This Sporting Life (1963)

23 05 2008

On the complete other end of the “60s British realism” spectrum from Saturday Night and Sunday Morning is this. Outside of the angst, black and white cinematography, and Rachel Roberts, they’re fairly different. Where as that film uses it’s “angry young man” facade to get to something more complex, this film uses it as pretty much everything. Not to say that this is bad, but coming off of a viewing of Reisz’s classic, it feels particularly shallow. To Anderson’s credit, though, he seems to have a greater confidence with the camera.

Frank Machin joins a local rugby league to release his emotional baggage, but in the process he collects more worries. He lodges with Mrs. Hammond, a sensitive widow, who he has been harboring a crush on for quite some time. However, Machin, due to his rugby experience and short temper, is too violent to ever make a genuine human connection. In the mean time, Mrs. Weaver, the wife of the league’s owner, begins to show her feelings for Machin, which only adds to an ongoing laundry list of concerns.

This more of a straight-forward 60s British rebel film, perhaps even to the point of being the genre’s purest example. This creates a lot of problems, the most obvious being that the film is built around a juvenille concept of someone “fed up” with society. This is an understandable way to feel but in Machin’s case, his dissatisfaction feels to have been developed by an outsider. Now, thankfully, this isn’t a heavy-handed after-school lesson but it still shows very little interest in comprehending its protagonist. Instead, he drifts from scene to scene with lots of anger, which is fun to watch in its own way but the film never rises above superficial outbursts.

On the other hand, this is a bit more stylistically distinct than Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. It has a similar formal sensibility but the structure, perhaps gimmicky, is actually quite ahead of its time. Nicolas Roeg wouldn’t begin to make a name for himself in the UK’s film industry until the late 60s but it seems that the narrative techniques that made him famous, are on display here. Of course, it’s a far manner that is far more crude and far less polished, but there is something poetic going on here. Of course, any possible advancements made in this film have been made irrelevant with time. Technically, it’s nothing special but at least it does make something that isn’t so fresh seem worthwhile.

Oyu-sama (1951)

18 05 2008

It’s possible that I’m becoming a bit burnt out with Mizoguchi, but this is definitely one of the lesser works I’ve seen from him in awhile. It has its fair share of merits, such as the usually great cinematography, but ultimately the drama is too silly to want to take seriously. This is almost a completely conventional (and uninteresting) Hollywood melodrama that is formed around a narrative that sounds like something from a Hollywood screwball comedy. Don’t get me wrong, this is far from being bad, but Mizoguchi has done this type of film many times and with better results.

Shinnosuke is introduced to Shizu, as a proposed marriage. He thinks he will have no problem falling in love with her but there is one problem, he mistakes Shizu for her sister, Oyu. Oyu is now a widow which seems to give Shinnosuke a chance, but law requires her to tend to the child, thus forbidding a re-marriage. As a reaction, Shinnosuke marries Shizu but spends all of his time with Oyu. At first, Shizu is okay with this progressive type of marriage, but Shinnosuke begins to feel bad Shizu and his attempts at loving his own wife are, ironically enough, resisted.

In some ways, this story anticipates a similar type of marriage in Naruse’s Repast. In that film, Hara decides to continue her marriage based on a mutual respect, rather than love. Such a hopeful idea is harshly treated here. In retrospect, it is sort of reactionary on Mizoguchi’s part to create the “other side” of these complicated marriages. He was vocal about his distaste for Naruse, though it mostly came from social issues. In any case, where Naruse’s film is nuanced and almost deadpan, Mizoguchi’s is over the top and silly. Of course, there’s enough visual “power” for him to rely on but dramatically speaking, this is one of his lesser efforts. Thankfully, he pulled off many similar films much more naturally in the 50s: Uwasa no onna and Gion Bayashi both come to mind. Watch those films, not this one.

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960)

18 05 2008

Definitely one of the best “angry young man” / “kitchen sink drama” films I’ve seen. Despite the revolutionary attitude of many British filmmakers during the period, this is actually quite aesthetically tame, especially when compared to the important works of the other “new waves.” However, this is also far more nuanced than most of these films. While there’s plenty of dated “rebel” stuff that dates the film, there is just as many timeless moments of truth.

Arthur slaves the whole week at his factory job, and then uses the money he earns from said job, to get trashed on the weekends. He gets in fights, antagonizes civilians, and participates in an affair with his boss’ wife, Brenda. He also meets Dordeen and immediately becomes infatuated with her. He claims to love her, and to do so in a way that he he hasn’t before. The feeling is mutual, but Dordeen is also interested in getting married, settling down, and starting a family. In other words, become everything Arthur doesn’t want to become.

It’s probably best to eliminate all the overused adjectives that have defined the “angry young man” genre. “Gritty” and “tough” seem like gross exaggerations for a film such as this. Sure, our protagonist gets drunk a lot, falls down stairs, talks the women he’s having an affair with into an abortion but other than narrative points, this is pretty formalistic. I don’t mean that in a bad way, but there’s many sequences that feel almost directly lifted from a theatrical performance. Still, this very controlled sensibility really fleshes the characters out in a manner that is not unlike the characters in Hong Sang-Soo’s films. Certainly, there’s more of a plot, so to speak, in this film, but it is a fairly well-composed human study that thankfully doesn’t in melodramatic tragedy like one might expect. Instead, we’re treated to a very open-ended finale reminiscent of the much more famous final shot in The Graduate. A fabulous film here, that is so much more mature than its marketing campaign would lead you to believe.

Home From the Sea (1972)

15 05 2008

I am no position to proclaim this as Yoji Yamada’s greatest film, seeing as how I’ve only seen a small fraction of his work, but it is without a doubt, the most consistently great piece I’ve seen from him. Essentially, it basically just a collection of sequences ranging from awkward to overwhelmingly beautiful. Perhaps this is not the most refined film I’ve ever seen, but that most likely isn’t Yamada’s intention. While he does have a fantastic sense of elliptical compositions, more and more he seems to be turning out to be a “character-driven” filmmaker and a wonderful one at that.

Seichi and Minko, a married couple, live on a secluded island, where they make their living transporting rocks from a construction site and then dumping them in the middle of the ocean. They are well on their way to creating a healthy family within their small town. However, the times are changing and Japan’s industrial expansion ultimately forces them out of their lifestyles. While they eventually show signs of adapting to modern society, they both still long for their old means of living.

When I say that this is “less cinematically defiant” it is not a criticism but more of a forewarning that those expecting a throughly arty experience will be disappointed. Yamada’s compositions are beautiful and what-not but the film isn’t necessarily a stylistic tour de force. Instead, it is riveting but nearly neutral of a family’s struggles. Perhaps it takes some familiarity with “classic” Japanese film-making in general to fully appreciate Yamada’s accomplishment here. There is nothing in his aesthetic that is immediately striking. Instead, the photography, which I must reiterate, is beautiful, takes a backseat to all the internal drama. It is amazing that Yamada can evoke the same sense of memory as a director such as Wong Kar-Wai, without having to rely on poetic montages. While this is a visually breathtaking film, it does not dominate the screen, in a sense.

It’s evident just by the inability to “crack” the film that it truly is something special. In a way it is almost a conventional film that simply is not conventional. There’s obviously something much more than just a family with some superficial turmoil. This may all seem like textbook “art film about relationship” ideas but there’s something very odd (in a good way) about it. Really, no director that I know of comes close to reaching whatever it is that Yamada has going on here. Sure, there’s the obvious similarities with Naruse and Ozu but even then that only accounts for the amount of dialogue, which is more than likely the biggest problem. That’s not to say the dialogue is bad, but it probably threw me off more than anything, especially when it’s stacked up against long, silent sequences of moving rocks. But, this is what makes Yamada’s film so very great. Never does it feel like he has an agenda, but this almost his fault. Perhaps there is a lack of inspiration, or artistic vision? I’m not quite sure, but I do know that this is absolutely one of the best films ever. In retrospect, the difficulty I had with accepting this was merely the amount of dialogue put up against the usual Asian “plotlessness” that I love.

Mogari no Mori (2007)

11 05 2008

Another extremely frustrating effort from Naomi Kawase. Perhaps even more so than Moe no Suzaku though in her defense, it is largely due to this film’s giant ambitious which are never quite equally executed. In some ways, this is actually a step-up from Shara. Where that film is more of a straightforward drama captured in a naturalistic fashion, this is more of an attempt at being a poem. It does achieve a very Malick / Herzog vibe but the content drags after awhile and begins to stray back to something more dramatic. Kawase’s attempt at trying new things is admired, though, as this film has more than enough inspired sequences to prove its own worth. At the same time, it is not the transcendent masterpiece that it could have been.

To get her mind off the recent death of her son, Machiko begins working at a retirement home. She is scared at first, but quickly eases her way into the atmosphere. She also begins an unlikely friendship with Shigeki, who lost his wife thirty-tree years ago. Their friendship is understandably slowed down by Shigeki’s mental instability. On a trip outside the retirement home, Machiko’s car gets caught in a ditch. She goes to look for help but when she returns, Shigeki has disappeared. She quickly finds him deep in the forest. The two continue to hike through this forest looking for the grave of Shigeki’s wife.

For about the first 25 minutes, Kawase creates a distinct atmosphere bursting with spontaneity and poetry. The sequence in which Shigeki and Machiko play hide and seek represents the final particularly fantastic section of film, sans the finale. A beautifully composed, almost montage, of heartbreaking sequences that feel completely free of any dramatic conventions. In some ways, this further reinforces just how small the gap between Harmony Korine and Naomi Kawase is. Perhaps it is a little bit of a stretch to call this the Japanese Gummo but the film’s first section seems to imply that it is working towards just that.

Everything following the opening is downhill, though not overwhelmingly so. Once Shigeki and Machiko get “stuck” in the forest, there are some nice sequences but nothing really equating to the breathtaking moments from earlier on. The sequences in the forest range from cheap scares (a falling branch) to completely tedious nothings (walking in a forest with no focus on nature?) to the bizarre (Machiko taking her clothes off to warm Shigeki) but again, nothing as special as what we’ve seen in the first few minutes. In compensation, the film’s final sequence does live up to the completely amazing opening, but there’s still too many instances when the film feels as though it is dragging. Even in Shara, Kawase could have benefited from some editing. If you’re going to film people walking for thirty minutes, you better something great to fall back on. Instead, a majority of the film is borderline-nauseating camera work of two people walking. Still, there’s something very special going on here.