Immortal Love (1961)

31 12 2008

The fact that I was able to somewhat enjoy this, in spite of the very unpleasant dramatic tone, is a testament to my admiration for widescreen black and white cinematography. Especially when it’s Japanese film from the early 60s, also see When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (among other Naruse films from the 60s) and The Insect Woman. This film actually has a lot in common with the latter film, but unfortunately, Kinoshita’s cinematic sensibilities don’t align quite as well with my taste as Imamura’s do. Even with a great cast (Tatsuya Nakadai and Hideko Takamine together again!) there isn’t really much to appreciate beyond some wonderful visual moments.

A big problem I have with Kinoshita’s “drama” is how frank, straight-forward, but also simple-minded it all is. In the film’s opening chapter (Kinoshita divides the story into seven sections) we see Takamine’s character, Sadako, being forced into a marriage with Nakadai’s, Heibei. To make things worse, Sadako is raped by Heibei, which results in a child, Eiichi. The narrative jumps forward a couple of years to the still unhappy couple dealing with three children, one of them is Eiichi. Due to the context of his creation, some tension exists between Sadako and Eiichi. The setup between these two characters could have been great, but it only becomes another element to mention in Sadaoko and Heibei’s arguments.

This is where all potential seems to go out the window. The couple argues in the most frank and unrealistic manner, eloquently expressing their complicated feelings in a way that no human being could ever do. Their bizarre ability to accurately convey their feelings is pretty embarrassing on its own, but to add salt in the wound, it’s these interactions that make up the entire film. That’s not to say there isn’t some nice moments here and there, but it is a bit of problem when someone is either crying or yelling 95% of the time. To get a idea of how frustratingly perfect the dialogue is, it made me think of what is left unsaid in most of Ozu’s film. The conversations in Kinoshita’s film are the inverse of the one’s in Ozu. Some people will prefer Kinoshita’s approach but needless to say, I don’t.

Hideko Takamine, even though she has to work with a rather ridiclous script, does deliver another fantastic performance. There’s a few times where she steps into the melodramatic realm that Kinoshita seems to be desperately pushing for, but she maintains her trademark charm throughout the film. Tatsuya Nakadai, on the other hand, doesn’t fair too well. He’s a great actor when he’s given something solid to work with, but he isn’t in this case and unlike Takamine, his acting can’t transcend a pedestrian storyline. I hope Kinoshita’s other films will deliver on some of the potential present here, but I have a strong feeling that they won’t.

Dealer (2004)

23 12 2008

As unintentionally hilarious as it sounds, the physical experience of watching this was a little bit like watching Dreyer’s Vampyre, which I reviewed only a couple days ago. There’s no striking similarities, or obvious thematic connection, but ultimately, I couldn’t appreciate either film beyond just being formal studies. Both are fascinating to watch, but I would be lying if I said I’d like to see them again. Criticizing either film for being “all style, no substance” is a little too harsh, especially since I don’t think substance is tangible element of films, but I have to admit that they both could have been a lot more interesting.

Benedek Fliegauf’s film observes the final days of a drug dealer (hence the title) as he roams around the city, revisiting old friends and former flames, but also (of course) making drug deals. It starts out very fascinating, but rather quickly takes a turn to dullness. The fact that the film is “slow” has nothing to do with its torturous pace, but more because it doesn’t even seem to be slow for the right reason. People criticize Gus Van Sant’s death trilogy for trying to be slow for slow sake, and its easy to understand what they’re trying to say. After all, Van Sant had been working in mainstream Hollywood for many years prior. The thing is, his self-conscious “art” films are slow because the content calls for it. Two guys roaming around in a desert should be slow because it underscores the narrative.

Back on topic here, Fliegauf’s story does not (at least in my mind) call for such a meditative aesthetic. This film could have been great had it not limited the dramatic “chaos” (for lack of a better term) into Fliegauf’s formal appreciation of Miklos Jancso. His camera floats around the room, observing the protagonist’s life. As I said earlier, it is fascinating to watch, at least for awhile, but it doesn’t seem appropriate for what is happening on-screen. A rotating tracking shot of a woman shooting up heroin may have a deadpan comedic tinge to it, but a scene with the same woman yelling about her child doesn’t.

Comedy is obviously not the only reason for a director to choose the “minimalistic” route so I’m not exactly criticizing Fliegauf for not making his film funny enough, but instead, the form doesn’t seem to fit with the content. Tsai Ming-Liang, for example, makes wonderful “slow” movies. In my mind, he’s one of the best, but the thing is, all his stories are around loneliness and/or ennui (among many others thing, obviously) so they work perfectly with a slower pace. Maybe Fliegauf’s film is groundbreaking just because it doesn’t fit this mold, but it just ends up feeling too forced. Again, this isn’t a bad film by any means, it just a curious one that maybe will take on a greater importance in my cinematic “evolvement” but for now, it is a well-made piece but a bit too much on the ponderous side.

Keby som mal pušku (1971)

23 12 2008

Another great film from the unjustly neglected Stefan Uher, though it has very little in common with his equally great Sun in a Net. (Slnko v sieti, 1962) That film is more of a Antonioni-esque relationship driven mood piece, while this is one that is built almost entirely on its energetic aesthetic. To give a good idea of the film’s overall feeling, I’d look at the sequence in Werckmeister Harmonies with the little kids jumping on a bed, refusing to go to sleep. It has the art of Tarr’s work, but it also has a sense of humor about itself and never becomes overly-ponderous.

Continuing with the comparisons to Hungarian filmmakers, Uher does remind me a little bit of Miklos Jancso here, but only in the sense of the camera’s freedom. Like Jancso’s work, this film feels extremely “open” if only for the fact that camera seems to become a character all on its own. Uher doesn’t use the floating, tracking shot, though, instead he goes the route of shaky and/or steadicam. Maybe it is a bit manipulative in the sense that it is obviously trying to come off as sponteanous, but it comes off as, well, sponteanous. It probably also helps that Uher’s content, following around teenage headcases is far more interesting, at least to me, than Jancso’s political examinations.

Even if the camera work wasn’t so wonderful, there would still be enough of that “kids being kids” material that I would probably love the film anyway. I probably use this description one times too many, but this is definitely a “glue-sniffing” story. To put things into perspective, the children here are crazy enough to even attempt to circumcise themselves, only to win a bet, in which the prize is a knife. I guess it could be argued that I shouldn’t be so easy on the whole transgressive teens genre, but its a personal thing, I suppose.

In my (and more importantly Uher’s) defense, all these crazy and sponteanous moments are absolutely beautiful to look at. One of the few things carried over from Uher’s Sun in a Net is the wonderful sensory-filled close-ups that, in this case, are composed among wide-angle lens shots that bring to mind Wong Kar-Wai’s work of the mid-90s. Taking how groundbreaking the two films I’ve seen from Uher are, it is a shame that more people don’t know about him. I know there’s plenty of people out there that would absolutely love this, but unfortunately, Uher has yet to get any substantal attention in the west.

Longest Night in Shangahi (2007)

22 12 2008

Well, a film like this isn’t going to gain an audience from the “arty” crowd, which I’m sure most people reading this belong to, but I still have to say that it is absolutely great. It is rather bland, outside of some nice visual flourishes that are basically inherited from setting a film in a neon-lit modern city. I don’t mean any disrespect to Yibai Zhang, but he comes off as a rather “ordinary” guy, in the sense that his film feels very mainstream and pedestrian, but also shoots for something more profound. The difference between this and some Zach Braff vehicle is that Zhang succeeds. Even with his commercial aesthetic, he has created something of a masterpiece, or at least mighty close to one.

Of course, a lot of credit should go to the actors here. Even the usually wonderful “two lost souls” element of this film feels a bit on the normal side. The setup is very good and follows two people who are both reaching breaking points in their respective relationships. Masahiro Mutoki plays a Japanese stylist who visits Shanghai to attend some sort of convention (?) and in the process, he begins to drift further away from his wife and assistant. Meanwhile, a taxi driver (played by the always beautiful Vicki Zhao) learns that her long-time crush is getting married in only a couple of days. The main driving (no pun intended) point behind the film’s narrative lies not only in both characters dealing with their problematic relationships, but also trying to create a new with each other, in spite of the language barrier.

This is where the film comes dangerously close to falling into “cutesy” territory. The couple’s inability to communicate leads to some, ahem, “wacky” moments. In other words, there’s plenty of unneccessary and completely forced comic relief. On the other hand, the hijinx between the two potential lovers is nowhere near as cringe-worthy as the one involving the bald Japanese guy who follows around a Chinese police woman. I guess this gives a good impression of the film’s overall tone. There’s plenty of things that “ring true” but there’s just as many conventional filmmaking elements that threaten to destory Zhang’s insights. They don’t, however, and that’s exactly why this film is so great. If you’re looking for something formally impressive, look elsewhere. If you’re willing to tolerate some Hollywood-ish flourishes for a very warm and gentle film, then you could do a lot worse.

Vampyr (1932)

21 12 2008

I’d put this on the same level as Dreyer’s Gertrud, which is the only other film of his I’ve seen so far. Both are decent films, but not really the indisputable masterpieces that people make them out to be. Ironically enough, this has none of the problems of Dreyer’s last film, but at the same time, that film has none of the problems of this one. While Gertrud is a nice character-driven movie that fits a lot closer to my cinematic ideal than Vampyr, it is also a bit too theatrical and talkative for my liking. This, on the other hand, has very little dialogue and is definitely more formally intriguing, but it ends up being more of a “interesting” document of cinematic progression than a genuinely great experience.

The whole “horror” element might put this at a immediate handicap for many cinephiles, myself included. All the descriptions of being not exactly a horror film in the conventional sense, but a bizarre series of episodes that give off the tone of a nightmare, are accurate but only so for a limited amount of time. The first ten minutes or so are as haunting and striking as the film’s champions claim it to be, but eventually, Dreyer substitutes his beautiful imagery for rather straightforward (and tedious) “vampire” film proceedings. It definitely maintains its “weirdness” but it also becomes slightly silly, bordering on the conventional horror film that Dreyer is suppose to transcend.

One of the biggest problems in the film’s shift to a more conventional tone is the much talked about on screen texts, which literally slows the film down. I can’t criticize Dreyer for expecting 1930s audiences to read slowly, but the text is completely unnecessary. The text really just reads like a “introduction to vampires” which features plenty of information that mainstream culture has already made common knowledge. If these textual selections were omitted, the film would probably be about five minutes shorter, and it already is pretty short to begin with. I admire Dreyer’s intention in building a film’s substance on atmosphere, but on-screen text does nothing but dilute the tone, which is already suffering from the shift to more conventional genre drama.

Even with these problems, there is something very interesting going on here. Again, maybe it is just the intentional sense of “weirdness” but the film is fascinating. That is probably the biggest compliment I can give Dreyer, because it may be a reach to say his film is actually impressive outside of his formal experiments. It may help a great deal that I have a soft spot for David Lynch’s Eraserhead, which clearly takes some cues from Vampyr. The way in which Julian West observes the strange occurences that make up most of the film’s content bears a great resemblance to Jack Nance. Overall, I’d have to say the acting here is really impressive, even though the characters aren’t given much time to be established. This was probably Dreyer’s intention anyway, since Allan Grey is meant to be a stand-in observer for the audience. So while I’m glad I finally saw this, I can’t really say I love it as everyone else does.

Young America (1932)

19 12 2008

A bit of a step down from After Tomorrow but for the most part, another really good film from Borzage. Thankfully, this is nothing at all like that movie, its closet companion is probably King Vidor’s The Champ but its nowhere near as great. Like Vidor’s movie, this is an early “socially-conscious” film that was made from time to time in the pre-code era. It is pretty remarkable that Vidor and Borzage were given permission to make such transgressive, “proto-glue sniffing” works within a studio. Really all you had to do was throw a star in. In this case, it’s Spencer Tracy who gets top billing for what is ultimately a glorified cameo role.

The real story lies with the juvenile delinquents, specifically Arthur Simpson, who is introduced as the meanest kid in town. The film opens with a tracking shot that doesn’t seem to be following anything in particular, yet ends up in the office of Judge Blake (a young Ralph Bellamy) who invites Edith Doray to attend a trial. She notices Simpson, who the camera shifts its focus to. We begin to see Simpson’s daily struggles and tribulations. Many of his crimes can be explained quite easily, yet the boy does nothing to defend his innocence. He gets expelled from school due to a fight that was provoked by a school bully who had been picking on Mabel, a possible love interest for Arthur that never develops. His aunt kicks him out of the house, which forces him to move in with his best friend, Nutty and his grandma.

Most of the “poverty” sequences seem like more pragmatic episodes of “Our Gang” but that’s perfectly fine with me. Again, it is easy to see Borzage’s influence on the Japanese. In this case, I’d imagine Ozu probably would have taken a thing or two out of his film. The young troublemakers here do everything from hypnotizing chickens to stealing cars, which certainly shares a connection with the lifestyles of the children in I Was Born But…, which I often credit as being one of the first “glue-sniffing” films, a term which comes from the favorite past time of the kids in Hector Babenco’s Pixote.

Borzage’s protagonist is unlike the characters in the aformentioned films because he is seen as completely innocent. Everything he gets in to trouble for is really the result of a deed that had good intentions yet when taken out of context, looks like a criminal act. Nutty and Arthur are caught robbing a medicine shop, but their reasoning is completely rational – they were getting medicine for Nutty’s grandma, who has been the perfect customer to the shop for many years. In other words, Arthur is a martyr, which seems a little bit silly to me. I’m fond of Borzage for calling attention to these kids, but I can’t help but find their portrayal (as saints) to be more insulting than glorifying. Overall, this is a fine film, but not quite as great as its thematic brethern.

After Tomorrow (1932)

19 12 2008

My first Frank Borzage film and I am very impressed. While I’m well aware of how highly regarded he is, I also have to admit that I wasn’t really expecting much out of this or Young America, which came out the same year. All fears were put aside by the first five minutes with one of the most beautiful opening I’ve seen. It helps a great deal that this film, in particular, seemed to have had a big impact on the Japanese. The story starts out a little bit like Naruse’s Wife! Be Like a Rose! but it actually turns out to be even better. The physical condition of Naruse’s film isn’t really helping, but I’d still say that Borzage was a much more visual director, at least in the 1930s.

I’ll give Borzage a lot a credit for also being a pretty character-focused director, at least that what I would gather from the two films of his that I’ve seen. This isn’t exactly an Ozu film in terms of depth, but here, there is a similar focus on small little drama(s) that go on within families. The dynamic between Marian Nixon’s character, Sidney Taylor, and her father is really quite astonishing, even by modern standards. If I have to go back to an Ozu comparison, than I would probably equate their relationship to the one between Chishu Ryu and Setsuko Hara in Late Spring. As believable as Nixon and William Collier are as the closet members of the family, I think the wife of the house, played by Minna Gombell, comes off a bit too villainous.

Sidney has been engaged for three years to Peter Piper (an eye-roller, I know) who brings in a completely different cast of characters. First, his extremely jealous and passive aggressive mother, played by Josephine Hull, who comes off as whiny and irritating at first, but plays the first well enough to make her situation seem vaguely realistic. There’s also Betty, who longs for Peter and makes many sexual advances towards him, all of which he turns down. Some of the characters seem slightly superfluous, but the fact of the matter is, they never seem like stock role or “types” which may have been because many Hollywood “cliches” had yet to be developed.

While there’s no simplifying of characters, there is, however, plenty of cliches in typical pre-code Hollywood dialogue, which ranges from fairly clever writing to flat and predictable punchlines. It’s hard to know for sure, of course, but I have a hard time believing people really talked like this in the 30s. I’d imagine that people felt like they talked like this, but couldn’t have actually been as quick and clever. The writing isn’t the relentless cycle of perfectly set-up comedy a la His Girl Friday but it does seem a bit convenient in a way. Normally, I would just overlook this in general, but it’s hard when there’s so many intimate sequences that show potential for much more perceptive writing. It’s not a big setup, though, especially when the rest of the film is so great.