Rashomon

Rashomon-smallOnce heralded as a masterpiece, Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, like Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, is so intimately bound up with High Modern values and aspirations that it is easy to patronize it today as at best a pretentious failure. To be sure, much in the film does not age well, but also like Seal, it would be a mistake to dismiss it. For even allowing for some of its awkwardness and superficiality, its thematic ambitions are executed with a formal sophistication well beyond the mushy, goody two-shoes humanism so beloved of today’s parochial filmmakers.

The basic situation and approach are well known. A samurai and his wife are surprised by a bandit (Toshiro Mifune, in one of his scenery-chewing roles) while traveling through a forest. The results of their encounter are recounted by the thief, the woman, and the spirit of the dead samurai. A fourth version is told by a woodcutter who has gathered with two others at “Rashomon,” the gate to Edo, where they wait out a rainstorm. Each testimony is colored by the prejudices of the teller. No version is endorsed as “true,” and, with the exception of the woodcutter’s, all of the stories are second hand. Sorting through these complex contradictions, the viewer confronts the relativity of truth.

Leaving aside the over-acting, the sentimentality and heavy-handedness of Kurosawa’s approach, the most striking aspect of the film is the director’s dazzling control of light, camera movement and editing that could make just about any subject compelling. While we can ask how appropriate such bravado is for the subject and whether the virtuoso execution is an end in itself, the filmmaking flair and imagination remain undeniable. It is precisely that skill, no matter how questionably showy, that points to what makes Rashomon worthy of respect. Not for the bravura filmmaking as such, but because Kurosawa insisted on finding formal, purely cinematic means of expressing his literary interests.

On the other hand, when one of the characters observes no one can know the truth, it feels like a sop to those who need to be told how to react, a momentary slip into the pedantry of those who equate seriousness with the Word. Such high school book report thematic underlining is where Rashomon most resembles contemporary films, with their reduction of any topic to the tyranny of talk. Film form today seems to be thought of as nothing more profound than figuring how many times to zap a viewer. The idea of dealing with metaphysical questions through camera and editing seems hopelessly old-fashioned, even quaint, and quite possibly pointless.

That is why a film like Rashomon continues to stand out. The film’s sophistication, not its naivete, dates it by demonstrating that cinematic form and seriousness are antithetical only for those filmmakers and audiences who are afraid of using the medium to its full potential. Rashomon, for all its flaws, is ambitious and smart; contemporary production is complacent and stupid.
tashswatch

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Eyes Wide Shut

EWSsmallMovie marketing exists to makes audiences believe Hollywood’s latest mechanical repetition is refreshingly new, but it can also create misconceptions about more serious films when they fail to live up to inflated expectations. Stanley Kubrick’s last film Eyes Wide Shut is a case in point. Promoted to make viewers expect big star pornography, it is, in fact, a serious, slowly moving exploration of the power of sex to disrupt the most well-ordered lives. And when it failed to deliver on the suggestive press coverage, more than a few people sneered at it as bloated, boring, glacial evasion.

Kubrick was usually involved in the promotion of his films, so he no doubt bears some responsibility for the way Eyes was treated. He is certainly responsible for a conceptual flaw that warps the entire film. This small-scale, intimate story is staged on a scale to justify its big budget and stars (Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman). Kubrick’s well known fear of flying and inability to return to the US were no doubt the reason they had to recreate Manhattan in London, but the recreation is done so well, you wonder why they didn’t just shoot in New York? The physical environment is made with the fussy care that Kubrick brought to the fabricated world of 2001, as if he were willing the unpredictability of an urban setting (or at least the illusion of it) out of hyper-control. The result is to turn the simplest action into a dogged, ponderous struggle for veracity.

The script is equally self-conscious. Inane repetitions in the dialog, like Dr. Harford (Cruise) asking his wife Alice (Kidman) “Are you sure?” and her replying “Am I sure?” feel like a need to impose formal patterns on the most banal situations. Similarly, Harford’s return to nearly all the locations he visited during his night on the prowl is the temporal equivalent of the spatial symmetry that Kubrick so loved in his compositions. His nocturnal wanderings are otherwise as gratuitous and unconvincing as the sets are convincing. Clearly he’s looking for sex, but that feels more diagrammatic than compelling. Cruise captures Harford’s superior attitude, and it is clear the doctor is riding for a fall, but when it happens, his demons don’t seem to have any origins in the man we’ve seen. And in true Hollywood fashion, it’s all a tease anyway, since he’s always interrupted before he dirties his privates with infidelity. Consciously or otherwise, that may be the film’s most trenchant comment about American sexual attitudes.

I don’t agree that Eyes it is a dull failure, however. In fact, I think it is a major accomplishment, a fitting end to one of American film’s greatest talents. It is nonetheless a very problematic achievement that raises issues unrelated to its purpose. For ultimately, Eyes Wide Shut feels less like a film about one man’s obsessions about sex than one man’s determination to create a formally perfect world regardless of how appropriate it is for the subject.tashswatch

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The Colossus of Rhodes

RhodesThe Colossus of Rhodes is director Sergio Leone’s first credited feature. Most directors are lucky to hold together a first feature with spit, sweat, bluff and goodwill. Rhodes is an outright epic, with hundreds, if not thousands of costumed extras running around what looks like a full scale reconstruction of the ancient statue guarding the harbor of Rhodes. (Much of it is no doubt matte work, but that’s not cheap either.) It is certainly a very big and loud debut. How successful is another matter.

The impossibly complicated plot has two sets of Rhodians fighting for control of the island while a Really Bad guy amongst the merely villainous has drafted the Phoenicians as mercenaries to mix up things even more. The Phoenicians masquerade as Macedonian slaves (still with me?), while meanwhile men supposedly loyal to the good guys work underground in chains. (That bit never makes much sense.) The film is basically a sword-and-sandal epic on steroids, with suitably flamboyant design, plenty of male pulchritude, a slinky femme fatale, and bucketfuls of violence as everyone fights everyone. While lacking the supernatural element of many sword-and-sandal films, Leone and company compensate with a final battle, earthquake and hurricane/tsunami that might as well invoke the angry gods, because it’s hard to imagine who else could be responsible for all the calamities that strike the island at once.

Yet for all the exploitation of the campiest of camp genres, Rhodes takes events awfully seriously. The good guys are as stolid, stalwart and ineffectual as plaster saints while the villains’ chief qualification seems to be their ability to come up with ugly means of maiming and killing people. As with Leone’s most famous work, the Clint Eastwood “Man with no Name” trilogy, the sadism is executed with great imagination, verve and style (in keeping with most 1960s ancient world epics, the villains dress well and have nicely trimmed beards) but offers few other compensations.

Furthermore, the spaghetti Westerns are marked by Eastwood’s brutal ruthlessness and bleak, nihilistic integrity. The “characters” in Rhodes are more conventional, but just as blank, and for all the athletic pyrotechnics, no one seems to be particularly good at fighting. Rory Calhoun, as the hero Darios, tries hard, but he seems too old and American for the part. Darios, both passive and stupid, more or less stumbles into being on the right side. He’s the hero of the story only because the leader of the rebels is even more inept.

These spicy ingredients make for a rich stew, but The Colossus of Rhodes lacks the giddy, silly charm of the average sword-and-sandal epic while failing to provide anything close to a serious drama. Things move snappily enough to stay moderately interesting, but ultimately, the film’s greatest attraction is the costumes and the sets. Then again, when you think about, that’s appropriate. When a film is named after a statue, what can you expect?tashswatch

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The Blood of a Poet (Le Sange d’un Poète)

blood_poet_1rIf Jean Cocteau’s Blood of a Poet feels like an experimental student film, all arty mannerism and incoherent message, that credits the average student film too much and Cocteau not enough. To be sure, Poet is arty, mannered and incoherent, but it is also undeniably original and at times disturbing. Perhaps the best way to understand the difference is to recognize that Poet is the work of a proven talent who can be forgiven the occasional pretentious gesture, whereas the average student film is, in the most generous description, at most a foretaste of potential.

Begin with the fact that Cocteau, despite obviously caring not one whit about story, nonetheless  self-consciously structures the film in four distinct parts, suggesting a discipline and plan that most experimental filmmakers righteously refuse to value. The film follows an artist/poet (Enrique Rivero) through a series of incidents that are best understood as evocative images more than anything else. After passing through a mirror, he peeps through the keyholes of rooms in a hotel, then turns into a statue, witnesses a snowball fight between some adolescents and then returns to human form to have a card game that he loses as a group of society types watch and applaud.

The images revealed during this oneiric journey are never less than interesting, quite uncanny, more striking than beautiful. In one of the hotel rooms, for example, with a sign reading a “School for Flying” (Leçons pour vol), the poet sees a young girl wrapped in cowbells, viciously beaten by an older woman. The girl escapes a whipping only by fleeing to the ceiling of the room. In another, an hermaphrodite’s limbs pop out of a sketch, while the Poet’s trip through the mirror is encouraged by a talking statue, which he eventually shatters only at the cost of becoming a statue himself…

This unpredictable, disconnected, sometimes astonishing series of events would be familiar at least in feel to anyone who has watched an experimental student film. What is fresh, inspired and spontaneous in Cocteau however in today’s “avant garde” is contrived, often more planned display than anything else. (Given the familiarity of their techniques, one has to wonder just how “avant” this “garde’s” tricks are.) Where the two do intersect, all too perfectly, is in the clichéd depiction of the artist as a self-destructive depressive. Cocteau’s poet commits suicide twice, with loving close-ups of his head as the blood drips ever so photogenically over his handsome face. (Cocteau seems to like this image so much, he does it a third time, albeit with a different character.)

Cocteau leavens this masochistic self-pity with considerable wit and he certainly cannot be held responsible for the subsequent postures of less talented individuals. Nonetheless, the similarities to much inferior work are real enough to raise a question. Is Blood of a Poet worthy of its reputation as a masterwork, or was it just lucky to be one of the first in an amateurish tradition?tashswatch

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Eden and After

The line between artistic experimentation and amorphous indulgence is very fine, often more a matter of inclination and sympathy than a reflection of any obvious achievement. You have to take on faith that your confusion and disorientation result from deliberate, exploratory purpose, that the artist’s goals deserve a serious effort to understand and that the blurred work in front of you results from feelings or ideas beyond the capacity of traditional methods to express. When the results are as uneven and problematic as Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Eden and After, it is even more difficult than usual to make the distinction.

EdenEden, a student café hangout, is a kind of chrome and glass, pop expression of De Stijl abstraction. The main character, Violette (Catherine Jourdan) speaks of the students “playing” this or that part, but it is not clear if they are literally actors, or if she is making sardonic comments about their behavior. In any event, the café scenes are so fragmented, alienating and pretentious that it takes real dedication to sit through them. The students’ games have an irritating similarity to the worst of Godard’s “Marx and Coca-Cola generation” antics. Even Robbe-Grillet followers will probably look upon the tedium in the beginning of Eden and After as something to be endured in order to enjoy the problematic, but sensually gratifying remainder.

vlcsnap-00416The “After” of the title refers largely to Tunisia, pre-figured when Violette tries a “fear powder” while still in Eden, inducing visions of what will follow. (Typically, the visions prove more suggestive than accurate.) Once the location changes, Eden picks up, mainly because Robbe-Grillet and cinematographer Igor Luther use the desert sun and bleached stucco architecture to produce eye-popping splashes of color and texture. Even the Tunisian scenes are a touch off-putting, however, since the film’s exploitation of exotic locales inevitably raises the question of whether the results warrant yet another equation of sun, sand and Arabs with sex, violence and corruption. (One wonders what the Tunisians in the film thought of the goings on.)

My ambivalence may result from Robbe-Grillet’s own. The Kino-Lorber Blu-ray includes a different cut of the footage, entitled N. Took the Dice, created for French television. The rather singular phenomenon of a director completely re-cutting an existing work results in something equally indecipherable, save for a concise statement of Robbe-Grillet’s theory that narrative is created by the viewer. (It’s essentially the same point he made in his essays about the reader of written fiction in For a New Novel.) The recut changes the point of view of the story, alters much of the dialogue and largely eliminates the admittedly somewhat arbitrary plot thread that holds Eden together. Unfortunately, instead of cohering more effectively, the results are even more difficult to follow and endure. Even if the outcome had been lucidity itself, however, the fact that Robbe-Grillet recut the film at all suggests he too was not entirely happy or secure with Eden and After. tashswatch

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La Truite (The Trout)

isabelle_huppert_la_truiteJoseph Losey’s penultimate film, La Truite, is no earth-shaking masterpiece, but I return to it occasionally to remind myself what film can do. Dancing around an enigmatic young Frenchwoman, Fréderique (Isabelle Huppert) and her friends, La Truite is structurally similar to some of Robert Altman’s 1970s films, with greater emphasis on group dynamics than on a forward moving story. It is also perhaps the most fluid movie I have ever seen, and as such foregrounds a quality largely absent in contemporary films. While it was not the director’s final film, La Truite serves as a fitting cap to Losey’s career, for much of his work moves with similarly sinuous, insidious complicity.

Fluidity—the ability to move with seemingly effortless ease from one moment to another—is one of the most obvious differentiators between professional and amateur work in any time-based medium. This ability is especially important in film because of the dislocations caused by cuts. In the silent era, directors and editors honed the act of moving from one image to another to a fine art, so that the viewer was rarely aware of the disruption each cut involved. Since the 1980s, however, as film cutting has shifted to moving as quickly as possible, sound has become both the primary source of exposition and the chief means of moving a viewer over visual dislocations. (If you doubt this, try watching a contemporary film with the sound off.)

When continuity editing is enhanced by camera movement, the results can possess an irresistible precisionist glitter. In the hands of a master, the camera moves with expressive independence, teasing both space and viewer in a seductive embrace. In La Truite, the camera flows with the sparkling fascination of the mountain streams in which Fréderique harvests trout roe. Nearly all of Losey’s films possess elegant, often quite complicated camera moves. In La Truite, he exercises this gift with complete insouciance, as if the complex and difficult movements executed by veteran cinematographer Henri Alekan were simplicity itself.

While today’s filmmakers use both cutting and camera movement to excess, such feline finesse does not exist. Cuts are smothered by the sound, while the camera movements are conceived like production numbers (think of the famous move through the restaurant in Goodfellas, for example). Editing and camera movement do not complement the content, they distract the viewer from the emptiness of the material in a specious equation between display and style. Losey, one of the most distinctive stylists in film history, didn’t have to scream “Look at me!” to be noticed. It is that need to impress and overwhelm, to accentuate expense and hard work, to expect admiration and recompense for limited achievement that reveals contemporary film for the amateur hour it is. Mastery, distinction, style have to be coaxed from the deceptively pellucid, for modesty and casual brilliance are the true mark of the professional, not being paid.tashswatch

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When Worlds Collide

WWCWhile it may have won an Academy Award for its special effects, George Pal’s When Worlds Collide, one of the more ambitious of ’50s science fiction films, is arguably most memorable for its thoroughly jaundiced view of human nature. Such a grim attitude is so unusual in American films that Worlds cannot fail to entertain just because it has the guts to be gloomy. Even a somewhat unbelievable and forced happy ending cannot entirely eliminate the negativism of everything that has preceded it. The film is hardly profound, but it is mordantly perceptive.

When astronomers assemble what they believe to be proof that Earth is doomed to collide with an approaching planet, they go to the United Nations to share their findings. In realistically human fashion, their saturnine predictions are treated with a mixture of cynicism, hostility, professional envy and fractious parochialism. Later, when it is clear that the scientists were right, their plans to build a spaceship that will take a small number of best and brightest survivors to a moon orbiting the approaching world are able to proceed only when a disabled, embittered industrialist, Sidney Stanton (John Hoyt) puts up the money—if he is guaranteed a seat on the rocket. Stanton is treated as a necessary evil by the idealistic scientists, but his dark predictions of what to expect when the moment of truth comes are proven correct as those not selected to go on the interplanetary ark riot and try to take over the ship.

If most of the “science” in the story is hokum, the clear-eyed observation of human behavior is spot on, and the film’s chief virtue. That you don’t especially care what happens to any of the characters is all the more interesting in that there are several felicitous touches throughout. One of the more engaging occurs when the hero of the story, Dave Randall (Richard Derr) recognizes that his genes aren’t good enough to qualify him for a seat on the rocket. He gets to go only because of a sacrifice made by his rival-in-love, Tony Drake (Peter Hansen). It’s one of the few acts of generosity in the film, but it also demonstrates the reality that merit counts for nothing next to knowing the right person. (What about all those left behind without those happy connections?)

Worlds repeatedly deals with similarly tough questions and issues in a cool, level-headed way complemented by its military-functional visual style. The Technicolor cinematography and stripped-to-essentials decor are as measured and precise as the scientists’ calculations. The characters have just enough mixed motives and depth to offer a little more than their plot functions. (Tony’s good deed, for example, is partly in compensation for less than sterling behavior earlier.) Despite these behavioral hooks, however, it’s easy to come out of When Worlds Collide wondering if the end of humanity would really be such a tragedy. tashswatch

 

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