Monday, July 27, 2015

WALKABOUT (Nicolas Roeg, 1971, Australia)

A British schoolgirl and her young brother escape to the outback where they meet another wandering soul in search of adulthood. Director Nicolas Roeg contrasts different cultures to reveal the naked truth: we’re all alike beneath our skin’s illusory variations.

The young protagonists remain nameless, prototypes of the self-absorbed and crumbling British Colonialism, children of a psychotic god. Taken to the desert, their father attempts a murder/suicide but only succeeds in the later respect; frightened, the children race towards the unknown, lost amid the jagged mountains haunted by a distant life as mysterious as their new environment. These are civilized children, raised in the steel and concrete valleys with no understanding of their predicament; they only plod ever onward, afraid to retrace their footsteps which lead to a ghostly father sheathed in flames. They fortuitously stumble upon a tiny oasis where they are discovered by a young Aboriginal boy, and together the three of them embark upon an adventure of self-discovery.

Roeg’s cinematography captures the beautifully dangerous Outback, the parched and scorched earth or the verdant grassland, a world inhabited by a host of uniquely adapted denizens, as these strangers must struggle in a strange land, a battle against both Nature and human nature to survive. Communication becomes a pantomime of deeds since language is a barrier to understanding though their needs are the same. The Aboriginal boy is a skilled hunter and Roeg magnificently films him killing and skinning his meals, the ubiquitous flies always buzzing around fresh blood. He cross-cuts with a modern butcher shop, comparing the act of slaughter for food, of potentially needless suffering, a lesson for those quick to judge. As the young girl and her brother are led to comparative safety, Roeg shows the taint of civilization upon this virginal landscape, raped by businessmen for self-fulfilling profit .

The magical journey ends with a danse macabre, a paved road leading towards salvation, and though she will live a life of static virtues, she will never return to the land of lost content.

Final Grade: (B+)

Sunday, March 8, 2015


If people’s selfish and degrading acts were reflected upon their visage, what monstrosities would haunt the streets? Dorian Gray makes a pact with a strange god, its catlike grace frozen forever yet its ubiquitous presence stalks his nightmares: "be careful what you wish for", it softly purrs...

Dorian is a young man who wishes to never grow old, to let his beautiful portrait age and bare his afflictions whilst he remains physically unchanged. A Faustian bargain that can end in no other way than tragedy: Dorian’s good intentions become corrupt and he poisons his intimate friends, as time becomes his second worst enemy...the first being himself. A very young and pretty Angela Lansbury is his first victim; he truly falls in love and becomes her Knight In Shining Armor, but begins his brutish downward spiral which ends in her suicide. As the story progresses, Dorian becomes indifferent to pleasure and pain, tasting debauchery and excess and filling up his empty vessel with ignoble desires at the expense of others.

The black and white deep focus cinematography is grand, displaying myriad mise-en-scene cpmpositions that convey suspense with an imaginary devilish quality: watch the scene where he confronts his portrait, the stoic cat totem is peripherally framed in nearly every shot. The watchful eyes of this god are always upon him. The Technicolor inserts of the portrait as it changes and becomes a grotesque human mockery are shocking; we see what Dorian has become, his leprous morality seeping pustules upon the image. Dorian eventually commits the final despicable act of murder and the masterful lighting submerges his face in darkness and light as the gas lamp swings back and forth: the corpse’s shadow printed indelibly upon the wall behind him. The child who loved him but is now a grown woman (which is a bit disturbing) searches for her father, but he is dead in Dorian’s locked room.

With one violent thrust, Dorian finally commits one good dead in his lecherous existence: he stabs his portrait through the heart. When discovered, his body is an abomination with tumorous growths defiling his face: but his portrait is forever young and innocent.

Final Grade: (B+)

Thursday, December 11, 2014

THE INTRUDER (Roger Corman, 1962, USA)

A stranger comes to Caxton to incite the townsfolk into a patriotic fever in order to protect their way of life from intruders. Roger Corman directs this volatile tale of desegregation in a fictitious Southern town with such brutal honesty that it seems more a contemporary document of racist propaganda than a pugilistic and dire fable.

The plot revolves around this white stranger in a white suite named Adam Cramer who steps of the bus and immediately begins to ingratiate himself with the locals. His smiling and friendly demeanor hides the demon beneath as he is in town to urge the locals into action against ten black children who are now allowed to seek competent education in the "white" school. But Adam doesn’t bring strange or foreign ideals; he unearths the racism and bigotry that is barely concealed and allows it to act in open defiance of Federal Law. Though Adam doesn’t openly encourage lynching or murder he is late in realizing that the mob mentality is beyond his control.

Director Roger Corman tells a taught story with little focus on melodrama. Though Adam seduces the lonely wife of a salesman it is not portrayed as merely exploitive; this actually becomes an important element in the plot as it reveals Adam’s inherent weakness and limited judgment. Corman does not censor or downplay the racist venom spewed from the mouths of Adam and the locals and it becomes very uncomfortable to hear the "N" word used to humiliate and degrade people. In one scene, after Adam rouses the crowd towards violence the mob stops an innocent black family who were just driving down the main street. The crowd screams hatred and epithets towards this man as his wife begs him to keep silent while the children cry in the back seat. This poor man is urged towards a violent reaction so the crowd can then tear him apart. The violence is allayed by Tom McDaniel the Editor of the local paper whose racism has already been measured in moderation. But when the Sherriff shows up we see that not all people have access to the same Rule of Law.

Corman doesn’t show the black characters as victims even though the story is told mainly from Cramer and McDaniel’s perspectives. In one scene Corman follows one of the black students into his home and we see a normal family dynamic. In an almost Documentary style Corman takes the camera into the Slum section depicting people living their lives on the outskirts of middle-class Caxton. He shoots in a POV style in a continuous and fluid motion as Adam takes a taxi from his Hotel in town to the "Black" section. It is shocking to see the town deteriorate block by block until Adam arrives at his destination. Without comment, Corman has just made his Mission Statement for THE INTRUDER. There is no self-righteous preaching from any white character to uphold the black's Civil Rights which always seems to diminish their importance, as if black people just aren’t smart enough to stand up for themselves. To me, that’s one of the faults of TO KILL A MOCKIKINGBIRD. But Corman is concerned with moderate racists and shows McDaniel’s transformation from bigot towards an attitude of equality. In a powerful sequence McDaniel speaks with the children’s families and urges them not to give up and return to school the following day. He then walks to school with the children in a showing of solidarity against the white malignant hate mongers…which are his own friends and cohorts. He isn't speaking for the children, he's supporting them. Suddenly, McDaniel finds himself on the "outside" and is assaulted for his convictions.

Corman loses focus with the weak ending but the build-up is superb. After McDaniel’s young daughter is convinced by Cramer to accuse one of the black boys of Rape, a mob ensues that is only lacking in pitchforks and torches. We see realistic attitudes and responses from the school Principal and staff who try to protect the black student from the gathering crowd and are yet torn between the peer pressures of releasing him. Adam urges the crowd into a frenzy (actually, they don’t need much urging) and soon things get out-of-hand. The boy chooses to face his accusers (it’s his Constitutional Right after all) but this is no Court of Law. He is slapped and humiliated but doesn’t descend to their animalistic level. It is a brutal scene and one that makes you mad and keeps you on the edge of your seat at the injustice. The boy shows restraint which proves that he is growing into a manhood that these racist cowards will never attain! The group grabs the boy and ties him standing to a swing and pushes him back and forth…a lynching is only moments away. But the girl and the sympathetic salesman stop the assault as she confesses her part in the false accusation. The crowd hangs their collective heads in shame and disperses even as Adam tries to gain their affections once again.

This shallow ending of self-actualization rings like a broken bell and wraps things up too tightly, unsupported by the film’s Mission Statement. Not only do the locals seem to quickly feel shame over what they’ve done (and berated by another Outsider – the Salesman- no less) they do so without accountability which is the real problem with the film’s conclusion: without being held responsible for one’s actions there can be no Justice.

Final Grade: (B+)

Thursday, October 9, 2014

THAT COLD DAY IN THE PARK (Robert Altman, 1969, USA)

Frances lives a life of lonely luxury surrounded by geriatrics but soon invites mischief and mystery into her flat existence. Director Robert Altman’s contemporaneous tale concerns the Flower Power generation and the status quo meeting somewhere in the wasteland of middle-age and rearranges perceptions with piercing insight.
Frances lives alone but is surrounded by aging friends and house servants, more friends of her deceased parents than her own. One day she sees a young man sitting on a park bench in the rain and invites him in. He remains shy and speechless, expressing understanding only with his eyes. This boy (who remains nameless throughout the film) is like an empty vessel filled with Frances’ words. She begins to care for this seemingly homeless young man and he doesn’t resist…even when locked in his room. The first act is a bizarre relationship of mother and son but soon becomes “incestuous”. The second act reveals that this young man has his own life after all when he sneaks out of the window and goes home. He crashes at his sister’s place and smokes pot and partakes of some hash brownies while telling her of this strange pickup. He decides to revisit Frances and resumes the part of mysterious boy but this soon devolves into a bloodletting of repressed sexuality where Frances becomes the one who penetrates…another woman.
Director Robert Altman and his legendary DP Laszlo Kovacks tell a simple story in wonderful detail using oblique lighting effects and slow pan zooms. Often, the camera focuses upon a single point of light and it becomes a brilliant lens flare, growing fainter and changing shape as focus is pulled towards the person speaking. This gives the film an ethereal patina like a slow moving dreamscape as Frances’ begins to come apart at the seams. Altman even foreshadows her decline with a child’s doll, an asexual symbol that falls apart when finally touched. The young man’s sister, after inviting herself to the apartment when Frances is out shopping, plays at sexual attraction with her brother. This heightens the metaphor of incest and domination by the female as she’s the one playing temptress. The final act leads to imprisonment and Frances hiring a prostitute to sleep with her prisoner. Sylvia, the hooker, even jokes that Frances must be a pervert and enjoys voyeurism but she has got it all wrong. Frances is empowered by her suppressed desire and enters the room with her own phallic symbol. It’s Sylvia who is on the receiving end as the film ends with Frances in total control, pinning the young man to the wall with her kisses.
Altman’s style is fully formed in this, one of his earlier films before MASH. He shoots through windows, first focusing on the foreground then slowly zooming in on his subject. In one well-choreographed scene, Frances goes to a gynecologist and Altman shoots the action in one continuous take, tracking from outside and looking through multiple windows. The women in the waiting room are talking about birth control and one lady is surprised that not all men have the same size penis. It’s an important (and a bit funny) detail because it leads us to consider that Frances is even more naïve than this lady. A few scenes later while she is turning down an advance from an elder friend, her mind goes back to the exam. The doctor’s voice is a gentle hum that supersedes the suitor’s. Frances has a look of secret enjoyment while the doctor performs his exam and one begins to wonder if this is the first time a man has ever touched her at all! She later spills her innermost secrets about this elderly man and how she hates his veneer of aging pomposity, and how she needs him (the boy) to make love to her. But she only holds counsel with childhood toys.
Final Grade: (B+)

Sunday, September 28, 2014

NIGHT MOVES (Kelly Reichardt, 2013, USA)

Three Eco-terrorists play dam busters with little regard to the repercussions of their explosive act of violence. Kelly Reichardt explores the emotional and intellectual landscape of three radicals whom are chillingly not far removed from ordinary peaceful protesters.
The plot concerns Josh, Dena and Harmon as they plan to blow up a hydroelectric dam because of its environmental impact. Their goal seems to be a purpose in and of itself: that is, the act is the purpose and not the outcome. They feel justified in destroying this artificial construct without considering the destructive fallout to the environment and the potential to harm other people. Thus the characters fail to consider the irony of their actions. Director Kelly Reichardt tells an anti-action story: instead of relying on the typical conventions of the Action genre she brings the story into sharp focus, her lens peering into the dark silences and mundane routines of three lives about to change dramatically. From purchasing the titular boat named NIGHT MOVES to securing 500 pounds of fertilizer to build the bomb, Reichardt portrays how typical and rather easy this task becomes which makes the story all the more frightening! When it comes, the explosion is only heard off-screen, which allows a detachment between the act and its implications.
Director Kelly Reichardt also drains the story of melodrama by refusing to reveal or exacerbate the relationships between the characters. It’s never explicitly mentioned that Josh and Dena are a couple (or in the process of becoming one) though they are often shown together. Reichardt takes this implication and undermines this trope by keeping the information out of the story. We only learn that Dena comes from a rich family when they are talking about paying cash for the boat. So is she just a hanger on or a romantic interest? When Josh discovers Dena and Harmon screwing he seems a bit disappointed but again, this is only through subtle body language and not confrontation.
The final Act becomes incredibly tense as the three split and vow to have no contact with one another. The camera focuses tightly upon Josh who is afraid that Dena will succumb to her guilt and confess their crime. Turns out, an innocent man was killed by the flood waters and day by day the newspapers and newscasts are filled with stories of this man’s life and family. This drives Josh past the point of endurance as he is driven to one desperate fatal act. He becomes fueled by self-preservation and not idealism; Josh tracks Dena down and makes sure she remains quiet…forever.
Reichardt frames the murderous act in extreme close-up forcing the audience into a violent conspiracy: here, she does not give us the luxury of emotional detachment or objectivism. Dena’s gurgling sound as Josh strangles her to death is gruesome but strangely the killing seems rather mundane, like the earlier “gunpowder” plot. We are given clues that Dana probably told her friends (it lead to Josh being kicked out of his commune). Josh takes off and is last seen in another part of the state, looking for work. But it seems he is destined for a mobile life of paranoid conspiracies…but it’s still better than no life at all.
Final Grade: (A+)

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Korova Award Winners: Best Films of 2013!

Now that we're past the halfway point of 2014 I've finally caught up with films from last year! So here's my Top Ten of 2013.

Carlos Reygadas has impressed me with his last two films with influences such as Ingmar Bergman and more specifically Andre Tarkovsky. I believe Reygadas' films lack the sentimentality of Tarkovsky yet retain his ethereal and dreamlike visions. And Refn's last film DRIVE awed critics yet this one left most cold and agitated. I think it's a beautiful meditation on the mythology of violence and deserves a review...which I may write someday. Harmony Korine delivers an anarchist vacation from reality and depicts a world of souls lost in neon and bikini wax. And James Franco proves he can act as he focuses his stoner character from FREAKS AND GEEKS to epic proportions! I feel he should have been nominated for an Academy Award. Shane Carruth finally delivers his ssophomore effort after the enthralling no-budget masterpiece PRIMER. The film's theme seems as elusive as the meaning of the title itself. Noah Baumbach passes the Bechdal test and breathes life into a real and complex woman whose primary concern isn't what man she is in love with. Woody Allen may tell an ordinary tale but it's his characters that come vividly to life as Sally Hawkins, in a supporting role, steals the entire picture. Park Chan-wook's first English speaking film is a wonderfully creepy coming of age tale, focusing on a young woman who blossoms into a poisonous flower. After the spousal debacle of OLDBOY, my wife actually sat through and finished this one: I told her no tongues get cut out. I think she liked it! Alexander Payne paints a picture of a still life come to life, as he frames rural Americana in all its inglorious beauty. Alfonso Cuaron still hasn't topped CHILDREN OF MEN but this one is a technical masterpiece and one you can't take your eyes away from even for a second. It's that engaging. George Clooney is the weak link here with his incessant chatter. The ending confused some but rest assured...she died at the start of the third act; the rest was a death-dream. And my Top Ten ends with one of the most gripping documentaries ever made as the Directors not only interview soldiers who massacred thousands of people but have them re-enact the atrocities in the actual locations where they happened. This brings the past and present into a collision course that will haunt you for days...maybe forever.

01. POST TENEBRAS LUX (Carlos Reygadas, Mexico)

02. ONLY GOD FORGIVES (Nicolas Winding Refn, Denmark/France)

03. SPRING BREAKERS (Harmony Korine, USA)

04. UPSTREAM COLOR (Shane Carruth, USA)

05. FRANCES HA (Noah Baumbach, USA)

06. BLUE JASMINE (Woody Allen, USA)

07. STOKER (Park Chan-wook, USA/UK)

08. NEBRASKA (Alexander Payne, USA)

09. GRAVITY (Alfonso Cuaron, USA/UK)

10. THE ACT OF KILLING (Joshua Oppenheimer & Christine Cynn, Denmark/Norway/UK)

Saturday, August 23, 2014

BLUE RUIN (Jeremy Saulnier, 2014, USA)

One man transposes retribution for justice in order to silence the demons that have driven him to the fringes of society. He learns that only Death is the great equalizer. Director Jeremy Saulnier strips the revenge motif down to its basic core concept, exploding genre motifs and allowing us insight into the protagonist’s slow descent into ruin.

The film begins with a disheveled man bathing in a tub: his beard and hair are tangled and unkempt. The bathroom looks perfectly nice middle class and the disparity seems a bit unsettling. It’s not until the scene cuts to a family coming home and the man jumping out of the tub and through the bathroom window that we realize he had broken in. This is how we meet Dwight. Saulnier lazily follows Dwight through his routine of sleeping in his rusted blue car by the beach, eating out of trash bins, and resting under the boardwalk. When a police cruiser stops by his parked car we expect him to be arrested for Trespass but Saulnier has another surprise for us. With a gentle voice the officer wakes him and asks Dwight to come with her. She takes him back to the station not to arrest him or interview (as Dwight suspects) but to let him know that the man who murdered his parents just finished serving his prison sentence and was released.

Dwight’s journey of self-destruction began twenty years ago with the crime. Saulnier lets the rusted blue car stand as a metaphor for Dwight: it’s in such bad condition that it surprises us when it actually starts! It may be dead on the outside but it can run just a little while longer, perhaps to complete one final task.  And it does. But it’s final task is not to kill (unlike Dwight) but to save.

Yet Saulnier doesn’t amp up the adrenaline to unbelievable proportions as in typical thrillers but allows Dwight move and breath at his own pace. The characters are realistically proportioned and look like real people and not the steroid infused bodybuilders that flaunt Hollywood action thrillers (another convention turned upside-down). Information isn't given in static exposition but discovered in pointed conversation, revealed almost casually and without exclamation point! We know this man Wade Cleland murdered Dwight’s parents but we don’t know why. In the first truly tense scene Dwight follows Wade and his family from prison to a dingy bar. Dwight sneaks in and hides in the bathroom. Instead of some lengthy confrontation with excuses and apologies, Dwight attacks viciously with a knife and stabs him to death. The scene is brutally realistic and over very quick. Saulnier shows the spurting arterial spray as Wade slowly and violently concedes his life. But now a war has begun between Dwight and the Cleland Clan putting Dwight's sister and her children at risk.

The confrontation between Dwight and the surviving Cleland family consumes the final two acts with a dehumanizing slow motion fury. From Dwight being shot in the leg with a crossbow bolt (and attempt to pull it out with pliers) to his kidnapping of Wade’s brother and this man's subsequent brain-splattering death (because that's what bullets do)murder has become contagious like the Bubonic Plague or Ebola. Isolation is the key to recovery and the final act ends in a distant lonely house owned by the Clelands. Dwight’s friend advises him earlier to shut up and shoot, no monologue or you’re dead as this isn’t a movie. But Dwight is fractured and broken and forgets his friend’s plea.

The truth is revealed and Dwight understands that Wade didn’t kill his parents: Wade’s father consummated the dead and his son Wade confessed and did the time. Dwight now wants the killing to stop but it’s too late. Shadows paint the wall like ghosts, formed by the muzzle flashes as the final gunfight leaves all but one dead: the youngest Cleland…who is just the right age. Dwight lets his half-brother live and mutters through a mouthful of blood, a mantra (or prayer)that hopefully saves this young man to leave  vengeance behind and to live a better life. The blue ruin has completed its final task.

“The keys are in the car….”

Final Grade: (A) 

Sunday, August 10, 2014

L’IMMORTELLE (Alain Robe-Grillet, 1963, France)

A nameless French man haunts the mazes of his own memory reliving and experiencing the same trauma repeatedly. Istanbul becomes his purgatory where the ancient crumbling structures are like bleached bones of some mythical beast and the language a secret code he is unable to decipher. For him, there seems no escape as even death brings the cycle full-circle once again.

Alain Robe-Grillet creates the same ambivalence and erotic mystery as his classic LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD which was directed by Alain Resnais from very detailed shooting script. Robe-Grillet included specific instructions concerning camera movement, framing and editing. Once again, Robe-Grillet elevates Form over Substance as the mystical power of L’IMMORTELLE is not in understanding and connecting narrative links but in being immersed into the way it is told. The film begins with a long tracking shot of jagged ruins partially buried in the hillside. It is obvious that the shot is taken from a car as it speeds along a flat road. The opening credits are superimposed over this scene. As the credits sequence ends we hear the disparate sound of squealing tires and crashing metal; it’s as if the car we’re riding in as the POV crashes! Yet, there is no gimmicky camerawork to sustain this POV so it’s possibly another car crashing off camera. Without explanation we cut to a man without introduction, standing in a darkened room and looking through the wooden slats of a window as if he doesn’t want to be seen. Below is an older man sitting on a chair by the seaside. Suddenly, a beautiful woman’s face then interrupts this viewpoint through the slats. It’s an impossible physical image so it must be a dream or memory belonging to this nameless man. She stares at the camera (or man) and a playful smile dances across her lips. This is the beginning of a tale that cannot be explained, a mystery that cannot be solved but a visual adventure worth undertaking nonetheless.

L’IMMORTELLE is a beautiful film like a dream captured on celluloid in stark black and white detail. Robe-Grillet often crosses the axis and creates a disorienting spatial relationship between characters and the audience. He often utilizes a slow 180 pan with a character on the far left and as the camera moves slowly right the same person shows up on the far right, engaged in another conversation or behavior. Grillet also cuts scenes so it looks as if a character is crossing the room only to meet himself sitting or lying in bed. Often, small details have changed such as the drawing of a tulip pasted to the wall or the lighting has dimmed, conveying a possible change in time but not place. We also experience, like the nameless protagonist, the same actions and conversations but from different perspectives; Grillet often changes some small barely noticeable detail from each angle; it’s as if Grillet is showing the malleability and the impermanence of memory. Characters also physically disappear from scene to scene and sometimes contradicting the same temporal continuity.

The story is open to interpretation and is quite possibly meaningless. I believe that our nameless protagonist N is a ghost wandering back to the last few places he visited in his brief life: N is not aware that he is dead. He interacts with an exotic woman and other benign and sometimes weirdly stoic people who are also ghosts trying to show N that he has passed. Here people stop and stand silent as he passes as if life has become still as the grave, turning in his direction as he wanders past. He seems oblivious or at least unconcerned about this strange behavior. N is immersed in himself, his ego keeping him from “passing on”. Like JACOB’S LADDER years later, the people can seem cruel or kind depending on your perspective. Here, Istanbul is an ancient crumbling city full of ghosts.

L’IMMORTELLE is not a film for everyone. It’s a film for cinephiles, for people who love the style and Form of movie-making, and for those who see film as contemplative and sometimes rebellious. Alain Robe-Grillet has transmuted the dream-world into a physical reality to view…but something is always lost in transubstantiation.

Final Grade: (A) 

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

CRUEL STORY OF YOUTH (Nagisa Oshima, 1960, Japan)

A young couple collides and splits like a nuclear reaction; their brief lives a violent tale of a youth culture which has become irradiated by a poisonous post-war dream.

The film begins with blood red credits superimposed upon a montage of newspapers thus placing the narrative contemporaneously and projecting the film’s title as a lurid headline. We are then thrown into the story without introduction as we see two young girls getting into a car with, we soon realize, an older man who is a complete stranger. The first girl is dropped off and instead of taking the second girl home he drives to a hotel. She jumps out of the car and the man chases her down and physically dominates her, grabbing and slapping her until a young man comes to her rescue. The older man apologizes after being beaten and when they threaten to call the police he throws money at them and quickly departs. Oshima films the assault between the two men in medium shot and with one camera: there are no cuts. This long take without edit brings an immediacy and realism to the fight. There are no close-ups or inserts during this assault; just a minute of brutal wrestling and punching. Oshima will use this technique throughout the film by minimizing his cuts with long takes as the camera slowly pans or tracks the action. As the older man drives away Oshima focuses the camera upon the money now lying upon the ground. As the boy picks it up we see it awash in the blood red neon glow of the hotel sign. We now have the basic elements and moral landscape for this teenage wasteland.

We now understand that these two characters, the girl Makoto and the boy “savior” Kiyoshi are the protagonists. Though we are meant to sympathize with them Oshima subverts our expectations in the very next scene. We see a long shot of a motorboat speeding out into a lake packed with freshly cut timber. Oshima reveals their carefree attitude (this is the story of youth, after all) but soon focuses upon Kiyoshi’s cruel behavior and Makoto’s submission. The two teenagers are soon balancing precariously as they walk upon the floating logjam. Kiyoshi pushes Makoto into the water when she won’t have sex with him and she begins to drown, pleading that she cannot swim. In one long tracking shot with a hand-held camera (it is bravura cinematography!!) he kicks Makoto’s hand away from the logs as she floats downstream and attempts to pull herself to safety.  Kiyoshi remains indifferent until she agrees to sex. He then pulls her to safety and rapes her. This sexual assault occurs after she is dehumanized and powerless; her consent is stolen from her like her virginity. Oshima’s paradox is in allowing sympathetic contact with both characters who continue to make bad decisions and do bad things (especially to each other).

Soon Kiyoshi is in debt to a gang who wanted to take Makoto into their prostitution racket (her wishes be damned) and he needs to pay them off. He and Makoto create a scam to steal money from rich old perverts: she picks them up and just before they sexually assault her Kiyoshi steps in and demands money to “keep quiet”. This racket echoes the first scene of the film and closes the circle as it also leads to their demise.  Oshima’s use of Form and Structure is masterful in creating a volatile personal and larger social tension. Not only does the film scorn its very protagonists but the larger Paternal Hierarchy that leaves women powerless: this racket is seen as taking back power, of subverting the “victims” by using their guilt and public image as weapons. Otherwise the scheme falls apart: you can’t blackmail someone who does not suffer guilt or fear judgment.

Oshima then introduces Makoto’s older sister Yuki who is also a maternal figure in her life since their mother has passed away (information we glean obliquely). Yuki both reprimands her little sister for her behavior and admires her for carrying through with her adolescent rebellion. It seems that Yuki experienced much the same thing after the War but finally accepted her place in Japanese society. In one emotionally charged scene Makoto has an illegal abortion performed by the Doctor whom Yuki was once involved with. As Kiyoshi and Makoto lie in a bed together (her on bottom) he begins eating an apple, partaking of the “original Sin” attributed to the woman. As he devours the apple, Yuki and the Doctor speak in voice-over about their failed rebellion as youths and what has led them to their dreary adult existence.

Oshima is not going to let our young protagonists get out of here alive. Of course, this is a strict departure from the youth films of the 60s in Japan and US. Could you imagine Ray’s REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE with a prostituting Natalie Wood being raped by James Dean, both of whom die at the end? Oshima’s powerful editing in the final scenes depicts some type of extra diegetic link between the two: as Kiyoshi is beaten to death, Makoto rides in a car with a man whom she has already slept with. She’s expecting Kiyoshi to save her at any moment but instead she looks suddenly towards the back seat. Cut to: Kiyoshi being beaten. Then, as if she hears him scream Oshima cuts again and she looks frightened, somehow sensing the murderous drama that is being played out elsewhere.  As Kiyoshi lays dying, cut back to Makoto opening the door to the moving car as she leaps to her death: an anti-Romeo & Juliet love affair if ever there was one. It’s a grim finale to a genre film which must have surprised the audience of the time. However it loses little of its power even today if understood contextually. This is an Auteur in total control of his Art.

CRUEL STORY OF OUR YOUTH is exactly what it claims to be. Without romanticism or sentimentality Oshima reveals the demons lurking in a rebellious subculture. And this brutal adolescent energy cannot be contained to Japan alone.

Final Grade: (A)

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

THIS SPORTING LIFE (Lindsay Anderson, 1963, UK)

Frank Machin is an evolutionary aberration, reverting towards primal instincts, a great ape who stalks the rugby fields but who dreams of becoming (and remaining) a man. His violence is poetry on the muddy turf but it stains his personal life, inseparable from his obsessive relationship with his widowed landlady, a woman whose grief condemns Frank to paying tenant. She polishes her late husband’s shoes…shoes that Frank will never fill. The qualities that make Frank a great footballer are the very qualities that make him an egocentric and harsh person, never able to rise above emotional poverty.

Director Lindsay Anderson utilizes stark black and white cinematography, his camera holding upon Frank’s fractured visage in close-up or filming on location, a muddy football field dominated by the cooling towers of a nuclear reactor which brings an added depth of grittiness and realism to the drama. Anderson is able to seamlessly edit archival rugby footage into his frantic close-ups so we feel connected to these athletes as they pummel and scrum upon the gladiatorial field of combat. But Anderson is not concerned with making a sports film: he focuses instead upon Frank Machin and his need to escape his social standing, to use his talent to become something he could not otherwise achieve. Here Anderson utilizes the tropes of a Romantic Drama but quickly subverts them as anger replaces passion, gentle words are screamed in disgust and sex becomes violence (or violence begets sex). It’s as if every fragile thing that Frank touches is broken in his meaty grasp or embrace. Soon, Frank learns he is just another product of the team’s owner Weaver; a rich man who peddles flesh and blood for other old men’s enjoyment.

The story’s apex concerns the relationship between the widow Mrs. Hammond and our protagonist, a physically and emotionally tumultuous climax whose existentialism is reminiscent of Bergman’s THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY: only this time the spider-god is crushed under a clenched fist. Frank Machin then sinks to the bottom of his own spiritual abyss as we (and Frank?) ponder Mrs. Hammond’s death: was her brain aneurysm brought about by Frank’s punishing blow? Her death counterpoints Frank’s own head injury early in the film which then brackets the narrative. Much of the story is drug-induced remembrances while he undergoes anesthesia to pull broken teeth from this injury. The elliptical editing patterns disrupt the narrative and we are often confused as to events occurring in flashback or real time which immerses us into the fractured timeline: it makes us pay attention to every detail.

Richard Harris’ performance is wonderfully virile and tainted with an egotistical sexual aggression while Rachel Roberts as the beleaguered widow suffuses her character with mystical profundity, a quicksilver quality that is both spiteful and touching. Though Frank has temporarily escaped the grinding machines of the coalmines, he is destined to wander the hard barren fields of his own personal purgatory…forever. 

Final Grade: (B+)