La Prise de pouvoir par Louis XIV (1966)

29 01 2009

I knew going in that this was going to be on the more dull and academic side of things, but it still took me quite a long time to adjust to one of the most extreme forms of deliberately slow pacing I’ve seen in any film. This is slow in a way completely different from “minimalism” i.e the work of Bresson and Antonioni’s followers. The pace is not intentionally slow, but instead a result of Rossellini’s dedication to his idea of television as a form of education. As uninteresting as it sounds, this is indeed a “educational” film, but I can’t help but find it interesting just because Rossellini is trying to accomplish something that I haven’t seen attempted before.

Perhaps my words can’t express how bizarrely “austere” this work is, which is a little odd having only seen Benedek Fliegauf’s (wonderful) static shot parade, Tejut only a couple of days ago. But as I tried to mention in the first paragraph, Rossellini’s version of minimalism is one to which I am not accustomed. His camera movements vaguely resemble Rivette’s here, but needless to say, this is absolutely not a Rivette film. It’s the antithesis of playful and charming, it’s self-consciously intellectual and inaccessible. After awhile though, I came fascinated by Rossellini’s very simplistic world. It probably helps that the rather ugly looking color scheme seems to grow on one’s sensibilities. In other words, it just takes awhile to get use to Rossellini’s idiosyncratic approach.

If you haven’t figured it out by now, this film has very little in common, at least stylistically speaking, with Journey to Italy and Flowers of St. Francis, which is a little disappointing for me. On the other hand, I can see this period in Rossellini’s career gradually becoming a great point of interest. If this film is any indication, then I’m sure I’ll find myself more than a little uncomfortable watching his other television works, but in the long run, they could all be quite enjoyable. I suppose this is ironic, though, since Rosselini himself didn’t want these films to be seen as entertaining, but I still feel like there is room, at least in this film, to be entertained.

Kochiyama soshun (1936)

28 01 2009

Humanity and Paper Balloons is still the late Sadao Yamanaka’s greatest achievement, but this one isn’t far behind. It does take a more comedic approach, along the lines of Yamanaka’s 1935 film, Tange Sazen and the Pot Worth a Million Ryo, but also contains that dark downbeat pessimism that made Yamanaka’s last film so famous, relatively speaking, of course. Like the other two remaining films from Yamanaka’s oeuvre, this film manages to incorporate so many narrative tones that it seems to be the ultimate genre experience. This may sound like an insult to some, but it is anything but. Yamanaka’s work sit proudly alongside John Ford’s. Both directors were versatile, yet consistent, and both were undoubtedly the best filmmakers of their time.

It’s difficult for me to write about any Yamanaka film without getting a little bit mushy. As most people know, only three of twenty three films survive today. A tragic scenario, but not nearly as tragic as Yamanaka’s far too early death in 1938. I hate to look at the glass half empty, but I do get this sad feeling watching all of his films that is brought on by the context of the film’s maker, rather than the film itself. That’s not to say this isn’t an emotive film, it’s just hard not to think about Yamanaka’s demise.

Moving on from that deeply downbeat note, this film showcases just how much of a master Yamanaka was. Many people like to point out how different each of his remaining three films are, but I personally find that they all have much in common. It could be argued that Yamanaka was one of the first cinematic personalities to show some interest in deconstructing genre conventions, but that implies a slightly academic tint to his work. To my knowledge, no film in the 1930s did so. Rather than pointing out the shortcomings of genre films, Yamanaka explores their potential. This is a little bit like what Jacques Rivette does, but Yamanaka’s work is much different.

If I had to sell Yamanaka by using one a comparison to a single director, I would still compare him to John Ford. Both (seemingly, in Yamanaka’s case) at a productive rate, churning out studio-friendly features filled with beautiful poetic touches. In 1936, Ford’s first really visually impressive talking film, Prisoner of Shark Island, was released. Although it wasn’t Ford’s most accomplished film of the 30s, it was the first of his talking pictures that signaled in a very noticeable visual style. Yamanaka seemed to progress at a similar rate. This film is one of his most beautiful, not to mention one of the best looking movies from the 1930s in general. Take, for example, the final fight sequence. It looks so unchoreographed and real, but every frame contains a Murnau-level of cinematic beauty. Are people convinced yet? They should be. This film is essential not only for those interested in the history of Japanese film, but also for those interested in the general progression of cinema.

Flame and Woman (1967)

27 01 2009

So far, this is the only Yoshishige Yoshida film I’ve seen that his lived up to his masterpiece, The Affair. Akitsu Springs is definitely on the same level as it, but it is also one of Yoshida’s more old-fashioned features. Good-for-Nothing is okay for what it is, and Escape from Japan is painfully bad. In his defense, it seems like Yoshida didn’t really start with the formal sensuality of The Affair until the mid sixties. Thankfully, he continues it here. On a purely visual level, this is one of the best films you could ever hope to see, but in terms of characterizations, it comes off a little flat and empty.

Overall, I’d say this film is very much a success for Yoshida. After all, I get the feeling he is much more concerned with his aesthetic than he is with drama. This isn’t a problem at all, because he is one of the most technically accomplished directors imaginable. The film stock here is a little grainer than that it is in The Affair but it still looks fantastic, and gives each shot the look of a still photograph. Perhaps this is intentional as one of the characters’ interest in photography plays a large part early on. Ultimately, said character’s subplot is completely abandoned. Not a huge loss anyway, but I do think the story could have benefited from a few diversions.

Almost every Yoshida film I’ve seen so far has been strictly incident-driven, which is absolutely fine when it looks as gorgeous as this film does. On the other hand, this does create a rather large problem. There’s too much story and for that matter, there’s a bit too much talking too. The characters, none of which are all that likable, never seem to develop beyond being human observers to the (seemingly) much more important dramatic arc. I don’t think I should see every character as a respectable and charming person, but do they have to be so amoral and emotionless?

The funny thing about all this is that every person in the film seems a lot more interesting and complex than they really are. The same statement could be applied to The Affair as well, but it wasn’t nearly as obvious in that film. It might just be because Yoshida is obviously modeling his films (on some degree) to the ones Antonioni made in the early sixties. After all, Mariko Okada is wonderful and works perfectly as a Monica Vitti-esque character, but her actions and choices are based on such vague and silly dramatic turns. It’s all a bit bizarre, even more so since Yoshida’s formalism does everything but scream dramatic extremism. As slightly frustrating as the film’s dramatic arc is, it is greatly overshadowed by Yoshida’s technical accomplishments.

Tejút (2007)

25 01 2009

I’m not quite ready to call Benedek Fliegauf a genius, but one thing is for sure, he (and his films) are absolutely fascinating. Now, the actual experience of watching this film or Dealer is not what gets to me. It’s after I’ve watched his films that I begin to realize how the bizarre beauty of his work. His latest film is a 75 minute collection of plotless sketches, all of which are told through very long static shots. Polarizing would be a pretty good way to describe it. The hate that Fliegauf is likely to accumulate for such a picture is overwhelming, but I’m still busy thinking about it. I’m not sure what I’m thinking about, as I doubt he intended to make some obscure symbolic gesture. Whatever the case, it seems like a long time since a film has, for better or worse, stayed with me so vividly.

Taking all that into account, it be easy to deduce that I absolutely love Fliegauf’s experiment and maybe I do, but on the other hand, maybe I don’t. Okay, this so ridiculous, but it speaks to just how odd it is to watch each little sequence unfold. An argument could be made that this is something of a comedy, akin to Tati, had he smoked pot. But the content is never all that humorous. More often than not, the extremely deadpan tone leads to a very subtle visual punchline, but it never amounts to a “purpose.”

None of the sketches in this film show any signs of an arc. They’re just tragic moments that move at a glacial pace, but that’s why it is so fascinating to watch. Things move achingly slow, but there is a suspense created, which is odd considering that it goes completely against the lack of drama. That element isn’t exactly groundbreaking or new, Fliegauf just takes it to its most extreme point.

It’s difficult to stress just how slow and long the film is without sounding a little bit repetative. I’ll leave at this: a longtime Tsai fan, such as myself, is going to struggle with the pace of this movie. I haven’t seen Kiarostami’s Five but it seems very likely that it has a similar tone. This is probably a good litmus test for just how much someone is in to “minimalism” which is a greatly overused term that seems to have lost all meaning, but I’d like to believe people understand what I mean. I’m not sure I ever want to physically experience this film again, of course because it is so slow, but more importantly because I like how it plays in my head a lot better than it does on a screen.

The Flowers of St. Francis (1950)

20 01 2009

Perhaps I should preface this entry with a little personal information: I’ve been in Italy for the past two weeks, which explains the inactivity in posts. The more important part about this is that it made me fairly anxious to find films related to the locations of my vacation. Rossellini film doesn’t fit in, actually, since most of it takes place in an unnamed forest, but I was able to visit Assisi, where St. Francis was born and where his body is kept to this very day. Maybe this created a little bias, but I still feel quite confident in proclaiming this film a masterpiece.

This is the second Rossellini film I’ve seen, the first being Voyage to Italy, and I’m obviously very impressed. That film is equally excellent, but the whole setup, involving a relationship’s failure being brought to the forefront by something, isn’t exactly “new” to me. Antonioni, Naruse, and countless other directors have followed this type of emotional structure. It doesn’t exactly make Voyage to Italy any less good, it just didn’t lead me to anticipate a film as beautiful and revolutionary as The Flowers of St. Francis. It seems so simple and straight-forward, but that’s what makes it so unique.

I feel obligated to mention right off the bat that Rossellini’s depiction of St. Francis and his monks isn’t “other-worldly.” At the same time, these men are still saints, but Rossellini establishes a perfect balances and has them come off as human saints. While these men do spend most, if not all, of their time in contemplation, they still sometimes fall back into more common human instincts. For example, there is one scene in which Brother Ginapro wants to prepare a meal for a Brother who has been fasting. He asks him what he can prepare, and Brother responds by mentioning a desire for a pig’s foot. Ginapro goes to a nearby farm and approaches a school of pigs. He wants to get a pig’s foot, but he does it in an almost absurdly gentle way. “Brother pig” he calls out “allow me to take one of your legs.” Such a scene perfectly illustrates the delicate balance Rossellini achieves between the comedic, the dramatic, and the tragic. Luis Buñuel, who is a wonderful filmmaker, would have probably been more satirical in his depiction of the monks. A bit more “mean” to be blunt. Even though Rossellini’s monks are in humorous situations, they themselves are never the punch line to the joke.

It is, of course, absolutely impossible to explain with words just what Rossellini feels (or at the very least, seems to feel) for these characters. It’s not mushy, it’s not critical, it just feels real. It helps a great deal, though, that his characters are never driven by a linear plot. Instead, the film is built around a dozen (or so) vignettes that have no connection outside of the characters that are featured within them. It’s hard for me not to bring up Harmony Korine’s Gummo, which feels truly odd referencing in a superficially “religious” film. But Korine and Rossellini both build their film on these touching (but not overtly or even intentionally so) moments of pure truth. A perfect example would be St. Francis’ own wordless encounter with a leper. It’s a sequence terribly sad, but it feels like it is so for a reason beyond the obvious, a “leper.”

Jalsaghar (1958)

3 01 2009

In a lot of ways, this is Ray’s weakest film. A story that echoes Citizen Kane but is divided into three musical performances? Sounds like a completely terrible idea and possibly unnecessary since Ray would go on to do another very Kane-esque film in Nayak / Hero (1966) but the music is just really great here. I’ve always been fond of Ray’s music and this film is really just an excuse for him to go crazy with his score. It is a little tedious at times, which isn’t all that surprising considering how much time Ray devotes to the three concerts, but this flawed structure ends up being part of its charm.

Like Welles’ Citizen Kane before it, and Ray’s own Nayak after it, Jalsghar tells the story of a wealthy and successful individual who slowly begins to realize his life is shallow and empty. In this case, the main’s character emotional collapse is attributed to not only his age, but also his declining fortune. Unlike the aforementioned films, the character’s state is worsened by the death of his wife and teenage son. It’s easy to criticize Ray’s rather incident-driven timeline, but its the sort of tragic drama that I’ve come to expect from him, at least every now and then. More often than not, Ray has to have someone die for his stories to progress, which would be a problem if he didn’t seem to put so much effort in fleshing out these characters. They are ultimately just plot points, which is always a bad thing, but the deaths here (with the exception of the film’s finale) are dramatically played down.

Many people seem to be fond of one time theater actor Chhabi Biswas’ performance, but while he does fill his role without too many problems, I would have much rather seen some of the more familiar faces of Ray’s work. Obviously, Soumitra Chatterjee would not have been old enough to play the main role and at this point, he had yet to collaborate with Ray, but it was still disappointing to not be able to see Ray’s usual players. Especially in a film like this, in which most of the “drama” is rather kitschy and embarrassing. This isn’t exactly Biswas’ fault, but the sequence towards the end where he reaches some sort of epiphany is made a complete joke by the goofy horror movie music in the background. I guess no one could really make such a sequence feel subtle, but Biswas certainly doesn’t help make it feel any less ridiculous.

So why did I end up enjoying this? Well, again, the music (from the performances, not the previously mentioned horror movie music) is absolutely fantastic. In addition, the performance seem to nicely break up most of the melodrama, making it a bit less noticable. It also helps that I do enjoy watching Ray’s free-roaming aesthetic, even if the content isn’t exactly suited towards my taste. It’s not as though this film is anywhere close to Days and Nights in the Forest, but it isn’t any worse than Abhijan and it is a hell of a lot better than The Chess Players.

Mucedníci lásky (1966)

1 01 2009

Unfortunately and perhaps, inevitably, this is a big step down from Jan Nemec’s wonderful and innovative debut, Diamonds of the Night. In all honesty, the two films have very little in common. Perhaps Nemec was pressured to move away from the aesthetic of his first film. I can’t think up any possible reason why someone would go from the kinetic and visceral poetry of that film and make a rather dubious attempt at sub-Buñuel humor and surrealism. There’s some nice moments here and there, but the whole thing is a bit of a mess. It’s not enough of a mess to be energetic and free-form like Nemec’s first film.

The film is divided into three separate, but thematically connected stories. The first, entitled “Temptation of a Manipulator” focuses on a lonely businessman who dresses like Charles Chaplin. His physical appearance and goofy mannerisms set the tone for the rest of the film. This section actually ended up being my favorite since there was plenty of potential for something great. Nemec reused some of the imagery of his masterpiece early on, particularly with the repetitious shots of girls looking out windows. What little story lies in this segment implies that the main character is lonely and is looking for love amongst all the hectic events of daily life. Unfortunately, this seems to be depicted in a way that is more symbolic than observant. It all feels a bit like Vera Chytilová’s Daisies, which I wasn’t very fond of when I saw it about a year or so ago.

Both Chytilová and Nemec’s work can be called surrealistic, but both films are so in the way least interesting to me. They both seem to take cues from Buñuel’s surrealistic comedies, which is fine by me, but they also seem to exaggerate goofy imagery to a Jodorowsky-level, which isn’t fine by me. Both films are also “crazy” (I suppose) but not like say a Herzog, or Korine film. It is just a goofy and “zany” mess. Many of the gags, if you can call them that, are likely to cause eye-rolls. It sounds a bit close-minded, but maybe I just don’t “get” this.

I must give Nemec credit for something here, though. Unlike Chytilová, his garrish and theatrical surrealism is photographed in a far more interesting way. It’s still the type of thing I hate, but in this case, it does look quite nice. The two other stories only take to the “random” images to another level, completely eliminating any sense of compassion for an actual character. Perhaps one is suppose to approach this film as a hallucogenic collection of uhm, things, but I personally found it rather dull in its forced sense of “artiness.” I’d still say it’s worth seeing, but its also a far cry from Nemec’s best.