Saturday, April 19, 2014

Tokyo Olympiad (1965) - #155

The Olympics are a symbol of human aspiration.

In 1964, Kon Ichikawa took the assignment of producing the official documentary of that year's Summer Olympics, held for the first time ever on the Asian continent in Japan's capital city and preeminent metropolis, Tokyo. To a viewer like me, who knows him only through his previous Criterion titles The Burmese Harp and Fires on the Plain, the choice seems a bit inexplicable due to his ardent pursuit of morally provocative themes and his apparent eagerness to upend conventional wisdom through the narratives he constructed. Not exactly the kind of director that a suitably cautious and organized bureaucracy would be drawn to when looking for someone to give the usual exalted portrayal of the host nation's virtues and ideals that we've come to expect in such projects. But apparently Ichikawa's versatility of range, his command of genre and a recognized ability to create technically solid films in demanding conditions earned him some credit. That high esteem, and Ichikawa's subsequent refusal to deliver the standard paint-by-numbers journalistic account of the events resulted in Tokyo Olympiad, one of the most highly respected, if unorthodox, sports documentaries ever made. I'm glad he was chosen, because it seems rather unlikely that we would have had the benefit of this perspective on what the games meant and who participated in them back in the mid 1960s if Ichikawa hadn't been at the helm of this truly massive production.

Commandeering a small battalion of over 150 cameramen spread throughout the various competitive sites, Ichikawa's primary directorial task consisted of instructing the technicians just where to point their lenses, and then sifting through countless hours of footage to determine just how to convey an impression of what took place over those two weeks in October 1964. (Kind of late for a Summer Games, don't you think?) His focus, after capturing somewhat compulsory bits of the global scale and monumental grandeur on display during the preparations and opening ceremony, was primarily settled on the different forms of exertion that took place in order to express the diverse aspirations of those humans who decided to make their own personal contributions to the Olympic movement. First and foremost of course were the athletes, the rightful centers of his and our attention who put their bodies on the line after years of training and other hardships and deprivations, so that they might compete and carry on the hallowed tradition first established in ancient Greece. But interspersed throughout all the coverage of the competitions, Ichikawa continually reminds us that the games are unfolding on a very large stage, with the organizers, the officials and the audience in the stands all playing just as significant a part in creating this historical moment and embodying all those noble values - national pride, the celebration of cultural diversity, focused concentration, supreme commitment, courageous perseverance in the face of adversity, honorable sportsmanship and the like - that the Olympics strive to represent. And he generally succeeds at avoiding the false notes of mawkish pomposity that sometimes become so overbearing in media coverage of the games by injecting mild jabs of humor (in image and sound effects) and showing the more prosaic aspects of what it takes to manage the events, keep the crowds amused and stick to the schedule.

For the most part, track and field competitions provide the consistent, overarching narrative framework, opening with the 100 meter dash and finishing with the pentathlon and marathon, with plenty of up close and emotively intense examination of the disciplined, unnatural movements required to successfully execute maneuvers such as the pole vault, the shotput, the long and high jumps, the hammer throw and a wide range of foot races. The middle section of the film offers sometimes extended but more often very brief samplings of other athletic events - gymnastics, volleyball, swimming, wrestling, judo - and a few sports in which more mechanical skills are required - shooting, sailing, cycling. It's hardly a balanced approach - some of the sports that today's viewers might be most interested in, especially basketball and other team-oriented games, are barely acknowledged, and with only a few exceptions, Ichikawa doesn't seem all that interested in profiling the personal stories or any other significant details of the athletes themselves. And even when he does dwell on an individual's personal circumstances, it's in the abstract - his focus on Ahmed Isa, one of two representatives from the then (and still) young African nation of Chad, emphasizes his relative isolation and estrangement from the athletes of larger nations who are comfortably ensconced within their sizable contingents, without really trying to tell us much about how he got to be in that situation to begin with.

The most striking characteristic overall of Tokyo Olympiad is just how fresh, uncluttered and lo-tech everything associated with the Olympics appears in comparison to the games as we experience them today. The athletes' uniforms are almost embarrassingly plain, flappy and ill-fitting by 21st century standards. Pole vaulters and high jumpers land in jumbled piles of what looks like scraps from a foam-packing plant. Autumn rains wreak mild havoc on the racing surfaces, with mid-level Olympic officials themselves reduced to sponging up the puddles in order to restore the playing field to somewhat acceptable conditions. Cyclists brave the fates en masse on rickety old bikes, generally without helmets or the ultra-sleek aerodynamic gear that helps them slice through the air unimpeded nowadays. The opening and closing ceremonies are refreshingly simple and direct, noticeably lacking in the overblown theatrical spectacles and massive pyrotechnics that we've come to expect over the past decade or two. Even the crowds seem more genuinely awestruck and delighted to witness the gathering of the world's athletes back then than what we now see whenever the HD cameras swivel over the contemporary audience of jaded media consumers and affluent world travelers who pack the Olympic venues of more recent times.

Of course, it's difficult to watch a film like Tokyo Olympiad now without drawing immediate references to the most recent festivities that took place in Sochi, Russia this past winter. Truth be told, I quickly lost interest in those games - even setting aside Vladimir Putin's loathsome persona for the moment, the onslaught of commercialism and relentless exploitation foisted upon us by NBC just drains the joy out of it all for me. I'd much rather watch a digested, artistically filtered summary of events long past than have to be interrupted every fifteen minutes by moronic, obnoxious ads for junk food, financial services or corporate PR feel-goodism of various sorts. Unfortunately, I doubt that we will ever again be treated to the opportunity for a filmmaker of Ichikawa's caliber to exercise the creative freedom that he did - against considerable odds and in the face of heavy pressures and systemic resistance to censor and reformulate what he crafted.

Despite all that obstruction, what we have in this impressive (and now quite expensive, due to it being fairly rare and out-of-print) DVD is a document of human nobility that somehow manages to emerge from the potentially massive confusion that erupts when young people at the peak of their physical powers are brought together, partly driven by their own ambition, but also corralled by the jowly, arthritic powers-that-be in their respective countries, enlisted to uphold the mantles of nationalistic honor, perhaps even a degree of ethnocentric superiority, often before they're of an age where they can realistically begin to grapple with the implications of their involvement in such events. But Ichikawa manages to downplay those jingoistic elements, to such an extent that he had to deal with some backlash from Japanese officials who criticized the film for insufficiently attending to triumphalist priorities. Instead, his approach emphasizes the simple humanity of the participants, allowing viewers of all backgrounds to empathize with the athletes through our common experience of fatigue, isolation and the stubborn determination it often takes to achieve whatever goals we set before ourselves.

Ichikawa and his crew manage to capture as many of those ecstatic, ephemeral moments as they can over the course of the proceedings, and there are enough of these pure epiphanies, captured in freeze-frame, slow motion, multiple exposure, extreme close-up and even from a far wide-angle distance to keep the viewer engaged, if one wants to lock in and give close attention to each turn of the image. Or, like the "live" Olympics themselves, Tokyo Olympiad works great as background viewing around the house; just pop in the DVD (assuming you have one) and go about whatever it is you feel like doing, glancing occasionally at the screen to see whatever marvelous application of the human anatomy may happen to be unfolding before your eyes at that particular moment. And to make up for the lack of detailed coverage of winners in the 1964 Olympic competitions, Criterion provides a hefty booklet listing all of the medalists in each event, along with a lengthy and substantial symposium of experts on the film's history. The controversies that Ichikawa triggered in pursuing his unique line of inquiry on the meaning and purpose of the games caused him some grief, but we are all better off for it.

For those who can't obtain or afford the DVD, here's a long alternate cut (linked, since embedding has been disabled) of the film, one of the abridged versions that trimmed down some of Ichikawa's "excesses" and supposedly made the film more accessible to Western viewers. The English narration presumably helps.

PS to all of the above: Here's a link to the review I wrote about Tokyo Olympiad back in 2008, right after I started this blog but before I had embarked on its current chronological scheme. I totally forgot that I had written this when I was gathering my thoughts to write this current essay. In fact, I didn't even discover it until I went back to include a link to this article in my Index of reviews arranged according to spine number. I enjoyed reading the old stuff, seeing that I make some of the same points but also bringing other observations to the forefront that I didn't mention here. In some ways I like the earlier entry better than what I just posted! Sometimes first impressions are livelier and more trustworthy than unduly considered opinions...

Next: Le bonheur

Monday, April 7, 2014

Zatoichi and the Doomed Man (1965) - #679

Every time someone asks me for a favor like this, I get in trouble.

As the Zatoichi series approached the middle point of its decade-plus theatrical run, the strain of generating fresh reasons for the blind swordsman to interrupt his itinerant wanderings in order to help the oppressed and unfortunate became a little more apparent with each passing episode. At least, that's the impression I got when watching Zatoichi and the Doomed Man, the eleventh installment in a chronicle that reached 25 volumes in 1973 before transforming itself into a TV series. I have yet to see any of the films that come after this one, and I will trust that the variety and cinematic flourishes continue to yield new surprises and pleasures as I move forward. But to be honest, this offering felt pretty much like it could have been an episode of that television program, going by the plotting, structure and a 77 minute run time. If it weren't for the richly atmospheric final 15 minutes, consisting of a long and drawn-out set piece that takes place in a fog-shrouded seaside shipping village, with the most brutally prodigious body count that I can recall seeing in a single climactic scene in this series, I would say that the film really didn't require or even deserve the big screen treatment.

Which isn't to say that Zatoichi and the Doomed Man is a "bad" outing by any means. There are some highly amusing moments to be enjoyed, especially for those who enjoy the comedic aspects of these tales, when Zatoichi's newest acquaintance, a roguish wandering monk named Hyukutaro decides to capitalize on their friendship by posing as the notoriously lethal masseur, gambler and wielder of the legendary cane sword. His grotesquely inept and self-serving impersonation of the Zatoichi we've come to know and love by this point is rather brief, but still quite funny for the few moments we're allowed to see before the fraud is uncovered, and his unexpected encounter with the real Zatoichi produces a few laugh-out-loud moments. But those scenes also serve as evidence of how close to self-parody the series was already becoming by this point. The same can be said for other examples of Zatoichi's ever-ascending invincibility - the palpable lack of any sense of danger even when he's surrounded by a dozen or more sword-wielding assassins. Or his inexplicable prowess at performing deeds of skill - like shooting bullseyes on swinging wooden targets, guided only by his sense of hearing - that would put the sharpest-eyed, most accomplished archers to a supreme test if they were required to replicate the demonstration. Even the central storyline, of an innocent man framed to take the rap for capital crimes by friends he trusted so that they could pursue their corrupt graft and gambling schemes feels transparently formulaic by now. The burden of loading three films into theaters over the course of 1965 weighs heavily on the creative efforts, obviously.

I understand that this is all delivered up to us for the sake of escapist entertainment, and I'm happy to accept it on those terms. But even with the inclusion of a requisite few moments of paint-by-numbers meditative moments, where Zatoichi contemplates the obstinate tendency of powerful men toward deceit and hypocrisy and laments the pattern of disturbance and death that his assistance of the less fortunate inevitably results in, I don't get the same sense of genuine consequence that helped earlier episodes in this series rise above the generic expectations that originally held me back from digging into the series in the years prior to Criterion's box set release last fall. I'm still enjoying the discovery, but it feels like the element of frivolity is becoming a lot harder to block out. We'll see what future iterations of the Zatoichi saga have in store.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Sword of the Beast (1965) - #311

To hell with name and pride... I'll run and never stop.

Sword of the Beast is the first of four films Criterion released in the Rebel Samurai box set back in 2005. The movies themselves were originally released in the mid-1960s, when the chanbara (sword fighting) genre was at a commercial peak in popular Japanese cinema. In this set, the titles are related not by a common director but by a conceptual theme, the first Criterion box set to take that approach, and not one they've utilized too frequently afterward. There's the Great Adaptations box compiling films based on famous works of English literature, but that was put together after the fact using four DVDs that were originally intended as individual releases. Monsters and Madmen features different directors, all employed by the Gordon brothers who produced the four low-budget drive-in schlockfests included therein. Likewise, the America Lost and Found collection emphasizes the output of a particular studio, while the Paul Robeson set focuses on the work of its titular subject, rather than the people behind the camera. The mammoth Zatoichi omnibus gathered together the full run of a long-lasting movie franchise based on a single character. And the globe-spanning, eclectic and diverse content of last year's World Cinema Project (Volume 1) blockbuster was largely driven and decided by the editorial discretion of Martin Scorcese. In all this, the Rebel Samurai quartet, with its nearly bare-bones presentation, except for the inclusion of a few very brief supplements, and the curious lack of a dedicated spine number for the box itself, could be considered a forerunner of the Eclipse Series that debuted a couple years later.

So the thematic principle that unifies Rebel Samurai - that of courageous but morally conflicted swordsmen in fundamental conflict with the strict application of bushido that in most instances would require them to self-destruct due to offenses they've committed - spoke powerfully to movie audiences in Japan in the mid-1960s. As the liner notes point out, that nation was going through its own version of the cultural upheavals that seemed endemic to that troubled and transformative decade, and these stories seem to have provided an entertaining way to engage viewers and give vent to some of the frustrations they were feeling about the exploitative circumstances they were dealing with in their own lives. The four films in this set are just a sampling of the popular fare that fans apparently couldn't get enough of. The Zatoichi series referenced earlier was also at its peak around this time, releasing two or three new installments per year after bursting onto the scene in 1962. In fact, the next film I'll be reviewing here, Zatoichi and the Doomed Man, was issued on the very same day that Sword of the Beast made its debut, according to IMDb. Studios apparently had little concern about over-saturating the market with jidaigeki offerings in a decidedly badass vein.

While the trailer above pushes the film's brawnier, beastlier moments right up in our face, there's more to enjoy here than simply the sheer physicality of Mikijiro Hira's fighting skills. True, his wildly athletic prowess, full of wild leaps, crazed grimaces and savagely flailing thrusts of his sword, give him a distinctive style that creates a welcome contrast to the more classical manner of restraint and efficiency we see from stars like Toshiro Mifune (Yojimbo) and Shintaro Katsu (Zatoichi). Those performers, both around a decade older than Hira, are plenty muscular enough, of course, but Hira brings an uninhibited wildness to the role that director Hideo Gosha employs masterfully in making his protagonist, the outlaw ronin Gennosuke, a distinctive and memorable character as he pursues his mission of vengeance and survival. Gosha and Hira worked together previously, in Gosha's feature debut Three Outlaw Samurai, based on a television series of the same name that they also collaborated on.

For first time viewers of Sword of the Beast, it may be helpful to read a brief introductory summary of the plot, so I'll provide it here without giving too much away. It's a fairly complex narrative, especially for a film that runs less than 90 minutes, and my first viewing led to a bit of confusion as to who was chasing who, so here's a friendly guide to get you started:

The action takes place in 1857, toward the end of the Tokugawa era, when the samurai tradition was about to become completely untenable due to Japan's grudging opening to the West and the inevitable tides that eventually sweep all prevailing orthodoxies into history's dustbin sooner or later. Gennosuke is a foot soldier who participated in a plot to assassinate a government official (referred to as a counselor) in order to pursue a reformist agenda. Now a wanted outlaw, he is pursued by the counselor's daughter Misa, her fiance Daizaburo, the master swordsman Tanji and a few hired hands brought along as an extra measure of guarantee that they will find and kill their target. Gennosuke, though of lowly birth, is respected as a highly skilled swordsman, able to defend himself and prevail even when badly outnumbered.

Gennosuke's route of escape leads the chase to a mountain that's claimed as property of the Shogun. Ordinary mountains are of little worldly interest most of the time, but this particular mountain has a river running through it in which gold has been discovered, and that creates a whole lot of intrigue. Doing their best to lay low in a supposedly abandoned shack on the rivers edge is a husband and wife, Yamane and Taka, who have been diligently poaching the shogun's treasure, in obedience to the dictates of their clan lord who has commissioned them to commit this thievery in the hopes that their work and loyalty will improve their station in life. Along the way, Gennosuke is befriended by a comically ambitious farmer who dreams of finding his fortune glinting at him from the bottom of a prospecter's pan, and manages to offend a trio of lowlife thugs who then proceed to skulk around, watching and waiting from the bushes to see what kind of mischief and menace they can inflict on anyone who steps across their path.

As the story proceeds, we meet various competing interests, all of whom seem to be driven by the most venal of motives, all befriending and ingratiating on the surface only to turn violently aggressive when it comes time to get down to business. The bottom line to all this seems to be that offers of friendship and allegiance, promises of loyalty and advancement, invitations to enjoy the pleasures of eros and material wealth, are all to be viewed with relentless skepticism, because we really don't know what kind of danger lurks behind these seemingly welcome opportunities. The intentions of the heart, and the priorities that guide our actions from the deepest recesses of our psyches, remain impenetrable mysteries, rendering us all untrustworthy allies when the moment of truth and reckoning arrives. As Gennosuke declares when he masterfully sidesteps a showdown with his rival that would have been premature if it had erupted into mortal combat at that moment, "this wolf has sharp teeth." And to survive in this era of corruption and hypocrisy, those teeth, like the Sword of the Beast itself, need to retain their cutting edge, and occasionally be bared as a warning to any who might otherwise lapse into self-defeating and apathetic complacency.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Pierrot le fou (1965) - #421

I feel alive and that's all that matters.

In many respects, writing about Pierrot le fou is quite a fool's errand, for me anyway. It's one of those movies so pivotal in leading me to start this blog back in 2008 that it's ever since spurred an overload of thoughts I have to express about it. I bought the original Criterion DVD shortly after it was issued, pushed to the top of my acquisition list back in those days simply on the reputation it had earned. I had no prior knowledge of the film at the time, but the subject matter and the enthusiasm surrounding the announcement of its pending release definitely stirred my interest.

When I finally got a chance to watch Pierrot le fou in the late summer of 2008, Jean-Luc Godard's eye-popping widescreen follow-up to Alphaville easily met and surpassed my expectations with a message and delivery that profoundly connected with where I was at in my own life at the time. Ever since then, several of the film's iconic scenes and images have lingered in my imagination, serving as both an alluring vision of an energized creative life led according to impulse and a cautionary tale about the risks associated with foolishly severing the ties that bind us to hearth, home and predictable routines. Both the appeal and the warning of Pierrot le fou continue to resonate with me, pulling and prodding my conscience in conflicting directions even if I take a year or more in between viewings. The end result is a surfeit of opinions on the film that would threaten to congest a conventional written review, and require numerous hours to adequately record via my keyboard. So in order to work my way around that dilemma, I've decided to do something different, slightly commemorative even, to mark its entry into this series.

My intention is to host a Google+ Hangout on the evening of Tuesday, April 1, 2014 (April Fou's Day), so that I and anyone who cares to join me can spend an hour or two verbalizing our thoughts on the movie. Then I will post the document of that event, however it turns out, here on my blog, so that readers (and listeners) can avail themselves of the conversation if they so choose. To me, that seems like a more fittingly spontaneous framework for discussing the movie, since so much of Pierrot le fou comes across as semi-improvised... if not immediately on the spot while the cameras were running, then at least put into script form just a day or so before the actors were given their lines and a brief interval of time to rehearse the scene. Trust me, I have lots to say about the film... whatever doesn't come out in the chat session will be summarized here in some kind of write-up or another. This is a movie that I have been mulling over for years and I won't let it go and move on to the next thing until I've dealt with it thoroughly.

In the meantime, here's a trailer to serve as a tune-up or enticement to connect with me before the G+ Hangout takes place:

OK... my adrenaline is still pumpin' a bit... my friend Mark Hurne and I just finished a one-hour conversation about Pierrot le fou on Google + and here's what we had to say:

For now, I'll let this video speak for me, but I may have more to say about this film later... my enjoyment of Pierrot le fou is nearly inexhaustible!

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Repulsion (1965) - #483

There's somebody there. I can see your shadow... If you don't open the door, I'll bloody well break it down!

My first encounter with Repulsion was well over three decades ago. I don't have the clearest memory of the experience, given the circumstances of the viewing. It was at some kind of a house party that took place either in San Francisco or perhaps Berkeley, around 1980 or '81. At some point in the evening, after multiple rounds of substances had been ingested by me and my fellow celebrants, our host had access to what I assume to have been a 16mm print of the film that was loaded up into a portable projector, using a blank living room wall as the screen. I had no knowledge of the movie, but I did remember hearing about Roman Polanski as a kid, when his name was used as a lyric in the song "Manchester England" in the American Tribal Love-Rock Musical better known as Hair. And I'm pretty sure that I knew back then that he had directed a film titled Rosemary's Baby which I hadn't yet seen at that time (the pre-VHS era, I'll remind you) but understood to be a "devil's child" movie from its reputation as a precursor to The Exorcist, The Omen and of course the target of Mad Magazine's parody version, "Rosemary's Boo-boo."

So without much further preparation than that vague background knowledge and the semi-hallucinatory state that I happened to be in at the time, Repulsion flickered through the haze of that early punk rock era social gathering and proceeded to burn its most nightmarish images into my head - the hideous skinned rabbit, steadily decomposing over the course of several days; the tiny cracks in the wall of Carol's apartment suddenly bursting and erupting into chasms that felt as raw and threatening as the very gateway into Hell itself; the clutching, groping hands that sprang out of the walls of that dim, haunted corridor to grab that poor girl's body as she tried to make her way from one end of the passageway to the other; and most hauntingly, her vacant, glassy-eyed stare as she fended off the advances, at first by mere physical and emotional withdrawal and later, through the brutal resistance of a slashing straight-edge razor, of men who found her too attractive and vulnerable to resist approaching for sexual favors that she had no interest in providing. Even though my comprehension of the overall "message" of the film was unavoidably compromised due to the limitations of that setting and my general lack of readiness to take it in, watching Repulsion just that way seems to be about as ideal of an introduction to Polanski's second feature film (his follow-up to the equally sensational, memorable and emotionally evocative Knife in the Water) as any that I could imagine.

That would include the now-unattainable opportunity to see the film as something entirely new, fresh and unanticipated, since Repulsion has gone on to become something close to a template for all the subsequent psychotic slasher flicks that have been produced over the last five decades: an enigmatic figure, presumably abused and corrupted by some series of traumatic experiences, is transformed by that ordeal to become a lethal and horrific killer that lashes out in fury in response either to threat or, more frighteningly, the simple opportunity to wreak havoc on a victim because there's nobody else around who can stop the carnage. Reading Bosley Crowther's review in the New York Times from the film's initial release gives a vivid approximation of just how big of a jolt Repulsion delivered to its first wave of viewers. The venerable critic can barely contain his enthusiasm and excitement in response to the unfamiliar combination of elements:

  • a stunningly beautiful young woman, a picture of virginal innocence (importantly, not a conniving seductress that audiences might have expected to harbor some ill intent) as the killer; 
  • a slow, patiently brooding narrative build-up that, without coming right out and saying so, gradually but relentlessly informs us that something is just not quite right with this woman, though not in such a way that portends the grisly violence or bizarre visual whirlwind yet to come; 
  • a creepy, menacing audio track that infuses incongruent hipster jazz, eerie passages of silences, muted clock tickings and a variety of stress-inducing human vocal inflections, including most notably the ecstatic moaning and heavy breathing of a woman experiencing orgasm;
  • an acting style that coaches its performers to whittle down any aspects of their performance that veer into the kind of theatricality and overt exposition that most movie watchers of that era expected to see when watching stories involving deeply pathological personalities (and yes, that specifically includes the films of Alfred Hitchcock, especially Psycho, that's been recognized since 1965 as an essential forerunner to Repulsion.)
  • a conclusion that remains wholly indifferent to offering up any kind of explanation as to why Carol did what she did, other than the simultaneously tantalizing/frustrating intimation of some incident that took place in her childhood that led Carol to detach from the typical process of socialization and integration that most late adolescents go through as they transition into adulthood.
Which brings me back to that first experience I had in watching this film, in the company of a bunch of psychologically alienated, emotionally displaced and extremely skeptical young adults at the beginning of the 1980s, most of whom had serious reservations about the society they were being asked to assimilate into. That is, after all, why we had coalesced around this alternative punk/new wave scene rather than take the more conventional routes presented to us at the time. To this day, Repulsion functions best (in my opinion) as a harbinger of youth in rebellion, a voice of protest emerging from those who find themselves irreconcilably weirded-out by the concessions that mainstream sensibilities would require of them to be included in the flow of what the establishment has to offer. Whether it was back in the mid-1960s, as the emerging generation of Baby Boomers were just beginning to complete their second decade of life, in the early 1980s as the first wave of Gen Xers were grappling with the broken promises of their own upbringing, or as today's Millennial generation is coming to grips with the illusions thrust upon it by those helicoptering parents who provided lots of external protection while depriving them of a clear path toward autonomy and self-sufficiency, a film like Repulsion speaks meaningfully to that sense of being ill-prepared to face one's future and feeling betrayed by those who had been entrusted to clear that path. 

Carol's descent into madness and irrational violence is hard to fully understand and impossible to justify... but many of us can still (and easily) find a way to empathize with her on some level, as disturbing as that thought may be. Even if it's just a cry for some kind of companionship when we are feeling shaky, alone and abandoned... invaded and oppressed by unsolicited advances... rushed along toward some ambiguous condition of "maturity" that requires us to take part in activities that intrude upon our sense of self, before we are ready to launch into that next self-sacrificial stage of personal development... Carol's plight - as crazed and murderous and ferocious as it is - is not all that different in its emotional components from what we ourselves (or, for those of us who can identify, our kids) have felt in our crazy counter-reactions to the insanity of the world we've been shoved into. 

As seen in the clip above, Repulsion's schlocky, exploitative marketing circa 1965 is at once unsurprisingly predictable for its era, while simultaneously, sadly cheap and unfortunate. I suppose that, to the extent such a campaign got the word out and generated some curiosity about the film, it served a purpose, even though by now it functions more as a slightly amusing relic of how such a transgressive innovation in cinema had to be sold in order to secure its audience. Another angle of approach, one that focuses on the emergence of Roman Polanski as a sexy and provocative young director in the international cinema scene, is offered as one of the supplemental features in the Criterion edition of the film, via a 1964 short documentary produced for French television that shows several scenes from Repulsion being rehearsed and shot. In it, we get to hear from Polanski, already coming across as a vibrant and intriguing celebrity figure, all vigorous and brilliant in his tight fitted t-shirt and articulate insights into the motivations of each of his characters. We also meet his leading female actors Catherine Deneuve and Yvonne Furneaux as they step out of character and share their impressions from the time in which the film was made. It's a wonderful bonus clip to include here as it nudges us to look deeper than just the surface level of shock images and the voice that Carol's disturbed behavior gives to whatever repressions we ourselves seek to work through in the process of internalizing this film. This thoughtful and expertly-crafted video essay (hosted on Vimeo, thus not embedded here) by Kim Morgan , and edited by Matt Zoller Seitz, provides additional commentary that, in my opinion, backs up what I've written here, even though I just discovered it in the final phase of composing this essay. :)

Sunday, March 9, 2014

The Coward (1965) - #668

Cold things are all I expect from you.

Even though The Coward doesn't have its own spine number in the Criterion Collection, I consider it substantial and important enough on its merits to justify a separate review here. This short film, with a running time just over an hour, was originally distributed in theaters as the first half of a double feature, alongside another title of similar length, The Holy Man. The two movies, though significantly different in tone, are both essentially comedic affairs, and their Hindi titles (Kapurush and Mahapurush) have a nice resonance with each other. They also continue Satyajit Ray's exploration of things happening in contemporary India, which makes The Coward a more thematically fitting companion piece to The Big City, with which Criterion paired it in last year's home video release, than with the 19th century setting of Charulata, the title immediately preceding it in Ray's filmography, which also features the two of the three actors central to bringing this story to screen. Oddly enough, The Holy Man is not available on disc through Criterion, though you can watch it on their Hulu channel... which, just as strangely, is not the case with The Coward. Obviously, these issues of international cinematic distribution and reproduction rights are much more complex than I am ever likely to fully comprehend.

All those details aside, if I had to choose between one or the other half of this Satyajit Ray two-fer, The Coward is the clear favorite as the one I can relate the most to and appreciate most fully. The Holy Man has its moments, and certainly drew my interest as an immediate precursor to the upsurge of interest in Indian religions, gurus, swamis and enlightened masters that was just about ready to explode in western popular culture in the latter half of the 1960s. But The Coward feels like a story of more enduring relevance to most of us, so I guess I can't fault Criterion for exercising their editorial discretion in unlinking the two from each other. The story is about Amitabha, a screenwriter en route to a rural Indian location that he needs to research and write about for an upcoming script. The cab that he hired to take him across the subcontinent breaks down in a small town early one evening, with no chance of a repair until the following day. Upon learning of the writer's predicament, a local tea plantation owner named Bimal invites Amitabha to spend the evening at his estate. The prospect of having some lively and unexpected conversation appeals to Bimal, balding, bored and settling into a complacent middle age, who usually has to spend his nights accompanied only by his beautiful young wife Karuna. We quickly get the impression that the couple has largely run out of things to talk about at this stage in their relationship.

The twist in this otherwise bland set-up occurs when Amitabha and Karuna are first introduced to each other, because they are both equally surprised to recognize the face of a former lover looking back at them in the moment. However, they both manage to contain themselves in a marvelous demonstration of "less is more" acting skills, so that Bimal never picks up on their prior acquaintance, though it's clear to the viewer that this is indeed a painfully awkward and poignant moment of reconnection for them both. Amitabha continues to play the part of grateful and considerate guest, Karuna flawlessly maintains her pose as her husband's modest but attentive wife and hostess to this unexpected visitor, and the early part of the evening is occupied by genial chatter that would hardly merit further mention if not for the dark irony hinted at by this revelation of a subliminal love triangle.

As the evening progresses, the men drink themselves into a state of lowered inhibition, with Bimal's tongue loosened to describe in some detail the woes of a hard-working but chronically unfulfilled "gentleman farmer." Amitabha patiently bites his tongue throughout most of Bimal's ramblings as he awaits his chance to confront Karuna and try, if he can, to pierce the icy indifference toward him that she has donned somewhat like an armor of self-protection in his initial attempts to ask her about what has happened to her since their break-up. When he finally gets the opportunity to address her directly, Amitabha discovers, to his dismay, that Karuna's determination to safeguard her emotions is resolute, and unfathomably deep. The appalling brusque encounter triggers a flashback of their last conversation, a few years prior to this evening, which fills us in on just how The Coward earned his title.

One evening, before Amitabha had launched into his career, when he was still a struggling young writer who had yet to accomplish anything, living in a low rent storage closet of an apartment in downtown Kolkata, Karuna came to visit him in a state of distress. She was being forcibly relocated due to family obligations and a more generally misogynistic dismissal of the concerns of women... and if she complied with their directions, she would most likely have to break off her relationship with Amitabha. Her only route of escape in that place and time would be marriage, the trump card that would free her of the duties that her older relatives sought to impose. Once explained and laid out so plainly, the burden clearly fell upon him to make a decision... to declare himself unequivocally... to place his trust in the power of love... to exert himself to whatever lengths were required in order to realize the potential of that bond that had developed between him and her.

And in that moment of testing and trial, the coward failed.

Now, surprisingly graced by this incredible opportunity to redeem himself, Amitabha was determined to not let the moment pass him by a second time. Unable to rediscover that mysterious alchemy that allows a man to "fall in love" with another after having been burnt by the fickle flames of romance once before, Amitabha recognizes just what a rare circumstance he's landed in. But the question remains: can he summon up something different from within himself that would bring about a better outcome than the flaming disaster that he self-inflicted the last time Karuna came calling?

Before we can get an answer, Amitabha, Karuna and the rest of us have to endure the unintentionally depressing knife-twists of Bimal's rather smug pronouncements on the verities of life. It's a classic demonstration of the age-old axiom of how guys who prove themselves to be assholes so often end up snagging the girl of our dreams - an inexplicable phenomenon if we stay strictly within the parameters of personal merit as to who does and doesn't deserve to be in their most intimate company.

Once we factor in an abundance of nerve and a willingness to just go for it as the keys to winning a potential lover's heart, of course, we see that the playing field is not only leveled, indeed, the advantage itself goes to the most boorishly oblivious of their own faults and limitations, as long as they remain focused on serving the immediate needs and interests of the object of their affection. In a series of flashbacks, we see abundant evidence of Amitabha's excessively tentative, self-reflective tendencies - that meta-awareness that so often seems to be an insurmountable handicap to reaching a point of interpersonal closeness for the most intuitively perceptive among us. Too much recognition of all that could go wrong... the actual or potential incompatibilities... the slight divergence of interests and priorities that, if clung to so tightly, portend inevitable doom to whatever feelings of tenderness and shared purpose might otherwise develop.

I won't divulge any more about the ending except to say that it's perfectly suspenseful and brilliant, well worth the hour of build-up that it takes to reach that gut-punching moment of resolution. It's in the last 15 minutes or so of The Coward that Satyajit Ray most powerfully shows his impressive skills as a storyteller, though the whole film is quite effective and efficient in that regard. I deeply respect the discretion and restraint he shows here, limiting the use of a perfectly compelling story to a mere hour and a few minutes, rather than adding on enough pointless padding to make it a standalone feature film of the usual 90 - 100 minutes or so.

And I also enjoyed the symmetry of watching this film, about a frustrated man who simply cannot find the key to make his chosen woman love him in the way he wants to be loved, in close proximity to Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville, which features a very similar plot in its "making of" back story, involving the wreckage of JLG's relationship with Anna Karina, more than in what comes through on screen. And for that matter, the peculiar resonance of a line from Ernst Lubitsch's One Hour With You sticks with me, from a scene in which Maurice Chevalier's character, finding himself suddenly in the back of a taxi with a married but oh-so-willing attractive blonde suddenly orders the driver to slam on the brakes so that he may depart (at least temporarily) from her dangerous clutch. "Madame, you may think I'm a coward," he sternly, frantically announces, recognizing just how abrupt and absolute his rejection of her advance is coming across. And in the face of that admission, he can only acknowledge, "I am!" before slamming the door and making his escape. Sometimes we have to experience cataclysmic, heart-rending loss to discover what is really there to hang on to and build with.
Next: Repulsion

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Alphaville (1965) - #25

The acts of men, carried over from past centuries, will gradually destroy them logically. I, Alpha 60, am merely the logical means of this destruction.

Just about any review that you might read of Alphaville, a strange adventure of Lemmy Caution will provide a friendlier and more comprehensible orientation to the story told by the film than what director Jean-Luc Godard seems willing to offer. A flashing light supported by croaking epigrammatic voice-over serves as the opening narration, proposing a vaguely futuristic context ("oceanic time," "the suburbs of Alphaville," Orwellian sloganeering - "SILENCE * LOGIQUE * SECURITE * PRUDENCE" - and the implied merger of the French conservative Le Figaro and the Soviet Pravda newspapers), even though the protagonist looks like a hard-boiled gumshoe from the late 1940s driving an early 60s model Ford Mustang. Within a few minutes, a thin blonde drops her robe, strips to her undies and jumps in the hotel room tub while action man Lemmy Caution is forced to resort to using his fists, then his revolver, to fend off an intruder. The croak returns, heralding the arrival of Miss Natasha Von Braun, daughter of the technocrat authoritarian mastermind that Caution has been hired to track down and eliminate. She turns out to be none other than Godard's muse and nouvelle vague dream girl Anna Karina striking her perfect femme fatale pose.

At this point, without much in the way of introductory set-up, one has to either hit the pause button and regroup to figure out what's going on, or just go with it, assuming that one has landed in the midst of a low-budget sci-fi/film noir mash-up that starts off purposely obscure and clears itself up eventually. But when Lemmy and Natasha conclude their initial conversation by admitting that neither of them really has any idea what the other is talking about, one can't be entirely faulted for wondering if Godard himself really had a clear plan or objective in mind at this point in Alphaville's creation, beyond the improvisational approach he was famous for, and that allowed him to crank out movies during this time at an astonishingly prodigious clip.

Certainly, Godard wasn't lacking for ideas. He always had those... still does, in abundance, often to a fault, in that his films were increasingly burdened by the weight of his own seemingly inexhaustible brilliance. The man never seemed to run low on his supply of things to say, and more often than not, they are things worth thinking about, if one has the time to mull them over a bit before moving on to the next thing. Those ideas went on to influence subsequent futuristic dystopian films like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, The Matrix and many others like them, with varying degrees of obviousness. Here, the high-end concepts come in such a rush and are delivered with such a blank affect that sometimes it's easy to let their profundity slide by unnoticed. But then, "it's always like that, you never understand anything. And one night, you end it in death."

As Alphaville's scant plot churns along, it gradually thickens into a simple saga of the free man, liberated by his violent resistance to authority, who seeks to find the key to both tearing down the dehumanizing centralized power structure and saving the woman he loves. In the process, Godard loads his characters with litanies of grand, off-the-cuff pronouncements about the progress of technology, the history of cinema, the experience of time, the nature of thought, the obstacles that prevent authentic communication, the necessity of suicide. Periodic outbursts of private eye detective work, mildly suggestive sexuality and bare-knuckle mayhem and gun play occur to keep us engrossed in the suspense and action of a retro-styled pulp thriller.

About a half-hour in, we get a bit of explication as to what the intelligence that oversees Alphaville (the capital city, a "galactic headquarters" that comes across as dark and dingily earthbound as any urban environment ever captured on film) is trying to accomplish. The goal is creation of a logic-driven technocracy that snuffs out creative individual expression, reducing people to the status of termites or ants that compliantly do the bidding of Alpha 60, the growling computer that walks us through the story as it carries out its function of becoming the all-consuming hive-mind of a neutered humanity. The soulless city, the logical descendant of global corporations like IBM and General Electric, serves as Godard's critique of trends he considered worrisome back in 1965, but have grown exponentially more sinister and oppressive in the subsequent decades. Indeed, Alphaville is in its cartoonish way a relevant slice of pop cultural prophecy as it depicts the increasing dependence of humans on their electronic communication systems - not merely to speak their own thoughts across a vast network, but to actually receive their orders and other inputs in a cycle of dependency that left the city's inhabitants climbing the walls, hunched over and staggering at the end of the film after Caution's mission is completed. I have no doubt that a widespread and sustained collapse of the internet and mobile phone service would have a similar effect on large swaths of our populace today (including me.)

Godard wrote, shot and completed Alphaville (the movie) in an incredibly short time frame, releasing it nine months to the day after Band of Outsiders had premiered in the summer of 1964. That quick turnaround might be impressive enough on its own, but in between those two films, Godard also wrote A Married Woman, which had to clear some censorship hurdles before it opened in late '64. (That film has yet to be picked up by Criterion, in case you're wondering why I haven't reviewed it here.)

So clearly the man was on a fantastic and prolific roll, intellectually and in his own idiosyncratic way, commercially as well. Perhaps he was driven by the intuition that, for all the acclaim and celebrity that his work had generated after the smash-hit breakthrough of Breathless, the wave he was riding would soon crest as the projects he was contemplating would eventually outpace the capacity of the mass movie audience to even fathom, let alone appreciate. Alphaville's initial reception was quite positive, a sensation even, based on accounts written at the time. But his close associates and critics alike both recognized the approach of an artistic dead end. He was pursuing a tangent that would soon fail to produce fruit, without some kind of shake-up or recalibration on Godard's part. His experiments in genre were still widely admired, but how much longer could he plow that turf before he began recycling old formulas?

More urgent though, and more interesting to me than the half-baked sci-fi conceits that Alphaville popularized and have since been refined and expanded upon to assume canonical status in that genre, is how the film reveals Godard's last ditch efforts to achieve reconciliation with his estranged lover and by then ex-wife Anna Karina. Most of the information I have on the film's connection to Jean-Luc and Anna's relational problems comes from Richard Brody's excellent book Everything is Cinema. But it doesn't take all that much decoding to perceive the transparency of Godard's effort to win her back.

The last half-hour of the film is half love-letter, half wishful thinking fantasy on the director's part as he puts Karina through the motions of being pursued, rendered helpless, rescued and redeemed, often framing and lighting her beautiful face with the tenderest of care. She's not as sexy and vivacious here as in A Woman is a Woman, nor is the treatment as solemnly reverent as what we observe in Vivre sa vie. But she's still quite soulful and gorgeous, especially when her eyes connect directly with us as they make love with the lens. And when Godard basically scripts out for her, in desperate earnestness, the words he wants to hear her utter of her own volition to him - "je... vous... aime" - it's actually quite sad and tragically beautiful to recognize that this immensely talented, intelligent and artistically sensitive soul, at the pinnacle of his worldly fame and success, was still quite capable of feeling that same agonizing hurt and frustration that we all feel when that one cherished object of our affection fails to follow the course that, in our weakness and vulnerability, we regard as essential to the fulfillment of our happiness.

Next: The Coward