promises back in Indo-china that he is not inclined to honor in postwar Japan. He does, however, apparently expect the occasional adulterous interlude. Takamine makes gestures toward dropping him, but he keeps coming back, and she sticks to him when he does. Naruse's films tend to be full of misery and sorrow, but usually driven by lack of money, selfish and foolish friends and neighbors, and the fate of being a woman in Japan - this one moves beyond those quieter forms of unhappiness into melodrama and degradation. Prostitution, other women, rape, murder appear alongside the Naruse standards of poverty and humiliation - it is also rather unusual (at least in the films of his I've seen) for ending in death. For good bad or indifferent, Naruse's heroines usually have to keep going at the end - their stories don't really end - some episode ends, the film can end, but they have to get up in the morning and go back to whatever it is they do.... His films usually end with the woman ascending the stairs... This is an exception.

Lightning - Takamine again, this time as the youngest of her mother's 4 children (with 4 men) - the other three are a mopey romantic whose philandering husband dies; a scheming bitch; and a layabout son who spends his time drinking and playing pachinko - add the 2nd sister's inept husband and a lecherous baker (who pursues Takamine, while bedding her sisters) - it makes a living hell of the home situation. On the other hand, it's less oppressive than most of these films - for one thing, Takamine, from the beginning, can take care of herself (she's a bus guide), and never seems in any danger of getting dragged down into the misery of the rest of her family. When things get too much, she lights out for the territories, taking a room in the suburbs... For another thing, the film itself has a much more comic tone than film like Flowing or Summer Clouds. It's corrosive comedy - at times, it is very close to the sharpness of Ichikawa's 50s satires (Mr. Pu or A Billionaire), or Imamura's. Naruse, I should note, is perfectly capable of comedy - the early films I've seen have all contained a great deal of comic business, and even late, many of these films - especially the ensemble pieces - contain a lot of wit, and even some slapstick. In Lightning, though, it is much closer to the dominant mode.

The Whole Family Works - 1939 film about a working family - 7 kids, 3 of them already working, the 4th at the point of deciding whether to continue studying or become an apprentice. Then the oldest son decides he has to go back to school, to study electrical engineering, if he wants to get out of the cycle of poverty his family is in. Remarkable for a number of reasons (besides the typically superb filmmaking) - on is how it gives weight to both sides of the debate. The boy is right, of course - if he continues to work, he will end up with his own household in exactly the same place his father is - working endlessly just to keep food on the table. He's earning 18 yen a year as he is - that's not going to change significantly, If he studies, he can earn 70 yen a year. It will take 5 years to get the education he wants - but it's worth it. But right as he is, the family is right too - if he leaves, they will have a serious problem being able to feed their children. And when he leaves, the other boys will decide they have to leave - with 3 kids too young to work, plus grandparents, things will be bad. Naruse clearly sees this dilemma - clearly understands that the boy is more right - but he does justice to the other side... The second remarkable thing is the war. It's 1939: watching it now, it is hard to ignore the fact that all the talk about who works and who studies will be swept away in a year or so - all four of these working class kids are probably going to be shipped off to China or the Pacific islands to die. The war pokes up through the story a couple times - the little kids are constantly playing with guns; the older kids play with guns, or dream of the war. It's hard to say how this was meant - the effect now is to remind us where things were going, what was at stake. The film feels terribly prescient...

Flowing - another ensemble story, this time in a geisha house. A group of characters - a talented and beautiful geisha, who's just a little too romantic to hold her own, tries to run the place, and keep things together; her daughter is hard-headed, practical, outspoken; one sister is a money-lender, the other is a layabout; two other geisha work with them - one young, foolish, careless - the other aging, a gossip (a wonderful comic character - played by Haruko Sugimura, who was a great comic actress, frequently for Ozu, as well as Naruse...) They are plagued by the uncle of a former geisha at the house - they cheated her, he is there to collect...Things crumble, but they keep it together during the movie at least...

The Sound of the Mountain - adaptation of a Kawabata novel about a man flirting with his daughter-in-law, while his son behaves like a brute toward a series of women. Setsuko Hara and So Yamamura star, with Ken Uehara as the wretch of a son - all are superb, especially Hara. A subtle and beautiful film, capturing the feel of Kawabata - the strange moments in his books, the symbolism (the Noh mask the father buys...) A very great film.

The Wanderer's Notebook - biography of Fumiko Hayashi, author of many books about the suffering of women, the source of many of Naruse's films. Based on her first novel, which told her life story to that point. Starring, again, Hideko Takamine - who plays Hayashi in a distinctive and rather wonderful way. She's got a strange slink to her in this film - a way of looking at things that expresses her intelligence and anger at her misery. She also gets some fine chances to go wild - a couple drunk scenes, a couple wild bar scenes, singing, dancing, raising hell. Another fine movie - in scope, lush black and white... Nice stuff.

And that's that. There are two more at the Museum of Fine Arts not shown yet - Scattered Clouds (Naruse's final film) and Tsuruhachi and Tsurujiro, from the 1930s. There are also several films there that have already been shown at the Harvard Film Archive. I look forward to seeing these films again (Lightning, Wife Be Like a Rose, Mother) - their richness tends to emerge on repeated viewings. This has been a wonderful series - I hope these films are shown around the country, and I hope some of them at least make it out on DVD. There have been a few new DVD editions of Ozu films out since the major restoration of his films a couple years ago. Naruse is almost as deserving....

Movie Posts Anticipated

It is Wednesday - I have, as it happens, two posts on the burner - a summary of the second week of Naruse films, and quick reviews of the other films I saw over the weekend. With a weekend of pouring rain, it was a great comfort to be able to more or less live at a series of movie theaters - but with 2 Naruse films showing every night, I haven't had much time to put my thoughts in order. So no guarantees on when the posts show up. Maybe tonight, maybe tomorrow...

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Random Ten

Quick and to the point, on a muggy rainy Saturday:

1. Minutemen - Some Shit From and Old Notebook
2. Buzzcocks - Ever Fallen in love
3. Bob Dylan - Idiot Wind
4. Big Black - He's a Whore
5. Gil Bateman - My Daddy Walked in Darkness
6. Feelies - It's Only Life
7. X - We're Desperate
8. Minor Threat - Understand (live)
9. Xiu Xiu - Clover
10. Audioslave - Man or Animal

Monday, October 03, 2005

Naruse Week One

The Mikio Naruse series, playing at the Museum of Fine Arts and the Harvard Film Archive, has begun. I am going to try to post something here about every film - probably catchall posts like this one, though I might post these as I go, like I started doing with this post. [This is updated from a coiuple days ago.] Probably depends on time and all that. I'd bet on catchalls.

One more thing - I am not going to be a stickler about not revealing plot details. I don't know how much play these films are going to get in the general public, but it probably won't be a lot. So - it's a bitter truth that there won't be enough people to spoil them for... And I'd rather move on to make the case for their importance, which kind of requires some plot details sometimes.... I will try not to give away too much, but no promises.

1) When A Woman Ascends the Stairs: might be his masterpiece, certainly the best known Naruse film. A bar hostess approaches 30, struggling for money, steering among a group of men who lust for her or long for her. She will not turn tricks - she swore fidelity to her dead husband and uses it as an excuse to stay away from the men around her. But she is beset by a string of disasters - a friend/rival kills herself over her debts (a caution for Mama-san, if she owned a bar); she becomes ill; she gets involved with a man who turns out to be a fraud; she gets drunk and lets herself be seduced by another married man she loves who won't leave his wife. Through it all, her family mooches off her, her bar manager hovers over her, only to turn preachy at the end, though he can't maintain the pose of superiority... All this is conveyed in quiet, balanced compositions, deep and complex. Hideko Takamine, probably the most beautiful of the great Japanese actresses, Naruse's frequent star, is outstanding - the rest of the cast strong.... Naruse's style is as austere as Ozu's - where Ozu cuts, Mizoguchi moves the camera, and Naruse works mostly through the shot - the composition, the arrangement of people and objects on the screen. Very few camera movements, and the editing is never abrasive as it is in Ozu: it's all depth and composition. Some shots as deep and textured as Imamura - others simple and pure - always precise. There is a quiet accumulation of detail and emotion. This is a brilliant, stunning film, comparable to anything from the other greats.

2) Mother: Kinuyo Tanaka as the mother, living in some poverty in post-war Japan. She loses most of her family in the film - first her son dies, then her husband, then her brother adopts her daughter and her sister takes her son back... I had seen this film before, but forgot all but the basic set up (everyone leaves her, the money troubles), and it's general characteristics, the handsome, fairly quiet style, etc. It's set in an old-fashioned looking neighborhood, and Naruse spends a lot of time in the street, shooting people moving around, festivals, shops, and so on, all the while keeping the family's story embedded in the life of the neighborhood. The story telling is elliptical - scenes fade without showing their resolution, transitions often leave out the big events happening between. Most of the cinematic work is done by composition and staging, the editing isn't as abrupt as in his early films - there are some neat jokes, like bringing up a "The End" title halfway through the film - then showing the characters at a movie.... Finally, Tanaka is, as always, wonderful - here, Naruse develops a kind of characteristic shot of her - holding the shot of her face, as a look of happiness or strength fades to aching sadness.

3) Flunky! Work Hard! - The Museum of Fine Arts tried to bill this as "Little Man, Try Hard!"- I gotta go with the older title.... This is a short comedy made in 1931 about a poor insurance salesman, trying to sell policies to a wealthy family so he can take care of his own family. Slapstick at first, with business involving the man's son hiding from the neighborhood mothers (after he beat up the other kids) - then joined by the father, hiding from the rent collector. Then more slapstick involving the Flunky and a rival insurance agent. But this is Shochiko - sooner or late, a kid is going to suffer, and sure enough, someone gets hit by a train - the insurance agent, trying to make up for his son beating up one of the rich kids (3 of the rich kids, actually) takes the boy home, and wins their business... But we can guess who was really hit by the train. When the father learns his son's fate - the film explodes - Naruse launches into a barrage of flashbacks, images of planes and trains - then cuts to the hospital, all shadows and fast cuts and the mother pacing in and out of the frame (an image that comes up repeatedly in his early films), and dripping faucets and the works....

4) Every Night's Dream - 1933, Shochiko comic melodrama, featuring appearances by a couple of Ozu's regulars, Takeshi Sakamoto and Tatsuo Saito. Saito plays the rather useless husband of a bar hostess (played by Sumiko Kurishima) with a son. Saito looks for work, but there aren't any jobs, and he's not all that energetic about getting one. Meanwhile, Sakamoto is hanging around, smoking a pipe and leering over the barmaid. Will she turn tricks? Will he find a job? Or - this being Shochiko - will the boy be hit by a car?

The plot is a kind of hash of Shochiko themes - poverty, sick kids, moral dilemmas - several contemporary Ozu films (That Night's Wife, Women of Tokyo, An Inn in Tokyo) use similar themes - this seems less sharp than the similar Ozu films, maybe because Ozu had a couple years start on Naruse, and was more established and sure of his techniques. It is a good deal more pessimistic than Ozu's films - crime is punished in Ozu's, but not before it pays the bills. Here, crime does not pay, is not really punished (someone jumps in a river - Naruse fans should be able to guess whether it's the weakling husband or the tough wife) - though the utter darkness descends very late, and doesn't seem all that much more convincing than Ozu's modest self-sacrificers.

The most notable element of this film is the style - Naruse, in the 30s, seems heavily influenced by the Russians - you see it in Flunky - you see it here. Metaphoric editing, flashbacks and visions, lots of strong manipulation of space; repeated shots, fast cuts, intrusive tracks, usually into a character, though sometimes away from a character. I wouldn't say that any of these devices have clear, given meanings - they tend to function by startling us, by making us notice a character's inner turmoil. The tracks, for instance, function largely through contrast - the tracks in feel like the story demanding a decision - then a track away from someone signals a change in their attitude, their decision to act. The contrast between different kinds of camera moves is what creates meaning - it’s almost a Kuleshov effect: the tracks in may have some intrinsic meaning, but mostly they serve to startle us - and take on meaning mostly through contrast with the final track out from the character. Overall, these early films are flashier than the later ones - and very “expressionistic” - though usually using Russian techniques (montage, some camera movement) instead of German ones (mise-en-scene, lighting, manipulation of space.) The difference I'm getting at (between "Russia" and "German" styles) can be seen in the use of cameras movement - they don’t manipulate space the way they do in Mizoguchi (or Murnau) - they work more by shocking us - they make you notice them - they are formalist, in their “making strange” - or “presentationalist” - a major element in formalism, since the point of presentational filmmaking is to startle to audience. That is not to say Naruse does not use lighting and manipulation of space to great effect - these films are full of technique of this sort.

5) Wife! Be Like A Rose! - another better known Naruse, the first Japanese sound film released in the United States. Story of modern girl who decides to retrieve her father, who has deserted her and her mother, from the ex-geisha he's livig with. But when she arrives, things are not as they seem... The sound is, in fact, pretty well done - clear, and not hindering Naruse's camera style. (This isn't as flashy as the 2 silent films, but he still moves the camera plenty. His style has, however, solidified - he's moving toward the emphasis on the composition of the shots, the use of decor, lighting and so on - and it feels more organic than the earlier films.) He's also well in command of the use of sound as sound - he's particularly fond of using sound to bridge scenes - more than once he starts music in one scene that seems to be extra-diegetic, only to shift to another scene, where someone is playing the music. He does this with dialogue and diegetic sound - starting the sound from the following scene over the end of the previous - playing dialogue or sound from different scenes, etc. He plays foreground and background dialogue against one anote a couple times as well - the mother's poetry, the father's second family, talking around the girl. Those transitions, by the way, are a relic of his silent days - in Every Night’s Dream, he frequently cut into scenes on dialogue cards. The most extreme version going something like this: 1) shots of father and son, playing outside; 2) shot of intertitle, talking about work and money; 3) shots of the madam of the bar where the wife works; 4) shots of the room; 5) intertitle, continuing earlier dialogue; 6) shot of the wife, who has been speaking all along. That is only one example. He picks that up where he left off when sound comes - and seems even more adept at it.

6) Traveling Actors (or, more charmingly, though not so accurately, The Actors Who Play the Horse.) Not surprisingly, this is indeed about the actors who play the horse in a traveling Kabuki troupe. It's funny - the forelegs are played by a proud veteran, the hind legs by a newcomer - they brag, study horses, talk... Then, after a drunken oaf of a barber ruins their horse's head, they go on strike - and are replaced by, horror of horrors, a real horse! That won't stand - and in the end, they go on a rampage, in costume of course.... It's very entertaining - less biting than most Naruse, odd in not featuring women in any significant roles - though there might be some politics in the fate of the actors. Craftsmen replaced by the novelty of the real!

7) A Tale of Archery at the Sanjusangendo - the son of a former archery champion who killed himself after failing to surpass the record of his rival, sets out to reclaim the title of Japan's greatest archer.... the current champion's family hires thugs to stop him - but a mysterious stranger (played by Kazuo Hasegawa) protects him - but who could the mystery man be? If you can't guess, you don't know much about Samurai films. It's entertaining, but that's about all. It's stunningly beautiful, but you knew that too, I hope.

8) Song Lantern - (aka Lantern Singer) - in this, a Noh singer humiliates an old amateur who had been unwisely shooting off his mouth - the old man kills himself, and the Noh singer is disowned by his father. (I don't know exactly what it means that the singer is played by Shôtarô Hanayagi, star of Mizoguchi's Story of the Last Chrysanthemum, where - well, same idea - traditional arts, exile, redemption...) He (the singer) turns to singing under street lanterns (thus the title) - he makes friends with a rival, then he meets the daughter of the old man he killed, and teaches her Noh dance... Inevitably, she is called on to perform for the singer's father. It's a full moon. The story is no great shakes, but as always it's a lovely film, played with a certain amount of wry comedy, and given a few bursts of astonishment.

Not Naruse

I am going to try to post a weekly recap of the Naruse films seen. I hope to work up something longer as well, but that's not likely to come here until next week. Meanwhile - I saw other films last week, and here they are:

My Sex Life (or How I Got into an Argument):**** - a long, but brilliant, French film about an assistant philosophy professor and his circle of friends and lovers. Full of characters, swirling around the central pair, lots of back and forth - and an amazingly rich and varied style. Glorious film. The shifting points of view, the odd rhythms, the way things are played funny and sad and weird all at once - Arnaud Desplechinsturns a very conventional type of film (French intellectuals on the mope) into something surprising, engrossing, and thrilling to look at. I'd seen this before on video, but missed the aesthetics of it - this time, even on a rather sketchy print, I could see - Desplechins uses everything he has to turn a film about a bunch of people talking into a feast for the eyes. Sometimes films like this come off wrong - too flashy, almost desperate, trying to make static material look interesting - this film doesn't. Like last year's masterpiece, Kings and Queen - also starring Mathieu Amalric and Emmanuelle Devos - the style conveys the sense of people bursting at the seams, which they are, in their talky ways. It's wonderful. Assisted mightily by the cast - Amalric and Devos were marvelous together - she smiles and smirks through all kinds of fights and sarcasm, breaks down, when he starts getting sentimental... Every scene is a surprise - a flow of emotion, back and forth, out the other side. The rest of the cast is just as good - especially Jeanne Balibar (as a very canny nutcase). Desplechins may be telling Paul's story here, but he gives other people their time - spending time away from the central character, following his friends for a while. A great movie.

Mutual Admiration *** - Andrew Bujalski's follow up to Funny Ha Ha. Same style, similar characters - slackers, this time in Brooklyn... The main slacker is a musician named Alan, a scruffy, nerdy, indie rocker who has just moved to Brooklyn without his band. He hangs around, looking for a drummer, drinking too much, running up credit card debt, not returning calls, and almost stealing his best friend's girl. Like Funny Ha Ha, it is deceptive - the simplicity, lack of overt drama, awkward sounding conversations hiding the care that goes into structuring those conversations and getting them to come out right. It's shot in black and white and looks a bit gloomy and claustophobic, which it probably is. It is also, at times, uproariously funny - in a kind of understated way....

Dial M For Murder **1/2 - on TV when I got home from Saturday's Naruse, so I watched it. Looks nice, but it's a pretty dull whodunnit in the Columbo mode (albeit well before Columbo). Very stagy - Hitchcock perhaps trying to make a virtue of limitations (the one room set, mostly), without quite managing it.

Keane ***1/2 - intense and sad film about a man, probably schizophrenic, who hangs around the Port Authority bus terminal in NY, looking for his daughter, who disappeared while he was watching her. He keeps reenacting the scene - watching the clock until 4:30, trying to spot the man who took her... The rest of the time, he beats back the voices in his head with booze and coke... Then he meets a waitress with a daughter and problems of her own - she pulls him in to her life a bit, and then has him babysit her daughter.... Ebert's review gets at the effect this has - we know what kind of man Keane is - we have seen him in the throes of his madness - we have also seen him (in the scenes with the waitress, especially) calm, rational, effective. The suspense comes from wondering what will happen - and from the fact that we know that Keane himself is feeling more or less exactly what we are feeling. He knows himself - he is as desperate to make it through this as we are....

It is very hard to take. Kerrigan puts us right next to Damien Lewis, his actor - the camera sticks to him like a Dardennes brother's film. At times, it's as if we are the voices in his head - he suffers, we stare, never giving him an inch... It's heartbreaking, this film - we are buried deep in Keane's sadness. We see that he could have been a good father, if only he were healthy. And we - who know what he is really like - ache for the waitress, who does not know what he is like. To her he is kind, down on his luck, and all she has to go on. Just a hugely affecting film.