Thursday, August 27, 2015

Love Affair, or the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator (1967) - ES 18

Interestingly enough, there is not one great artist... who has not dealt with the most ticklish sexual matters.

For a film that only runs a few minutes past an hour in length, Dusan Makavejev's Love Affair, or the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator sure does offer an abundance of material ripe for analysis, and multiple angles of approach to choose from. I could provide some background context about Makavejev's place in Yugoslavian/Serbian cinematic history, or do a little more research to learn more about the cultural situation from which this film emerged and the dramatic impact that it had on its society at the time. Or maybe I should choose to focus on how this oddly radical, sexually forthright little exercise in obscurity was initially received when the film made its way to Western audiences in the late 1960s. There's also a more rarefied plane of philosophical and political discourse that has developed around the movie. The links I've embedded in each of those sentences offers up a solid example of the various interpretations, and I'm sure that each of them will inform my comments in months to come when I take the time to discuss Eclipse Series 18: Dusan Makavejev Free Radical on my Eclipse Viewer podcast. But I'm content for now to just revel in the simple joys of this fascinatingly whimsical, free-spirited, farcical, morbid and tragic portrait of young people caught in the clashing cross-currents of erotic desire, patriotic duty and economic survival.

Makavejev has a story to tell - about Izabela, a Hungarian woman (the switchboard operator referred to in the title) living in Yugoslavia, and her boyfriend Ahmed, a Muslim of Turkish descent who has nonetheless bought wholesale into the Communist Party ethos imposed by the country's ruler, General Tito. Ahmed is poor, making his living as a rat exterminator, living in a dismal rented room on the roof of a shabby building. Izabela isn't all that much better off herself, and even though she doesn't share Ahmed's zeal for conforming to socialist ideals, she's still quite fond of him, and we're treated to several scenes of them enjoying moments of low-budget romantic intimacy and playfully erotic domestic pleasure.

Business calls Ahmed away for several weeks, and in the meantime, Izabela finds herself diligently pursued by a horny mailman whose smarmy insistence on getting with her finally wears down her resistance. It's not an encounter that goes so well for her (you see Izabela's slightly stunned response at the moment of yielding on the front cover of the disc), but neither is it especially terrible. Just enough to disrupt her infatuation with Ahmed, which he detects upon his return, sending him into a despondent fit that leads to a tragic outcome.

That summary is basically me doing a favor to viewers new to the director, or to this style of unorthodox cinema in general, who might have a hard time piecing the underlying narrative together, because Makavejev jumbles it all into a mix that feels almost random at times (even though it's really not), with all sorts of interpolations from Yugoslavia's past and present. There are clips from old documentaries showing churches being plundered in a wave of secularization that swept across the country when the Communists assumed power, a clinical depiction of human autopsy, a short historical account of rat infestations in Eastern Europe, medieval era illustrations of phallic idols, what looks like found footage from the silent film era of a naked man and woman in artistic poses captured in 360° tracking shots, and "expert testimony" from authorities on criminal and sexual behavior that are simultaneously amusing, because of their jarring editorial placement and sardonic content, and illuminating, as Makavejev brilliantly uses the chaotic mash-up technique to shed light on the serious ideas he's dealing with in such a witty and provocative manner.

The soundtrack music also deserves special mention, as he skillfully draws attention to the pomposity and false grandeur of Marxist (and more broadly, 20th-century nationalistic) propaganda by juxtaposing patriotic anthems and rousing orchestral scores with imagery of a much more mundane and uninspiring grittiness.

As was the case with my previous review of Nagisa Oshima's Japanese Summer: Double Suicide, this is my second go-round with Makavajev's Love Affair, or the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator. (Long titles laden with non-sequiturs being such a 1967 kind of thing...) I reviewed this film back on Valentine's Day in 2011, expecting something a bit more romantic (based on the title) than what was delivered, though as I mentioned already, there are definitely some sweet and tender moments to be enjoyed along the way. But we're also quickly informed that something deeply sad and troubling has already occurred, which casts a pall of gloom and seriousness even over the more entertaining outbursts of ribaldry and anarchy that Makavejev soon took to even more extreme heights, and which have largely secured his notoriety to this day.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Japanese Summer: Double Suicide (1967) - ES 21

Let's die!

Depending on one's critical perspective, or even as simple a consideration as one's mood of the moment, Nagisa Oshima's Japanese Summer: Double Suicide can be easily regarded as brilliantly scathing social satire of a radical sort, or an example of plodding "anything goes" self-indulgence of the sort that bears distinct hallmarks of the times in which the film was made. I've held both opinions myself, fluctuating frequently between sharply attuned fascination and eye-rolling exasperation even within the same viewing as I've sat with the film a few times over the past couple of weeks, pondering what I'd have to say about it in this space.

For those who haven't seen the film but might decide to read along anyway, here's a rundown of the basic ingredients that Oshima tossed into this concoction: a busty, promiscuous 18 year-old girl eager to throw her body at any man who would have her; a quasi-suicidal shell-shocked soldier in camouflage gone AWOL and on the lookout for anyone willing to kill him so that he doesn't have to pull the trigger himself; a teenage high school student with a fascination for guns and insatiable eagerness to wield them in combat situations; a mysterious paramilitary unit that's taken up residence in an underground bunker where they hold the three aforementioned characters hostage, along with a few other unfortunates who've stumbled into captivity; and later on in the film, a young white American assassin, apparently modeled after Lee Harvey Oswald, whose entry into the plot interrupts the stasis that all of the previous machinations had resulted in after all the other combinations and interactions had been explored, at least to Oshima's satisfaction. In keeping with the ethos of his hard-earned freedom to make movies the way that he wanted, with scarcely any concern to entertain the masses or satisfy the studio bosses, Oshima set out to explore what he considered to be new creative possibilities in cinema, guided more by the impulses of the moment than the conventions of resolved narratives, dramatic tension and character development that must have seemed so stale and pointless to him at the time.

This original release trailer gives evidence of how Shochiku marketed this film as  popular entertainment in the "long hot summer of 1967." I wonder how many  in the audience left the theater feeling a bit cheated? This was right around the same time that Nikkatsu was terminating its business relationship with Seijun Suzuki due to his refusal to make films within the limits they sought to impose upon him, after he submitted Branded to Kill - in my opinion, a much more accessible, satisfying and comprehensible film for general audiences than Japanese Summer: Double Suicide. Oshima didn't seem to suffer any backlash for turning this one in "as is." Funny how that works...

So what we get is a free-wheeling muddle that compiles bunches of images, gestures and situations that contemplate the human predilection toward violence in a wide range of expressive forms. The collective force of organized crime, anonymous random killings, secretive assassination conspiracies, forcible rape, passive self-destruction and other varieties of masochism, glorified militaristic heroism, juvenile exultation in the power of a gun, a simple morbid curiosity about what happens to our bodies when wounded by bullets or stabbing knives, even the tension of sitting around waiting, knowing that death approaches soon, suddenly, inevitably, but uncertain as to exactly when: Oshima unspools all these grim scenarios for the benefit of our contemplation, but for uncertain, maybe even dubious effect. There seems to be a critique of how the news media exploits our fears and fascination, but of course Oshima is as guilty of exploiting his viewers as well. And it's not clear to me if he even has a desired outcome in mind as to what kind of impact he wants to make. He's experimenting here, working out a process, unconcerned with avoiding "failure," if that's the verdict any of us care enough to come up with.

Despite the inconsistencies, Japanese Summer: Double Suicide offers up more than enough substance and intrigue to keep me curious in tracking the director's career and justify its inclusion in Eclipse Series 21: Oshima's Outlaw Sixties. But it also requires the most deliberate effort to stay fully engaged with throughout its running time of any of the five films in the set. The last third, after the appearance of the American gunman, feels especially aimless, not the work of a crack sharpshooter at all, to extend that metaphor. My initial take, written back in 2010 and published on Criterion Cast, was pretty positive, even though I now look back on that review with a feeling that I didn't really know what I was talking about in regard to what Oshima was trying to achieve. Still, I'm not sure that I care to come up with an analysis much more brilliant or insightful at this moment in time after having deepened my awareness of Oshima's work throughout the intermittent years. I mean, I really could, if I had to - and I will when it comes time for me to discuss the film on The Eclipse Viewer podcast. I don't really see much room for middle ground in the assessment, even though such contrasting evaluations still lead to a middling "3 stars out of 5" rating if you were to force me to give it a score.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Zatoichi the Outlaw (1967) - #679

I prefer the smallest target. 

As the sixteenth installment in a long-running series, Zatoichi the Outlaw does manage to carve out a memorable distinction for itself by introducing a few new elements to the manner in which these films tell their stories. The audience is promptly notified at the very beginning of the movie, after a shot of Zatoichi's familiar profile as he passively munches on a snack, that this is "the first feature of Katsu Productions." Though the new episode was still distributed through the Daiei Company that practically owed its continued existence to this profitable franchise, placing Shintaro Katsu's name at the top of the production credits implied that his involvement and creative control now extended without a doubt beyond merely his function as the lead actor of the eponymous hero of the series. What we get from this new direction is an interesting mix of increasingly graphic violence, a more complex plot and timescale than typical episodes that had preceded this one, and an extended foray into political controversies that seems quite pertinent to the climate of social unrest that swept across many societies during the year in which the film was made.

That last aspect of the film is the one that sticks with me the most after a quick pass through it last night. The early scenes strike a tone reminiscent of the closing moments of Seven Samurai as we see peasants working in a rice paddy, chanting in unison to both pass the time and to inspire their steadfast unified effort. The lyrics of their song extol them to a virtuous and disciplined life, abstaining from gambling, drinking and whoring, pastimes that many of their impoverished neighbors indulge in as a reprieve from the hard labor that otherwise occupies the rest of their lives. The farmers have fallen under the sway of Ohara, a charismatic organizer and visionary whose vision of collective power and self-determination echo the more positive expressions of socialist and communist solidarity that was definitely in vogue during the left vs. right cultural clashes of the late 1960s. In contrast to Ohara's message, we observe the cynical machinations of yakuza crime bosses Asagoro and Suga (played with cadaverous menace by the great Ko Nishimura), who each have their own methods for keeping the working class bogged down in a mire of poverty, indebtedness and mindless dissolution that simultaneously disempowers the poor and enriches the privileged in a manner that seems perfectly natural and in keeping with the usual order of things.

As we've come to expect with each new entry in the series, Zatoichi's endless wanderings land him in the middle of this local manifestation of ubiquitous suffering, ignorance and deprivation. What makes his function a bit different here is that he initially appears to be a willing accomplice to the regional crime lords - not as a deceptive ruse to come to the aid of some poor folks that he's already befriended, but just as a way to establish a bit of comfort and safety for himself in what definitely appears to be a hostile environment. I think that's the basis for the title Zatoichi the Outlaw. It's that early portion of the film where he dwells for a longer period of time than usual in knowing complicity with the figures who will, naturally, be revealed as the villainous bad guys well before we reach the 90 minute mark that pretty much wraps up the action here.

As I also mentioned above, but will now elaborate on a bit more, Zatoichi the Outlaw shows a determination to keep up with expanded freedoms (and enhanced audience expectations) to portray horrendous injuries more explicitly on the screen. Bright spurting blood, sliced up wounds, amputations and even a beheading punctuate the action sequences more boldly than we've seen before in the series. It's undoubtedly driven by a need to keep up with the pace of other chanbara films of the era that titillated audiences with unhinged brutality that would have been considered too graphic and impermissable just a few years earlier. Not all of the effects hold up that well by today's standards, but I'm hardly the kind of gore-hound who gets upset by a lack of "realism" in such scenes. As clumsily as a few of those shocking moments are executed, I actually appreciate the move toward a greater degree of visual intensity in portraying the horror and suffering of death by the sword. Such fatal encounters had become almost cartoon-like and sanitized after a dozen or more episodes into the series.

The inherent darkness of Zatoichi the Outlaw extends well beyond the blood-soaked tableaux, and into the framing and visual compositions of numerous scenes. Even on Blu-ray, the palette is murkier than I recall from recent installments, emphasizing deep blacks, shadows and isolated patches of light. Many scenes take place at night or in dimly lit interiors, and overall the cinematography feels less like a brightly colored mid-Sixties TV production than I might have otherwise expected based on some of the preceding Zatoichi films. Similarly, the extended timeline of the narrative stretches out over quite a few months, perhaps even a year or more, rather than the compressed "in and out of town in a week or two" framework of a typical Zatoichi opus.

For reasons that don't really make sense to me, even after reading the arguments put forth, this particular episode seems to rank low on the list of many of the series most dedicated fans. At least, that's the impression I got from running through the IMDb User Reviews just now. It might be the case that if I watched them all in a condensed time period, this one might fail to register as strongly as some of the other offerings, but there was enough difference, freshness, vitality and intrigue in this one to reward my attention and to satisfy my curiosity as to where the series would go next. I'm ready for Zatoichi's saga to take a grim, maybe even morbid turn, as he steps and staggers his way through the dregs of a society that finds itself gradually succumbing to a dark and dangerous malignancy at its core that even its noblest heroes and most upstanding reformers are powerless to hold at bay.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Branded to Kill (1967) - #38

In our work, it's kill or be killed.

For those who've been initiated into a deeper level of familiarity with the legendary cinematic career of Seijun Suzuki, Branded to Kill is known as the infamous act of creatively anarchic overreach that got him fired from his job as a contract director for Nikkatsu Studios. In hindsight, the film gives many viewers, even those who admire it quite a bit, the impression of being made by someone who had come to the end of his wits, who perhaps recognized that his tenure was already in jeopardy and so decided that he would cash it all in, going down in a balls-out blaze of glory that practically dared his bosses to make the move that would terminate his deal and in the process make them look like short-sighted foolish Philistines who just didn't get it.

The fact that Branded to Kill has gone on to develop a cult following over the subsequent decades after its abortive initial release (at first buried by the studio and only issued in forced compliance with the verdict of Suzuki's successful lawsuit), and a fairly exalted reputation among the critical cognescenti as the pinnacle of Suzuki's oeuvre, only solidifies such sentiments. I suppose there's not really much of a point for me to make in arguing against such a consensus. So I'm willing to go along with it to the extent that, at least for the moment, after watching it afresh after my first spellbound run-through less than a week ago, it does seem like a one-of-a-kind flowering of Suzuki's peculiar visual and narrative sensibilities. But I'm not quite ready to concede that it's his best overall film. Most important? Maybe. It's just the one that invoked the wrath of studio-bound censorship, the worst kind of censorship that there is, in that it sought to prevent a work of art from ever being seen, well before the repressive authorities of government or other cultural overlords had even had a chance to levy their verdicts.

So the story goes that Branded to Kill was squelched by the Nikkatsu suits because Suzuki was too stubbornly persistent in his habit of directing films that made neither enough sense nor enough money to satisfy the studio's expectations. While that's enough to supply the ingredients for an adequately plausible alibi for Nikkatsu, it seems to me that the underlying problem was Suzuki's tenacious insubordination in regard to his boss's decrees. It wasn't so much that the big boys didn't understand or appreciate his films that got on their nerves. The bigger problem was that he simply didn't follow orders. After pressing up against the limits that had been imposed upon him in his two previous efforts (Tokyo Drifter, a similarly-themed yakuza action flick about a hitman who falls out of favor with the mob, and Fighting Elegy, a more personal look back at the dire years preceding the calamities that occurred toward the end of World War II), Suzuki gave every indication that the scoldings he had received from the higher-ups had practically no effect in diminishing his wayward tendencies of thinking for himself and coloring way outside the lines in the expression of his craft. He was a man who felt secure enough, under the protection of his contract, to just go ahead and make the films he wanted, turn them in at the deadline, and turn his attention to whatever next project landed in his queue. When he submitted Branded to Kill to the studio, he apparently had no conscious thoughts of making a provocative statement or intentionally crossing a line. A prolific director of 40+ films over the course of the preceding decade, Suzuki was as ready as he ever was to just take a new assignment, examine the material and explore the possibilities. But he never got the chance, at least not within the prevailing studio system in which he'd been raised.

As it turned out, in terms of career advancement opportunities, Suzuki was guilty of pressing his luck, or at least assuming too much in regard to his invincibility. Which is not to say that I regret his decisions in the slightest, except to the extent that his getting fired by Nikkatsu certainly deprived us from seeing the other invigorating works that he would have produced over the course of the next ten years he spent on Japan's blacklist of banned directors, if he had just rocked the boat a little less vehemently. But we can't rewrite the past. Branded to Kill was borne from a special combination of artistic curiosity and ennui in regard to commercial considerations, as Suzuki found himself in possession of a basic plot, cast and crew that pushed him to make the movie that he did, consequences be damned.

The skeletal outline of Branded to Kill does reveal itself after a second or third viewing, once the initial bewilderment upon first discovery has had some time to settle. Hanada, a high-ranking yakuza hitman, is approached by an old hard-drinking buddy who wants to get back into the assassination game. He grudgingly agrees to give his pal a shot, but it doesn't go well, leading to some complications with the gang that hired him, and problems as desultory as a mechanical automotive breakdown following the first botched job. After being picked up on the road by an alluring yet creepy femme fatale, Hanada returns home to his wife, a woman strongly inclined to keep her man content. However, he's unable to shake off the instant attraction he felt for the mysteriously morbid but beautiful woman who now haunts his imagination. A warped love triangle develops, along with further intrigues as he's drawn into another complicated task of knocking off several targets who have incurred the wrath of his superiors.

As Hanada goes about his lethal business, he finds his emotions getting the better of him as his loyalties flit between his wife and the woman who captured his fancy. He's also caught up in a dangerous competition between himself, consigned to the #3 overall spot among the hired killers in his syndicate, and other gunmen at the top of the list, including the mysterious, perhaps mythical #1. As events unfold, Hanada zeroes in on his ultimate target; predator becomes prey, leading to the kind of ultimate showdown that we've come to expect in such films, every bit as formulaic and predictable as everything else that has already transpired up to this point.

But to just settle for a plot exposition, or pick apart its various elements, would be to entirely miss the point of Branded to Kill. The movie exists more as an exercise in style and rarefied aesthetics than in any kind of a thoroughly contemplated critique of the social or psychological conditions that drive some men to become professional assassins or criminal overlords, or some women to passionately offer themselves up as lovers or adopt a diffident stance of alienated sexuality in order to attract or frustrate men like Hanada. Suzuki clearly seems to be aware of such warped, perverse dynamics, and there's enough content in the story to stir up reflections on the power of erotic attraction, masculine competition and fetishistic obsession. But he has almost no interest in explaining these quirks of human nature, or even pausing long enough to let us ponder their existence, before choosing to dazzle us instead with a surfeit of visual flourishes that no doubt amuse him even as they leave many of us simultaneously scratching our head and gasping with astonishment, at least the first time through.

So let that trailer suffice as a sampler of what you'll see and experience in Branded to Kill. I'm not going to bother myself trying to describe or even refer to my own list of personal highlights after a few trips through the film. That would be like describing my favorite dips and climbs on a world class roller coaster. I'd rather just get back in line and ride the damn thing all over again, than tell you about it. The most famous sequences have been broken down in many other reviews, and as I see it, they're best just perceived and appreciated as such, as there's no big symbolism or condensed psychological package to decode. Suzuki's method of abstracting the visual and stylistic essence of the story's various plot points, action sequences and incongruous narrative revelations supersedes the effectiveness of written summaries. What he communicates to me here is a resilient confidence to creatively choreograph and film the parts of the story that he finds interesting. At the same time, he's content, probably even insistent, to casually excise the mundane bits that his own immersive familiarity with genre conventions, or sheer boredom with the drudgery of stitching together a paint-by-numbers story line, render superfluous. Tony Rayns' observation in the Criterion liner notes that Suzuki was, in this film, "editing a ninety-one trailer" of all the highlights and compelling moments that seized the director's imagination, is a more astute and concise a wrap-up of what Branded to Kill achieved than anything else I've read about it so far. In my opinion, it takes a back seat to Suzuki's movies that have much more to say about real life - titles like Gate of Flesh, Story of a Prostitute and maybe even Youth of the Beast (though I should probably watch that one again - it's been awhile - before leveling such an assertion.) In this film, it seems to me that we get a lot of tasty sugar and refreshing fizz, though not much in the way of nourishing substance. But as a capstone to one crucial phase of an artist's lifetime achievements, Branded to Kill is bold, audacious and uncompromising, a final and authoritative slam-dunk to Suzuki's impressive subset of entries in the Criterion Collection (seven films on disc, including his Eclipse Series offering Take Aim at the Police Van, plus an eighth title, 1960's Everything Goes Wrong, available on Hulu.) As we see in two supplemental interviews included in the 2011 reissue of this film, Suzuki's disinterest in taking any kind of lesson from being so rudely dismissed just as he was reaching a new peak of aesthetic brilliance provides an ample testimony to his strength of mind and character, even as unhinged as all indicators from this brazenly unpredictable film might otherwise persuade us to believe.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Warrendale (1967) - ES 24

This is what we're trying to do. We're trying to communicate what goes on, what things are all about here.

Ah, Warrendale, Warrendale, wherefore art thou, Warrendale? Actually, geographically speaking, the controversial home for troubled teenagers was once located on the outskirts of Toronto, but that's a rather minor point of concern. Much more central to my experience, Warrendale is without a doubt one of the most poignant and personally meaningful films to me in the entire Criterion Collection. In this groundbreaking documentary, Allan King applied the principles of cinéma vérité to the task he was given of creating a documentary of life in an experimental residential treatment center for behaviorally challenging adolescents. Over the past several years I've reviewed it, I've discussed it at length in a podcast, I've even used portions of it on the job as training material for my co-workers at the residential treatment agency that I've worked for over the past 26+ years. (But I don't do that anymore since I'd have to pay a licensing fee, just to clear things up before this disclosure causes me any trouble!) It's easily one of the most frequently played discs in my library, and I still manage to find new points of intrigue and insight with each viewing, as I compare the critical incidents and routine interventions captured on film with my own professional experience. I've often shared the observation that such a movie could never be made nowadays, at least not in the USA or Canada or any other society that takes patient rights and confidentiality seriously, since much of the footage presented in Warrendale requires brutal compromise of such considerations by today's standards. As far as I can tell though, the young people whose coming-of-age crises provoke such fascination over the course of the film's 100 minutes have come to terms with their role as human guinea pigs, both in the treatment setting and in the manner in which they were offered up as specimens for our astonished contemplation.

For those who haven't seen the film (and I suspect a fair number of readers here fall into that camp), the set-up is direct and uncomplicated. From the film's opening shots, we're introduced to a particular program designed to help traumatized kids make a successful re-entry into mainstream society. There's almost nothing provided in the way of background information on any of the people involved, neither adult nor child. We see each person functioning in the role assigned to him or her and its left up to the viewer to figure out how they fit into the system, and the degree of effectiveness they demonstrate in the process. A full spectrum of life is on display - mundane household tasks, organizational routines and behind-the-scenes conversations are given practically as much screen time as the acting-out episodes and intense therapeutic interventions that sear themselves into our memory as we see powerful emotions erupt and spill over into moments of aggression, property destruction and self-abusive behavior. There are more of these moments than I can count, where I can't help but wonder to myself how the person operating the camera practiced enough discipline to keep the film rolling while all hell was breaking loose, with adults restraining children and feelings ramping up into a hot boil all the way around.

I'm also struck by the incredible anachronisms contained, without commentary or apology, in Warrendale, interventions and conditions that would simply not be allowed or tolerated in today's treatment environment. Among them: women in dresses restraining young boys by pinning them to the floor and straddling their bodies and yelling in their face as some kind of therapeutic technique; an adult man wrapping his limbs around a teenager still wearing her nightgown, doing physical management as a 1:1 intervention without any witnesses (other than the cameraman) right there on the girl's bed; juveniles allowed to smoke cigarettes and drink beer as part of the unit's "hockey night" activities; all sorts of environmental hazards (sharp utensils, porcelain cups, ladders and tools within easy access of the residents) and interactions between the staff members and the clients that send up red flags in terms of the professional boundaries that don't appear to have been properly defined or enforced for anyone's best interests. But it was the Sixties, a very different era from the one we live in today, and as I mentioned above, this kind of treatment environment was still very experimental, controversial enough in its own time, and still presumably unaware of many of the problems that their methods would stir up despite their good intentions. 

Setting aside for now my own personal involvement with the kind of work documented in Warrendale, I must also point out what a powerful example it provides of the possibilities of documentary film. As is implied in the title of the Eclipse Series box that contains it (The Actuality Dramas of Allan King), something new and unique was being forged here - not quite the guided tour provided by an expert narrator who mediates for the viewer the meaning of the events we see on screen, but also not the manufactured crises of conventional narrative fictions. King and his crew had the brilliant idea (also being explored at the time by other directors in the cinéma vérité movement) of putting their cameras and microphones in places where dramatic things could be expected to happen, if they just remain patient and unobtrusive enough to avoid provoking an artificial response. The crew members were also obliged to build some degree of trust and rapport with their subjects, a process that must have been quite delicate with some of the emotionally volatile children and even some of the staff who had to wonder what kind of a madhouse they'd gotten themselves into. It was enough to have to deal with attitudes and behaviors that were often irrational, abusive and disturbing, but to do all that work under the scrutiny of a camera operator and a sound man... wow, I am both impressed and slightly bewildered as to how they all managed to pull this off. For all the mistakes they made (according to my 21st century standards of professionalism and ethical treatment), I have to accord both the clinical staff and the film makers a high level of respect, doing the best they could under difficult conditions. Warrendale represents a profound fusion of life and art, one that offers many benefits even to those who have never worked in social services or immersed themselves in the problems afflicting people afflicted with mental illness.

Samurai Rebellion (1967) - #310

Each must live his own life... I, in all my life, have never felt more alive than I do now.

Following the worldwide success of Kwaidan (a Jury Prize at Cannes, an Academy Award nomination, strong returns at the box office), the choice of Masaki Kobayashi to make Samurai Rebellion his next film provokes my curiosity. Kwaidan was a sumptuous, vibrant colorful exploration of old Japanese ghost stories, four distinct episodes that showed an entirely new side of Kobayashi's exceptional creative vision. According to the standard movie industry formula, he might have been expected to provide a little bit more of the same, with just enough difference to keep things interesting. But instead, he offered up what amounts to an austere, black and white companion piece to his 1962 masterpiece Harakiri, implying that he still had some unfinished business in his examination of the ethos of the Tokugawa shogunate, the feudal system that governed Japan between 1603 and 1868, and still loomed large over the culture and temperament of that nation a hundred years after it was overthrown. Kobayashi's indifference to taking a more commercial approach to his directorial career provides its own commentary on how he set his priorities, as an artist and a human being, and likewise informs the decisions that we often see his protagonists make when they approach those crucial moments of truth in the course of his narratives.

In Samurai Rebellion, the plot unfolds in layers and at a pace that roughly approximates the gradual revelations of Harakiri. We first learn of some unfortunate incidents that have violated the decorum of the strict codes of conduct emblematic of the Tokugawa era: unquestioning submission to the rulers, an assumption of self-sacrifice even to the point of abnegation or suicide if that's what one's duty calls for, and fastidious attention to details, including the posture and facial expressions one assumes in the presence of superiors, as well as countless other guidelines passed down by law, tradition and the sheer weight of disapprobation by the authorities. On the surface, the misdeeds are shameful and embarrassing. In Harakiri, it's shameless begging by ronin threatening to kill themselves in the hopes that their desperation will nudge wealthy households to indulge them with alms. In Samurai Rebellion, it's the disgrace of a young woman who dared to verbally berate and physically assault the lord of the clan himself - an unthinkable outrage and an affront to decency. But as the story proceeds and we peer deeper into the miasma of corruption and hypocrisy that have infected the authoritarian power structure, contemporary audiences are won over by the very human and understandable plight of ordinary people whose lives are caught up in the gears of a system that shows itself to be quite fiendishly rigid and blind to its own shortcomings.

This tendency of Kobayashi's, to focus on and expose the kind of situations where forced adherence to the power of law and custom results in the destruction of human lives for those who defy expectations, and spiritual atrophy for those who willingly surrender for the sake of placid conformity, gives Samurai Rebellion its underlying power. Kobayashi adroitly leads his audience to engage with the plight of its central characters - Isaburo, the skilled swordsman whose talents are rarely needed in this placid age of shogunate domination; Ichi, the intelligent and beautiful young woman who finds herself bartered back and forth between men at the whim of a disgusting "hairy worm" of a man who just happens to hold unrivaled authority over her life; Yogoro, the dutiful son of his father who strives to balance filial responsibilities with his own emotional needs; and even Tatewaki, the border guard who watches all these events at a distance, recognizing the peril that they present to his friend Isaburo and the young couple (Ichi and Yogoro) who have found love against all odds in this maddening predicament. Each character provides a clear point of entry into a dilemma that many of us can easily identify with, based on times and circumstances in our own lives when pressure tactics of one sort or another required us to make fateful decisions that would have long-lasting implications on the rest of our lives.

The plot contrivances of Samurai Rebellion, as essential as they are, represent only the opening volley to what is, by any measure, an exceptional cinematic experience. Kobayashi enlisted top level talent in all aspects of the creation of this film. The soundtrack music from Toru Takemitsu is outstanding, eerily percussive and atmospheric, hitting all the right notes, even when they are utterly unexpected in a given scene. His cast includes notable actors like Toshiro Mifune, in a late career role that allows his previous accomplishments on screen to feed into the pathos of a man who has sacrificed more than he ought to have simply for the sake of "getting along," and Tatsuya Nakadai, who humbly takes on a relatively minor supporting role at a time when he was a highly in-demand leading man. I can't help but wonder if his long-term relationship with Kobayashi, who helped him get established by casting him prominently in Black River, persuaded him to take this role. It's a good one, in any case, leading to the practically inevitable showdown between him and Mifune that was teased, but never delivered, in Kihachi Okamoto's Sword of Doom, released the previous year. I also need to emphasize the strength demonstrated by Yoko Tsukasa in her portrayal of Lady Ichi, who is in a real sense the pivot point around whom all the action swirls. Without Ichi's firm resolution and bold unwillingness to compromise, none of the heroic gestures that we applaud from Isaburo, Tatewaki or her husband Yogoro would have been possible. It is indeed quite strange for me to add the "Feminism" tag to what purports to be a classic samurai flick (a genre that tends to celebrate manliness to the extreme, for all the pros and cons implied in that statement), but that is indeed what I think makes this film such a satisfying complement to Harakiri. While it may lack the quasi-traumatic psychological jolts delivered by that earlier film (seppuku is mentioned, but never actually depicted in Samurai Rebellion), there is plenty enough harrowing material to process here. The horror of either having one's wife torn away due to an imperial edict, or being the woman passed back and forth as a bargaining chip, separated from one's child, and weighed down with a life-or-death decision not only for ones self but also for your most dearly beloved... Dilemmas don't get any worse than that, when you add it all up.

Still, it's apparent to me that Samurai Rebellion is likely to remain on the B-List of Kobayashi's works in the estimation of many, and I think that's quite unfortunate, since I would rank it as highly as anything else he made that I've seen. It's partly due to the packaging, since Criterion has only released it on DVD, available separately for those who might want to seek it out, but most commonly regarded as one of four films contained in the Rebel Samurai: Sixties Swordplay Classics box that they released ten years ago back in 2005. It's a cool set, but probably overlooked by some who might otherwise enjoy it because it's too old and too plain as far as special features are concerned. And since it doesn't come across as quite so original and groundbreaking as Harakiri's initial onslaught to the conventions of the classic samurai saga, there will be those who consider Samurai Rebellion a bit of a retreat or a rehash. My view is that Kobayashi, a profoundly thoughtful humanist, pacifist and nonconformist, made this film specifically to bring the needs and concerns of women to the forefront in his work, and to that end, he succeeded brilliantly.

Next: Warrendale

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Belle de jour (1967) - #593

What are you thinking about, Severine?

Revisiting Luis Bunuel's Belle de jour yesterday brought three particular films of 1967 to mind, all of which I've seen and reviewed here recently, each one revealing itself to be an unconscious tributary of sorts to a movie that launched Bunuel to even greater heights of achievement than he had already attained in a spectacular cinematic career. The first is The Young Girls of Rochefort, a lavish French musical starring Catherine Deneuve, who also plays the lead character here, a woman named Severine but who adopts the alias which gives Bunuel's film its title. In Jacques Demy's film, Deneuve is every bit as beautiful and alluring there as she is here (as evidenced by the poster just to the left of these words) but the two roles require her to project subtly varied aspects of her sexuality and personality. Given that the two films were shot in such close proximity, I'm quite impressed by her ability to switch emotional gears as an actor, not to mention the fortuitous achievement of finding her way into two marvelous classic films of such different genres.

In Young Girls, she remains steadfastly chaste and demure even as she is pursued and propositioned by handsome young men, a diffidence perhaps necessitated by the fact that her character has an equally attractive sister (played by real-life sibling Francoise Dorleac) with whom she's made a promise not to give themselves over to sensuality and the propositions of eager gentlemen before all their criteria have been met. In Belle de jour, Deneuve's impeccable approximation of a certain ideal of feminine beauty is amplified even further, perfectly poised with the latest in haute couture fashions delivered directly from the studio of Yves Saint Laurent, accompanied by flawless make-up and hair styling, personal servants and all the other obligatory comforts as befits the upper class bourgeois lifestyle appropriate for a woman married to a handsome and prosperous surgeon in Paris. But all that glamour and rarefied good taste turns out to be a cover-up, or perhaps more accurately a source of maddening confinement, for the sexually tormented interior life that Severine has struggled to manage, up until the point that viewers enter into her journey as we experience this film.

Her outlet, as we soon discover, is to work short "day shifts" at a local brothel, of the discreet, high class sort, after her mind is informed and her imagination is piqued due to a bit of juicy gossip from a friend and confirmation by a wise old cabbie that such houses still exist, despite all the technological conveniences of modern, postwar French society. Here is the place where, in a strange and perverse way, she has the means to work through the convoluted mixture of guilt, repression, shame, confusion and inhibition that has been building since a traumatic childhood experience of molestation first erected an insurmountable barrier between her psyche and her body. Prior to her enlistment in the ranks of upscale Parisian whores, Severine's preferred method has been to escape into lurid fantasies that involve her being mastered by brash, lusty, rapacious men - alternate versions of her husband and other imaginary lovers- scenarios that provide Bunuel with abundant visual possibilities that in turn, fire up the imaginations of his paying theatrical customers. This escapist obstruction, and her deeply ingrained fear of acting on these forbidden impulses, has made it impossible for her to find intimacy with her husband, a kindly indulgent but frustrated man who has so many good things going for him - his looks, his occupation, his affluence - but is denied the deeper joy and satisfaction that he thought would accompany his marriage to such a beautiful, desirable wife.

At this point, my attention turns to Jean-Luc Godard's 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, an even more contemporaneous film that also focused on the currently observed trend among suburban French married women to engage in prostitution as a means of supplementing their family income. As might be expected, Godard's focus was much more on the materialism and facile conformity to socio-economic pressures of these women, who sought to balance their need to uphold conventional bourgeois morality (by retaining the illusion that it was their husbands who served as heads of the household by keeping their illicit activities secret, or at least, not subject to casual discussion). The political critique, along with Godard's inherent sympathy toward the women themselves (he seems much more comfortable blaming "the system" or even more specifically, the policies of the French president at the time Charles de Gaulle, for any corruption implied by his pseudo-documentary coverage) takes center stage in that film. With Bunuel, he is compelled in this story, adapted from a popular novel of the time, by his life long interest in depicting (as opposed to "explaining") the darker and more scandalous manifestations of erotic consciousness. That theme is readily apparent in practically all of his films going back to the celebrated beginning of his career, a collaborative effort with painter Salvador Dali titled Un chien Andalou. But in Belle de jour, Bunuel brings the hints of sexual deviancy and obsession out of the subtext and sidelines right into the center of the action. It's almost a reversal of the priorities he pursued in a film like Viridiana, though a more disciplined study than I'm willing to make at the moment of his filmography between that title and this one might posit a gradually shifting recalibration in his emphasis on the cognitive dissonances respectively imposed by religion and sexuality (and how those two primal forces interplay with each other in our social roles and our subjective interpretations of life.)

The third film that Belle de jour got me thinking about was Robert Bresson's Mouchette, released just two months earlier in the spring of 1967. As closely connected as Young Girls... and 2 or 3 Things... may be, the parallels between Belle... and Mouchette are, to my mind, even more striking, and in a way, unsettling in regard to the apparent exploitation involved. I already wrote at some length in my review of that film about my discomfort with Bresson's approach in recounting the story of a young girl's sexual coming of age. Much of that was based on his apparent fixation with teenagers (including a similar treatment of the topic in his previous film Au hasard Balthazar, and the later-in-life disclosure by Anne Wiazemski, that film's female lead, of Bresson's unbecoming romantic advances toward her during production.) Here, it's hard for me to totally dismiss the sense that Bunuel was in his own way processing some of his own warped peccadilloes in the process of making this movies, and any admirer who observes his work will certainly understand that his approach to cinema was indeed very personal on that level. To his credit, at least Bunuel is casting mature adult women instead of vulnerable girls with no professional experience to fall back on. And even though Deneuve complained at the time at some of the harsh treatment she had to endure for the sake of making this film, Bunuel did give her the artistic respect and freedom to personally shape and inhabit the role, to make it her own and in a genuine way outshine the director himself in her performance (as much as both Bunuel and Bresson eschewed that particular aspect of the actor's craft.) That autonomy to approach the project with her own creative and expressive talent, fully respecting her personal intelligence and dignity, is something that Bresson wasn't willing to allow his "models" to bring with them into the filmmaking process, and while that prohibition does give his films a very distinctive auteurist touch that in many ways makes them unique and irreplaceable, to me it seems like it forced his actors to pay too high a price for the privilege of involvement with his artistry.

Bunuel on the other hand does seem willing to pursue his own peculiar vision while also allowing others to lend their own voices and perspectives to the final product. His screenwriting collaborator Jean-Claude Carriere plays a crucial role, as was the case especially in all of Bunuel's late career films that took place in France, as he provided essential linkage between that particular culture and Bunuel's more cosmopolitan outlook on the kinds of things that us humans tend to fetishize. That reality-based grounding is necessary to create the sense of uncanny juxtaposition that makes surrealism "work" - just plausible enough to draw us in, before jolting us out of complacency with a phenomenological left hook that leaves mentally destabilized, and from time to time flattened out on the canvas if we were too zeroed in on the plot to the point that we didn't see the punch coming.

There is so much going on in this film. In my former method of taking a week or more between blog posts, I probably could have spent ten or more days just reading up, gathering data, revisiting the film and composing an essay more carefully planned out and comprehensive than this one. But nowadays I'm committed to delivering more quick takes and moving  on to the next one. Intimations of mortality, and a sure knowledge of how many films still await my scrutiny, propels me. Still, just one indicator of how packed with significance Belle de jour truly is can be found in the number of "labels" I originally wanted to assign to it. The labels can be found at the bottom of my posts. They're a tool that gives us to link our posts together by common themes or key words, but we're limited to 20 selections. Here are the labels I had to delete: Alcohol, Aristocracy, Cats, Censorship, Christianity, Cold, Dream Sequence, Explicit, Exploitation, Fashion, Feminism, Hypocrisy, Medical, Psychology, Religion, Repression, Revenge, Sea, Strange, Violence, Wealth. Each of these words link to discussion-worthy aspect of this film, and there are more I could have come up with and coined specifically for this review. I often have to make some kind of decisions when I reach my limit of 20, but this entry had many more difficult dilemmas for me to sort out than usual, in what should be a relatively simple task. Just something I thought I'd mention. I have much more I could say, and I'd be delighted to record a podcast about it sometime!

Of the three trailers for the film included in Criterion's nicely appointed Blu-ray release from 2012, I prefer by far the original European version, posted above. It captures many key moments of the film while preserving its most essential mysteries for proper discovery in the context of the entire film. The other two, both American in origin and amusingly tawdry in their approach, serve more as comic relief in showing how the studios sought to entice viewers in the late 1960s and the late 1990s (the latter version utilizes the prestige of Martin Scorcese's imprimatur and a horribly awkward attempt at seductive voice over.) I can't find that one online, but here's the 1968 promo. Probably best viewed in a raincoat, delivered in a plain brown wrapper.