8/31/12

#6 - The Human Condition I: No Greater Love (Masaki Kobayashi)



 

 

The difficult art of being human.



After the second World War the anti-war sentiments in Japan where quite strong. This also reflected itself on the Japanese films that came out in that period, and the most obvious product of it is certainly Masaki Kobayashi’s “The Human Condition”. A 10-hour epic trilogy that follows a pacifist, caught in the middle of the Japanese WW2 war effort.

The first part takes place in Japan-occupied Manchuria and introduces us to our hero Kaji and his sweetheart Michiko. Kaji is reluctant to wed Michiko because he fears he will soon be drafted in to the army. But after delivering a report on maximizing labor efficiency in the steel mines, he is given an opportunity to avoid military service by taking over the management of workers at one of the mines.

He accepts and moves there with his new wife, only to find out that the conditions in the mine and the camp that houses the workers are very inhumane. Things get even more difficult for Kaji once the army makes him responsible for 600 prisoners of war, practically putting him in charge of a concentration camp. But Kaji has an extremely strong and incorruptible moral core, which will bring him in direct conflict with his superiors and even the obviously mistrustful Chinese prisoners.


It is very hard to portray a character like Kaji because more often than not his unachievable ideals, while commendable, make him as a character somewhat unrealistic and almost inhuman. But because this moral gauntlet is the main dramatic drive of the film and because Kaji finds himself in such an appalling surrounding it is very easy to find sympathy for him. And to be quite honest, I am not sure if Kaji as a character would work on screen if it was not for Tatsuya Nakadai, the actor portraying him.  

Here I have to diverge a bit and say that Tatsuya Nakadai is quickly becoming one of my favorite actors of all time. He was a frequent collaborator of Kurosawa, Gosha and Kobayashi, which puts some of the greatest Japanese films in his portfolio. Furthermore he is an actor that rarely repeated himself. And as any great actor he knew how to use his greatest asset to perfection, his eyes. At turns they could have made him in to an almost alien-like sociopath (“The Sword of Doom”) or project defiance and empathy like in “Goyokin” or, indeed, “The Human Condition”.


So the film is obviously quite a somber piece that puts our saint-like protagonist through all kinds of moral, social and physical tribulations. But it is also a film that is extremely critical of the fascist Imperial-era Japan and its war-effort. This also fully represents Kobayashi’s anti-imperialist and anti-war views as well. When he was drafted in the army as a protest he famously rejected to be promoted above the rank of private.

This is felt very much in this first part of the trilogy, even to the point where you could describe the film as a mournful outburst of shared guilt for the crimes committed by the Japanese in China during World War II. And for me this is what makes the film so fascinating and gripping, not only despite its oppressive bleakness but in turn because of it.



Original title: Ningen no jôken

Cast:

Tatsuya Nakadai - Kaji
Michiyo Aratama - Michiko
So Yamamura - Okishima
Akira Ishiama - Chen

Original language: Japanese, Mandarin


8/30/12

#5 - The Straight Story (David Lynch)


 

 

“Well, the worst part of being old is remembering when you was young.”



Most people know that the films of David Lynch often deal with rather dark, suggestive and exclusively adult-oriented themes. So it’s a bit of a surprise when you put in a David Lynch film only to see the Disney logo greet you at the very start. But with “The Straight Story” Lynch shows how flexible a filmmaker he can be, without jeopardizing his vision and style.

The story follows the 73 year old Alvin Straight, who after a collapse of his own finds out that his brother, Lyle, suffered a heavy stroke. Alvin decides to travel on a lawnmower from his home town of Laurens, Iowa, to Mt. Zion, Wisconsin, where his brother is located in order to restore their relationship. The film is structured around this journey and the encounters Alvin has with various strangers. In these encounters we find out more about Alvin and his family.


With this the film dabbles in some dangerously corny moralizing that Disney films are generally known for. But David himself is also no stranger to corny. In fact he has perfected it in to an art-form with his past projects (most notably the fantastic TV series “Twin Peaks”), and he uplifts the potentially heavy-handedness of these scenes in to something that’s not only uniquely Lynchian but also truly touching. And he manages to avoid the manipulative overtones that scenes like this would have in lesser hands; even though it is fact that this is essentially what film directing is in many ways - audience manipulation.  Another big reason for why these scenes work so well is also Richard Farnsworth, who plays Alvin. He manages to project a gentle and calm wisdom that is very hard to resist.

So, the Disney factor aside, there are other details that make this film stand out in David Lynch’s career. It’s the only film of his that he did not write the screenplay for, and is only the third and last film which he himself did not develop from ground up; the other two being “The Elephant Man” and “Dune”. And from this viewpoint “The Elephant Man” is certainly the closest relation to this film. Both films tell a very straightforward and human story that is told from the perspective of a protagonist who is based on a real-life figure, and both feature very little of Lynch’s more esoteric tendencies.

In a certain way this film is also an interesting counterpoint to “Lost Highway” as well. Where the protagonist of that film is running away from the truths and responsibilities of his actions, in “The Straight Story” Alvin goes to meet them them head on.


Here Lynch focuses mainly on the reflections of a man in the twilight of his life; mostly through the values of family. Lynch presents a very lush world around Alvin, great crop fields and blue skies that have a melancholy note to them primarily because we get to see them through the eyes of a man who is always reminded of his mortality. 

Ultimately this gives a somewhat sobering edge to the film, but also an edge that is completely honest, life-affirming and in many ways inspiring.  




 Cast:

Richard Farnsworth - Alvin
Sissy Spacek - Rose
Everett McGill - Tom

The Straight Story on IMDb

8/29/12

#4 - The Passion of Joan of Arc (Carl Theodor Dreyer)



 

 

“I have committed a great sin… I have denied God to save my life.”

 

 

The story of the French heroine Joan of Arc is one that has been portrayed in cinema many times; most recent retelling of note being “The Messanger: The Story of Joan of Arc” by Luc Besson. But all these variations on the story and the character of Joan are in a way doomed from the beginning, because they will sooner or later suffer the comparison with Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 masterpiece “The Passion of Joan of Arc”. 

Dreyer defined the modern portrait of Joan, and with that the base in which all the following film adaptations where rooted. To truly follow in to Dreyers footsteps would mean to redefine the character anew, and in many ways this is impossible.

In Dreyer’s film Joan is a human character above all. She is an impressionable, even somewhat naïve girl of only 19 that has been put under trial and scrutiny by priests who question everything about her. From her clothing to her beliefs. They use all kinds of methods to break her convictions; intimidation, bartering and even blackmail. But the true virtues of Joan are her impenetrable beliefs, her faith in God and her mission, which ultimately lead to her martyrdom. Because claiming to be in direct contact with the divine also means that you are above the church. And this spiritual crucible is what fuels the film’s emotional impact, together with one of the greatest on-screen performances in the history of film.


That performance is of course the one of Joan, played to great effect by Maria Falconetti, who with a single look can inspire absolute empathy. One of the reasons the performances in this film are generally so good is because Dreyer did not direct his actors as they were usually directed in the days of the silent film. Instead of broad movements and strong facial expressions he directed his actors towards much more minimalist performances, which he further enhanced with his camerawork that is almost entirely comprised of close-ups. And those close-ups make even a flinch of the eye look like an act of defiance.

He further enhances the effect with his minimalist production design. The sets are almost completely blank, making the actors pop out of the screen even more. The only other thing that breaks this design pattern are the cross-shaped symbols and the intimidating torture devices. Even in his exterior shots Dreyer’s camera is pointing towards the sky, trying to avoid capturing any unwanted scenery. These exterior shots are all near the end of the film, giving the sky a more spiritual note as well. 


“The Passion of Joan of Arc” was hailed by the critics as an instant masterpiece upon its release. Then the film’s own trials and tribulations began. Condemned by the church, it failed to find an audience at the time. The film’s financial failure and creative interferences inspired a trial process between Dreyer himself and his financial backers. And after the original negative of the film was destroyed in a fire the film was deemed to be lost for decades, until a print in near pristine condition was miraculously found in the early 80’s in a Norwegian insane asylum, of all places.

Today the film enjoys a reputation of an absolute masterpiece, and it’s an opinion that I find very hard to disagree with.  


 

Original title: La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc

Cast:

Maria Falconetti - Joan of Arc
Eugene Silvain - Bishop Cauchon
Antonin Artaud - Jean Massieu

Silent


The Passion of Joan of Arc on IMDb















8/28/12

#3 - World on a Wire (Rainer Werner Fassbinder)


 

 

The men who knew too much.



If I ever wanted to feel horrible about myself all I’d need to do is to remember Rainer Werner Fassbinder.

The man made 40 feature films before he tragically passed away at the age of 37. But the really astonishing part is that most of these films are actually quite good. In fact, from only the dozen or so films of his that I have seen, I couldn’t call out a single one and say that it’s a bad film. He obviously worked at an incredible pace, for instance in 1973 he directed four films including the classic “Ali: Fear Eats the Soul” and this film, “World on a Wire”, which is Fassbinder’s take on the science fiction genre.

“World on a Wire” is a two part TV production Fassbinder did for the WDR, a public broadcasting service in Germany, and is probably his biggest production after “Berlin Alexanderplatz”; which is widely considered his magnum opus. And at first glance it’s the film that stands out in his filmography, considering that Fassbinder is mostly known for his small, minimalistic and contemporary dramas. But it’s undoubtedly a Fassbinder film, both in visual presentation and thematic content.


The cinematography by the great Michael Ballhaus and the camera-work is light on it’s feet as it ever was in a Fassbinder film. The roles are distributed largely to his regular cast of players. And the dedication to realism in his other films is broken down here and put under the question directly in the film itself. But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself now.

The story kicks off with the death of Dr. Henry Vollmer who was a scientist at the Cybernetics Institute and responsible for Simulacron; a supercomputer that simulates an alternate world and 1000 artificial “identity units” within it. These identity units are basically artificial people and they are unaware of the fact that they are not real and that they are inside a simulated word.

When his successor at the institute (and our protagonist), Fred Stiller, starts investigating the circumstances of Dr. Vollmer’s suspicious death he gets pulled in to a net of intrigue and paranoia that ultimately leads him to question his own reality.

This questioning of reality is always supported in the film’s great production design. Practically every shot is filled with mirrors and other reflective surfaces that reflect the actors, visually representing the question of what is real and what is not. Some of these surfaces, like uneven mirrors and glass bowls, completely distort the image of the world and the characters further contributing to this visual system.


Ultimately this brain tease is what makes “World on a Wire” so enticing. Sure, it’s a bit hard not to notice all the elements that “The Matrix” openly lifts from this film (even a proto version of “bullet-time” can be found within), but that does not get in the way of enjoying the cerebral workout it provides.

Even further than that, the film is loaded with paranoid suspense and existential and moral intricacies that few other films can match, let alone surpass.



Original title: Welt am Draht

Cast:

Klaus Lowitsch - Fred Stiller
Marscha Rabben - Eva Vollmer
Barbara Valentin - Gloria Fromm
Karl-Heinz Vosgerau - Herbert Siskins
Gunter Lamprecht - Fritz Walfang

Original language: German

World on a Wire on IMDb

8/27/12

#2 - Death Proof (Quentin Tarantino)



note: article contains spoilers

 

“Which way you going, left or right?”



“Death Proof” was originally released as the second part of “Grindhouse”; a double feature presentation from Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, inspired by the grindhouse cinema of the 70’s. And although Mr. Rodriguez seemed to miss the point of this exercise with his segment, Quentin managed to pull off one of him most interesting, and indeed most over indulgent films. But the cinema of Quentin Tarantino was always the cinema of indulgence, and that’s where a lot of its draw lies. And these indulgences are always grounded not only in Tarantino’s film obsessions and personal fetishes but are also structured in to his films, and are very based in his narratives and characters. Except for “Death Proof”, that is. 

The film itself is a meeting of a revisionist slasher and a classic chase film, both of which were very popular genres during the grindhouse era. So the film is segmented in to two halves with a little in-between that precisely illuminates the nature of our killer, Stuntman Mike. 

In the structure of the film Tarantino takes absolute liberties in the sense that he only focuses on the interesting parts of a slasher film, the setup and the first kill. He sets up a complete film however; introducing a pose of attractive girls that could be taken out one at a time, a lake-house destination for the second act, and even a group of horny boys. But this is all a distraction and a setup for one of the most gruesome killing scenes in the genre. This is because the mentioned killer, Stuntman Mike, doesn’t use a hatchet or a knife as his tool of choice. No, he uses his car. And in a single gruesome and awesome crash scene he takes out all his targets, and the mentioned set-up with them. Here Quentin gently tips his hat to David Cronenberg and takes probably one of the most bizarre fetishes in modern cinema straight from “Crash”, and infuses it in to his killer. And what would be more perfect for a stuntman killer anyway?


But for me personally the most intriguing aspect of this first segment is the role Quentin Tarantino plays himself. On paper he’s practically a background character, Warren the bartender, but with it Tarantino does probably the best gag of the entire film. He is directing his film from within the scene. The first sign of this is just after he appears, the shot of drink he takes in celebration he follows with the line “Post time!” openly celebrating the editing stage of the film. Then further on he orders the waitress to switch the parking light on, which reveals Stuntman Mike’s car to Butterfly; one of the girls Mike is stalking. And the most obvious one is the exchange between Pam and Warren where she asks him who Stuntman Mike is. The dialogue between them feels more like an exchange between a confused actress and her avoidant director than between two characters. 

Is it indulgent? You bet! But it’s also utterly original and to my knowledge quite unprecedented, and only a director of Tarantino’s bravado could be able to pull this off.

In the second half of the film we meet a new set of girls that Stuntman Mike is stalking. And just like he was only focusing on the interesting parts of the slasher in the first half of the movie, here he’s only focused on the interesting parts of a chase film. The set-up and the chase itself. But in this case Tarantino avoids any distractions and invest all his time in to developing these characters for the grand finale of the film, which is one of the best chase sequences in recent memory.


With “Death Proof” Tarantino really walks a fine line because he fetishizes practically every aspect of his film, all in the name of this grindhouse emulation and his personal whims. Usually his style and his self-gratifying urges are the slaves of his narrative and the characters that inhabit his films, but in “Death Proof” these preferences seem to be reversed. I am certain that this is why a lot of people dismiss “Death Proof” as a lesser Tarantino film and see it just as a stepping stone between his two great epics, “Kill Bill” and “Inglourious Basterds”. But to dismiss the film for something this marginal means to dismiss this master-filmmaker when he’s at his most liberated.





Cast:

Kurt Russell - Stuntman Mike
Sydney Poitier - Jungle Julia
Vanessa Ferlito - Arlene
Rosario Dawson - Abernathy
Zoe Bell - herself

Death Proof on IMDb