Saturday, October 18, 2014


It's been three months since I last posted here. The summer got busy for me with a number of family-related obligations, a promotion at work and an expanded focus on podcasting when it comes to documenting my movie watching activities. All these commitments and priorities have resulted in a lack of updates to this blog, and it's taken me this long to gather my thoughts about what the future may hold for Criterion Reflections. So I'll take a few minutes to summarize where things are at with me and see if I can use this process to resolve some of my own ambiguities about what to do in this space going forward.

Even though I didn't take the time to write up reviews for the Criterion films of 1966, I've already made my way through the list, watching them all over the weeks following the essay on Brakhage's Two: Creeley/McClure that I published in late July. For me, accustomed as I was to the habit of taking several days, sometimes a week or even longer to ponder and digest a film before blogging about it, it was quite liberating to just watch a movie per day, without the burden of responsibility to compose the kind of (relatively) comprehensive review that I had set as my own standard over the years since I started this series in January 2009. It's been a long time since I enjoyed such a long stretch of freedom in watching movies that challenged and inspired me, unencumbered by any particular literary expectations, self-imposed as they may be. As it turns out, that freedom has been both exhilarating and addictive, to the point that I now feel such a distance from the roll I was on from Jan. '09 until July '14 that it's clear I will have some serious work to do to recapture the magic, so to speak.

Which is all quite fine with me. I have no problem looking at the product I've created so far, covering Criterion films from 1921 - 1965 in a fairly thorough fashion that's pretty unique among all the blogs that are out there. Of course, that leaves us in the lurch a bit, as things really began to take off in radical new directions in 1966 and going forward, in regard to world cinema as well as popular culture in general. So the idea of just dropping this commitment altogether, of ceasing this journey at this particular juncture, does not sit well with me at all. So my task is to figure out the best way to continue the project. The concept of "blogging" itself is beginning to feel a bit outdated, to me at least, with the quicker, more immediate gratification of social media posts serving as a more convenient and responsive outlet. For a few weeks, I was using my Tumblr blog, with its greater emphasis on visual elements and a seeming lack of emphasis on the written word, to document each film I watched, but that habit fell off a bit as well. Letterboxd is another place where I have been charting my movie consumption, though even there, it's been more about noting the dates than typing out my response to a film. I could easily be more intentional about maintaining my cinematic diary, so for the moment, I think that Letterboxd is probably the most likely "next step" that I'll take. Another option is to revamp this blog in some way so that I can offer quick takes on the post-1965 movies that I have yet to commentate upon, even though I have some gripes about the limitations and general clunkiness of the platform. We'll just have to wait and see what happens, I guess.

In the meantime, I remain highly committed to my podcasting and reviewing opportunities over at, where I host The Eclipse Viewer, contribute regularly to that site's Main Episodes, and compose articles discussing new releases to the Criterion Collection as they're issued from month to month. So I think I'll finish this update on that note. I welcome your feedback and questions, if you have any.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Two: Creeley/McClure (1965) - #517

Two portraits in relation to each other, the first of Robert Creeley, the second of Michael McClure.

So to wrap up my coverage of the Criterion films of 1965, I'm left with this short (3 minute, 14 second) fragment of a longer series that Stan Brakhage put together sometime during the course of that year. Back in 2011, almost exactly three years ago to this day, as a matter of fact, I came up with this solution for how to integrate the films contained in by Brakhage, Volumes 1 and 2 into the chronological sequence of this blog. Since the films don't typically have a release date listed on IMDb, and come in all varieties of duration, from just a few seconds to several hours, I figured I would just summarize whatever he released during a given year as my final entry for that sequence. That works better for some years than it does for 1965, as we only get this brief sample of his output that year, Two: Creeley/McClure, one section of a 15 part, 31 minute work called Song Traits. For reasons that the Criterion package liner notes never bother to explain, the rest of the series was not included, so if we're really curious about what "happens" in the rest of that sequence, we have some hard work to do to gain access to a print. (Yes, I have searched all the usual sites and can't find a trace of any of the other Song Traits bits.)

But for the record, I did find this breakdown of the other stuff he produced that year, other than the Songs, which was a longer running series that he began in 1964 and concluded in 1969 (roughly coinciding with the peak productive years of those other noteworthy creators of songs, The Beatles):

  • Three Films (Blue/White, Blood's Tone and Vein)
  • Fire of Waters
  • Pasht
  • Two: Creeley/McClure
  • Black Vision

So apparently there is a solid precedent for viewing the film I'm about to examine as a singular piece unto itself.

Here it is:


In order to gain a fuller appreciation for the film, it's indisputably helpful to know at least a bit about who Robert Creeley (died 2005) and Michael McClure (still alive) were, in 1965. Both men had established a solid reputation within the beat poetry scene of that era as accomplished writers with multiple books published by leading alternative/independent presses, and they went on to even greater achievements over the course of their respective careers. They each had their champions within progressive literary academia and were well regarded as worthy contributors to the emerging American counter-culture. Both of them had settled into the San Francisco Bay Area by the mid-60s, and even though Brakhage was living in Colorado at that time, it seems likely that they traveled in the same circles. I have no idea if the footage in that clip was shot in Brakhage's home or if he was passing through Northern California when he sat them both down for their respective portraits. Or maybe it was filmed somewhere entirely different. It's quite likely that some answers to this and other questions can be found in this e-book collection of correspondence between Brakhage and McClure titled The Flame is Ours but I haven't taken the time to sift through the archive.

The film divides neatly into two halves, the first featuring Creeley, the second McClure. Creeley's presentation is the more contemplative and sensibly coherent of the pair, mostly consisting of him sitting somewhat pensively, his back to a wall, underneath a bookshelf, drawing on a cigarette, hands folded, smiling and rubbing his brow. Multiple exposures, inverted negative images and a more casual pace with the editing (in comparison with the frenetic madness of the McClure section) give the impression that Creeley is the more relaxed and thoughtful of the two. Beginning with a wider angle encompassing most of the room, Brakhage points his camera at Creeley's head, then his hands, then his feet, then his crotch, then his upper torso. He flips the sequence around a few times, softening up the focus and subtly bringing attention to Creeley's face, which happens to be missing its left eye (which he lost in a childhood accident when he was just four years old.) Creeley's wound is never brought directly onto the screen, but he runs his hand over the left side of his head several times.

After that, Brakhage scratches a horizontal scar into several frames of black leader, and we're sent off on a wildly hyperactive but brief journey into the space inhabited by Michael McClure. The editing here is insane and intense - most of the shots are of only one frame's duration before Brakhage cuts to something else. Some of those frames are quite enigmatic: a lion's head, and the bare-chested image of a long-haired man in what seems to me like an arms crossed wrestling pose. Most of them are face and head shots of McClure, but often in very soft focus, darkly opaque and elusive. A slow-speed crawl through this part of the film in particular reveals small tantalizing mysteries and sparks a genuine intrigue as to exactly how Brakhage created some of these visual effects working with such cheap 8mm equipment.

Whereas Creeley seems to have something wryly ponderous on his mind, McClure's attitude and expression is slightly more wary and diffident. His gaze (though greatly obscured by the heavy sepia tones of the treated film) penetrates the lens for a few moments before he catches himself and covers up his eyes with his fingers, tilting his head back to regather his thoughts. After stabilizing that sense of distance between himself and the camera, McClure resumes his calculated, confident repose, even turning his back to the audience for a moment as the room brightens up considerably and we're moved in for an extreme close-up. Having been duly lionized by the obvious admiration of the filmmaker, Two: Creeley/McClure flashes out to a bright white conclusion before the infamous scrawl of Brakhage brings the segment to its close.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Simon of the Desert (1965) - #460

Avert thy wrath... They could not... My heart... Oh my Lord - I can't remember how it ends.

As one of the very shortest films that Criterion ever deemed worthy of having its own spine number, Luis Bunuel's Simon of the Desert is the kind of film that could quite justifiably be served a brief presumptive knock-off of a review. Just bang out a few paragraphs, summarize the simple one-note thrust of the film (about a religious fanatic who torments himself in an ascetic pursuit of holiness, only to finally yield to worldly enticements), explain the circumstances that led to it being released in almost fragmentary form and be done with it. After all, I'm getting to the end of 1965, just one more title to review after this one, then I can mark another peg of progress in my seemingly interminable quest ("yes, I'm down to only 48 years to get caught up to the present day!")

It's a tempting thought, to make quick work of this apparently minor effort of Bunuel's... but no, I must follow Simon's example, and resist temptation! At least for awhile - make a valiant effort, even if resistance ultimately proves to be futile, as was also the case with that poor self-abnegating disciple. After I've fought the good fight long enough, then I will be done with this review, feeling no shame, knowing that I've run the race and paid my penance. I'll hit the publish button and then be ready to look at a little piece of work by Stan Brakhage before I put '65 behind me on this blog, once and for all. And I won't even have the tangible reward of being able to party and dance (if I so choose) with Silvia Pinal at the end of it all. I'm beginning to feel quite impressed with my humility in all this.

So sometime during the year in 1965, Luis Bunuel set aside a few weeks to create a film based loosely on the historical account of Symeon the Stylite, a monk who lived in 5th century Syria and became something of a legend due to his odd piety that compelled him to live for nearly four decades on top of a succession of pillars that ranged from nine to almost fifty feet high off the ground. Such a perverse insistence on demonstrating his devotion to God by renouncing all comforts and chastising himself so severely had, and still has, an awe-inspiring effect on many of Symeon's fellow believers, who found plenty to admire in his single-minded focus, though it set him up for plenty of ridicule as well, again both then and now.

Symeon's seemingly bizarre behavior, and his determination to persist for so long in a practice that yielded no tangible benefit to the poor, the suffering and the outcast, also made him an object of fascination for Bunuel. The director was an affably outspoken atheist (really, more of a lapsed and cynical Christian than the kind of hyper-rational scientific materialist as we might think of when we hear the term "atheist" used nowadays) whose films had long been famous from his earliest efforts (Un Chien Andalou, L'age d'Or) for their satirical and occasionally blasphemous skewering of religious orthodoxy. So with what seems to have been a fairly loose outline of a script in mind, a meager budget and a lack of clarity as to what the final film would even look like when they were done, Bunuel and his small but dedicated cast and crew set out into the Mexican desert, determined to capture and perhaps make intelligible the enigmatic mystery that drove this venerable old saint to such extremes of personal denial.

Well, let me be clear, so as to not mislead anyone. I don't think that Bunuel really sought to explore in much depth the circumstances or interior drives that shaped the young Simon, nor is there anything quite resembling the reverent neorealist solemnity that Roberto Rossellini maintained in The Flowers of Saint Francis, his study of the life of Francis of Assisi. Still, I don't consider Simon of the Desert to be quite as overt a spoof of religious practice (in either real life, or the movies) as something like Monty Python's The Life of Brian or even the more farcical moments in Bunuel's subsequent treatment of Christian faith in The Milky Way. 

As I see it, we're never led to view Simon through lenses of scorn or mockery or smug condescension, even though those who do take a derisive stance toward religion will probably find their opinions comfortably affirmed here. We all tend to see what we want to see when setting out to interpret art. As strangely irrational as his devotion might be, Simon remains a character I can empathize with all throughout the film. It's a given that, for reasons never made clear to us, his path of hardship, sacrifice and withdrawal was necessary and based on some kind of rigorous adherence to principle. In the case of the real-life Symeon, his perch atop the pillar was a way of getting away from the crowds, and maybe getting just a few yards closer to heaven. At some point, living atop the elevated platform became so distinctive and emblematic of his ministry that he couldn't come down without calling his vows entirely into question. In a way, I'm reminded of Meher Baba's vow of silence that he maintained for several decades to the day he died, after promising his followers that when he did utter a sound once again, it would mark a definitive new epoch in the spiritual evolution of humanity. Of course, he died without ever speaking that fateful Word, leading to all sorts of rationalizations and re-interpretations of what the great master must have meant by those earlier signals.

But back to our movie version of Simon. Here we're shown an earnest and disciplined man who is now about the business of maintaining the promises he made some six years, six weeks and six days earlier (at the beginning of the film) to live atop a stone column, subsisting on a meager diet and edifying those who come to hear him preach from his harsh, sun-baked pulpit. His reluctant acceptance of an honor bestowed upon him by a wealthy patron to relocate to a taller, grander and more classically beautiful pillar turns out to be a moment of significant disruption to him. The ominous symbolism of that 6-6-6 anniversary should have been clear enough, it seems, to alert him to the danger... but once he ascends his new perch, the devil, in the form of a beautiful, tauntingly playful woman, begins to sow mischief, with the sole intention of luring Simon to a point of doubt as to the legitimacy of his original calling.

So that's the set-up... I'm going to publish this for starters, but I have more thoughts on the film that are still in process. Comments are welcome if you have any. Otherwise, check back soon, I'll have an updated and finished review posted by the end of this week.

*                    *                    *

Let's get into the theology of Simon of the Desert. Several of the movie's earlier scenes show him in varying degrees of tension with both the clergy and laity with whom he shares his faith. As is most often the case with prophetic figures all through the ages, Simon's conflicts are more acute with the ecclesiastical authorities, in whom he detects fatal strains of sanctimony, pride and vanity, and shows no reluctance to call out in plain terms when given the opportunity. He chastises them bluntly and urges them to maintain a strident fidelity to their vows of poverty and simplicity, secure in the assurance that hypocrites and liars will ultimately be exposed to divine judgement, regardless of their rank in the church or the splendor of their robes and raiment. Simon's confidence and singleness of purpose allows him to not only remain steadfast when accused of self-indulgence by a jealous detractor among the monks who gather at the base of his pillar, but to actively welcome the opportunity to suffer slander for the sake of righteousness.

As for the common salt of the earth folks, living a life of distraction torn between their mundane worldly endeavors and responding as best they can to God's upward calling, Simon is a bit more benevolent and understanding. His desire for them is that they simply not become too comfortable with their lot in life and forget to give thanks to the Lord for the meager provisions portioned out to them each day. Beyond that, Simon understands that his mission is to serve as a model of faithfulness and dedication for the simple souls whom he literally looks down upon each day.

But somewhere along the way, despite his nearly constant preoccupation with seeking to do the will of God and fixing his mind always on divine things, Simon drops his guard. Some two and a half years (or a half-hour, in movie time) after we're first introduced to him, Simon has another encounter with the devil that, though seemingly successfully resisted when he recognizes her disguise as a Christ-like shepherd, signals his inevitable, nay, predestined fall from grace. Satan's full-fledged attack is brought on by Simon's presumption to know the mind of his adversary. He rejects her flattering words when she praises the purity of his asceticism, and he returns her mockery by declaring that even if she were to repent for her sins, God would still condemn her to an eternity stuck in her present misery. Of course, that incurs the devil's wrath. Once that line is crossed, Simon will prove to be no match for a diabolical woman scorned.

Recognizing his peril, Simon makes a new declaration, self-righteously arming his soul with the weapons of self-restraint, prayer, charity and humility. On top of all that, he adds another layer of deprivation on to his bitter diet of tears and sorrow, sentencing himself to stand on one scabby and withered leg in order to intensify his penance. But rather than leading him to clarity and wisdom, his renewed zeal for holiness only leads to confusion. His pronouncements, once regarded as oracles of prophetic wisdom, are now simply a source of confusion for both him and his listeners. Its like the facade has fallen, the veil of mystery has been torn away. Simon can no longer persist in the delusions under which he has labored for so long, and with such apparently edifying effect. It's time for his faith to be put to the test, and in the process, bring about a transformation as painful, shocking and unexpected as it is vitally necessary for the redemption of his long-suffering soul: shedding the husk of a tired, wounded, withered and sun-baked corpus for the fearful revelation, yet to be fully understood, of a new body: a resurrection for the atomic age, the Radioactive Flesh.

P.S. One other thing I forgot to mention until I remembered it just now: On the short interview supplement with Silvia Pinal, she reveals that one of the reasons that Simon of the Desert was so short was that she herself thwarted the plan to make it part of an anthology film that might have included contributions from Federico Fellini and Jules Dassin, with each of them directing short segments featuring their wives (Giulietta Masina and Melina Mercouri, respectively.) Pinal was adamant that she not be supplanted or rivaled by any other leading women in this film, so her stubbornness basically chased Fellini and Dassin away from any collaboration with Bunuel. That's really a shame because, wow, what a thing that would have been to see those three directors on the same bill. But I love Pinal's performance here, and the abrupt brevity and randomness of this film in general, to harbor any resentment toward her for being so insistent. I suppose that her performance as the devil in this film was quite in character for her at this time! But if you want to imagine what a hypothetical Bunuel/Fellini/Dassin omnibus might have looked like, I propose a mental mash-up of this film, Fellini's Juliet of the Spirits and Dassin's 10:30 P.M. Summer, all of which featured their preferred leading ladies in very juicy and evocative roles. (I haven't seen the Dassin film but the reviews I've read make it seem rather wonderfully lurid, if flawed, and definitely pique my curiosity.)

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Samurai Spy (1965) - #312

Nothing is certain these days.

I've entered that part of my list of Criterion films of 1965 where I am simply cleaning up the "remainders," those titles for which I don't have an actual release date (as listed on For such films, I just lump them all in at the tail end of the given year. Usually, these are either short subjects or documentaries, the kind of movies where a theatrical release date is understandably difficult to determine. But as to why Samurai Spy doesn't have its premiere noted on IMDb, I have no idea. It seems like it was a sufficiently mainstream release that someone would have bothered to track down and record the occasion of its debut, but I guess this one just fell through the cracks. Still, it's quite fortuitous that Samurai Spy should come up in my queue right now, just after I recently reviewed both The Spy Who Came In From The Cold and Zatoichi and the Chess Expert. Both titles offer pointedly marked contrasts, as well as the obvious similarities in subject matter, to this one.

In 1965, spies were a well-established staple of popular entertainment, cashing in hard on the trend most famously popularized by the James Bond series of novels and films. TV shows like The Man from U.N.C.L.E.I Spy and Get Smart jumped on the craze, while Johnny Rivers' "Secret Agent Man" was just one of many radio hits that sought to capture the buzz in pop music. I have no idea whether director Masahiro Shinoda was nudged to follow the pack in this way as well, but the espionage and paranoia  themes certainly places Samurai Spy in its cultural Cold War context, even if the historical setting of the film takes place a full 350 years earlier in the tumultuous period following the establishment of the Tokugawa Shogunate in Japan. The script goes out of its way at the beginning of the film to explain in some detail the historic circumstances that set up the underlying conflict. That's especially helpful for Western viewers, even those like me who have by now watched quite a few Japanese period films and have earned a basic grasp on that nation's history but still need some remedial tutoring every so often to keep the major developments straight. (I have occasionally toyed with the notion of trying to sequence all of Criterion's historically based movies in chronological order of the eras they portray... but therein lies a road to madness, I fear.)

Despite the writers' efforts though, first (or even second) time viewers of Samurai Spy are likely destined for confusion if they intend to keep track of each twist of the story so that it all winds up making sense at the end. Criterion does provide some assistance by way of a character index that provides a spoiler-free summary of the main players, their affiliations and respective motivations as one of the video supplements, and its one of the few bonus shorts that I would recommend as almost-essential viewing before actually getting into the feature film itself. It's also handy to have the cast listing on the insert handy so that you can refresh yourself on who's in which clan as the various pursuits and conspiracies unfold.

But really, I think it's just as well to not get too hung up on all that notekeeping, if the narrative ambiguity doesn't provoke too much frustration, because there's so much to be enjoyed by just plunging into the gorgeously brooding, cynical, monochromatic atmosphere that Shinoda conjures up, with ample assistance from cinematographer Masao Kosugi (who also partnered up on the exceptional Pale Flower and another pair of visually impressive films - Assassin and With Beauty and Sorrow - currently available on Hulu Plus) and the brilliant composer Toru Takemitsu.

Once we establish our crucial identification with the titular character, Sasuke Sarutobi (the name of a legendary ninja whose fame was first established in pre-20th century Japanese folklore and popularized in books, manga and films as those media flourished), we can tag along on his whirlwind journey through a labyrinth of suspicion, seduction and slaughter plotted against him. In this story, he's one of several individuals trying to track down Tatewaki, a high-ranking officer who's suspected by friend and foe alike of being on the verge of defecting to his rival clan. If that were to happen, some kind of history-making shift of power would ensue. All of this is actually of no more importance to the actual experience and outcome of the film than your standard Hitchcockian MacGuffin, but it stirs up the conflict that puts everything else in motion. And what compelling motion it is. This is not the kind of elaborate, mythic sword-dancing that first established the chanbara genre (e.g. Inagaki's Samurai Trilogy), nor is it the massively choreographed brawling mayhem that came to be associated with Kurosawa's greatest historical epics (most notably, Seven Samurai.) Shinoda's approached is highly stylized, making use of extreme camera positioning (very close, very far away, all kinds of unusual angles, but for the most part rather infrequent camera movement, making it all the more effective and auspicious when he does introduce a pan or tracking shot), incorporating slow motion, static positioning of the fighters, thick layers of mist and fog, copious sprays of blood and perhaps most strikingly, a robust bag of ninja fighting tricks that haven't made their way into the Criterion Collection to this point in my blogging journey. I could toss in a few screencaps to get my point across here, but the Vintage Ninja blog has done a fantastic job grabbing some of the most dramatic frames from Samurai Spy, along with insightful commentary, so I'm happy to link you to his work. Clearly, this guy is a lot more serious and informed about the way of the ninja than I will ever be.

What I presume to be Shinoda's motive, the takeaway he has in mind for his viewers, is a broad dissemination of mistrust and skepticism toward those worldly powers whose machinations all too often propel their subordinates to ruin for no perceivable advantage to the combatants themselves. Their methods include torture, religious persecution, blatant betrayals of allies, family members and friends, any and every manner of deceit that could be employed to conceal motives, sow seeds of doubt and confusion. The story of Samurai Spy makes use of a larger than life personality, placing him and his awesome, deadly skills in one of the most critical periods of conflict in Japanese history. But there is no sense of fulfillment at the end of it all, no pivotal turning point or hard-fought victory to point to that ushers in anything resembling a new era of peace or prosperity. After the critical stalemate of the final duel is abruptly broken in a way that strains credulity (in a wonderful cameo appearance by Shintaro Ishihara, a celebrated author, the future governor of Tokyo and brother of "the Japanese Elvis" Yujiro Ishihara), we're informed that six months later, yet another war broke out, though no evidence exists that our supposed "hero" Sasuke bothered to get personally involved with it himself.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Zatoichi and the Chess Expert (1965) - #679

The man you're looking at is dirt. And everyone who comes close to him or touches him, in one way or another gets muddied by that dirt.

As the title implies, Zatoichi and the Chess Expert isn't the most action packed or visually innovative entry in the long saga of Japan's forever wandering blind masseur and master swordsman. In the third installment of the Zatoichi series released in 1965 alone (and 12th overall), the emphasis is much more on character development and an understandable search for some kind of a substantive wrinkle to toss into what had by then become a fairly standardized formula. The stories at this stage of development follow a predictable and satisfying sequence, wherein Zatoichi makes his way down a lightly populated road, discovers some kind of trouble brewing in the nearby village, finds himself aggressively accosted by a small but (for him) manageable pack of sword-wielding thug assassins and proceeds to once again take up with valiant humility the cause of some unfairly aggrieved poor folks who find themselves oppressed by greedy, unscrupulous villains - typically men of some privilege and power whose greed compels them to extract every last advantage they can, rather than take satisfaction in the wealth and influence they've already accrued. Along the way, our beloved Ichi will use some kind of trickery to finagle exorbitant winnings at the local gambling hub, cultivate a short but sweet friendship with a cute child or two, and dabble in a bit of humorous flirtation with a comely young woman (though always remaining disciplined and chaste since carnal indulgence for its own sake would be as completely out of character for him as it would have been for James Bond to adopt a shaggy hairdo, a nonviolent ethos and monkish asceticism in his movies around the same time.)

Among the unique features that may cause this film to stand out from among those that surround it in the series are a nautical sequence toward the beginning of the film, with the camera slowly tilting and shifting to simulate rolling ocean waves. I can't recall any other Zatoichi movies so far where he's been off land for an extended stretch. There are also a couple of rather surprising scenes where his uncanny, almost supernatural skills let him down. He actually loses a big bet while wielding the dice cup, and there's also a poignant moment where his blindness gets the best of him. It's a curiously effective touch of humanization, well-timed to remind us of Zatoichi's vulnerability and suffering, since by this point, we've become so used to him routinely achieving the impossible without hardly breaking a sweat. That balance of crippling emotional loss and underlying sadness is an important character trait to preserve in Zatoichi. If not for it, everything else would come too easily for the guy, though it feels weird typing it out like that.

With no reasonable motivation to switch up too radically on a template that was clearly serving them well, the creative forces behind Zatoichi were faced with the challenge of staying within the proven guidelines without making each episode too indistinguishable from its predecessor. This time around, the hero functions more like a detective looking to solve a baffling mystery, piecing together clues that at first glance don't really seem to fit together in any apparently obvious way. The opening scene, of Zatoichi stumbling along a dark road late at night when he's abruptly surrounded and assaulted for no apparent reason, feels at first almost like a generic throwaway scene - something we've seen so often in the series that we take it for granted that he'll survive and easily dispatch of his foes, which indeed he does. But there are a few clues dropped in, if we pay attention to the facial wounds sustained by the survivors, that will link the scene to subsequent developments.

That foreshadowing tactic, of scattering subtle pieces of the puzzle that only a supremely perceptive and intuitive mind could connect. is used repeatedly throughout Zatoichi and the Chess Expert, making a second watch of the film a bit more satisfying than usual as we get to enjoy the clever brilliance of how a few assorted subplots all come together at the end. The narrative threads involve a couple traveling with their servant on a mysterious mission of vengeance, a woman escorting a young girl who suffers an accidental wound in one of Zatoichi's battles, thus requiring our hero's assistance to get the badly needed medicine before it's too late, the vicious gangsters out to get their own revenge for the gambling losses Zatoichi inflicted on them and of course the shrewd master of the chessboard who initially befriends the blind swordsman but inevitably becomes his adversary as the two men size each other up through rapid-fire duels on the chessboard and subtle probing of their respective back stories, and discover the fundamental rivalry that puts them on opposite sides in the game of life as well.

Monday, June 30, 2014

The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (1965) - #452

Just a bunch of seedy, squalid bastards like me: little men, drunkards, queers, hen-pecked husbands, civil servants playing cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten little lives.

In late 1965, just as pop culture on both sides of the Atlantic was poised on the verge of an explosion of day-glo color and paisley-infused psychedelic whimsy, Martin Ritt and Richard Burton teamed up with a solid cast of British and German actors to deliver a drab, sobering wash of grey (mostly of the darker charcoal shaded variety) to remind everyone just how grim and uptight things were in the shadowy battlegrounds of the Cold War. Like all the best war movies (and by best, I mean those that strive to give a reality-based account of just how much of a losing proposition it is for those who fight it out on the front lines), The Spy Who Came In From The Cold disabuses viewers of just about any tidy, naive notions they might bring with them into a story about "good guy" British spies infiltrating and disrupting their evil counterparts on the other side of the Iron Curtain. In it, Richard Burton plays Alec Leamas, a mid-level field agent who's clearly on the tattered end of a career that must have been fairly successful at some point because he's been at it for most of his adult life following his service in World War II. Pulled out of his assignment in Berlin after a logistical foul-up results in the death of a would-be defector carrying some prized secrets, Leamas is poised for a shabby crash landing - burned out, numb to the consequences and implications of his work, resigned to finding whatever answers to life's big questions remain unanswered at the bottom of a whiskey tumbler. Those questions that have been resolved (at least in his mind) haven't given him any discernible sense of purpose, or confidence that the powers that be will reward him favorably for his efforts.

But of course, Leamas is hardly a unique case - even though we don't really spend much time getting to know his peers, it's fair to assume that MI6 headquarters has had plenty of experience figuring out how to exploit shattered husks of once-reliable agents like him. When we meet Leamas' boss, a man known to him and to us only as "Control," a scheme has already been hatched to use his propensity toward drunkenness and his undisguisable cynicism as bait, to lure the Communist-affiliated spies lurking around London into viewing him as a potential defector, so that he can be taken into their confidence, infiltrate their ranks and sow the seeds of misinformation that will give the Brits a momentary victory and a tactical advantage in a long-running, slow burning conflict unlikely to actually settle anything - but we'll be damned if we allow them to gain the upper hand in whatever this fight was supposed to be about anyway.

The mechanics of the double, triple and quadruple crosses that take place over the course of the story are quite deftly executed, once comprehended, and I won't spell them out here. but don't be too put off if all the dots don't connect for you right away. This isn't the kind of cartoonish mass-audience spectacle that drops its plot points with loud bright indicators that make it obvious enough to forgive any lapse of concentration. A first time viewer is advised to pay close attention, put away the devices and ignore any other distractions, and don't watch The Spy Who Came In From The Cold while sleepy, because you're way too likely to miss something important. And this is a film best appreciated by being as fully absorbed into its dismal, sunless world as possible.

Not that director Martin Ritt necessarily intends for us to enjoy the experience - he's more interested in gradually pulling us in and ensnaring us with a sense of dreadful futility, as we come to see the world through the same bleary, disillusioned lens that Leamas wears. That jaundiced perspective isn't presented as noble, per se, just realistic. Burton's powerful embodiment of Leamas, despite his trajectory of inevitable doom, allows us neither an unambiguous embrace of the standard capitalist framing - "we're the good guys, the defenders of freedom who are simply reacting to communist aggression and their relentless determination to undermine our way of life" - nor an idealistic adoption of peacenik idealism that seeks to live in respectful harmony with our socialist and proletariat friends in the East. That latter view is epitomized by Leamas' anti-nuke activist girlfriend Nan, played with intelligent pathos by Burton's former lover Claire Bloom. Nan's earnest innocence is mocked at times by Leamas, though he certainly cares for her and is willing to indulge her naivete, but Ritt does nothing to directly undermine her point of view. He only illustrates how likely it is that she and others who think like her will end up being exploited by the cruelly grinding gears of an impersonal intelligence bureaucracy that systematically shuts out any serious consideration of interpersonal ethics and morality... the sort of thing that we flatter ourselves to consider among the higher achievements and prevailing values that steer the leaders of our modern civilization.

Sad to say that for many in the audience even today, such a simplistic take still stands, regarding the conflict between East and West that followed hard on the signing of treaties that ended World War II, and the manner in which geopolitical concerns have evolved since the end of the Cold War on up to this era's War on Terror, or whatever the hell the USA and its allies are trying to achieve in our current batch of global entanglements. So even though Berlin is now an open city firmly aligned with the capitalist powers and the menace of the Soviet bloc and its allies is now more or less a relic of the past, I still see a lot of positive educational value in this film. By portraying the international espionage game as the essentially mundane, prosaic but wickedly deceptive and manipulative enterprise that it is, consuming the lives of its operatives just as readily as it does its intended targets, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold continues to deliver a cold, bracing slap of truth, whether we like it or not.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Loves of a Blonde (1965) - #144

But I don't trust you (...) I do trust you. I've never trusted anyone so much before.

Even though Loves of a Blonde has a rightful place as one of the defining works of the Czechoslovak New Wave, a cursory comparison of this film to others associated with that movement makes it quite obvious that its director Milos Forman was destined for much broader commercial success than any of his peers ever achieved. It's clearly a work of its era, incorporating the peculiar social dynamics of a nation's grudging resignation to absurd mismanagement by a centralized government - and the cynical bemusement such conditions produce - that runs through the titles found in Pearls of the Czech New Wave, an Eclipse Series box that tracks its progress over the few years that this scene flourished before the regime cracked down on artistic freedom of expression. But where directors like Chytilova, Menzel, Jires, Nemec and Schorm confronted viewers with highly individualistic, often eccentric styles of film making, Forman shows himself to be a very accessible, direct and winsome story teller in this simple tale of youthful lusts and emotions in full bloom, leading to comically poignant moments that most of us can relate to and laugh at in awkward but wistful recognition of our former, naive selves. The freshness and vitality of this movie holds up remarkably well nearly 50 years after it was first turned loose on an audience that was quick to appreciate it so fully that it became a classic of sorts - beloved enough to warrant not only a Criterion release back in 2002 but also a reissue as part of their short-lived Essential Art House line of DVDs a few years later.

I call it a "simple tale" but that's not to be confused with simplistic by any means. The story is mostly told from the perspective of Andula, a teenager who's left home for reasons not clearly explained but apparently derived from problems with her mother that led to self-injuring behavior (she's a cutter, basically.) This trouble has led to her placement in a state-operated girls dormitory, where she lives with dozens if not hundreds of other unfortunates like herself, who are consigned by the system to work in a shoe factory in the northern part of Czechoslovakia. We first meet Andula as she's laying in bed with another girl roughly her age - it's not clear if this is a sister or a friend - they're just two teens talking about boys, with Andula in the position of advantage as she seems to be a bit more experienced in this sort of thing than her peer. What she has to say about her amorous encounter doesn't really amount to much, but it's important for us to recognize that as loves and lovers go, this particular blonde doesn't really know all that much. That clarification is helpful, as the title most likely alludes to adventures much more salacious and sophisticated (at least in the minds of most adults watching it for the first time) than anything that actually transpires on screen.

But just when it dawns upon us that Andula is, most literally, a babe in the woods when it comes to the complexities of romance, Forman whisks us away to a board room where some kind of municipal planning committee of middle-aged men has convened to make the usual obtuse and presumptuous decisions that experience leads us to expect from such gatherings. It seems that the young women who work so diligently in the factory are feeling a bit... unfulfilled. The rigors of the production that the socialist economy expects from them are not sufficiently balanced out by appropriate gratifications at the end of their workday. In short, there aren't enough men around to meet their needs. Organizational efficiency has prevailed to the point that gender-specific segregation is taking its toll on morale. The soldiers are deployed elsewhere - frustration is settling in. A swift remedy is called for, and the brilliant solution is to sponsor a mixer event where boys and girls can get together for a few hours and satisfy that basic convivial urge. (Not that the chaperones would expect or allow more carnal desires to be indulged...)

So with appropriate pomp and ceremony, the production lines are allowed to go quiet for a few hours so that the female workforce can gather at the train station to welcome the new arrivals, hastily summoned for some kind of military training exercise, I suppose. The maneuver only leads to disappointments, as the nubile young women get an eyeful of the portly, balding, most likely married army reservists disembarking from the passenger cars as they answer their call of duty. And though one again might imagine that the horde of fellas would be eager and then some to make the acquaintance of some pretty young women, the more plausible truth is presented to us: a brigade of men who are quite rusty at the art of courtship and wooing and making sexy when the opportunity presents itself.

That whole scene at the dance is quite amusing, especially as the camera wraps up its survey of all the painfully disconcerted faces of people who just don't know what to do with themselves and focuses our attention on three particular men who have their eyes on the three (well, let's face it, two, plus a friend) cute blondes (Andula and two of her chums) sitting at a table, surrounded by clusters of fairly drab and slightly plump brunettes. The men are unquestionably at least twice the age of the girls they're targeting, and their nearly futile pursuit delivers Forman's first masterpiece of comic pacing as the attempted slickness of their moves unravels due to their hilarious ineptitude. They send a bottle of wine to force an introduction, but it gets delivered to the wrong table. They cruelly correct their error, reneging the bottle from the original recipients in favor of the girls sitting right next to them, and then a clumsy attempt to dispose of a suddenly conspicuous wedding ring leads to even more catastrophic bungling. Somehow recovering from all that, these oafish smooth operators go straight to the point, pushing the girls to guzzle their wine and get on with whatever they think is supposed to happen next. It's all quite dismal and charming and flat out funny at the same time as we watch the six of them squirm and writhe through this uncomfortable dilemma that none of them wished for but nevertheless could not avoid.

But Andula, our center of attention (and if not the cleverest, still the most sympathetic character we meet in Loves of a Blonde), has found her exit from all this tension, in the company of Milda, a piano player hired on to provide the night's entertainment. He's a younger man, probably several years Andula's senior but still more appropriate dating material, especially since she's probably as close to an Alpha Female as any of the women in her dorm owing to her good looks and desirability in the eyes of men. We quickly gather the pertinent facts: he's not from around this little village of Zruc where the factory is located; he's a working musician based in the Czech capital Prague, who tours around, taking gigs where he can; he seems to have a well-rehearsed repertoire of banter and methods involving palm reading and self-defense techniques that have proven successful in getting girls to soften up the boundaries of their personal space more abruptly than they ordinarily might have expected; he's not above blatant disclosure and exploitation of his self-pity if it arouses a sense of maternal protection in the woman he's trying to get with. No sooner do we hear him mutter something about "I could get gangrene and die," then Forman cuts away to a very brief hide-and-seek interlude with Anulda's friends as they toy with their grandfatherly pursuers, and a moment later, we're back in the room with Milda and Anulda, where she sits with seeming inevitability, naked on the bed.

And of course that's the moment where the quote atop this essay is uttered, where a young girl cashes in all those lessons about prim and proper morality, spent on a momentary impulse to experience for herself just what all that fuss over sex is really about. It's all quite overwhelming and life changing to her, in that transforming moment - guarded cautions are cast aside, wary mistrust magically melts away into deeply bonded attachment (on her side of the exchange, anyway) and things will never be the same.

From there, it's on to the afterglow, a playful encounter captured in sweet tones, non-exploitive, non-judgmental but brilliantly capturing the hazy sense of euphoric connection that makes these first encounters of erotic enjoyment so memorable and charming.

Of course, for Milda, he's been down this road a few more times (so it seems). In his boyish exuberance and gratitude, he says a few things that his more cautious, careful and clothed self would probably have the self-awareness to bottle up inside. But he hardly gives Anulda a second thought after the morning arrives and its time for them both to get back to work.

The production line sequence, slight  as it is, brought to mind a film from more than twenty years later, Aki Kaurismaki's Match Factory Girl, though nothing in Loves of a Blonde plumbs such gloomy depths of despair. Maybe we can chalk that up to differences in temperament (whether between directors or the respective cultures of Finland and Czechoslovakia, or perhaps just two more decades of heavy-handed oppression of the proletariat in eastern Europe.)

That short narrative patch then sets us up for the wonderful finale, in which Andula quite abruptly splits away from her production line/dorm life treadmill (in a sharply edited sequence that frames her departure in bold, almost heroic, perspective). She's made a decision to take up Milda's carelessly proffered pillow talk, seizing upon his vague description of his hometown as if it were a contracted invitation to drop in unannounced in order to claim the prize that's rightfully hers. Of course, the attitude of her approach makes all the difference as to how we in the audience will regard her impulsive quest. Forman once again has us eating out of his hand - there's no scoffing or resentment at Anulda's presumption - she's so sweet and pure and delightful in following the whims of her crush that nothing could seem more natural than for her to pack a suitcase, dig up his address somehow or other and camp out with Milda's parents for the evening waiting for her beau to arrive, certain that he'll be impressed and happy to see her!

That process of waiting for Milda to arrive, as his stupefied parents try to make sense of her motives and background, provokes moments of hearty laughter and, for some of us anyway, pointed recognition. The subject of all their bickering may be fairly unique but the spirit that motivates it is quite common - what makes it profoundly hilarious is just how free and fast the dialog flows, especially after we learn that Milda's parents were about as "regular folks" as it gets, neither of them being professional actors or even people who aspired to such a role. They just fit the part, and Forman deserves a lot of credit for recognizing and realizing their potential to do exactly what they did, especially after Milda staggers home late into the night, recognizes the fix that he's gotten himself in and is ordered to spend the night sleeping in his parents' bed in order to refrain from compounding the scandal even further. I doubt that those scenes will ever cease to make me laugh long and loud.

Loves of a Blonde concludes on a fairly enigmatic note, with Anulda confiding in that same girlfriend that, after leaving Milda's apartment, she still plans to "go back from now on." The melody of Ave Maria, plucked on the same acoustic guitar that strummed a strip-tease lyric set to a Czech equivalent of "Too Much Monkey Business" to open the film, closes us out, wondering what will become of our dear infatuated protagonist. It seems doubtful, at first glance at least, that Milda will give up his bachelor ways and succumb so easily, but it may well be the case that this Anulda is possessed of more grit and determination (for such a naive young thing) than we initially give her credit for. After all, she's a kid who's grown up and managed to survive through a fair (but unspecified) degree of deprivation. She knows her options are limited and the opportunities to radically depart from the lot she's fallen into may never get any better. Whether what she's found with Milda really deserves the honor of being called a "love" is surely up for debate, but don't put it past her to press the issue firmly, shooting her piano player with a fusillade of Cupid's arrows sufficient to keep him banging out his tunes, safely tucked away at home.