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Harakiri June 21, 2008

Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, 1960s , 5 comments

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Living where I do and having an interest in some form of the popular arts (film, music, literature) has allowed for many opportunities to view people whom I admire up close. It’s a weird sensation, undoubtedly, but even stranger is when it stops seeming like a big deal. I never have anything worthwhile to say or ask so I usually just politely demur or thank the person if there’s an autograph involved. I’m always (overly) cognizant of trying to avoid embarrassing myself, first and foremost, and, additionally, not bothering anyone more than is absolutely necessary. I rarely take pictures, not because I wouldn’t like to have them, but more to avoid the trouble. So I play the role of observer and soak it all in. This establishes a bit of a routine that prevents nervousness and the like, but also keeps me from losing my marbles when so-and-so is a few feet away, especially if I’ve watched/read/listened to so-and-so’s work enough to imprint their sensibilities somewhere in the midst of my own budding tastes and opinions.

That’s a long, explanatory introduction to my experience of watching a beautiful Scope print of Masaki Kobayashi’s Harakiri at Film Forum and then immediately watching the film’s star, Tatsuya Nakadai, get up from his seat three rows in front of mine to read a few prepared statements and take questions from the small, 150-member or so audience. Difficult to not be affected by that kind of breaking of a 46-year-old fourth wall. The idea that Nakadai, whose films essentially are Japanese cinema of the 1960s, would be in the same place where I was still seems unimaginable. This is arguably Japan’s greatest, most versatile movie star. I’m with the Mifune mifunites as much as the next person, but Nakadai has him beat in terms of a filmography to rival most any actor in any country at any time. Nakadai’s versatility alone, moving from Kobayashi’s The Human Condition trilogy and Harakiri to The Face of Another, films with Kon Ichikawa, Mikio Naruse and Hideo Gosha, and starring in Kurosawa’s two epic achievements of the 1980s, Kagemusha and Ran, remains astounding. I’m not saying he’s Japan’s best actor or that Mifune was inferior, only that Nakadai showed a greater range and worked with a wider array of directorial talent than Mifune. I wouldn’t trade the latter for anyone, but if someone put a tantō against the skin covering of my entrails, I’d pick Nakadai over Mifune.

With that unpleasant image in mind, how about upgrading to the entirely gruesome shot of Akira Ishihama trying to commit the film’s titular act with a dagger made of bamboo. On DVD, reclining on one’s couch in privacy’s creature comforts, the scene feels affecting and uncomfortable. But projected onto a large screen, in a darkened room with a full audience, it’s nearly unbearable. The black and white cinematography hardly mitigates the palpable pain, even if the blood is inky black instead of deep red. That crude oil look that blood has in black and white films seems to be far more effective than the distractingly fake stuff of horror movies and Peckinpah westerns. Unless I’m seeing internal organs, this scene in Harakiri ranks with any in terms of audience discomfort. When the viewer is sitting helpless in a screening room, hardly able to even avert one’s eyes, the excruciating length of time Kobayashi lets it play out is squirm cinema at its best. Part of the scene’s extraordinary nature is that it comes in a film that’s largely nonviolent and only contains any action sequences in its very last part, which even then Kobayashi playfully avoids showing in their entirety.

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Still, I think those final, vengeance-infused showdowns between Nakadai and everyone else, scored to perfection by Tôru Takemitsu, are what the viewer largely takes away from Harakiri. The actor admitted after the screening that he couldn’t compete with Mifune’s madman swordsmanship, but Kobayashi’s film is only concerned with the climactic scenes of Nakadai against everyone else in the aftermath of a great deal of background having already been established. Though Kobayashi aligned himself with the popular reading of the film as a plainly harsh attack against feudal Japan, as well as the more modern powers behind the country’s entry in World War II, I also think it’s important to remember how essential the title is. This is a film about, concerned with, and in critique of the practice of seppuku, and one wholly without an endorsement. It’s like the samurai equivalent of suicide bombing. Nakadai’s own words, when answering a not entirely well thought out question from an audience member, probably sum things up best. He said something to the effect of not being able to support any government that requires its citizens to kill themselves, regardless of the reason.

As an increasingly conflicted American who hopes to soon find the flame of hope in his own country, it’s too easy to forget the courage of filmmakers and actors like Kobayashi and Nakadai. Japan is hardly the first nation one associates with radical directors of the 1960s, despite the somewhat subtle subversions everywhere in the films of Teshigahara, Imamura, and Oshima, but the ones who did place their politics on screen did so with extreme skill. Certainly Ichikawa’s Fires on the Plain is one of the most striking and compelling films against the practice of war that I’ve seen. Kobayashi was apparently outspoken all along, somehow navigating through Japan’s studio system for years before turning independent. Harakiri is a stark slap against the cheek of the country’s insincere history on film. Kurosawa romanticized the samurai to an extreme that wasn’t completely his fault, but nevertheless remains to this day. How many wasteful Americans proudly own an “authentic” samurai sword? The answer: too many.

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I’m in the minority, but I’ll gladly take Harakiri over any of Kurosawa’s samurai films, or anyone else’s, for that matter. By facing the glaring hypocrisy head on and without apology, Kobayashi destroyed the Western myth of samurai as honorable warrior with one deft slash across cinema. There are few images more damning against a nation’s symbolic heritage than Nakadai destroying the armor edifice late in Kobayashi’s film. The director, as well as Shinobu Hashimoto’s expanded adaptation of the source material, simply refused to adhere to Kurosawa’s wandering ronin populist images found in Yojimbo just one year earlier. Harakiri’s retainers are insects with swords. They obey the orders of a corrupt master without considering any consequences, ethical or otherwise. As Kobayashi brilliantly lays out both with contained subtlety and obvious conviction, true honor is a foreign concept to these men. There’s the idea of maintaining total conviction to the samurai calling, but it’s all at the expense of freethinking. The parallels, essentially, are abundant for any military-based dictatorship, either in confirmed action or Orwellian doublespeak. Kobayashi would not be happy with my country circa the last seven plus years.

Politics aside, it’s a bit of a disservice to assign Harikiri as a film strictly concerned with an agenda. It’s a great movie period. I had it at number twenty in my 1960s list, and, while it may be difficult to really scare up a spot any higher, it’s completely deserving of that ranking. What begins somewhat deliberately envelops the viewer to an extent hardly common or easily explained. The simple storytelling of the Rentaro Mikuni character’s flashback, leading to Nakadai’s recounting of his experiences in broken parts, may be deceptive in its simplicity, but only a skilled combination of artists could keep the viewer repeatedly mesmerized. By the time Nakadai’s displaced ronin unveils one of the great minor twists in film history, affixed in an intricate topknot itself, the viewer is transfixed on the actor’s every move.

Of Lubitsch, Sturges, and Wilder June 12, 2008

Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, 1930s, 1940s, Billy Wilder, Ernst Lubitsch , 4 comments

Though it initially seemed anticlimactic, the recent fire at Universal Studios in California proved to be more damaging than common sense would have first envisioned. Screening prints of the classic Paramount films of the ’30s and ’40s, owned by Universal and including films by the three directors in the post title as well as several others, were destroyed forever. A programmer for Film Forum in New York told the NY Times that a potential Preston Sturges festival would most likely be scrapped as a result. Bad news all around. The media focused on a comparatively inconsequential King Kong theme park ride while beautiful silver celluloid is transformed into ashes. I can’t hardly classify the loss as tragic, a word which really should be reserved for life and death calamities, but it’s upsetting nonetheless.

These three guys, Lubitsch, Sturges and Wilder, form the backbone of classic Hollywood comedy. Their colleague Leo McCarey was another vital presence who also worked at Paramount and whose key films (including Ruggles of Red Gap) remain largely unreleased, now increasingly difficult to see in repertory screenings, as well. Josef von Sternberg is right there, too. If there’s anything at all worth smiling about, it’s that several films related to this trio have recently surfaced on DVD. Quite a few of their films as writer and director are still without a DVD release, possibly deterred even further by this turn of events, but I wanted to mention the few that have reached the market, which, conveniently, I’ve also reviewed for DVD Times.

Back in February, Criterion’s Eclipse line released Lubitsch’s four Paramount musicals in a nifty, extras-less edition. It’s a must-own for fans of the director. Around the same time, Wilder’s The Apartment got a nice upgrade from MGM. (It was originally released by United Artists.) More recently, the BFI put out Lubitsch’s final completed film, Cluny Brown. Made for Fox in 1946, it’s an appropriate ending to a great career. I had vastly underestimated the film after an initial viewing when I put up a review back early last year on this site. The more pertinent Paramount/Universal titles hit stores in April. I’ve reviewed all these, including Wilder’s first film as director in Hollywood, The Major and the Minor. Also out are a pair of Mitchell Leisen-directed efforts. Easy Living, with screenplay from Sturges, and Midnight, a sparkling film written by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder, finally received their digital releases, I believe, for the first time anywhere in the world.

This still leaves several Paramount-made, Universal-controlled pictures from the Lubitsch, Sturges, and Wilder cycle unavailable on R1 DVD. Most notably - Angel, directed by Lubitsch and available in a Marlene Dietrich set in R2, Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife, another Lubitsch picture and written by Brackett and Wilder, Remember the Night, written by Sturges and directed by Leisen but not on DVD anywhere, Hold Back the Dawn, which was directed by Leisen and scripted by Brackett and Wilder, and two early Wilder-directed films, Five Graves to Cairo and A Foreign Affair. Both of those latter movies are available in other regions, but still absent in R1. There are a handful of others, things like Arise My Love which I’ve been anxious to see, but I’m now hesitant as to whether any of these films will make it onto R1 DVD in the near future. Despite business concerns, it would seem appropriate for Universal to reveal exactly what films were lost (surely their bookkeeping contains such records) instead of playing so coy.

Top 50 of 1970s June 1, 2008

Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, 1970s , 30 comments

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In all its glory, here are my choices for the top 50 elite films of the 1970s. This is the fourth such list I’ve made now, and it just doesn’t get any easier. As with the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, the list has been submitted for the Criterion forum’s Lists Project. I made an intentional effort to abide by my own subjective whims this time, placing little or no emphasis on canon. My tastes are my tastes, but the goal was to balance between favorites and acknowledged quality while trusting that what I like deserves to be here. The strength of American films, combined with the R1 unavailability of several well-regarded foreign films of the decade, has resulted in a list heavily favoring the English language. Not a problem in my book because I love what was going on in Hollywood during this time. In all, there are only 9 foreign language films among these 50, with another 8 in the list of 25 also-rans I posted previously. I do hope a few people find the list and my justifications/appreciations interesting to look through, read, or browse for recommendations. I know I enjoy the whole process. Any writing I’ve done on a particular film is linked to below.

1.) The Godfather Part II (Coppola, 1974) - I’ve resisted the idea for years that Coppola’s sequel is superior to the first film, but I don’t think I can really deny it any longer after spending a full night with the two parts. This is a richer, more focused effort that completely understands what it wants to project and does so brilliantly. The acting has an understated balance often missing from the earlier film and the tragedy cuts far deeper. Michael’s reveal to Fredo that he knows and Michael’s slap of Kay both send chills down my spine. I don’t particularly see this entry as being about family so much as it is about America. I’m prone to reading the American experience into numerous films, but this must be one of the most glaring. From young Vito’s entry at Ellis Island to Michael’s returning the favor of betrayal as he sits in ominous solitude, Coppola’s film completely embodies a certain side of the possibilities offered by the country.

2.) The Godfather (Coppola, 1972) - Long having been one of my very favorite movies, the adaptation of Mario Puzo’s best-selling (but inferior) novel probably has as lofty a reputation as any piece of 20th century art. Impossible to encapsulate in such a short space, The Godfather’s memorably quotable screenplay (perhaps second only to Casablanca) begins with the immortal words “I believe in America,” but it’s the nonverbal power of the baptism scene that makes good on the film’s opening line. It remains one of cinema’s dazzlingly brilliant sequences. There’s a point where there’s possibly still room to turn back and then there’s running full speed ahead. The ambiguity and moral conflict is so murky that half a dozen viewings and I still don’t know if I’m rooting for the Corleone family.

3.) The Long Goodbye (Altman, 1973) - Here’s what Robert Altman’s films can do to a person. You see something and enjoy it well enough, then watch it again a year later and recognize it was much stronger than you first realized. Another year passes, and you’re ready to consider it one of the finest films of the decade. Nearly all of Altman’s films improve on repeated viewings, but I’ve gotten it into my head that this is his best. It’s full of sly truths, an epic central performance from Elliott Gould, and has a pleasingly bizarre supporting cast lead by a toasted Sterling Hayden. It really is amazing to sit back and see what Altman does to the detective genre.

4.) Being There (Ashby, 1979) - A film that never peaks, always steadily rising until it literally walks on water. I find it incredibly sad that both Peter Sellers and Hal Ashby were unable to make anything of substance afterwards despite both still being relatively young. Sellers, of course, died in 1980 and Ashby followed just a few years later, but couldn’t continue making the kinds of films he so brilliantly crafted in the ’70s. Sellers seems like he’s actually gone crazy while the cameras happen to be rolling. His Chance is a reactionless blank canvas where everyone projects their own thoughts and inclinations. It’s rare for me to proclaim that I really love a film, in the sense that I feel both an emotional connection and would argue that it’s justified. I love Being There. I loved it the first time I saw it and I loved it the most recent time I saw it.

5.) Avanti! (Wilder, 1972) - A final masterpiece from one of cinema’s finest directors. Billy Wilder hit a creative roadblock after One, Two, Three that lasted the rest of the decade. His films were commercially successful, for the most part, but a little out of touch with a changing Hollywood. Too mean, too quaint, nothing that really stretched his talents. Then he had a very difficult time with the release of a heavily-edited version of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes and stayed in Europe to once again re-team with Jack Lemmon. The result was a still-neglected gem that effectively modernized Lemmon’s growing crustiness with the hidden heart Wilder liked to slip into his ’60s films. I think I hold the movie up a bit higher than most anyone whose opinion I’ve read, but there does seem to be a quiet contingent privy to the film’s considerable charms.

6.) The Passenger (Antonioni, 1975) - None of Antonioni’s other films have struck me like this one. I don’t know if it’s because of Nicholson or exactly what the cause is, but this movie mesmerizes me. I see the alienation in his character more than the comparatively empty protagonists of other Antonioni films. The plot here helps a great deal, which is reminiscent of Hitchcock but told in an entirely different style. And just an extraordinary ending that might cause you to shake your head, rewind the disc, or both.

7.) Nashville (Altman, 1975) - It’s a bit on the surreal side for someone who grew up in middle Tennessee to watch Altman’s 24-character tapestry. Though my understanding is that the city wasn’t fond of how the film turned out, the critical consensus usually places it as the director’s finest. No serious arguments here, even if it’s not my absolute favorite. I don’t think Altman ever made a film so deeply and powerfully emotional. Gwen Welles breaks my heart, especially with the stripping scene coming just after Keith Carradine’s performance of “I’m Easy.” What had been this sprawling, unassuming epic suddenly converges into a dark place that becomes increasingly confusing and upsetting. Watching the final series of events, you’re filled with dread - knowing what’s about to happen, wanting it not to, and being unable to stop it.

8.) Chinatown (Polanski, 1974) - I don’t feel as much emotional connection to Chinatown as I do the films above it here, but it’s certainly on the same level artistically as anything past the Godfather films, in my estimation. What I like a great deal about the movie is how Nicholson makes Jake Gittes, a character that could have easily become bland (see The Two Jakes for evidence of that), an audience surrogate who’s neither too smart nor too stupid despite the notoriously curvy plot. He’s almost entirely grey and, thus, the perfect protagonist. The obvious thing to love about Chinatown is Robert Towne’s script, tweaked and improved by Roman Polanski. It’s truly a Hollywood miracle that works with a big concept (pre-war Los Angeles) while also achieving the more intimate character details that keep the viewer interested.

9.) Mean Streets (Scorsese, 1973) - There’s a rawness at work here that isn’t present in Taxi Driver or Raging Bull. This is less polished and feels more free. Despite my strong admiration for Scorsese, some of his signatures have gotten a little stale over time. Not so in Mean Streets, where the ferocious immediacy remains alive and well. The Catholic imagery is fresher here and, for all its rough edges, the film never recedes into the methodical violence of one upping the director’s legacy, which was obviously almost nonexistent at the time. I don’t think this was Scorsese’s peak for sure, but I do prefer it to Taxi Driver, and I think it remains his most personal film.

10.) Husbands (Cassavetes, 1970) - Am I allowed to declare this as Cassavetes’ best film? I hope so. It’s just a shame that it’s so difficult to track down (illegally downloading it onto your computer doesn’t count; if you’ve only seen a film in a poor quality version on a small screen in the wrong aspect ratio then you haven’t really seen it at all). Months after seeing Husbands, I still think about it constantly - wondering about the characters, about myself.

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