Saturday, October 22, 2011

Jigoku (1960) - #352

Hear me! You who in life piled up sin upon sin will be trapped in Hell forever. Suffer! Suffer! This vortex of torment will whirl for all eternity.

When I was 14 years old, a high school classmate whom I had recently befriended invited me to a night of free roller skating at a local rink. I had nothing else to do and was glad to be asked, so I took up his offer and went into it expecting a fun time. And it was, for about the half-hour or so that I and the other boys (no girls) were allowed to wheel around on the floor.

Well before I was needing or expecting to take a break from the activity, a signal was given to remove our skates. Chairs were brought out, placed in rows and we were told to sit down to listen to a message that one of the adults had for us. Within a few minutes of his speech, what had been a pleasant night out with a bunch of guys turned into a brutal psychological encounter with the threat of everlasting, unrelenting, intensely painful physical punishment at the hands of an angry God, if I failed to make the right decision, right then, there and now, to accept Jesus Christ as my personal lord and savior. I'd been baited and lured by my friend into attending a fierce fundamentalist hellfire sermon, delivered for ostensibly "evangelistic" purposes intended to save my soul from eternal damnation.

Chances are pretty good that just about anyone reading this article has had a similar experience, and even this event was not my first exposure to dire warnings about going to Hell. What made this particular incident stand out so clearly in my memory, some 35 years later, was the speaker's unfettered intensity and sadistic relish with which he described the particular torments we'd be subject to if we didn't yield to his persuasion. He advised to go home that evening, turn on our kitchen stove and just for a few seconds, press our hand on the burner, after it had fully heated up. Then imagine that searing pain coursing through every nerve in our body forever and ever and ever! Lock ourselves in a small closet and scream in agony as loud as we can, then imagine the horrific sound of such pitiful, eardrum-shattering wailing and gnashing of teeth, amplified by the hundreds of millions of souls who will be similarly screaming their guts out without ceasing. Recall the foulest smelling stench that you've ever encountered - a dead animal carcass, nose-blistering ammonia, whatever detestable filth might come to mind - and imagine the terror of being trapped in such a disgusting, vomit-inducing circumstance without any hope of relief or cleanliness. Think of times when you were parched with thirst or famished with hunger, weak and exhausted, and ponder the anguish of never having so much as one drop of cool water or one morsel of nourishing food to alleviate your cravings. And so on, delivered with steely-eyed seriousness and the utmost confidence that everything he was saying, this crew-cut, disciplined, uncompromising molder of young minds, was absolutely, undoubtedly true. Not manipulative, not an exaggeration, not a mind game - but just the pure gospel truth that every person has to be confronted with so that they can be fully held accountable on that great and terrible Day of Judgment that awaits us all.

Well, I was one of the relatively few who did not come forward from my metal folding chair to repeat the Sinner's Prayer that evening. (I did eventually, several years later, but that's another story...) My friend did though, and afterward I asked him about it since I already knew that he went to church and said he was a Christian. I wondered why he had to go up and pray since he'd probably already done that before. His answer was something along the lines of "that's just what we do, I've probably said that prayer a hundred times already." I could sort of understand his reasoning, since we'd also spent time doing things like smoking pot, drinking beer and listening to Led Zeppelin and Kiss records that I knew his church (and Jesus) didn't approve of. But I was still puzzled by his wavering back and forth between "walking the straight and narrow" and "rock'n'rolling all night and partying every day." He told me that he was just "backslid" for now, and that he'd fully repent once and for all someday, once he was an adult.

That's a long diversion away from the film I'm here to write about, but the anecdote certainly came to my mind more than a few times as I watched Jigoku, an influential Japanese horror film and, in its final act, a wildly visual cinematic imagining of Hell, though from a Buddhist, not a Christian perspective. That last half-hour is the part that secured Jigoku's reputation as an early classic of bizarre, extreme, explicit blood and guts on film, so graphic that it was hard to track down for many years afterward, and still quite capable of astonishing viewers today despite the erosion of many taboos about what could be shown on the screen since it debuted in 1960. Dismemberment, beheading, impaling, peeled away skin revealing still pulsating internal organs... it's all here, and more, impressively conceived and executed in an era where there wasn't anything close to the kind of special effects industry that produces such convincingly gruesome illusions of the worst atrocities imaginable.

Along with the gore, director Nobuo Nakagawa conjured up elaborately choreographed scenarios of bodies and limbs in various configurations, writhing heaps of humanity helplessly groping, grasping, clawing, crawling and staggering in vain, looking for escape, lamenting the wicked choices they made that led them to their fate of present and unending misery. Though the film was produced too early to give any significant credit to the psychedelic upheavals soon to come in popular culture, the forty-minute tour of Hell that Jigoku takes us on is remarkably prescient in its trippiness.

A bad trip, that is...

As stunning and dynamic as those scenes are, what makes Jigoku work for me is the hour that Nakagawa spends building us up to that revelatory vision of the afterlife. There is a story, after all, and that story tells us the reasons that these characters wound up in, and ultimately deserved, such dire afflictions. Shiro, the main character around which all the activity revolves, is a young man just entering into adulthood - engaged to his lovely girlfriend Yukiko and wrestling with questions of purpose and ethics that people at that stage of life ought to be thinking through as they establish themselves in this world. We first meet him in a lecture hall, where a professor is expounding on "Concepts of Hell," helpfully pointing out that the doctrine of punishment after death for the wicked is not unique to Buddhism, but is also taught in the world's other great religions. (Hmm, my 14-year old self thought that Christians were the ones who came up with all that stuff!) His friend Tamura, who has an uncanny knack for showing up out of nowhere, tends to put a benign twist on various forms of temptation that he and Shiro face, and it leads to them covering up a fatal car accident where they run down a drunken pedestrian who happens to be the leader of a minor yakuza gang. His crime committed, Shiro is now fearful of getting caught, and that leads inevitably to other moral indiscretions, each one cascading into the next until our bewildered protagonist finds himself ensnared in a web of deadly sins: lust, greed, drunkenness, deception, hypocrisy, murder...

Along the way, he crosses paths with a number of others whose carnal abandon also put them on a path to the netherworld: a doctor who callously exploits his patients; a prostitute and her mother who use sexual favors to lure their victim into lethal traps; adulterous lovers who cavort shamelessly in the presence of an ailing spouse and other family members, and wind up  cheating on each other. Crimes of the past, like the snatching of a canteen that denied a dying soldier his last request for water, continue to haunt the conscience, pouring fuel onto the flames of perdition that await. Drunken orgies, shameless vulgarity, coldly calculated revenge and the wanton defilement of all that is noble and pure - it's a vile catalog of sins that Jigoku compiles over its first sixty minutes, though the misdeeds are not necessarily waved in our face or made glaringly obvious. Despite a weird camera angle or two (actually, quite a few more than that!) a lot of what we see happening in Shiro's world doesn't come across as so bad. The actions of him and those around him have the look of everyday life about them, and just like my young friend from years ago, the characters all operate on the assumption that whatever they may have done wrong, there's a long future ahead when they can make up for it. But alas, that's not what's in store, as events lead up to a massive die-off at a crowded nursing home that shuttles the poor souls gathered there across the River Sanzu to reckon with Enma, the King of Hell.

The darkness that surrounds Enma, and dominates most of the scenes in Jigoku, even those set amongst the living, gives the film a strong and strange dream-like quality. The surrealistic vibe is further enhanced by eerie, sinister music and vocalizations, unpredictable narrative transitions that may take a couple viewings to fully fathom what just happened, and an ending that is as ambiguous and inconclusive as a film that depicts eternity really ought to be. I know next to nothing about Nakagawa's intentions in making this film, even after viewing the supplement on his career and its interviews with a few people associated with Jigoku's creation. A mature director well into his career at the time, on a peer level with Kurosawa and Ozu, he was coming off the financial success of Ghost Story of Yotsuya (available on Criterion's Hulu Plus channel) and had creative license to make just about any movie he wanted. He chose this direction, inspired as much by the legend of Faust as he was traditional Buddhist teachings. It's hard to know if he was sincerely trying to warn his audience about the judgments he depicts on screen or if he simply saw the opportunity to create vivid tableaux that triggered the imaginations  of people regardless of where they fall across the spectrum of cultures or religious beliefs. While the garish imagery and profuse screaming of Jigoku's suffering victims puts the film at risk of being seen as an insane black comedy, as my hellfire anecdote above and the real-life experiences of billions of others remind us, its themes of malicious human sin and relentless divine punishment continue to resonate with and provoke primal anxieties deep within human nature that the passage of time and ever-increasing scientific knowledge has not thoroughly extinguished.

Eclipse Review: The Warped Ones

Next: The Bad Sleep Well

Thursday, October 13, 2011

L'avventura (1960) - #98

And still... she acted as though our love, yours, her father's, mine, in a manner of speaking, was nothing to her, meant nothing to her.

Whether you consider its title intelligently subtle or simply misleading, L'avventura (The Adventure, with a slangy innuendo equivalent to what we'd call a sexual fling) both challenged and expanded the expectations of audiences who looked to the cinema as a mirror of what goes on in ordinary human relationships. Awarded a special jury prize at Cannes for it's "remarkable contribution to the search for a new cinematic language," L'avventura clearly stood out from the pack in an era when other ambitious and talented directors were creating films destined to make a lasting impression on future generations of film lovers. Think of The 400 Blows, Breathless, and Shadows as impressive breakthrough debuts, or Peeping Tom, Pickpocket, Eyes Without a Face or Le Trou as definitive works from more experienced directors that went on to establish new ground rules across a range of genres. Psycho and La Dolce Vita, two non-Criterion films released contemporaneously, also stand out as landmarks worth including in this list of perennial benchmarks. While it may be harder to fully appreciate L'avventura's revolutionary innovations without some intentional effort to compare it to these and other films of that era, the visual and narrative spell it casts continues to exert a hold on those patient and perceptive enough for Michelangelo Antonioni's long takes and meticulous compositions sink in and alter their cinematic conscience.

As one of the most written-about and minutely analyzed films of its time, maybe even of all time, there's probably not much that I have to say that hasn't been hashed out by learned scribes more deeply versed in Antonioniana than I ever figure to be. I've been watching it over the past two weeks now, my usual blogging routine of one review per week slowing to a crawl due to the distractions of postseason baseball (I'm a big fan of the Detroit Tigers) and the usual sense of responsibility I feel whenever my work on this timeline of Criterion classics confronts me with a venerable art house milestone. I'd seen L'avventura a couple times before in years past, considered it sufficiently interesting and impressive to warrant its reputation, but it wasn't until this more recent, much closer go-round of viewing the film multiple times, with commentary and in a nice big widescreen presentation, that its majesty fully registered. My first impressions in years past focused mainly on the famous switcheroo, as the mystery of Anna's disappearance from the rocky Aeolian island disturbingly fades to irrelevance while Sandro and Claudia pursue their shallow, vain and ill-fated relationship. As sidebars to all that, we have scattered examples of the dismal pettiness of the idly self-indulgent Italian upper class, magnificent shots of timeless landscapes and impressively meaningful architecture (both classical and modern) and, of course, the lovely visage and exquisitely tousled, wind-blown blondeness of Monica Vitti. That, and the textbook course in atmospherically cool aesthetics, is the conventional surface reading of the film, and even at that level, L'avventura provides ample rewards.

Where one goes with this film from that point probably depends a lot on just how one sees its content relating to personal daily life. My reading of various reviews shows a lot of analysis that meanders into cliches about "ennui" and "alienation," as if invoking those terms provides a sufficient summary of what L'avventura is about or what Antonioni is trying to say. Perhaps there was once some merit to be found in debating those topics and how they reflect on the decline of Western social values or our ability to sincerely invest in romantic/erotic relationships. But let's face it, we've been living in a post-L'avventura world for over 50 years now, and what I find most interesting about Sandro and Claudia isn't how shallow or empty they are as negative role models but simply how emblematic they became as prototypes for future male-female relationships and the sexual currency deployed over the course of subsequent decades.

Physically, they are a gorgeous couple, impeccably dressed, irresistibly drawn to each other after the briefest period of awkward resistance on Claudia's part, in response to the abrupt disappearance of her friend and the initial shock of Sandro's unyielding advance. Undoubtedly, raw erotic attraction plays a part in their coupling, though the emphasis falls more on the male's restless eye for conquerable women - Claudia being just the latest, until the very end, though a more appropriate "steady" due to her compatible class affiliation and cleaner reputation than the attention-grabbing slut he's caught hooking up with in an empty hotel lobby. Claudia is a vivacious young woman with drives and desires of her own, some sexual, others emotional, and Sandro, as it turns out, seems to possess the qualities she's looking for, at least during the brief span of time in which we view their relationship. My pet notion about the arc that Sandro and Claudia's emotional bond will travel past the end of the film is that its ascension into a quasi-committed relationship is roughly similar to the trajectory experienced by Sandro and Anna - we just see them at the very tail end of the inevitable descent.

Does that imply then that I believe Claudia herself will eventually find herself as petulantly resentful toward Sandro, the man who "vilifies everything," as Anna came to regard him? Will she wind up pulling her own disappearing act one of these days? No, not likely. Claudia and Anna are two different women, after all, and their response to the disillusionment that a man like Sandro is bound to put them through will not be identical. Some women see the warning signs and dump the creep as quickly as they can manage, while others sense a need for them to hang in there with the weak and vulnerable man who, despite his manipulations and treachery, still requires and in some way deserves their on-going love and support.

However one might categorize the various reactions of different "types" of women to such disappointments and unavoidable wounds arising from their entanglement with such men, their mutual experience gives them a common bond. The controversies and questions touched on in L'avventura about the foundations and uncertain durability of committed male-female relationships are approached from a perspective sympathetic to then-emerging strands of feminist thought. Sandro's worm-like, childish sobbing, after he's caught in flagrante delicto on the sofa with Gloria Perkins, is such a remarkably poignant demonstration of a man's confused blend of sincere remorse and blatantly manipulative self-pity that it ought to be studied by just about any culturally literate couple that finds itself in counseling due to a crisis of infidelity by the dominant partner. Here's the clip, unfortunately in lower resolution than it deserves - get the DVD, and let's hope for a Blu-ray of this exquisitely shot film soon! - but still quite resonant as long as your fairly in touch with the two hours of "adventure" that preceded it.

Companion Review: La Dolce Vita

Next: Jigoku

Saturday, October 1, 2011

The Fugitive Kind (1960) - #515

He's a peculiar talker. And that is the reason I got to let him go...

For all the different types of great classic movies I watch for this blog, it's pretty remarkable how long it's been since I've reviewed a genuine Hollywood product here. Scanning through my list of reviews, I'd say Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory, which I wrote up last December, was the last one, and that's owing more to the star power of Kirk Douglas than anything else about the film. So that probably explains just how different it felt for me to watch and blog here about The Fugitive Kind, replete with its glossy sheen, its tastefully calculated touches of scandal and adult subject matter and the world class talents of Marlon Brando and Anna Magnani on the screen, Sidney Lumet as director and Tennessee Williams in charge of the screenplay. Throw in some strong supporting performances from Joanne Woodward and others, and you have something that stands out a little uniquely within the Criterion Collection - one of a very small number of titles they've released over the years that actually have actor credits on the cover, above the name of the film itself. Not a big deal in the marketing scheme of your average DVD release, but a shrewd adjustment from the norm as far as Criterion is concerned.

With that illustrious lineup, and given my practically inexcusable lack of familiarity with the work of Tennessee Williams in comparison to his reputation, influence and on-going relevance in American theatrical arts, I had fairly high expectations going in, and for the most part, I was not at all disappointed as to the quality of craftsmanship or intelligence I encountered. But I was indeed reminded as to why I had never felt compelled to delve much deeper than the standard high school English class compulsory exposure to Williams that most students in this country have received over the past few decades. Simply put, I just don't really enjoy my visits to the milieu he found so fascinating - that sweaty, nasty, grubby Southern cesspool of overwrought emotions and twangy drawling lyricism that made him such a popular marvel and sensation back in the prime of his career and continues to draw new admirers and enthusiasts to this day. Same reason that I never got into William Faulkner. I know it's my bias and not a very justifiable one at that, but really I would have no problem with a scenario involving a cavalry charge of runaway bulldozers just plowing through the sleazy little hamlet that Williams constructed here and shoving all these characters off into oblivion... in fact, I'd probably find just a bit more satisfaction from watching that than I was able to glean from viewing this admittedly well-executed but occasionally overblown bit of stagecraft on film.

The Fugitive Kind's story involves a man, Valentine Xavier, who lives up to his clumsily/cleverly conceived name by become a romantic savior of sorts to two hot-blooded but badly misunderstood and henceforth love-starved women. He rolls into town on his 30th birthday, turning his back on fifteen years of raucous living as a traveling guitar player working the Mississippi and Louisiana juke joint circuit, after running afoul of the law and having an epiphany on the futility of his ways in close proximity to his testimony before a judge. Doing what he can to pick up honest work, but unable to fully smother the raw animal magnetism that served him well on and off the stage, he takes a job as a clerk in a small-town mercantile shop run by an Italian woman named Lady Torrance, who married Jabe, the store's owner, an older man who's now bedridden and dying of cancer. He's a vile, cruel and suspicious old bastard who seems to have no pleasures left in life beyond inflicting misery on those nearest to him, particularly his wife Lady whom he knows from his own experience is prone to promiscuity, especially with him laid up and out of her sight for hours at a time.

Jabe quickly catches on to the obvious dangers that a good looking young drifter with a guitar poses to his possessive claim on Lady (not for the sake of love or affection, mind you, just ownership, since they both gave up on each other as partners and lovers quite a long time ago.) Jabe's role is to throw malignant obstacles in the way that impede anyone's progress toward freedom, happiness, fulfillment or just about any other contentment a person might experience in life. And though Lady and Val put up an honorable enough resistance to keep their relationship within its proper and respectable limits, it's pretty obvious that they're going to get together for at least one night of illicit ecstasy before the drama reaches its inevitably tragic, calamitous conclusion. Especially when one remembers that this is just a Southern Gothic retelling of the Orpheus myth.

The other woman caught up in this passionate thicket is Carol Cutrere, a full-blown floozy who was born to one of the leading families in town but has been busy heaping shame upon their good name ever since she came of age. Her first offense seems to have been an inordinate degree of concern (given her social status and the prevailing racism of the community) with the lack of justice experienced by most of the black folks in the region. She'd gotten caught up in marching for civil rights, but was quickly railroaded and made an object of scorn, at least in part due to her rebellion against the efforts to shame her into silence. Now her objective was to live down to the low, trampy expectations that the authorities, including her own brother, had set for her. She knows some of the lowdown dirt on Val that could get him in trouble with the local sheriff, Jabe Torrance or anyone else looking askance at the good looking stranger in town, but she's too busy scheming how to get him alone and all to herself to risk saying anything that might get him locked up or banished from the county.

So with those three roles occupied by the steamy brooding hunk Marlon Brando, the hot-blooded, aging but still voluptuous Anna Magnani and the curvaceous bleach blond wild woman-child Joanne Woodward, The Fugitive Kind packed the promise of sufficient sex appeal, it would seem, to hold the attention of anyone whose taste or vocabulary failed to fully engage with the rather unrealistic, rhapsodic dialogues and monologues that were voiced by the assembled actors. But despite those advantages, this film didn't really do very well upon its initial release. For one, it's really not all that sexy after all - the three actors are charismatic enough in their own way, but the chemistry between them never really ignites as brightly as it ought and they each carry such an excessive load of emotional baggage that just giving themselves over to simple love, or even lust, seems too big a stretch for most viewers to sufficiently believe and empathize with. The dark tones and harsh social critique of small-minded corruption and prejudice might have been too undiluted to catch on with the general public at that time as well; there's a lot of mean-spiritedness to overcome, and much of it feels just a bit too cleverly contrived to fit the demands of the script than reflective of typical human behavior. Throw in some middlebrow symbolic gestures and more than a few examples of excessively chewed up scenery and we're left with a film that is certainly admirable and interesting, both then and now, but not one that seems likely to generate much positive "you gotta see this!" word of mouth.

So after watching The Fugitive Kind a couple times through over this past week, and learning more about him through the helpful supplements on this 2-disc set released last year, just before Criterion started releasing everything new in Blu-ray format, I'm left with an opinion of moderate respect for Tennessee Williams. That assessment, I'm certain, sells him considerably short of the credit he's due for his distinguished career achievements and enduring popularity, but from what I've seen, he's a bit too soapy and grandiose in his characterizations to persuade me to spend more time in his world. If anyone thinks I'm missing the boat here, that I owe it to myself to dig deeper into his works, I could be pretty easy to convince in that regard. It wouldn't be the first time that I've reversed an initial mediocre/"not for me" impression.

I don't have a strong enough passion for Tennessee Williams either way for me to consider myself a fan or a hater, and I understand that The Fugitive Kind was based on an early play of his that he reworked over the course of more than a decade before it reached its final form. So I can indulge some of the blatant theatricality and artifice, the far from realistic dialog and the transparent constructions that Williams used to put his characters in dramatic tension with each other, not only in this film but also from the very early trio of one-act plays included on Disc 2 that, in their own way, provide even more abundant entertainment value than the main feature. Coming from the same era that produced The Golden Age of Television, Criterion's amazing box set of early live-on-TV teleplays, I definitely came to appreciate Williams' talent as a wordsmith and his capacity for conjuring up hot bubbling cauldrons of rampant emotionalism for popular consumption - he clearly sought to stir things up within his audience and I tip my hat to him for taking a big swing at the repressive forces that weighed so heavily down on creative talents in the 1950s. I've linked to a very helpful review about the Three Plays by Tennessee Williams that I'm happy to recommend to anyone interested in learning more about the background to that program.

Despite my lukewarm, mixed reaction to the film, I'm still glad to have The Fugitive Kind on my shelf and easily see why it deserves its spot in the collection. For starters, it's yet another variation on the Orphic legend, such a source of inspiration for other great Criterion films! Then there's Brando (giving the world's first million-dollar-per-film acting performance)... Magnani... Lumet... and an overlooked prime piece of work from a pivotal playwright and screenwriter of his era - they're all Hall of Famers and there's enough packed in this set to reward further examination and reflection later on. Here's a short clip featuring Brando and Magnani, with one of the most impressive word-pictures to be found in the film as Val uses verbal flourishes, some mannered head nods and eye rolls, and is assisted by mood lighting of a rare caliber and unflinching nerve, to speak of himself and others like him as a bird who sleeps on the wind...