V: Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970)

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valerie posterSuch an odd, strange, lovely movie. This feature by Jaromil Jireš was the last gasp of the Czech New Wave, an absurdist movement which also gave us animator Jan Švankmajer and Miloš Forman. I say “last gasp” because the Soviet government put the kibosh on arty-time films around the time of its release.

Valerie (Jaroslava Schallerová) is a 13 year-old girl living with her grandmother (Helena Anýzová). Their village is, that week, playing host to both a company of actors and a group of missionaries, one of whom is Grandmother’s old flame, a predatory priest. That set-up is only the background for a hallucinatory, episodic fairy tale with vampires, were-weasels, witch hunts, and magical earrings.

968full-valerie-and-her-week-of-wonders-screenshotValerie has just experienced menarche (an initial image of red currant juice dripping on a snow white daisy is typical of the lush metaphors that run rampant), and much of what she encounters in the trim 77 minutes can be interpreted as a child’s view of adult desire – mysterious, bizarre, and not a little frightening. The arrival of Grandmother’s old boyfriend – the priest who attempts to molest Valerie – causes her to turn to yet another old boyfriend, the Polecat, who turns her into a youthful red-haired vampire. The priest will also try to silence Valerie on the matter of his attempted molestation by denouncing her as a witch and burning her at the stake, something our plucky heroine survives with aplomb and nose-thumbing.

valerie2Any attempt to take this literally is going to make your eyes cross and frustrate you. Just rest secure in the knowledge that as the threads of the fairy tale begin to come together at the end, the images that were so threatening and ominous before become more welcoming and even attractive as Valerie becomes more comfortable and understanding of her incipient womanhood. It is an unusual movie; the Soviet countries produced quite a few wonderful and gorgeous fairy tale movies in the 60s and 70s, simply because glorifying local folklore was seen as beneficial to nationalism, and such movies were less likely to encounter much in the way of censorship. Valerie, however, is trying to do something more than recount old stories.

jaroslavaschallerovalaska14The Criterion blu-ray has an alternate soundtrack, a “folk psych” score by a gathering of musicians calling themselves “The Valerie Project”. It’s score only, no dialogue – but I was reading subtitles anyway, and I thought “Sure, why not.” It’s an interesting addendum, but the most surprising thing is it allowed me to make an unusual connection: while I was watching Valerie and Her Week of Wonders with this newer music, I kept flashing back to the short films of Maya Deren I had encountered early on, back in high school, especially Meshes of the Afternoon. I still have my laserdisc of her shorts. The amazing, layered imagery, the dreamy, rather creepy, but undeniably lovely ambiance – that’s all here in Valerie. It made me feel that if she had made a feature in color, it might have looked and felt like this.

And if you know what I’m talking about, you know if you want to see this movie, or not.

Buy Valerie & Her Week of Wonders on Amazon


K: Kwaidan (1964)

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220px-KwaidanposterjapaneseKwaidan is an archaic version of the Japanese word Kaidan which, in its simplest translation, can be understood to mean “ghost stories”, but its meaning is actually more subtly complex than that: and that is a fair metaphor for director Masaki Kobayashi’s film of the same name. The title also derives from Lafcadio Hearne’s 1904 book of folklore, Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things, though the four stories translated to cinema are actually from two of his collections.

Each story is presented with no connecting arc, with perhaps the only concession to their prose origins the occasional bit of voice narration (the deeper translation of kaidan alludes to the stories’ origins as oral tradition, anyway).

kwaidan 11In The Black Hair, an impoverished samurai leaves his faithful, patient wife to marry a noblewoman and rise to a profitable post; that marriage is an unhappy one, and the samurai torments himself with memories of the woman he treated so badly. Years later, he returns to his old house, to find it in poor repair, except for the rooms where his wife works her loom. She is radiantly happy to welcome him back into her life. This would be a happy ending, except the samurai wakes up the next morning to discover he has been sleeping next to the rotting corpse of his wife, who died of a broken heart years before.

kwaidan-08c-webThis is followed by The Woman of the Snow, which begins with two woodcutters caught in a blizzard. They seek what shelter they can in the shed of a boatman, but that night a ghost enters the shed, and her breath causes the older woodcutter to immediately freeze to death in his sleep. She spares the younger man, on the promise that he never tell anyone what he has seen, ever. A year later, the surviving woodcutter meets a young woman travelling on the road, alone, and they fall in love. Yes, Tales from the Darkside: The Movie fans, you should be recognizing this tale, though the ending here is much more bittersweet, though no less tragic.

kwaidan-hoichiAfter an Intermission, the movie resumes with probably its most famous sequence, Hoichi the Earless, which is the tale of a young blind biwa player living in a temple. His performance of the song cycle telling of a sea battle that was the death of an entire clan is so good, he is called upon by the spirits of that clan to perform it repeatedly at a nearby graveyard. Being blind, Hoichi thinks he is performing in a grand castle; these nocturnal performances are slowly killing him, and to save his life, the monks paint prayer sutras all over his body to protect him. They neglect, however, to paint them on his ears for some reason, and, well, the title itself is a massive spoiler.

kwaidanThe final story, In a Cup of Tea, was excised for American audiences, to bring the movie under three hours, I suppose. It’s a fragment, an unfinished story in Hearn’s collection, regarding a samurai who keeps seeing a man’s face in a cup of tea, and when he drinks it, finds himself bedevilled by the ghostly man and his equally ghostly retainers. Kobayashi supplies an ending, which is an appropriate button for the movie.

What none of these synopses will prepare you for is the unearthly, fabulous beauty of Kwaidan. This movie was made for blu-ray, as it is an unending buffet of visual delights. The skies of Woman of the Snow seems pulled from a painter’s easels, full of eyes watching the plight of the villagers beneath. Hoichi begins with the song of the sea battle, a massive painting of the event intercut with the actual battle, like figures from the painting come to life. It is a movie unto itself, and it is breathtakingly gorgeous.

Kwaidan-1964Coming off the success of Harakiri, Kobayashi made the most expensive movie in Japanese history, supplanting The Seven Samurai. 350 million Yen is the figure given; the sound stages are massive, and the control this gives Kobayashi over the picture is not wasted. Roger Ebert called it “one of the most beautiful films I have ever seen,” and there is no way I could possibly improve over that simple statement.

eye in the skyAmazing, beautiful, surprisingly humanistic. Revisiting this movie years after my first viewing was one of the smartest things I have done this year.

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I: I Married a Witch (1942)

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I_Married_a_Witch_posterYou know, this is sort of the perfect Halloween movie, if you’re not into hardcore scary stuff. Its touch is light, its outlook humorous, it’s well-made and imaginative; it is the very definition of a frothy confection.

So why does it leave me so cold?

There’s a good old-fashioned Puritan witch-burning at the beginning (though yes, I know, the Puritans never burned a witch, they hanged them), interrupted for an intermission so a hawker can sell bags of popcorn with an anti-witch charm in each bag. That’s funny stuff right there. Nathaniel Wooley (Frederic March) reveals that the condemned witch Jennifer (Veronica Lake, eventually) has cursed him and his descendants to rotten marriages for eternity. Thereafter, we have a montage of Wooley’s descendants and the various forms of marital hell, including one who enlists in the Civil War to avoid his vase-throwing wife (“Running off to war – like a coward!”). This is also funny stuff.

I’m still not laughing. This mystifies me.

tumblr_mv0bgajJP71sodq76o1_1280The oak tree planted over the ashes of Jennifer and her sorcerer father Daniel (Cecil Kellaway – again, eventually) is struck by lightning, releasing their spirits to commit mischief once again, though only as two plumes of smoke, for the moment. Daniel absently criticizes Jennifer’s curse, stating, “Marrying the wrong woman is painful – but more painful is falling in love with the right woman he cannot have.” Jennifer then proceeds to incarnate herself again and make sure the current Wooley (March again) falls in love with her. That shouldn’t be too hard, given the implication in the opening scenes that Lake is naked under that mink coat she keeps losing, and Wooley’s current fiancee is harridan-in-training Estelle (Susan Hayward, magnificent as usual). Wooley is a leading gubernatorial candidate, and has lots and lots to lose.

imarriedawitch252852529The plot complicates from there, with spells flying everywhere, Jennifer accidentally drinking the love potion meant for Wooley, and her sudden love for the object of her curse drawing her into conflict with her father, who is still rather peeved about that whole execution thing.

I think my mood was all wrong the night I watched this. It’s well-made, it’s fun. I just couldn’t get into it.

Maybe, like doomed individuals in more serious movies, I know too much. Frederic March and Veronica Lake hated each other, though it never really shows onscreen. Some place the blame for this squarely in March’s court, but Lake arrived on set with her own set of baggage – Joel McCrea was up for the lead, but turned it down because he didn’t want to work with her again after Sullivan’s Travels.

Come on, this is as Halloween as it gets.

Come on, this is as Halloween as it gets.

Maybe the movie is as cursed as it hero – producer Preston Sturges (whose touch is still evident, I feel) quit because of “creative differences” with director Rene Clair. Co-star Robert Benchley, who plays Wooley’s best friend Dudley (who also seems to be in charge of finishing his distracted friend’s drinks) would be dead in three years of cirrhosis of the liver. Lake’s marquee value wouldn’t last much longer than that.

But no, I don’t think it’s any of that. I think the circumstances of life – both my own and the growing garbage fire that is the world at large as I write this in mid-July – I think that is why I couldn’t slip into the comforting, charming world of I Married a Witch. May your experience with it be better.

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Medium Cool (1969)

medium cool posterSo I see a lot of people had the brilliant idea to watch Medium Cool this Summer. Something about the looming Republican Convention, I’m sure. There are also a lot of people saying 2016 is 1968 all over again. It isn’t, though there are parallels.

There is unrest. There is seemingly unending domestic violence. There is change in the air, some hope (myself included). All these are playing into that hot-take cauldron proclaiming a carbon copy of 1968. No wonder so many are investigating this intriguing snapshot of that time.

First of all, Haskell Wexler is a name to respect among cameramen and cinematographers. Go look at that IMDb entry, and find out why so many were sad when he passed away just after Christmas last year. Now consider that in 1968, he felt ready to direct a feature film, and that film was nearly The Concrete Wilderness, the story of a transplanted Appalachian boy raising pigeons in the slums of Chicago. The remnants of that story are still evident in Medium Cool, but what we really get is a story about Haskell Wexler.

mc1Robert Forster is John Cassellis, a cameraman for the news department of a local station. We meet him as he’s filming a dead woman at the site of a recent car wreck, along with his sound man, Gus (Peter Bonerz). As they pack up their gear, John says to Gus, “Better call an ambulance.” Despite that questionable intro, we soon find that John has something of a conscience, along with some misgivings about his trade. He tries to follow the story of a black cabbie turning in a lost bag containing ten thousand dollars, against the wishes of his news director. And the day he finds out – to his dismay – that his footage has been routinely turned over to the police and the FBI so they can scope out radical elements, he’s also fired.

watching-tvJohn has also, by sheer accident and misunderstanding, met Harold (Harold Blankenship), the aforementioned boy, and his mother Eileen (Verna Bloom). A romance begins to blossom – there’s something in Eileen that John doesn’t see in his current flame, the nurse Ruth (Marianna Hill). Eventually, John gets another gig jobbing in as a cameraman during the 1968 Democratic Party Convention; he doesn’t realize that Harold, seeing his mother getting intimate with John, has run away and is basically bumming around Grant Park until it’s safe to go home. Eileen, still wearing her yellow party dress from the night before, is similarly roaming the streets trying to find him – as the protests around the Convention begin to move toward the riots that would dominate the media that Summer.

Medium-Cool-Chicago-RiotThis is probably the most famous aspect of Medium Cool, that Wexler and his cameramen (only one or two, past Wexler himself), are actually in the streets filming, and Verna Bloom is right there, wandering around in character, occasionally in harm’s way, as cops in riot gear and National Guardsmen in barbed-wire festooned jeeps get into position. There’s also footage of Forster in the Convention, as in the background we hear things starting to go to shit on the floor. This is a remarkable piece of filmmaking, with everybody on their game. It gets especially tense as you realize that is most definitely Verna Bloom in there, evidencing brass balls the size of Gibraltar, getting those shots. Wexler apparently tried to get her to go home as the situation intensified, and she refused.

One of the most referenced shots involves Wexler, as a National Guardsman – tired of being on camera, perhaps – lobs a tear gas grenade at his feet. As the gas drifts up, you see the camera shakily moving back, and you hear someone say, “Watch out Haskell – it’s real!” Wexler says the line was added in post production, but that it was pretty much what was going through his mind as the first sting of the gas hit him (The shot is in the Criterion Three Reasons clip, below).

Medium Cool1On the other hand, in a shot that was meant to provoke a reaction, Bloom cuts through a line of Guardsman and addresses their commander – in character, telling him she’s looking for her son. The commander waves her through, and even points the way toward someone who might be able to help her.

I referred to the movie as “a snapshot”, because the Convention footage doesn’t have the only message Wexler wants to convey; after the car wreck opening we have a sequence at a party where people are hotly discussing the role of news media, and the increasing danger and resentment they face. Later, in a post-coital talk, Ruth asks a question about Mondo Cane that I also asked when I first saw it at 10 years of age (which sort of explains a lot about me, I guess). John’s attempt to follow up on the cabbie story leads to a discussion of the black experience, circa 1968. John and Gus go on other stories before John’s fall, including the riot training of the same National Guardsmen we’ll see in Chicago, and Resurrection Town near the Lincoln Reflecting Pool, soon after the death of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Resurrection TownThere’s more, more more. A slow pan around a hotel kitchen as we hear Robert Kennedy’s last speech, and if you lived through that time, you know exactly what is coming, and you feel your pulse rate quicken. Mass media critiquing over a TV special containing footage of King’s greatest speeches, about media being complicit in a week-long catharsis so regular business can resume. There is more that was excised, some of which is excerpted in a documentary about the making of Medium Cool called (appropriately) Look Out Haskell, It’s Real involving the politicization of Eileen with a real-life speech by the Rev. Jessie Jackson (Jackson still crops up in the Resurrection Town footage).

GasJonathan Haze was a line producer (yes, that Jonathan Haze, Little Shop of Horrors and a bunch of others), and had connections with the local activists, so Haskell knew where to set up the next day for protest footage. (If you look quick, you can catch footage of Wexler and Haze being treated for tear gas exposure during the riot footage) Even then, there’s a counter-balancing sequence in which John takes Eileen to a go-go, where even in her yellow dress she is quite the fish out of water. There’s a band playing what the subtitles assure us is “Psychedelic rock”, though what is actually playing – out of sync, which makes the strobing and quick-cutting even more discombobluating – is The Mothers of Inventions’ “Go to San Francisco”, which has Zappa singing “Every town must have a place where phony hippies meet/Psychedelic dungeons popping up on every street”.

In a few minutes, though, we’ll be separating the phonies from the real revolutionaries. The real ones will the ones that are bleeding. And they are a diverse lot, not the cartoon hippies Zappa is satirizing.

Medium Cool is a startling blend of the real and unreal, until the viewer reaches a point where one is not quite sure which is which – until the third act, when the reality becomes undeniable – and then that controversial final scene, echoing the beginning, where we are challenged once more to define for ourselves what is real and what is not. And that is a thread that runs through the movie, even though Wexler claimed he had never read Marshall McLuhan – the necessity of the viewer, while taking in the imagery of a “cool medium” like TV, to rise above the simple, non-interactive nature of that medium, to inquire, to judge, to determine what about it is real, if anything.

It may not be 1968 all over, but that central message is more important than ever.

 Buy Medium Cool on Amazon





American vs Italian Weirdness

There’s nothing wrong with watching good movies. But every now and then, you just need something weird, am I right?

It’s great, though, when that something also turns out to be good.

AafinalposterLet’s start with The American Astronaut, since I’ve been pestered about that one. I used my standard method of hapless examination of Cory McAbee‘s oeuvre, ie., backwards, by watching Stingray Sam first. Episodic, experimental, and entertaining – you should get on that. His first feature-length film, though, is what we’re here to talk about, and those three adjectives still apply, and a lot more.

The Astronaut of the title is Sam Curtis (McAbee), an independent trader whose latest job is delivering a cat to a saloon for asteroid miners on Ceres. In return he is given a “Real Live Girl”, which looks like a beat-up suitcase with a small door in the end. If you open the door, a flickering light is seen, and jazzy music plays. “What am I supposed to do with this?” he asks. Then he asks to use the restroom, but is cautioned: “Be careful. It’s a real toilet.”

Now, be prepared to leave even that minimal amount of normalcy behind.

Sam is going to meet with his old friend, the fruit-smuggling Blueberry Pirate (Joshua Taylor) and hatch a scheme whereby he will trade the Real Live Girl to the head of the Jupiter Mining Colony for the morale-boosting Boy Who Actually Saw A Woman’s Breast (Greg Russell Cook) – whom Sam had delivered years earlier. He will then take the Boy to the women of Venus, whose sole male finally died after years of service. In exchange for the Boy, he will get the corpse, whose family on Earth is offering a large reward for his return.

But first, a dance contest.

spacemen_fullThe major problem? Sam is being pursued by his nemesis Professor Hess, a birthday-obsessed serial killer who will disintegrate anyone Sam comes in contact with – he only kills people he has no problem with, and is pursuing Sam so he can forgive him and therefore kill him. While hiding from Hess, Sam and the Boy take cover in a barn built in space by silver miners, and pick up another passenger, a guy raised in space in a hydraulic suit so his body wouldn’t atrophy like the miners’. Then on to Venus and its population of women dressed in antebellum dresses, where a plan begins to form in our hero’s head.

So. The American Astronaut is a lo-fi science fiction space western that feels like it was made by David Lynch, and he also decided to make it a musical. A rock musical. That ought to tell you right there if you want to watch it. And even if you don’t, you should. It may seem an odd and haphazard movie, but the design and execution tell a different story. The fact that the most affecting song is given to Hess after a massacre tells of a much deeper story being told.

AmericanAstronautLet me come back to the production design in a bit. I’ll just close out this section by saying that I always find Cory McAbee so handsome and so winning onscreen, that I’m always surprised that we haven’t seen more of him in more mainstream flicks; then again, I’m glad he is where he is, doing what he is. He’s a national treasure, he is, unique and intriguing.

Because the other end to this weirdness is Fellini Satyricon. Now this is a notoriously loose adaptation of Petronius’ novel of the same name, of which only fragments survive anyway. What we have today is pieces of books 15, 16, and 17, so this is like trying to make a movie out of issues 276, 277 and 278 of The  Fantastic Four when you only have a few panels and an ad for G-I-ANT MONSTERS! out of each.

SATYRICONPOSTERSo what we have is a series of episodes in the life of young scholar Encolpius (Martin Potter) who is vying with his friend Ascyltus (Hiram Keller) for the love of a young boy, Giton (Max Born).  (IMDb Trivia states that Fellini chose foreigners for these roles because “there are no Italian homosexuals”, which must have come as a shock to Pier Paolo Pasolini and his posse). This will involve a trip to the theater (Ascyltus sold the boy to a prominent actor), a walk through a brothel once the boy is reclaimed, and then Giton decides to leave with Ascyltus anyway, the tramp, prompting a falling-out between the two old friends and an earthquake.

Encolpius will tag along to a lavish banquet (the movie’s longest scene, not coincidentally the largest surviving fragment), then get scooped up by the slave trader Lichas (Alain Cuny), who will be so smitten by Encolpius that he marries him, but then the Emperor is assassinated and things change and Encolpius fights the Minotaur and holy crap.

Satyricon banquetThis really might be the ultimate Fellini movie, as you spend over two hours thinking, “Yep, that’s Fellini.” Lush, often overwhelming imagery, combined with the most remarkable faces you will ever find committed to film. This is a non-stop examination of decadence and debauchery in the era of Nero and it is never less than hypnotic and mesmerizing. You can, in fact, trace the roots of Pasolini’s masterpieces in the Trilogy of Life directly here (witness the dramatization of a Greek fable as the banquet dies down).

009-fellini-satyricon-theredlistNot a little of this engagement of the viewer is due to the fact that it is so strange. Though we try to frame ancient cultures in our own experience, that approach does not take into consideration that two thousand years ago, these people were shaped by entirely different societal norms and technologies than us; the distant past would probably seem unspeakably weird to us, and Fellini plays this concept for all it’s worth. He even went to pains to make the dubbing a little off, to keep us even more off-kilter (I was reading subtitles, so that never registered on me).

The American AstronautNow contrast this to the production design of American Astronaut (I told you we’d get back here), where the future may actually be too familiar. This is not only necessary for making low-budget science-fiction space western rock musicals, it also makes sense: taking bits of home out with you into space. Of course the saloon on a mining asteroid would look like a cheap dive bar in a strip center. Of course Sam’s spaceship looks like an efficiency apartment, with a single bed, a bookshelf, wallpaper, and crap that needs to be quickly battened down for landings. Neil DeGrasse Tyson may have called during my viewing to inform me that there weren’t really barns in space, but let’s also realize that space travel is going to be a lengthy process, that it would be nice to have someone to talk to during it, and you would more than likely make up songs to sing while you wait to finally get there.

These movies are at two opposite ends of the weirdness dial, different in approach and each offering up their own menus of delights and amazements.When you get right down to it, movies like this are why I started watching movies in general: they are directories of the possible, made possible by genius, talent and a little bit of madness.

Buy The American Astronaut on Amazon (OOP- brace your wallet!)

Buy Fellini Satyricon on Amazon

Singing Spies in a Stormy French Field (featuring James Brown)

Les Visiteurs du Soir (1942)

220px-VisiteursdusoirMarcel Carné is a French film director best known for his acknowledged masterpiece, Children of Paradise, which I will get to eventually this year, but I had long been intrigued by his previous movie, Les Visiteurs du Soir (English title The Devil’s Envoys), not only because of my interest in the fantasy genre but because somehow I had never frickin’ heard of it. Given how much film text I had read over the years, how was this even possible?

Towards the end of the 15th century, two minstrels ride into the castle of the recently-widowed Baron Hugues (Fernand Ledeux), who is celebrating the upcoming wedding of his daughter Anne (Marie Déa) to the rather brutish Baron Renaud (Marcel Herrand). The minstrels, Gilles (Alain Cuny) and Dominique (Arletty) are the envoys of the title, whose mission is to spread despair throughout the world. To this end they will use magic and their own beauty and wit to seduce the members of the wedding, and then suddenly leave their victims, bereft and heartbroken. This plan runs aground when the flawed Gilles – who doesn’t mind using his powers for an occasional good deed – confronted with Anne’s immaculately pure heart, falls in love with her and forsakes his mission.

06-alain-cuny-theredlistDominique works overtime seducing both the Barons, and the Devil himself (Jules Berry) arrives on the scene, disguised as a traveller seeking shelter from a sudden storm. By asking seemingly innocent questions, he sees to it that Gilles is imprisoned and the two Barons will duel to the death over Dominique – but then he, too, becomes infatuated with Anne’s incorruptible heart and love for Gilles, and must find a way to undermine it and make Anne his own.

visiteurs-du-soir-1942-03-gThis is a bit of a departure for Carné, who along with Jean Renoir and Jean Vigo were the main proponents of the somewhat nebulous Poetic Realism movement in French cinema. The major reason for this, though, is unmistakeable: the Nazi occupation of France in 1940. Declining to work for the German-controlled Continental Films, Carné, after several abortive projects, teamed with independent producer André Paulve. To avoid censorship, they decided on a purely escapist feature, set in the past, with no political content. The production shuttled between studios in Paris to the Free Zone in the South for the exteriors, which must have been difficult for the several Jewish crew members, working under aliases.

les-visiteurs-du-soirThe result was that Les Visiteurs du Soir was a rousing success in France, who really needed their escapist fare (and though Carné denied it, there were still whispers of political allegory). There would be several more medieval fantasies released to French screens in the coming years, arguably leading up to that form’s ne plus ultra, Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast in 1946.

Les Visiteurs is a charming distraction in this day and age, well-acted and shot, with Jules Berry a definite standout as the chatty, fun-loving Devil. Not a bad way to spend an evening, at all.

Break out your dictionaires:

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A Field in England (2013)

A FIELD IN ENGLAND POSTER A3-1So why not then journey to another black-and-white fantasia of a time long gone, where mysterious forces play out against hapless human subjects?

During the 17th century English Civil War, three deserters from the battlefield (Julian Barratt, Peter Ferdinando and Richard Glover) fall in with another seeming deserter named Cutler (Ryan Pope), who, under the guise of taking them to a nearby alehouse, feeds them soup heavy with psilocybin mushrooms. This is a means of taking them hostage for his master, O’Neil (Michael Smiley), an alchemist who feels there is a treasure in this Field, and he needs people to find it and dig it up. Complicating matters is one of the deserters, Trower (Barratt) is seeking out O’Neil for stealing papers from their master – and Trower refused to eat the mushrooms.

A072_C001_1001IEThat’s the basic plot there. Now, what actually happens in A Field in England is open to interpretation. This is the work of prolific director Ben Wheatley, whose Kill List I found unique, daring and quite striking. He is challenging without being obscure; I find his work genuinely refreshing, and sometimes a little annoying. There is a lot of bizarre stuff to parse in A Field in England, some of it I’m not quite certain we’re ever supposed to understand, like the tendency of Glover’s character, Friend, to die and come back to life suddenly and unexpectedly. How much of the bizarre action in the film is due to the characters’ ingestion of hallucinogens, and how much is due to strange magicks that are unleashed? If Trower hasn’t indulged in the mushrooms, why does he keep having visions of a “bad planet” set to unleash its wrath upon them? It begs for an immediate second viewing, if not a third.

A_Field_In_England_review_featured_photo_galleryBorn of an idea (while Wheatley was travelling by train) to make a movie using a single field as a setting, and shot in only 12 days, Field is one of those technical exercises that bears unexpected dividends, and makes one look forward to whatever the director comes up with next (spoiler: it’s High Rise, and he has the chops to actually do J.G. Ballard justice).

Buy A Field in England on Amazon

Spies (1928)

poster1I continue to work my way through Fritz Lang’s silent days in the Weimar Republic. His previous film, the legendary Metropolis, nearly bankrupted the studio UFA (current estimates place the cost, adjusted for inflation, at 200 million dollars!), and for a time they considered releasing Lang from his contract. Instead, they placed severe budgetary restrictions on his next production, which yielded Spies.

I guess I don’t have to tell you that the movie is about spies, huh? The German secret service is having a bad time of it, with assassinations and stolen secret papers aplenty. This is the work of one mastermind running an efficient and widespread organization: Haghi (the ever-reliable Rudolf Klein-Rogge, once more playing a supervillain with a penchant for disguises). The good guys put their best man on the job, Agent 326 (Willie Fritsch), countered by one of Haghi’s best, Sonya Baranilkova (Gerda Marus). The major problem: 326 and Sonya fall in love.

haghiSpies‘ storyline is much more complicated with that, with additional plots concerning a secret treaty with the Japanese and the duplicity of an army Colonel; but the main thrust of the movie is that star-crossed romance and the increasingly jealous Haghi’s attempts to kill 326.

The climax of the movie, with cops and 326’s organization raiding the bank that houses Haghi’s organization, desperately seeking the secret entrance while the kidnapped Sonya and 326’s assistant Franz (Paul Höbiger) are fighting for their lives, is suitably suspenseful and exciting. The rest… not so much, though there are high points. My personal favorite is one of Sonya and 326’s dates, people in black tie formal at dinner tables arrayed around a boxing ring. Once one pugilist is knocked out, an orchestra strikes up and the patrons rise to dance around the ring. Weimar Germany, everybody!

No, the real problem isn’t that Haghi is a brilliant strategist – which he is – but that his opponents are such ninnies. Even the worst threat, Agent 326, is reduced to an idiot by love. Jerry Lewis would have had a better chance against Haghi. CONTROL, on its Maxwell Smart-est day, would at least have been trying. It’s just infuriating. The fact that is likely an accurate portrait of government bureaucracy is even more infuriating.

fritschStill, Spies was a resounding financial success. Willie Fritsch was an inspired bit of casting, being mainly known for playboy roles in light comedy. His against-type leading man turns in this, and Lang’s next movie, Woman in the Moon, ensured a long career for him. Making her film debut was Gerda Marus (also in Woman in the Moon), a stage actress.  Her casting is notable for her eventual placement in Lang’s heart, ending his troubled marriage with Thea von Harbou, who had written Lang’s most ambitious movies. (Admittedly, the fact that von Harbou would become an ardent supporter of the Nazi Party didn’t help. Lang was, after all, Jewish) Our three main actors are all quite remarkable in a pretty scattered film – the American version cut out all extraneous plotlines and got it down to a runtime of a little over 70 minutes – from two and half hours!

IMG_20160405_232926It should also be mentioned that the financial success of Spies ultimately worked against UFA, as Woman in Space saw Lang, flush with popular success, back to his old budget-busting ways. But that’s a movie for another time.

Now witness some divine overacting and great editing in the first two minutes:

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Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

singin-in-the-rainIt is no secret that I generally despise musicals. Don’t hate the music per se, I just have my doubts about inserting it into a story. This has been pointed out – with some truth, no doubt – that this is due to my absolute lack of talent in the singing and dancing arts. I will wrestle you two falls out of three in the realm of Shakespeare, motherfucker, but ask me to carry a tune or do more than the simplest dance step, and I’m out of the running.

(Yet I will admit no small amount of fondness for 1776. I am a mass of controversies.)

But if I am going to continue my self-education in the ways of cinema, I am going to have to face up to this genre. Singin’ in the Rain is held up as sheer perfection by many musical fans, so I marked it as a gateway into such things, and the fact that I found the DVD for 99 cents in a Library Sale helped, too. Then my frequent partner in cinema exploration, Rick, mentioned he had picked up the restored blu-ray, and if you are going to watch a Technicolor movie, you should make sure your eyes are taking in all the angstroms they possibly can.

001-Singin-in-the-Rain-1952-Don-Lina-and-Cosmo-at-Movie-PremiereThe movie starts out with a recap of the career of matinee idol Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly), who with his partner Cosmo Brown (Donald O’Connor) journey from vaudeville entertainers to silent pictures. Lockwood manages to parlay a stand-in for stunt work to leading man roles while Cosmo plays mood music during filming. Running from a pack of pre-Beatlemania clothes-ripping fans, Lockwood encounters Kathy Seldon (Debbie Reynolds), who is so unimpressed with him that he has to immediately fall in love with her. The Big Twist is this is all in 1927, and a little movie called The Jazz Singer is about to change movies for good.

singin-in-the-rain-movie-still-660x330A lot of our plot, such as it is, is going to involve Lockwood’s co-star Lina Lamont (a pretty amazing Jean Hagen), hyped by the press to be a Burton-Taylor pair, except that Lockwood can’t stand her. Another problem is that Lamont has a voice like chalk squealing across a Brooklyn blackboard. An advance screening of their new romantic epic, The Dueling Cavalier, is a laughable disaster, at least partially due to the horrific on-set sound recording (“They need to invent ADR,” I muttered).

That evening, Brown and Seldon cheer up Lockwood by brainstorming that the actor should return to his roots and The Dueling Cavalier should become The Dancing Cavalier. After singing “Good Morning” to celebrate, Cosmo also invents ADR by figuring out that Kathy could dub in Lamont’s lines and songs in the new footage.

aieeeeThis will be the plot major thereon, trying to keep the secret of her new voice from Lamont and the repercussions when the plan is blown by a treacherous (and lamentably under-used) Rita Moreno (as “Zelda Zanders, The Zip Girl”). My major problem, as usual, is the damned musical numbers. I expect the number when Lockwood confesses his love to Kathy, no problem. “Good Morning” is a little harder to accept, as its impetus is the discovery that our three heroes have talked until after midnight. And worst of all is “Make ‘Em Laugh”, a number everybody loves but I always refer to as “Try Too Hard”. It’s there because Kelly rightfully thought that O’Connor deserved a solo number, but it feels incredibly shoe-horned in. Then you feel bad because you discover that O’Connor was smoking 4 packs of cigarettes a day, and filming the number put him in bed for three days. And then when he came, back, he found out somebody hadn’t checked the gate after his last take and he had to do it all over again.

singing-in-the-rain-5Even fans seem to have a problem with the big “Broadway Ballet” number (better known to us heathens as “Gotta Dance!”), because it has literally nothing to do with the movie’s story. It’s not a problem I share, because it has no reason to be there – it is so obviously something that Kelly wanted to do, they just stopped pretending and let him do it. Though at the end of the sequence – which is supposedly Lockwood describing it to the studio’s head (Millard Mitchell) – I did get to say, “Okay, Cosmo, now you’d better invent Technicolor, too.” It’s a great, dazzling number, costing almost $600,000 to produce, but my God! What is it doing there?

singin-in-the-rain-blu-rayNow “Singin’ in the Rain” is itself the direct opposite, the song and dance growing naturally out of the preceding scene. It’s become Kelly’s iconic number, all the more amazing because he did it while sick as a dog, with a fever somewhere south of 101 degrees. This movie really tried to kill its stars – Debbie Reynolds tap-danced until her feet bled. Literally. And Kelly still insulted her dance skills and re-dubbed all her taps himself.

O-Conner-Reynolds-and-Kelly-in-Singin-in-the-RainFor a movie with a lot of meta-textual jokes about Hollywood – when Kathy rescues Lockwood from his fans, she’s driving Andy Hardy’s jalopy – the most incredibly meta-textual stuff comes from behind the scenes. The best one involves Kathy’s re-dubbing of Lina Lamont’s lines in The Dancing Cavalier. The lines are actually being delivered by Jean Hagen herself in her natural voice, so it’s Jean Hagen dubbing Debbie Reynolds dubbing Jean Hagen. Then you find out that all of Debbie’s songs were actually sung by Betty Noyes, and you start wondering who Incepted you while you were sleeping.

Buy Singin’ in the Rain on Amazon

There are only two songs written specifically for this movie – the aforementioned “Make ‘Em Laugh” and “Moses Supposes” (“Singin’ in the Rain”? Written in 1929), causing some to point to it as the first of the jukebox musicals, which rather ignores the next movie I was going to watch.

Stormy Weather (1943)

Stormy_weather_xlg“Stormy Weather”, the song, was written in 1933, before you ask. The movie is loosely based on the life of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, who actually did lead a pretty interesting one. Only the broadest brush strokes are used in the first 45 minutes or so, as Robinson reads the current Theatre World  magazine, a “Special Edition Celebrating the Magnificent Contribution of the Colored Race to the Entertainment of the World During the Past Twenty-Five Years”, and telling the neighborhood children all the following flashbacks.

…Starting with his return from service in World War I, and his meeting with the fictitious singer Selina Rogers (Lena Horne) at a dance for the returning troops. The following bits with Robinson working as a waiter at a bar run by Ada Brown with a band led by Fats Waller is necessary story folderol, as Robinson had a good career in vaudeville before joining the Army, but it provides a re-meet cute with Selina, who follows him after he’s fired for being too good in one show to another show on Broadway (in the 20s, there a brief vogue for all-black revues there). Their romance deepens, but Robinson wants a marriage and children, and Selina does not. She heads off to Paris to become a big star, and Robinson heads to Hollywood. They don’t mention for what, but we’ll get to that later.

horne-robinson-stormy-weather-1943Then who should drive up in his convertible than Cab Calloway, inviting Robinson to attend a show he’s throwing that night “for the troops.” “For the troops? I’ll be there!” And who should be at that show than Selina Rogers, singing the title song and having totally changed her mind about married life. She and Robinson have one more number, and then Cab takes us out with “Jumpin’ Jive” and an appearance by the Nicolas Brothers that will make all your joints and muscles ache just watching it.

lena and cabJukebox musical it is; Fats Waller – of course – does “Ain’t Misbehavin'” and Cab does another standard, “Geechy Joe”. There are, in fact, something like 20 musical numbers in a movie that is barely 70 minutes long. And this is not a B-movie rushed out by 20th Century Fox, either, this has prime talent behind the lens as well as in front, and a fair amount of money invested in big production numbers (though certainly not to the dizzying heights of MGM nearly a decade later for Singin’ in the Rain – the Broadway Ballet alone probably cost as much as five Stormy Weathers). That is amazing considering that in most of his other movies, Robinson is in standalone scenes so they could easily be edited out in the South. Hell, his best-known roles – in four Shirley Temple movies, where he served not only as Temple’s friend but her dance instructor – were similarly cut. Fox knew this wasn’t going to play in half of the country.

Screen-shot-2010-10-15-at-6.57.30-PMA major reason for its existence is in evidence from the first and last sequences – Robinson’s service and the proud introduction of “Cab Calloway Jr.” (actually Robert Felder), in uniform and ready to ship out for WWII. “I wish I had a son like him!” exclaims Robinson. As sure as the seal on the closing title urges you to Buy Liberty Bonds on your way out, this was telling the African-Americans in the audience that they were needed for the War Effort, and for the length of this movie, at least, Hollywood was behind them.

In 2001, Stormy Weather was enrolled in the National Film Registry, for a number of good reasons. It’s one of the few (only three I can think of right now) studio movies of the period with an all-black cast, and certainly the only one where the characters seem like actual human beings, with real desires, goals, and foibles.

stormy-weather-bill-robinson-lena-horne-1943You can’t say that race doesn’t exist in Stormy Weather, as it doesn’t shy from the minstrel show realities of Robinson’s early career. It’s pretty significant, and not a little subversive, that when a blackface comedy routine in that Broadway show is presented (and you should be wincing at the sight of two black men smearing burnt cork on their faces), there is no reaction from the audience until the curtain closes on it. It’s a pretty clever routine, too, lightning fast lines delivered at a staggering pace, and their disintegrating car deserved some applause – but nope. Silence. That’s a pretty sharp commentary right there.

fatsThis is Fats Waller’s final film appearance – he died too young of pneumonia just five months later. There’s also some typical Hollywood jiggery-pokery with the Robinson /Horne romance, too, since he’s 40 years her elder here. Doesn’t matter that much, though – once the man starts dancing, he’s ageless. This movie serves as a tribute to so much happy, seemingly effortless, pure talent that we should all be thankful it has survived so we can enjoy it today.

Buy Stormy Weather on Amazon

That should have been my last movie for this round (this has gone on long enough, hasn’t it?), but then an impromptu Internet poll determined I should watch one more, and it was a fairly fortuitous choice:

The T.A.M.I. Show (1964)

"First Annual". Right.

“First Annual”. Right.

Now this is a literal jukebox movie. Who the hell needs a story, anyway?

But the story is pretty interesting: After The Beatles’ landmark appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, this concert and film was put together by Bill Sargent, who had developed a technology he called Electronovision. An early bid to develop high-definition TV, the cameras sent a then-walloping 800 lines of video at 25 fps to tape, creating an image that could yield a reasonably good picture when transferred to 35mm and projected; it had been used once before for a Broadway production of Hamlet starring Richard Burton, that made the rounds of non-New York theaters. It was used to record this concert, and then only a handful of times, the most notable being a production of Harlow starring Carol Lynley.

Oh, but what a concert. Opening with Chuck Berry and “Johnny B. Goode” (I’m going to digress here to point out that another media landmark, the supposed Country Music icon Hee-Haw, also opened with “Johnny B. Goode”, though performed by Buck Owens), and then Berry and Gerry and the Pacemakers alternate for a while, then the Miracles (hi, Smokey!), Marvin Gaye, Lesley Gore, Jan and Dean (who also play hosts), The Beach Boys, Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas, The Supremes (hi Diana!), The Barbarians, James Brown and His Famous Flames, and The Rolling Stones.

Hai, Smokey

Hai, Smokey

That is two hours of incredible music, recorded and mixed live on the fly, apparently cut down from a five hour event (we are spared equipment moving and the like). This is pretty much the soundtrack of my youth, and I sat there with a dopey look on my face.

The Barbarians sing a medley of their hit.

The Barbarians sing a medley of their hit.

I had only thought I had seen The T.A.M.I. Show before; what I had actually seen was a mashup with a later, similar event called The Big TNT Show that had some of The T.A.M.I. Show cut in to be released as This Was Rock. It turned out that Burton had all the Electronovision versions of Hamlet pulled, and somebody in The Beach Boys organization decided that their performance needed to be pulled from all prints. That didn’t quite happen, fortunately, which is why these days we can watch Brian Wilson singing with The Beach Boys, something that would not happen again for 19 years; this was only a few months before his nervous breakdown.

vlcsnap-2016-05-02-14h39m35s495There’s other little festive things, too: the pack-in book for the DVD infers that assistant choreographer Toni Basil only appears in the opening credit montage, but I’m pretty sure I spotted her among the dancers (who are doing some OMG get-me-some-oxygen gyrations that would have impressed The Nicolas Brothers with their freneticism) but truthfully, I was looking for another dancer in the lineup, and I finally got a good look at her during the Supremes’ number: hai, Teri Garr!

Ladies & gentlemen - The Supremes! (and Teri Garr)

Ladies & gentlemen – The Supremes! (and Teri Garr)

And the legendary Jack Nitzsche on the left!

And the legendary Jack Nitzsche on the left!

If I have time to watch it again, I need to try to get a better look at that backup band, too: that is the legendary Wrecking Crew, which at the time included future stars like Glenn Campbell and Leon Russell.

Another telling bit concerns the last two acts: James Brown and The Rolling Stones. Sargent wanted The Stones to close the show, probably because they were the closest thing to The Beatles he could afford. The Stones didn’t want to follow Brown, and Brown wanted to close the show. Hell, everybody realized that Brown tamishow-2should have closed, except Sargent. So Brown proceeds to make The Stones wish they had never come to America with a set that threatens to melt your TV set. The Stones rise to the challenge, throwing in a bit more footwork than usual in their first song, “Around and Around”, but it doesn’t matter to the screaming teens; the two acts are really for different audiences, and in that one night, both audiences are there, and they are enjoying the hell out of each others’ music.

1315169718That’s the other big cultural landmark that happened in 1964: The Civil Rights Act, signed into law on July 2, outlawing discrimination and segregation. The thing is, The T.A.M.I. Show is an accurate depiction of the radio of my youth; we didn’t care about the color of the music, we cared about its quality, and I heard an astounding variety of music on my little transistor. Modern radio, categorized and pre-boxed and yes, segregated cannot compare, and we are honestly less for that.

Which makes me more glad than ever that Shout Factory has finally managed to put it out on home video, Beach Boys and all.

Please be advised I will not be held responsible for this video melting your computer monitor. Please! Please!

Buy The T.A.M.I. Show on Amazon – it’s currently dirt cheap

Hopefully you’ve now have enough of me for a while. I’m going to be spending the next couple of weeks on my Villain Blogathon entry, and as usual, I rue my choice and the work I have cut out for myself. See you in a couple.

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

The_Passion_of_Joan_of_Arc_(1928)_English_PosterI must have known on some level that this movie existed, surely. Joan of Arc has been an inspiration for centuries, an inspiration for plays, books, movies, even songs by Leonard Cohen and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. But this movie by Carl Theodor Dreyer was assumed essentially lost for years, and as a silent movie released after 1927’s The Jazz Singer – a fate it shares with another excellent silent, Murnau’s Sunrise – it’s a movie that seemed shamefully ignored by all but those much-maligned cultural elite, or people who came upon it by accident, like composer Richard Einhorn, whose composition Voices of Light has accompanied the movie on most DVDs of recent vintage. Once again, I will cite Mark Cousin’s The Story of Film: An Odyssey for convincing me this was a unique picture that deserved seeking out. The Criterion Collection seemed to agree, and it was with something approaching religious ecstasy that I found their DVD during a trip to Half-Price Books.

Maria Falconetti

Maria Falconetti in a performance for the ages.

Dreyer’s research, taking over a year, was meticulous, as was his vision; transcripts of Joan’s trial were examined (a scribe is visible in almost all the interrogation scenes), apocryphal stories either merged into the script or discarded (one small detail – when Joan signs the confession disavowing her holy visions, she follows her name with a small cross – a practice she supposedly used for dispatches to tell her soldiers the contents of the message were false, to confuse the enemy. Never referred to in the movie, it demonstrates how deep Dreyer’s study went).

joan2The Passion of Joan of Arc is famously – or infamously, depending on where you are on the timeline – composed almost entirely of close-ups. If, as Ingmar Bergman once said, “The human face is the great subject of cinema,” this movie is Exhibit A: our constant nearness to Joan’s suffering, the intractable remorselessness of the Church inquisitors, the martial brutality of the English occupiers – and then the transcendent serenity of Joan when she recants her confession, insuring her execution for heresy. She is finally allowed the holy sacraments, even if they are the last rites, and then we also made to feel the regret of her Church persecutors, and the fury of the French crowds as they witness her martyrdom.

Oh, and that's Antonin Artaud on the right, creator of The Theatre of Cruelty, said the drama major.

Oh, and that’s Antonin Artaud on the right, creator of The Theatre of Cruelty, said the drama major.

"Excommunicate whoever did those windows!"

“Excommunicate whoever did those windows!”

The riot following her death is instructive on many levels; as befits a sequence pitting a mob against a troop of soldiers, the close-up strategy is largely abandoned for a thrilling sequence that is no less affecting than the preceding hour and forty minutes of close-up emotion. It’s also our first real opportunity to see bits of the massive village set constructed for the movie, the most extensive and expensive in European cinema at the time. Evidence of this set only exists in photos taken at the time, because you certainly don’t get a decent look at it in the course of the movie. And one does desire to see the whole thing, as Dreyer’s insistence on reproducing this period exactly extends to odd design choices, most notably in small things we do get to see, like oddly shaped windows in the background of many shots – replicated from contemporary drawings, when artists had not quite figured out the whole perspective thing.

la-la-ca-1010-joan-of-arc-004-Some silent film directors played music while shooting their movies, to create a proper mood, but Dreyer preferred silence to coax honest emotion from his actors (this extends even to a lack of makeup!), and may indeed have wanted Passion to unspool in silence, in the dark (this never happened, and Dreyer was not particularly impressed by the music that did accompany its first, disastrous showings). To harken back to my first paragraph, Richard Einhorn’s Voice of Light on the Criterion disc provides such an amazing accompaniment for the film that I have to disagree with the director on this point. As I write this, another artist has presented, locally, a new score based on medieval music for Passion. My first thought was, “Why bother? It’s been done,” but that is not a worthy question for any creative endeavor. If that was a question that should ever be asked, we would have no new productions of Shakespeare. Nor would The Passion of Joan of Arc even have been made, as a more traditional version of the story, with the expected military pomp and action, Saint Joan the Maid was being produced at the same time, and that after six other movies and shorts dating back to 1900. As I said, Joan is an extremely inspirational character.

passion_joanAs I also said earlier, The Passion of Joan of Arc was essentially lost. The original version of Passion fell victim to that bane of nitrate film, a fire, and Dreyer had to cobble together a version made of takes he had originally rejected, and that was the version the world knew for years (and that version was further cut by Church and government censors, to boot). Then, remarkably, a print of Dreyer’s original version was found in the janitor’s closet of a mental institution in Oslo in 1981. How that print journeyed to this place in 1928 and how it then survived a half-century of benign neglect is an argument in favor of divine intervention, or at least how fate can look after us, even when we are our own worst enemies.

Here’s a sequence with that Voices of Light goodness:

And here’s a more modern take on a trailer:

Buy The Passion of Joan of Arc on Amazon




Playing Catch-Up 4

Crash (1994)

crash posterWhy, yes, why SHOULDN’T I start the (hopefully) last of these compressed reviews with another odd, hard-to-categorize movie? Is it not traditional, at this point?

The 90s were a strange time for David Cronenberg. His acclaimed adaptation of the play M. Butterfly was bookended by movie versions of two “unfilmable” books – William S. Burroughs’ taboo-busting Naked Lunch, and this equally sui generis piece, just as controversial, by J. G. Ballard.

James Spader plays James Ballard (yes, that’s his name in the novel, too), a film director who is a little too prone to trying to do organizational work while driving. This results in his head-on collision with another car, a dead man through his windshield, and the sight of Helen (Holly Hunter) in the other car, her breast exposed. He recovers in the same hospital as Helen, and that is where he also meets Vaughan (Elias Koteas), a lab-coated fellow walking with Helen during her therapy. Vaughan is carrying color photos of other peoples’ injuries and seems very interested in the metal sticking out of Ballard’s fractured leg.

james-spader-and-elias-coteas-in-crashHelen and Ballard meet again while examining their respective wrecked cars, and Ballard finds himself following Helen into Vaughan’s world of people fetishizing car wrecks, the violent intrusion of hurtling metal into the human body. Vaughan restages famous auto wrecks with stunt drivers (we first see this as James Dean’s death is recreated in front of an admiring crowd in bleachers, like a Little League game).  Ballard and Helen integrate into a strange group of fetishists – a cult, really, under Vaughan’s guidance – which includes Rosanna Arquette, practically armored in a set of braces and harnesses holding – perhaps even cradling – her damaged body together. It even begins coloring Ballard’s troubled sex life with his wife, Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger).

crash71The movie is a series of episodes which somehow does not feel episodic, but more like the story is slowly gathering speed and headed toward an inevitable collision; the sex becomes more polymorphous and perverse as the story continues. Catherine and Ballard are both shown having brief sexual flings before his accident, but neither seems as satisfying to them as the dark encounters that come afterward, starting with Catherine talking dirty to Ballard about Vaughan during sex, and progressing through the almost inevitable coupling of Ballard and Vaughan. The box copy uses the word “omnisexual” to describe the movie’s characters, and that seems more fitting than a simple “bisexual” – these folks are moving beyond gender and into flesh being penetrated by metal at high velocities. Crash is possibly the most un-erotic of erotic movies, willfully perverse – and absolutely unique and fascinating.

Also, naughty Holly Hunter is the best Holly Hunter.

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Lady Snowblood (1973 & 1974)

This may surprise you young’uns, but some of us actually knew about Lady Snowblood before Quentin Tarantino became a thing.

A couple of years earlier in Japan, the Lone Wolf and Cub movies had done good business, so making a movie based on another kinetic manga series written by Kazuo Koike only made sense. Even for that writer, the setup is unusually dense: in the waning years of the 19th century, as Japan ramps up its drive to become a major military power, four criminals are running a scam on a farming village, taking money to supposedly excuse the local young men from the draft. A new elementary school teacher arrives with his wife and child; the villains frame him as a conscription officer, and the villagers murder him and his boy. The wife is raped and kidnapped; she eventually kills her tormentor, but is arrested while hunting down the other three. She seduces every guard in the prison until she finally gives birth to the daughter that will carry on her vengeance, naming her Snowblood.


Film_790_LadySnowblood1_originalThe first movie, simply named Lady Snowblood, gives us that origin story, her training as a swordswoman, and her hunting down of those last three villains, twenty years after the fact. She’s grown up to be Meiko Kaji, capitalizing on her success in the Stray Cat Rock movies and Female Convict Scorpion Jailhouse 41. Snowblood’s gimmick is her sword hidden in an umbrella – we first get to see it as she plies her trade as an assassin while tracking down her three targets.

The only real problem I have with the movie is director Toshiya Fujita’s over-reliance on handheld camera work, which is generally pointed out – favorably – as giving the movie a documentary feel. All it does for me is remind me that there is a movie camera in the streets of 1895 Japan. That’s a small complaint, though, as the story barrels along. And barrel it does; Fujita plays fast and loose with the timeline, which keeps things interesting, and the challenges to our heroine varied. This movie is a major inspiration for Kill Bill Vol. 1, and watching the Criterion blu-ray it is possible to go Um hm, I recognize that now at various points. That Fujita doesn’t seem to mind cribbing an idea or two himself only seems appropriate in that context.

screenshot_2_18861Fujita had been previously known for making popular movies about disaffected youth, which was something of a hot ticket in Japanese cinema at the time (note their inclusion in a couple of Zatoichi movies made in the same time period). That does color the presentation of the story in ways interesting enough to differentiate them from the Lone Wolf movies.

For the next year’s Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of Vengeance, we have the same personnel, though in the extras of the Criterion blu-ray, screenwriter Kazuo Kamimura says, somewhat proudly, he strayed from the manga. I have no idea how true that is, but I can testify that Lady Snowblood all but vanishes from her own movie for a large portion of its running time.

Lady Snowblood 2 beach fightSnowblood is captured and condemned to hanging for her various murders, but she is sprung by the head of the Secret Police, so she can go undercover as a maid to the house of an anarchist rabble-rouser and find a secret document which would spell disaster for the current government if it were ever made public. Snowblood understandably finds the anarchist and his cause much more sympathetic than her murderous and corrupt employer. One machination leads to another, the anarchist is arrested, Snowblood spends the next hour or so recovering from a gunshot wound, only occasionally peeking in to witness the plot major involving marital betrayal, the black plague, entire ghettos burned down, and other antisocial activities before picking up her umbrella and Snowblooding a bunch of assholes.

ladysnowblood2-hr_1349613056_crop_550x368Now, admittedly the only Koike series I’ve read in depth is the Lone Wolf and Cub series, and this is a device he does employ – a human interest story taking front and center before Itto Ogami clears the board, but at least his son Daigoro is usually more involved – having your solo heroine sit out most of the story, only cropping up time to time to look sad is not terribly dynamic.

So I fear I’m rather ambivalent toward the two movies, though obviously I find the first one much more satisfying. That one, at least, I can recommend.

Buy Lady Snowblood on Amazon

Andrei Rublev (1966)

Andrei Rublev poster 1I admit that I sneaked my way into the Andrei Tarkovsky camp, with Solaris, reportedly the most un-Tarkovsky of his movies. It took me a bit longer to seek out more, probably because finding more takes some effort, compared to other directors’ work (though not, happily, as hard as finding copies of the work of Klimov or Ptushko!). So when Andrei Rublev was all but thrust into my hands, it became sort of an imperative, though I will be honest and also admit that the three hours and forty minute runtime was… daunting.

That being admitted, I must follow up with my initial reaction, which was Idiot! Why did you wait so long?

First, for the non-history majors: Andrei Rublev is considered to be the greatest of the medieval icon painters in the Russian Orthodox Church in the late 14th to early 15th century.

Andrei Rublev_PrologueNow that I’ve told you this, I will now tell you that the first section of this movie begins with a medieval thinker who is hurriedly attaching himself to a hot air balloon made of animal skins and the like before a mob of villagers stop him. He manages to fly for a few ecstatic minutes before he crashes to earth.

This segment is never brought up again, and has no apparent connection with the rest of the movie.

And that was when I knew I was going to like it.

maxresdefaultThe rest of the movie is going to follow Rublev (Anitoliy Solonitsyn) through several great swaths of his life… sort of. How he becomes assistant to another famous icon painter , Theophanes the Greek, with whom he will argue about theology; his commission to paint the Last Judgement in a church in Vladimir, outside Moscow, and his delaying the task for months because he does not see the point in terrifying believers, finally painting a great feast, just in time to survive the sacking of Vladimir by the villainous Tatars, in alliance with a treasonous Russian prince. His forsaking of painting and a vow of silence sworn to atone for his killing of a man during the attack, and his witnessing of the casting of a massive bell for the Crown Prince, which will rekindle his faith and show him the necessity of using his God-given talent.

andrei-rublevYou can rest assured that in the attempt to gain a worldwide audience, this movie was cut to shreds, and showings in New York resulted in reviews “comparing it unfavorably to Doctor Zhivago.” I read that with a bit of satisfaction – not because Andrei Rublev got ripped, but because that was a comparison I had made myself, while the movie was in progress. There are great swaths of story where Rublev vanishes from our sight (rather like Love Song of Vengeance, but it leads to a higher level of storytelling than that). Both movies are about a man buffeted about by history and forces beyond his control – a major difference, though, is Rublev doesn’t try to paper over that history with a love story (a love story based on betrayal, but that’s a complaint for another time) (obviously, I am no great fan of Zhivago). Rublev feels like it is truly more about Mother Russia than Zhivago could ever hope to be, its ability to withstand invasion after invasion, sea change after sea change, yet it and its people still remain.

screen-shot-2014-08-26-at-4-53-16-pmThe imagery is outstanding, the black-and-white cinematography often reminding me of Sven Nykvist’s work, and that is not a comparison I make lightly. Andrei Rublev‘s nearly four-hour runtime rumbles along like a glacier, but it truly feels like it’s earned it. Even that lengthy final section, with the forging of the bell, delivers an emotional payload that proves entirely logical in completing the story. There are a lot of overly-long movies in this world, but Andrei Rublev is not really one of them.

(Also, you need to see this movie for the Bawdy Jester – that guy is magnificent.)

Buy Andrei Rublev on Amazon

The Seven Samurai (1954)

This post is a part of  The Criterion Blogathon,  a massive assortment of movie blogs writing about another massive assortment, namely the Criterion Collection, and our love for the films they champion. Click the image below to take you to headquarters (or the link above for the schedule), and join me in reading the work of a lot of other folks who love movies:Criterion Banner

1. Opening Shot

Moving from one city to another is never easy for a child, and honestly, I had it better than some. I really only got uprooted three times as my father’s work in the construction trade moved us around the state. The last one really hurt, taking place in my raw adolescence and severing my first love affair in mid-sigh. Things did improve, as they often do; after a year or so we moved into a larger house, where I even got my own room and TV.

While we were at that first house, the PBS station in Houston was showing a series of great silent films, and I watched quite a few of them with my grandfather, who was living with us as he slowly died of cancer. The second TV I would eventually inherit was in his room, and he seemed to enjoy the old stuff with me. This is how I checked off classic horror movies like The Phantom of the Opera and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Monster movie kid that I was, these were the only ones I deemed important, though I was surprised how much I enjoyed Orphans of the Storm.

PosterThe PBS follow-up in the year we moved to the larger house was Great World Cinema. I admit I intended to tune in only to watch Fritz Lang’s M, but then a funny thing happened. The movie one week was Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai, and I decided to watch it mainly because samurai were cool, they carried big swords. I vaguely knew this was the basis for The Magnificent Seven, which I had watched on TV in another town years before, but that was about all I knew.

And so I was completely unprepared to have my mind opened that night.

I had some small acquaintance with classic cinema, thanks to my mother, and also thanks to the TV format of my youth, where movies were used as filler, both late at night and in the afternoons, even the mornings on occasion (“Dialing for Dollars”, you are missed). She loved movies, and remarkable among Moms, she liked a good horror movie. So though I had watched some higher-toned fare like Meet John Doe or Here Comes Mr. Jordan, my taste honestly ran to movies with giant insects and men in rubber monster suits.

So I sat in front of that second-hand black-and-white TV for three and a half hours, watching a tale of bravery, deception, fear, love, false identities, social classism, action, camaraderie, sacrifice, joy, victory, defeat, and an overwhelming desire to do what is right.

I knew that movies could be good, but I had no real idea they could be magnificent.

I had been forced to abandon a love affair in South Texas, but that night a new love affair was born, between myself and movies, certainly, but most especially between myself and The Seven Samurai, which that night became My Favorite Movie Ever Made, and has remained so for forty-five years.


2. Shooting Script

If you look at me and ask, “What is The Seven Samurai about?” you will first have to forgive me for taking a moment to try to find your spaceship, because you are obviously an alien. The movie has been remade several times (most famously – and openly – as The Magnificent Seven, Battle Beyond the Stars and A Bug’s Life), has been the basis of an animated series, a (terrible) video game, there are constant talks of a remake… this is a story that should be in the cultural consciousness, and to a degree it is… but a synopsis will only give you an impression of the entire canvas; it will not give you an inkling of the brushstrokes involved, and Seven Samurai is a movie of details.

Nonetheless, I will try, hopefully without doing too much damage.

VillagersDuring the Sengoku, or Warring States period of Japanese history (roughly the entire 16th century), a poor farming village finds out it will once more be raided by a gang of horse-riding bandits after their harvest. Close to panic, they ask their village elder for advice, who recalls a similar village in his youth that was untouched by bandits: they had hired samurai for protection. When it is protested that the village could only offer food as payment, the advice is, “Find hungry samurai.”

A party of four villagers begin searching for these hungry samurai, and after some angry refusals or being fooled by charlatans, they luck onto Kambei (Takashi Shimura), an aging warrior who at first demurs, citing his age, and saying he has survived many battles, but never won a single one. Only when he realizes the sacrifice of the villagers – they are eating millet while feeding him rice – does he accept.

Good group shots are surprisingly hard to find.Kambei – and a young samurai who desperately wants to be his disciple, Katsushiro (Isao Kimura) – begin searching for the seven warriors he estimates will be necessary to protect the village. He finds Gorobei (Yoshio Inaba), a scholarly soldier who agrees because he is fascinated by Kambei’s character; the good-natured Heihachi (Minoru Chiaki), whose swordplay is only mediocre, but “will be a treasure in hard times”; Kyuzo (Seiji Miyaguchi), a deadly swordsman interested only in perfecting his technique; Shichiroji (Daisuke Katô), Kambei’s former right-hand man – both had thought the other killed in their last battle together; and finally – and reluctantly, on the part of the others – Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune), a boistrous drunkard who has been haunting Kambei’s steps, and will eventually be revealed as a farmer’s son trying to pass himself off as a samurai.

"You're 13 years old?"After a rocky reception in the fearful village – during which Kikuchiyo proves his true worth as a sort of missing link between the samurai and villagers – the seven begin to train the villagers to use bamboo spears, in between their farming duties. The village is fortified as well as possible , and then, one day, the scouts arrive after the harvests, and matters turn serious. Kambei’s master strategy is revealed, allowing the village to pick off one and two bandits at a time, and repel nighttime incursions. Eventually, it comes down to the final battle, all the remaining villagers and samurai against all the remaining bandits – a battle in a driving rainstorm that would set the bar extremely high for action scenes in the following years. Of course, the samurai do not win the campaign unscathed – only three of them will still be standing at the end. And as Kambei states, “The farmers have won. Not us.”

Kyuzo and Kikuchiyo in their elementThose four paragraphs do not begin to do the movie justice. It does not mention the remarkably full characterizations of the villagers. Rikichi (Yoshio Tsuchiya), the farmer driven not only by his desire to find the samurai that will defend his village, but also by a dark secret related to the bandit’s last raid that eats at him; Manzo (Kamatari Fujiwara), so possessive of his daughter Shino (Keiko Tsushima), that he forces her to cut her luxuriant hair and dress like a boy, inciting the other villagers to panic; and Yohei (Bokuzen Hidari), the long-faced, perpetually fearful old man who will become a comic foil for Kikuchiyo. Manzo’s plan to preserve Shino’s virtue will fail, of course, as Katsushiro will accidentally discover her true identity, but keep her secret even as their love blossoms; eventually they do what desperate young people do on the night before the final battle, consummating a relationship that cannot be at this point in history, between samurai and peasant.

These added details still do not give the full picture; Seven Samurai is the work of a master storyteller at the top of his form. There is not a single shot, not a single scene, not a single line that does not serve a purpose in the furthering of the complete story. People complain about its length, and after I calm myself, I ask what they would cut, and the response would always result in a lesser film. This is one of those three hour movies that doesn’t feel like a three hour movie. Toho reportedly cut 50 minutes from it for the American market, thinking the Yanks wouldn’t want to watch the whole thing. Bitterly, I reflect they were probably right, but that is a version I do not wish to see. It was, in fact, nearly impossible to see the movie in its intended form until the early 70s, so luck was definitely on my side for that first viewing.

If you haven’t seen it, you need to, just to see what my truncated summary left out. No cheating. Go the Criterion route and experience the whole thing.

Heihachi's flag.True to practically every other classic film I’ve examined here, The Seven Samurai was not immediately hailed as a classic, and in fact very nearly did not happen. Kurosawa repeatedly went over budget and schedule, and production was halted many times, prompting showdowns between the director and Toho Studios (which was also dealing with another expensive monster, a little movie called Godzilla). A major part of that expense was the construction of the village, which is very much a character in the story. Toho already had a peasant village set it thought was perfectly good, but Kurosawa disagreed, preferring authenticity and control over convenience. It was the most expensive Japanese movie ever made, costing around 2 million US dollars, a record it held until 1964’s Kwaidan, which weighed in about a little less than 3 million.

Kurosawa’s main ambition had been to make a realistic samurai movie. There had been chanbara, or samurai action movies before, of course, but those were heavily influenced by kabuki theater, and the action scenes tended to be very stylized and not a little fantastic. The original thought was to make a movie about a day in the life of a samurai, ending with the main character committing ritual suicide over some trivial matter. That idea simply didn’t come together, but Kurosawa and his crew had done a tremendous amount of research, and there was one anecdote that stuck with him, of a village hiring ronin, masterless samurai, This photo is 100% pure Mifune.to protect them. The research also allowed him to easily create the six true samurai of the story, each based on historic personages. The one exception, of course, is Kikuchiyo, a character created in the eleventh hour when the screenwriters realized they had six highfalutin’ characters and no everyman, no comic relief to balance them out. Toshiro Mifune was originally supposed to play the Miyamoto Mushashi character, Kyuzo, but was instead (and brilliantly) recast as Kikuchiyo, to his and cinema’s great enduring luck.

Kikuchiyo and KambeiMifune’s Kikuchiyo and Shimura’s Kambei are literally the heart and soul of The Seven Samurai, but in the logline description I give everyone who asks, “The movie gives you twelve major characters and takes each of them through changes.” Going back over my synopsis, above, I keep thinking, “Oh, I didn’t mention this… and this… or this…” So many good moments. So many favorite little scenes.

I really love this movie.


3. Enter the Criterion Collection

criterion-collection-animated-gifMy first encounter with The Seven Samurai was back in the early 70s, so that was the last I would get to see of my great cinematic love for a while. VCRs would be along eventually that decade, but it wasn’t until the mid-80s that I could afford one; even then, the movie was a two-cassette box set, priced beyond my exceedingly modest means. There was a wonderful two week event where the local repertory movie house, The River Oaks Theater, showed a restored print. I was there almost every night, bringing a different person with me each time; none of them regretted it. Yes, perhaps if I had taken all those movie ticket prices and combined them, I might have been able to afford that pricey VHS package, but the chance to see it on the big screen was, to quote an old commercial, priceless.

Yeah, that's big.I eventually left my warehouse job and wound up at a video production company, at a decent rate of pay. Once essentials were taken care of, I took the plunge and invested in that hot new technology, a laserdisc player, the preferred home format of the discerning cinephile. Those of you who grew up on DVD have no real idea of the tremendous step forward laserdisc presented over VHS – the clarity of the picture, the crispness of the audio, the magic of the subwoofer – not to mention something called a secondary audio track. And the picture? Letterboxed! Correct aspect ratios! Chapter settings, allowing you to skip to specific scenes! Sure, a laserdisc was the size of a long-playing vinyl LP and twice as heavy, but who cared? This was the ultimate, it couldn’t possibly get any better than this!

So having bought this magical device and wired it into my system, there was the next step: software. Luckily (for  me, if not for my bank account) I lived a few blocks away from a branch of the biggest video store in Houston at the time, and they had a large laserdisc selection. And what do I find there, in the foreign film section, but The Seven Samurai, from some outfit called The Criterion Collection. That sounded sufficiently elite, and I made my very first laserdisc purchase.

$_12My mania for Seven Samurai was not all-consuming, I must admit – there were two versions, and I got the cheaper one (hey, I had just bought a laserdisc player, no small investment). The more expensive set was encoded in CAV, which meant a flawless still frame every time you hit pause, not the blue screen you got with the more standard CLV format. This also meant more discs, because while CLV could fit close to an hour on one side of a disc, CAV and its density limited you to 20 minutes or so, if memory serves.

Truthfully, the plea of poverty doesn’t hold all that much truth, either, as the very next day I went back and bought the Criterion laserdisc of Ghostbusters.

Yes, Ghostbusters.

I still have all my laserdiscs – I guess I’m still hoping for a vinyl-like resurgence in popularity, though that seems highly unlikely. DVD and Blu-ray simply does everything laserdisc did, and does it effortlessly, at a fraction of the cost. But pawing through my old collection has dredged up a ton of memories, and a number of Criterion titles I keep hoping will make the leap to their blu-ray line. Some, like The Fisher King and The Devil and Daniel Webster (DVD only, at present), did come to pass. But then I look at my Criterion lasers of Citizen Kane, King Kong, Help! (for which I hold out hope, given their lovely blu-ray of A Hard Day’s Night), Lawrence of Arabia, Confidential Report aka Mr. Arkadin, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Dr. Strangelove, Boyz n the Hood, Akira, The Player, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Supercop, and the three lasers I would conquer nations to have on Criterion blu-ray, John Woo’s The Killer and Hard Boiled (both released on DVD, now out of print), and Jason and the Argonauts.

An obsession began there, at the end of a century, and it has continued into this one.

But we were talking about The Seven Samurai, weren’t we? This laserdisc allowed me to once more be evangelical about my favorite movie, this time in the comfort of my own home. The audio commentary track by Michael Jeck helped me tease out stuff I hadn’t noticed before, movie connections that weren’t obvious in my multiple viewings (Then again, I still wasn’t as conversant with film, particularly international film, as I should have been). It also allowed me to begin my practice of watching the movie at least once a year.

Seven Samurai filmWe all know what’s coming, don’t we? Toward the end of the 90s, there was this thing called DVD that started making waves in the video world. I successfully resisted it for a while – not another format! Not something else that will be obsolete in a few years! That’s it! I quit! But, like diets, that sort of thing never lasts. I was writing for StompTokyo  (over here if you like cobweb sites) at the time, and a sister review site – Attack of the 50 Foot DVD -was born, and I received a refurbished player in the mail and a Netflix account. And thus was my doom sealed again.

DVDThe Seven Samurai is spine number 2 in the Criterion DVD Collection, and was actually released before spine number 1,  Grande Illusion (mainly because new film elements cropped up for Renoir’s film). It’s practically a clone of the laserdisc, right down to the Michael Jeck commentary, with the added benefit of not having to walk across the room to flip or change discs (I had bought the fancy laserdisc player that eliminated having to flip the disc, at least). I could now freeze frame whenever I wanted. I hated to admit it, but it seemed to look and sound better than my precious laser.

And I know you’ve been waiting for this. Yes, as I groused and prophesied earlier, HD CAME ALONG. I resisted this trend even longer than I did DVD, and my recalcitrance actually paid off this time (honestly, it usually does with new technology, if only from a cost standpoint). This time, it was our old friend, the Format Wars, in a shiny new battlefield. HD-DVD vs Blu-ray in a fight to the death, and by the time I broke down and bought an HDTV and a Blu-ray player, HD-DVD was only a curiosity, crammed to the side in resale shops, next to VHS and cassette tapes.

Blu-rayAbout a decade after the DVD, Criterion released a newly restored blu of The Seven Samurai. I think we know what one of my first purchases was fated to be. The blu-ray is amazing; there is some sort of digital voodoo involved, resulting in a picture that is sharper and clearer than any print I have ever seen; I doubt the movie looked this good the first time it was run through a projector. There’s an enhanced stereo track and  a mono track for traditionalists. Our old friend Michael Jeck is represented, and even yet another commentary track by David Desser, Joan Mellen, Stephen Prince, Tony Rayns, and Donald Richie. Each of whom take on about 40 minutes of the running time individually, which was a relief to me, as I find audio commentaries with more than two people usually irritating and pointlessly confusing. This is going to be the preferred version across all media, until holographic crystals, or whatever new wizardry is going to be used to pick my pocket next.

The supplements, always a strong point with me, are likewise amazing. A two-hour (!) conversation between Kurosawa and fellow filmmaker Nagisa Oshima; a fifty minute making-of from the Toho Masterworks series, another featurette on samurai history and historical influences, the usual gallery of trailers and posters. And a thick little booklet – another standard feature of the Criterion Collection – with essays by Kenneth Turan, Peter Cowie, Philip Kemp, Peggy Chiao, Alain Silver, Stuart Galbraith, Arthur Penn, and Sidney Lumet. And, oh yeah, an interview with Toshiro Mifune.

masthead_art_seven_samuraiThere are also New and Improved English subtitles supervised by Linda Hoaglund, which represent possibly my only complaint about the package (this is how you know I’m a fanboy – I finally found something to whine about). It is foolish and a bit churlish of me to grumble about these subtitles. They are superb, and reportedly do a better job of translating Japanese idiom into English. If there is anything technically wrong with them, it’s that at one point it subverts one of my favorite moments by erring on the side of readability, truly one of the best reasons to do so.

(It’s one of those small moments that nonetheless speaks volumes about the characters. Kambei, almost immediately after his reunion with Schichiroji, tells him “We’re about to engage in a tough battle, and not for money or rank. Will you join us?” And Schichiroji answers, without a picosecond’s hesitation, “Yes.”)

Where the hell have you been hiding these girls?It is the usual fanboy’s bete noir, misplaced nostalgia, at the base of this. I simply miss my old Janus Films print’s subtitles. In the exchange above on the blu-ray, the subtitles for Kambei’s question and Schichiroji’s reply are shown on the same screen, when the camera is focused on Kambei. In the original version, the subtitles were split up, with the subtitles for each character in his own shot, preserving the rhythm of the scene and the impact of that moment. I’ve always been a fast reader, though, and had no problem following that; someone slower would miss something. But on those magical River Oaks Theater nights, I always enjoyed the admiring laughter that exchange provoked.

The other line I mourn from the old days belongs to Kikuchiyo, in the scene leading up to the final battle, as he sticks one sword after another into the mound at the village’s center. Schichiroji asks him, “What are you up to?” and Kikychiyo now replies, “Can’t kill five with just one sword!” In the old days, Kikuchiyo, who spent the night before mourning the death of a villager he had caused, said, “Today I must kill many.” Yeah, that’s a little too stilted for Kikuchiyo, but it is the last thing we will ever get to hear him say, and it was a fine battlefield elegy.

These are so terribly minor, though. My old friend has changed a little, but is still my old friend. I forgave this old friend all those years for having the subtitles mis-timed during an important sequence, giving lines that made no sense to a character and thus imposing visual silence until the movie caught up; that bobble is forever gone, and good riddance. It’s like my grumbling about a couple of good lines from Peter Beagle’s screenplay adaptation of The Lord of the Rings not making it into Peter Jackson’s version – I should just shut up and stop talking just to hear my head rattle.

So no offense, Ms. Hoaglund, your work is splendid. I just had to say something critical about something, to keep this from being four thousand words of gushing and sweetness and light. That might damage my credibility, doncha know.

The end. SPOILER ALERTBecause as you know by now (though I haven’t mentioned it in a thousand or so words), this is my favorite movie of all time. Akira Kurosawa took a reified social class that was trained for war and sacrifice in the name of a titled lord, and instead showed that class using these tools to protect and aid the weak and suffering, even if it caused their own demise, both immediately and eventually. In that respect, it is a timeless tale of a world the way it should be, and yet so rarely is. In that way, it also represents movies the way they should be – and frequently, incredibly – are.

Buy The Seven Samurai on Amazon, because you really should.


S: Seconds (1966)

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Seconds-PosterI am reminded of an old SCTV sketch (so old I believe it dates back to their days as a syndicated show) wherein Joe Flaherty’s Count Floyd introduces that evening’s “Monster Horror Chiller Theater”, The Hour of the Wolf, only to find out it is the Ingmar Bergman movie (or at least, SCTV’s version of it). He is finally reduced, after the movie has played out, to sputtering into the camera, “What? You don’t think being depressed is scary? Wait until you get older! It is! A-WOOOOOOOOOO!”

If you don’t think Seconds is a horror movie, you are too young.

Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph) is a career banker in the throes of his mid-life crisis (A phrase I’m not sure had even been invented in 1966). He is wealthy, successful, and terribly unhappy. Then his best friend – who died several years before – starts calling him in the night and directs him to a mysterious company that directs him through several different storefronts, worthy of a spy movie, until he gets the pitch. Like his supposedly deceased friend, this company will fake Hamilton’s death, then provide him with plastic surgery and a new life in a new identity, free of all the loveless relationships that have run their course and the hidebound responsibilities currently smothering his life.

Hamilton agrees (with a ruthless efficiency born of much practice, the company leaves him little choice), and after the surgery and months of grueling exercise to create a new, “younger” body, the bandages are removed to reveal that he has become Rock Hudson. Hamilton, now rechristened “Tony Wilson” initially has trouble adjusting to his new existence as a beach-dwelling artist. Eventually he forms a relationship with Nora (Salome Jens), a neighboring divorcee who finally gets him to loosen up in his new role – perhaps too well, as in the resulting cocktail party with his new neighbors, he makes some very disillusioning discoveries about his new community and his new life.

00001Seconds is very deliberately paced, and some are going to have a problem with that. But the truth is, that pace adds up to the inexorable march of fate as Hamilton/Wilson reaches out to his former wife, masquerading as a chance acquaintance of his former self, and tells his liaison with the company that he wants to try again, a new identity, a third life; he had abandoned a life full of “the things I was told I had to have” for another life made of a similar list. He wants a life where he makes the decisions, and that path leads to disaster.

Seconds is no less deliberately paced than the best of John Frankenheimer’s movies, but there is so much pain, disappointment and ennui in its composition that its audience quickly turned against it. The enmity of the French press at Cannes is the stuff of legend. Frankenheimer reflected that it was the only movie  “that’s ever gone from failure to classic without ever having been a success.”

Seconds12James Wong Howe’s acclaimed cinematography (nominated for an Oscar) is tremendous; enveloping and suitably nightmarish. And special mention must be made of Rock Hudson, whom Frankenheimer considered a light comic actor at best (He wanted Laurence Olivier for the role). Frankenheimer later recanted that position. Watching Hudson in his early scenes, his body language, his replication of John Randolph’s mannerisms, and the rollercoaster of emotions his character rumbles through, all give proof of a serious actor working his craft.

sec31Really, you don’t have to be of a certain age to appreciate Seconds. But it does help.

(Also, you’ll never trust Will Geer again)