Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Taking of Power of Louis XIV (1966) - #456

Neither the sun nor death can be gazed upon fixedly.

Several months ago, Trevor Berrett and I recorded a podcast on Eclipse Series 14: Rossellini's History Films - Renaissance and Enlightenment. In that episode of our Eclipse Viewer program, we discussed three films that Roberto Rossellini directed in the early 1970s, after he had thoroughly settled into this final phase of his distinguished career. Though I'd already seen The Taking of Power by Louis XIV prior to that conversation, I now wish in hindsight that I would have taken more time to give it a closer study, since I think the film (along with the supplements on the disc) provides a better introduction to that set than just popping in those DVDs and doing one's best to make the necessary adjustment to Rossellini's unique style of filmmaking - simultaneously stripped down to its minimalist basics in regard to editing and shot construction, while also brimming with ornate frills and flourishes that pack the frame with visual information.

Compared to those later productions, dry and somewhat sprawling teleplays focused on historic figures like Lorenzo de Medici, Rene Descartes and Blaise PascalThe Taking of Power by Louis XIV is refreshingly direct, accessible and even, dare I say, entertaining. The film, which was originally conceived for television but found theatrical distribution after its premier, clocks in at a brisk 94 minutes, with a lean purpose of depicting how the renowned Sun King maneuvered his way from being a lightly regarded aristocratic figurehead to becoming the longest serving monarch in all of European history. Despite that impressive longevity (over 72 years on the throne in an era where peril and treachery were occupational hazards for royalty), Rossellini chose to zero in on a particularly crucial moment in time. The death of the Italian Cardinal Mazarin, when Louis was still in his early 20's, created a hazardous rift in the architecture of power. To this point, the kings of France had been accustomed to delegating governance of the country to various ministers, and those who were poised to fill the void created by the cardinal's departure presumably had every reason to expect that their schemes of flattery to the boy king (who inherited the crown when he was just five years old) and the loyalties they had cultivated within the royal court, including the king's incessantly scheming mother, would yield the payoff they so clearly deserved (or so they assumed.) However, the most ambitious among them wound up terribly disappointed, as Louis turned out to be quite a shrewd manipulator of strategic alliances, calculated secrecy and even sartorial fashions.

Beyond the typical palatial intrigues that one has come to expect in such stories, one of the most fascinating revelations from this film is how Louis XIV used the elaborate affectations of garments spilling over with lace and ornaments to effect bold power plays, basically intimidating his subjects into paying close attention to the latest fads as an expression of their loyalty and trustworthiness. He recognizes, and brilliantly exploits, the vanity, shallowness and hypocrisy of those aristocrats who strive so relentlessly to position themselves near to the center of power - namely, himself. And in developing a myriad of mechanisms - forced relocations to the relatively remote and isolated palace of Versaille, a steady stream of government largesse that fostered dependency on his centralizing control over the economy, and an overbearing peer pressure among the assorted rivals to constantly outperform each other in obeisance to the throne - Louis succeeded in basically gobbling up every last speck and symbol of authority known at the time. The film's penultimate scene portrays the apotheosis of Louis as he's surrounded by awestruck admirers, the assembled aristocrats of 17th century France, amid the splendor of his palace gardens in full bloom.

But we finally part ways with the king in the isolation of his personal chamber, after he strips out of his flamboyant costume into garments more practical (though still indisputably luxurious), to offer one last meditation on his pathway to power:
There is a loftiness that does not come from fortune. It's a certain air of superiority which seems to destine us for greatness. It's a prize that we give to ourselves imperceptibly. It's by virtue of this quality that we usurp the deference of other men, and it is this quality which places us above them more than birth, dignity or even merit.
Time-tested words of self-help for today's would-be Louis Quatorze...

Rossellini, in his noble but seemingly futile quest to transform broadcast TV into a culturally edifying means for improving society, took a meticulously detailed approach in recreating the physical environment, interior decor, apparel, customs and rituals of Louis' daily life. Surrounded by servants, pampered with lavish privileges and a constantly hovering flock of attendants catering to his every whim, the overall impression of a post-medieval cult blinded by its insane devotion to the trappings of royal pageantry, supposedly undergirded by the "divine right of kings," stood out to me as the most remarkable takeaway from the film. Especially when one reflects on just how minimal a budget the director had to work with: roughly the equivalent of $20,000 in today's dollars, according to Rossellini's son Renzo, interviewed on one of the disc supplements. Even if one assumes that the sets and costumes and furnishings were basically donated from any number of museums or other institutional archives of such materials and any number of cost cutting measures one can imagine, that's still remarkably efficient, and I think he achieves a rather powerful effect of immersing the viewer into that world.

On top of that, he incorporates hundreds of extras, all carefully arranged to fill out various crowd scenes, and utilizes ingenious practical visual effects to depict some of the architecture and cityscapes that would have otherwise been impossible to capture on film because the actual locations (the Louvre, the palace of Versaille) had changed so drastically from how they looked in the time of Louis XIV. He even stages an impressive and memorable deer hunting scene, an elaborate spectacle complete with a pack of hunting dogs, mounted squires and a few dozen attendants who patiently bide their time while the king takes one of his hand selected maidens into a secluded patch of woodland shade for implied sexual indulgence. Violence, decadence and pomposity, all entitled to the extreme and artfully captured in a single gesture.

The more accustomed I become to Rossellini's aesthetic, the more ardently I admire what he accomplished in these films. Though they are most definitely an acquired taste, those that I have seen (these four, plus his film on Socrates, available on Hulu Plus) are practically essential viewing for modern students of the great men of history that they portray. I hope that Criterion finds the means to put more of these unique and thoughtfully presented films in front of us.

Next: Seconds

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Battle of Algiers (1966) - #249

You've been warned twice. This is your last warning.

The Battle of Algiers is the first film that ever landed in my consciousness as a "Criterion new release," when I was notified by an email from the Daily Kos website about an old film from the 1960s that spoke powerful truths to the political crisis of our own times. I had noticed the Criterion brand on a few other intriguing, artistically-inclined DVDs that I'd borrowed from the library every now and then, when my mood suited the exploration of unfamiliar cinema. That was in late 2004, just about 500 spine numbers back from where we are now, long before I ever had any clue as to how much of my time in the years ahead would be spent watching these movies, marking my calendar to the 15th of each month (or the nearest business day) to track the next announcement of upcoming titles, writing and discussing these films online, and generally absorbing them into my experience of life, influencing my outlook on the world.

At the time, I was more focused on politics and social concerns. George W. Bush had just been re-elected to another term in office as president of the USA, which registered to me as a depressing, historically ignorant validation of the horrible blunders and deceptions that his administration had foisted upon our society in the aftermath of the 9/11/01 terrorist attacks. Now our country was more firmly enmeshed in a debacle in Iraq that I knew before it had even started would not end well, either for our troops or for the Iraqi populace that they were now trying to govern after the downfall of Saddam Hussein's regime. Sure, the usual profiteers and power brokers would find ways to extract wealth from the blood that was spilled and the property that was destroyed, just as they had calculated in their run-up to the war. But would there ultimately be some way that the rest of us who witnessed this nightmarish blend of crime and tragedy might find a way to profit from the experience? That was the hope, at least... that a lesson could be learned, that the horrors of the experience would impress themselves upon intelligent minds so that future mistakes could be avoided, and more constructive paths could be found.

As I and my friends in the American antiwar protest movement contemplated our next move, now that our efforts to at least repudiate the Bush administration's approach to its self-proclaimed "global war on terrorism" by denying him a 2nd term in office had failed, the best option I could land on was to just continue doing what we could to build a "culture of peace" on the local level. Among other efforts, that included involvement in the media, so I got involved with a project called IGE Talks, an open-format, public access TV talk show that served as a platform for us to offer up a counterpoint to the cable news talking heads who had served our nation so poorly in normalizing the arguments for going to war in Iraq, failing to question the motives of the war's architects and painting a rosier picture of the likely outcome than history gave us any right to expect. It was, of course, a humble, low-budget, largely ineffectual effort, as far as provoking social change was concerned, though it gave us an outlet to speak our mind on a lot of different issues and at least put a message out there that reflected the thoughts and values of citizens like us who long for justice, wisdom and compassion from those who put themselves in positions of leadership and influence. After 10 years of serving as the program's host, I stepped out of that role at the end of 2014, content with the archive of video we'd created and ready to let others pick it up from where I left off.

I know that all of what I've written so far is much more personal than it is critical. The preceding paragraphs have very little to do with Gillo Pontecorvo's astonishing masterpiece that provides an indelibly memorable experience of being thrust into the middle of a particularly harsh and tormented moment in history. For those who lived through the final death-throes phase of overt Eurocentric colonialism, this film had to be quite cathartic, as the anguish and confusion felt by both sides in these conflicts reached a boiling point that spilled over into acts of brutal violence and the killing of innocents. The French rulers could not conceive of an honorable, sanitary exit from their predicament of exerting control over an increasingly unruly native population (nor were they eager to relinquish the material and psychological advantages of their authority), while the Algerian subjects struggled with the dilemma of deciding how much pain they had to inflict on their oppressors in order to regain their sovereignty, as they ran the risk of dehumanizing themselves in the process.

Caught in the middle of all this strife were hordes of people, nameless and ordinary as far as our purposes here are concerned, yet still preoccupied with their individual lives filled with details, emotions, aspirations and gracious potential, just as important (or insignificant) as any of the charismatic key figures that we focus on here: Ali La Point, Colonel Mathieu, Jaffar, whoever else you might care to name - each of them a pivotal decision maker who impacted the world around them, sometimes with life or death consequences, yet just as much of a bit player, an interchangeable part in the big picture as any of us.

There's no way that my observations as an armchair commentator on the misguided adventurism of recent American foreign policy can stack up against the penetrating insights that come at viewers from all angles in this enormously complex reenactment of actual events. But it's as close as I can approximate in relating my own memories of political resistance, relatively painless as it was, to what I see when I watch The Battle of Algiers. I've never experienced the kind of oppression and peril that gripped that city in those years. Everybody has their own version of The Struggle, and when it comes right down to it, mine happens to be rather detached from the more painfully strenuous renditions of that essential life drama.

But in this film, we are confronted with extraordinary images that compel our attention from the opening frame and stir deep, often troubling thoughts every step along the way. I think it's fair to assume that most American viewers have very little awareness of the war that took place from 1954 to 1962 between France and the revolutionary insurgents in its colony of Algeria, a slice of Saharan Africa that sits just on the other side of the Mediterranean Sea. I was never taught anything about the conflict when I was in school, and if it weren't for this film, I might not have ever looked into this tragic history. But the basic dynamics, of a people under the pressure of unacceptable repression and exploitation, pushing for freedom against a ruling authority that believes in its own justification as a civilizing force and a guarantee of protection from the forces of lawless barbarism - all that we can relate to, since I think most people have lived on one side of the equation or the other, though with varying degrees of self-awareness and political conscience.

And we should apply that awareness to our interpretation of contemporary turmoil afflicting societies in many parts of the world. The fact that The Battle of Algiers does portray a particular clash between Western capitalist neoliberalism and an embryonic version of contemporary Islamist resistance of course only enhances the relevance of the film to what we've seen going on in the Middle East for the past several decades... really, ever since it first hit the theaters and won awards in the mid-1960s. Though it's probably too far a stretch to assume that watching this movie will lead a viewer to reconsider his or her pre-existing political biases, I am confident in asserting that anyone approaching the story with an open willingness to put themselves in the place of its various characters will recognize the inadequacy of simplistic reactionary solutions to the problems depicted onscreen. The tectonic plates of global civilizations have ground into collision points that are not easily, or painlessly, smoothed over.

Then there's the brilliance of the filmmaking itself - a stunningly effective mastery of staging scenes permeated with grit, tension and danger. The level of suspense that is established and maintained throughout the film is as high and palpable as any movie I can recall watching over the past several years, a sensation that is only reinforced by the verisimilitude that comes from filming on the actual locations where the battles took place. And what locations. The Casbah is a unique, incredible place, loaded with all manner of cinematic possibilities: the narrow, cavernous alleyways, its impenetrable opacity to outsiders, the way it hangs ominously over the heads of the privileged Europeans who live, work and play near the edge of the sea. Pontecorvo's ability to enlist massive crowds of devastated mourners and angry protesters and replicate incredibly realistic and scary bomb attacks in various parts of the city was abetted by the Algerian government, which had an interest in telling their story to the rest of the world after the FLN's campaign for liberation reached a successful conclusion.

Putting all those elements together in a film that reaches such sublime heights of moral anguish and sinister depths of heartless cruelty is nothing to take for granted, especially from a director who hasn't produced a large body of work. That's quite a shame, I have to say, since Gillo Pontecorvo proves to be a master of his art here. An earlier film of his, Kapo, was released several years ago by Criterion in their short-lived Essential Art House line, and it's still in print, at a very reasonable price, so I definitely recommend getting a copy while you can. The tributes paid to Pontecorvo by a later generation of directors (Spike Lee, Steven Soderbergh, Oliver Stone, Mira Nair, Julian Schnabel) in one of the abundant, and profoundly thought-provoking, supplements included in this 2 Blu-ray/3 DVD set speak eloquently to that point.

Really, there's a lot more I could say about The Battle of Algiers, so much to admire and lament, that I think might come out more fluently in a podcast, or just a conversation with a friend, but I'll keep it (relatively) short for now. I'm more than happy to discuss it more in the comments if anyone is inclined to use that feature. This is the kind of movie that's as capable of inspiring zeal and courage to go out and change the world as it is of draining our enthusiasm to make a difference as we ponder the enormity and intractability of the problems we're trying to address - especially when there are high stakes of political power and monetary wealth at stake, and the potential for deadly violence should one side or the other (or both) feel like they're being pushed too hard. It comes down to what we make of the information within our reach - the calculations of what we have to protect, or to gain, and what we have left to lose. The greater the imbalance, the more vicious life seems to get.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Zatoichi's Pilgrimage (1966) - #679

It's funny, isn't it... sometimes you get drawn into something, and there's no going back.

The last time I watched and reviewed a Zatoichi movie here (with Zatoichi's Vengeance), I made the analogy of it being a kind of cinematic comfort food - flavorful enough to hold my attention but also reassuringly familiar so that it goes down easy and conjures up good feelings along the way. But after sitting down to dig into installment #14 in the series, Zatoichi's Pilgrimage, I'm pleasantly surprised to discern that I bit into something that feels a bit more substantial this time around. Maybe it's the contribution of the screenwriter enlisted for this one. Kaneto Shindo, director of 1964's international art house ghost story sensation Onibaba, is a credit that stood out to me when I saw the name up on the screen, but beyond the solid story with a few interesting accents that I'll spell out momentarily, I was genuinely impressed with the quality of how the film was shot, with some beautiful natural landscapes and very striking framing in numerous key scenes when characters were positioned for dramatic encounters and (of course) frenetic sword fights. Zatoichi's reveals at various moments throughout the story (aboard the ship in the opening sequence, when he's introduced as Okichi's guardian, to the dreadful surprise of Boss Tohachi and his henchmen, and when he stands alone in the center of the village crossroads, at once imposing and vulnerable, in anticipation of the movie's climactic showdown) are all splendid moments, demonstrative of an intuitive mastery of characterization by director Kazuo Ikehiro, who had previously directed Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold and Zatoichi's Flashing Sword, both released in 1964 and two of the better offerings in the series so far.

We also see small touches of creativity and experimentation - most notably, an odd little dream sequence featuring naked children splashing in the water, slightly trippy with multiple exposures and flashes of (dare I say?) psychedelia in the colorful overlays. The dialogue in the scene hints at a memory from Zatoichi's youth, but that tantalizing hint isn't explored at much length before we return to a more ordinary and predictable unfolding of the story at hand. Still, it's enough of a crack into Zatoichi's otherwise opaque personal history that I'll want to give it even closer attention whenever I get around to revisiting this movie again. (And I definitely plan to, someday, when I can dedicate a week or two to watching the whole series in rapid succession.)

Most significantly, it's one of those episodes where I got a sense of character growth occurring in the mind and soul of the blind swordsman, especially in the early scenes from which the film draws its title, as we see Zatoichi embarked upon what must be an arduous trek to visit 88 different temples and shrines spread across Japan in a search for serenity, or if not that, at least a brief respite from the grim patterns of assault and violent self-defense that relentlessly descend upon him. His quest for peace, and his earnest prayers of contrition for all the blood he'd reluctantly spilled throughout his wanderings, at one point in the script's development had the potential to take the saga into altogether new and unexplored territory before cautious studio heads intervened to keep the narrative safely within the tried and true formula that they banked on. As it turns out, Zatoichi's Pilgrimage is rather short lived, as he only makes it to one sacred site before he's once again attacked despite having committed no offense to his assailant. That rash, impulsive young man meets his doom in a quick but memorable underwater clash after the men plunge off a bridge. Now, with another senseless death attributed to his swordsmanship, Zatoichi's course is diverted from his penitent itinerary, and back to what seems to be his divinely appointed task of saving the village from yet another band of sweaty, smelly yakuza thugs. Upon meeting his would-be killer's sister, the weariness of his struggle and a momentary flirtation with the death wish causes him to drop his guard just long enough for a self-described "weakling" woman to slice his right shoulder rather severely. It's a truly shocking moment to see Zatoichi wounded by such a genteel hand.

In some ways, that conservative approach to the story's development is a disappointment because it would have been intriguing to see where they would have taken Zatoichi. But all in all, I can't regret the hesitancy to tamper with a good thing, since they could have easily mucked it all up too. I'm just pleased with the touch of moral and ethical ambivalence that our hero carries with him along the dusty roads he travels, even as he puts on full display, without resorting to ostentatious moralism, the venality and hypocrisy of not only the ruthless criminals but also the smug, self-satisfied farmers who fancy themselves hard-working decent folk. It keeps the swordplay and slaughter in perspective, even though just about everyone who perishes at the hands of Zatoichi clearly deserves what he gets, even if most of them are driven by shallow impulses of revenge or loyalty to an unworthy leader.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Violence at Noon (1966) - ES 21

Sometimes cruelty is unavoidable.

Even though I've reviewed several of Nagisa Oshima's earlier and subsequent films over the past several years, this brief article on Violence at Noon marks the famously transgressive Japanese director's debut on this blog. Those other reviews are hosted over on, to which I contributed my weekly Journey Through the Eclipse Series column from 2010 up until early 2014, when I finally decided that I'd covered enough (though not all) of the individual titles included in Criterion's DVD-only sideline to informally wrap up the project and focus more of my time on podcasting and staying current with this blog. But I'm now planning to mount a brief resumption of that column from time to time, as I reach Eclipse Series films that come up in my timeline. The resumption of this blog in late 2014 caused me to rewrite my rules, so now I will include any other Criterion-related films found in the Eclipse line, on Hulu Plus, iTunes, LaserDisc or any other format associated with that brand. So expect write-ups of 1966 films lik Antonioni's Blow Up, de Broca's King of Hearts and Troell's Here's Your Life in the weeks/months ahead - none of which are currently available on Criterion discs of any sort.

Anyway, sorry for the news update that has little to do with the film in question, but this is my new "bloggy" style of reviewing and commentating on movies at work here, and I can't fit all that  information into a tweet, so I guess you'll have to indulge me.

Even in an era where many Japanese filmmakers were seriously intent on pressing the limits of propriety and challenging their society's reserved, some would say repressed, social norms, Oshima operated the extreme end of the spectrum. My most recent post here, on Hiroshi Teshigahara's The Face of Another, raised serious questions of the malleability of personal identity and medical ethics. Yukio Mishima's lone directorial effort Patriotism dramatically depicted the suicidal ritual of seppuku in a context emphasizing the act's erotic and political implications. Shohei Imamura leveled a jaded, cynical eye at the squalid ambitions of working class strivers in The Pornographers, and even a garish explosion of pop-cultural exuberance like Seijun Suzuki's Tokyo Drifter wove a world-weary message of disgust with the betrayal and exploitation of supposedly trustworthy authority figures in chronicling the tale of a contemporary ronin in exile from his yakuza bosses. (Side note: these are all movies released within the first half of 1966 - what an incredible season it must have been for Japanese cinephiles!)

As jarring, and in some cases even demented, as each of these films may have been, I think it's fair to say that Oshima exceeded them all in sheer outrage and amorality in Violence at Noon. (OK, I will concede that the sword 'n entrails bit in Patriotism wins the award for Biggest Visual Shock Value.) Here we have a dispassionate portrayal of Eisuke, a serial rapist and killer (based on a true story from the late 1950s in Japan) whose deadly, abusive rampage apparently began when he rescues his female friend Shino from a botched double suicide by hanging, in which her male lover died. While the man's corpse remains suspended by a rope from the limb of a tree, Eisuke sexually violates Shino, thinking she was already dead (not that his mistaken assessment justifies the subsequent act in any way.) Shino eventually wakes up, rather disoriented of course, and goes through the onslaught of conflicting emotions one is likely to feel upon discovering that that one has been both rescued and raped by the same man. Adding further levels of complication to this already incredibly depraved story line is the fact that Eisuke is involved in a loveless marriage to another woman, Matsuko, toward whom he feels mostly contempt whenever he's roused from a more general indifference. But he can't bring himself to unleash the same savage forces on his wife that he has on the women strangers that he's randomly accosted in broad daylight in their homes (hence, Violence at Noon) as opportunities present themselves. Furthermore, the two women, who each harbor some kind of twisted loyalty to the rapist/killer they claim to love, inadvertently get enmeshed in a somewhat clumsy effort to cover up Eisuke's crimes as the police start piecing together the clues and closing in on their target.

So... just articulating this summary of the general action of Oshima's film is enough to leave me feeling rather soiled of conscience and even a bit confused as to my own motive in writing about the film. Clearly, these are characters with profoundly debilitating ethical blind spots, tragically disconnected to the real-world consequences of their actions, or failures to act, as the case may be. There's nothing that I can consider to be liberating or enlightening about the struggles they go through, nothing close to virtuous about the course of life that they've embarked on, and very little that I can draw from to illuminate my own path forward from where I currently find myself in my own journey.

And yet I do find myself admiring Oshima's steely nerve and audacious technique in putting this story in front of his audience. I suppose the reality-based nature of this sad series of events provides a certain degree of legitimacy for his explorations. He's doing what he can to provide some insight as to what might drive otherwise sensible people (Matsuko is an elementary school teacher, Shino is a domestic maid who's trying to work her way into a respectable life) to support a violent, remorseless sociopath. We might even conclude that Oshima, like many other directors who focus their lens on society's dark underbellies, is doing his culture a harsh but necessary favor by reminding us all of the hideous depths to which we can sink when we find ourselves profoundly disappointed and disconnected from our fellow humans. Whether we land in the role of criminal, accomplice or mere enabler, I know without a doubt that very many fundamentally decent people have, for various reasons, found it within themselves to rationalize very horrible deeds, to the extent that they continue to proceed with their lives as if everything were normal, while they work desperately behind the surface of things to manage impulses, behaviors and circumstances that have grown far beyond their control. To the extent that watching a film like Violence at Noon can prepare us with wisdom and discernment to prevent falling into such a dire predicament, I think it serves a beneficial purpose.

As for Oshima's substantial contributions to the cinematic arts in this film, that is the territory I want to explore over on Criterion Cast, in that Journey through the Eclipse Series column I mentioned at the beginning of this essay. So my plan is to do this in dialogue with an online friend (who I hope to meet in person someday), Aaron West. Aaron is the author of the Criterion Blues blog, and I've greatly enjoyed making his acquaintance over the past several months. He recently reviewed Oshima's first "Criterion proper" release, In the Realm of the Senses, and has even more recently viewed Violence at Noon. I happened to see his mention of that film on his Twitter feed the other day, and since we watched it at just about the same moment in time, I thought it would be a perfect occasion to collaborate on reviewing this rather complex and multi-faceted film. Our method will be to correspond by email over the next several days or so, until our conversation runs its course. I'll then edit our contributions down into something neat and comprehensible, and publish it soon. I'm far from putting in my last word on Oshima's pivotal film from 1966, but this will serve as my placeholder here for now, as I prepare to move on to the other movies in my queue.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

The Face of Another (1966) - #395

The face is the door to the soul. When the face is closed off, so too is the soul. Nobody is allowed inside. 

The first time I watched Hiroshi Teshigahara's The Face of Another, a few years ago, I was intrigued, but I still settled on the conventional wisdom that it faltered a bit as a follow-up to the almost universally praised Woman in the Dunes. A hasty revisit this past summer, while I was in the midst of my blogging hiatus (but still making progress on my goal of watching all the Criterion films in chronological order of release), I have to admit, did little to alter my first impression. That was probably due to the fact that I was cramming in too many films in too short of a time, in that flush of liberation that I felt from the burden of responsibility to fully digest a film and then write about it, before moving on to the next one in my queue. But now that I'm back in the routine of gathering my thoughts on each film in order, watching them more carefully with the goal of composing a review in short order afterward, I must acknowledge the inadequacy of my initial assessment. This is a truly astonishing film, richly laden with all manner of praiseworthy components: fascinating set designs, striking visual compositions, profoundly provocative ideas, a surrealistic atmosphere suffused with the icy modernistic alienation that was just falling out of fashion at the time of the film's release but that still offers an incisive critique to those living in 2015.

Indeed, The Face of Another is probably as prescient in regard to our era as any film from 1966 could hope to be, as the concept of personal identity and our individual distinctiveness in the midst of mass society are in some ways more malleable and subject to personal customization than ever. But in other ways, we are more locked in and defined by external forces, through the power of digital record keeping and the apparatus of the security state than any prior generation. This is a movie that stirs up so many thoughts and questions, I'll try to address a few of them here (though I will leave a lot undiscussed, including the entire "film within a film" subplot involving the disfigured girl. I can get into that in the comments if anyone wants to follow up on it there.)

The basic questions being explored in The Face of Another concern the possibilities of making a mid-life switch, somehow exercising the privilege of separating ourselves from the baggage of our past while still continuing to enjoy the benefits of existence. In other words, all the relief and escape promised by an act of suicide without the permanent (and largely indeterminate) consequences of following through on that impulse. There must have been some kind of restless anxiety about this concern buzzing through the cinematic zeitgeist of 1966, as a couple of other films coming up soon on this blog, Seconds and Persona, also take on similar themes. To pursue this topic, the creative team of Teshigahara and novelist/screenwriter Kobo Abe devised the scenario of a relatively affluent industrial engineer named Okuyama who suffers horrible facial mutilations due to a lab accident and turns to an ingenious psychiatrist/plastic surgeon with a very loose standard of professional ethics. The two of them, in tandem with a similarly unscrupulous nurse, succeed in implanting a facial mask that conceals his injuries so accurately that no one interacting with him socially would ever guess that a gruesome visage lurks just a few millimeters below that smooth surface of manufactured skin. The fact that the mask bears the handsome features of Tatsuya Nakadai is just an added bonus. (I'm seriously stunned to contemplate that Nakadai had just wrapped up work on The Sword of Doom to take on this role, that is every bit as compelling and badass as the lethal samurai Ryunosuke, though it draws on an entirely different skill set of an actor's toolbox.)

The secrecy of this illicit experiment extends even to Okuyama's wife. The relationship between husband and wife has understandably been strained by his injuries, but it seems apparent that Okuyama is more eager to jump at this chance to create an independent life for himself than he is to work through this phase of shock and separation that the couple is going through. Far from being interested in some kind of reconciliation, the conversations between the patient and his psychiatrist indicate that Okuyama has been deeply unhappy with his lot in life long before the accident, and much of this dissatisfaction stems from a host of unsettled questions he has about his value and purpose as a human being. Afternoons spent in a German-style beer hall, in the midst of an unidentified Japanese metropolis, are filled with philosophical ruminations that are at once intelligently thought through even as they show signs of incipient megalomania. But that's not to say that Okuyama was psychologically unbalanced prior to suffering his wounds, not at all. I think Abe and Teshigahara are intimating that many of us experience a similar sense of existential discomfort and corrosive indifference as inhabitants of modern society. It's just his unprecedented opportunity to step out of the usual grind and take a fresh experimental look at the possibilities of a new and unfettered social presence that has brought Okuyama's latent grandiosity and narcissistic self-indulgence to the surface.

As the tormented soul behind the mask continues to apply his cynical hypothesis about what motivates people (by projecting his own paranoia and misanthropy onto others), he soon discovers that even the most brilliantly designed and flawlessly executed disguise can only conceal so much. Frustrated by his inability to fool a young cognitively impaired girl whose instincts are unfailing, Okuyama abandons any serious effort to construct a new and independent life for himself. Instead, he warps this unique opportunity into a mission of vengeance and entrapment as he sets out to seduce his wife - a test of her fidelity, in his mind, to see if she would remain true to her vows while she believes her husband to be away on an extended business trip. The outcome of this stunt goes about as badly for Okuyama as such a jealously small-minded and abusive prank deserves, leading the patient/victim to flail out in a final act of futile retaliation against the diabolical genius who led him down this path (and who seems oddly welcoming of his own sudden dispatch from this world.)

These are just a few of the ruminations that The Face of Another stirred up in me. I could probably go on longer but I'm really trying to keep these reviews short and to the point, without reiterating all of the fascinating details that are so thoroughly covered in James Quandt's exceptional written and video essays that accompany this disc as part of the Three Films by Hiroshi Teshigahara box set that Criterion issued in 2007. In them, Quandt expertly identifies the artistic and philosophical influences that informed the director and draws our eye to the marvelous variety of cinematic techniques used to tell this story in such a compelling and rewatchable manner. I have to give Quandt substantial credit for helping me connect a lot of dots so that I could more clearly recognize the brilliance of what I was taking in through my third (and most careful) viewing so far. Even more so than Pitfall and Woman in the Dunes (which I think has proved to be a more enduringly popular classic due to its ravishing erotic content and a more mythic and accessible story line), The Face of Another is a movie I would really love to see on the big screen. Short of that, I think this set really deserves a Blu-ray upgrade. It's already a beautiful package, but a reissue would get these films in front of an audience that I think would be very appreciative. Even though Teshigahara stuck with the old-fashioned 4:3 aspect ratio in making them, the three titles collected in this box still feel sharp and ahead of their time.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Cul-de-Sac (1966) - #597

I've got a problem here... I've got a problem! 

Cul-de-sac is most certainly one of those films that I would have a lot more to say about in the context of a podcast discussion than in a written essay such as the one I'm working on at the moment. A bit of a step-down from the enduring classics that Roman Polanski directed in the 1960s, both before (Knife in the Water, Repulsion) and after (Rosemary's Baby), it's pretty easy to regard Cul-de-sac as a marginal transition piece or even an indulgent throwaway, best left to the deserved obscurity of a young but talented filmmaker bent on exploring the possibilities of an eccentric cast, a uniquely picturesque location and a script that took full advantage of the burgeoning anarchic spirit of its era. Indeed, the film was very hard to find until Criterion released it back in 2011, a surprising delay at first glance given Polanski's reputation and award-winning career (I won't bother getting into the scandalous aspects of his personal history.) But having watched it a few times now, I can easily understand why even a label like Criterion required some extended consideration before it landed on the right time and framework to introduce this film to a wider home video audience.

The main thrust of the action involves a comically fractious triangle, not of love, but of a more primal and savagely destructive clash of wills, between three mismatched but stuck with each other archetypes: Richard, a brutish criminal thug who intrudes on the unhappy marriage of George, a simpering timid intellectual painter, and Teresa, an intelligent but carnally frustrated woman driven by her sexual cravings into a paralysis of indecision as she tries to sort out her feelings of attraction for these two masculine extremes. Forces of nature and circumstance bind the three of them together in a strange remote locale, a castle on the tidal island of Lindisfarne on the northeast coast of England, just below the border of Scotland. It's a remarkable setting that is used to wonderful effect, though I imagine some purists of the Lindisfarne heritage are probably uncomfortable with the way this rather crass, cynical cinematic affair might tarnish the area's sacred history and ambiance.

Contemptuous of her husband's cowardice, but equally repelled by the abusive violence that Richard continuously threatens as his default approach to establishing relationships, Teresa's lot is rather unhappy from beginning to end, though she's hardly blameless for all the misery inflicted upon her. Other characters intrude on the tawdry, occasionally violent and frequently nonsensical dead end that these characters have fallen into, but Polanski mostly plays the wretched scenario for laughs of a dark, bitter and abysmally deprecating sort. Though the performance of overheated exchanges between all the players are consistently energetic and effective, the personalities portrayed are all pretty repulsive, which is apparently by intention. Lots of absurdity in this one, with emotions unhinged, volatile characters all cut loose from the usual inhibitions that keep straight society in line. I'm sure that restless, unpredictable craziness, an atmosphere where anything could happen, was a big part of the attraction for all who were involved in the project.

This film is very much a product of that mid-60s exploration of radical new possibilities in recontextualizing older cultural traditions (gangster film tropes, in this case) alongside looser standards of violence, sexuality and narrative discontinuity, where the pressure to deliver a story that adheres to something resembling a plausible real life scenario isn't quite as strong as it was with the conventional Hollywood picture. Polanski obviously had a lot of great work ahead of him in more traditional genre films, and it's fun to see him crafting something unique in that free-wheeling experimental mode. Cul-de-sac can come across as a refreshingly bizarre, enjoyably wacky novelty item given the right mood and situation (my response when I saw it for the first time last summer), or it could just as easily be seen as a frustrating, inconsequential excursion into pointless bedlam if approached from an incompatible wavelength (pretty much how it struck me when I watched it again last night.) I'm glad to have it on my shelf in any case, and I know that I'll enjoy the opportunity to revisit it again when I'm in the right frame of mind.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Au hasard Balthazar (1966) - #297

...a world of make-believe, not reality. Reality is different.

Au hasard Balthazar presents the most significant challenge yet to this new style of "quick take" blogging I've adopted over the past month after resuming activity on this site. By reputation, it's one of Robert Bresson's most sublime and impeccably realized cinematic masterworks, and the reverential esteem in which its held by many of the most probing intellects and deeply versed experts on cinema is given ample documentation in the Criterion DVD's liner notes and supplements. By substance, it's a film that clearly takes its time relating a story redolent with Christian and existential symbolism, its message delivered by means of patiently composed images, exquisitely edited with a careful deliberation so painstaking that one finds no fault that Bresson and his coterie of admirers should reasonably expect that viewers of a refined sensibility will ponder it carefully before rendering their verdict. This is the kind of film that tends to make anyone who tosses off a rash dismissive summary look, if you'll pardon the pun, like a jackass.

But therein also lies some of the problem, even (dare I say?) hazards (sorry) of watching this film and then making so bold as to commentate upon it. Writing up a review of Au hasard Balthazar feels to me almost as audacious and risky an undertaking as is the task of authoring a new commentary on one of the biblical gospels - a project one doesn't simply leap into without at least acknowledging in humility that the text in question has already been the object of close, meticulous study, and is densely packed with material that can reasonably be interpreted in many, sometimes even contradictory, ways. Furthermore, the more definitive one's opinion on a particular passage, the more emphatic a point one seeks to make based on a certain exegesis, the more likely one is to provoke a passionate response from one of the film's defenders, especially if the conclusion cuts against the prevailing orthodoxy that has developed over the centuries (in the case of the Bible) or decades (nearly five of them, in the case of this film.)

Then again, I may be guilty of a bit of hyperbole there. In which case, I'm in good company, since indeed, Au hasard Balthazar has been quite a reliable generator of that substance since it premiered in 1966. One of the extras I alluded to on the DVD is Un metteur en ordre: Robert Bresson, a French TV program that aired back when the film was first released. In it, we are first treated to the praises offered by luminaries like Jean-Luc Godard, Louis Malle and Marguerite Duras, all three of whom bestow the highest words of benedictory approval on Bresson for his latest manifestation of brilliance. Even the moderator of the panel makes little effort to establish himself as voice of neutral objectivity, though of course his enthusiasm for the film carries neglible weight of influence when compared to the three cultural titans named above, who each basically regard Au hasard Balthazar as a vanguard breakthrough, heralding the cinema of the future, using the media of film and soundtrack to forge an entirely new form of artistic expression. It's really quite an amazing display of adulation in particular from two directors both very much in their prime and creating rather exceptional, innovative films themselves in this very era. It's clear that they see Bresson not as a rival, but rather as a master whom they both seek to emulate, and perhaps whose approval in some faint measure they seek.

Likewise, Donald Richie's solo interview serves as a paean to the overall greatness of Bresson and especially his notable achievement in this film. He admits to watching Au hasard Balthazar "many, many times" over the years, and is always moved to tears by the ending, observing that the film yields up new insights and makes fresh impacts upon him with each subsequent viewing. Though the reader by now may be on the fact that I have yet to be moved quite so deeply by this film, which I think I've seen probably five times now (always on DVD, never on the big screen, so keep that in mind), I don't doubt Richie's sincerity in the slightest. I just think he was in on the first wave, when Bresson's vision was indeed quite distinctive, pure and vital in its relation and distinction from the art films of that era, so the linkage of sentiment and initial discovery absolutely sets the tone for his comments offered nearly 40 years later (when that interview was conducted in 2004.)

Echoing much of what we see (and read, in James Quandt's equally laudatory liner notes) in the add-ons included with this edition, the library shelves of canonical film criticism are fairly well loaded with rapturous essays extolling the virtues of Au hasard Balthazar, to the point where it feels to me at times like I'm listening for the ring of truth from inside the middle of an echo chamber when I sample the consensus. Turning to see what that high influencer of conventional wisdom Roger Ebert had to say about the film, I was actually quite disappointed to see that he made a few sloppy mistakes in his write-up, mentioning in his "Great Films" review that "there is a local drunk who is not cruel or thoughtless to the animal, despite his other crimes." Maybe Roger had dozed off for a moment when Arnold (the local drunk he mentions) goes after Balthazar and his donkey companion with a chair, which we hear crashing down hard across the beasts' backs off camera, and which he tosses at them as they frantically run away from the abuse. The trauma is so severe that later, when Balthazar sees his abusive ex-owner in the crowd at a circus where he's been trained to perform, the poor animal gets frantic and in an instant loses the value that he'd brought to the circus, thereby landing him back in the hands of the man who'd treated him both cruelly and thoughtlessly.

And toward the end of the review, Ebert mentions that Balthazar, "old and near death, wanders into a herd of sheep... lies down and eventually dies" without taking note of the fact that the donkey had actually been shot (accidentally, caught in the crossfire as police of some sort presumably intercept a pair of smugglers who are using the donkey to carry stolen goods across a border) and was bleeding to death. Balthazar's death, then, is caused by his inadvertent involvement in a criminal human enterprise, making him a victim, perhaps even a martyr, not just a sad old beast who'd reached the end of his days. This is an important detail that seems to be overlooked a fair amount of the time in other written treatments of the film's ending. I don't really take offense at Ebert's simplified assertions about the film, but I offer it up more as evidence of how this hallowed classic of the art house scene has been objectified in its own way, as is often the case with other religious texts that get used as justification for sweeping pronouncements and sentimental application by those who invoke their authority.

So I'm spending all this time just setting up my own thoughts on Au hasard Balthazar by establishing the context in which I've viewed it over the years, led to believe by authorities that I trust and respect almost innately that this film is indeed a pinnacle of its art, a standard by which we can take the measure of other works. Without a doubt, I was suitably impressed by Bresson's genius in creating a uniquely memorable film, quite unlike anything I'd ever seen. The film evokes feelings of astonishment that struck me on several occasions as I watched a donkey, legendarily the most stubborn of all domesticated beasts, seemingly perform on cue in scenes that were so nicely framed and edited, flowing smoothly one after the other in such a way that one feels a sense of lyric naturalism as Balthazar hauls his physical (and also spiritual) loads across the picturesque, rustic terrain. But then again, what director is more famously patient even to the point of fighting off (or even seeking) mind-numbing tedium, shooting retake after retake, having to wait until just exactly the right expression (or lack thereof) has been captured, than Robert Bresson?

Well, just speaking for myself, the cold sad truth is, I'm pretty certain that I like just about all of Bresson's earlier films more than this one (well, I'd probably have to go rewatch Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne to be totally sure on that... in fact I'll just go ahead and exempt that one without even doing the revisit.) Diary of a Country Priest, A Man Escaped, Pickpocket - those three films at least all left me feeling quite satisfied with the blend of intellectual rigor, superb aesthetics and gripping contemplation of the particular challenges and ordeals faced by their respective protagonists. Balthazar, on the other hand, is a film consisting of numerous moments of miraculous beauty interspersed with scenes where it felt to me that Bresson was overextending his habitual employment of methods aimed at eliminating all aspects of "performance" from his cast. Though there are many instances scattered throughout the film where I firmly dispute Bresson's claim (made in the TV interview) that his objective is to show how people behave in real life, as opposed to the customary habits we've come to expect from movie actors, I'll offer just a few examples here.

First, there's Marie's nearly mute passivity during just about all of the most emotionally crucial moments of the film. She's frequently on the verge of being physically and/or sexually assaulted by Gerard, the sinister and aimless teenage hoodlum who hovers around her most of the time, and crosses the threshold of abuse far too often. Marie's statuesque posture during most of those occasions reeks of artifice to me. Even if she had a terrible reluctance to vocalize her feelings of insecurity, intrigue, dread and/or fascination, it's pretty clear to me that Bresson wants her positioned just so when she's on camera. I had a hard time getting past that obvious staging, even though she's sublimely and tragically beautiful in those scenes.

I was also quite distracted by the whole sequence involving the wino Arnold, asleep in his shanty and woken up by Gerard and his gang who want to warn him that the police are moving in, presumably to arrest him for an unsolved murder. Seeing that the cops are already approaching the house, the boys head out the back door, but they leave a gun for Arnold, which he subsequently points and shoots at one of the gendarmes, only to discover that the pistol wasn't loaded. The cop seizes the gun, notes the empty chamber, but takes no steps toward arresting his would-be killer. Instead, he takes Arnold by the wrist and tells him that he has some "terrific news" to share. Now I know that the French police force of the mid-1960s was quite different than the paramilitary patrols that monitor the streets of Ferguson, Missouri or Cleveland, Ohio or any other American metropolis in the 21st century. But an officer that non-chalant about a man who just pulled the trigger of a gun pointed at him... that just strains my credulity.

And finally, I'm still having a hard time making sense of Gerard's rampant mirror-smashing, bottle-throwing, booze-wasting vandalism at the celebratory party that Arnold threw to share the good news of his massive inheritance with his fellow visitors. In response to the young man's destructive frenzy, Arnold just sits there staring into space, his hands on his knees, not responsive at all to the chaos. OK, I can concede that perhaps Arnold is recognizing his unworthiness to inherit such a fortune, and so he refuses to interfere with Gerard's outburst. But nobody else at the party tries to stop him either. They just keep on dancing while shards of glass come crashing down all around, after he jumps up on the bar and starts pulling down shelves. Yes, I get that there's poetic justice being served here, and a dramatic enactment of providential balance being restored in the actions of this rebellious young destroyer, whose malice also serves as a messenger of divine wrath. But again, I see this scene as another indicator that Bresson's tactics did not always live up to his declared aspirations.

Nevertheless, this is an impressive, beautiful and highly evocative film. I also think it's flawed, a little too self-exalted and overly refined for its own good. Because of the indisputable brilliance and the critical establishment's fond appreciation of its auteur, Au hasard Balthazar is thereby shielded from some of the knocks that I think it deserves. I think Bresson would have done well to have collaborated just a bit more with his youthful actors especially, as it seems apparent that he was looking for an angle of approach to address this generation of children born after the war who were becoming so troublesome and disconsolate to the French bourgeoisie at the time. Still, there's no doubt that taken on its own terms, the film was and is extremely successful. I just think that Bresson might have successfully connected with a larger and more diverse audience that would stand to benefit from his insights, if he'd been more open to allowing more warmth and relying less heavily on the overt symbolism of this story about an endlessly patient, pitifully brutalized animal who died for the sins of the world into which it was born.

Next: Cul-de-sac