Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Atomic Submarine (1959) - #366

Point of view is everything. To us, your form of life is ugly, as we appear to you.

Fond recollections from childhood viewings and admiration for the moxie that went into making movies like The Atomic Submarine are probably enough justification for the inclusion of a few prime examples of that genre in the Criterion Collection. But once you get past the wooden acting, creaky scripts, stilted narration, corny humor, low-budget props and sheer implausibility of The Atomic Submarine's story line, you'll find themes and ideas worth pondering a bit longer than it takes to laugh away at the non-stop unraveling of sci-fi B-movie conventions. The plot synopsis is uncomplicated: a state-of-the-art nuclear sub, christened the Tiger Shark, is sent on a mission to discover and eliminate a strange underwater menace that's destroyed several other vessels trying to work their way across the Arctic Circle. Upon arrival, with the requisite senior scientific advisers and expendable, doomed crewmen along for the ride, they encounter a repulsive monster with sinister intentions to take over the world and must resort to desperate improvisations to defeat the enemy and keep humanity free to mess up the planet on our own terms.

But as for those extra nuances of enjoyment I alluded to:

  • There's a headier-than-expected socio-political debate between a young principled pacifist and the career military man and WWII veteran sub captain over the merits of war and peace;
  • A ludicrous and awkward cheesecake seduction scene featuring Joi Lansing, Frank Sinatra's platinum-blonde girlfriend at the time, and de facto leading man Arthur Franz, the epitome of "middle-aged-schlub in denial" who still thinks he's hot enough stuff to pull in young tarts like Ms. Lansing (and who's sold to the audience as such, generating bigger chuckles now for the absurdity of it than were intended at the time;  
  • an irreplicable pop-culture snapshot of the American public's first encounter with the technology of nuclear powered warships and the eerie fascination of floating across the top of the globe (complete with maps!) under iceberg-infested waters that harbor other unknown perils; 
  • interpolated vintage documentary footage of real submarines and ship explosions, the purchase of which actually functioned as a catalyst for making not only The Atomic Submarine but also a few other underwater-themed films, using some of the same clips; 
  • a weird futuristic "Electro-Sonic" musical score by Alexander Laszlo worth focusing on and listening to on its own merits; 
  • an archetypal tentacled cyclopic submersible slime-beast that either directly or subconsciously inspired the Simpsons' variation on that theme

  • and most significantly, a primal example of the basic technological science fiction thriller standards that eventually went on to establish the template for so many later big budget blockbusters that have fueled the summer movie industry for the last three decades or so:

A group of (actual or quasi)military men, beset by temperamental or ideological tensions, sent on an all-but-impossible quest to thwart a dreadful but mysterious non-human adversary, using the latest and most extreme technological assets at their disposal which in themselves are no match for the alien invasion, but when combined with crafty human ingenuity, make all the difference in averting our total destruction and perhaps opening us up to the possibility of a happier future for our species... if we will only learn... 
Movies like Independence Day, Armageddon, or most notably, The Abyss, which seems to draw directly from The Atomic Submarine's plot, readily come to mind, but there are many more that could be named. In essence, the main difference between crude antecedents like The Atomic Submarine and its much better funded progeny is in the level of prioritization such escapist techno-fantasies received from studio chiefs over the decades. In the late 1950s, such a film was a tolerable little diversion, a tidy money maker if cranked out quickly and cheaply enough. On the commentary track, we learn that this productions was only allotted eights days of shooting time and a miniscule budget, resulting in bathtub-toy quality replicas for the underwater effects and the usual hodgepodge of buttons, levers, switches and dials piled up on a generic soundstage that could have functioned just as effectively as parts of a mock-up space ship. Originally destined for little more than opening a twin-bill that catered to the kiddies on a Saturday morning matinee, and after that, syndication for late night TV, little did anyone ever suspect that such a humble little scrapheap of a movie would ever stand proudly alongside such distinguished company as other "important classic and contemporary films" released that same year: The 400 Blows, Hiroshima mon amour, Black Orpheus, The Human Condition... the list could go on.

Producer Alex Gordon is the special guest interviewed on that commentary and the common thread that links together The Atomic Submarine and the other films (Corridors of Blood, The Haunted Strangler, First Man Into Space) found in this Monsters and Madmen box set. He, along with other similarly scrappy cinematic entrepreneurs like him, took the leftovers that the studio heads offered and did the best they could under the circumstances. Little did they or anyone else at the time ever fathom that some day, such incredulous but eyeball grabbing world-shaking scenarios, if fueled with the kind of lavish budgets, extended production schedules and top-shelf creative talent that became the standard after the financial and cultural breakthrough of Star Wars, would become the bread-and-butter blockbuster product that helped keep the entire Hollywood movie industry afloat.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Human Condition, Part 2 (1959) - #480

Men are like springs. The more pressure, the stronger they snap back.

Though not as abrupt or startling as the full-frame smack across the cheek that opens Kon Ichikawa's Fires on the Plain, Installment 2 of Masaki Kobayashi's The Human Condition easily and quickly overtakes that film's contemporaneous meditation on the final months of the Pacific War in sheer quantity and quality of face-slapping. The first volley is unleashed just a few minutes into the film, after a location on the bitterly cold Manchurian frontier is established. A nightly patrol by a commanding officer spots a cigarette butt floating in a water tank, and that violation serves to justify an immediate reveille and brutal roundhouse slaps to the kisser for all the unfortunate recruits, regardless of whoever was individually responsible for the offense. These aren't mere backhanders meant to provoke feelings of shame or impotence; while all that is implied, they're also intended to hurt, to send strong young men sprawling to the floor, and woe to them if they so much as flinch in pain or in angry reaction to the blows. Their expectations are to take the abuse in stride, to stand back up immediately and, if necessary, absorb another wallop if the Honorable commanding officer deems it necessary. And if that scene description intrigues, excites or delights you, sit back and relax, there's plenty more where that came from, even a moment later on in the film when a head nurse clobbers a wounded soldier merely for chuckling inappropriately after she confronted a fellow patient.

Though all this slapping of faces is somewhat incidental to the main plot of The Human Condition as a larger work (a 9 1/2 hour epic told in six chapters), it's a useful focal point for getting into this next segment, titled The Road to Eternity when it was released theatrically in late 1959. For our protagonist Kaji, the principled humanist insubordinate intent on quietly calmly rebelling against Japan's fascist regime, that road leads through the rigors of basic training in the Imperial Army in Chapter 3 and onto the front lines in Chapter 4, where he and his fellow soldiers grimly await the onslaught of Soviet troops who are better armed and surging with momentum as the winds of war carry them to inevitable victory in the spring of 1945. Leaving the saga-opening miseries of a forced labor camp and the cultural clashes between Japanese colonial occupiers and the Chinese natives corralled into slavery, The Road to Eternity is a more inwardly focused conflict, demonstrating that the system that ruled Japan at this time was just as willing to inflict cruelty on its own people as it was on the victims of its conquests.

The military training on display here consists mainly of making negative examples of the most contemptible weaklings and waverers that a commander could pull out from the ranks and excoriate in front of his peers. Chief among them is Private Obara, a chinless, bespectacled runt who's befriended and defended by the idealistic Kaji despite not being viewed by his superiors as worth the rations he eats or the bullets he wastes in futile rounds of target practice. Whereas Kaji previously had a whole prison camp of laborers upon whom to implement his theories of promoting human dignity, in this company he has only Obara and his colleague Shinjo (Kei Sato's film debut), a young non-conformist with thoughts of going AWOL over to the Soviet Union worker's paradise on his mind, as sympathetic listeners. And even Obara is so beaten down and resigned to his fate as the company's whipping dog that he largely ignores Kaji's advocacy and exhortations; he's simply not fit for the world that he's fallen into, and soon enough he finds his sad way out, after the mockery and humiliation becomes too much to bear.

In my review of The Human Condition Part 1, No Greater Love, I mentioned that film's lack of humor and lightness that, regardless of how pessimistic one's overall outlook on life may be, is nevertheless just as much a part of the actual human condition as all the frustration, brutality and suffering we see on screen here. Give Kobayashi points for consistency at least, since the tone is no more cheerful or breezy here. Even an extraordinary favor granted to Kaji by the base commanders, allowing his wife to pay him a one-night conjugal visit after she's walked all the way across the Manchurian plains to see him, feels more like a draining ordeal than the joyful reunion one would expect. Kaji's earnest trek upon the noble path is admirable, but threatens to blind him to the opportunities offered by life's serendipities. I know, these were somber times, and the oppressive weight of it all provided little room for casual chuckles. Indeed, the only times we hear the sound of laughter are when someone in a position of authority (either by rank or sheer physical strength) is taunting at the expense of someone they regard as inferior. The chain of abuse is resilient, difficult to break, and no sustained effort is undertaken by either Kaji or Kobayashi to trace that chain to its origins. Not that they could do much about it if they found it anyway.

Nevertheless, despite the weightiness and severity of the events it chronicles, The Road to Eternity offers substantial film-watching pleasures in Kobayashi's masterful compositions and powerfully effective performances from the actors. Tatsuya Nakadai is, of course, the main attraction, doing an impressive job as he hardens up from the bookish dreamer and theoretician of No Greater Love into a rigorously trained would-be leader of men in Road to Eternity. (He will be worn down to the nub in the next installment, A Soldier's Prayer, as he becomes a prisoner of war.) Given the chance to once more implement his policies of kindness and empathy to a last-gasp class of new recruits brought up to carry out Japan's "scarecrow strategy" in the war's final months, Kaji finds himself on the receiving end of more mistreatment from five-year grunts who detest the soft treatment accorded to this latest batch of cannon-fodder. In a way, all the drama and tension surrounding who beats down whom in the martial pecking order is rendered pointless by the film's end, when in a climactic half-hour battle sequence, just about the entire company is wiped out by a cataclysmic wave of Soviet tanks and infantry. Some magnificently intense and harrowing scenes burn themselves into our memory, showing that had he chosen to, Kobayashi could have pulled off a truly state of the art, action-packed war movie of its times. But his focus clearly is on pondering and portraying The Human Condition, or at least a particularly grueling portion of the spectrum. Considering all that he's been through, fictional character or not, Kaji's final question at the end of Chapter 4, "Is anyone still alive?" deserves to be taken at sincere face value, not merely rhetorical.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Floating Weeds (1959) - #232

Audiences today don't understand good plays. So you can't come to see it.

In the two years plus that have passed since I reviewed Yasujiro Ozu's A Story of Floating Weeds, I've seen and learned a lot more about the great director's films, reviewing ten other titles beside that one either here or on as part of my Journey Through the Eclipse Series column. Deepening my acquaintance with this wise and unique artist's work has been among the greatest pleasures I've experienced in this blogging project. Ozu's distinctive, highly refined style is now familiar enough, and actually quite comforting, to me that discovering a new film of his is like going to an orchid show and seeing a lovely new variety that bears all the distinctive hallmarks of being an orchid, and yet demonstrates how much exotic variety and beauty there is to be found even when so many of the elements remain consistent and instantly identifiable. There's something kind of breathtaking and wonderful in seeing the effects that minor adjustments to a time-tested formula can have in refreshing our vision and illuminating the hidden corners of our own lives in examining the crucial moments experienced by Ozu's characters.

That sensation of subtle permutations resounding through each repeated echo is even more apparent in Floating Weeds, Ozu's only declared remake, even though films like Good Morning and the yet-to-be-reviewed (by me, that is) Late Autumn are often regarded as such since they also revisit significant plot elements from Ozu's earlier films. Reading over my March 2009 review of A Story of Floating Weeds, there's not a whole lot that I would have to change about that summary in order to make it apply equally well here. So instead of going too far down that road of recapping the whole story line of Floating Weeds, I'm inclined to just comment on the effect it had on me as I experienced a bit of deja vu viewing it for the first time several nights ago, in a most delightful and transfixed way, I should add.

Komajuro, the head of a faltering itinerant kabuki troupe, has steered his crew into a small Japanese harbor town with a dual agenda. On the surface, it's just the next stop on an impromptu tour that has no clear destination or purpose besides generating enough revenue from the locals to cover their bed and board for however long the show will draw customers and enough to move them on to the next town after the final curtain drops. But this particular village also features a young man quite special to Komajuro, his son Kiyoshi, a 19 year old strapping young man who only knows him as "uncle."  That's because it's what he's been told all his life by his mother Oyoshi, a woman that Komajuro never married, has seldom visited but who still seems to regard him with placid equanimity anyway. Maybe he's sent along enough cash from time to time to pacify any grudges she might hold? Or perhaps she's just philosophically or temperamentally inclined to take the disappointment and lack of support in stride. For a single woman raising a son, she's prosperous enough, with an established position of material comfort in life that must be looking kind of attractive to the aging kabuki master.

The "uncle" ruse was concocted way back when and agreed upon by Komajuro and Oyoshi, in order to spare the boy the shame that comes with thinking of his father out there somewhere, oblivious to whatever he's going through from day to day. We learn early on though that "uncle" Komajuro hasn't been around to visit for the past 12 years, a significant stretch of time to miss in the course of a young man's life, so there's not much of a shared sense of closeness between the two - Komajuro is obviously delighted to see what a handsome fellow his son has grown up into, whereas Kiyoshi probably sees him as just an eccentric older relative that he'll show due respect to while he's a guest in their house, then politely wave goodbye to and mostly forget about afterward.

Komajuro has to play his hand deftly then, not only taking the appropriate steps to avoid spilling his secret to Kiyoshi but also avoiding the meddlesome intrusions that are sure to erupt if his mistress Sumiko discovers where he's spending most of his time between performances. He's constructed another lie in order to buy himself some time and space away from her gaze, telling her that he's visiting "an important patron," presumably some high class benefactor who prefers to do business with the boss without any of his associates around. One gets the sense that Komajuro is pretty adept at this kind of thing, using his innate performing skills to cast illusions of trustworthiness and respectability as needed in order to keep his actors loyal, theatrical impresarios persuaded and the local audiences as amused as possible.

Of course, it's hard to sustain the excuse of going to see that "important patron" day after day without raising Sumiko's suspicions, but Komajuro can't help himself. He so enjoys spending time with his son and feels so comfortable in Oyoshi's obliging, non-judgmental presence that he can hardly stay away, perhaps complacently assuming that those around him are either too dumb or too intimidated by him to catch on to what's really happening. In the process of aging and his dwindling fortunes however, his utilitarian handling of the people around him has begun to take its toll. As his deceits become more threadbare, it becomes ever more difficult for him to conceal the crestfallen, appalled and desperate facial expressions that arise when he realizes the extent to which others have seen through his charades.

Ozu and his fellow screenwriter Kogo Noda skillfully reworked all the major elements that informed A Story of Floating Weeds 25 years earlier to tell a story rings as universally true then as it does now. The period elements of 1930s or late 1950s Japan add a little bit of texture (though Floating Weeds seems much less interested in scrutiny of the modernizing upheaval of cultural traditions than do films like Tokyo Twilight, Equinox Flower or Good Morning that preceded it), but the essential predicament, of adults who've resorted to convenient but deceptive short-cuts to avoid uncomfortable disclosures of truth, is timeless, and one that anyone who's lived a few decades can relate to, either because we've done that kind of thing ourselves, or had our eyes opened to the lies that others have fed us, or both.

The power of Floating Weeds then, and Ozu's films in general, is found in his ability to bring to the surface such easily overlooked (or repressed, depending on how much benefit of the doubt you're inclined to give) aspects of human nature. He's a purveyor of truthful observations more than a counselor who would advise us what to do should we find ourselves confronting similar dilemmas. And he's more interested in portraying the behaviors, and the reactions of others to them, which in turn set up even more intriguing and complicated conflicts, than he is in using the dramatic conflicts as leverage to set up more cataclysmic events that play out on the world stage. Thus we never see Ozu making films about larger than life characters who declare war or go on wild crime sprees or strive to enact monumental social reforms as a result of the inner drives and demons that they wrestle with individually. He chronicles the lonely meandering journeys that the vast majority of human lives travel, anonymous to history and even to most commentators of the times in which they live. Here in Floating Weeds, each of the main characters has to wrestle with painful choices about how to respond to each other as they each experience rejection, betrayal, manipulation, disappointment and loss in their own ways, with everyone else around them too busy grappling to find their own reconciliation and thus unable to offer much by way of support.

But even with all the low-intensity, swept under the rug heartbreak going on, so indicative of the hazards that accompany everyday life, Ozu refuses to offer up or justify howls of protest. That's just not in his makeup, however justifiable or entertaining such bursts of existential outrage may be in the hands of other directors or artists in other media. The particular currents on which these Floating Weeds travel meanders through some rough and choppy passages, leading once again, in an almost cyclic repetition, to the reenactment of the ancient Oedipal crisis when Kiyoshi is slapped by his father, brushes the blows off manfully, then almost without effort, pushes the old Komajuro down to the floor. It's only after he's delivered that gruffly nonchalant rebuke that his devoted mother Oyoshi reveals the longstanding secret of his parentage, in a circumstance of such pain and moral confusion that it conclusively dashes the long harbored fantasies of the estranged parents to one day experience, somehow, a happy family reunion.

Rather than milk that crisis for all its worth however, or to end on that seemingly tragic note, Ozu escorts us through the full unfolding of incidents like these, to a point where equilibrium is reached, with the painful lessons of our weaknesses and the failures of others to compensate for them now freshly consigned to "the past" so that we can again move with some degree of confidence into the future - that tomorrow will be, if not exactly better, at least a bit easier to take than those bitter moments we've managed to survive and dread ever having to experience again.

As for the film-making itself, Floating Weeds is an immense pleasure to watch, preferably on a big bright screen, from a purely visual standpoint. My enjoyment was nicely enhanced by Roger Ebert's commentary which draws attention to the numerous subtle touches that Ozu brings to his on-screen compositions, with helpful insights into the side characters and production details as well. Ozu made this film through the Daiei Studio, rather than Shochiku, so there's a slightly different emphasis on color here that came with the technical crew Daiei assigned to the shoot. Still, having learned a great deal on some of the little things to look for, I'm sure that when I do go back and revisit the Ozu catalogue (and I most certainly will, for these are among the most rewatchable and satisfying films of all the Criterion stuff I've been watching the past few years) I'll be even better equipped to savor the finer details of his world, and through that experience, be ever readier to discern and appreciate the finer details of my own.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Shadows (1959) - #251

You know, despite your horrible exterior, it's you that I like.

Of all the innovative cinematic breakthroughs of 1959 that I've been blogging about over these past few months, Shadows is the smallest in scale, the scruffiest in appearance and probably fueled by the most relentlessly creative ambition of any single individual intimately involved with those films. Yes, The 400 Blows kicked off the Nouvelle Vague, Hiroshima mon amour established a standard of icy-cool existentialist self-awareness in film that still fascinates in 2011, Black Orpheus injected ethnic vigor and introduced street-level authenticity to modern musicals, while The Human Condition and Fires on the Plain opened Western eyes to new ways of portraying the horrors faced by those caught up in the destructive cross-currents of war. As remarkable as those great films remain, Shadows is the one that functions most effectively as a bridge between that time and the media culture we inhabit today.

Brief, loosely structured, occasionally blunt and even a bit bumbling at times, Shadows swoops in on the lives of late 1950s New York bohemians scraping by on borrowed cash and constant calculations of just how much of their dignity and self-respect they're willing to give up in the pursuit of various fulfillments. The characters are all creative types - musicians, singers, writers, or at least, would-be critics who linger on the fringes of the scene if they don't quite have the talents or means to create original work themselves. The overall narrative, haphazardly strung together, so it seems, follows the wanderings of Ben, a mopey beatnik who doesn't want to be lumped in with that crowd but totally looks and acts the part anyway, and his siblings Hugh, the older brother who assumes a nearly parental role, and Lelia, a feisty woman just turned twenty and eager to experience the excitement of young adult life for the first time and on her own terms.

Going by appearances, Ben and Lelia are biracial but were able to pass for white back in the years when "biracial/multi-ethnic" was not as familiar a demographic niche as it is now, whereas Hugh is unmistakably a dark-skinned African-American man. The guts of the story, and thanks to Lelia Goldani's charismatic performance, what's most typically remembered about Shadows in retrospect, is a hastily formed intimate relationship between Tony, one of those semi-talented hangers-on, a white guy, and Lelia whom he picks up one night at a literary party, obviously attracted to her beauty and adventurous spirit, but oblivious to her mixed-race ancestry. After working on seducing her a bit, he convinces her the following day to come on up to his place to explore his "romantic desires," which she does, only to realize once the deed has been done that it didn't at all live up to the overblown expectations that years of gossip, innuendo, imagination and advertising had set her up to believe. It's a brilliantly conceived and altogether frank exchange that remains noteworthy in its emotional impact today, and must have been stunning to watch in the early years of the film's release. This trailer leaves a vivid impression of just how astonished those first audiences were.

Nevertheless, despite that brutal letdown, some kind of genuine feelings develop between the two - perhaps for Tony it's the cynical prospect of proving to her that sex can get better with practice, while for Lelia it's something simpler, just the infatuation of a girl for her first adult partner, or the hope that her lot in life might improve at the side of a man like Tony. But let's just call it "love," since that's the word they both use, casually but earnestly in regard to each other. That love is put to the test when Hugh shows up one afternoon, interrupting a little make-out session on the sofa, is introduced by Lelia as her brother, and Tony is suddenly able to account for some of those exotic features (her "soft lips," for instance) that made her so charming and irresistible to him. Unable to deal with the tension that this new revelation generates, he beats a hasty retreat, especially after Hugh adamantly leaves him no other choice, opening a gulf of sadness and disappointment between the two young lovers that they now have to fill in on their own.

As poignant as those scenes may be in raising issues of racism and bigotry that had rarely been addressed so pointedly in the movies, especially in regard to inter-racial romantic relationships, what sets Shadows apart from a film like Sapphire (a British film released in 1959 which also touches on this topic) is how adroitly John Cassavetes wove the theme into very life-like exchanges on multiple topics between his actors. This isn't a calculated roll-out of socially progressive talking points designed as a plea for tolerance and open-mindedness; rather it's just a plain-spoken portrayal of the conflicts and anxieties that beset so many people in the course of everyday living, a recognition of the frustration and division that put us at odds with each other. From the invasive, occasionally staggering camera work that fills the screen with massive heads and intense close-ups to the wry, impatient dialog, rehearsed and lived in to the point where the actors could freely improvise fresh remarks in character and generate new responses from each other on the fly, a revolutionary approach to story-telling was given birth here.  Cassavetes uses his technique not simply as a stylistic novelty or a facile attempt to be merely "different," but to break his audience through into a level of involvement with the characters on screen that challenged their familiarity and comfort with the usual theatrical standards of performance. Though sometimes imitated, it's a road not so easily traveled, and Cassavetes, despite the critical and limited commercial success of Shadows as a unique experiment of its time, went on to experience all sorts of difficulties in pursuing this vision.

But at the time that Shadows was made, of course, Cassavetes was just getting his directorial career underway and I figure he had to feel pretty good about what he'd accomplished, especially given the bumpy road that his film had to take to reach its current form. His distrust of the studio system would only find its confirmation years later. In the meantime, he blazed a trail of raising his own funds, assembling his own actors and crew, and filming in actual locations, not stage sets. In a way, watching Shadows feels a bit like watching some of the Golden Age of Television productions like The Days of Wine and Roses, Requiem for a Heavyweight or The Comedian, in their emphatic immediacy in portraying the turmoils of contemporary life and the hectic East Coast big city vibe common to them all. Of course, there are significant differences too; Shadows is an edited film, shot and re-shot over the course of a couple years, unlike the now-or-never single takes of the GATV features, and it touches on topics that remained taboo on TV for at least another decade or more.

Where Shadows succeeds the most is in its ability to capture the spirit and energy of its setting, Beat-era Manhattan, a transitional moment in the evolution of popular culture. It's not quite as adept in capturing the street scenes of past or future love letters to New York (see The Naked City as just one example of that kind of thing) since Cassavetes wasn't so intent on framing those magnificent streetscapes (nor did he have the budget to do so anyway.) But it's the dynamism of that exchange between restless creative strivers hanging on to their last hope of scoring the big break that will make them artists again, and the louts with whom they associate for lack of any better companions to be found, that brings these Shadows to life again. In some parts of the USA, that monolithic mood and era we refer to as The Fifties was already over, and in that sense, Shadows can be seen as the breaking light of a new day and attitude in the creation of film art.