Thursday, 6 November 2008

The Ascent (Shepitko, 1977)

An unsettling sense of disconnect permeates The Ascent (1977). Further scrutiny reveals a surprising source for the phenomenon: a simple segregation of black and white. Its first half is situated almost entirely in snow-smothered Belarus, where high-contrast photography figuratively exposes the two divergent strands of morality that will come to dominate the film's psychological canvas. In these initial chapters, Larisa Shepitko shows few qualms in pursuing a partisan approach to her subject matter: this is World War II, where the Soviet populace struggle to survive alongside the malevolent spectre of their German tormentors. It certainly appears as if the director's aesthetics are being used to sculpt a patriotic tale of good vs. evil.

But perhaps inevitably, all is not as it seems in Shepitko's sombre terrain. Although this most basic of dualisms haunts the entirety of her characters' journey, the director's moral examination probes deeper than one might initially suspect. When the German threat physically materializes midway through the film, The Ascent navigates away from the either/or oppositions that have heretofore defined its thematics, and veers into murkier philosophical territory. Shepitko's staging adapts accordingly, substituting panoramic distance for pragmatic intimacy. As her long-shots surrender their filmic prevalence to scrutinizing close-ups, so the scrupulous distinction between black and white blurs into a more fully-formed grayscale palette. The director's grasp of these most basic cinematic tools (distance, colour) cannot be underestimated; her enactment of filmmaking 101 allowing her to maximize the visual effectivity of her disparate scopes. Furthermore, Shepitko pioneers a type of organically metaphysical camera, whose kineticism (or lack of) seems acutely attuned to the temperamental rhythms of the natural world - human subconsciousness included. During particularly nerve-racking moments, her vibrant - and at times violent - camerawork embodies the tenuous relationship forged by the film's most pressing elements: national consciousness (painted with broad, severe strokes) and the individual psyche (more complex, confused).

The Ascent is most alive when exploring the expanses offered by the Belarussian countryside, in which it discovers a brand of lyrical realism that intoxicates the senses. Nevertheless, the film's greatest gift is also its biggest flaw. Shepitko's visual style is ravishing to the point where its absence during the confined spaces of the film's second half is felt all too resolutely by the viewer. Undoubtedly, this is her intent; the transition from agoraphobia to claustrophobia inducing a dissonance that reinforces the inhumanity of the protagonists' incarceration. Yet in opting for such a technique, the director strips away at the imagery that grounds her shamelessly allegorical narrative in authenticity. Without the open spaces in which her camera thrives, The Ascent begins to sag under the weight of its Christian metaphors: this is, in essence, a 20th-century reconceptualization of the Jesus/Judas relationship. Jesus (Sotnikov) is venerated beyond belief, whilst Judas (Rybak) exchanges his integrity for survival - degenerating into delusional paranoia as a result. Has Shepitko therefore duped us? Are her attempts to comprehend the individual/national conscience merely a disguise for yet another dualism (hero vs. villain), this time with a Biblical twist?

To assume as such would require Shepitko to simplify the source that inspired her - and she does anything but. No doubt, her contemporary spin lacks subtlety (Sotnikov-as-Jesus gets Dietrich-esque star lighting, whereas Rybak is outright decried as "Judas!" by an insignificant bystander), but fortunately the director isn't concerned with archetypes so much as she's interested in the spiritual dilemmas that birth them. Lest we forget that all this takes place under the guise of an intense war film, where every breath could potentially be the character's last. As The Ascent takes flight, the friction generated by its oppositional characterizations provokes a reactionary meditation on the director's own existential ethics. What is heroism? Is it compatible with everyday survival? Does patriotism have any value to the individual? Who defines betrayal? What does it mean to live? What does it mean to die? Under the umbrella of her conventional plot mechanisms, Larisa Shepitko weaves an intricate parable that asks many questions and searches desperately for their answers. That search may well be in vain, but as the viewer eventually comes over to the realization that it's Judas and not Jesus that we're asked to identify with, Shepitko's sonorous portrait of humanity-in-limbo assumes a resonance that's nothing short of thunderous.

Brick and Mirror (Golestan, 1965)

I expect that my experiences with Iranian cinema have generally conformed to those of my fellow arthouse junkies. That is to say, I'm familiar with (and incidentally, a huge admirer of) the films of Abbas Kiarostami, and adequately acquainted with his New Wave contemporaries. Still, as far as I was concerned, the birth of the country's film industry coincided with its emergence onto the international festival scene during the 1990s.

Imagine my surprise then, when I had the opportunity to acquire a pre-revolutionary film from 1965. Was this to say that Iranian cinema existed before Kiarostami? Before even Dariush Mehrjui's The Cow (1969) - widely credited with kickstarting the New Wave? A chance to outperform my comrades in the obscurity stakes is not a temptation that someone like myself can humanly resist, so naturally I snapped up the oddity - entitled Brick and Mirror - without a moment's hesitation, despite knowing approximately zero about either film or filmmaker Ebrahim Golestan.

Cinema, in both its breadth and its depth, is a beast that will forever remain unfathomable to the 21st century enthusiast. Who knows just how many masterworks are currently lost in the annals of oblivion? How is it possible for even the most ardent devotee to comprehend the real gravity of everything that's preceded them? With over a century of history and a reach that's close to globe-spanning, this is a medium doesn't make life easy for its followers. Yet for all its innate futility, the disciple's mission is not one that's without its rewards. As a (budding) cinephile myself, I can claim with fair certainty that there are few greater (intellectual) pleasures than the joy of cinematic discovery.

It's that sensation, that adrenaline rush, that abstract high that coursed through my veins during Brick and Mirror. Perhaps the element of surprise affected my judgment - in the Internet age where hype is impossible to escape (not necessarily a bad thing, but undeniably tiresome on occasion), it feels liberating to enter into a filmic contract without any expectations. Even so, upon further reflection and post-viewing scrutiny, I find myself arriving at the same conclusion that I formed immediately after film’s end: this is remarkable, essential filmmaking, which deserves far greater recognition than that which can be provided by a critical flyweight like me.

Brick and Mirror offers us two leads: a taxi driver and his on/off lover. One night, after giving a cab ride to a mysterious woman, the former discovers a baby in the back of his car. Cue an episodic 24hr journey through a cross-section of Iran's urbania, where everyone he turns to - from bohemians and tramps to doctors and lawyers - stumbles in their attempts to find a feasible solution to his problem. Only with the appearance of his smart and worldly lover is he able to discover some sort of tentative peace. The couple's brief moments of harmony reveal their potential to forge a makeshift family with the abandoned child. But to do so would require a commitment that might be beyond their capabilities as struggling, blue-collar citizens who value their individualism. In essence, the baby is a catalyst for self-discovery. The real journey here is into their respective consciences, and it's one that doesn't necessarily provide comforting results.

It's easy to see how Brick and Mirror could have influenced the New Wave features that followed in its wake. Golestan is a socially-conscious filmmaker, whose neo-neorealist direction creates a compelling discord against the more metaphysically-inclined analyses upheld by his screenplay. From a contemporary Western perspective, his approach to Brick's subjects grounds the film in an authenticity that invites the viewer's interest on a secondary level as historical document. With the lines between narrative and reality often blurred, Golestan's observational record of moral degeneration, spiritual stagnation and financial deprivation retains its ability to surprise and unnerve. We never get the sense that we're watching characters here - these are real human beings, facing up to the difficulties of everyday life in Tehran. It's these attributes that lend such credence to the work of many of Iran's later, more acclaimed directors.

This is not to say that Golestan is without his stylistic flourishes, nor should one assume that the film is simply a record of poverty and hardship. Brick and Mirror's opening sequence takes place inside our protagonist's taxi as he slowly makes his way through the neon nightscapes of modern Tehran. (One wonders if Martin Scorsese had come across this prior to the making of a certain classic from 1976...) Soon afterwards, the film takes a sharp left turn into the world of expressionistic mysticism during an encounter in a dilapidated house. And Golestan, free from cinematic conventions as we know them, liberally alternates between handheld camerawork and static long-takes, whilst frequently defying the 180 degree rule that's such a staple of continuity editing. Meanwhile, his journey into the night takes the audience into a vibrant café where alcohol flows freely, where women can dance in Western attire, and where (presumably) homosexual men exist as equals. Needless to say, this is worlds removed from the portrait of Iranian life that many of us have become accustomed to in recent years.

Indeed, the film's strongest presence is the female lover who, at one point, struts around like a sex kitten in her undergarments. Golestan maintains too much distance to venerate any of his characters, but he clearly values the forthright emotional honesty of the woman over the commitmentphobic, responsibility-shunning man. Nevertheless, the director takes pains to portray his character's malaise as symptomatic of a much wider condition plaguing masculinity during the era. Brick and Mirror reverberates on an allegorical plane, as a cinematic treatise on the resounding failure of government and establishment to provide for their people. A prolonged discussion between a police chief and a doctor exposes the exasperation and anger that even respected pillars of the community feel towards their society. Yet neither feels the need to act upon it. This is a trait that one finds in all of the film's men: there is much talk, but when it comes to genuine action, they wilt.

An external, presumably malevolent spectre instills a paranoia that no doubt affects their mindsets - an ominous radio plays underscores the aforementioned opening sequence by discussing "anguish", "fear" and the "thousand-eye perils"; and our protagonist spends a lengthy amount of time worrying about the judgments of his unseen neighbours after taking lover and child home for the night. The nature of this implacable fear is never quite clear to us, though its enfeebling effect upon his mentality (and, consequently, his decison-making process) is painfully apparent. Against this context, the film's most significant female characters morph into beacons of strength, better-equipped to tackle social problems than their male counterparts.

For all his feminist tendencies and institutional critiques however, it appears that Golestan is first and foremost a humanist. He remains forever attuned to the intimate dramas that define his emotional content. In this director's view, both personal and political are as fundamental as one another, and Brick and Mirror is at its core a desperate plea for the reconciliation of these increasingly divergent modes of thought. His film reaches its absolute zenith by achieving just that during the unforgettable finale at an orphanage. Actualizing his promise as a documentarian, Golestan dispenses with his narrative trajectory altogether and instead focuses in on the faces and bodies of Iran's forgotten children. His seamless montage confronts the viewer with the uninhibited joy and purity of blameless innocents. Their figurative weight is astounding, demanding a call to action. How can we live with ourselves if the world inherited by the next generation is one that's in complete disarray? And yet, damningly, it turns out that our two leads can do just that. The film ends ironically: another taxi ride intimating technological progression despite the abiding feeling of moral immobility.

Brick and Mirror undoubtedly appears even more striking today when one notes Iran's path through history since 1965. Bear in mind that I was subjected to an abysmal copy of the film, that required the utmost concentration even to make out the characters. It was worth it. I wouldn't be surprised if this was the most sexually frank and overtly polemic Iranian film ever made (not that it's particularly indulgent in either category). But what do I know? If a film as accomplished as Brick and Mirror can remain neglected for so long, then who's to say that there aren't other, more critical, more damning and daring Iranian masterworks out there waiting for reappraisal? And why stop at Iran? How much cinema have we, even in the West, supposedly lost to the hands of time and misguided distributors? As cinephiles, we spend so much time adhering to the canon and listening to what other, apparently more distinguished critics have to tell us. How else have Citizen Kane and La règle du jeu - both superb films - retained their virtual monopoly at the top of Sight & Sound's Top Ten lists for the last half-century? It's too easy to think "the buck stops here" when it comes to this most infinitely rewarding of art forms. It doesn't. There is no objective truth in so subjective a medium, so why place limitations on the potential gifts that it can bestow upon us? Granted, accessibility is an issue - though it shouldn't prevent us from searching, from seeking, from fighting. I realize that Brick and Mirror could have been a stinking mountain of dog turd. But isn't this a chance that we have to take? Perhaps I feel too great a sense of duty here. Perhaps one should exercise some restraint with one's devotion. I don't know. I guess I just love adventures. And thanks to this one, I hope that at least a few more individuals will be aware of Brick and Mirror's existence.

Cat People (Tourneur, 1942)

Producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur reached immortality within seventy minutes during their first collaboration together. 1942's Cat People is today noted as the first in a series of nine films Lewton churned out as head of RKO's horror unit. But this isn't the sort of genre film that contemporary audiences have been trained (bludgeoned?) to expect from Hollywood. Even by Production Code standards, Cat People appears scarce of genuinely shocking imagery. But what the film lacks in discernible horror it makes up for in psychological assaults. See, for Tourneur and Lewton, there's no greater terror than that which can be imagined by the viewer.

Tourneur's aesthetics reflect this belief, and the sinister atmosphere that he conjures up is all the more remarkable given the financial limitations imposed on a B-picture of this ilk. To watch Cat People is to experience a bravura demonstration of stylistic economy, where simplicity reaps huge rewards. Consider the verticalized decor of (anti-)heroine Irena's apartment, which creates a veritable human cage that's intrinsically bound to the animalism that plagues her. Or how about the masterful editing displayed during the sequence where Irena stalks her nemesis, Alice? Expertly-modulated cuts give the impression of diminishing time, a sensation that's heightened by the expressivity of the director's favoured low-angle shots. All the while, Tourneur's deployment of realistic sound effects (clicking heels in the aforementioned sequence, screeching animals at a pet store) ratchets up the tension to near breaking point.

Nothing evokes invisible menace quite like his manipulation of light, however. The majority of the film's scenarios occur during nightfall, with darkness subsequently posing an omnipresent threat to the characters' everyday lives: it haunts them, it envelops them and, ultimately, it entraps them. Theirs is a world engulfed by shadows - and it is precisely these shadows that allow Tourneur to substitute visible monsters for intangible abstractions. As a result of their malevolent presence, the director is able to sow the seeds of fear without ever resorting to shock-mongering. One recalls the memorable swimming pool scene, where reflected light creates a phantasmagorical backdrop against which glowering silhouettes induce the most piercing panic attacks. This is atmospheric horror at its finest.

One could be forgiven for expecting the simplicity that characterizes Cat People's style to concurrently infiltrate its thematic content. But this is a film that surprises the viewer with its psychological density (in spite of its inherent ambiguity). Although its subject matter appears somewhat lurid on paper, Tourneur's sensitive approach to the material enables him to transcend his settings, with Cat People ensuingly morphing from pulp fiction to pulp poetry. Simone Simon's awkward but intuitive performance as the conflicted Irena undoubtedly plays into this filmic elevation. In her near-literal embodiment of the femme fatale, the actress deftly subverts the archetype and tentatively guides the film towards an examination of female sexuality, a satire of middle-class conventionality and an exposé of the transgressive - but in her hands utterly humanistic - impulses that torment the individual. Granted, the story performs its own part, populating the film with characters of questionable motive (husband Oliver included), but the vulnerability that Simon reveals in her social alienation, not to mention the desperation with which she attempts to fend off her supposed destiny, consolidates her right to reside in our affections.

The film arguably loses a fair amount of dramatic steam during its later scenes, where the presence of the smarmy psychiatrist Dr. Judd both convolutes and nullifies its thrilling potency. And yet conversely, it's in these moments that its at its most beguiling. Irena is a character that seems ripe for Freudian analysis, but Cat People contends that rational thought is of little use when attempting to comprehend the complexities of the human psyche. Dr. Judd's inept counsel has the ironic power to repel the viewer into an acceptance of the supernatural. As the film swiftly brings the curtain down upon its narrative, one message reverberates above all else: some matters will forever remain beyond our grasp. Fortunately, the spiritually-deformed beauty of Cat People doesn't have to be one of them.

Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Mother Joan of the Angels (Kawalerowicz, 1961)

The metaphysical malady that plagues Jerzy Kawalerowicz's 1961 Cannes-winning feature is a familiar one, begging for comparisons with the more widely-seen exorcism pictures that followed in its wake. But even as the possessed antagonist of its title feverishly courts Satan in a manner that's wholly reminiscent of a certain William Friedkin film, it's clear that Mother Joan of the Angels is cut from a different, unique cinematic cloth.

Kawalerowicz's mélange of unbridled eroticism, anti-dogmatic rage, and ecclesiastical chaos is disconcertingly repressed by the devotional austerity that overwhelms his mise-en-scène. The film consequently teeters on the brink - its delirious psychology threatening to explode into some sort of expressionistic cornucopia, but ultimately settling for a visual vacuum that harbours only claustrophobic desolation and confrontation (characters frequently stare into the camera, initiating a jarring intimacy with the viewer). A symbolically-charred stake amidst a barren field is the ominous result of this discrepancy between form and content: those who wish to traverse the distance between the corporeal and ethereal face a date with a form of social barbarism that masquerades as justice or destiny. Against this context of spiritual subjugation, the blasphemous hysteria of Mother Joan and her Sisters borders on the rational - an understandable result of their stifled passions. Human needs are disfigured into satanic desires, exacerbated by an institutional framework that values condemnation over empathy.

When the pious Father Jozef enters into this hermetic netherworld, he does so with the intent of saving Mother Joan's damned soul. In actuality, it's his devout veneer that comes undone, unleashing a torrent of doubts and uncertainties that culminates with a provocative dream sequence featuring an angry rabbi (the two individuals, it turns out, are not dissimilar). What transpires alongside this scenario is a wholly unorthodox romance that finds mutual longing displaced into medieval Catholicism's more ritualistic domains. Thus, Jozef and Joan's answer to the sex scene is to self-flagellate their naked torsos at opposite ends of a room, before staring awkwardly at one another after their suffering is complete. Remove the doctrines that they adhere to, and these individuals seem woefully ill-equipped to deal with the pressures of reality.

Tellingly, an image of a downward-facing human cross (Jozef) opens the film, promising an inverted transcendence that's actualized by the conclusion's final, unsettling act of kindness. Following the discovery of moral destitution in a fundamentalist society then, Mother Joan exalts only one solution: compassion. But Kawalerowicz's critical view of static religious ideals lends vigour to the delivery of his material, and in its unnervingly subdued soundscapes he finds only the figurative howls of internal torment. How can compassion survive in a world of such disarray? Mother Joan of the Angels casts its glare upon the increasing divergence between man and institution, and suggests that the former holds the true key to enlightenment. Even then however, we may not find the answers that we're looking for.

Monday, 22 September 2008

Street of Shame (Mizoguchi, 1956)

Street of Shame is about prostitutes. Working with perhaps the most complex narrative of his career, Kenji Mizoguchi observes the interconnected lives of five such women from a sympathetically detached viewpoint. The differing ideals, motives and social backgrounds that colour their respective experiences are woven into a multifaceted tapestry of totality, providing an expansive image of their profession that's as broad as it is deep. In an early scene, a cleaner (presumably a former prostitute herself) recalls an era when their livelihood was looked upon more favourably: "...we were seen as courtesans, trained in the arts... and we were treated just like noble women." Past glories have little effect upon the present reality however, and in the film's opening minutes Mizoguchi is quick to place the ideal of the courtesan in her 1950s context. An Anti-Prostitution Bill going through the national Diet is discussed almost immediately, and its developments are mentioned with a regularity that lends a quiet urgency to the ensuing drama. Meanwhile, the desperate straits of the era become painfully discernible when the female leads resort to harrassing their potential clients for business - which, unsurprisingly, is a method that repels more than it attracts. It soon becomes clear that the position occupied by these women is a precarious one, miles removed from any outdated allusions towards "nobility".

Street of Shame is about sex. A risqué shot of Machiko Kyô's derrière threatens to endow the film with amatory undercurrents that live up to its sordid Anglicized title. However, the director refrains from eroticizing his subjects, with the female body being viewed less as a figure of desire and more as a social commodity. Thus, although the characters discuss copulation with a bluntness that may surprise the audience (particularly when touching upon taboo topics such as incest), their conversations are overwhelmed by more frequent references to their finances (or lack of) - which, of course, are inherently bound to their sex lives. Mizoguchi's discussion of transactional intercourse is founded upon a visible delineation between the respective worlds of the customers and their "purchases", revealed most acutely by the plight of the middle-aged Yumeko. Her forays from the artificial sets of the akasen district into the location shots of the outside world result in only alienation and condemnation. The director is unyielding in his assertions: sex and pleasure are far from interrelated - and in selling the former, Yumeko and her colleagues seemingly relinquish all rights to the latter.

Street of Shame is about men. The lack of significant male characters may temper the vigour of his arguments, but Mizoguchi nonetheless remains implacably critical of his own gender's influence in this cycle of exploitation. His recriminations are discreetly enmeshed within the narrative, minimizing the disruption to its female-centric dramatic flow, but it quickly becomes obvious that each woman's predicament is at least to some extent motivated by the male(s) in her life. Cruel fathers, inconsiderate partners and ungrateful sons inhabit the background of the film, engendering a feminine need to abnegate. Moreover, the brothel's Madame is superseded in power by her husband, who twice rounds up his workers to give resoundingly hollow pep talks designed to extol the benefits of their vocation. Even men who are extraneous to the womens' everyday lives manage to exert their influence: note the aforementioned Anti-Prostitution Bill, whose merits are debated by a male-dominated parliament. Mizoguchi is astute enough to shine his empathetic light upon all of his flawed individuals, but the impression of female subjugation at the hands of a still-patriarchal society is one that's hard to dispel - this, despite the irony of the male characters' dependence upon the oppressed parties.

Street of Shame is about modernity. As the shrill, frenzied sounds of Toshirô Mayuzumi's avant-garde score accompany an establishing vista of 1950s Tokyo during the opening credits, it becomes immediately apparent that this is a very different beast in its director's oeuvre. It is demarcated as a film attuned to contemporary concerns in a manner heretofore unseen within Mizoguchi's work: gone is the classicism and lyricism that both opens and defines his renowned jidai-geki pieces. In its place, there exists a meticulously-crafted melodramatic realism that allows him to discard the sentimental disposition of his most popular films and go straight for the jugular. The socio-political perspective that's present in so much of Mizoguchi's work now assumes the foremost prominence as he turns his attention to the breakdown of traditional family structures. There is little serenity in his examination, which is willing to plumb harrowing depths to illustrate the despondent underbelly of Japan's post-war economic miracle: the image of the über-maternal Hanae confessing to her husband ("I'm glad we decided not to commit suicide.") whilst cradling her malnourished baby in her arms is the sort of tangible human atrocity that only Mizoguchi could construct. And in his eyes, it is indeed a human atrocity for he points the finger of blame directly at a government that's failed its female citizens, and consequently its families. Newsbites from the Diet blare out from numerous radios, creating a politicized soundtrack against which the audience witnesses the limited employment opportunities available to the Japanese woman of the '50s. Almost all of the film's female leads dream of escaping their neon bordello (another irony: it's named Dreamland) but their limited earning potential as women is further hindered by the permanent stigma of a profession that none of them entered entirely through free will.

Street of Shame is about resilience. This is a film that confronts the issue of a prostitute's ignominy head-on and dares to question society's right to authorize that humiliation. Only one member of the original quintet, Yasumi, manages to leave Dreamland for good - but she does so through a deception that effectively exterminates her conscience and morality. Mizoguchi notes the heavy emphasis placed upon performance in this environment, and when Yasumi continues the charade in her next line of work, the blurred distinction between her role and her reality implies that her physical prostitution has been supplanted by spiritual prostitution. Her apparent "escape" accordingly raises further questions about the viability of women in the commercial marketplace, and in doing so alludes to an entire history of female suffering that continues to weigh down most visibly upon her former co-workers. Like Yasumi, none of these women intrinsically require the audience's sympathies, but Mizoguchi's humanistic treatment of femininity-in-crisis elicits more than distanced admiration. His women are more likely to be seen fighting against one another than the powers-that-be, but with each of their personal conflicts they contribute to a cumulative vision of outdated-yet-neverending self-sacrifice that demands the viewer's active engagement with matters of gender equality. The film is a paean to their vulnerabilities as well as their strengths, but most of all it's a tribute to the women themselves.

Street of Shame is about style. His ninety-first film of a métier spanning three decades finds Mizoguchi doing everything except resting on his laurels. Indeed, one could argue that his filmic prose has never been so concise in its articulation. The director rises to the challenge of a dangerously convoluted narrative by refining the renowned aesthetic flourishes of Sansho the Bailiff and Ugetsu down to their threadbare essentials. What the later film lacks in pictorial beauty, it makes up for with stylistic complexity. The director uses depth of field and fluid long-takes to toy with the audience's spatial awareness: a simple track or zoom can expand or contract the planes of action within the frame, and in any one shot he can be using middleground and/or background to bring nuance to the foreground. Take, for example, the scene in which Yasumi visits a café to borrow more money from her benefactor: during their discussion they both dominate the frame, but Mizoguchi uses its depth to interweave a casual commentary on the subject of career openings with the image of a subservient waitress slaving away in the distance. His subdued visuals have rarely been so gloriously unassertive in their intricacies. Additionally, his editing grammar reaches a new level of sophistication, cutting effortlessly across five plotlines that converge and diverge with alarming inconsistency. Somehow, the stories find a way to feed into one another - often via the overarching theme of familial breakdown - and the friction generated by each cut infuses the text with all the potency of a seismic polemic against the social order. It's to Mizoguchi's credit that this impeccably synchronized crescendo of emotional violence retains an organic intensity that grounds it within a wholly identifiable reality.

Finally, Street of Shame is about Kenji Mizoguchi himself. Throughout his adult life, he had been a frequent consumer of prostitutes - a fact that boggles the mind when one considers the pro-feminist/anti-prostitution readings applied to so many of his films, this one included. Street of Shame's final coda however, may well expose the true nature of his personal convictions. [Spoiler]The director brings down the curtain by going full circle and turning his attention to the next generation: the latest addition to Dreamland's roster, a teenage virgin named Shizuko, makes her public "debut" in an uncharacteristic Mizoguchi close-up. As he scrutinizes her innocent but terrified face, she uncomfortably whispers to the passers-by - "come inside... please..." - and so the cycle begins once again. With his choice of shot, the director's camera eradicates its gender-neutral viewpoint and reverts to a perspective that boldly recalls the male gaze. But the last shot of his incomparable career is surely also Mizoguchi's gaze - and with it, he acknowledges the destructive potential of the profession once and for all. In a courageous move, the closing moments of Street of Shame reveal their true colours as a filmmaker's desire for redemption.[/Spoiler] Thus, the director's final gift to the world of cinema is also his most intimate and personal - and it somehow seems fitting that this poignant diatribe should have been cited as one of the factors behind the eventual ratification of the Anti-Prostitution Bill in 1958. There could be no greater tribute to the everlasting eloquence - and relevance - of Mizoguchi's cinematic expression.

Yôkihi (Mizoguchi, 1955)

Mizoguchi's first of only two colour films is also one of the most obviously misread works in his oeuvre. The film's title, Yôkihi, can often be sighted masquerading under the guise of Princess Yang Kwei-fei or even The Empress Yang Kwei Fei. Alas, these monikers have little relation to the text at hand: the titular Kwei-fei is neither princess nor empress, but merely a servant girl who's pushed into the Emperor's court and, subsequently, his affections. (The UK Masters of Cinema DVD release reinterprets the title as the more appropriate Imperial Concubine Yang.)

Such pedantry may seem foolish: after all, what bearing can a poorly-translated title have on the content of the film? The answer is probably very little, but the failure of Western distributors to comprehend the relevance of Kwei-fei's role alludes to a more significant problem within the text itself. To return to the opening sentence, an informed viewer might expect Yôkihi to be misunderstood as a result of the camouflaged intricacies typically locked up inside Mizoguchi's visual style. This is not the case. Yôkihi's problems arise because it is perhaps the most misconceived and ill-judged effort from a director otherwise renowned for the precision of his craftsmanship.

The Chinese legend that birthed the film's premise seems ideally suited to Mizoguchi's favoured concerns. A tale of love and sacrifice that's centred upon female oppression at the hands of male political manoeuvring should, in theory, provide a home run for someone of his proto-feminist background. Consider also the privilege of witnessing a cinematic master direct in colour, not to mention the reteaming of Machiko Kyô and Masayuki Mori - two of the leads from Ugetsu, a film that resides amongst his most brilliant achievements. Surely with all this in mind, Yôkihi begins to scream "recipe for success".

Perhaps it is this misplaced faith in the sum of its exemplary parts that allows for the film's pitiful storytelling. Despite the acclaim of the source material and a screenplay penned by the director's regular collaborators, Yôkihi's narrative is riddled with flaws that sabotage the final product. The most glaring problem lies with the dialogue, which insists on vocalizing the subtext normally created by Mizoguchi's editing, framing and mise-en-scène - thus depriving his imagery of its trademark nuances. Thematic subtlety is surprisingly abandoned as the incessant talk of moral bankruptcy, political corruptness and, of course, oppression, browbeat the issues over the viewer's head.

Meanwhile, the three-act structure to which the narrative adheres causes further headaches with its careless execution. A detailed introduction does both too much and too little for the film as a whole, establishing characters and conflicts that the hurried later sections fail to address. Take the powerful Mother Abbess for example (deliciously played by Haruko Sugimura, Japan's answer to Thelma Ritter), who offers a tantalizing counterpoint to female abnegation in an early scene only to then be completely discarded as the film "progresses". Yôkihi simultaneously ignores characters that do merit further consideration - note how the Emperor's son, whose relevance to both prologue and epilogue cannot be underestimated, is absent for the entire duration of the film. Having spent so much time verbally articulating its themes, the director and his writers end up compromising on both the story's momentum and its character development to abysmal effect.

Moreover, the concept of plot has never been so visibly mechanical in a Mizoguchi effort, and the contrived transitions that propel it toward its conclusion are imbued with the exasperation of authors who, frankly, don't give a damn. At one point during the final act, Yôkihi reverts to describing the events of a temporal ellipsis with subtitles. There is no precedent for such laziness within either the film or its director's filmography, meaning that the decision comes across less as a stylistic tactic and more as a bizarre reproach to both the audience as well as the talents of its creators. Needless to say, these few minutes provide horrifying viewing for the Mizoguchi enthusiast, offering a culmination of the film's numerous troubles that's nigh-on unwatchable.

And yet bafflingly, when all is said and done, it's not Yôkihi's many mistakes that linger in the memory - it's the flashes of its director's unparalleled genius. Despite the hackneyed mess of a script that he does little to visibly tame, Mizoguchi manages to locate an opening that allows him to experiment. The film is bookended by sequences featuring the aged, now-former Emperor mourning his past - suggesting that the bulk of the content could be viewed through the filter of his memorializing perspective, thereby explaining some of the textual incoherencies whilst raising numerous questions about the male gaze. Familiar Mizoguchi territory? Of course, there is little within the narrative itself to imply that the writers are aware of these quasi-modernist inclinations, but the otherworldly atmosphere that Mizoguchi creates with his blend of languid camera movements, exquisite colour photography and ethereal musical accompaniments at least creates the possibility of an alternative reading.

Although Mizoguchi's visual style may be stripped of its nuances, its capacity for inspiring awe is conversely stronger than ever. One recalls the Lotus Pool scene, which marries the sensuality of Ugetsu's hot springs episode with the erotic frankness advocated by Naruse's Floating Clouds. Or how about the eerie beauty of the plum blossom sequence, whose beguling lyricism melds with the delicately opaque performances to create an indelible portrait of loneliness, as in The Life of Oharu? And then there's the climactic [Spoiler]self-sacrifice scene, which acknowledges the poignant model of dignity pioneered by Sansho the Bailiff's Anju, and remoulds it into an economical apex of melodramatic potency.[/Spoiler] In short: Yôkihi finds Mizoguchi the cinematic artist reverting to his old palettes to enliven the messiest canvas of his career. It's a testament to the director's mastery that the new decorations manage to equal, and perhaps even surpass the aesthetic majesty of earlier efforts.

As the camera searches for high angles amidst the polychromatic artifice, it is not unjustified to claim that the Emperor and Kwei-fei bear resemblances to lifeless figures in a painting. Factor in Mizoguchi's rigorous observation of social rituals (and, on a more basic level, a prologue that divulges the conclusion!) and the metaphorical noose around these characters necks seems tightened from the get-go. Gender politics and social obligations imprint themselves into the awkward diction and body language of the two leads, whose filmic "activity" functions as an extended metaphor for their actual captivity.

For a film that's so consumed by its characters restrictions then, it is perhaps appropriate that the most brilliant sequence in Yôkihi should be entirely concerned with the idea of movement. During a particularly artificial starry night, the prospective lovers adopt disguises to escape the regulations of their palatial abode. They arrive at a Festival of Lanterns where, after a trivial process of self-discovery on the Emperor's part as well as the random assistance of strangers that insist upon getting the pair drunk, the duo enact what is surely one of the most moving expressions of mutual desire in screen history. Kwei-fei dances, the Emperor plays guitar, and as their respective performances coalesce somewhere within a stratosphere of ecstasy, so the viewer understands the real value of personal freedom. These few, hypnotic minutes tell the story of the film as a whole. Despite resting upon a series of misguided clichés and contrivances, the end result here is the same as in any other Mizoguchi film from this period: his artistry prevails. Yôkihi might well be the most flawed work in his later canon, but its missteps allow the viewer to cherish its moments of bliss that much more.

Aleksandra (Sokurov, 2007)

Sokurov's latest film casts his titular heroine as a defiant Mother Russia figure who's as eccentric as characters get in his closed artistic universe. Aleksandra's visit to her grandson, stationed at a military barracks in Chechnya, offers the director a rare opportunity to comment on contemporary regional turmoils. Those familiar with films such as The Sun however, will soon realize that Sokurov has minimal interest in politicizing his threadbare narratives. Instead, he typically elevates his film unto a plane above everyday reality: characters don't talk so much as they mumble against the audible gasps of their desolate environment; deliberately poor dubbing gives the effect of dialogue emanating from the subconscious; and all the while, a plaintive symphony interpolates the soundscape, punctuating the most emotionally-charged moments with a heavy dose of appealing irony. Sokurov's imagery remains as beautifully stark as ever, appearing as if saturated by a celestial presence that leaves the natural looking artificial. It is against this backdrop that Aleksandra and her companions can be caught moralizing with jarring frankness - their strained confessions forming the discursive backbone of the director's poetic ruminations on the wayward Russian spirit. This rambling approach to so substantial a subject pays dividends: the national question, stifled by Sokurov's elegiac construction, both transcends and relapses into something more akin to intimate self-analysis. The very notion of Russian identity is deconstructed into an abstract conflict of spiritualism vs. realism. Aleksandra embodies the former, her grandson the latter, and in his tender examination of their familial bond Sokurov charts the ebbs and flows of this most peculiar conception of nationality. Even if his evaluations are lacking and somewhat misguided in their political foundations, his crisis of the Russian soul's moody allure strikes a chord that's as relevant as much as it is resonant. When Aleksandra's Chechen counterparts bid her farewell at film's end, their outpouring of affection may well have concluded the most crushing fantasy of the 21st century.

Sunday, 21 September 2008

Stazione Termini (De Sica, 1953)

Jennifer Jones furrows her brow, Montgomery Clift flares his nostrils, and together they strive to breath life into the sterile romance that debilitates Vittorio De Sica's bizarre Stazione Termini (1953). Unfolding entirely inside Rome's titular train station, the accomplished director's English-language debut seems to draw clear inspiration from David Lean's Brief Encounter (1945), whilst anticipating his later Summertime (1955). De Sica embroiders an entirely different emotional fabric however: the romantic impulse is substituted for illicit carnality, and the tender, empathetic perspective that one associates with Lean's intimate dramas is noticeably absent. It remains unclear if this was De Sica's intention, or whether this is simply a byproduct of the execrable performances from his distinguished stars. Clift's brooding hyper-intensity is humorously undercut by his wavering attempts at an Italian accent, but all worst in show honours surely belong to Jones whose underwhelming "damsel in distress" schtick conveys as much human resonance as a brain-dead pig. With lipstick. And Dior.

Woefully misguided as the actors are, one must surely attribute some of the blame here to the film's creative team. A collaboration between screenwriters of such pedigree (Cesare Zavattini and Truman Capote are amongst the contributors) has no reason to feed the stars such laughably trite dialogue, nor should it facilitate such a conservative message (the maternal archetype is venerated beyond belief). And as for De Sica, Stazione Termini finds the filmmaker caught in perpetual limbo between the social documentarian of neorealism's heyday and the metteur en scène demands placed upon the Hollywood melodramatist. The ensuing awkwardness manifests itself in more than just the acting: the director lingers upon shots of ordinary people long after the stars have left the frame, evidently struggling to tailor his auteurial instincts to the conventions of continuity editing. His approach would seem refreshing if it refrained from painting its innocent bystanders as participants in an urban freakshow - what does one make of the vertically-challenged Kirk Douglas lookalike who drools over anything with a vagina and angrily clings to an orange? Or how about the gaggle of eccentric clergymen who overwhelm the screen at the most random intervals? And the crazed policeman-as-pervert who pulls "Fuck me!" faces at Jennifer Jones, of all women? De Sica may be attempting to represent the discomfort and shame felt by Jones's guilt-ridden adulteress, but he ends up creating a cross-section of Italian society that reveals a worrying sense of national self-loathing.

Like so many other entries in the genre of directorial missteps however, Stazione Termini has its merits. De Sica shows a mastery of visual style here that might surprise the viewer. The vibrant hubbub of the station is frequently wedded to expansive long-shots that revere the near-glacial beauty of its architecture. What ensues is an abiding feeling of disconnection from space and time (note the giant clocks that the director so often returns to) - and, given the iconic location, modernity. The director draws attention to this with the deftest of touches: shot/reverse-shots used during the lovers' conversations discreetly position each participant at opposite ends of the frame, highlighting the distance that separates them (and accentuating the moments of intimacy when they do share the frame). Moreover, at one point, Jones's face is filmed from a high-angle with toplighting, evoking memories of Dietrich, Garbo and the exoticized splendour of the fallen woman. The actress's ineptitude is advantageous here, drawing attention to both her characters' detachment as a clueless American in Italy, as well as her personal disconnect from the proponents of the shot's prototype.

De Sica's insinuations regarding the perils of modern life are admirable, going so far as to create an alternative narrative simply through the strength of his potent imagery. When the actual, contrived narrative - complete with its dour eroticism, simplistic orthodoxy and stultified emotional masochism - concludes with what is quite possibly the most elongated and laborious farewell in the history of forever, he might well have given the audience enough reason to wonder whether their feelings of nonchalance after ninety minutes of intensive "romantic melodrama" are intended.

But this is still a crock o'shit.

On Dangerous Ground (N. Ray, 1952)

The cineaste's inherent need to categorize is masterfully exposed by Nicholas Ray's On Dangerous Ground (1952). With Bernard Herrmann's dynamically sinister score providing a serrated edge to the murky cityscapes of the opening credits, one could be forgiven for assuming that this is a film that will conform to the conventions of the urban noir. And indeed, for almost half an hour the director revels in the seedy underbelly of his dystopia, where perversity and profanity collide in a flurry of violence amidst the shadows. Credit the ominously restrained (for the most part) fervour of Robert Ryan's tortured police officer for grounding this segment with a psychological quandary that demands a resolution: how is it possible to survive in the gutters of society without losing one's humanity? In pursuit of those depths, Ray sends his cop on an ontological odyssey into the wilderness, via the morbid conceit of a manhunt for a murderer. Although the stylistic values of the noir appear to have evaporated, in the snow-covered desolation of the countryside the director locates the same crisis of morality that plagues the city. Accordingly, the film becomes a study of man in relation to his environment: in both locations, Ray follows his low-angle shots of the inhumanly tall Ryan with long-shots where the actor seems dwarfed by his ultimately empty surroundings. But all is not lost - without the neverending activity of urbania to shield him, Ryan's cop is at his most vulnerable. And then... he discovers Ida Lupino, blind yet resilient, and readily capable of empathising with his spiritual isolation. With a series of penetrating close-ups, Ray breaks down the defences that the pair have constructed against the world, and thereby emancipates their wounded souls. In mutual heartbreak and weariness, the duo enact a filmic ballad of loneliness that redefine the once unnerving snowy exteriors as a poetic source of revitalization. Ray has deceived the viewer: this is about the environment in relation to man, and the latter's potential to change it for the better. But this is no Hollywood ending: [Spoiler]it takes a death to enliven these hearts, and it requires the protection of blindness for them to thrive - the director is all too aware of his happy facade.[/Spoiler] No matter, in both reality and fantasy, the audacity of Nicholas Ray's filmmaking makes for nothing less than scintillating viewing.

Summer Interlude (Bergman, 1951)

Summer Interlude (1951) is often acclaimed as the best of Bergman's early features. And indeed, there are stretches here that suggest that the film does deserve to stand alongside the glories of later years. Not until Fanny and Alexander over three decades later would Bergman evoke the naivety of youth in quite so enchanting a manner. With Interlude, the director focuses his attention upon sexuality and, more specifically, the increasing sexual awareness that's integral to the adolescent experience. To romanticize his concerns, Bergman conjures up a noteworthy brand of visual lyricism, defined by its dependence upon the natural world. Benefited heavily by Gunnar Fischer's ability to capture so many resplendent moments on film, the director draws a scintillating - if somewhat simplistic - parallel between one's sexual awakening and nature in full bloom.

Bergman clearly has his finger on the pulse when it comes to imagery, but with the film's other elements he stumbles considerably. His frank, penetrating dialogue always has the potential to be read as overbearing and heavy-handed, and with the benefit of hindsight, Interlude verges dangerously close to self-parody. Its characters espouse lines that will sound familiar to anyone with Bergman's work - "Is there no meaning to life?", "Why has God forsaken me?" etc. - but the artistry of the director's later films often allow for such gloomy statements to be organically born from his mise-en-scène. After appearing so concerned with the natural, Bergman's dialogue here seems anything but. At one stage Marie, the film's lead, stares at her uncle's hands and randomly announces: "I stand here looking at your hands... they're beautiful, yet somehow ugly." The viewer can't help but laugh. Bergman in 1951 is a visibly accomplished director, but not one that can yet iron out the flaws and contrivances of his scripts with an assured hand. (Note the scene where he resorts to using a distinctly unterrifying owl's hoot to ratchet up the tension.) Without the assistance of the idyllic summer scenes, his film grinds to a tedium-inducing halt by the time of its finale.

But despite his own attempts to sabotage his work during its conclusion, Bergman struggles to dispel the memories of what preceded it. His captivating portrait of young love may seem a little excessive at stages, but it's somehow appropriate considering how so much of it is underscored by an intensely mournful perspective. Moreover, the director's ambition often makes for fascinating viewing: consider the sprightly morbidity of a bizarre animated sequence! Or revel in an early template for THAT scene, where an eccentric aunt plays a game of chess with a Priest who has the nerve to comment: "I feel as if I'm sitting next to Death himself!" For the Bergman enthusiast, it's a privilege to witness the master experimenting with such familiar ideas. The role of performance in this narrative, and the preoccupation with theatre and the internal worlds of its artists, surely plays into this. (As a sidenote, the film features a couple of absolutely ravishing ballet sequences that augment these concerns.) Meanwhile, his gentle allusions towards sex and desire assist the film in its refreshingly modern approach to matters of the heart (not to mention other organs). There's even the suggestion of Bergman's first gay coupling in a pair of old, gossiping theatre clerks. Summer Interlude may be too convoluted to join the ranks of his greatest achievements, but there's enough creativity here to ensure that it stands the test of time on its own merits.