Kodomo no shiki (1939)

19 07 2008

Probably the only “epic” I’ve seen from Shimizu thus far, but just as much of as a masterpiece as Arigato-san or Kanzashi. I have to admit, I was bit cautious approaching this seeing as how most of the other Shimizu films I’ve seen are about half as long and even then, they feel quite complete. Despite the unusual length, (by Shimizu’s standards, that is) Kodomo no shiki glides along as naturally as the director’s shorter works. Never does the film give off any sense of dragging, which may be in part due to the four sections in which it is divided. It is also a bit on the plot-driven side of things, but of course, under Shimizu’s impeccable direction, it doesn’t have a single step in the wrong direction.

Brothers Zenta and Sapei have always been told that they’ve never had grandparents. However, Sapei thinks that the old man that rides the horse by his friends is a perfect substitute. It turns out that said man is his real grandfather and that their parents have always kept their existence a secret after their grandfather had disowned their mother. Meanwhile, the boys friendship with long-time pal Kentaro is thrown into question when Kentaro’s father, Rohkai, buys the property where the boys’ usual hangout spot is located and thus, making it impossible to play on. As a result, the gang takes to the forest which leads to Kentaro breaking both his arm and leg. As the kids put aside their tensions and decide to remain friends, their parents continue to complicate the situation by holding on to long standing grudges.

It is extremely difficult to recount all the minute details that Shimizu jams into this sprawling masterpiece. The film is actually a companion piece to an earlier and much shorter film, Children in the Wind, which I did not know beforehand. Thankfully, this didn’t ruin my viewing in the least and in fact, the lack of normal “introductions” (so to speak) on Shimizu’s part only deepened my appreciation. The opening is oddly random and the two endings, one for part one and the other for part two, are abrupt in the most beautiful of ways. Based on these two conclusions, it can be argued that the story is inconsequential but such a notion seems almost laughable to anyone who has read the synopsis. Needless to say, the film is extremely consequential, but not in an overtly-dramatic sense. Shimizu has many minor things going on at once, which perfectly compliments the chaos of childhood and gives the film plenty of energy.

As expected, Shimizu’s is at his technical best here. Though the film is indeed “minimalistic” it actually opens with a shot of the grandfather on his horse that almost appears to be filmed on a modern steadicam, a device that unfortunately came after Shimizu’s life. The rest of the film is the usual (but equally mesmerizing) Shimizu tracking shot stuff. The scenes taking place outside provide the perfect balance between Shimizu’s visual poetry and pure naturalism. Such sequences reinforce the importance of shooting on location. While every other Japanese director of the time (at least so it seems) was busy on a studio set, Shimizu was busy finding images that are/were both undeniable and real.

Meanwhile, the indoor sequences have an unquestionable Ozu-like quality to them, which isn’t entirely surprising considering that long-time Ozu collaborator, Yuharu Atsuta is credited as one of the cinematographers. Not to downplay Ozu’s importance, but Shimizu essentially takes the same style and tries plenty of formal experimentation. Those through-the-wall tracking shots that both Shimizu and Mizoguchi perfected in the 30s takes on a whole new life when they are thrown in with 180 reverse-shots. To make things a lot less complicated, I’ll just say Shimizu has a great sense of space, perhaps the best of any classical Japanese director. Considering who Shimizu’s competition is in this category, that is a pretty big claim.

La Commare secca (1962)

19 07 2008

Overall, a pretty impressive start for Bertolucci, but he would go on to much, much better things. In fact his next film, Before the Revolution, is definitely the highest point in his career, at least so in my eyes. A lot of the things he does in this film would eventually lead him to some of the greatest moments in his greatest film, but for the most part, his debut represents a technically intriguing area in his career. The Conformist could also be said to be merely an extremely well-accomplished genre film, which is what La Commare secca ultimately is, but the former is a bit emotionally mature. On the other hand, this does have that certain vibe present in all Italian films of the early sixties that puts it about on the same level as The Conformist.

A Roman prostitute is found dead in a park located near the Tiber river. The police rounds-up a collection of characters who were all present at the scene of the crime and asks them to explain why they were there. Each character’s story is presented as a vignette, all of which lead up to a burst of rain and a cut to the prostitute getting ready for her final day on earth. One of these characters really is the killer, but all of them are ready to place a blame on someone else.

A la Rashomon, each character represents a different point of view of life leading up to the crime. Unlike Kurosawa’s film, though, Bertolucci gives all of his characters, of which there are many, plenty of opportunities to be given some depths. This isn’t the same story told in a different manner with minor differences, but instead, a few slices of life that all conclude in a protagonist being in the location of the crime. Thus, all the stories represent different dramatic focuses as well as different moods. There’s a half-decent “complicated relationship” story with the guy whose girlfriend’s mother wants to kill him. There’s a neat and extremely well photographed segment about a sleazy soldier wandering around the city.

The bit with the four teenagers is probably the best of the bunch and sort of anticipates the first twenty minutes of Bertolucci’s own La Luna. All the segments are quite fine, in and of themselves, but when stitched together to make a complete film, they feel slightly less fascinating. Perhaps it is indeed because the film ultimately becomes just a well-constructed murder mystery, but more because the sequences seem to lack any particularly substantial emotional weight. In other words, this is a great vision of things to come, but not a fully realized film in its own right.

Quiet City (2007)

19 07 2008

I must admit feeling that I feel somewhat silly and naive whenever I go about reviewing any film that fits into the mold of ahem, “mumblecore” since the movement itself has eventually become the butt of most Ray Carney-related jokes. However, lumping every low-budget American film of a the past five years into one category seems a little counter-productive. No doubt, the generalization has hurt the movement (if you can even call it that) in the long run. Again and again, we see films about white, middle-class twenty-somethings struggling to find themselves, or something equally abstract. Quiet City falls into this category, but someone, it is also one of the best movies of the century.

Jamie arrives in New York City one night to meet a friend at a local coffee shop. Lost, she asks Charlie for directions, but he seems equally clueless. When Jamie’s friend never shows up, she decides to continue hanging out with Charlie who naturally offers her shelter for the night. The next day, Jamie finds her friends address, but she still cannot make contact. As a result, she continues to hang out with Charlie – in the park, at an art exhibition, and finally, at a party. Their relationship grows, but never reaches any sort of conclusion.

The most immediately noticeable aspect of Katz’s first two films, this and Dance Party USA, is how much more attention he seems to place on the visuals than his peers. Unfortunately, both of Katz’s films are filmed on digital video but somehow, both films are bursting with moments of poetic beauty. It seems that Katz has actually upgraded his camera here, but only slightly. Whatever the case, Quiet City is filled with visuals that unquestionably the most beautiful ones captured on digital video. There’s a more conscious effort here than in Dance Party to find lush images. Not unlike Ozu’s “pillow shots” these images provide the break, so to speak, from the action. Oddly enough, despite the bulk of the film being filmed in the usual DIY shakycam style, the “pillow shots” are photographed with complete stillness. Needless to say, they also look quite beautiful.

On a similar note, Katz also seems willing to let silence intrude on his story, which is another stylistic device that puts him above his peers. The first four minutes or so actually have no dialogue, at all! Of course, it eventually stumbles into a predictable talky sensibility but it is not like that stuff is inherently bad. After all, it is these that make up a majority of the film and it is not as though I was expecting something that wasn’t completely based around small talk. Even within these sequences, Katz manages to bring interesting visuals to the tables as opposed to using the simple shot/reverse shot technique that makes up a majority of these shoestring-budget American films. More proof that Katz is not merely a name to drop in a passing fad, but a legitimately great director. To top it all off, the film is inspiring and not in the way of some phony sports production. It is inspiring because it proves that it is possible to make truly amazing cinema even with such a restricted budget. One can only hope that some day, Katz will get the finances that he so clearly deserves.