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.

Whew.

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.

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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.)

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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.

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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)

D: Don’t Look Now (1973)

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dont_look_now_b1_us1shThe Brits have a very layered way of moving up in the world of performing arts: you start at the bottom, and work your way up. I rather prefer that over the hope-you-get-noticed-and-rocket-to-fame model of American show business. One of the more interesting of these rising through the ranks stories is Nicholas Roeg, an intriguing cinematic voice who managed to keep his extremely singular nature in his ascent to the director’s chair.

After his debut feature, Performance, and its follow-up Walkabout, Roeg directed this mind-bending movie, described by himself as “an exercise in film grammar”. Based on a Daphne du Maurier short story, it’s the tale of Laura and John Baxter (Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland), a couple in the months after the accidental drowning death of their daughter. They’re currently living in Venice, where John is supervising the restoration of a decaying church. At dinner one night, they encounter a pair of vacationing English sisters (Hilary Mason and Clella Mantania) , one of whom is blind, but psychic. The blind one tells Laura she can see her dead daughter, who is attempting to warn John he is in danger if he stays in Venice.

hqdefaultThere is a lot to what she says: there has been a series of unsolved murders, and John keeps seeing a tiny figure darting about in the shadows of the winding streets, seemingly wearing his daughter’s favorite red raincoat – which she was wearing when she drowned. John himself also has the Second Sight, a notion which he vigorously denies, until he has a vision which sets in motion his doom.

Roeg is messing with the viewer from the beginning, presenting the daughter’s death in a early morning scene snipped into several converging, simultaneous storylines, separate realities that eventually merge into one harrowing whole. John’s psychic ability is foretold as he spills a drink on a slide of one of the Venetian churches he’s researching, his daughter in one of the pews; the drink causes the red dye of the slide to run (she is, of course, wearing the raincoat in the picture), bringing a dreadful premonition to him as he runs out the door to the nearby pond, too late.

Don't Look Now (5)This fragmented vision of reality, strings flailing about in an effort to wrap themselves into the cord of fate, runs throughout the movie. John wandering lost in the alleys of the seedier side of Venice, stopping suddenly and saying, “I know this place,” unaware that he is foreseeing his own eventual death; the final shock that we see coming from a mile off (like John, if he would only let himself see as the blind sister does) which is nonetheless so visceral, so shocking, (and it must be said, Christie and Sutherland are so good in their roles) it burns itself into your mind, even though you thought it prepared.

This movie was a bit of a cause celebre amongst my classmates at the time, probably as much for the sex scene as the horror story (oh, hush, you were in high school, too, at some point). Don’t Look Now presents a universe where everything is connected, but it is still a chaotic, uncaring place, full of danger and terror. I’m actually kind of glad I didn’t receive that message in high school; I’m a little better prepared for it now.

C: Carnival of Souls (1962)

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71NDHq4B8wL._SL1208_It’s strange to see Carnival of Souls so venerated now – it’s even out on the Criterion Collection. A quickly-produced low-budget movie meant as a calling card to the movie industry, now acknowledged as a classic. Well, okay, there are more than a few of those in the Collection, but it’s rare that we get to watch one during Hubrisween.

Just in case you recently switched living arrangements from underneath a rock, Carnival opens with a drag race gone wrong, as a car carrying three women plunges off an old bridge into a river and sinks immediately. While the river is being dredged for the car and the bodies, one of the women – Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss) stumbles from the muddy river, unable to remember anything since the crash.

carnivalMary’s a skilled organist taking a position at a church in Utah, though she denies being particularly religious. On the way to this new life, she is stricken by the sight of an abandoned pleasure palace on the shore of a lake. Her increasing obsession with the place becomes a problem, though not as much as the ghoulish, silent white-faced man who seems to be stalking her.

Since we’re dealing with a movie half a century old, I think we can stop being so precious and just say that Mary died in that car wreck, and she’s only been pretending to be alive all this time. It’s something that anyone who’s read “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” or seen an episode of Twilight Zone has already figured out by the first half hour mark, if not ten minutes in. The difference is in the delivery of that revelation, which is where Carnival manages to edge itself into the realm of actual art.

carnival-of-soulsThere are two times in the movie when Mary finds herself in a silent world, unable to interact with any of the people bustling around her, as if she’s ceased to exist. It’s amazing how affecting something like killing the ambient sound in a sequence can truly be. These segments, and the scenes taking place in the decaying Saltair Amusement Park (an amazing setting that was only waiting to be discovered), its downbeat denouemant, are what give the movie its power to chill.

Carnival-Of-Souls-horror-movies-2860118-500-365Producer/director Herk Harvey (who also plays the ubiquitous dead-faced man) was a veteran of numerous “mental hygiene” and industrial shorts, and went into his two-week shoot with a budget of $17,000 and a five man crew. Years of quick production put him in good stead as the shoot proceeded guerilla-style in Salt Lake City (offering a man in a van twenty-five bucks to “nearly” run over Hilligoss, for instance). Much of the movie was shot in Lawrence, Kansas, where Hervey and his cohorts were well-known and respected (“You need to shoot in my church? Sure!”).

The oddest note in the movie is struck by Hilligoss’ portrayal of Mary; judging from interviews with her and Harvey, the cold, non-social aspect of the character is a choice by the director, which Hilligoss struggled with. It may be good for the story – Mary is a character that never truly lived, and now desperately wishes to, but doesn’t know how. It does, however (and as Hilligoss feared) limit viewer sympathy for the protagonist.

carnival-of-souls-bergerFaring better is Sidney Berger as the only other occupant of Mary’s boarding house, John. John is a realistic, horny working guy, equal parts good humor, sexual bluntness and desperation. Mary acquiesces to his constant efforts to get close to her simply because her fear of the Man and the call of the abandoned park are beginning to terrify her. Even the horndog, though, is unwilling to expose himself to her increasing instability. Berger went on to a sterling career as head of the drama department at the University of Houston, and had to put up with some frequent razzing about the role, but honestly, he is, in many ways, the best actor in the movie.

Carnival did not fare well on its initial release, and was, as is so often the case, screwed over by a con man masquerading as a distribution company. It was also cut by as much as eight minutes, and since I saw the original, uncut version, that might have actually been an improvement – it does drag in parts. But when it was sold to TV, frequent airings allowed its strengths to be appreciated, and a cult grew. And this is why, even knowing the Twilight Zone properties of the script, it is possible to still watch this small, well-organized picture and still be able to pick up a chill or two.

A Bit of Tati

imagesOne of the great boons to a movie collector on a budget is the twice-yearly Criterion Sale at Barnes & Noble. We will not speak of the July version last year, because I was broke that month. Last November, however, the combination of the 50% off sale, a coupon, and a membership bought in better days resulted in me walking out of the store with the newly-released Jacques Tati box set for thirty-five bucks.

Tati was a mystery to me; I had no idea he even existed until I moved to the Big City and was exposed to the wondrous world of repertory movie houses. We had two back in those days, and it was the River Oaks Theater – still around, to this day – that had the wonderful sheets detailing the month’s double features, that I found stuck to most friends’ refrigerators. It was on one of these that I read of M. Hulot’s Holiday and Mon Oncle, and the bare paragraph describing Tati and his work. It sounded very intriguing, but I was working in a warehouse during the day and acting at night – time for a movie was rare. But that double feature kept coming back, year after year, so it must have been good.

So, when the Sale started mere days after the box set was released, I regarded it as a Sign.

And then I started rationing them out, because he made only six features in his life.

jourHis first feature,  Jour de Fête (1949), or “Day of the Celebration” (more popularly, The Big Day), was intended as a tribute to a tiny French village where Tati and several of his friends had found refuge during the Nazi occupation. The rustic village has a number of instantly identifiable types, serving as a sort of Commedia del Arte cast as the movie unfolds. A carnival comes to town, as the village celebrates… well, something. A centenary or Bastille Day, perhaps. The nature of the celebration isn’t important, it’s what it brings to town that matters.

Tati is Françoise, the local mailman, the usual butt of jokes amongst the villagers, and a prime target for the two carnies running the merry-go-round, as they find him a willing participant in his own debasement. A large tent is set up, showing movies throughout the day (the soundtrack of a Western provides an ingenious backdrop for a meet cute between a carnie and a local girl, much to the disgust of the carnie’s wife), and it is in that tent that Françoise sees a film of airplane and motorcycle stunts, purporting to be the American Postal Service at work!

jour_de_4_webThis leads to a tremendous burst of energy in the last part of the movie, when Françoise (egged on by the carnies, of course) attempts to perform his postal duties as quickly as possible, in often dangerous ways, such as tethering his bicycle to a moving truck so he can use its tailgate as a desk, all the while shouting “L’Americaine!” (translated as “American-Style!”) This is apparently taken almost wholesale from his earlier short film, School for Postmen, but as an ignorant Yank, I didn’t know and didn’t care. It’s a marvelous sequence that left an enormous, happy grin on my face.

hulotTati didn’t shift into International Recognition gear until his second movie, Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (1953), in which the title character (played by Tati himself, of course) wreaks havoc on a quiet seaside resort, usually with the very best of intentions. Like Jour de Fête, the story is episodic, but much more solid, as this time the viewer is certain as to the identity of the main character. Hulot, with his tall, angular frame (far too large for his rattletrap jalopy, whose noisy passage surpasses that of Jack Benny’s Maxwell), odd hat and ever-present pipe instantly inserts himself into the Classic Book of Clowns, probably inconveniencing someone while doing so and creating a catastrophe, all unawares.

I’m aware that Tati made his initial fame as a performing mime, and that most people use “clown” as a pejorative, but the true Clown works on a higher level than mere greasepaint and child-frightening costumes. Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Marcel Marceau, Claude Kipnis, Red Skelton, Jackie Gleason: all superior clowns, their best work rarely requiring anything so distracting as dialogue (in fact the version of Holiday I watched had been re-edited by Tati in 1978, eliminating virtually all dialogue); their comedy not only entertains but often comments and sometimes even teaches.

hulot et waiterHoliday, in fact, announced the arrival of an artist in no uncertain terms. Beautiful, idyllic scenes of peaceful seashore vistas are matched perfectly with hectic scenes of a train station swarming with harried vacationers trying to find their way to supposed peace and relaxation. It’s brilliant stuff, and Tati will continue to impress, not only with the staging of his setpieces, but the artist’s eye toward composition.

The Tati statue, at the resort where Holiday was filmed.

The Tati statue, at the resort where Holiday was filmed.

These two movies together form a delightful entrée into the man’s work, as it becomes plain how much he had advanced in only a few years. Jour de Fête is a perfectly good movie, but Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday has been rightly praised as a masterpiece. I read several reviews that puzzled me, that criticized the episodic nature of the story, and that they did not find Tati funny. These people went in expecting Chaplin or Keaton and say so, and that way – expecting an entertainer to fall conveniently into a pre-drilled hole – will always result in disappointment. Much of the humor in Holiday is so mild as to be nearly Canadian (the apparent oxymoron “gentle slapstick” is often used) but I laughed out loud many times. Ask any of my embittered friends who are stand-up comedians: it is tough to deliberately make me laugh out loud.

Anyway, these two movies begin and end similarly: a crowd comes to town, it bustles for a while, the crowd leaves town. Françoise’ frantic mail delivery is sidelined so he can help bring in the harvest. The vacationers say their goodbyes and head home, but Hulot is ignored, more readily accepted by the bored children playing in the dirt at beach’s edge. There are a couple of people who specifically seek  him out to say goodbye, having found him a delightful distraction in a pack of stolid, joyless people – but we are only too aware that Hulot was deprived of a last romantic picnic and goodbye from that attractive blonde girl who also found him entertaining, an opportunity sabotaged by his comedy rattletrap car. Such is the fate of the Clown, why we love and pity him so, and why we will always find room for him in our hearts.

Jacques Tati on Amazon

M: Man Bites Dog (1992)

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manbitesdogposterThere was a moment watching Man Bites Dog that I had an appropriate moment of deja vu (well, appropriate except that the filmmakers are Belgian, not French). When the small indy film crew following prolific serial killer/hit man Benoit (Benoit Poelvoorde) admit that they’re running out of money and must stop filming, and Benoit offers to take over as producer. That nibbled at me for a few minutes until I realized where I had seen it before: the Adi Shankar/Joe Lynch unofficial Venom short, Truth in Journalism. Substitute Eddie Brock for Benoit.

Reviewing news stories about Truth in Journalism reveal that Shankar was very upfront about the Man Bites Dog influence (and that very few of these reporters had ever seen Man Bites Dog). He describes it as a “super-niche” movie, which may be true, but it shouldn’t be, because it is very, very influential.

man-bites-dog-screenshot-2[1]Benoit is an efficient, ruthless killer who has disposing of bodies down to scientific ratios, and exactly which victims are likely to have money socked away, and where. “I  like to start every month with a postman,” he says, as this allows him to target pensioners. The film crew following Benoit is already complicit in his numerous crimes (you will lose track of how many murders are committed in shock-cut montages), but they also start getting more involved, as when director Remy (Remy Belvaux) drags off the body of a dead watchman – Benoit doesn’t want to touch him, because the murdered man was black and he is afraid of getting AIDS.

So, yes, besides being a thief and murderer, he’s also racist and frequently cruel to what friends he does have, but is also capable of being extremely charming and playing the comic. As the cast is using their real first names, the segments with Benoit’s mother and grandparents are all quite real – they thought the boys were making a movie about Benoit, so of course they are unaware of how “little Ben” is making his way in the world.

mbd3This is a comedy, make no mistake, though it is comedy blacker than the inside of a lump of coal at the center of the earth. Possibly the best example of this is the fact that the film crew keeps losing sound men, by which I mean they keep getting killed in the course of filming, with a tearful Remy delivering the exact same eulogy and dedication of the film to each fallen audio guy – right down to the same pregnant girlfriend. Jeez, Remy, think of a new name.

But the darkness at the heart of the movie is still constant, leading up to a night of  drunken carousing, when the crew actually participates in a particularly repulsive gang rape and double homicide, and all pretensions about being impartial observers and recorders go by the wayside.

The actual, real filmmakers had no idea the movie would be as well-received as it was; shot over the course of a year whenever they had the money, using family and friends, this was supposed to be a “calling card”, proof that they could actually make a feature. That in their desperation to find a hook for a movie to be made with nearly no money, they manage to pretty accurately predict reality TV (along with another excellent “super-niche” movie, Series 7), and provide a template for found footage movies yet to come – and eventually wind up in the Criterion Collection – is pretty amazing.

It’s also sadly predictable for this sort of thing that none of the filmmakers, save Benoit, has gone on to much of a career. Like Leonard Kastle and The Honeymoon Killers, lightning struck once, and we’ve all been waiting for it to strike again.

Man Bites Dog on Amazon