Sunday, 23 December 2007

McCabe & Mrs. Miller (Altman, 1971)

Why have I NEVER heard McCabe & Mrs. Miller mentioned when people are discussing the best American films from that supposedly brilliant decade that was the 1970s? Coppola's efforts always get cited, so do Taxi Driver and Chinatown, and a couple of Allens and Kubricks... even Altman's own Nashville gets the odd mention. Now I'm not saying that the aforementioned films aren't worthy or anything (I pretty much love all of them bar Annie Hall and A Clockwork Orange) but it's obvious to me that McCabe & Mrs. Miler pisses over them all? It's also the first Western that I've actually liked! Well, ok, I think Dead Man is pretty great too (I think this says something about where my tastes skew with the genre?) but McCabe... is just complete love, through and through.

The film marks itself out as an anomaly from the moment the credits start floating across the screen (unique in itself.) What's Leonard Cohen doing in this landscape, for example? A few minutes later, one starts to question Altman's insufferably brilliant use of overlapping dialogue, especially when the mumbling from the supposed 'star' of the film (Warren Beatty) is drowned out as a result. Naturally, the director is several steps ahead of us all, and these early decisions are all part of his thoroughly unique evocation of the West: Cohen underpins the film's impalpable atmosphere and thus forms a notable counterpoint to the realism inherent within the use of dialogue. As for Beatty, is it not utterly appropriate that a film so concerned with overturning the hallmarks of the genre would strip him of his star status (externally) and heroism (internally)? Take note also, of his co-star's non-entrance: Altman gives us a brief glimpse of an opium-smoking mess of a woman whilst McCabe is haggling over the price of prostitutes - and that 'mess' turns out to be Julie Christie of all people.

Considering their high-profile relationship off-screen, it's remarkable that Altman (and the actors) manage to so successfully convey the tentative nature of the McCabe and Mrs. Miller partnership. The attraction and tenderness shared between the two is more than evident, but they're denied the opportunity to let it fully materialise because of their unforgiving surroundings which insist that they think of themselves first and foremost. Their self-denied love infuses the film with a melancholy undercurrent of romanticism, but imo it's when examining them as individual types that they truly become alive as characters. Altman is concerned with deconstruction of course, but I think there's also a contemporary relevance to his work? Despite her trashy façade, Mrs. Miller is perhaps the most astute character in the film and in possession of far greater business acumen than her 'partner.' She and her 'girls' highlight Altman's refreshing focus on the significance of women in the West: their traditionally perceived role as noble homemakers is thus transposed into the realm of prostitution where Mrs. Miller is - again - a homemaker, simply cut from a different end of the cloth. Thus, Altman undermines our preconceptions re: their profession, which is used here for the women to empower themselves and to carve out a safe refuge in their daunting environment (compare their sense of community to the snide world in which the men reside.) Mrs. Miller couldn't have existed in, say, the 1940s but link her to the onslaught of second-wave feminism and her presence becomes almost a necessity.

Similarly, the role of McCabe is surely not unrelated to the ruminations on the role of masculinity that occur in those other 'classics' of 1970s American cinema? In relation to the Western, he's so far removed from John Wayne it verges on the humorous. After a short time spent on establishing the myth of John McCabe during the film's opening ("he shot Roundtree?!"), Altman devotes pretty much the entirety of the remainder to obliterating that legend altogether. He can't add up, he's submissive to his female business partner, he has a heart ("I got poetry in me!"), he spends much of the film drunk and he's a coward to boot - and this is exactly why he's so appealing as a character. The very idea of heroism strikes me as far-fetched when the main objective is plain survival as it is here. McCabe's actions, whilst not something we're accustomed to within the genre, are nonetheless completely identifiable and therefore essential for the director's realistic designs.

This is not to say, however, that Altman is entirely non-conformist when it comes to toying with genre. As soon as McCabe starts deviating from his prescribed role as hero, one gets the sense that there's a single way for his journey to end: death. This is brilliantly foreshadowed within the film itself through the character of the Cowboy: Altman records his entrance in a long-shot which perpetuates a 'foreboding lone ranger' hero-type, but then cuts to reveal a completely amicable young man looking for the famed brothel. His departure from the film is perhaps it's shocking and most heartbreaking moment: a manipulated murder at the hands of one of the hitmen out for McCabe (who himself is initially seen as a hero only to then undo himself through his good-natured greed.) The resounding idea here is one of destiny, and a fate that's beyond one's own grasp - and this in itself is a brilliant subversion of the concept of Manifest Destiny. Altman shows us how expansion was neither obvious nor certain, but instead brutal and potentially fatal. The only 'obvious' and 'certain' aspect of this film is death.

A severe lack of innocence permeates this cinematic world. McCabe's attempts to survive during the finale then, are all the most devastating as a result. It's the bravura moment in Vilmos Zsigmond's gorgeous lensing, and a superbly edited sequence that induces tension in spite of the inevitable outcome. With all his other options exhausted, the 'innocent' McCabe is finally coerced into actualizing his myth. The brilliant battle in the snow sees the town church go up in flames, and McCabe manages to gun down all three of his hitmen but he's nonetheless unable to escape his own destiny. On top of all this, Altman denies him even these final moments of 'heroism' as he tellingly cuts away to images of the oblivious townspeople concerned only with the saviour of their dilapidated church. A concluding shot of Mrs. Miller, lost in a haze of opium as if to avoid the pain of it all, is the devastating masterstroke - with this, the entire trauma of the Western experience weighs down upon the audience and Altman's dual engagement with past and present finally achieves transcendence.

Saturday, 15 December 2007

Marketa Lazarová (Vláčil, 1967)

František Vláčil’s 1967 epic was a film that I hadn’t even heard of prior to a much-hyped DVD release here in the UK. Out of seemingly nowhere there then seemed to be mumblings about this being “the best Czech film of all time” which, naturally, aroused my curiosity. I then recalled reading a mini featurette on it during an issue of Sight & Sound earlier this year. And THEN I noticed that it was retailing for dirt cheap (at least, relative to other world cinema titles.) As my knowledge of Eastern European (let alone Czech) cinema is somewhat lacking to say the least, I read all these factors as a SIGN for me to pick this shit up. And that I did.

I’m not familiar enough with their national cinema to know whether this “best Czech film ever” tag is accurate or not. But I feel confident in throwing this in amongst the best that I’ve personally come across – which probably has something to do with it being the single most challenging experience that I’ve had with a film to date (David Lynch included.) Marketa Lazarová is a devilish fiend in the pantheon of great cinematic works. It claims to be a historical epic, but to allow any preconceptions to infiltrate one’s mind as a result of this would be a grave mistake indeed, for it’s simply one of the ways in which the film defies audience expectations. The back of my DVD cover sums the plot up as thus: ” follows the rivalry between two warring clans and the doomed love affair of Mikoláš Kozlík and Marketa Lazarová.” This sentence is arguably fraudulent however, as the notion of a ‘plot’ is irrelevant in a film that adheres to the creation of mood and tone as its driving narrative force.

Marketa Lazarová
is a challenge precisely because of this last fact. It confronts the viewer with that which is (probably) unfamiliar: an incoherent structure that cares little for traditional dramatic development, instead manipulating soundscape and imagery as if to reinforce its mysteries. The film is divided into twelve ‘chapters’, complete with inter-titular headings that guide our quest for scraps of information. This, curiously enough, fails to provide any semblance of thematic congruity due to Vláčil’s decision to allow these divergent threads to run wild – an act that creates tension within itself. Furthermore, he obliterates our ability to relate completely with what’s on-screen thanks to his frequent use of flashbacks, narration and off-screen conversations in order to distort our perceptions of the filmic past and present. Numerous characters come and go, their voices (and selves) unidentifiable because of the aforementioned distortions, and we’re left with a myriad of overlapping relationships that run a daunting gamut of emotions but nonetheless take us even further outside of our comfort zone.

If what’s been described thus far sounds offputting it’s felicitous, for Marketa Lazarová never strives toward anything but. It’s primary concern with the brutality of the Middle Ages combines with Vláčil’s bold disregard for the machinations of convention to create what is perhaps the most frightening world that I’ve ever encountered. The result of the director’s experimentation is to force our gaze upon the cinematic image, which is the primary source of his film’s harrowing strength. Vláčil has a painter’s eye for composition, but a film historian’s conception of affluence: his employment of deep-focus shots, nigh-on montage editing, painfully intimate close-ups and sinuous camerawork combine to leave an indelible impression. In terms of it’s visual magnificence, think Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev with much heavier doses of the ominous, sinister and brooding. Marketa’s visual coherence actively complements its narrative incomprehensibility as Vláčil’s artificial engineering succeeds in ironically bringing us closer to the reality of the setting: his fearless re-creation of environment and his refusal to pander to his audience instils in us the confusion and terror that we’d feel if we actually were magically transported back to 13thC Czechoslovakia.

Marketa Lazarová
’s themes and ideas are understandably difficult to fathom, and I don’t really wish to decipher them although there’s certainly substance underneath the style. There’s a seething undercurrent of paganism that forms a diametrical opposition to the Christian forces within the film. Upon first glance, Vláčil plays this as a spiritual dance between organised religion and the natural world, but after only one viewing it’s too early to comment definitively on this. Anyway, the most resounding theme is surely the utter lack of humanity in this unforgiving climate. From the animalistic moans that permeate the soundtrack, to the recurrent images of a pack of wolves, carnivorous in their lust – Vláčil goes to lengths to denigrate his characters to the level of mere beasts. He succeeds, and what we’re ultimately left with is a gargantuan and uncompromising vision, a provocative mood-piece that stimulates the senses whilst shattering (yet also illuminating) our knowledge of both cinema and history. I mentioned earlier how Marketa Lazarová wants us to believe it’s a historical epic – I hope by now that it’s become apparent that this is more akin to a nightmare-on-film. The difference with this one is that I fully intend to keep going back for more.

The Last Laugh (Murnau, 1924)

The Last Laugh is another of those films that took me far too long to get to, and now that I’ve finally reached it I’m scolding myself for holding off for so long. Murnau is, of course, nothing short of a cinematic genius and my affinity for him is undying, as his Sunrise… is permanently lodged amongst my favourite films ever. The Last Laugh is another masterpiece to add to his collection, albeit one which threatens to tear me apart with joy (of the film’s genius) on the one hand, and sadness (of the film’s story) on the other.

Looking at it from a purely contemporary perspective, as if people weren’t averse enough to silent films – to watch one without any intertitles to guide us… well, I can understand why lesser film enthusiasts would hold off. Allow me to place emphasis on the “lesser” however, for it’s surely impossible to term one’s self as a lover of cinema whilst refusing to experience one of the most cinematic of all films? Murnau’s achievement is nothing short of astonishing – he disregards words almost completely, and in doing so exposes the goldmine that is the medium’s potential. Karl Freund’s cinematography should not be underestimated at any cost: his camerawork sits proudly amongst the most exquisitely choreographed in history (alongside Murnau’s other films, of course) and the way in which it darts and glides around the sets gifts an irresistible vitality to proceedings. I personally was sold from the get-go, with that dance in the rain which beautifully encapsulated the hustle-bustle of Weimar life.

Of course, the camerawork alone is not enough to make this a masterpiece. The film has another great trick up its sleeve in the performance of Emil Jannings. So much has been said about his performance that it seems futile to even tread that same territory, but whatever: he is MAGNIFICENT. In every sense of the word. His exaggerated mannerisms are appropriate for upholding the expressionist tone that the film demands from him, but what’s stunning about Jannings is the depth with which he imbues his theatricality. His eyes radiate happiness, pain and exhaustion with effortless ease and his entire body seems to follow these feelings through – look no further than his demotion scene for proof. Jannings really does embody the very fibre of this character, and seems perfectly attuned to the nature of his plight – it’s a performance that is perhaps best described as operatic in its essence. Moreover, the relationship between Jannings’ performance and Freund’s work provides much of the film’s power – the camera consistently reflects Jannings’ mindset, seeing what he sees and feeling what he feels. The visual collage of his neighbours’ faces cruelly laughing at him; the moment when the hotel seems to fall on top of him; that brilliant drunken dream – all of this is great within its own right, but it’s all the more wonderful thanks to Jannings’ touching reactions.

It’s important to note that other element which makes The Last Laugh so brilliant: Carl Mayer’s story. The idea of a man who defines himself completely by his uniform is thought-provoking to say the least, especially given the historical context of the film. Jannings’ character is so enveloped by his profession, and so consumed by the (painfully humbling) social status that it provides that he loses touch with him-self. The fact that all the other characters in the film are revealed to be equally concerned with these ideas perhaps says a lot more about Weimar social mores than we initially think. Mayer and Murnau paint a powerful portrait of society, and expertly chart the decline of their old man – but there is the unavoidable issue of that ending. Interestingly enough, it introduces the film’s only use of an intertitle (excluding the opening) – and even more intriguingly, the intertitle sees Murnau pulling his audience out of the filmic world to take an apologetic tone for the epilogue that follows. Understandably I think, I found this both bizarre and extremely detrimental to such a brilliant work of art – after all this sadness, surely Murnau wouldn’t pull out the cheap happy ending on me? He does. And yet, at the same time… he doesn’t. As one watches the epilogue, it becomes apparent that Jannings and Murnau are together enacting a fantastic lampooning of this very idea of a “happy ending.” Jannings’ operatic performance again comes into play, but this time it’s boisterous and comical to the point of absurdity – it doesn’t complement the action, but actually undermines it and thereby accentuates the implausibility of the fairy-tale scenario that we’re presented with. What we’re ultimately left with is the unbearably poignant image of what could never have been – so although in one sense it’s out-of-sync with everything that’s occurred before, in another it’s perhaps the perfect and most heartbreaking conclusion that’s possible. I don’t know if this ending was a request on the producers part, or whether it was agreed upon by the filmmakers, but Murnau’s ability to manipulate such phoniness into something so tender is perhaps one of THE everlasting testaments to his genius.

Le Notti bianche (Visconti, 1957)

Luchino Visconti’s Le Notti bianche is the latest member of that exclusive club of films that have managed to break my little heart. Some might see the idea of a film making a grown man (well, I still feel like an unruly teen…) cry to be shameful, but alas – such is the power of le cinema. This film has now usurped The Leopard as my favourite Visconti, and it’s gone and displaced The Seventh Seal as my #1 of 1957 – something that I never thought would happen!

I think what makes Le Notti bianche so devastating is the fact that it’s imbued with so much emotional truth, as I see it. Mario’s displaced dreamer is a type that I think we can all identify with at times? But more than that, his search for love, the lengths that he’ll go to in order to achieve it, the way in which he defines himself by that goal, and Visconti’s decision to emphasise its fleeting nature and the negative effects of it… it all contributes to the film’s complex conception of what love is and how we deal with it.

All of the above is obviously recurrent throughout the film but it reaches a poignant zenith in a nearly-wordless dance sequence that fully displays Visconti’s ability to encapsulate entire worlds of feeling in brief moments of time. The awkwardness with which Mario and Natalia perform is as charming as it is emblematic of their tentative relationship. Moreover, the sequence speaks volumes about their relative states of mind. Mario (engaged with the contemporary) is the one to lead them into the bar in order to help Natalia (unable to forget the past) re-engage with life – but as soon as she remembers her familiar ritual of waiting on the bridge, she runs out again and leads them both back to that metaphorical crossing between memory and modernity.

The fact that the film is grounded in such genuine sentiments allows Visconti to embark on a miniature flight of fancy regarding the film’s visual construction. As I understand it, Le Notti bianche was filmed pretty much entirely on sets at Cinecittà – and it shows. As ravishingly beautiful as it is, the film (in its exteriors, at least) clearly creates an artificial reality for it’s characters. In doing this, Visconti forces us to ponder over the line between the dreamworld of his setting and the reality of the characters’ experiences, and these doubts are then parlayed back into the film thanks to Mario’s heedless remarks about Natalia’s own false dreams. Heedless, yet perhaps justified, for Natalia seems like a distant cousin of Lisa from Letter from an Unknown Woman – a similarly hopeless romantic who veers dangerously into obsession. Of course, this fact shouldn’t (and doesn’t) prevent us from reprieving Mario, whose ‘love’ for Natalia could well be better perceived as infatuation. Is his heartbroken face at film’s end illustrative of a man shattered by the experience of love and his own sincerity, or is it a picture of a naive man-child crying because he couldn’t get what he wanted? I know what I personally believe, but I think it’s a testament to the film’s brilliant treatment of its subject that both options are feasible.

Point is: this is the most gorgeous-yet-heartbreaking film I’ve seen for a while. So y’know, watch it, or something… if only to share my pain!

Nightmare Alley (Goulding, 1947)

Nightmare Alley is one of the more ludicrous noirs that I’ve come across, but I mean that as a compliment. Its carnival setting early on in the film instantly brings to mind Tod Browning’s Freaks, and the brief but memorable focus on the “geek” cements this comparison. The spectre of the “geek” and protagonist Stan’s notable horror at the very idea of falling so low provides the film with an eerie fatalism that contributes immensely to the tension inherent in his gradual “rise” to stardom. This whole concept of predetermination links nicely to the film’s concern with religion. Stan’s virtual pontification with his audiences introduces an omnipotent aspect that confuses the already-twisted proceedings, and which suggests that his downfall might have something to do with his own divine retribution. Moreover, the fascination with tarot cards (and their unnerving reliability) as well as the ease with which Stan manages to deceive so many of his followers is surely a reflection upon the status of faith systems as a whole, and their relevance to contemporary society? The film toys with these fascinating ideas, and as such it never quite plays by the rules. For sure, there are certain noir hallmarks here: the chiaroscuro lighting is as vibrant as one could expect, as is the heavy undertone of cynicism. However, the film’s a deviant in other respects: it transposes much of its drama to the bizarre and unconventional setting of the carnival (whose grotesqueries remain lodged in the memory even during the lengthy time we spend in the city); there’s a peculiar redefinition of the femme fatale, who is reimagined as an almost androgynous and sexually ambiguous intellectual dominatrix; and even for a noir, the eventual depths to which our ‘hero’ sinks defies belief. For all it’s structural issues (the final act, although powerful, is somewhat rushed in comparison to the leisurely set-ups that precede it) and its distasteful-yet-necessary redemption at film’s end, the inspired performance from Tyrone Power and the sheer audacity with which it tackles its themes is more than enough for me to give Nightmare Alley a free pass.

Sátántangó (Tarr, 1994)

So this is effectively THE greatest cinematic achievement of the 1990s.

I’m not even going to attempt to deconstruct the thematics behind this, because they’re far too daunting for me to handle at present. It really is absolutely extraordinary though – Tarr uses his 7hr+ length as a platform to explore the possibilities of the medium itself. At various points, Sátántangó’s style endeavours toward: gritty realism, expressionist fantasy, poetic sur-realism and finally, enigmatic modernity. If these terms contradict each other in any way, it’s intentional, not to mention appropriate: I doubt that Tarr intends for us to make sense of his work (and really, I’m not sure if anyone really could), it’s more a case of his wanting us to ‘feel’ it on a purely visceral level.

To this end, his well-documented use of the long-take comes into play. Those familiar with the more widely-seen Werckmeister Harmonies will know what to expect, but Sátántangó’s shots demand much more from the viewer – to the point where the film often left me physically exhausted. In spite of this, I was nonetheless thrilled by the director’s experiments. Tarr plays on his audience’s inherent fear of the unknown, exploiting the film’s otherworldly mysteries to the max and completely disregarding traditional expectations of narrative in the process. The pacing for example, is irksome but only because Tarr succeeds in thwarting conventions to the point where we don’t know what the hell he’s going to pull off next, and any dramatic tension that we feel is inevitably a result of this exercise. His perplexing world is aided by a further dimension whereby he sculpts a temporal complexity that layers and overlaps scenes in order to enrich our understanding (I use the term loosely) of what’s occurring on-screen.

I should really mention the fact that the film deals with a community of farmers in rural Hungary. The characters, as Tarr paints them, are ugly, repulsive and in short: not the sort of people that one would wish to spend seven hours with. It’s a testament to the success of Tarr’s exquisitely choreographed mise-en-scene (not to mention the lush use of sound and the interlacement of a wicked brand of very dry humour) that the experiment pays off – some of the scenes take one’s breath away, particularly those in which animals are concerned: Tarr’s pessimistic view of humanity is often compared to the superior ‘community’ in the animal world. Most notable from these however, is a scene which highlights the stark reality of isolation in this society: the segment in which we’re introduced to the young girl (and later, her cat…) As soon as it began, I was foolish enough to become slightly disenchanted with Tarr – surely he wouldn’t use so blatant a metaphor to explore the concept of innocence in such a grotesque world, right? Rest assured, he doesn’t, and what does ensue is the most excruciating yet gripping sequence that I’ve probably ever encountered – and all the while, Tarr succeeds in colouring it with a sense of poignancy that culminates in a final act of transcendence that is perhaps the single most important image in the film. And oh my GOD, the cat!!

I said earlier that I didn’t want to discuss the thematic resonance of the film – but I’ll digress for a second to wonder out loud about the relevance of allegory. It’s apparent that there are certain ideas being explored here: community (and therefore, perhaps commun_ism_?), poverty, social order etc. (I’m not doing the film any justice, but you’ll understand when you watch it.) There’s definitely a spiritual dimension to the world as well, with the character of Irmiás being presented as an, admittedly fraudulent, Christ-like figure. I’m not sure how far to pursue this idea, and if anyone who’s seen the film can help me I’d be pretty grateful? Needless to say, the conclusion, with the visual inverse of ”...and then there was light” provides much food for thought.

Anyway, I’m rambling. The point is that any fans of cinema owe it to themselves to watch this. It’s available on a beautiful Artificial Eye box set so y’know, watch it NOW!

Raise the Red Lantern (Yimou, 1991)

Raise the Red Lantern is surely one of the finest films of its decade? It’s visually spellbinding, as expected, but unlike Yimou’s recent efforts Lantern’s style is less to do with our being blitzed with special effects and more to do with the director’s ability to exploit his setting’s potential to the max. Almost the entire film takes place in a palatial complex of enormous proportions. When we first arrive here along with our protagonist, Songlian, it’s difficult not to be overawed by the extravagance of a residence that apparently branches out in all directions. Nevertheless, it’s the banality of this sparsely-inhabited space that emerges as it’s most resounding feature, and the narrative’s direction ensures that what first seems magnificent later morphs into little more than a stifling human compound. The greys and browns that dominate the palette of Yimou’s exteriors contribute to this nullifying effect, forming a brazen contrast to the copious use of reds that paint internal space. That colour’s primary connotation here is a sexual one: the lighting of the red lantern indicates that the Master will spend the night, and the bathing of each wife’s apartment in the colour places further emphasis on the fact that these women’s rooms (and their roles) are conceived as purely eroticised areas.

The prevalence of red also works on another level, foreshadowing the inflamed passions that take centre stage later in the film. Lantern is, perhaps above all else, a brilliant melodrama rooted in the vindictive hearts of its central characters. The film plays out like an intricate web of power battles: Songlian vs. the other wives, Songlian vs. the Master, Meishan vs. Zhuoyan, Yan’er vs. Songlian etc. These people exist in an enclosed world dominated by mind-games that reach unrivalled heights of spitefulness. Initially, one can’t help but react with glee at some of the bitchiness that takes place – not to mention the wicked irony of each wife continually referring to the other as “sister” – but as the action progresses it becomes apparent that the women are toying with one anothers’ lives and the intrigues resultantly take on a far more threatening dimension. Yimou’s great achievement derives from his ability to utilise these already gripping dilemmas as a platform for a wider and more scathing commentary on various facets of the Chinese experience.

Women are at the heart of this film and accordingly it’s their plight that the director is primarily concerned with. Although they’re privileged to an extent, Lantern deftly shows us that wealth by no means equates to freedom – as previously stated, their opulent surroundings actually serve to entrap and even destroy them. Female roles are confined to the sexual spheres of their bedrooms where they are expected to satisfy their Master and provide male heirs to maintain the patriarchal lineage, or alternatively they’re limited to a domestic sphere that requires complete subservience. The vapidity of such expectations is incongruously validated by the male guardians of this realm, with the housekeeper telling Songlian: “The Chen family’s customs go back many generations. It is important that you obey them.” Clearly, an all-pervasive faith in the integrity of tradition is what motivates this code of conduct. How ironic then, that those very traditions should breed the friction that disrupts the fragile unity of the household. The repeated use of one specific ritual demonstrates this to agonizing effect: every evening, custom dictates that the four wives stand outside their gateways to anticipate whether or not the Master will spend the night with them. His decision is marked by the placing of a red lantern outside the chosen wife’s house, thereby divulging the titular object’s status as a power symbol alongside the aforementioned sexual intimations. The entire process serves only to degrade all concerned: the unsuccessful wives face humiliation whilst the ‘victor’ in the power struggle is forced to contend with the underlying resentment of her fellow concubines. This scenario is especially pitiful when one considers the chosen wife’s scant rewards: a foot massage, the ability to set the next day’s menu, and another chance at producing an all-important male heir. The fact that all of these women consider such meagre scraps worth fighting for speaks volumes about the extent to which their silent repression has permeated their mindsets.

That Songlian, an educated woman confident enough to frequently exert her authority over the Master, should resort to engaging in these games is disheartening – although only on a surface level. The character as Gong Li so magnificently plays her is obstinate, petty and as caustic as her rivals: in short, she’s far from the most likeable of heroines. Regardless, if one considers her hostile new environment and, perhaps more importantly her youth (the girl is only nineteen, after all) it’s possible to develop a basic understanding of the motivation behind her dubious actions. Certainly, her age and her education combine to beset the film with a lingering sense of squandered potential. Moreover, should we dare to see Songlian’s predicament as a figurative representation of the fate of Chinese women as a whole (in the film’s early 20th-century setting, if not the present day), then this wilful loss of female promise is lent much greater relevance. Bearing this in mind, certain other aspects of Yimou’s portrayal warrant further analysis: for example, what of the film’s ignorance towards the forces that led to Songlian’s degradation? Yimou shows us the downfall but, minor allusions aside, keeps us unaware of the background and thereby hints at its irrelevance in a domain where female oppression is simply another fact of life. Another important feature is the ‘reward’ of the foot massage which evokes an inevitable comparison with the more controversial act of foot binding. My knowledge of the procedure is somewhat limited, but it’s clear that Yimou’s use of the act is fundamental, for although the two practices seem polar opposites on paper the massage assumes the same problematic implications of its predecessor: binding has, rightly or wrongly, often been viewed as an instrument of patriarchal enslavement and this is reiterated in the film through the massage which is awarded to the wives solely for them to “better serve their man.” In other words, Yimou astoundingly parlays the intellectual negativity associated with the pain of foot binding into the deceptive comfort of the foot massage. Nonetheless, he also draws from the alternate viewpoint: binding has conversely been seen as a desirable yardstick for women due to its functioning as a status symbol and, of course, the massage in Lantern performs exactly the same role by affording one wife privilege over the others. It’s emblematic of the film’s trademark complexity that an event so seemingly insignificant could penetrate such depths of meaning.

Yimou’s directorial decisions, and their ability to illuminate his story, surely reach a daring peak with his refusal to grant us an unobstructed view of his film’s most powerful character. The ‘Master’ is central to the narrative, yet Yimou hides him behind painted veils, obscures him through long-shots and even denigrates him to the rank of a mere off-screen voice. The Master’s literal role in the film forms a stark contrast to his metaphorical role as the patriarchal head – and perhaps this is the point that Yimou is trying to make: the Master’s authority is omnipotent to the point where his presence is no longer necessary to enforce his will. He presides over a system where gender roles are strictly defined, as is class status – one recalls how the servant Yan’er is used as sexual fulfilment but is admonished for aspiring to be a mistress. The third wife Meishan’s affair with the doctor both threatens the Master’s sexual supremacy (extra-marital relations are reserved to the male realm) but more importantly it deviates from the prescribed norms, and is subsequently punished with brutal force. This incident in particular, and the categorical denials of Meishan’s fate that follow, induce memories of similar acts of brutality that have been quietly whitewashed by authorities in modern Chinese history. Little wonder then, that the film was banned upon release in Yimou’s homeland.

Raise the Red Lantern is as visually striking as it is intellectually invigorating, but one couldn’t truly love it unless it struck an emotional chord – and that it does, to haunting effect. Whilst the film brilliantly critiques the oppressor, it also finds fault in the oppressed as it’s the lack of empathy between the characters that affects us the most. The general inability to forge human connections of substance is almost countered by the mutual understanding between Songlian and Meishan – but Yimou repudiates even this faint glimmer of hope, by holding the former responsible for the latter’s tragic end. It’s as if the mechanical hand of the patriarchy not only subjugates the women, but additionally erodes their humanity thus rendering them incapable of uniting against it. It’s this lack of compassion in Lantern’s enclosed world that makes for such riveting yet painful viewing, and one can’t help but wonder: could Songlian’s descent into insanity be a refuge from all the madness of reality? The way in which the latter is presented suggests that such an idea may not be totally implausible, and surely that’s the most devastating indictment of all?

The "Three Colours" Trilogy (Kieslowski, 1993-94)


I’ll confess: I was initially slightly underwhelmed by this. I recall when a friend first watched this and described this as “very arty” – and therefore, every time there was a fade to blue I couldn’t get the idea of a very self-conscious director out of my head. Moreover, the one thing I did to prepare me for the trilogy was to read the blurb on the back of my DVD box, which led me to expect a thorough and overt exploration of “liberty.” So yeah, I think my initial reaction is understandable in that context? Fortunately, the film stuck with me for the entirety of the next day and the more I contemplated it the more I realised I was… well, wrong. Liberty is indeed relevant, but I now understand that Kieslowski deals with the concept in a more subtle, ironic way than I expected (knowing this made me much better prepared for Blanc and Rouge.) Julie seeks liberty through escaping from life itself, believing it to have no meaning – but she’s misguided, for her life does still have meaning, and therefore her escapade leads only to self-entrapment. Kieslowski’s ability to portray her closed mindset by focusing on the most minute of details is extraordinary – I watched a little featurette where he demonstrated the importance of a sugar cube being dipped into coffee and its subsequent reflection of Julie’s desire to forget more important details. La Binoche delivers a magnificently nuanced performance here, full of subtleties that will probably reveal themselves with further viewings. 1993 is an extraordinary year for actress (Hunter! Thompson! Pfeiffer! Bassett! And they’re just the ones that I’ve seen!) but I think I’d probably give Binoche the edge for the year – her work really enhances the beauty of the film as a whole. Of all the characters in the trilogy, I think Julie might be the one that I most relate to in an odd sort of way, and her gradual re-engagement with life fills my heart with a kinda reserved form of glee? Blue-tinted, of course (I love the colour scheme!)


So everything I’ve heard about this trilogy in the past has led me to believe that this is the weakest of the three? Um, WRONG. This is so much more than an off-kilter black comedy, and it contains the trilogy’s most fully-realised characterisation in Karol as well as the character that I have the most affinity for in Mikolaj. It’s absurd, bleak and absolutely charming all at the same time. It also strikes me as the most natural of the three, the most effortlessly-conceived – perhaps this has something to do with the fact that it deals with Polish characters in a Polish setting? Certainly, it engages with the issue of Poland’s transition to capitalism, and I love how the ellipses used in Karol’s rise do much to reflect the (potential) economic fluidity of the years. As for the romantic elements of the story: wow. In none of these films did I really expect what was going to happen next, but I had an inkling here and how wrong was I?! I mean, I can’t be blamed for expecting a reconciliation between Karol and Dominique, can I? Yet Kieslowski actively thwarts that, and in revealing Karol’s financial success as an elaborate plan to strike back at Dominique he masterfully subverts the film’s theme of equality and raises some of the most fascinating questions about our humanity. Does our humiliation really run that deep? Viewing the film in this context colours certain events in a different light entirely – for example, I once saw Karol’s effectively saving the life of Mikolaj as an act of tender fraternity, but knowing what happens later on it’s apparent that it could just be another part of Karol’s grand scheme. This is why I view Karol as the most complex (and successful) character in the entire trilogy – I could spend an age considering his motivations, his ambitions, his beliefs… and Zbigniew Zamachowski does a terrific job of internalising all this. I think one could easily view this as the most pessimistic of the three films, and it’s a factor that I was definitely taken aback by, but the final shot offers some redemption imo. Dominique is in jail, although no more so than Karol in his mental imprisonment, but Kieslowski’s kind enough to offer the slightest hint of optimism – it’s clear that the characters still love each other, and in the harsh emotional landscape that they’ve cultivated for themselves, that might just be enough to counter all the pain? God, I love this film. If any of the individual films in the trilogy deserves to be termed a masterpiece, it’s this.


Rouge had already won me over by the time its opening sequence ended. The use of the telephone line as a metaphor for communication, human contact, the transience of these connections… it seemed to sum up the first two films and hinted at the direction towards which this one was going. Having said that, this is also the film with which I have the most difficulty ‘reading’... not that it bothers me? The relationship between Valentine and the judge is one of the most touching that I’ve encountered… maybe ever. That brief moment when both place their hands on the window of his car almost made me bawl for it’s such a beautiful, emblematic gesture, a sign that the initial judgments that we passed over the judge himself have now been transcended… that redemption (salvation?) not to mention fraternity really is possible in Kieslowski’s world. Transcendent is such a useful word for this film actually. Again, I’m not entirely sure how to read the film yet, but the character of the judge struck me as almost God-like in his actions (although if that’s the case then there are all sorts of implications that I can’t even begin to consider right now.) As the film’s use of foreshadowing begins to suggest that Valentine and Auguste are destined, I began to ask myself if the film wasn’t also about fate and missed opportunities and our ability to deal with the mistakes that we’ve made. Hell, it’s really about everything isn’t it? Life itself! And god, Jean-Louis Trintignant is just marvellous in his role. I know La Binoche is spectacular and she’s completely deserving of all her praise, but for my money it’s the veteran that gives the best performance in the entire trilogy, imbuing it with depth and encapsulating the secrets of the film in the contours of his face. He’s marvellous. And as for the finale… I think my heart actually sank with the ferry when I saw it. I was terrified – surely Kieslowski wouldn’t do this to me? I’m so thankful that he didn’t. Once again, he left us with hope and the suggestion that Julie/Olivier and Karol/Dominique had succeeded in moving on… well, there’s another beautiful moment in a film (and trilogy!) full of them.

Ok I’ll stop babbling now. Although I must mention how I loved the “talkiness” of Rouge. So completely up my alley. And btw, the old lady at the bottle bank? Wow! Oh, and Irène Jacob is so gorgeous it hurts!

The Golden Coach (Renoir, 1953)

Another week, another Renoir. The Golden Coach this week – and once again, I’ve been caught by surprise. I really didn’t think that I’d particularly gel with his later work at all and hey presto, a week later and The River and The Golden Coach are battling it out for my #2 fave of his films. Well, actually I think the latter film has successfully taken up that position now. It forms such a marked contrast to its predecessor – whilst The River was serene and casual in its pacing and realistic in its form if not its content, The Golden Coach is a bold celebration of artifice (funny, considering the recent mini-discussion?) that flaunts its exuberant colour palette with the intent of explicitly captivating its audience – and Renoir once again proves himself to be a master in the art of cinematic seduction.

TGC terms itself as a “fantasy” from its opening intertitle, and from thereon it presents a thorough examination of the role of theatre and performance (read: artifice) in both the artistic and social worlds. The flamboyant colour scheme and decor forms just one aspect of this complex study: for example, Renoir repeatedly exposes the fact that the film takes place on giant sets and consequently breaks the fourth wall – thus causing a blurring of the distinctions between theatricality and reality (presuming that the latter even exists in the director’s cinematic world.) This then draws attention to the art of performing: and when dealing with the stars themselves, it’s apparent that Renoir was going for anything but realism. One could just accuse the actors of being flat-out bad, but this would be a discredit to the talents of both Anna Magnani and Renoir himself – who, on numerous occasions revealed his knack for directing English-language stars to great English-language performances and was far too brilliant a director to allow ‘bad’ acting infiltrate his film without good reason. The heightened theatricality of the performers at work here suggests that Renoir was further augmenting the general detachment from reality already communicated via the construct of the film itself, and taken in this context Magnani’s performance is a marvel to behold. Her grasp of English leaves much to be desired, but the gusto and sheer determination with which she attacks her role invites comparisons to the greatest star performances that Hollywood had to offer. Every imperfection is stubbornly battered into submission by Magnani’s ferocious brand of charm, a factor which much of TGC’s success hinges upon.

Much has been said about the evaporation during the 1950s of Renoir’s socio-political consciousness that permeated so much of his extraordinary 1930s output, and certainly upon first glance TGC does strike one as a ‘lighter’ effort from a director known as much for his vicious satirical streak as his compassionate humanism. Look a little closer however, and it’s easy to find traces of the badass Renoir of old. The art of performance is not just applicable to the actors, but also to the characters within the filmic world due to the enormous focus on roleplaying in the text. A notable chunk of the film’s allure is dependent upon the exaggerated farcical elements (influenced heavily by La Règle du jeu) that arises from this utilisation of acting-within-performance and which manifests itself in the form of that oh-so familiar concept of class tensions. This is most notable in the relationship shared by Camilla and the Viceroy of course, but consider also the strained liaisons between the Viceroy and his courtiers. Emblematic of these struggles is the ludicrous sequence involving the Viceroy’s attempts to juggle his allegiances between wife, noblemen and mistress (Camilla) each boxed into their own separate rooms: as avid a reflection of social constraints as ever there was in Renoir’s oeuvre, with the direst of political implications hinted at as a result – although admittedly, the critique of the political system’s hypocrisy is severely softened by the film’s situation in the historical past.

To all this, Renoir adds another – arguably more fulfilling – dimension with an investigation of artistic constraints. Thanks to the complex relations between financier, actor and audience there exists a visible contest to exert one’s authority in the precarious world of the performing arts. Camilla succeeds in achieving this, but at what cost? Assuming that the film isn’t simply an extended stage performance, Renoir raises the question of how far actors can act outside of their given roles (yes, it’s almost a Lynchian precursor!) The film’s most notable ‘weakness’ is in it’s failure to conjure up a romantic drama of any substance – despite having three male suitors to exploit. But this is perhaps less a fault and more an embracement of artificiality that finds resonance in the characterisations themselves (note how Ramon’s ‘love’ is a vanity project, whilst the Viceroy uses Camilla to distract from his own monotonous existence.) Camilla’s renunciation during the finale then, should be seen as inevitable: she makes a conscious decision to live her life through the prism of the “2 hours a day” that she spends on stage. This serves as a surprisingly bittersweet end to a film whose critiques are for the most part internalised: aside from dedicating herself wholly to her audience (i.e. us?) and rejecting the opulence of the ‘Golden Coach’ of the title, Camilla implies that any real world has failed to fulfil her wants and needs. In essence, she actively chooses the creative (artificial?) world over the everyday reality of life, realising that love is simply not enough. Maybe, just maybe, we could stretch this analogy to Renoir himself?

Mother and Son (Sokurov, 1997)

It’s appropriate that I watched Renoir’s The River and Sokurov’s Mother and Son so close together, because both dismiss the necessity of performance for dramatisation thereby leaving themselves open to become works of outstanding cinematic beauty.

I don’t know how to describe this! A beautiful ode to that unique relationship between mother and child? It’s dialogue is so sparse, and it’s scope so limited (to just the two performances) but it still manages to infer so much by overtly revealing so little. And of course, it’s subject matter is so private in its nature that one can’t help but run an entire gamut of emotions thanks to the tender bond that the two ‘protagonists’ (an inapplicable term really, no?) share.

The film is one of the (very) few that succeed in recreating a sense of ‘otherworldliness’ imo. It seems to exist in limbo – cautiously drifting along the line between life and death, and Sokurov’s mise-en-scene brilliantly reflects that. I’m not quite sure how he does it, but he manages to eradicate all depth-of-field from his shots and he distorts his images to the point where we’re left with a film that resembles a poignant oil canvas that’s alive. How else to describe it?!?! And then there’s his use of sound! Interspersing dialogue with howls, barks, gusts of wind, crashing waves of the sea… sounds that aren’t always there but absolutely serve the cause by assisting in the creation of that truly unique atmosphere.

It’s an elegiac hymn for the senses… yeah! A hymn to that loving mother-son relationship… almost devious in its quiet complexity (the scene with the scrapbook and the postcards that hint at memories both happy and not-so) yet ultimately assured in its simplicity re: their devotion to one another.

Apologies for failing so miserably at conveying what this film means to me. But do yourselves a favour and watch it.

The River (Renoir, 1951)

Jean Renoir’s The River is a truly wonderful piece of work that caught me very off-guard. I have to say, I’m not really acquainted with later-period Renoir at all, so to bear witness to this in all its technicolor glory… I mean, wow. Few films can rival this for sheer beauty in that sense. In actual fact, the one that immediately struck me as comparable was Powell & Pressburger’s Black Narcissus – which I then found out was written by the same author as Renoir’s film! Madness.

It really does strike me as something of an anomaly within his oeuvre tho: a gorgeous mood piece, which – unusually for the director – places its women at the forefront. However, it’s nonetheless equally adept at deconstructing the role of masculinity in alien environments: I love how the four principal male characters (the father, Capt. John, Mr. John and Bogey) all utilise India for different gains (imperialism, escapism, immersion and mastery of nature, respectively.)

The awkwardness inherent in pretty much all of the performances is completely offset by the beauty of the film itself imo. It’s amazing to note just how static Renoir’s camerawork is here, it’s as if he’s got the painterly images of his father on the mind at all times. Moreover, the film gently but brilliantly exploits its dichotomy between the documentary-style exposition of the camerawork + the narration which memorialises the past as some sort of artificial reality.

Centre Stage (Kwan, 1992)

Terrific film, completely unlike anything I expected – I thought it’d follow a traditional biopic formula but instead it merged real-life interviews with cast members with the dramatisation of Rian Lingyu’s life with stock footage of her actual films. Wtf?! Loved it. The result was a multi-dimensional perspective on its subject that constantly reminds us that it’s just that – an interpretation of Rian Lingyu’s life. At film’s end, what surprised me most was just how little I actually knew about the protagonist’s thoughts and motivations.

I’ve recently been reading about the Nanjing Decade in Chinese history, and I really appreciated the various insights that the film offered re: the tension between East/West (not only by taking place in Shanghai and the film industry setting, but also through its ‘fast-forwards’ to the 1990s), as well as the Japanese threat and the fragility of the patriarchal order that entrapped Rian. In its own way, its also as strong an indictment of the media and “malicious gossip” as anything I’ve seen, but its sympathetic at the same time?! I’m thinking particularly of the scene where the ‘ordinary’ women accuse Ruan’s mother of being the basis for The Goddess: by establishing the political/social context of the era, Kwan seems to suggest an inherent need to think of something else in order to avoid the harsh reality of their situation. On top of all that there’s the comments on the nature of stars, acting, film-making etc. So much going on!

Anyway, I could think about this all day but I’ve gotta run. Must quickly praise Maggie Cheung’s exceptional performance before I do – the film is probably accomplished enough to achieve its commentary should another actress have filled her shoes, but Maggie’s quiet tour-de-force (I don’t exaggerate) is the reason I care for this film on an emotional level as well as an intellectual one. She’s asked to play herself, Rian Lingyu as well as Rian Lingyu playing other characters and all the while she’s forced to compete with the memory of the star that preceded her – and she sometimes does all that in the same scene. The woman excels and proves that she’s up there with the best of ‘em for sure.

Sansho the Bailiff (Mizoguchi, 1954)

"Without mercy, man is like a beast… even if you are hard on yourself, be merciful to others."
This sentence, uttered by the film’s magnanimous patriarch and moral cornerstone, lingers over the protagonists of Sansho the Bailiff forming a tremendous weight upon their shoulders. It’s an affliction because the film devotes much of its length to proving only the first half of the statement, consequently highlighting just how difficult it is to practice the second part. Mizoguchi’s world-view has probably never been this bleak, yet the film is nonetheless one of the most compassionate works that I’ve ever seen. The director utilises his strengths – craftsmanship and storytelling – and adds in a heavy dose of lyrical humanism that is overwhelming in its cumulative power. Gone are the writing flaws that affected Ugetsu, and instead we’re left with a tightly-focused and beautifully-filmed piece of art that comfortably sits alongside the likes of Persona, Stalker et al. as one of the greatest films ever made (at least as far as I’m concerned.)

Sansho opens with a caption that describes it’s literary forebearer as: “one of the world’s great folk tales.” Right from the outset then, we’re given an example of the film’s intent on mythologizing the past. This is applicable to both Mizoguchi as well as his content. The scenes that immediately follow this prologue serve as demonstrations of the characters’ needs to commemorate: Zushio seeking reassurances about his father’s nobility; Tamaki’s memories of Masauji shown in flashback sequences that emphasise the past’s influence on the present; the brief close-up of the Kwannon heirloom; and finally, Tamaki asking Zushio whether he remembers his father’s face and his teachings (reinforcing his values.) Later in the film, Tamaki is also memorialized by her children, notably through the use of song. These compulsive requirements do much to emphasise the timeless qualities of the story – something that is augmented by the film’s focus on travelling: from the passing of the fable as outlined in the prologue; to the initial trip made by mother and children; the separate paths that they take into the worlds of prostitution and slavery; Zushio’s escape; Anju’s spiritual ascendence; even Zushio’s journey up (and down) the social hierarchy. With Masauji’s aforementioned words judging the characters at every step of their respective travels, it’s clear that Sansho has a (probably self-referential) concern with the act of storytelling and the effects that this has upon an audience.

More importantly, in narrative terms, this concern with legends (father, mother, ideals) consigns the film’s principal characters, Zushio and Anju, with a goal to work towards in the unforgiving world that they inhabit. And it really is a harsh life that Mizoguchi depicts here. Sansho’s labour camp makes for a dismal environment with its muddy desolation, forming a stark contrast to the picturesque reverence with which the outside world is often filmed in. Any attempts to escape slavery are met with torture that manifests itself as branding with a hot spear – leaving a mark that permanently erases/standardises one’s identity, a particularly relevant concept considering Zushio and Anju’s struggles with their own identities (note the name-changes.) Sansho himself is the complete antithesis to Masauji, explicitly stating as such: “Have no mercy on them!” he commands, after encountering the young siblings for the first time. Moreover, the camp continues the film’s theme of punishing those characters that dare to display any such mercy – the kindly Namiji is branded, whilst the sympathetic Taro feels compelled to leave.

Much like Ugetsu, Mizoguchi’s situation of the story in the Japanese past means that comparisons with recent history are inevitable. Taking this into account, the labour camp that Sansho so brutally administers reads as an allegorical condemnation of the concentration camps inherent to WW2 and Sansho’s administration is equated to militarism (on a quick side note: if one bears this in mind, the rebellion of the emancipated slaves takes on a thought-provoking new dimension.) Zushio’s loss of ideals then, can be equated to brainwashing as best exemplified by Anju’s pleas for him not to take the dying Namiji away, to which he responds: “It’s the bailiff’s orders.” The erosion of Zushio’s morality is crucial as it heightens the reality of his situation by placing him on a par with those that were engulfed by blind allegiance during wartime. Anju’s preservation of her own decency represents the alternative direction: enduring with dignity. Pervading through all these analogies is another line from the prologue: “The origin of this legend… goes back to the Heian period, when mankind had not yet opened their eyes to other men as human beings.” Mizoguchi’s figurative application of the legend to the decades that immediately preceded Sansho hints at this sentence’s own relevance: in 1945, had mankind really opened its eyes much more than in feudal Japan? The previously discussed mythologizing of the piece means that we can pose another question: has mankind even managed to open its eyes today?

In spite of the historical setting then, Sansho is a thoroughly modern (timeless) film that engages with socially relevant issues. It meditates on the difficult relationship between the humanitarianism at its heart and the political framework that’s necessary for implementing it: “Is it unlawful to love your people?” asks Zushio, “No, but one must obey his superior officer” is a minister’s response. Mizoguchi concludes that both are useless without the other. There’s also an examination of class structures. As Namiji is carried away by Zushio, an old friend prays for her reincarnation: “Be born to a rich family!” This statement oozes with irony when we note the fate of the “rich family” at Sansho’s core. Zushio’s later ascension to, and resignation from, a position of authority accentuates the precariousness of the social hierarchy – although the rest of the slaves’ inability to break out of the mould is arguably a testament to its rigidity? Perhaps what is underlined here is the hypocrisy of such hierarchies – only if one has the right name and knows the right people is mobility an option. Refusing to free the slaves allows the powered elites to protect their own positions. Regardless, it’s an interesting paradox and, as is always the case with Mizoguchi, it provides food for thought.

The thematic complexity of Sansho the Bailiff should, I hope, be clear by now. But much like Ugetsu, this is a film where style is inextricably linked to substance, and I wish to conclude by quickly focusing on three of the film’s most successful sequences: the forced separation of mother from children; Anju’s self-sacrifice; and the reconciliation between mother and son that closes the film. I’ll say now that I don’t just consider these the best sequences in the film, I esteem them as some of the finest moments in cinema full stop.

I mentioned Mizoguchi’s aptitude for scenes of horror when discussing Miyagi’s harrowing death scene in Ugetsu. The parallel with Sansho’s most horrific scene is difficult to ignore: same actress playing the mother (Kinuyo Tanaka), same concept of mother being wrenched apart from offspring, the main divergence being that in this film the mother doesn’t die – she’s condemned to a life of constant suffering instead. Sansho’s scene is the more overtly stylised of the two, and it’s perhaps that which lends it the greater power, as the director flaunts the entire range of his cinematic weaponry. His setting is perfect, with ominously disfigured trees and a mist-ridden lake dominating the scenery-as-filmed by Kazuo Miyagawa. The sound design is a marvel, with sharp-pitched flutes screeching over the soundtrack as the scene itself crescendos with the intensity provided by the screaming children calling for their mother, and Tamaki and her servant Ubatake’s desperate protests to go back to shore. Framing? As good as it ever was, the pinnacle being when Mizoguchi exploits two deep-focus shots to show us: first – Tamaki fighting in the foreground and the children desperately attempting to escape in the background; and then – the same shot, but a few seconds later and in reverse, revealing the rapidly-growing distance between the boat and the shore. These shots are profound in the dual urgency that they provide. It’s perhaps Mitsuzo Miyata’s editing that deserve particular merit here, though. Mizoguchi is known for the serenity in his style, characterized by the long-take, and up until this sequence, there’s nothing to dispel that myth. Here, however, the director chooses to take his audience by surprise and Miyata’s editing allows him to probably come as close as he ever did to flirting with the concept of montage. It’s a breathtakingly beneficial u-turn in style, The velocity of the cutting rate, and the variety of the shot-making, means that the sequence is comparable to a swift shot to the body – we can’t comprehend what’s hit us until after the event (if that.) Finally, there’s a helping of vicious irony thanks to the gratitude that the family express to the ‘priestess’ before they’re about to depart. Even later, in the midst of the sequence’s terror, the good-natured Ubatake naively asks about the slave-traders rowing her away: “Priestess, are you sure they are reliable?” That the sequence should conclude with a pictorial framing of her death makes this line even more tragic. As a whole, these two-and-a-half minutes terrifyingly, but concisely, expose the absolute worst facets of humanity. Already, so soon after the flashbacks that taught us to be merciful, Mizoguchi is showing us the grimmest of realities – the polar opposite of what we’ve witnessed before, and a sign of things to come.

Upon a second viewing, Sansho’s horror sequence is permeated with greater sadness as we realise that it will be the last meeting of Tamaki and her daughter Anju. Of all the characters in the film, it is Anju who best exemplifies her father’s morals and values. It’s important to register the fact that she’s a weaver at the labour camp for this plays into her significance within the narrative. Aside from weaving basic materials together, she also unifies (what’s left of) her family at the cost of her own life. By doing so, one could argue that she’s even weaving the contents of the film, but I’ll stop that mode of thought before I get carried away. It’s easy to forget that Anju’s self-sacrifice allows not simply for Zushio’s escape, but also for the peaceful death of Namiji thanks to her request. The loss of the film’s sole embodiment of compassion (at this point) is a heartbreaking one, all the more so because of the respect with which Mizoguchi films her death scene. Again, a mist-ridden lake is at the fore, this time with less menacing trees framing Anju at the centre. In the distance, her mother’s sorrowful refrain can be heard (“Isn’t life torture?”), as Anju slowly enters the water. We then cut to her old friend, again exquisitely framed in the centre of our screens (this time by the bars of the camp, a contrast with Anju’s natural transcendence), who collapses to her knees in prayer – paralleling Anju’s own submission to the lake, and death. Another cut back to the lake reveals perfectly concentric ripples, our lasting memory of her, before merging into a shot of a Buddha in the temple where Zushio finds safety.

This is a sequence that’s emblematic of Sansho’s curious religiosity. The film’s concept of mercy is rooted in Buddhism, as illustrated by the figure of the Kwannon. Anju embodies this in the real world, and Mizoguchi accordingly treats her death with simplistic veneration as opposed to the dramatics that he could easily cave in to. The fact that an explicit link is made between Anju’s death and a religious symbol that safeguards her brother is suggestive of her own ascendence into the realm of the spiritual – not to mention the fabric of mythology that the film is actively concerned with.

For years now, I’ve maintained that Chaplin’s conclusion to City Lights is unrivalled within cinema. Upon my first viewing of Sansho the Bailiff I bawled my eyes out, without really understanding why. I re-watched the ending to try and comprehend… and ended up bawling my eyes out again. I then gave the film itself another viewing and still the tear-ducts were in action. Finally, before writing this I viewed that ending for a fourth time and cried again – although this time I managed to limit myself to only two or three tears and a controlled amount of sobbing. Anyway, all this leaves me with the possibility of two evaluations: a) that I’m simply a shameless cry-baby and that I need a shot of testosterone, pronto; or b) that Sansho’s ending is the most perfect finale in all cinema, trumping even Chaplin’s masterstroke. I’m guessing that both these statements are correct?!

Mizoguchi’s conclusion allows for the cathartic release that we, as the audience, have been waiting two hours for. The origins of its pathos are inexplicable with mere words, but I’ll nevertheless attempt to make some sense of it. First of all, it marks the long-anticipated reunion between Tamaki and Zushio. Mizoguchi’s success at conveying the arduousness that has allowed for this reconciliation makes it all the more poignant, as if the sight of a child reunited with his long-lost mother wasn’t enough. Instead of restoring them to their former glory, Mizoguchi refuses to romanticise and presents us a family in its most pitiful state. The heavy toll that a burdensome life has taken on Tamaki is especially heartbreaking because it manifests itself visually through her appearance. During Zushio’s search we’re led first to expect that she’s a prostitute, then to expect that she’s dead. What we find is more degrading than we could have imagined: a blind and decrepit woman worn down against the seaweed, barely managing to gasp out the song that her children so beautifully memorialised (compare this Tamaki to the woman who we encounter at the film’s beginning.) And then there’s the agonizing dialogue – upon announcing himself, Tamaki mutters: “You wretched being! You’ve come to try and fool me again!”, suggesting that she’s a woman who’s been taken advantage of many a time before as a result of the blindness that prevents her from seeing her own child. And then, the gut-wrenching obliviousness of her statement after learning that Anju has joined Masauji: “Your father? Is he doing well?” The scene concludes with the mother’s reaffirmation of the father’s teachings, before the overwhelming melodrama forces the camera’s gaze away from the reunited family, towards an indifferent image of the horizon as a man goes about his daily work.

This final endorsement of “mercy” is extraordinary when one contemplates exactly what “mercy” has accomplished for Zushio and Tamaki. As a result of this simple concept, they lost almost everything that they ever had, risked losing one another, and were forced to endure countless humiliations. To find the film advocating it in spite of such atrocity is humbling, and again allows us to make a parallel between the then and the now. That Mizoguchi should then summon up the nerve to pan away from this moment of astounding plaintiveness, in order to communicate how even this most significant of filmic events is but a tiny speck in the grand scheme of life… well, it takes guts. More than that, it requires the ability of a confident director absolutely in control of his art. Throughout Sansho the Bailiff, Mizoguchi never once loses hold of his mastery – thus leaving us with an impeccable achievement, an evocative tribute to humanism that startles with its deceptively simple complexity.

Pickup on South Street (Fuller, 1953)

My only experience of Samuel Fuller prior to this was a viewing of The Big Red One which I managed to catch upon it’s re-release a few years ago. It was probably my lack of experience more than anything, but I remember being distinctly underwhelmed. Oh, and there was also his memorable cameo in Godard’s Pierrot le fou which I found quite groovy (“Emotion!”) but yes, point is that I’m underversed in my Fuller. Pickup on South Street has always been on my radar for some unknown reason, so when I noticed the Criterion edition going on the cheap I instantly snapped it up with the intent of rectifying my Fuller-heresy.

Anyway, I’m really really impressed. I find the film’s concerns surprisingly fresh, particularly with regards to its focus on the New York underclasses. The precision with which Fuller details his principal characters’ humble lifestyles is complemented by a no-holds-barred approach, frequently allowing for a sort of brash realism to rear its head underneath the layers of style: as if Joey’s attack on Candy wasn’t horrifying enough in its own right, the fact that it feels so plausible in the precarious world that they both inhabit imbues the scene with a sense of tangibility that results in an even more sobering effect upon the viewer. Fuller has clear empathy for those on society’s fringes which motivates his consistent refusal to sentimentalise – if we, as the audience, are to understand these characters at all then it should be on their own difficult terms.

Much of the film’s success in this respect lies in the art of performance. Richard Widmark, an actor with whom I’ve been unacquainted until now, turns his Skip McCoy into a terrific anti-hero. He readily displays the pugnacious belligerence that the role requires, yet there’s also an air of childish insolence about him – an endearing cockiness that demands our affection even though he rarely warrants it. Unsurprisingly however, it’s the divine Thelma Ritter who creates the most memorable impression here. Her character, Moe, is pivotal to the film: she provides the crucial link between both the police and the so-called crooks, as well as Skip and Candy. More than that though, because of the actress’s quiet skill she serves as the film’s pre-eminent tool of audience identification. Ritter flaunts her irresistible knack for wisecracking early on in the film, and that’s especially advantageous here where her character’s an über-streetwise informer. Her bluntness is an extension of the overall tapestry of the film, e.g. the matter-of-fact way in which she states: “I have to go on making a living so I can die.” It’s Moe’s world-weariness however, and the dignity that persists in spite of it, which Ritter excels in communicating. Her final scene is utterly heartbreaking because of her success in conveying such traits.

As much as I adore Thelma here, it’s the film’s engagement with its wider contexts that thrill me above all else. Initially, despite loving what was on-screen, I had issues with the discussion of Communists within the film which made me question whether or not the entire thing was simple McCarthyite propaganda (I know, I know!) However, my basic love of the material convinced me to look deeper and after listening to Fuller’s charming interview on the Criterion DVD, I was reassured: the microfilm at the plot’s core could easily be substituted for another controversial item and little of the film’s meaning would have changed. Or would it? After giving this some further thought I’ve decided that I actually prefer to read the film as a subversive indictment of the dominant institutions’ failure to protect their citizens, and I see the whole “Red Scare” as playing into this?

The characters’ prevailing attitude towards the threat is appropriately summed up by Moe: “What do I know about Commies? Nothing. I know one thing, I just don’t like ‘em!” These words speak volumes, for they underline how clueless these people are about the actual nature of the threat, not to mention how entrenched the fear is – even at the very lowest levels of the social hierarchy. Admittedly, the Communist characters in the film are very much designed as the villains which is perhaps enough to justify Moe’s comments in itself. However, consider also the way in which the all-American police force is portrayed – Fuller hardly depicts them in the most positive of lights: they resort to bribery to gain information, suspiciously lurk in street corners as if they were agents themselves, and angrily wield the threat of treason at Skip when he refuses to conform. It’s this latter point which specifically piques my interest thanks to Skip’s response to the accusation: “Are you waving the flag at me?” His dismissal of his patriotic ‘duty’ reveals the furthest extreme of America’s disconnection from its populace: when allegiance to one’s country is a defunct concept thanks to more pressing issues (in this film’s case, that of plain survival.) Taking this into account, Moe’s blind commitment to society becomes ironic as it is this very (capitalist) society that has worn her down and reduced her to selling ties for a dollar. There’s an element of wryness in the plot as a whole too, if we’re willing to view America as defended and saved by it’s petty criminals. The depth to which the film’s socio-political concerns seep is remarkable, and allows for a multitude of complex readings.

So, um, watch it now! And for those who’ve seen it: enlighten me with comments plz!

Onibaba (Shindô, 1964)

Has anyone else ever wanted to watch a film solely because of it’s DVD cover? This was the case pour moi when I came across the Criterion edition of Kaneto Shindô’s Onibaba:

Surely a front cover like that would tempt anyone, right? Well, it tempted me anyhowz.

isn’t quite the terrifying frightfest that I expected. While it certainly has its fair share of unbridled horror moments, the film struck me more as an atmospheric mood piece characterised by its entrancing-but-unsettling imagery. The dominant forces are the primal concerns of survival, sex and death. To this end, Shindô situates the action in a bygone era of Japanese history where these simplistic interests can feasibly serve as the characters’ main focuses. He also makes us aware of the period’s discords, which he uses to weave in a critique of war and additionally, to justify the characters’ more repugnant qualities: the mother/daughter-in-law duo at the film’s core (referred to simply as ‘Woman’ and ‘Young Woman’) kill resting soldiers in order to sell their armour. In this way, they ironically live off death but the film makes the point that in such a turbulent environment their actions are necessary for plain survival. War has reduced them to this, although the unnerving willingness with which the characters execute their livelihoods suggests that they have allowed themselves to become totally consumed by a thirst for blood.

The primary ‘thirst’ here isn’t a homicidal one though, it’s completely sexual. Onibaba’s English-language title is “The Hole”, a reference to a gaping black hole in the earth where murdered soldiers meet their gruesome end. Surrounded by susuki grass, it’s difficult to miss the more carnal implications of this image, with the hole itself acting as a hybridisation of all the film’s aforementioned concerns thanks to its sexual connotations and its consumption of death. The film doesn’t just infer however, it also depicts sex with an explicitness that’s refreshing given it’s context, and it continues Shindô’s theme of stripping everything down to its basest, most naturalistic instincts. The sex here is ugly, sweaty and not in the least bit arousing. Moreover, it provides the main source of conflict within the plot: the arrival of the male character, Hachi, eventually triggers the friction between the two females – he awakens the sexuality in both, but especially the daughter-in-law whose carnal desires drive her to see him despite the presence of ‘demons’ later in the film. Her pleasure invokes competition with the mother-in-law that’s dependent on her: this feral and aged woman is spurned by Hachi in the film’s closest flirtation with poignance, and thus desperately pleads with him: “I can’t kill without her!”

In spite of the conflict, Hachi’s introduction also leads to a temporary stalemate within the narrative, as Shindô does overtime on the underdeveloped tensions resulting from his presence. Indeed, the story as a whole is prone to fluctuations, with the introduction of the film’s notorious ‘mask’ (and thus, the entire final act) coming across as particularly contrived. Fortunately, Shindô’s visual hand is enough to counter any lulls in his tale, and its brimming with great moments: the masked soldier falling into the death pit – as filmed from inside the hole; the frequent shots of the sharp susuki grass that pierce the landscape; deft plays with light and shadows, particularly during the night sequences; even shifting to negative film stock for heightened effect; and of course, the conception of that damned mask itself – certianly one of the most bizarre props that I’ve ever come across on film. Backed up by a terrifically shrill score that punctuates the high drama, and the absence of which results in the eeriest of silences, Shindô creates nothing less than a captivating experience. For someone whose experience of Japanese cinema to date has been limited to the Holy Trinity (Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, Ozu) and second-rate horror movies, I found Onibaba a bold and exhilarating contrast to what I’m familiar with: an evocative and indelible work whose arresting images linger in the memory long after film’s end.

Under the Roofs of Paris (Clair, 1930)

René Clair’s Le Million may well be my favourite musical ever, although it doesn’t fit the mould in the traditional sense – either way, it’s also one of my favourite films full stop, so it was only a matter of time before I got to another of Clair’s fabled early 1930s trio. So here I sit, having given the first of those flicks a spin…

Under the Roofs of Paris was Clair’s first venture into the world of sound, Much like Le Million, Paris forms something of a bridge between the silent film and the talkie, although it’s definitely rougher around the edges than that later masterwork. Paris’ greatest flaw is almost certainly its paper-thin excuse for a story, which sees a man (Albert) fall in love with a woman (Pola) only to go to prison and lose her to his best friend (Louis). It’s as simplistic as it sounds, and the plot mechanisms are all too evident: the robbery that leads to lead Albert’s imprisonment appears out of nowhere, and briskly propels the narrative forward by a month whereas previously it had focused on a 24hr period. Moreover, the explanation for Pola and Louis’ relationship is provided to us in that swift time slot – in other words, we don’t get much explanation at all and their so-called ‘love’ for one another comes across as distractingly undercooked. And then there’s the fact that all the characterisations bar Albert are similarly destitute: Louis is practically unknown to us; and Pola, the romantic interest of three characters in the film, is little more than a fickle whore. The intended ‘bittersweet’ ending is instead rendered purely sweet as a result of her irksome presence. Gaston Modot, the delightful actor who played a role in many of France’s greatest films of the 1930s (La Règle du jeu, L’Âge d’Or, La Grande illusion) makes a typically comical impression as the film’s ‘villain’ but is eventually sidelined in favour of the banal love story.

In spite of all this, I wouldn’t hesitate to describe Paris as a great film. This is primarily thanks to Clair, whose craftsmanship is on full display here. His experimentation with sound was still in its earliest stages (compare this to the smooth polish of Le Million) but already his creativity is more than apparent. One of the film’s earliest shots finds a camera panning across Clair’s artificial Parisian rooftops, before slowly descending towards ground level to uncover the source of the song that we hear on the soundtrack. With these opening minutes Clair already conveys his intent: to recall the greatness of the silent era whilst at once hinting towards the possibilities offered by sound. A number of bravura sequences bravely execute this objective: a bedroom sequence where Albert and Pola shout and bicker to hilarious effect despite being in the dark; a tussle between Albert and a pickpocket that takes place with appropriately-timed background music, thus playing like a Chaplinesque comedy sequence; or the climactic fight between Albert and Fred that takes place in darkness and without dialogue, but is accentuated by disorienting angles and the thunderous movements of a passing train.

Although the director’s mélange of mobile camerawork + song + slapstick + minimal dialogue succumbs to the occasional awkward moment, for the most part it’s a triumph that successfully creates the lyrical romanticism so absent in the screenplay. Clair’s envisioning of working-class Paris looks as if it’s ripped out from a picturebook, and this near-oneiric conception of the city – accordions, berets and all – does little in the way of providing substance to potentially serious concerns. This is not the most significant of hindrances however, because Paris functions best as another slice of that charming-yet-sophisticated brand of French confectionary that Clair seeks to recreate (Jean-Pierre Jeunet should take notes.) Taken as a whimsical romp through a working man’s daily affairs, one can see it as an early filmic embodiment of joie de vivre. Despite the setbacks, we’re informed at film’s end that life continues to plays on as if like a beautiful song. It’s an irresistible finale to a film that, despite its own setbacks, justifies its conclusions by enamouring us in its own world, if only for a brief moment in time.