Saturday, May 26, 2012

Jules and Jim (1962) - #281

We must face the truth. We failed. We made a mess of everything.

Jules and Jim, Francois Truffaut's homage to bohemian ideals of romantic freedom, seems destined to be a film that will be more fondly appreciated by those who discovered it when it was still fresh and scandalous than by those now encountering it for the first time, a half-century past its debut. In the context of where popular movie culture was at in 1962 and the film's crucial role in demonstrating the potential staying power of the nouvelle vague, I can easily understand the appeal of watching three attractive, sensitive, intelligent young people weave their way through the emotional thickets of a multi-decade love triangle - especially when it's crafted with such meticulous care by a director who closely studied film with an eye toward understanding what makes a scene, an image, a performance resonate most strongly with viewers, then takes what he's learned and reformulates it so creatively. History has shown that Truffaut chose wisely in setting up his third feature film, especially after the perceived failure of Shoot the Piano Player. Jules and Jim established a reputation as not only his "best" but arguably the most successful and influential offering of the French New Wave. That quasi-legendary status continues to draw new viewers to the film, who eager as I was to discover something as invigoratingly awesome as The 400 Blows or Breathless. But as is often the case, the high critical esteem sets up expectations that are hard to fulfill and may ultimately impede some people's ability to simply enjoy Jules and Jim's many admirable qualities.

To get the negatives out of the way first, I think the biggest problem for novices to overcome is managing our response to the obvious instability and emotional turmoil stirred up by the enormously self-absorbed woman at the center of the story. Catherine, portrayed with magnetic grandeur by Jeanne Moreau, is the real focal point of the film, regardless of a title that makes it seem like some kind of a buddy picture. Her commanding presence is palpable in practically all of her scenes (and even a few where she's not seen but is merely spoken of), powered by an inscrutable determination to pursue her own course ("she only announces her goals after she achieves them") and a willingness to make herself erotically available to men who prove themselves helplessly compliant to her whims. It doesn't take much of an imagination to put ourselves in the shoes of either Jules or Jim and wonder out loud if her charms are really worth all the angst and upheaval they trigger in each of their lives. And unlike the early 1960s, when the prevailing dilemma was being locked into unhappy relationships with no legal way out (viz Divorce Italian Style), most of us are surrounded by examples (or have our own real-life track record) of relational train wrecks that cast a dubious shadow over the dreamy free love idylls and frictionless exchanges of partners that make up the most appealing portions of Jules and Jim. Thus it's more than a bit difficult for some to forge a positive bond with these characters, assuming that Truffaut's motive is to offer them up as appealing role models or brave souls fulfilling an ideal that the rest of us either openly or secretly aspire to.

Another stumbling block for me, at least the first time through, was buying into the deep level of friendship that developed between Jules and Jim over the course of their lifetime. Other than being told how much they come to enjoy each others company in the opening pastiche, shot in silent film style to stir up nostalgia for the Belle Epoque, I didn't see much reason to believe it in the performances of Oskar Werner (Jules) and Henri Serre (Jim.) So strong was their connection with each other, the story goes, that they were able to remain pals even as the woman they both loved played each of them like yo-yos, abandoning one in favor of the other on multiple occasions, with hardly more than a sigh of resignation exchanged between them to express their heartache and disappointment. Even after granting a reasonable benefit of the doubt, I had a hard time believing that the trade-offs of Catherine's status as "live-in partner" would be so benign and painless, despite whatever camaraderie they shared. People are just more possessive than that in my experience and I was initially confused by Truffaut's attempt to persuade me that a profound base of shared interests, life experience and perspectives between two men would be sufficient to quash the rivalry that would inevitably develop. It wasn't until after I'd completed my first viewing that I discovered via the supplemental features that the film was based on an autobiographical novel, and that its menage a trois between Jules, Jim and Catherine is a fictionalized account of what really took place (with a few notable exceptions.) That knowledge helped me out quite a bit, actually. Knowing that this otherwise implausible story had a basis in reality compelled me to take a closer look when I revisited the film a week later.

With the benefit of a little perspective and a more genuine interest in discovering for myself what made these characters tick, suddenly the odd, seemingly random gestures that Truffaut front-loaded into Jules and Jim's earliest scenes made more sense. The slide show of ancient sculptures that sets the stage for Catherine's entry into their lives when the men notice her resemblance to a particularly mesmerizing stone face underscores their ardent desire to live according to an artistic ethos. Catherine's adoption of a masculine disguise as an experiment to see if she can fool a passerby into thinking she's a man foreshadows her eventual forthright aggression in setting the sexual and even economic terms of her relationships with both Jules and Jim. Even the iconic footrace they run across the covered bridge concludes with an omen: "You cheated, 'Thomas.'" "But I won."

Similarly, there's some rich and enjoyable symbolism to be found in many other scenes, like the one in which Catherine burns her old love letters while clad in a diaphonous nightgown that catches fire, requiring Jim to both rescue her and clean up her mess. Or Catherine's chattering for attention, trying to distract either Jules or Jim from their recurring dominoes game, finally resorting to a cold playful slap to Jules' cheek when she doesn't get what she wants, only to see the whole group smooth over the offense with forced laughter as she seduces them with premeditated facial freeze-frames that Truffaut emphasizes slightly for our enhanced admiration.

However, as the commentary track showed me, sometimes it can be quite tedious to have some self-appointed expert spell it all out for you so I will leave that level of analysis out of this review. If you want more of that sort of thing, listen to the observations that Annette Insdorf makes on this disc; she's much more willing to go there than I am.

Speaking of commentary tracks, there's a fascinating contradiction contained in the two that are offered on Criterion's Jules and Jim DVD release. On one, Suzanne Schiffman, Truffaut's longtime collaborator who worked as script supervisor on this film, asserts that Catherine's famous jump into the Seine was performed for insurance reasons by a stunt woman dressed in identical garb. However, Jeanne Moreau's recollection on the other track states that her double was sipping rum prior to shooting the scene in order to work up her nerve, so that by the time her big moment came, she was too drunk to leap safely, obliging Moreau to do it herself. We do see her swimming in the river as she's pulled back to the stairs, but Schiffman insists that she just stepped into the water and turned around, while Moreau adds extra details about men yelling at her to jump because she hesitated and having to spend the next two days sick in bed due to her splash in the cold dirty water. It's hard to reconcile the two accounts, so I'll go with Jeanne's story.

The use of old stock footage and borrowed clips from some early movies set in World War I adds to the enjoyment in both cinematic and narrative terms. The montage of those scenes is very well done as Truffaut and editor Claudine Bouche deftly work out the differences in framing and film speed of their various sources in creating a brief but highly effective intrusion of the Great War into the carefree meanderings of our protagonists and everyone else around them. It also marks a significant shift in the mood of the film, as tensions between each of the three begin to mount and complicate irreversibly. Jules and Claudine are married now, they have a daughter, though there's some ambiguity as to her parentage. Catherine has a story to account for her birth while Jules was away at war (Sabine was born 9 months after he visited her on furlough) but by this point, her credibility is pretty worthless and the viewer is made aware of just how transient, even pathological,  Catherine has become in her ability to manage her relationships with others. Not that she can't still be fetchingly adorable:

Of course, her adorableness is a big cause of the all the problems. For Jules, Catherine is too essential to his painfully inadequate sense of himself for him to lose entirely, so he implores his best friend to become her lover so that she won't leave him altogether to pursue someone else. Jim puts off a different woman, Gilberte, who waits patiently for him to settle down and marry her, in order to pursue an ill-fated affair with the flighty but headstrong woman he's been intrigued  by for so many years, even though he sees through his own foolishness. Meanwhile, Catherine is so bewildered by her own mercurial desires that she's rendered herself infertile, psychologically at least if not physiologically (though it's difficult to distinguish the boundary between the two aspects of her being.) As Jim says in the quote that opened this review, which he speaks near the end of the film, practically signing his own death warrant as he inspires Catherine's final act of revenge, they made a mess of everything. Thanks to Jeanne Moreau's deep reservoir of charismatic allure and Francois Truffaut's prodigious mastery of cinematic technique, Jules and Jim nevertheless turns out to be quite a beautiful and influential mess. Just don't let it influence your own love life too much - plunging into the river looks like a lot more fun than it really turns out to be, and the dramatic statement it tries to make isn't all that meaningful or important in the long run.

Eclipse Review: All Night Long

Next: La Jetee

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Sanjuro (1962) - #53

"The spectator sees more than the player."

Whether Akira Kurosawa, through his brilliantly conceived anti-hero Sanjuro, is quoting some wise old Japanese proverb or simply stating one of the fundamental precepts of both team sports and cinema doesn't really matter. The thought applies equally well to both the situation that our wandering samurai friend was describing to his new acquaintances at the beginning of this 1962 classic, and to those of us sitting happily in the audience watching and re-watching Kurosawa's casually tossed together action-adventure masterpiece. The actors who helped create the images we enjoy on screen certainly had access to views that we'll never be privileged to behold, but it wasn't until the spectacle was captured so indelibly in riveting widescreen compositions that it become clear just how perfectly the production was executed.  Hastily revamped from an old script that Kurosawa has begun working on some years earlier, Sanjuro serves as demonstrable proof that a brazen studio cash-in on an unexpected hit doesn't necessarily entail a compromise of aesthetic values, nor does it justify the practice of resorting to pale imitations and blandly predictable formulas that we've sadly come to expect in our sequel-saturated cinematic era. Sanjuro, the follow-up to Yojimbo released a mere eight months earlier - think of that! - is a monument to Kurosawa's greatness for how adroitly he and his team brought the project together, almost as if on a whim, justly earning its lasting reputation for the exciting story it tells and the vivid impression it leaves in our memory.

Breaking Kurosawa's longstanding pattern of alternating films based in Japan's feudal past with stories set in the contemporary era, Sanjuro derives its title from the name of its lead character rather than his occupation (yojimbo is the Japanese word for bodyguard.) Toshiro Mifune had collaborated for well over a decade with Kurosawa, creating some of the most powerful on-screen personas of that era, even though it was his "costume" roles - like Rashomon, Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, The Hidden Fortress - that earned the most universal acclaim. By the time Mifune took on the role of a shrewd, self-serving ronin who gruffly disregards the finer points of samurai etiquette, he was himself starting to show signs of aging: creases in his face, a huskier physique, a jaded wariness in his expression as he stroked his stubbly chin in contemplation of his next strategem. He uses these by-products of worldly experience and the movie star life he enjoyed to great effect, making such a powerful impact as Sanjuro in the two films that they've now become the role he's most likely to be identified with above all the others, if a choice has to be made.

The ingenuity and lasting charm of the character, especially in this film, is established in a simple concept that is replicated and steadily explored throughout. Sanjuro is the skeptical realist who grudgingly intervenes to help a band of naive, well-intentioned young men he's taken a liking to. His crusty mannerisms and wizened cynicism stand in stark contrast to the rigid conformity and foolish presumptions that the samurai have been seemingly been born and bred for. Through the audience's identification with the charismatic rogue, who's constantly letting all his exasperation hang out through a litany of yawns, stretches, grunts, scratches and sighs, we're perpetually entertained by a vicarious adoption of Sanjuro's seemingly reckless but ruthlessly intelligent rebellion, first against the petty customs of the samurai court, and later his rejection of the easy exploitation and graft that fuel the bad guys' criminal enterprise. A good example of Sanjuro's disdain of the former is when he slams the door in the face on Iori, the young samurai leader about to barge out of the house on a heroic quest for vengeance, abruptly and hilariously deflating the grandeur of the moment by muttering, "Aren't you tired of being stupid yet?" And to refute the criminal class that Kurosawa himself despised so much, Sanjuro reaches a pinnacle of ecstatic brutality in the scene where he effortlessly manipulates a few of his rivals into abandoning their stronghold in pursuit of phantom adversaries, only to slash those who remain behind with merciless efficiency.

These and other plot contrivances, too detailed and ultimately trivial to bother recapping here, merge together almost seamlessly to set up a mounting series of tense dilemmas where the plans of Sanjuro and his accomplices teeter on the brink of premature discovery and swift retaliation from the corrupt lord Kikui and his henchman Hanbei, who despite his self-proclaimed rottenness is every bit Sanjuro's worthy foe when it comes to swordsmanship and  commanding presence. Hanbei is played by Tatsuya Nakadai, whose star was nearing its apex at this time. Between his breakout performance in the three parts of The Human Condition and subsequent work with Kobayashi in Harakiri later in 1962, Nakadai completed his first pair of films with Kurosawa in a collaboration that would continue for another two decades. In Sanjuro, he reprised his casting as lead villain from Yojimbo (delivering memorable final scene death spasms inflicted by Sanjuro's sword both times) and provided the crucial counterweight to Mifune. Even though Nakadai's magnetism isn't nearly as celebrated as Mifune's by most reviewers, I think he's superb here, injecting subdued malevolence and smug self-satisfaction into Hanbei's thuggish ambition.

For some viewers and critics, Sanjuro's reputation may suffer a bit as a result of it being a sequel, shorter, less serious in tone and more breezily paced. But it's not lacking for enthusiastic advocates willing to bring attention to its distinctive strengths, even among the full Kurosawa canon. In my review of Yojimbo, I declared it to be the ideal introduction to AK, and while my view hasn't changed (it doesn't make sense to watch Sanjuro first if given the option), I think the follow-up might be the one I'm likely to rewatch more often, just because it's so much easier to digest and packs in the laughs more readily.

Pushed into popular culture right around the same time that the James Bond franchise was establishing itself for a lucrative run that lasted in its original incarnation throughout the 1960s and still continues five decades later, Sanjuro was a character ripe for the exploitation, if his creator had been of a mind to do so. I admire Kurosawa's restless creativity that always pushed him into new territory, though the effort to avoid coasting cost him dearly in the years to come. One sad anecdote that stuck with me from the commentary track notes how Kurosawa was frustrated at being ostracized by most of the younger directors of the Japanese New Wave, who saw him as part of the older generation they were eager to distinguish themselves from. Kurosawa wanted to be more of a mentor figure within that scene, but apparently his patronage wasn't welcome. Still, he refused to lapse into a paycheck driven formula, despite the obvious opportunity and his demonstrable ability to craft a film on short order that entertained the masses and stood the test of time.

Even though the series stopped here, eight years later Mifune turned in one more performance as "a" yojimbo, even if he's not exactly the same character as we see in these two films. It was part of another long-running series, Zatoichi the Blind Swordsman, that probably owes its origins and financing at least in part to the popularity of Yojimbo and Sanjuro. I've just started watching the Zatoichi films on Criterion's Hulu Plus channel, and my plan is to weave them in for diversion as I proceed through my Criterion Chronology on this blog. I won't review them here, but I was pretty impressed by the quality of what I saw in that first film, released later in 1962. I was actually expecting something more comedic and lightweight, along the lines of Sanjuro's more frivolous moments, with some kick-ass swordplay thrown in to ramp up the excitement. What I saw was more solemn and thoughtful, and also more visually polished than anticipated. The Tale of Zatoichi's mood picks up right where Sanjuro left off, after the chuckles subside in the aftermath of a famously bloody and nearly despairing coda.

Despite the awe-inspiring power and discipline that these two sword-wielding samurai hit men display, and setting aside the exhilarating rush that viewers feel at the sight of their deadly techniques, both films take measures to remind us (if we're paying attention) that killing is a nasty business, not to be taken lightly and rarely if ever justifiable as the best way to take care of life's problems. Sanjuro's lesson, which Kurosawa and Mifune draw us into by way of the flashy theatrics and visceral prowess that takes place both on screen and behind the camera, is that peace and patience are the wiser and nobler path that we often dislodge ourselves from through hastily acting upon foolish impulses. Or as it's so eloquently stated a few times in the film, "the best sword remains in its sheath."

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Night Journey (1961) - #406

Martha Graham's "Night Journey" takes place at the moment of Jocosta's death.

If you don't know who Martha Graham or Jocosta are, maybe this review isn't the place to start making your acquaintance. I'll leave that decision up to you, but if you're a complete novice to Jocosta, she's the ancient mythological queen who unknowingly married her son Oedipus after he unknowingly killed his father. You can read all about it here.

If you're a novice to Martha Graham, let me at least recommend that you read my review of the short film A Dancer's World first, and then follow it up with my essay on Appalachian Spring after that. They're the first two entries on this blog, written from the perspective of a fellow dance noob, that I culled from the Martha Graham: Dance on Film collection that Criterion released back in 2007. It's a release that I figure all but the most die-hard of Criterion fans have probably forgotten about or at least neglected ever since, just because they don't really fit the auteurist formula that draws most of us to the brand. On the one hand, I recognize that it does have a niche audience of admirers who appreciate modern dance and probably dig it a lot more than many of the other titles that Criterion released right around the same time. Just taking a minute to compare how many Likes this set got (262) on Criterion's website (as of today) compared to The Three Penny Opera (87) and Mala Noche (66) confirms that point. But on the other hand, I can understand why this set doesn't get a lot of attention from the standard art house aficionado, since I have to admit that I probably wouldn't have given these films much if any attention if the DVDs weren't emblazoned with that big C logo. Going into my first exploration of the set, I didn't really even think of them as "films" since they were originally broadcast on TV, and I harbored a vague suspicion that Criterion decided to release them mainly based on Martha Graham's enduring reputation and cult following than on the inherent quality of the documents themselves.

Watching the two earlier films mentioned above already disabused me of that notion - despite their brevity and relative obscurity, these are illuminating gems of their era - but watching and re-watching Night Journey several times in different moods and at various times of day over the past week has raised me to an entirely new level of astonished admiration for both Martha Graham and director Nathan Kroll, whose intuitive grasp of her art led him to capture these dances as performed by their creator before it was too late. Graham appears to have visibly aged even in the time that transpired between A Dancer's World (1957) and this production just four years later. According to those who danced for many years in Graham's company, interviewed several years ago on a Disc 2 supplement, Night Journey was by far their favorite performance, and it's significant that Martha herself featured the costume and props she used in it as part of the "backstage dressing room" set-up in A Dancer's World. The liner notes mention how profoundly Graham related to its focus on Jocosta's culminating realization of the profound ecstasy and tragedy of her existence, and how she connected elements of that myth to her own turbulent relationships, especially with her lover Eric Hawkins, the dancer for whom she wrote the Oedipus role in the first place. The fact that he was fifteen years younger than her certainly infuses some thought-provoking parallels of art imitating life into the context of this dance. But at this point, I'm not familiar enough with Martha Graham's personal journey to say much more than merely drop that reference. Still, even that small tidbit of knowledge helps me to see the depth of passion and dramatic poignancy that infuses her movements and expressions in the Jocosta role.

As for the film, it's quite a showcase for the artistry that Graham and her ardently devoted dance troupe developed over the course of nearly fifteen years between the first performance of Night Journey and its eventual capture on celluloid. More than was the case with the earlier filmed adaptations of Graham's choreography, I was struck with how much is actually lost in the process of compressing the continuity of Graham's three-dimensional stage productions into a flat, edited and narrowly framed 2D format - even though it's wonderful to have these documents of Graham herself in performance. Even though the lens brings us into intimate spaces at angles that we'd never approach in a theatrical setting, much of the action is lost off camera, or submerged in the background, and this knowledge makes me curious about the possibilities of a well-rendered multi-angled 3D cinematic presentation using 21st century technology. (Note: I have not yet seen Wim Wenders' Pina, though I'm more eager to now than I ever have been!)

With its abstract, minimalist set design and a collection of lithe, lean feminine physiques swirling and gesticulating with a precision both hypnotically archaic and shockingly modern, I felt for the first time in quite awhile somewhat over-matched in my ability to decode the foreign language with which I was being confronted in Night Journey. As much as any movie presented in the dialects of Europe or Asia, this is a film for which I could have benefited from reading the subtitles - but then again, I appreciate the challenge of deciphering Graham's coded body language even more. I seriously doubt that I have made it past the kindergarten level in that regard, even after numerous passes through, but here's a transcript that I'll offer you, a real-time written stream that you can read along as you make your own way through the dark erotic mystery that is Martha Graham's Night Journey...

Opening credits roll over suggestively iconic Greek relief sculptures - downcast female head, aroused nipple, bare feet, flowing robes forever cast in stone, before a brief text scrolls orienting the viewer to the pagan mythic roots of what's about to take place.

A strange platform - is it a bed? a table? a sacrificial altar? - appears on screen before we focus on an entranced woman holding a rope in a suggestively pubic triangle form. Tiresias, a blind masked prophet, twirls his way toward her, using his staff to pluck the rope from Jocosta's hands, and she swoons, once relieved of its inconsequential weight. A Chorus of lean supple maidens stride into view as witnesses to the tense exchange, as shamed Jocosta cowers in penitence while the women pay homage to the seer's wisdom and authority.

Jocosta, left alone again with Tiresias, lays her soul bare, a widow, mourning a lost husband whom she believes was killed by bandits. Frantic in her grief, sensing a void in the midst of her being, moving, searching, seeking that elusive fulfillment, possessed of powerful raw energies but aching in solitude, she spins and kneels, in supplicant submission to the prophetic oracle. But not receiving any direction, she returns to her solo dance before finally collapsing in exhaustion upon that sparse uncomfortable platform.

As she sleeps, the Chorus returns, waving olive branches over her, accompanied by the handsome confident young man who recently unknowingly slayed his own father and now confidently struts in seductive pursuit of the sleeping woman to whom he's attracted, mistaking his natural maternal affection for sexual cravings. She likewise is oblivious to the roots of her desire for this virile consort, happily yielding to his display of masculine power, bearing the branches above her head that proclaim a promise of fertility and abundance that fate will not allow her to fulfill.

Regardless of the taboos it unconsciously shatters, the unnatural courtship of Oedipus and Jocosta is not lacking in its own form of beauty. At first coy, demure and genuinely innocent, the return of the observant Choral Leader presses the couple to greater heights of ardor as the attraction of their bodies becomes too overwhelming for them to resist. But even as they consummate their intimacies, a flickering of troubled conscience sweeps across Jocosta's face, a signal perhaps for the full Chorus to barge in and enact their outraged protest at the violations of natural order that have just taken place. A wild, frantic dance erupts at the very moment that Oedipus entangles Jocosta irrevocably in the rope that she'll soon use to hang herself - the women leap vehemently, contracting and exploding in alternating rage and sorrow, hands and feet extended in protest, eyes shielded as they collapse to the floor then kneel in rapt attention as Tiresias returns to reveal, at last, the long prophesied but fiercely denied truth that seals Jocosta's doom and Oedipus' everlasting shame.

One last spurt of energy left in her, Jocosta reels in bewilderment before collapsing on her bed, while Oedipus arises after her, recognizes his sin, and punishes himself by gouging his eyes with the brooch from his lover/mother's breast. He staggers off to face his fate in the wilderness, choosing to live on despite his disgrace, an option more unbearable to Jocosta than facing the dreadful mysteries that await her beyond the grave. Shedding her regal robe, the last layer of dignity and artifice available to her, Jocosta now stands naked, accepting her sorrowful destiny. That rope, the cord that bound Jocosta to her son/lover, is now used with one final wrap around her neck to escort her from this world, leaving only Tiresias to poke and prod his way across the stage, now bereft of life and offering only a harvest of sighs.

Next: Sanjuro