A Stranger Within a Woman (1966)

3 07 2008

About as shrill and dramatic as Naruse would ever get during the postwar part of his career. Essentially, this is his “noir” film, I suppose, which explains why he would quite randomly abandon the usual attention and care with which he handles his characters. On the plus side, this is one of his most visually stunning films, which may strike some as odd as it the only time he worked with the academy ratio during the 60s. There’s something much different about the framing here than that of his academy ratio films from the 50s. It definitely feels like some sort of post-modern tribute or homage that has become popular in modern American cinema. Of course, this is leagues above a Tarantino film, but its somewhat frustrating that Naruse would spend his time making this.

A father with a steady home life that includes a wife and two children, is shocked to find that his friend’s wife has been killed. It becomes apparent that the father was busy having an affair with his friend’s wife right up until her death. This, obviously, complicates things a great deal. While everyone is initially stumped to who the killer could be, it is slowly revealed that the aforementioned affair included “kinky” sex which may have led to the woman’s death.

For a good hour or so, Naruse plays things with his usual subtle nondramatic touch. While the audience is informed of the murder almost immediately, the mystery aspect doesn’t really come into the picture till the second half, where it then proceeds in becoming quite predictable and dull. The first half, though, is a perfect example of Naruse’s mastery. Even though he’s not working with his usual family drama material, he still has the same ability to downplay the action. There’s very little dramatic music and a lot more “everyday” type of dialogue. The cinematography, simply started, is absolutely gorgeous.

Things begin to get much more problematic once the father confesses his affair to his wife. It is not that the film gets technically melodramatic. Naruse still manages to keep his trademark subtleness and the visuals are still great, but the narrative just begins to take a nosedive. The whole thing is rather predictable and over-the-top. It’s entertaining in a rather mindless way, but that makes the experience almost subversive considering how deep and truthful Naruse usually is. For all its melodrama, it does have a very nice and poetic ending but considering the context, even that seems superfluous. Overall, this is a good movie, but also a far cry from showcasing Naruse’s greatness.

Alice in the Cities (1974)

3 07 2008

By starting with Kings of the Road, I think I’ve downplayed Wenders’ slightly heavy sensibility. Perhaps it is the divisions in dialouge of that film, but both this and Wrong Move seem more outrightly ponderous. Still, this doesn’t do much to damage the film. There’s plenty of moments where the characters would do a lot of good to shut the hell up but Wenders still has a much more fleshed vision of the people in his films than a director like say, Peter Greenaway. It is pretty impressive to realize that Wenders was this skilled with his actors from the beginning. He made a few relatively underseen films before, but considering how early on he made this, his vision is almost fully formed.

Phillip Winter, a German journalist reporting on the “American scene” has a severe case of writer’s block, which he combats by frequently taking photographs. On his last dime with an angry boss looking over his shoulder, he decides to return back home. While booking his flight he meets Lisa, who has recently separated herself from her husband, and her daughter, Alice. The three rent a hotel room together as their flight is scheduled for the next day. That morning, Lisa ditches Phillip and Alice, and leaves a note telling them to go ahead. She wants to work out some personal issues and promises to be on the next flight. However, she isn’t, and Alice becomes Phillip’s responsibility.

There’s plenty of potential for some overly cutesy material, but Wenders avoids almost all of it, opting once again for a very Antonioni inspired approach. Actually, this shares a specific resemblance with Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers, which (perhaps) would could also mean The Brown Bunny but it unfortunately, never becomes that personal. Instead, it begins to drift towards the side of philosophical blabberings, which is actually quite hilarious considering one of the principle characters is meant to be a nine year old girl. Like Kings of the Road, Wenders seems quick and able to ditch such a sensibility and trade it in for awkward silences. That’s nice, but it ultimately gives off a very inconsistent and frustrating structure. Really, Wenders just should have stripped all the overly-talkative scenes all together as they rarely stumble upon the profound readings for which they are intended.

And yet, I can still safely say this is a pretty fantastic movie, if only for how good Wenders is during his best moments. It really speaks volumes about Muller’s black and white cinematography that it looks so great here, despite the fairly poor film stock. In fact, it looks a lot better than Wrong Move, which would sort of indicate that neither he nor Wenders were completely confident in using color. Obviously, this doesn’t look quite as good as Kings of Road if only for the limited production values, but still comes off looking fairly good. There does seem to be a lot more close-up sensory-driven here than in his subsequent films, which does give it a distinction. For as great as the film it is (and it really is great), I can’t help but see it as something of a warm-up for Kings of the Road even if the two are polar opposites in terms of narrative.