Monday, May 25, 2015

King of Hearts (1966) - LD #115

The most beautiful journeys are taken through the window.

This is my second consecutive review on this blog of a long out-of-print Criterion title only ever issued on laserdisc. As was the case with Blowup earlier this month, it's taken me awhile to gather my thoughts and figure out what I have to say about the film. But unlike the former review, where I was basically spilling over with ideas and enthusiasm for the movie in question but just had a hard time expressing myself through the written word, my reasons for taking a bit longer to write about King of Hearts than I would prefer are more pragmatic. I've been busy with preparations for my son's wedding that just took place on Saturday. That happy obligation put a severe cramp on the time and energy I could dedicate to a film that had a fairly equal balance of admirable and aggravating points for me to ponder.

Released in late 1966, there wasn't a whole lot that happened with the film in its original theatrical run that would have ever pointed to King of Hearts going on to earn a cult following status and an eventual place among the Criterion Collection's catalog of "important classic and contemporary films." As far as I can tell, the movie initially flopped in France and it's not too hard for me to see why. Presented as a fanciful send-up of the political and cultural norms that legitimize the conduct of war and the senseless destruction that follows in its wake, the movie definitely requires viewers to get on board with director Phillippe de Broca's fanciful indulgence before the points he's trying to make about the insanity of military logic and the wisdom of social non-conformists can stand on their own merits.

The story revolves around Plumpick, a Scottish soldier in World War I who's commanded to enter a town that's been marked for demolition by German military officers who've made a strategic retreat. His mission is to discover the meaning of a cryptic warning message and defuse the booby trap that's been set by the enemy, but his specialty is ornithology, which he applies in the deployment of carrier pigeons who relayed messages across the battlefields in those pre-wireless days. It's quite obvious that Plumpick is the wrong man for the job as far as combat strategy is concerned, but it puts a man in uniform of the most plausibly pacifist temperament into the center of the action, as well as an absurdist twist into de Broca's satirical intentions.

When Plumpick enters the village, he discovers that it's been abandoned by all of its inhabitants, except for the residents of the local lunatic asylum, who turn out to be a merry and festive bunch of lovable misfits. Pursued by hostile German soldiers, Plumpick manages to swiftly disguise himself as one of the inmates, declaring himself the King of Hearts in a moment of inspired improvisation, following the example of one of his fellow loonies who declared himself the "Duke of Clubs." Of course the German soldiers see a bunch of unattended "crazy people" and hightail it out of there with no further investigation, as if they were afraid of being mentally infected by lingering in their presence, but this is the first jumping off point where I had a hard time bridging the gap. Though I suppose a few of them could be considered mildly delusional, it's painfully clear that the premise of citizens being institutionalized for mental illness is just a pretext for humor, a chance to show misunderstood individuals coming out into the open and expressing themselves in ways that mainstream society would neither tolerate nor truly understand.

As the asylum empties, we're treated to extended passages showing various members entering shops and markets where they have access to all the goods left behind, and free rein to adopt whatever wardrobe and mannerisms suit them. As the poster at the top indicates, most of them take a turn toward the flamboyant, whether it's the pompous uniforms and embellishments favored by the men or the sexy attire of the women. Once everyone has had their moment of redefining themselves, the village takes on the atmosphere of an open-air circus, with frequent eruptions of prancing and parading that occur throughout the film, accompanied by jolly oom-pah-pah music aimed to have a charming, winsome effect.

The unfortunate thing about King of Hearts as far as I'm concerned is that those sequences go on way too long and pop up far too often to hold my attention or secure my affection. Though the movie manages to redeem itself toward the end with some sharper edged critiques of the futility of war, even those passages stir up dismayed comparisons on my part to films like Life is Beautiful and TV shows like Hogan's Heroes that I have a hard time laughing at due to what I consider crass employment of profoundly awful historic realities. I don't want to be as critical toward this film as I am toward those two examples in particular, but the misplaced whimsy tended to get on my nerves, even as I felt some sympathy and respect for what I think de Broca was trying to do.

It's always kind of tough when a filmmaker is more convinced of his actors' inherent cuteness than his audience, and that's where I struggled. Even a brilliant directorial genius like Fellini got lost in those weeds later on in his career, and I don't think de Broca belongs in that company, even though the influence, or even call it indebtedness, is obvious. Certainly a youthful Genevieve Bujold is as adorable as one could ask for, but her coquettish appeal is pushed too relentlessly, and too often the humor just doesn't seem to click the way it's supposed to.

Having said that, I can recognize how this part of the film's message, about the value of shedding one's hang-ups and inhibitions, probably appealed quite a bit to the mid-1970s audience that discovered King of Hearts and made it a repertory cinema staple over the next decade or two. It's a celebration of misfits and outcasts who don't fit into the mainstream, not too different in essence than a movie like The Rocky Horror Picture Show that created such a huge sensation in some circles around the same time. And that's how I first saw this movie, years ago, at a midnight movie show where the combination of being under the influence of something or other and quite a few intervening years left me with only the shallowest recollection of the film featuring a bunch of people mincing around like clowns, and that eventually posterized shot of Alan Bates' bare ass at the end of the film, after he's decided to shed his military uniform and fully join the community of "flakes, fruits and nuts" (to revisit that old 70s slang for moment) with whom he could identify without regret or apology.

In short, unless one has a personal nostalgia for King of Hearts based on earlier viewings from a more impressionable stage of life, or unabashed appreciation for the more twee aspects of 1960s cinema, I'm not that confident that this is the kind of film that would generate a significant clamor for Criterion to reissue in 2015 or anytime in the future. I just don't think it's aged that well. The laserdisc release made plenty of sense in 1990, when the film was still riding the coattails of its revival circuit popularity. But the 2001 DVD has been out of print for quite a few years now, with no reissue in sight. Rather than pay the premium for an OOP edition that doesn't even feature a good transfer, I found a decent full-length presentation on YouTube, with English subtitles helpfully added by the guy who uploaded it. (Click the CC button on the lower right and choose the "Hebrew" option.)

Maybe a solid HD presentation and bonus supplements would help me to love this film a bit more than I do, and if Criterion ever does a reissue, I will probably pick it up. But I'd be perfectly happy if they didn't.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Blowup (1966) - LD #48

They don't mean anything when I do them. A mess. Afterwards, I find something to hang on to.

Here's something new that I've never done on this blog before: reviewing a film that isn't part of the Criterion Collection's standard lineup of DVDs and Blu-rays. Late last year, when I took my habit of posting reviews here out of an autumnal hibernation, I decided to expand my range a bit by including movies that didn't have a proper CC spine number, including the Eclipse Series, titles only available on Hulu Plus, or some other direct connection to the Criterion pedigree. Obviously, that had to include laserdiscs, and I have to say that this particular film played a significant role in that decision. Michelangelo Antonioni's Blowup is one of those landmark titles that compels my attention when I consider my task of pursuing a cinematic self-study course of the great films of any given year. The film carries a reputation of such aesthetic heft and cultural prominence that passing it up simply because Criterion has yet to re-secure the distribution rights that they once held back in the laserdisc era seemed like more than merely a regrettable oversight or a sad concession to the boundaries I'd established when I started this project back in 2009. Of course, the same could be said for so many other excellent titles that Criterion once held the rights to, going all the way back to the beginning of the brand. Films like Citizen Kane, King Kong, Casablanca and on and on and on... But what's done is done, so I just pick it up from where I'm at.

Last week, I sat down on a couple different occasions to compose a conventional written review of Blowup, but I had a hard time getting my thoughts out in a way that felt satisfying. There are a lot of bits in the film that I wanted to respond to, but for a variety of reasons (mostly having to do with circumstances in my personal life that distract me from focusing my mental energies on blogging) the essay I feel like the movie deserves just wasn't coming together. So in order to clear this one off my queue and allow me to move on, I took the podcast route, a format that allows me to more spontaneously voice my ideas in conversational dialogue. A few nights ago, I tossed out a random invitation to discuss Blowup on Skype with whoever felt like talking about it with me. I was happy to accept the request from Arik Devens, author of the Cinema Gadfly blog and a fellow Criterion fan whose online presence I've enjoyed getting to know over the past few months. This was his debut as a podcaster, even though he already has his own show in the works. He certainly found an auspicious film to break into this racket, and I think he presented his case quite well. Arik's blog is definitely one to check out, if you like what I'm doing here. I'm eager to see where he goes from here, and I expect we'll collaborate again. But for now, here's our conversation on Michelangelo Antonioni's Blowup, recorded earlier this afternoon.:

And here is a cool short documentary from 2011 that visits the most memorable locations where Blowup was shot in the summer of 1966, showing what those areas looked like 45 years later.

Finally, errata: Toward the end of our recording, I made a reference to Sarah Miles being the daughter of "the great English actor" John Miles. Except I had the name bungled - there's no noteworthy actor by that name, just a singer who had modest success back in the mid-1970s. The actor I was thinking of was is John Mills, who starred as Pip in the David Lean adaptation of Great Expectations and quite a few other British films in a career that spanned eight decades. Yes, eight - that's not a typo! Anyway, he's no relation to Sarah Mills. I just wanted to get out in front of that boo-boo since I have no interest in going back to edit it out of the audio track!

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Made in U.S.A. (1966) - #481

Now fiction overtakes reality. Now there's blood and mystery.

I definitely want to make quick work of this one, and I've already sat on it for a couple of days so let me just sit right down and get it over with. I think it's fitting to give Jean-Luc Godard's Made in U.S.A. a hasty once-over, since the director himself banged it out on short order, actually shooting two films at once in the summer of 1966 (the other one being 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, which I'll get to fairly soon once I kick over into the Criterion films released in 1967.) This one happens to be the last feature of his that included his by-then ex-wife of two years, Anna Karina, and it's her presence in the film that supplies just about all the poignancy and emotional resonance as far as I'm concerned. While she's supported by a few familiar faces (most notably, Jean-Pierre Léaud in what amounts to an expanded cameo in which he gets to playfully mug a death scene and wear a huge button that reads "Kiss Me, I'm Italian"), her presence, more specifically her day-glo wardrobe and most especially her large radiant eyes, dominates the show. There are a few scenes early on in particular where Raoul Coutard's perfectly framed and lit close-ups of her face practically overwhelm the viewer, making it almost impossible to stay on track with the sketchy exposition that's being delivered at the same time... and that difficulty is only enhanced for those of us who have to rely on subtitles to understand what's being said.

The story itself is an inconsequential, ephemeral lark in which Karina plays the part of Paula Nelson, a woman waiting in a hotel room to meet up with her lover Richard (insert random sound effect here, since his last name is buried in the mix by noise whenever someone mentions it), only to discover that he's been killed, and now she has to go about the business of figuring out who did it and why. That one sentence summary, a thoroughly familiar set-up even considering the gender role-reversal, may include the trappings of a compelling mystery when put in the hands of other directors, but by this point in his auteurist journey, Godard seems almost entirely disinterested in hooking his audience into a story that delivers anything resembling a conventional resolution. For him, and for those willing to follow, the payoff is just watching him riff creatively as he amuses himself with a scattershot barrage of quotes, allusions, philosophical and political meanderings and pop art juxtapositions that have become pretty familiar themes and exercises to those of us who've kept pace throughout his previous films.

The Criterion DVD edition includes a helpful lexicon supplement that patiently spells out all those connections and indulgences in ample detail, but the amusement to be had here was in just letting the thing wash over me in a vague flourescent wave, watching Anna Karina recite her lines and go through her motions with weary and wary tactfulness, understanding that she was signing on for one last negotiated bargain with her former husband and would-be Svengali, a man who had almost single-handedly launched her career to a level of prominence that she wouldn't have likely achieved otherwise, whom she once loved but who turned out to be an unsuitable partner for going through life together.

As for Godard, he comes across as a man understandably hurt by his ex-wife's rejection and looking for new outlets to voice and vent the many turbulent ideas running through his mind. Politics, in particular the recent re-election of Charles de Gaulle in the French elections of 1965, becomes his main focus as the film proceeds, with his voice on tape delivering harshly pointed diatribes consuming more and more of the running time as he shifts our attention away from the overt contemplation of Karina's face that worked to such mesmerizing effect in the early going. I can imagine him going about his work fueled with the same embittered but determined resentment to press his point home with intensified passion that drove Michael Moore when he made Fahrenheit 911 and Sicko in the midst of the George W. Bush administration. For serious students of Godard, I suppose that this makes Made in U.S.A. a mandatory text for better understanding the direction he moved into after 1968, but I'm not going to bother going that deep here. As I've observed in several of my other reviews of Godard's films of this era (Alphaville, Band of Outsiders, Pierrot le fou, Vivre sa vie, A Woman is a Woman), the most compelling thing about these films that I find to reflect on is how they align with the state of his domestic/romantic life - I'm more interested in the personal than the political side of JLG. And I'm pleased to report that at least, at last, Godard doesn't kill off Anna Karina's character, as was usually his habit back when he at least had a last desperate chance at winning her back. Here, he's content to part cinematic ways with her as a reasonable adult who understands the ways of this world, allowing her to ride off into an unknown future, a passenger in a car driven by another man.

So in this respect, Made in U.S.A. draws immediate comparisons with another film I recently watched, Robert Downey Sr.'s Two Tons of Turquoise to Taos Tonight. (I briefly discussed this and four of his other films on the most recent episode of The Eclipse Viewer podcast that I recorded last month with Trevor Berrett.) Both films, each dauntingly impenetrable in different ways, embody most, perhaps all, of their respective directors' signature aesthetic touches - for Downey, it's his consistent rapid-fire melange of caustic, profane humor and random absurdity for its own sake. But at a deeper level, they're both visibly grief-stricken elegies for failed relationships with women who were incredibly talented and remarkable in their own way but who turned out to be elusive or at least unwilling to remain in the confinement of monogamous relationships with their husbands. Of course I have no claim to any knowledge of who might have been more or less at fault in any of that, but I do believe that the emotional crises experienced by each of the men behind the camera, and the women in front of them, provide a helpful interpretive lens for what otherwise turn out to be dauntingly dense and occasionally impenetrable expressions of their creators' angst-driven minds.

Oh, and there's also that coolly incongruous, thoroughly gratuitous Marianne Faithful bit...

Next: Blow Up

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Closely Watched Trains (1966) - #131

Look, show him your behind. Write a protocol.

After taking a brief and all too rare detour into a story (Larisa Shepitko's Wings) told from the perspective of a mature, intelligent, self-reliant woman, my long sojourn through the Criterion Collection once again compels me to identify with yet another young man coming of age. This time around, it's the singularly unambitious Miloš Hrma, a newly appointed railroad station worker in Jiri Menzel's Czechoslovakian New Wave breakout sensation Closely Watched Trains. This modest but artfully rendered story of life under the Nazi occupation made such a big impression on American audiences that it took home the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1967 (over a less than impressive field of competition, as far as I can tell, with any number of highly regarded classics like Persona, The Battle of Algiers and Au hasard Balthazar, all recently reviewed on this site, appallingly overlooked, not even making the cut.) Though the style, humor and overall effect is quite different on balance, Closely Watched Trains covers emotional and experiential territory not all that different from what I saw a couple weeks ago when I reviewed Seijun Suzuki's Fighting Elegy.

Both films revolve around a horny male protagonist straining at the groin to score his first intimate contact with another woman, and failing miserably (though quite comically) in the process. Their mutual struggles to "prove their manhood" each take place within the context of a militarized atmosphere, surrounded by other men more brash and experienced at amorous conquests than they are. That discrepancy in erotic achievement instills in them both a fairly knotty complex of insecurities and self-loathing that trigger highly risky behaviors. But the differences in their temperament and circumstances lead to divergent outcomes. Unlike Kiroku and the rest of his Fighting Elegy peers who were being prepped for eventual combat duties in the about to be launched Japanese imperial wars at the various prep schools they attended, Miloš is merely a servant in uniform, following in the time-honored tradition of his male forbears, all of them introduced to us at the beginning of the film as master slackers, highly skilled at the art of drawing a full government pension or some other sustaining income at an early stage of life, then riding it out on the dole with as little effort as possible and for as long as they can.

As heir to that noble tradition, Miloš is introduced to us in a coronation ceremony of sorts, as the distinguished cap of his office is placed on his head with a solemnity befitting a young prince. Soon enough, the apprentice train dispatcher is initiated into the routines of the village railroad station, where he's privileged to pull levers, watch clocks and record information received through the array of radios and tickertape machines set up in the office.  The daily grind at the station has a veneer of ritualistic seriousness and attention to detail that resembles military discipline, at least on a surface level (and no more than that, since the Germans certainly didn't trust even the flunkiest of their Czech subjects with a loaded gun.) But in between all that attending to business concerning the timely arrivals and departures of Closely Watched Trains, there are many hours spent just standing around, letting the mind wander where it will. And as far as the mind of Miloš is concerned, it's definitely traveling on a single track: SEX.

In this respect, Miloš is hardly alone; given the wartime dreariness and deprivation that the Czech populace was subjected to at that time, a nice old fashioned roll between the sheets was about as good as it got to find relief from the tedium of life under occupation. But as is often the case with young and healthy (sometimes "too healthy") men, the imagination gets ahead of the body, the trigger gets pulled a bit early and everyone who has a stake in the encounter has to shuffle away disappointed. It's an experience that is, alas, all too universal and transcultural, and it's that very accessibility, coupled with a naturally sardonic world-weariness seemingly inherent in the Eastern European consciousness, that allowed international audiences to empathize and identify with these oddball citizens of a country that tossed way too many consonants into the mix when it came to naming themselves. This apparently easy-going, affably lackadaisical outlook on life served as an effective mask for a quietly defiant and subversive ethical core of resistance to overbearing power, as evidenced by the film's concluding scene, which I won't spoil here.

At once mercilessly blunt and unflinchingly determined to find laughter and even purpose in self-negating destruction, Closely Watched Trains must have served as a bracing change of pace for audiences of its time. It still packs a fresh punch today, even if we've become much more accustomed to the bittersweet essence that Menzel distilled here. This was his feature length follow-up to "Mr. Baltazar's Death," a small-scale diversion about the quirks of contemporary Czech motorcycle racing enthusiasts. It was the first of five short films included in the omnibus Pearls of the Deep, stories based on the work of Bohumil Hrabel, who also wrote the novel from which this film was adapted.

I'm not sure if such a thing as a "Czechoslovakian stereotype" ever existed in the United States prior to the mid-1960s, or even the Western world in general, but if there was, or is, or will be, I figure that films like Closely Watched Trains and the similarly frisky/poignant Loves of a Blonde (directed by fellow Czechoslovokian Miloš Forman) can take a lot of credit for establishing the basic parameters: wily survivors, utterly stripped of any ambitions to become world conquering dominant figures, merely happy to carve out a comfortable slot for themselves where they can find a bit of satisfaction with the mundane comforts of life. It's the stance of people who give knowing smiles and "what the hell?" shrugs of their shoulders even as they brush off the dust and debris left by bombs dropping all around them. They may or may not make through to tomorrow, but they'll persevere the best they can, without giving the impression of struggling too hard to survive. It's kind of sad that there are so many people in the world who are compelled by their own experience to relate to that resigned, fatalistic attitude, but that's the way it is. What are you gonna do about it, anyway?

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Wings (1966) - ES 11

I never even knew such words as these: "Let someone else do it.”

Even though neither Wings nor the Ukrainian filmmaker Larisa Shepitko were all that prominent on the broader cultural radar of 1966, this debut film by a young female Soviet director definitely speaks to the emerging debates about the role of women in society that took place in the same year that the National Organization for Women was founded in the USA. Just as the film I most recently reviewed here, Seijun Suzuki's Fighting Elegy, concerned itself with a number of issues and concerns regarding the handed-down understanding of masculinity, so also Wings provides insight into the lives of women who were beginning to move into positions of authority and influence traditionally held by men, though from a much more subtle, reflective and nuanced perspective. While Suzuki goes about his business with a full-frontal sensory assault of male horniness and aggression, Larisa Shepitko, merely in her late twenties at the time of her debut feature film's release, shows an uncommon sensitivity and awareness of the insecurities and social pressures facing not merely "older" women, but practically anybody who has achieved noteworthy success at a relatively youthful age but then has to go on with the rest of their life, wondering what the next act will be that continues to make them as relevant and vital as they've become accustomed to.

Now before I proceed any further, let me just say that this is another one of those posts that won't necessarily go into as much depth on a film as I have in the past. I've already given Wings an extended review and commentary on two separate occasions: first, in my Journey Through the Eclipse Series back in the summer of 2010 (wow, four and a half years ago already!) and also in the early days of the Eclipse Viewer podcast, a couple years later in the third episode I recorded with Robert Nishimura, well before I began my present collaboration with Trevor Berrett on that program. (Re-listening to that episode evoked a certain sense of nostalgia, I must admit...) I have to be candid here and acknowledge that I had more to say about the film on those two occasions than I do at this moment, but I did watch Wings again the other night just to maintain my integrity here. :)

The gist of the film is that it's an extended character study about Nadhezda (Nadya) Petrukhina, a female fighter pilot whose exploits earned her the status of decorated military hero in the aftermath of the Soviet Union's "Great Patriotic War" (which is how the USSR referred to World War II.) At the beginning of the movie, she's just assuming the duties of headmistress of a vocational school for teens, and is immediately faced with a crucial test of her leadership abilities when a pair of disruptive students call her authority into question in a very public setting. Alongside this new set of professional challenges, Nadya is going through some critical passages in her relationship with her daughter, who's promised to marry a man some fifteen or twenty years older than her. And on top of all that, Nadya is simply entering into a phase of midlife doldrums as she begins to question the value and significance of all that she's been pouring her energy into for practically as long as she can remember. It's a remarkable piece of work for a woman who was just embarking on what looked to be a very promising career as a creative artist in what was undeniably a challenging cultural environment. Shepitko was Ukrainian by birth, subject to the authoritarian whims of the central Soviet bureaucracy. But as events in her native land have demonstrated over the past year or two, Ukraine and Russia are two distinctively different parts of the world. With a slightly enhanced awareness of the rift that presumably was lurking between those two societies, artificially conjoined in the USSR's post WWII imperialist expansion, I'm now intrigued to learn more about how Shepitko navigated through the system to the point where she could make a film that did indeed stir up some ripples of approbation from the Soviet censorship boards at that time.

I'm content to let stand all the observations I shared in those earlier reviews - my main takeaway from this week's revisit was mainly just to marvel again at Shepitko's confident assurance in guiding us through a series of very naturalistic scenes of interpersonal exchanges, conflicts and disappointments. Those encounters quietly, gradually build toward a climactic moment of self-actualization and transcendence at the very end of the film - at which point she (almost literally) leaves us hanging in midair as we're basically forced to draw our own conclusion (as speculative as it must be) as to what happened next to the protagonist Nadya. My preference is to think that she exulted in that moment of discovering and reclaiming her freedom soaring through the sky, accomplished at least a provisional resolution of some of the loose ends of her life that sat in disarray before her, and made a good choice to land the plane safely before resuming the responsibilities she'd signed up for and was more than capable of fulfilling. But as the saying goes, your mileage may vary! I admire Shepitko's courage in leaving it all so open-ended for each individual viewer to sort out.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Fighting Elegy (1966) - #269

You just don't understand men!

The story of how Seijun Suzuki's career as a prolific Japanese director was prematurely derailed by his studio bosses at Nikkatsu, due to his stubbornly insubordinate creative interpolations and unconventional approach to narrative, has become somewhat legendary over the years. The short version of the story tends to focus on two films that were released concurrently with each other by Criterion on two separate occasions - as spine numbers 38 and 39, on DVD in 1999 and in an overhauled Blu-ray/DVD edition in 2011. The films definitely belong together, as they each focus on yakuza themes. Tokyo Drifter, from early in 1966, is Suzuki's uber-cool, ultra-stylish, neon lit gangster fantasy saga, while 1967's Branded to Kill stars Japanese action icon Joe Shishido as an ambitious but loopy hit man engaged in ruthless competition to be the supreme assassin of the criminal underworld. As it turned out, the latter film's barely comprehensible story line, and Suzuki's indifference to making his movies sufficiently accessible to mainstream audiences, drove his producers to exasperation, so they canceled his contract and effectively blacklisted Suzuki from directing any more feature films for the rest of the 20th century, eventually resurfacing in 2001 with Pistol Opera, a film that practically picks up where Branded to Kill left off.

Well, that's not an entirely accurate recounting of the facts, but that's basically how the mythology of Seijun Suzuki seems to have been passed on according to any number of articles I've read over the years. The truth, as usual, is more complicated than that, as Suzuki did continue to make films throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s, but they were certainly few and far between in comparison with the hectic pace he established in the first phase of his career: an astonishing 40 films between 1956 and 1967 - approaching four films a year when you do the math.

But as I said, much of the attention that Suzuki has earned in recent times tends to focus on those two early Criterion titles, even though his output is among them most amply represented in the Collection. One of the films that's too easily overlooked, maybe because it's kind of buried in drab packaging in a nearly bare-bones DVD dating from 2005, is Fighting Elegy, his second-to-last job for Nikkatsu. On the surface a frenzied comic romp about rowdy young men gone wild, it came out in the fall of 1966, smack dab between Tokyo Drifter and Branded to Kill. In my view, Fighting Elegy is a much more personal and heartfelt film than either of the highly stylized and sometimes brazenly experimental works that bookend it. But don't assume based on that assessment that it's any less bonkers.

Fighting Elegy draws much more from Suzuki's life story and Japan's pre-WWII history, a shared experience that many of the adults of his time could relate to and place themselves in. Whereas a neck-deep entanglement in the yakuza crime syndicate could serve as a rich metaphor for any number of interpersonal conflicts and concerns that viewers might relate to, the social milieu of this film was much more ordinary and common: a military prep school (or two) of the type that many young men approaching the age of conscription were sent to in order to toughen them up for use as cannon fodder in the imperialist campaigns that the government was starting to engage in by the mid-1930s. I hardly need to elaborate on the emotive and thought-provoking possibilities inherent in a story of young men coming of age at a crucial juncture in their nation's history, just on the brink of a promised glorious triumph that swiftly deteriorated into profound, abject tragedy.

The set-up involves a particular young man, Kiroku, who boards with a family that's converted to Catholicism. He develops a crush on their beautiful and musically talented daughter Michiko, and struggles mightily to maintain the stern ascetic discipline of a young soldier in training. His awkward efforts to repress emerging sexual energies fuels a raging irritability that lands him in a lot of fights, which in turn get him expelled, sent to a different school and mounting pressures to exercise self-control lest he prove himself unsuitable for service to the Emperor.

Of course, what Suzuki does with all that narrative potential may appear to some to fall short of the mark, as we're presented with a succession of slapstick brawls, brutal beatings and silly boner jokes that probably won't make a lot of sense to viewers who haven't acclimated to his madcap style or spent much time watching Japanese films of the 1930s (or films from later decades that sought to capture the spirit of those times.) While I won't claim to be any sort of expert on Asian cinema, I can say that I've watched enough of those kinds of movies in recent months to feel like I get where Suzuki is coming from as he lampoons the testosterone-fueled ethos of his formative years. A pair of podcasts I recorded earlier this year on the Eclipse Series sets Kinoshita and World War II and The First Films of Akira Kurosawa certainly delve into that mindset. Along this line, I can also recommend titles like Kobayashi's The Thick Walled Room and The Human Condition (almost the polar opposite of Fighting Elegy in their relentlessly serious tone), Kon Ichikawa's Fires on the Plain, Kinoshita's Twenty-Four Eyes and especially Suzuki's own Story of a Prostitute which offers up something close to a female-perspective counterpart to the story told in Fighting Elegy. And then there's Yukio Mishima's incredibly harrowing Patriotism, released just a few months earlier, that amplifies quite valuably the events that are portended in the final scenes of Fighting Elegy as a group of soldiers march into Tokyo to participate in an attempted coup that played a significant role in radicalizing Japan's ruling authorities even further.

With sufficient background then, I think a viewer is better prepared to glean more value from watching Fighting Elegy than might otherwise result. Without it, there's still a lot to appreciate, as Suzuki's directorial instincts, supported by a highly capable crew, create some rather wildly amusing action sequences, hilarious sight gags and even a few scenes of evocative beauty toward the end, when the tone abruptly shifts from farcical to elegiac, as befits the title that Criterion chose to go with when translated from the Japanese. It's listed on IMDb and elsewhere as The Born Fighter, a sobriquet for the belligerent yet sympathetic Kiroku that was just as descriptive of the inspired visionary Seijun Suzuki, who no doubt poured a bit of his own soul into this project and brought the character to life.

Next: Wings

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Le deuxième souffle (1966) - #448

This isn't your usual killer. He's doomed and he knows it.

Before any images are seen at the beginning of Le deuxième souffle, viewers must first read through two short texts. The first, a disclaimer assuring us that the film is not intended as an endorsement of either career criminal Gu Minda's homicidal "code of honor" or the deceptive and brutal tactics used by the French police, in "this work of fiction based on a novel" (as if the redundancy of that phrase somehow distances them from any potential culpability for copycat behavior by either the gangster or law enforcement elements who might be watching.) Presumably, the apologetic reminder was tacked on by nervous studio heads fearing some kind of censorious reprimand from the voices of decency who would object to director Jean-Pierre Melville's amoral stance in presenting such violence to a mass audience as entertainment. I have a hard time thinking that Melville would have put the statement in the film himself, and I also have to assume that he wasn't exactly pleased that it led off the program.

However, the following text was surely appended according to Melville's instruction: "A man is given but one right at birth: to choose his own death. But if he chooses because he is weary of life, then his entire existence has been without meaning." It's the kind of existentially lofty grand pronouncement about the condition of the universe that French intellectuals routinely bestow upon their audiences, a well-practiced skill that they've elevated into its own art form. But it's also one of those aphorisms better designed at making an impact on a casual observer for its short-term impression of profundity; upon more extended, serious reflection, the essential hollowness of the statement when applied to real life shows it to be grandiose bullshit. There are a lot of people (men, women, children) who die in circumstances that have no bearing at all on the intrinsic meaning of their lives, and certainly a lot of deaths are not "chosen" in any rationally meaningful sense of the word. But if we strip away the axiomatic insistence that hovers over this bold pronouncement, then a brief glimmer of truth begins to break through. For those who reach that point of maturity and self-determination where their actions actually do go on to influence, if not completely dictate, the manner of their death, then it's quite reasonable indeed to ponder the choices they make. We can even speculate about the internal motives that an onlooker might be able to discern from the patterns of behavior that preceded that moment of fatal determination.

With those two considerations in mind then, as a film Le deuxième souffle, which is usually translated into English as the equivalent of a "second wind," might best be understood as a doomed man's extended "last gasp." It's that gulp of breath taken in the midst of that tension between distancing himself from the unintended implications of his actions as they're perceived and interpreted by others, while also retaining a claim of meaningful autonomy over the meaning of his life. Every step of Gu's journey puts him in significant peril from both the law and the criminal underworld, for each of these forces wield their own form of punitive justice - soul crushing confinement and humiliation from the one, and brutal execution at a moment's notice if caught by surprise by the wrong people from the other. From the initial jail break where we first meet him, through his fortuitous return to Paris to settle some old scores and bail his few close comrades out of trouble, to his incognito escape to Marseilles and voluntary enrollment in a major platinum heist, Gu is a man operating under protest, continually repudiating through word and deed the assumptions of his rivals that, under significant enough pressure, he'd break the rules that prohibit even a robber and killer as he is from betraying his partners in crime. Gu is a man capable of any form of brutality in the execution of a job, or an enemy, but to accuse him of actually squealing to the police, of turning informant - that's an accusation that he cannot let stand under any circumstances.

So we can understand his outrage when he is eventually tricked into spilling the beans, in a brilliantly staged set-up by undercover police playing the part of gangsters in charge of the territory where Gu is hiding out, awaiting ship's passage to Italy that will smuggle him into a less dangerous situation. The cops' successful emulation of the mob's uncompromising tactics catches Gu off guard, to the extent that he blabs crucial information aimed at clearing up his captors' misunderstanding of his role in the platinum robbery, that is then caught on tape. It's the kind of fateful slip-up that Gu should have seen coming, should have been wary of stumbling into, would never have happened if he had retained the sharp-edged determination and steely reticence required of a man in his position. As far as we can tell, it matters little to him whom he has killed, what relationships he's had to sacrifice or the costs of his crimes to countless victims, known and unknown over the course of decades lived as a crook. What finally drives Gu to exasperation, even to the point of suicidal despair, is the idea that others who know him would draw the conclusion that he'd violated the code of honor, caved in when the authorities leaned in hard, gone soft in order to win himself some concessions when it came time for the judge to render his verdict. Whatever other pains, deprivations or even death Gu might have to accept as his fate, as much as he could control it, he was determined to not let his final reputation be that of a stool pigeon.

Jean-Pierre Melville cuts himself a considerable swath of film time in order to establish that point, and he does so with gritty, slow-burning clarity over two and a half hours that simmer with emotional tension and patient confidence that the end of the story will justify his deliberate approach. It's clearly a declaration of deeply felt principles that mean a lot to a man who fought in the French Resistance during World War II. He had undoubtedly seen numerous examples of how that code was both upheld and transgressed by friends and foes alike, and over the course of subsequent decades as a filmmaker who operated somewhat outside of the conventional establishment, the allure of safety, compromise and betrayal seems to have been met with his own expression of continued resistance as well. Indeed, he makes a point on several occasions in the supplemental interviews that accompany Criterion's DVD release of Le deuxième souffle that he continued to stand apart from both the mainstream French film industry and the nouvelle vague directors like Godard and Truffaut who had previously regarded him as a role model and forerunner of their own cinematic movement. Melville turned down films routinely, he claimed, simply because he didn't feel like making them, even though some of the titles he mentioned went on to become commercial successes, and even though he was acting against the advice of esteemed figures like Jean Renoir, who encouraged him to take any job offered to him simply because such opportunities were not to be taken for granted and might not be extended in the future.

Perhaps in these interviews, Melville was engaging in a bit of self-mythologizing; he certainly gives every impression of a man capable of doing that, and with great relish, in just about every recorded conversation I've ever seen from him. But even if that's the case, I find him a fascinating and compelling study, as an artist in particular, and the way he tells his stories. I always like to find a quote from the film to start off and, in a way, provide a theme for each of the reviews I post here. I like the one that I found, spoken by Inspector Blot as he recognizes Gu's final trajectory to a bloody resolution that will clear a few other victims, deserving or not, with him when he makes his exit from the world. But really, some of the film's greatest dialogue can't be quoted here - thoughts and feelings communicated through knowing glances, between Gu and Manouche, between Blot and the assorted miscreants he's destined to spend his life pursuing in an endless game of cat and mouse. Poignant moments of eye contact that contain recognitions of strength, vulnerability and character that resist tidy codification in "the rules," written or unwritten as they may be.