Thursday, 28 February 2008

The Woman in the Rumour (Mizoguchi, 1954)

Thanks to the wonderful folks over at Masters of Cinema, the Chikamatsu DVD features another Mizoguchi from the same year: Uwasa no onna (aka The Woman in the Rumour.) It's a relatively short effort (84 mins) so I decided to put some spare time this afternoon to good use by giving it a spin. This was my first experience with a contemporary film from the director, so I wasn't quite sure what to expect. Of course, the concern with women (specifically, prostitutes) is typical of Mizoguchi and to his credit, he doesn't shove the issue of their oppression down our throats. On the contrary, he spends some time articulating the possible empowerment and safety that the profession can provide whilst never losing sight of the instabilities that plague this world. Mizoguchi's knack for social commentary is at it's most effortless during these scenes in the geisha house. However, his astute observations share an uneasy relationship with the romantic turmoils that gradually assume the film's spotlight - frankly, they're just not that interesting despite the unpredictable directions that they take (the ease with which Dr. Matoba accepted Hatsuko's money really surprised me!) Fortunately, Mizoguchi isn't focused on the melodramatic aspects so much as he's concerned with the clash between traditionality and modernity. The distinct use of costume in this film (geishas sporting classical Japanese dresses, other characters in Western attire) underscores the tensions which manifest themselves most clearly in the mother-daughter relationship at the film's core. These conflicts are deftly played out by both female leads, but Kinuyo Tanaka's work as the ageing madame is particularly worthy of commendation. The actress lets loose here, using every fibre of her frame to convey her character's insecurities. It's a brave and highly expressive performance, which dares to use body language as a method for audience communication, and Tanaka pulls it off with ease. Her trademark ability to internalize her characters' anxieties is not lost either - the film's most memorable sequence occurs at a noh theatre where the cruelty of a comedy ridiculing an older woman's love becomes unbearable to watch thanks to Tanaka's heartbreaking reaction shots.

The contemporary setting of this film restricts the extent to which Mizoguchi can utilize the lyrical compositions that characterize his period pieces, but the film is nonetheless an aesthetically pleasing effort. Intriguingly, the film begins and ends with exactly the same high-angled establishing shot that opens Chikamatsu Monogatari (which would be Mizoguchi's next film), drawing attention to the circularity that's a recurrent idea within the director's filmography. Rumour concludes by criticizing Japan's failure to create more opportunities for females to escape their objectification, and thus the graphic match that's created by the film's last shot and Chikamatsu's first has the effect of underlining the shared mysoginism in society both past and present. It's a powerful conclusion, and one that makes The Woman in the Rumour essential viewing for any Mizoguchi enthusiast.

Chikamatsu Monogatari (Mizoguchi, 1954)

(aka, The Crucified Lovers)

One of the bonus features of my (beautiful) Chikamatsu Monogatari DVD is a short discussion with Mizoguchi 'expert' Tony Rayns. It's an informative piece rather than an analytical one, and he claims that the film is lesser Mizoguchi, suggesting that the director wasn't entirely committed to the film - in part, due to the messy end to his professional (and personal?) relationship with favoured actress, Kinuyo Tanaka. His points aren't lost on the viewer, but although Chikamatsu isn't as supreme an artistic achievement as Sansho the Bailiff (one of the five greatest films ever made, for those who continue to live in ignorance) or even Ugetsu, it's nevertheless a fantastic demonstration of Mizoguchi's ability to elevate mediocre material simply with the sophistication of his craft.

It's not difficult to grasp why the director would be suited to this story. Thematically, Chikamatsu is typical Mizoguchi thanks to its concern with the oppression of females, the rigidity of social hierarchies, the hypocrisy of patriarchal conventions etc. etc. Unusually for Mizoguchi however, the narrative that gives birth to these ideas is only partially successful. The central romantic drama rests upon contrivances that require a wilful blind-eye on the audience's part, and its melodramatic nature is convoluted by the decision to expand the scope by interweaving underdeveloped subplots concerning the Master and Otama (a servant in love with Mohei, the male lead.) Chikamatsu's characters are further hindered by a horrid tendency to expose concerns that the narrative and/or Mizoguchi already makes clear - thus, after a premonitory crucifixion procession we're browbeaten with the Master's unnecessary articulation of the consequences of adultery, which is followed by a group of female servants questioning the misogynism inherent within the prevailing status system. It's startingly uncharacteristic of Mizoguchi to treat his audience with such disrespect, so one could be forgiven for wondering whether Rayns's arguments about the director's engagement with the production are legitimate.

Well, actually - no! One couldn't and shouldn't be forgiven for doubting the credentials of the greatest of all the Japanese auteurs (I'm calling it.) How easy it is to forget that this is the same director who ironed out the creases in Ugetsu's problematic screenplay with his unrestrained lyricism, thereby deeming it worthy of the 'masterpiece' moniker. Chikamatsu lacks the stylistic flourishes that makes Ugetsu (and also Sansho) such captivating viewing, but it does reveal a refinement in Mizoguchi's technique that's advantageous in terms of taming the melodrama. Above all, the film is an exercise in elegant restraint - each composition quietly ripens the subtext, achingly edging the audience closer towards its moving culmination. The overriding motivation behind much of Mizoguchi's framing is the issue of entrapment: Chikamatsu is overtly concerned with the concept of freedom, so it follows that for much of the film's first half (when the would-be lovers exist within the social order) the drama is interiorized into the cluttered spaces of the Master's house. Mizoguchi frequently uses this mise-en-scène as a 'device' to confine his characters even further within the already-tight frames, or to emphasize the distinctions between the public and private spheres of the household. In reality, this 'device' discloses the spuriousness of their confinement and the tragedy of self-imprisonment: all that binds these characters to their mores is a series of man-made constructs.

Chikamatsu Monogatari is not simply another sentimentalized paean to the resilience of the human spirit, however. Mizoguchi's use of repetition as a cinematic accessory fortifies the depths to which this legacy of entrapment has been ingrained into the society of this era: the film uses exactly the same establishing shot of a busy street during the opening in Kyoto (the home of the "crucified lovers", therefore associated with their confinement) as it does upon the lovers' escape to Osaka (which, briefly, becomes associated with their freedom.) 'Civilized' spaces refuse to grant the couple a reprieve, so only in the organic settings of countryside, lakes and forests can intimacy occur. Chikamatsu deals with a love that's stifled, so its rare emergence implores us to treasure its value all the more. Additionally, the drama that accompanies these moments of romance is nigh-on unbearable due to the consistency in Mizoguchi's subdued treatment of the story that surrounds it. Nevertheless, even in the elegiac beauty of the natural world, the pair are constantly forced into enclosure (a peasant's hut, a makeshift treehouse, Mohei's familial home) - the reality of the bloodthirsty world they inhabit catches up with them at each and every turn.


Tragically then, we come to the realization that the only avenue which presents an escape into the spiritual freedom that our protagonists' crave is that of death. Cruelty, greed and selfishness are the traits which taint the personalities of nearly all of the film's notable characters. Even those that we initially trust, such as Osan's mother, are eventually unmasked as merely another facet of this incriminating portrait. What these characters have in common is their conformity - they live by the status quo (although the ease with which Mohei, Osan and eventually the Master lose their place in their hierarchy reveals a wicked paradox between the rigidity of the order and the precariousness of the social status that it provides.) Chikamatsu doesn't suggest that obliterating the rulebook is the path to guaranteed enlightenment, but it does ask its audience to consider the restrictions of the world in which they exist and then presents an outlet for countering those limits: love. The beauty of this particular prescription is the surprise with which that love confronts its recipients, privileging them - however briefly and inadvertently - with a taste for living, as voiced by Osan herself after an aborted suicide attempt. It's this that lends Chikamatsu's finale its poignant intricacy. Mizoguchi's repetitional device resurfaces here, with a second crucifixion procession that augments the cyclical nature of his filmic world. The sequence is harrowing, explicitly recalling its predecessor and provoking a replacement of the first procession's anonymity with sorrow as we're forced to comprehend the fact that our "crucified lovers" are not the only ones. The gravity of this implication is contrasted with the serenity of the lovers' faces - both are calm, at peace. For the first time in their lives, they are genuinely free. And yet, the deplorable cost of this freedom is not lost on Mizoguchi, who leaves it up to an innocent bystander to articulate the express the bitter irony of the situation: "It's hard to imagine that they're on their way to die." After the experience of Chikamatsu Monogatari, one realizes that no, it's not hard at all - it's devastating.

Tuesday, 26 February 2008

Americanized 2007 Ballot

Going with US release dates here. I'll post my actual 2007 ballot later in the year when I get a chance to watch Alexandra, The Edge of Heaven, The Man from London etc. I've now seen of the critically-beloved US releases from the awards season (Persépolis and Ratatouille are sadly exceptions) so without further ado, I present the Americanized 2007 Spiceys (better than the Oscars):

  1. Syndromes and a Century (Weerasethakul)
  2. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Mungiu)
  3. No Country for Old Men (Coen Bros.)
  4. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Dominik)
  5. Control (Corbijn)
  6. Private Fears in Public Places (Resnais)
  7. Bamako (Sissako)
  8. Golden Door (Crialese)
  9. Eastern Promises (Cronenberg)
  10. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Schnabel)

    Also: Black Book (Verhoeven), Lust, Caution (Lee), I'm Not There (Haynes), Lady Chatterley (Ferran), This Is England (Meadows), Margot at the Wedding (Baumbach)

  1. Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Syndromes and a Century
  2. Joel & Ethan Coen, No Country for Old Men
  3. Cristian Mungiu, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
  4. Alain Resnais, Private Fears in Public Places
  5. Anton Corbijn, Control
  1. Casey Affleck, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
  2. Sam Riley, Control
  3. Viggo Mortensen, Eastern Promises
  4. Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood
  5. Brad Pitt, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

  1. Anamaria Marinca, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
  2. Marion Cotillard, La Vie en Rose
  3. Nicole Kidman, Margot at the Wedding
  4. Marina Hands, Lady Chatterley
  5. Carice van Houten, Black Book

  1. Javier Bardem, No Country for Old Men
  2. Max von Sydow, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
  3. Tommy Lee Jones, No Country for Old Men
  4. Vlad Ivanov, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
  5. André Dussollier, Private Fears in Public Places

  1. Samantha Morton, Control
  2. Jennifer Jason Leigh, Margot at the Wedding
  3. Laura Morante, Private Fears in Public Places
  4. Vanessa Redgrave, Atonement
  5. Charlotte Gainsbourg, I'm Not There

  1. Private Fears in Public Places
    (Laura Morante, André Dussollier, Sabine Azèma, Pierre Arditi, Lambert Wilson, Isabelle Carré, Claude Rich)
  2. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
    (Mathieu Amalric, Max von Sydow, Emmanuelle Seigner, Marie-Josée Croze, Anne Consigny, Marina Hands, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Patrick Chesnais, Isaach De Bankolé)
  3. No Country for Old Men
    (Javier Bardem, Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin, Kelly MacDonald, Woody Harrelson)
  4. Eastern Promises
    (Viggo Mortensen, Naomi Watts, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Vincent Cassel, Jerzy Skolimowski, Sinéad Cusack)
  5. I'm Not There
    (Charlotte Gainsbourg, Marcus Carl Franklin, Cate Blanchett, Heath Ledger, Richard Gere, Ben Whishaw, Julianne Moore)

  1. Cristian Mungiu, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
  2. Noah Baumbach, Margot at the Wedding
  3. Aberrahmane Sissako, Bamako
  4. Todd Haynes & Oren Moverman, I'm Not There
  5. Shane Meadows, This Is England

  1. Joel & Ethan Coen, No Country for Old Men
  2. Roger Bohbot & Pascale Ferran, Lady Chatterley
  3. Jean-Michel Ribes, Private Fears in Public Places
  4. Ronald Harwood, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
  5. Matt Greenhalgh, Control

  1. Roger Deakins, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
  2. Janusz Kaminski, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
  3. Agnès Godard, Golden Door
  4. Martin Ruhe, Control
  5. Edward Lachman, I'm Not There

  1. I'm Not There
  2. Lust, Caution
  3. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
  4. There Will Be Blood
  5. Black Book

  1. Nick Cave & Warren Ellis, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
  2. Alexandre Desplat, Lust, Caution
  3. Jonny Greenwood, There Will Be Blood
  4. Dario Marianelli, Atonement
  5. Howard Shore, Eastern Promises

Lancelot du lac (Bresson, 1974)

Robert Bresson confounds me. I've loved and/or admired every film of his that I've seen, and yet there's probably no director whose output I'm less willing to discuss. Bresson makes me feel small as a cinephile, for any semi-decent commentary on his films requires an engagement with the formal aspects of his craft (for Bresson's techniques are surely amongst cinema's most distinct?), and I'm simply not well-versed enough in film-school language to comment on that. But y'know what? Fuck it. I love Lancelot du lac and I'm going to quickly attempt to explain why, so stick with me on this and then enlighten me with more intellectual thoughts, please.

Unsurprisingly, the most striking element of Lancelot du lac is its visual style. Bresson's subdued, metallic palette dominates every frame to the point where the presence of colour is rendered almost a novelty. His unique coloration thus serves as an apt metaphor for the lives of his disillusioned knights, whose failed quest for the Holy Grail has degraded them into a group of factioning marauders so consumed by their individual desires that they've lost a sense of their own humanity. It's a sign of the director's neverending genius when one realises that the film's most glaring use of a bright schema comes with the unrealistic reds spilt during bloodshed (which begins in the very opening sequence) - its artificiality reflecting the characters' own, and tellingly highlighting the fallibility of their armour. Lancelot du lac from the outset then, reveals itself as a demythologizing of Arthurian legend that deprives its characters of their heroism and subsequently frees them from a filmic convention that dictates romanticism is the only way to depict their tale.

The culmination of this unique approach is a jousting tournament that functions as the film's most action-filled sequence, with a Bressonian spin on events of course. He chooses to film most of these jousts from the neck down, focusing primarily on movement and reaction (from the bystanders and the injured.) The editing of the sequence draws attention to the fragmented nature of his shot-making, which denies its audience the privilege of knowing character identities. The issue of identity is further compounded by the aforementioned armour - a costume that's seemingly used by its owners as a status symbol, judging by the rarity of any moments without the disguise. Do these characters even know themselves, or has the legend of the Round Table infiltrated their own mindsets to the point where they define themselves by it and it alone? In the titular character's case, the armour is symbolic of the barrier that stands between him and Guinevere. Only with its removal is he able to allow himself to love, but the expectations of his peers prevents such hope.

Personality is an alien concept in the world that Bresson has created for us. His much-remarked use of actors as 'models' has accordingly never been so appropriate. And yet, despite the film's overt formalism, Lancelot is far from being devoid of emotion. Although the actors lack in this department, their deficits are the audience's gain for the tragedy of the film is all the more vital as a result of its characters' helplessness in the face of the drama. As is customary with Bresson, there is an intense spiritual vein that permeates the film, with the search for the Holy Grail symbolizing a search for God - but as Guinevere notes, "God isn't a trophy to take home." The emptiness performed by the models is more than a gimmick on Bresson's part, it's a filmic articulation of the characters' desolation, arising from their incapacity to realize this statement. Their religosity has been compromised by attempts to subvert their Christianity into a weapon of destruction. Thus, there's a sobering sense of irony when they pose the question: "Why has God forsaken us?", failing to realize their own complicity in this dilemma. Bresson deconstructs these larger-than-life characters down to their fundamental cores, substituting their valiance for ethereal ignorance, before reconstructing them as pawns in a critical study of humankind. When the film concludes with an image of the damning resolution to these conflicts - [Spoiler:] a cluttered heap of broken bodies on the forest floor - it's as if Bresson is daring us to contemplate how this all occurred. The answer, we can infer, may have something to do with our inability to understand the myths that we revere.

The Conformist (Bertolucci, 1970)

Has the relationship between narrative and image ever been as consistently potent as it is in Bertolucci's The Conformist? An exuberantly sensual exercise in cinematic style, the film's every frame threatens to burst as a result of its creativity: the compositions, the plays on light and colour, the elegant gliding of the camera... all the visual elements of film coalesce to produce a work of art that's pictorially astonishing. And Bertolucci's style isn't merely hollow posturing, it IS his substance. Thus, the sequences of the film that take place in Italy are characterized by their acute angles, imposing interiors and sharp distinctions between light and shadow, all in order to underscore the restrictive claustrophobia of fascism. It follows that the Parisian segments are notable for their warmer hues, more extensive infiltration of light and external night sequences that are draped in a luminous shade of blue - a shade that seems curiously befitting for its protgaonist's internal concerns. In spite of these vague generalizations, the power behind Bertolucci's shotmaking derives from its lack of a consistent agenda - he's daring enough to stylize for the scene at hand, so the [Spoiler:] higher cutting rate that accompanies the Professor's murder (shot from a number of angles) is followed by the rapid movements of a handheld camera during Anna's death scene.

A non-linear, sequential narrative complements the director's stylistic audacity. Bertolucci uses a car journey that occurs prior to the aforementioned death scenes to reinforce the centrality of the film's primary concern - that being the extent to which lead character Marcello is willing to whore himself in order to become the conformist of the title. With fascism forming the film's socio-political backdrop (and dominating so much of the mise-en-scène) the implications of his attempts to extinguish the less desirable elements of his personality aren't lost on the viewer. Bertolucci's intercutting between past and present invites us to make a further analogy: namely, the link between sexual repression and political extremism. It's this invitation that's perhaps the film's only flaw, for it's both predictable and underdeveloped. Nevertheless, the quiet stoicism of Trintignant's performance thwarts this criticism to an extent, and the remainder isn't enough of a hindrance to even make a dent in the might of Bertolucci's cinematic construct. The film's poignant finale, which sets loose the secrets that our conformist was attempting to subjugate against the background of Italian Fascism's decline, is a solemn reminder of the effects of entrapping the free spirit.

The Conformist is so many things: a treatise on Italian (European?) history, an invigorating thriller, a fascinating character study... but really, the star of this show is the incomparable visual style (thank you, Vittorio Storaro you God.) So there's no other way to conclude (nor is there a more convincing argument for watching this film) than to allow some glimpses of Bertolucci's electrifying vision:

Saturday, 23 February 2008

Gun Crazy (Lewis, 1949)

Where to begin? This is such an exhilarating joyride of a film, and so much of that can be accredited to Joseph H. Lewis's virtuosity behind the camera. The director (whom I had never heard of prior to this) assuredly ratchets up the tension by employing every trick in the noir book - so in come the acute-angles, the ominous toying with light and shadow, the frenzied cutting rates at key moments, the elaborate tracking shots. And yet, for all this elaborate stylization it's something closer to documentary realism which marks the film's greatest setpiece (and also the point where I ran out for air!) - a single-take of a bank robbery filmed from inside the back seat of the getaway car. With this bravura sequence, Lewis thrillingly affirms his grasp of film language and the spatial and temporal possibilities that the medium offers.

Gun Crazy presents the audience with a story that we've grown accustomed to over the years: "love on the run", aka Bonnie and Clyde pre-Beatty and Dunaway. Lewis & co. add a peculiar spin on the subject matter however which maintains our enjoyment on a base level whilst confronting us with stark questions about gender, sexuality and violence. A cinematic prologue establishes the perverse sexual undercurrents that will pulsate throughout the film: we witness the fervor of the young Bart's thirst for guns, and we suggestively learn how it's "something else about the guns that gets him, not the killing." In spite of the phallic connotations that repeatedly demand consideration however, the film makes its case less for repressed homosexuality than it does for an emasculated masculinity implicitly motivated by the post-war context (the lack of a father figure established in the prologue no doubt plays into this.) The firmness of Bart's devotion to guns makes his inability to use them in their traditional filmic roles (as a means to kill) all the more striking, and a compelling contrast is provided by the character of Annie who is in essence a walking, talking and decidedly attractive human firearm. It makes perfect sense for Bart to fall in love with this most curious of femme fatales - a woman who exploits her femininity in order to disguise her sociopathic tendencies: her adoption of the 'masculine' traits lacking in Bart (her superior wiles, her domineering personality, her ability to kill) alludes to an overlap in gender roles, which makes their love a near-necessity. They need one another because of what they lack as individuals and because together they can counter those deficiencies.

The motivations of Annie's character are dubious for much of the film, and even after several robberies with Bart it's possible to doubt the sincerity of her love. Lewis puts paid to such notions in an extraordinary sequence following the couple's final robbery, however: the plan is for them to depart in separate vehicles and meet three months later after the dust has settled - and yet, in a stunning avowal of their mutual dependence, the camera cuts between each as they abruptly u-turn at the same time and reunite in the middle of the road (tellingly, it's Bart who leaves his car to get into Annie's.) This is l'amour fou taken to its dizzying extreme, augmented by a delirious substitution of foreplay with gunplay - thereby blurring the lines between eroticism and violence. To depict such bold forms of sexuality would be noteworthy in itself, but Lewis provides more by extracting every ounce of pulp from his doomed lovers' tango with fate: their tantalising first encounter is a brilliant exercise in marrying overt (Bart's attraction, Annie's gun-wielding seductress, the firing challenge) with covert (it doesn't take a genius to figure out the innuendo in this sequence.) Annie's employer/former lover describes the budding young couple as "wild animals", and he isn't far wrong for Annie's primal feline pinpoints the animalistic urges in Bart's passivity and exploits them.

To discuss this film without addressing the issue of guns would be foolish, but I'll confess that I'm not entirely well-versed in America's gun laws. Certainly, their accessibility and availability is of cause for concern here - particularly in the early segments featuring the young Bart. The B-movie sensationalist in Lewis glorifies and fetishizes the issue to a certain extent with the character of Annie, but to his credit the moral centre of the film is to be found within Bart and he's a solid reflection of our desire for thrills but also our disdain for harming others. Both Annie and his boyhood friends encourage him to kill at certain points, and its his resistance to them that the film venerates. Appropriately then, when he succumbs to murder at film's end the narrative compels him to meet his own death, in spite of the perhaps-justifiable reasoning behind his decision.

At the risk of negating all my rambling, I need to conclude by emphasizing just how tremendously enjoyable this film really is. The film's bizarre marriage of sex and violence is the type of concoction that will no doubt reward endless viewings, and on its basest level its an electrifying chase drama that swathes a familiar narrative with an irresistible sense of urgency. And then there's Peggy Cummins. Unheard of to contemporary audiences, but worthy of immortalization for this one turn alone. She's meant to be playing British (she even claims to be from my hometown!), although the accent is all over the place. What does it matter though, when one's confronted with a presence like this? Her performance is equal parts delicious and ferocious, and her success at internalizing Annie's insecurities renders all other noir females dull and lifeless by comparison. And finally, I return to Lewis whose sense of style cannot be commended enough. How could such an infinitely talented director have become so marginalized by Hollywood? Gun Crazy is perhaps above all a reminder of the painful restrictions imposed by the studio system, but on a more positive note, it's as fine a testament to the rewards of working outside of that mainstream as I can think of.