Intentions of Murder (1964)

2 06 2009

I might need to rewatch it to be sure, but I have a good feeling that this makes three full-on masterpieces from Imamura. Unfortunately, I was a little sleepy during my viewing, but if anything, my state of my mind only enhanced what is already a dream-like, surreal, and sensory experience. Not only does this film build off of Imamura’s previous two films, Pigs & Battleships and The Insect Woman, it plays off the Japanese New Wave as a whole, perhaps bonding into my personal ideal JNW film. If there’s anything that Imamura has forgotten to expand upon in this masterpiece, it is his usually exquisite trademark humor.

In his defense, Imamura is treading some dark(er) waters here. I think it’s great that Criterion has released these three specific Imamura titles in one box set, as they serve a perfect sample of Imamura’s progression – both as a filmmaker and as a dramatist. Pigs & Battleships is just as wonderfully, at least technically speaking, as anything Imamura has made, but it feels a bit more “classy” and a lot less experimental. Also, the story is just a deeper version of a sun tribe film. To think that Oshima was still dabbling in this faux-genre a year before Imamura emotionally revised it is somewhat staggering. It’s more proof that Imamura is, in all likelihood, the very best of the Japanese New Wave.

I hope the hyperbolic statement doesn’t throw anybody off, but the past two experiences I’ve had with Imamura were more than enough to push him to the top. I’ve seen nearly three times the amount of films from Oshima and Yoshida, but nothing they have done seems to come close to Imamura. In fact, Yoshida’s masterpiece The Affair seems completely useless now as Imamura was basically doing the exact same thing (only better) a full three years earlier. Although Imamura humor is, as I’ve already mentioned, almost absent from this particular film, he does make up for it in a lot of ways.

For one thing, I think Imamura is, at the risk of sounding remarkably dull, a much greater humanist than any of his peers. He’s certainly more so than Oshima, who during the later parts of his career seemed decidedly “anti-Humanist.” He’s got to be more than Yoshida because his characters are always killing themselves, having sex, or discussing the potential for such actions. In Wakamatsu’s films, the two are often connected to everything happening on screen. Let’s not even bother bringing up Kobayashi. The exception, perhaps, is Masahiro Shinoda, but one thing is for sure, Imamura has dodged all the potential pitfalls placed by the “Japanese New Wave aesthetic” – whatever that is exactly.

Intentions of Murder is, quite possibly, Imamura’s most “New Wave-esque” film. It’s got a lot more violence (rape is always a key JNW element) and it’s got sharp musical cues, not to mention some half-baked symbolism. But all these things never come close to overwhelming the material in his picture. When Sadako is raped, Imamura is not placing his camera right next to his characters. He is not emphasizing the passion and emotion of the action. Instead, his camera remains static and we watch Sadako struggle with her rapist to gain the upper hand. Their “fight” is pathetic and difficult to watch, but it is accurate. It’s accurate where almost every other film from the J New Wave is wrong.

This is not to say that Imamura is coy or modest, he does display a great deal of sweaty, sensual close-ups throughout the film, but never do his visuals reach a level of desensitization. Pardon a generalization, but a good deal of Imamura’s peers would eliminate the concept of “first person filmmaking” (an idea I raised in my review of Gremillon’s Maldone) and focus on not the mental context of a narrative event, but simply the narrative event itself. This is why Imamura is so great. While he apparently was rebelling from his master, Ozu, he never lost that similar humanistic instinct. There’s never any disconnect between Imamura and his characters. He never is condescending and he never uses them as chess pieces. Instead, he presents them, warts and scars and all. And that is an extremely great accomplishment.

The Crowd (1928)

2 06 2009

Pretty great for the most part. There’s a few slight dramatic touches here and there that are inevitable, but still not all that flattering for Vidor. It’s not quite up there with his greatest achievement, 1931’s The Champ, but it is the closest I’ve seen him come. Even if I find some of Vidor’s dramatic turns to be a little too convenient, I still find it nearly impossible to exaggerate the influence of this particular film. Not only was Vittorio De Sica watching, so was Yasujiro Ozu. Simply stated, this is the root for a good deal of my favorite films, and if I didn’t love it on its own, I’d still feel obligated to appreciate it.

While The Crowd now stands as a towering achievement in the Hollywood system as an observation and critical depiction of Americana, it actually has a good deal of melodramatic tones that come in throughout. The story follows the life of John Sims, a man born on July 4th, 1900. There is a hint of a “rise and fall” arc, but in all honesty, Sims never exactly rises. Vidor is to credit here, as he is, perhaps inadvertently, subverting the expectations of the audience. While there are emotional outbursts that are inevitable for a film from 1928, the plot itself is fairly (and remarkably) uneventful.

The narrative plays out like this: John gets a job, gets married, he and his wife, Mary, face complications, they have kids, one of them dies, and as a result, John quits his job. From there on, Vidor’s protagonists are caught in a world of what seems to be limitless doom. This feeling is all the more powerful because it isn’t actually accurate. John is offered a job from Mary’s critical brothers, but he turns it down. He leaves his house, ponders suicide, and returns home with a new job: a city advertising clown. This is what Vidor wants the audience to believe is a “happy ending” and he is damn convincing. John and Mary, headed surely for separation, suddenly reconnect and everything is fine.

The problem, for the characters, is that everything isn’t fine. The final two minutes of the film are a perfect example of how a filmmaker can manipulate the audience. It works in Vidor’s case, because he seems to going the opposite route that one would conventionally take with such an ending. It’s another example of the narrative, contrary to one’s intial reaction, isn’t fueled by events. For that sheer element alone (i.e the element of observation vs. drama), Vidor’s masterpiece is to be seen. He would indirectly influence everyone from Wellman to Hou. Did I mention the amazing cinematography or the beauty of Eleanor Boardman yet? Vidor has too many good things in his favor that the few minor hiccups in his film can be disregarded entirely.