26 August 2011

PITFALL / OTOSHIANA (Dir. Hiroshi Teshigahara, 1962, Japan)

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Only the 1960s could have produced a film as radical, avant-garde and iconoclastic as Pitfall. Hiroshi Teshigahara made Pitfall against a backdrop of political upheaval in Japan during the 1960s. Many of the directors who formed part of the Japanese new wave were politically active during this time, showing their collective opposition against the signing of the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan (1960). The treaty effectively sanctioned the expansion of US troops in Japan whilst extending America’s hegemonic economic reach. Both Teshigahara and writer Kobo Abe were part of the student protests that took place in Tokyo at the time. Such political dissent was inevitably reflected in the cinema of the Japanese new wave and whilst Pitfall was not as ideologically rigorous or transparent as the films of say Nagisa Oshima, the four picture collaboration between Teshigahara and Kobo Abe produced some of the most uniquely idiosyncratic imagery of the 60s. Pitfall also saw the first of numerous collaborations with music composer Toru Takemitsu. Described by Teshigahara as a ‘documentary fantasy’, Pitfall follows a coal miner and his son who is searching for work. When he is pointed into the direction of an old mining town, the miner (Hisashi Igawa) arrives with the promise of work but they discover the town is deserted except for a shopkeeper. Unexpectedly, the miner is killed by a mysterious stranger in a white suit who has been waiting for him. The miner’s son (Kazuo Miyahara) watches on helplessly as his father is stabbed to death. Before leaving, the killer pays the shopkeeper for her silence. What Teshigahara does next is both audacious and gusty – he revives his central character, yes the dead miner lying face down in a muddy river bed, as a ghost. The ghost of the miner who is in denial about having been brutally murdered wanders the mining town only to discover the people around him are also ghosts. In one hilarious moment, he is told by another ghost that if he died on an empty stomach then he will remain hungry for the rest of his life. The miner’s transformation into a ghost is a magnificently atmospheric idea executed with a wonderful feel for the desolate coal mining locations.

A murder investigation is opened by the police and a chain of events leads to a strange discovery – that the dead miner has a double Otsuka working in a nearby coal mine and who more importantly is involved in the coal mining trade union. In an attempt to cover up his tracks, the killer murders the shopkeeper. It becomes apparent that the original intention was to kill Otsuka and that an ideological conflict between the old and new coal pits offers an invaluable insight into Japanese labour relations. However, Teshigahara seems much more fascinated by his characters behaviour than scrutinising any kind of ideological theories in depth. In terms of political symbolism, the killer in his white suit, gloves and shoes could be interpreted as meditation on corporate power or is he somewhat more metaphysical – a figure of death? It’s exciting when you come across a work as original and challenging as Pitfall. Like a lot of the films made by the Japanese new wave from the 60s, Pitfall is a film way ahead of its time in terms of both form and content. It’s a film bursting full of ideas and energy – it’s also darkly funny. On a final note, some of the reviews I have come across have referred to Pitfall as a flawed film but I am getting kind of despondent about this way of labelling films – is it not simply the case that most of the great films are flawed in some way or another – that’s what makes them so fascinating to watch!

25 August 2011

KHARIJ / THE CASE IS CLOSED (Dir. Mrinal Sen, 1982, India)

A cold front has swept across the city of Calcutta, bringing it to a near stand still. But it's not just the weather too blame for the prejudices harboured by a middle class family residing in Calcutta. One day an impoverished father, Hari (Dehapratim Das Gupta), comes to their home with a proposition; will the family take on his young son Pupai (Indranil Moitra) as a child servant? At first, the family are reluctant. They criticise the last child servant who only remained with them for a few months before absconding. Eventually they agree and Hari tells them he will return at the end of each month to collect the wages for his son. As the cold snap continues, one morning Pupai is found dead on the kitchen floor. The death comes as a shock to the family. A police investigation is opened into the death of the boy and the family are scrutinised for failing to properly care for the child servant. As the investigation progresses it becomes evident Pupai died from carbon monoxide poisoning and slept in the kitchen because he was cold. Mrinal Sen uses the death of the child servant as a searing political symbol, examining the politics of class and the wider monstrous void that exists between the lower and middle classes of Calcutta. In one particular revealing exchange, the father Anjan (Anjan Dutt) goes with his friend to seek legal advice if the case was taken to court. When Anjan exclaims that Pupai was a member of the family and treated the same, his disingenuous words are rebutted by the lawyer. The lawyer states quite bluntly that Pupai was not treated the same as he was made to sleep under the stairs, given little money, and ultimately regarded as inferior; any positive interaction was minimal from the family and so they had a role to play in his death.

It’s very tricky to deal with class and particularly the exploitation of servants without descending into either ideological rhetoric or wild sentiments but by keeping the narrative within the context of the melodramatic form Sen fixes his gaze within the moral sanctity of the Bengali family. Whilst Anjan begins the process of coming to terms with his class prejudices, his wife Mamata (Mamata Shankar) is clearly ridden with guilt but is unable to even acknowledge her seemingly unnerving lack of empathy for both Pupai and Hari. Whilst the impact of Pupai’s death should have affected Mamata to recognise the entrenchment of her class prejudices, she actually views the death as a familial disgrace. In many ways, Mamata’s ignorance is contrasted with the emotional outpouring of Hari who at the end transforms his anger into a dignified closure. Hari’s actions might be dignified but there is a moment that Sen conjures up at the end, pointing to a potentially incendiary conflict that might come about one day if such destructive prejudices were challenged head on. Ideologically, the relative invisibility of Pupai as a symbol of the lower class is contrasted sharply with the privileged and protected son of Anjan and Mamata. When Hari comes to claim the body of his dead son and considering he is grieving, Anjan and Mamata feel obligated to let him stay. However, their middle class guilt is horrifyingly manifested when they hastily attempt to compensate their negligence by offering Hari the living room as a place to sleep. Hari rejects their conciliatory and premature offering, choosing instead to settle for the kitchen in which his son died and elucidating the falseness of Anjan and Mamata’s reactionary gesture. Kharij is one of Mrinal Sen’s most accessible works and like many of the films he directed in the 1980s it was the family that became a key political thematic. Kharij was awarded the grand jury prize at the Cannes film festival in 1983 and nominated for the Palme d’Or.

22 August 2011

A TIME TO LOVE AND A TIME TO DIE (Dir. Douglas Sirk, 1958, US)

The closing shot to Sirk's 1958 masterpiece A Time to Love and a Time to Die.

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In 1959 Jean-Luc Godard published an essay 'Tears and Speed' on Sirk's film, praising it as one of Sirk's greatest achievements:
I love ostriches. They are realists. They only believe what they see. When everything is going wrong, and the world is getting altogether too ugly, they only have to shut their eyes very tightly for the outside world to just melt away, like the prince overwhelmed by the tenderness of the little laundress in a song by Renoir...

20 August 2011

PALE FLOWER / KAWAITA HANA (Dir. Masahiro Shinoda, 1964, Japan)

Masahiro Shinoda directed Pale Flower in 1964 for the prestigious Shochiku film studio. Shinoda’s remarkable film was part of the 1960s Japanese New Wave cinema and the film’s iconoclastic temperament led to it being banned. In 2003 Home Vision Entertainment released Pale Flower on DVD whilst this year Criterion issued their version on both DVD and Blu-ray. I’ve not come across Shinoda’s work before and my encounters with Japanese cinema have tended to favour popular auteurs. I’m beginning to realise the vastness of Japanese cinema in terms of output stands alone in many ways when compared to other film industries. Shinoda’s loose, elliptical approach and dynamic visual style bears close parallels with the work of Seijun Suzuki. Pale Flower would work superbly as a double bill alongside Suzuki’s demented Branded to Kill. In many ways, the initial narrative set up of Pale Flower in which a hardened Yakuza gangster Muraki (Ryo Ikebe) is released from prison, having killed another member of a gang, invokes the memory of American crime and noir films. It is a familiar convention – the gangster or criminal who is released from prison but realises he cannot fit into society anymore and slowly becomes more and more withdrawn. Whilst Shinoda adopts this narrative convention, he decides to choose an entirely different path altogether for his central male protagonist. On his release, Muraki seems more bored than alienated with the world around him. It is Muraki’s entanglement with a mysterious young woman Saeko that subverts such a narrative expectation because it becomes a mutually destructive relationship.

Symbolically, the woman’s addiction to drugs/gambling represents both the corruption of Japanese youth and the rise of a new kind of modernity whilst Muraki’s allegiance to a code is ideologically conducive of an old, fading Japanese culture. In many ways, Muraki is like the antiquated cowboy who looks out of place in the new society and for Muraki the retreat to the sanctity of the prison gives him seclusion from a world that has little meaning for him anymore. Visually, Shinoda’s film is stunning to look at and the striking monochrome cinematography gives the imagery a very clean yet noir like aesthetic. The performances by Ryo Ikebe and Mariko Kaga are compelling throughout. A film like Pale Flower was a direct manifestation of the changing sensibilities in Japanese cinema during the 1960s but unlike The French New Wave which challenged dominant mainstream conventions, from the outset The Japanese New Wave seemed more ideologically engaged. It was only much later that The French New Wave became much more of a political cinematic entity. Nevertheless, compared to Nagisa Oshima, Shinoda’s cinema was less political than his contemporaries and there is no denying that Pale Flower has been influential in the development of the Yakuzka gangster film in Japanese cinema. Director Masahiro Shinoda produced most of his best and most acclaimed films during the 1960s.

10 August 2011

COLD WEATHER (Dir. Aaron Katz, 2010, US)

Directed by Mumblecore regular Aaron Katz, Cold Weather is one of the best films I have seen this year. It’s not difficult to pin down what makes it such an exceptional piece of cinema. Firstly, the characters are intensely likable and rather soothing to observe. They don’t get up to much except engage in banal conversations, pause unexpectedly with friends they know and ponder effortlessly. Secondly, plot is of little concern with the Mumblecore crowd. Instead a naturalistic feel for the milieu that the middle class twenty something characters inhabit makes for a compelling mise en scene. Doug (Cris Lankenau) returns to Portland, Oregon after failing to finish his studies and pursue a career in forensic science. He shares an apartment with his sister who seems just as bored to death with life as Doug. Together they make for one of the drollest on screen couples. Doug finds work packing ice at a factory and also hooks up with his ex-girlfriend who mysteriously disappears one night. Her sudden disappearance leads Doug and his sister on a chase through Portland to track her down. Thirdly, Katz has real control over the pacing of his film and the intuitive editing lets us into the world of Doug and his wayward friends with relative ease. Some have cited John Cassavetes as an influence on the Mumblecore crowd but I would say the offbeat cinema of Jim Jarmusch has had more of a pervasive cinematic impact on the likes of Katz. An unexpected but welcoming noir accent also creeps into the narrative in the second half of the film as Doug’s determination to track down his missing ex pokes fun at the detective figure in popular culture. Cold Weather is a sharp, witty and decisively original slice of Indie cinema. It’s indie in the Cassavetes and Jarmusch sense, not the wide eyed, award hungry and superficial indie cinema of Little Miss Sunshine.

4 August 2011

NOTES ON DVD VIEWING 2#

KLUTE (Alan Pakula, 1971, US) – Jane Fonda has never looked so vulnerable and compelling at the same time. A pitch perfect, psychological thriller. Great support from Roy Scheider and Donald Sutherland.

LENNY (Bob Fosse, 1974, US) – Told largely through flashbacks triggered by the wife of stand up comedian Lenny Bruce, this beautifully shot anomaly from the 70s features a magnificent performance by Dustin Hoffman.

DEPARTURES / OKURIBITO (Yojiro Takita, 2008, Japan) – No one quite knows how this one got the Oscar for Best Foreign Film (2009) but it is a slow moving mood piece that offers a rare glimpse at the art of enconffinment. Terrific score by Joe Hisaishi.

THE BIG GUNDOWN / LA RESA DEI CONTI (Sergio Sollima, 1966, Spain/Italy) – This is one of the great Zapata westerns – ugly, brutal and politically conscious.

EL CID (Anthony Mann, 1961, Italy/US) – One of the last great Hollywood epics. Along with The Fall of the Roman Empire, Mann’s career finished on a creative high. Everything works about El Cid including Heston and Loren’s on screen pairing (though they loathed one another during the shoot). Looks incredible on Blu-Ray.

BOMBAY SUMMER (Joseph Matthew, 2009, US) – With a sizable debt to the cinema of Taiwanese film maker Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Bombay Summer makes for a quirky love story between three friends. The ending is unexpected and very moving.

THE YELLOW SEA / HWANGHAE (Hong-Jin Na, 2010, South Korea) – The follow up to Na’s breakthrough hit The Chaser, The Yellow Sea makes for a highly ambitious action thriller. Unfortunately, the narrative strands are excessive and fail to hold together as a coherent whole. Impressively staged chase sequences though.

MOUNTAIN PATROL / KEKEXILI (Lu Chuan, 2004, China) – A landscape film that unveils a hidden world in which a contest between poachers and rangers is played out against the harshness of Tibetan culture.

THE DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST (Robert Bresson, 1951, France) – Bresson’s study of a young country priest who questions his own faith and criticises those around him is an influential film. It was also somewhat underwhelming for a film by Bresson.

A LETTER TO ELIA (Martin Scorsese/Kent Jones, 2010, US) – Gushing with praise and celebratory remarks, Elia Kazan emerges ambiguously as both a hero and villain. It is a documentary of real love and friendship.

STANLEY KA DABBA (Amol Gupte, 2011, India) – Slipping under the radar undetected and receiving positive reviews, Amol Gupte’s directorial debut on the issue of child labour is a beautifully simple tale told with real integrity and compassion.

INSIDIOUS (James Wan, 2011, US) – Scary? Not quite. This is a fairly conventional ghost story lacking in substance.

PUSHER (Nicolas Winding Refn, 1996, Denmark) – The first part in the Pusher trilogy, Refn’s calling card as a talented film maker might be littered with generic situations but it is the nauseous camerawork and gripping narrative that really gets under the skin.

ONCE UPON A TIME IN MUMBAI (Milan Luthria, 2010, India) – A surprisingly effective mainstream crime thriller with a likable turn by Ajay Devgan as the notorious Mumbai smuggler Haji Mastan; acres of style.

COPYCAT (Jon Amiel, 1995, US) – A film in need of serious critical reappraisal. Whilst Amiel has had an uneventful career as a film director, Copycat is his best film and is imbued with a psychological complexity missing from most Hollywood thrillers. It also features brilliant performances by Sigourney Weaver and Holly Hunter.

THE REMAINS OF THE DAY (James Ivory, 1993, UK/US) – It would be wrong to simply label this one as another heritage film. It isn’t. It’s a masterpiece in many ways and one of Ismail Merchant’s and James Ivory’s greatest achievements. Hopkins and Thompson are astounding throughout.

SUGAR (Anna Boden/Ryan Fleck, 2008, US/Dominican Republican) – Boden & Fleck’s follow up to the brilliant Half Nelson is a powerful study of the immigrant experience. An American neo realist work comparable to Bahrani’s Goodbye Solo and Reichardt’s Wendy & Lucy.

THE GUNFIGHTER (Henry King, 1950, US) – Starkly shot with an expressionist visual style, Gregory Peck is on top form as the despicable outlaw Jimmy Ringo. A great western with noirish accents.

RIVER’S EDGE (Tim Hunter, 1986, US) – A disturbing study of teen apathy, alienation and conformity that still retains its original power. A wonderful cast made up of Dennis Hopper, Crispin Glover and Keanu Reeves.