Bleak Moments (1971)

24 11 2008

I caught a late afternoon / early evening showing of Mike Leigh’s latest film, Happy-Go-Lucky before returning home to a viewing of this, his very first film. Though I had seen Leigh’s Naked before and was well aware of what he was capable of, I was still completely blown away by this. The fact that it is such an accomplished film but still is Leigh’s first is jaw-dropping in and of itself, but he really takes uncomfortable and awkward scenes of dialogue to another level here. This has got to be a pretty big reference point for “modern mumblecore filmmaking” even more so than Cassavetes’ films, which are more commonly referenced alongside the recent DIY American filmmakers.

The painfully awkward pauses are the only substantial connection. On a formal level, Leigh, at least here with this film, has more in common with Bresson. He does stick to rather conventional compositions, but the length of his shots, the emphasis on sound, and the connection between the two? All that stuff is extremely Bressonian. It certainly doesn’t hurt to have a story involving a quiet, desperate, and beautiful girl who is uncomfortable with her surroundings, alienated by her way of living and so on. At the same time, Leigh’s perfect balance of sensitivity made me immediately think of Ozu. None of this is intended to downplay what a unique experience watching this film is, but it is so unique that I can’t help but proclaim it as some odd mixture of some of my favorite directors.

The film structures itself around the life of a tragic young woman named Sylvia, a secretary who is too busy tending to her mentally challenged sister to ever find a love life. Meanwhile, a poverty-striken musician moves into her garage, providing some temporary company. Things begin to complicate when a school teacher, Peter, also enters her life and begins to act as a romantic interest. This all sounds potentially socially driven, a la Leigh’s peer Ken Loach, but it really isn’t at all. Sylvia’s mentally challenged sister for instance is not some detail added in to make the film bleaker. It is never actually told whether or not she has problems or not, but it is slowly revealed.

The poor musician is handled with similar sensitivity. He comes awfully close to making a genuine connection with Sylvia. Even though he fails, his character is never reduced the simplicity of his social status. For as much as Leigh’s work is considered socially-concious, it is equally emotionally-concious. In fact, I’d say this is only a social film if one approaches it in a very surface level way. If Leigh truly had a political agenda he wouldn’t put so much time into creating such tension and cringe-worthy feelings of awkwardness among his characters. At times, their awkward moments become unbearable, creating an almost painful and truthful type of suspense.

Saddle the Wind (1958)

23 11 2008

There’s two big selling points for western “outsiders” here: one is that the film features one of John Cassavetes’ earliest performances and the other is that Rod Serling, who would go on to create perhaps the single most famous television show, wrote the script. Unfortunately, the film never really transcend the novelty of these selling points. It is extremely exciting and somewhat weird to see Cassavetes act within beautiful technicolor cinemascope landscapes, but everything else is pretty unremarkable. I can’t really say its everything I dislike about “bad” westerns, but instead, it tries way too hard to be deep and complex. In all honesty, it’s extremely predictable.

Essentially, the story is built around the relationship of two brothers: Tony Sinclair and Steve Sinclair. The former, played by Cassavetes, is a young and impulsive man with an inability to relax. The latter, played by Robert Taylor, is the older sibling, the more mature and experienced one. Tony comes back home to the Sinclair valley with his wife to be, Joan Blake. When the man who owns the majority of the valley decides to claim the Sinclair land for himself, Tony is eager to fight back but Steve is willing to accept the decision. Their different outlooks on the situation lead to the decay and eventual death of their relationship.

Maybe it comes from being a big fan of Cassavetes’ work, but I really disliked how his character was written. As soon as he appears on screen it becomes pretty obvious what direction the film is headed in. The condescending tone in which the other characters speak about him is frustrating for some odd reason. It’s not at all like how James Best is spat on relentlessly in Ride Lonesome, I would have preferred that. In this case, he is basically treated like a mentally retarded child incapable of understanding anything about adults, or the “big boys.”

Cassavetes himself is still a joy to watch, even if his character is severly underwritten. The rest of the cast is equally great. Julie London from Anthony Mann’s great Man of the West plays Cassavetes’ love interest. Donald Crisp, another Mann alum, is the superficial “bad guy” i.e the owner of the valley. Oddly enough, I wasn’t really that impressed with Robert Taylor, but he didn’t really do anything wrong, either. I guess this could be called a successful actor-driven western, but that’s just a really nice way to say that it is a enjoyable film with an overwhelmingly unremarkable story.

Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000 (1976)

22 11 2008

So it seems it was a pretty big mistake on my part to make Middle of the World my first Tanner film. While I definitely enjoyed the unrushed, gentle character study element of that film, this one is a much more accurate example of what I expected from Tanner. This is not completely unlike Godard’s films from the 1970s, but with a much more natural and less political stance. There are still plenty of sequences of characters talking about big issues in a far too eloquent manner, but Tanner meshes it into a very natural story revolving around several young adults facing a series of emotional and social obstacles.

It is sort of ironic that the Middle of the World (the only other Tanner film I’ve seen) seems to be a very obvious attempt at creating a very intimate type of cinema, in which the focus lies solely on two lovers. The scope here is the exact opposite and revolves around eight people that face a series of events that, in retrospect, are rather undramatic. Even though Tanner’s other film is very simplistic in its setup, it does have a very emotionally obvious drive to it, but this film, on the other hand, is more bizarre than anything. The first comparison that popped into my head was Rivette, especially his films from the exact same time period, but I don’t want to sell Tanner’s formally unique presentation short.

Tanner’s visuals are, unfortunately, still on the rather dull side of things, but he certainly tries to avoid this. In all honesty, it may just be the state that the film itself is physically in that prevents it from being visually appealing. Actually, the occasional black and white cinematography looks fantastic and blends together seamlessly with Tanner’s use of old riot footage and still photographs. Such elements aren’t really necessary or make sense in this case, but I really like them anyway. They don’t spark the same type of poignancy as the similar flourishes in Gummo, regardless, they are nice additions.

The acting in a film like this needs to be pretty great, and it is. Tanner seems to have an extremely close relationship with his performers, which is another thing that reminds me of Rivette. The scene where Marie reacts a knifefight with her father that he participated in many years ago is right out of Rivette’s playbook. The dinner conversations, in which the subjects range from how ticks are born to what recession is, are playfully executed but with an indescribable sense of realism. Again, much like Rivette. The only problem I have here is that the film seems to run out of steam within the final half hour or so. It’s still good at that point, but that’s a downgrade from the completely amazing opening 80 minutes. An incredibly exciting experience in any case. I can’t wait to see more from Tanner.

A Star Athlete (1937)

22 11 2008

A very minor film in Hiroshi Shimizu’s filmography, but still a fairly good film none the less. It gets a lot of watchability points for being interesting, as opposed to legitimately great. Any film that has a young Chishu Ryu as a soldier in training is almost inherently entertaining, at least to me. There’s plenty of the usual Shimizu formal goodness to go around as well, but it never comes together than being an exceptional formal exercise for one of cinema’s most under appreciated geniuses. It’s probably a bit too light-hearted for its own good, though. Shimizu’s work tends to be extremely likable, but I think this was a bit uneventful, even for his standards.

The little dramatic tones that are present are mostly build around a seemingly non-violent rivalry between Ryu and Shuji Sano. This rivalry is fueled by Ryu’s own desire to be the faster runner of the two. Towards the end, things get a bit more complicated when Sano begins spending time with a woman who may or may not be a prostitute, but in the end, everything works out and the two rivals seem to have a more friendly relationship. It’s a very Shimizu sort of story: there’s a conflict, a very undramatic one, and he somehow manages to create wonderful moments within something so devoid of typical storytelling elements.

Watching this did remind me how much of a “comedic” director Shimizu really is, and how he is probably my favorite type of filmmaker. This may be underselling his technical brilliance but I think he deserves to be mentioned alongside Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. Placing him with Jacques Tati is a little more accurate, though Shimizu was far more prolific than Tati and probably not nearly as meticulous. Whatever the case, this film is really quite funny and it is so in a way that is so unique to Shimizu’s type of cinema. His gags are rather difficult to explain and I don’t really feel like giving them away for a film that is only 64 minutes long, but they are really quite memorable.

Adding another dimension of comedy is the fact that this film was actually Shimizu’s response to Shochiku’s demand for a propaganda film. There are many films that were made as “propaganda” but were obviously intended to be the exact opposite. Such films make one think “how did the studio not notice this was not at all what they were looking for?” but part of this film’s charm is how slyly Shimizu masks his jokes as pro-government sentiments. It’s subversive, but it is still easy to see how it was mistakened as a government-approved depiction of military life.

Samurai Spy (1965)

21 11 2008

Masahiro Shinoda’s film marks the second part of my on-going and informal samurai mini-marathon. It is every bit as great as Hideo Gosha’s Sword of the Beast, but it is almost a completely different type of film. Judging by his (highly enjoyable) interviews, Shinoda is definitely something of a cinematic scholar. He just seems to have a good deal of cinematic knowledge, which he doesn’t mind displaying throughout this film. It’s not that he indulges himself in any “tributes” or “homages” a la Tarantino, but this film just feels like the work of someone who truly loves film.

Where Gosha’s film is certainly energetic, if not a sponteanous experience, Shinoda’s is a bit more contemplative. Both films have lovely visuals, but Shinoda seems to have devoted a lot more attention to his compositions. His very montage-driven editing style seems like it would be going against the grain of a film filled mostly with precise long static shots, but it works in this case. Calling this a Wong Kar-Wai samurai film might be a little of a stretch, but it certainly evokes Wong’s unique romantic aesthetic more than a few times. In fact, the aforementioned precise static shot seem to anticipate Wong’s 2046, if only in a very minor way.

Shinoda, again unlike Gosha, seems to devote a lot of time to giving his characters some substance. Taking this and the slower pace into account, Shinoda’s film comes a lot closer to being the Japanese version of Anthony Mann or Budd Boetticher. They were my own critical starting points for Sword of the Beast but the only real similarity lies in the concept of making an arty genre film. Shinoda is clearly operating on his own wavelength here, but it is easy to see that the influence of the American has impacted him.

Unfortunately for the film, it’s formal experimentation is all a part of a very dry and complicated story involving an endless cast of characters talking at an almost non-stop rate. There are some very nice moments where Shinoda has the characters shut up in favor of his wonderful compositions, but soon the next plot point comes up and there’s another fifteen minutes of nothing but talking. It doesn’t make the film an outright failure, but it does prevent it from reaching its potential. Whatever the case, this is easily the most impressive effort I’ve seen from Masahiro Shinoda. I’m definitely a lot more interested in seeing his other work now.