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Ikiru

Cinema Stubble presents The Video Store

Recommendations from yesterday’s video store clerk for tomorrow’s film viewer.

Ikiru (1952)
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
 

If you get one bit of Japanese text tattooed on your person, 生きる, or ‘to live’, should be it. Short of that, see the movie by that name. Kurosawa’s elegiac masterpiece tells the story of civil servant who discovers right at the start that he’s got a terminal form of cancer. Don’t worry though, it’s not as much of a downer as such a heavy opening might suggest. Upon hearing this news, the amazing Takashi Shimura, whose face looks perpetually stricken, wanders aimlessly before deciding what to do with the remainder of his time on this mortal coil: use his limited bureaucratic powers to push through the building of a children’s playground. Halfway through the film, one of cinema’s most effective ellipses occurs, when the action jumps to the wake after his death. The film becomes a study of how disparate people’s perceptions of someone are from reality. Those that convene to eulogize learn how little they actually knew the departed. Kurosawa’s best. Hands down.

See it tomorrow in NYC at Film Forum as part of their Kurosawa retrospective.
Watch it on DVD from Criterion.
Read about it in an essay by Donald Richie.
Previously written about on CS here.
 
 
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Yatta!

I long thought of traveling to Taiwan and Japan as a pilgrimage of sorts. Paying homage to the homelands of Hou, Yang, Tsai, Kurosawa, Ozu, Naruse, Mizoguchi, Miyazaki, Kore-eda et al. would surely be one of those transcendant experiences that exists somewhere over the rainbow. Right? I could visit the site of the former Dragon Inn! I could ride the rails of Ozu’s oeuvre! Right. After I-don’t-know-how-many years of deliberating, I finally had the occasion to go. And now, having just finished a surprisingly smooth commute back from Narita to JFK, I am relieved to report that a lot of that grandiosity I was fearing, née seeking out, was absent. Once there, I forgot most of whatever it was my cinematically and culturally informed expectations had dictated. Sure, there were times I delighted in connecting the dots from Hou’s street scenes to the ones I encountered at the markets in Taipei, and from the forests of Miyazaki’s imagination to the impossibly fantastical trees swaying above a temple in Kyoto. But this was an experience grounded in the glorious minutiae of day-to-day life. Waiting in line for steamed brown-sugar mantou at a night market. Navigating the incomprehensibly convoluted Tokyo underground. Dancing along at a karaoke bar to pop songs in Mandarin. Asking a question in Japanese, which for me functions at about a one-year-old’s level of proficiency, and not understanding the answer. I found this to be more instructive and rejuvenating than any pseudocinespiritual walkabout would’ve been. Moral of story: leave your expectations at the door.

signpost films

Girish Shambu writes in Days and Nights of a Cinephile

There are movies we encounter at certain points in our appreciation for the medium that become, almost by accident, little breakthroughs in our viewing life. They may not be great masterpieces—though they well might—but the important thing is that we have the fortune of meeting up with them at just the right juncture in our development. I think of them as ‘signpost films’: they take a patch of aesthetic territory that was previously foggy or unmapped to us and they suddenly open it up, making us see and learn something revelatory about this art-form that we love. Each ‘signpost film’ offers us some sort of lesson or fundamental insight about cinema that we then proceed to carry with us and apply to hundreds of films we encounter in the future.

What are your signposts?

I’ve but a simple mind, so I’ll chart some of mine linearly in terms of when I encountered them.

 

Back to the Future (1985)
Directed by Robert Zemeckis
As a son of the 80’s, it would be pretentious and patently false to deny that the Lucas/Spielberg junta that took American movies (and audiences and pop-culture and ethos and…) hostage are to credit for captivating my imagination and sparking my life-long cinematic love affair. As a wee lad, there was something about the ‘To Be Continued…’ that roared on-screen at the end of Back to the Future that made my mind reel. “Wait. What? There’s more? Woooow.” I knew then that no matter what else was going on in the world, I wanted to remain in the company of Marty McFly and Doc Brown. Apparently, Zemeckis’ time travel trilogy was not the first to serialize stories, nor were motion pictures the first medium to do so. But with that ellipses, I was forever beholden to the movies.
See also: Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)/Ghostbusters (1984)/Back to the Future Part II (1989)
 
The Graduate (1967)
Directed by Mike Nichols
One word, just one word, may not have been all it took to redirect Benjamin Braddock on his career path. But one film was all it took to guide me towards a deeper understanding of how movies work. When I encountered The Graduate as a teenager, it flipped a switch on in my head that showed me that movies could do more than just entertain. There is a lot more than meets the eye to moviemaking, and Mrs. Robinson pulled back the curtain so that I could pay attention to it.
See also: Harold and Maude (1971)/Rushmore (1998)
 
Stranger than Paradise (1984)
Directed by Jim Jarmusch
Jarmusch got down to the bare essentials with this early work. It’s actually quite a straightforward narrative told in clearly delineated three acts. It’s that he told it without any superfluous bells and whistles that makes it an eloquent rejoinder to the Lucas/Spielberg call for bombast.  In the same decade that Reagen was reworking the national landscape, Stranger than Paradise showed the world a quieter, more Beckettian America. I was too young to be aware of it at the time, but through the magic of movies I was able to experience it as though I were.
See also: She’s Gotta Have It (1986)/Paris, Texas (1984)
 
Ikiru (1952)
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Kurosawa got my attention with clanking samurai swords and creepy, eyebrowless mediums channelling dubious reports from the grave (Rashomon). But it was his unsentimental tale of a bureaucrat with stomach cancer given mere months to live that floored me. The first half of the film is spent with the protagonist in the moments after he is made aware of his fate. He processes the information, ambles through an aimless night then decides to use his position as a paper-pushing drone to build a children’s playground. The second half is spent at his wake, with those that thought they knew him flashing-back and dissecting his existence. It literally did not occur to me until the writing of this post that the bifurcated structure of this narrative has been echoed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Hong Sang-soo, both of whom favor splitting their films into two over a three act structure.  
See also: The Power of Kangwon Province (1998)/Syndromes and a Century (2006)
 
The Heiress (1949)
Directed by William Wyler
I was raised on the classics, from Capra to Hitchcock, by my parents, themselves no strangers to good cinema. But it was not until I was reacquainted with old Hollywood by Wyler’s adaptation of Henry James’ Washington Square that I comprehended the breadth of the studio system. It may have been a flawed factory – genre films only, outsiders need not apply, distribution controlled by censoring gatekeepers – but I’ll be damned if some amazing work wasn’t produced by it. Exhibit A: the depth of the cruelty of Ralph Richardson as an emotionally abusive father. Exhibit B: the evolution of Olivia de Havilland from pitiable naïf to intractable woman-of-the-house. If one need see any more proof of the superiority of the studio system over today’s studio films, place the well-pedigreed but by-the-numbers Washington Square (1997) next to The Heiress. See for yourself. (Didn’t mean to make that comparison come off as a taste-test ad. Oh well.)
See also: Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948)/Notorious (1946)/Winchester ’73 (1950)
 
What Time is it There? (2001)
Directed by Tsai Ming-liang
It’s no secret that I’m an unapologetic fan of deliberately paced contemporary Asian cinema. Tsai Ming-liang once said that the world moves at such a fast clip, so he makes movies that take their time to breathe. What Time is it There? is as solid an expression of that M.O. as any. It articulates itself with hardly any exposition. I found the care with which each shot, each gesture was composed ceaselessly captivating. Numerous other films of his, of Hou’s, of Yang’s, of others follow suit, some predate it, but this was the one that I encountered first. So it gets the credit.
See also: After Life (1998)/Yi Yi (2000)/Café Lumière (2003)

There are countless other films which I could cite as signpost films for me – Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry (1997), Agnes Varda’s Vagabond (1985), Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Distant (2002), Béla Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies (2000), Mikio Naruse’s Floating Clouds (1955), David Lean’s The Sound Barrier (1952), Edward Yang’s A Brighter, Summer Day (1991), Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Gertrud (1964). Thankfully, the list goes on.

Forty Guns (1957)
Director: Samuel Fuller
With: Barbara Stanwyck
forty_guns

Samuel Fuller made the most of what little he had, not unlike those scrappy pioneers that tamed the West. He made an art out of taking what might have been slight B-pictures and terraforming them into substantial genre/gender/generation-challenging films.

40 Guns opens with a majestic Scope panorama of three men, the Bonnell brothers, riding through a valley. Soon they are not only dwarfed by the shadows of clouds passing overhead, but by the stampede of Jessica Drummond (Barbara Stanwyck) and her titular posse of hired hands charging in the opposite direction. The men, coughing and wiping their eyes, are left in the dust to wonder what just passed. This brief prelude neatly sets up the dynamic at play in the film.

Griff Bonnell (Barry Sullivan) reluctantly accepts being deputized by the town that he and his brothers have wandered into to respond to the whip that Drummond wields over them. Bonnell accepts his call to duty by way of a thoroughly exhilariting showdown between him and Stanwyck’s drunken brother, Brockie, who has been tormenting locals. Some of these townsfolk are portrayed by thoroughly unconvincing line-readers, evidence of the meager portions the studios were offering B-picture directors like Fuller. He made up for that handicap by editing the hell out of the showdown – cutting between close-ups of Bonnell’s steely, focused eyes and a pathetic Brockie scrambling for his gun, which leaves no question who’s in charge of the scene.

The next wow scene comes in the form of a windstorm, minus Auntie Em. Stanwyck, ever the poised bad-ass, and Sullivan are forced to help each other survive a grueling windstorm. There is no music to enhance the action and emotion of the scene. None is needed. The sound of the wind whipping the two of them around is visceral enough. The expert craftsmanship of pulling off an action scene like this, without the aid of CG, is enough to leave one’s mouth agape. And a convincing set-piece to bring the previously rivaling pair together, while also portending the destructiveness of their bond.

Fuller punctuates his film with well-placed songs. Jessica Drummond is introduced by a strolling troubadour, who touts the woman’s ability to command authority with her whip, but confines her to being ‘a woman, after all,’ a sentiment that haunts and eventually gets the best of her. A particularly poignant scene late in the second act features a dirge, which efficiently encapsulates the sense of loss felt by almost all of the characters.

Barbara Stanwyck (Brooklyn!) portrays her weathered landowner with a well-worn toughness. She has earned her forty goons, just has she has fought for every inch of land, every scar upon her brow. Some might find the fact that she ultimately rejects her independence and land for a simpler, quieter life with a man as regressive or at least dated. But I believe Fuller is up to something. It is important to remember that 40 Guns, Fuller’s last western, takes place in the twilight of the Wild West era. Not only is Stanwyck’s woman putting down her whip, but Griff Bonnell is also laying down arms, accepting his fate. Bonnell had been a gunslinger, feared for miles. While the townsfolk were happy to call on him for his skills, he always knew that there was really no place for a ‘freak’ like him amongst them. As the West became less ferocious, less wild, less West, the less room there was for men like Griff Bonnell and women like Jessica Drummond. Far from trumpeting the taming of this wild woman, Fuller was, I believe, lamenting the end of an era, the passing of the torch from the pioneers and the ‘freaks’ to the common, law-abiding, God-fearing, domesticated citizens. If anything, given their bloodied history together, Drummond and Bonnell’s future is as uncertain and potentially doomed as Ben Braddock and Elaine Robinson’s is.

35 Rhums (35 Shots of Rum) (2008)
Director: Claire Denis
With: Alex Descas
35_shots_of_rum

It’s been some time since I’ve put pen to paper (or digits to keyboard, as it were) to hash out my thoughts on the seventh art. Not much to say about it other than that, um, I’m sorry.

What then would be the film that would bring me out of this half-assed early retirement?

In the past few months, numerous films have impressed, wowed even, but few of the recent crop achieve the level of unadulterated awesomeness that is Claire Denis’ 35 Rhums. Her masterpiece wined, dined and shot a rum-soaked arrow through my cinema-loving heart.

In a field of strong contenders, it is the deftness with which she tells her tale that stands out the most. The performances she scores from her actors, the expertly executed elliptical editing, the generous cinematography and the nuanced narrative itself are all remarkable. But it is the way she makes it all appear so effortless that makes me gaga.

I will attempt to refrain from exposing the slightest bit of plot or even the characters’ relationships to each other here. Forgive me, but one of the singular joys of the experience of watching this film is in the reveal. One character will enter and greet another. It is only through a gesture or a word minutes, sometimes scenes later, that their relationship to each other is made clear. The same is true of each character’s relationship to his or her environment. In a lesser work, this deliberate exposition might obfuscate to the point of frustration. But in 35 Rhums, it invites you in, allows you to sit with the characters and get accustomed to their surroundings just as they do. Given certain of the protagonists’ uncertain stations in life, this is narratively and tonally fitting.

One character, seated at a bar, removes her jacket and smiles at the man next to her, who is not paying her too terribly much mind. The camera lingers on her exposed shoulders as she looks at him fondly. This is the way she wants to be seen, to be noticed. This gesture of the actress, of the camera and of the director speak to the sense of acute longing for connection that fills 35 Rhums.

The much ballyhooed stable of young neo-neo-realist directors would do well to take note. Their labored woebegone tales of those who live on the margins of society are too often concerned with eliciting sympathy from the audience. It’s a cart-before-the-horse problem, I suspect. The audience is never told how to feel in Denis’ film. Any sympathy felt for the characters is earned. What’s more, the graceful way Denis deals with identity – racial, ethnic, familial, community-based or otherwise – never reads as a treatise, as many well-intentioned but undergrad-thesis-like films that attempt to deal with those themes do. Instead, 35 Rhums only approaches the issue as the characters do, which is to say as a man walking up to a round of shots and taking a deep breath before imbiding would.

Again, forgive me for being vague, but I would encourage you to know as little about 35 Rhums‘ plot and story before going in. It will still look good in the harsh light of day.

Vagabond (1985)
Director: Agnes Varda
With: Sandrine Bonnaire

vagabond.jpg

 I first saw Vagabond years ago, when I was going through a dirty-on-purpose phase in college. Agnes Varda’s story of a wandering, or as one character put it, ‘withering’ vagrant struck a chord with me. As the years passed, I had forgotten some details of the film, but the sense of accutely-felt heartbreak and devastation has stuck with me. Seeing it again years later (and after having come to appreciate the value of a good shave) the film still resonates with me.

The film opens with the melancholic, distancing strains of a violin, a recurring motif which could serve as the musical definition for the word ‘descent’. In a chilly, mostly barren farm landscape, the corpse of Mona Bergeron is hidden from view. Once her lifeless body is revealed lying in a hole it appears as if blurred into the earth. Her face is smeared with dried red wine, and her clothes have collected enough dirt, that it’s difficult to tell where her body ends and the earth begins. The film then looks back to chronicle the final days of this earth-covered specter. Even before her life is snuffed out, she hardly stands out from the buildings she inhabits and the fields she drifts across. As the one brief intervention by a narrator suggests, in what I can only imagine are the words of Varda herself, for all we know, Mona might as well have ‘come from the sea’. She is of the earth, intimately tied to it and doomed to completely blend into it. Like the earth, she is just as easily taken for granted.

Mona’s travels are recounted by the people that she comes across in her travels. Often merely a passing thought as to what it might be like to be in her tattered shoes is all that occurs. It might be a classist indictment, a bourgie exoticization of her state, or an overly-romantic sympathizing with her plight. Whatever it is, everyone judges her, sums her up in their own way. While Mona exists as a different entity to all the people she comes across, she remains true to herself the entire time. She left her job, whatever life she had, we learn, to be free. Freedom, on her own terms. The film neither glamourizes nor looks down on her. It presents her story from as many vantages points as possible, knowing that somewhere amidst all of them, lies the truth. The film is shot almost entirely on a flat plain, leveling her with the landscape, as well as presenting everyone as existing on the same stage, despite whatever judgements anyone might use to seperate them from her.

In this eloquent examination of this woman’s life, Varda manages to refrain from sentimentality yet remains emotionally dedicated to her subject. In each meticulously orchestrated tracking shot, the camera terminates its movement before cutting away, echoing the fate of the protagonist. These finite shots may end on a sign post, a piece of machinery, a tree or people waiting at a bus stop, all things that exist outside of Mona’s trajectory, things that are paying no attention to her.

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One tracking shot, as D claimed, ‘says it all’. The shot begins on some arbitrary street and tracks past Mona seated, minding her business, and continues on without stopping or even slowing to notice her. She is hardly there. I am reminded of Joan Fontain’s Lisa in Letter from an Unknown Woman. However, where in that film Louis Jourdan is the only one to have truly failed to notice her, in Vagaond, it’s the rest of the world that fails to take notice of Mona. Unlike Lisa, however, who devotes her unnoticed life to a man, Mona devotes herself to herself only. While she is hardly there for others to see, she is all there is as far as she is concerned.

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A former philosophy professor and goat-herder, who ultimately deems Mona’s path as doomed, makes the observation, when she claims to not know what road she was on, that the road she is on is hers. She has to know what road she’s on. This raises the question, is Mona truly free? While she dismissed as many outside forces as she can (does she embrace anything?), she is not able to dismiss the cold winter air, her dehydration, her hunger. The only way she can be free of everything is by being freed from life, from the earth. I can’t help but find this heartbreaking, as I did nearly a decade ago. For some reason, all these years, one shot has remained in the forefront of my mind and it typifies this heartbreak for me. One of the lovers she picks up along the way, a Tunisian field hand, recalls Mona silently. Whereas most of the passersby describe their encounters with her through words, he simply smells the scarf that she left behind, a gesture that signifies not only his longing for her, but his appreciation for her physical presence on the earth. One need not be a vagabond to be accutely aware of how fleeting life is and transient we all are on this earth.

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I have hardly addressed Varda’s expertly crafted telling of the narrative. She jumps around interspersing Mona’s linear arc to her untimely end with recollections from people she encountered seemingly at random, the way memories of someone you have come across can hit you when you don’t expect them to. The only distraction that I found was in one character who would pointedly address the camera when discussing Mona. It’s a tricky device, especially, since this character is often articulating finely noted observations of Mona. But in a film in which so much of the monochromatic mise-en-scene blends together, it stands out like, well, like a character talking directly to the camera in a film in which other characters don’t.

Vagabond has managed to never prey on my fears of being a degenerate the way that films like L’Enfant and Straight Time have, which are both great films, by the way. I take that as a testament to Varda’s choice of direction for her narrative. Mona’s plight is uniquely her own. The film is less about how pitiable she is, or how difficult her road is, and more about how we see her, or better put, can’t see her.

Vagabond is available on DVD through the Criterion Collection.

new york film festival commentary

THE MAN FROM LONDON (2007)

Director: Bela Tarr
With: Miroslav Krobot, Tilda Swinton
Written by: Bela Tarr & Laszlo Krasznahorkai
Based on the novel by: Georges Simenon
She’s from London.jpg

The films of Bela Tarr will most likely never be for the hoi polloi. Which is a pity, really, as he is one of the most original talents working today and certainly one of the greatest craftsmen. But you will not see a gaggle of giggling groupies crowding around a red carpet premiere of a Tarr film. You will not see a line of nerds dressed as their favorite impoverished Hungarian villager character wrapped around the block of a theater on opening night. You will not see gossip columns devoted to the latest turn in the relationship between one of Tarr’s stock actors and a pop singer. Although if these are the indications of a film having reached a certain level of acceptability with the masses, perhaps it’s a good thing his films are a bit more rarefied. It just means that the vast majority of filmgoers will miss out on this filmmaker par excellence. Anyhow, I suppose it would be a bit much to ask the YouTube-informed attention spans of today’s movie watchers to elasticize themselves to tolerate a 7 and a half hour Hungarian film in black and white with very little dialogue.

Given Tarr’s esoteric inclinations, it’s curious then that he would make what, after all is said and done, amounts to a genre picture. The Man From London is based on the novel by Georges Simenon, which has the end effect of feeling a bit like Bela Tarr doing Graham Greene, an unlikely pair. Sort of like John Ford doing Franz Kafka. Or Quentin Tarantino doing Jane Austen. Well, maybe not like that. But it’s fair to say that while Tarr remains at top form directing the camera and the atmosphere in The Man From London, the narrative feels as though it’s not best served by his style, nor does his style feel complemented by the story.

The sequences, the long passages of Tarr’s films, London included, serve to draw the viewer into a contemplative state. If that was the intended effect with London, then it succeeded. However, there’s the nagging sensation that the plot is calling for a noir-like dramatic tension, which never quite comes across. The story follows a mysterious package that arrives, a murder, and the innocent man who ends up with the package. That the mystery contained in the package is merely gobs of British currency, as opposed to the magnificent whale that arrives in the town in Werckmeister Harmonies (2000) or the complicated return of the character of Irimas in Satantango (1994), speaks to the lack of excitement that I have for this film when it is held up next to these other Tarr works.

When Tilda Swinton arrives on screen, her presence is more of a distraction than anything else. Her overdubbing in Hungarian stands out like a sore thumb in a way that Hanna Schygulla’s role never deterred from Werckmeister. Pardon the frequent comparisons to his other films; there’s really nothing quite like the more recent films of Bela Tarr though, so it’s hard to contextualize it within the framework of any other films. Swinton is fine, as usual, but it’s as though she’s in a different film than the rest of the internationally unknown Hungarian cast. Furthering the chasm between Swinton and the rest of London, the scenes between her and her husband harkens back to Tarr’s early work, which was more Cassavettes-like in style than the moody, ponderous tone of his later films.

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Tarr is well known for taking months – months! – to prepare every shot in his films. His careful, studied effort and his meticulous execution are second to none, and are apparent in every frame of his recent films, even London. If you are familiar with Tarr’s work, used to admiring how well the formal elegance, his mastery of craft fit in with his examinations of the human condition in loose narrative structures, then you might be disappointed with the more conventional arc of London. The bottom line is, while it’s not a failed film, it’s not a step forward in his career, either. This is unfortunate particularly because I had sensed that, like Gus Van Sant, who credits Bela Tarr for his own artistic renaissance, Tarr was one of those directors who was getting better as he got older and made more films. London is most like Damnation (1988), which was a more like practice lap for what would come to be the master-classes in well-crafted, thoughtful filmmaking of Satantango (1994) and Werckmeister Harmonies (2000).

Bela Tarr has not lost his, if I may, mojo, nor has he sold-out, but the merely satisfactory London will have to tide Tarr aficionados over until his next great work. And maybe I’m wrong. Maybe there is a die-hard fan club for Tarr that would follow his filmmaking anywhere, and line up around the block to attend a premiere. After the lights came up in the screening I attended, I overheard two other audience members delight in recognizing the main character’s daughter as the girl who killed the cat in Satantango. Tarries may not be as many as Trekkies, but they are just as dedicated.

The Man From London is currently without a distributor.