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Essays

Offing the Pig: Even Dwarfs Started Small

By Ken Eisler

[Originally published in Movietone News 36, October 1974]

Even Dwarfs
The revolutionary act of burning the potted plants

It’s easy to see how Werner Herzog’s third feature might have provoked cries of “Reaction!” from students and other militants. The film’s rebellion of dwarfs against a callous but mealy-mouthed reform school administration certainly “starts small”; it barely gets one cubit off the ground, in fact.

Instead of burning down the school, the rebels burn potted plants. Instead of escaping “nach Dolores Hidalgo,” they commandeer an old car, joyride up and down in it a while, and then abandon it with the motor running, to circle around and around the school courtyard. Instead of humbling the sanctimonious administrators, they torment animals, things, each other. A female dwarf sits at the curb, tirelessly smashing one white egg after another against the stony ground. Another “rebel” busies himself trashing an old typewriter and finally flings it at the circling auto.

As a revolution, this is one long “exercise in futility.” And Herzog’s habitual irony, at many points, does seem to be pointing up a politically wry view of the uprising. Why else draw attention, twice, to the proximity of a town called Dolores Hidalgo—site of the historic Grito (cry) that set in motion the Mexican struggle for independence?

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When Herr R[ainer] Ran Amok

Whether or not Rainer Fassbinder was the most talented of the wave of West German directors who emerged during the 1970s, he was certainly the most prolific, protean and elusive. His first feature, Love is Colder than Death was released in 1969. Incredibly, the films discussed below, Fox and His Friends (1974) and Mother Kusters Goes to Heaven (1975) were his 22nd and 23rd feature-length works; by the time he died in 1982 he had completed 14 more including the 16-hour television series that was his magnum (and grand) opus Berlin Alexanderplatz [1980].

Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Hannah Schygulla
Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Hannah Schygulla

Fassbinder worked with frenzied urgency, pushing toward, and almost thriving on, excess—of stylization, melodrama, visual expressiveness, compositional precision, and pretty much everything else that defines the limits of film as a dramatic and expressive medium. His work could be wildly uneven and occasionally overwrought, clinically dissecting characters with the detached cruelty of a child pulling the wings off of flies. But it was seldom dull or pedestrian, and he seemed congenitally incapable of anything perfunctory or unengaged. Add in a personal life reportedly consisting of relationships that were a vipers’ pit of duplicity, jealousy and manipulation and a lifestyle Dionysian enough to give mere degeneracy a good name: he famously dismissed concerns that cocaine might ruin his health with the glib assertion “in Hollywood I can get a Teflon nose.” It’s enough to make you wonder how he got anything done, much less became one of the most productive film directors in history. (Of course, he did die at 37—well past his “sell by” date physically but not artistically: his penultimate film, Veronika Voss [1981], was among his best). He only dialed back his lifestyle—reportedly even abstaining from white powdery substances—and fully devoted himself to his craft once, for the year he spent laboriously realizing his dream project, a film adaptation of a novel he revered, Alfred Doblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz. The resulting masterpiece runs 16 hours, enough screen time to imbue the characters and their milieus with a richness and depth not always evident in his other work. Sarris blurbed it “an Everest of modern cinema.” Its fullness suggests that the fierce urgency of the broad strokes he used to craft his other work may have sacrificed complexity and resonance for force and clarity.

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Army of Shadows and the Unforgiving Code of Jean-Pierre Melville

[Originally published in slightly different form on GreenCine in 2006, in conjunction with the American theatrical release of Army of Shadows.]

Jean-Pierre Melville in Breathless
Jean-Pierre Melville in "Breathless"

Jean-Pierre Melville is surely the ultimate cult auteur in the French cinema. Spiritual godfather of the French New Wave (Jean-Luc Godard paid tribute to Melville with a generous cameo in his debut feature Breathless), Melville was a maverick in the system from his astounding, independently produced debut La Silence de la Mer (1947), a chamber drama set in the Nazi occupation of France, to his final film, the buddies-turned-nemeses heist thriller Un Flic (1972). He’s a favorite director of John Woo, Quentin Tarantino and Michael Mann (whose coolly attenuated crime thrillers owe a great debt to Melville), and his masterpiece Le Samourai (1969) was an inspiration to both Walter Hill’s The Driver and Woo’s The Killer.

Yet only in the past few years have his films really become available to American audiences, largely through theatrical rereleases by Rialto and lovingly produced DVDs from Criterion (who have released eight of his thirteen features since 2002). With Un Flic (aka Dirty Money) on DVD from Lionsgate (and earlier from Anchor Bay), that brings the number up to nine. It’s like they are being slowly doled out, like the last precious drops of water on a desert trek.

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Last Year at Graceland

Last Year at Graceland: The Story Behind Elvis Presley’s Lost Film

TCMElvis3Actual listing from the Turner Classic Movies website, August 16, 2002:

“3:00 PM – TICKLE ME/1965

A wealthy man tries to convince a bored socialite that they had an affair years earlier. Delphine Seyrig, Giorgio Albertazzi, Sacha Pitoeff. D: Alain Resnais. C-91m.”

In the ill-starred filmography of Elvis Presley, Tickle Me has long been considered the lone instance of the King reaching out beyond a simplistic movie formula, and thus presents a fascinating case study for Elvis fan and serious film scholar alike. (To be sure, Girls! Girls! Girls! has its champions, but save that for another day.) Tickle Me was originally assigned to director Hal “First Take” Beauregard, who, despite his advanced age and unfamiliarity with post-World War I music, had already guided four Elvis vehicles to box-office success. Just before shooting began, Beauregard was taken off Tickle Me when it was discovered that he had been legally deaf and partly blind for the previous decade, a condition known only to himself and Presley’s manager, the legendary Colonel Tom Parker.

tickleme2
Une affiche d'Elvis

Desperate to proceed, and with a brief window available before a locked-in start date for Paradise, Hawaiian Style, Col. Parker sought advice from the only person in Hollywood older than himself: Sam Spiegel, the producer of Lawrence of Arabia. The Colonel hoped to hire that Oscar-winning film’s director, David Lean, and indeed Lean worked on a story treatment for a week or so – but by the time he finished, Tickle Me no longer resembled its original concept. The Lean script would have necessitated re-casting, to say nothing of a three-hour running time, so Lean moved on. (Traces of his ideas can be found in the Presley vehicle Harum Scarum, its Arabian Nights atmosphere clearly influenced by Lawrence.)

This is where the saga truly becomes interesting. With only days until principal photography was scheduled to begin, Colonel Parker asked Lean for an inspiration. And Lean found one: Alain Resnais, the French director of Hiroshima, Mon Amour, which had exploded onto international movie screens a few years before. Resnais was in Hollywood hoping to jump-start his American career with an MGM horse-racing picture, but immediately leapt at the chance to work with the singer known in France as Le Roi du Pelvis. It was Resnais’ inspiration to enlist writer Alain Robbe-Grillet to punch up the Tickle Me script, which was originally penned by Ellwood Ullmann and Edward Bernds, a long-established writing team whose previous film was The Three Stooges in Orbit. One might expect Robbe-Grillet, widely celebrated for the 1950s Nouveau Roman movement as well as his superbly manicured fingernails, to look down on the assignment. Yet he relished the prospect of exploring U.S. culture from the inside. Later he was to recall the experience as a welcome break from the “excess of thinking” that marked his work in French literature.

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13 Ways of Looking at The Parallax View

[Originally published in Movietone News 34, August 1974]

1.

parallax_view_poster
The Parallax View

The Parallax View is an interesting suspense thriller with a thin plot involving a newspaper reporter named Frady (Warren Beatty) and his independent investigation of an employment bureau for assassins.

2.

The Parallax View is Alan Pakula’s hommage to Alfred Hitchcock, employing many of the Master’s techniques and devices, particularly his penchant for experimenting with different kinds of suspense and various ways of fulfilling—or not fulfilling—audience expectation. Pakula primes us for Hitchcock allusions with his precredit sequence, a high-altitude assassination and fistfight culminating in a fall from the Space Needle. The Needle is used even more casually than Hitchcock used the Statue of Liberty (Saboteur) and Mount Rushmore (North by Northwest).

3.

Like much of Hitchcock’s best work, and like Truffaut’s La Mariée était en noir, The Parallax View works consistently against its soundtrack. The film’s most arresting sequences take place while the track booms away irrelevantly with parade marches, political speeches, patriotic music. There is almost no crucial dialogue, and whole scenes—most notably one aboard an airplane threatened by a bomb—are played out against a subdued jumble of background noise. Later, a politician is murdered while his pre-recorded speech drones on. But while a blind person could not begin to follow the film, neither could a deaf person fully grasp its impact; for the ironic contrast between sight and sound in The Parallax View significantly amplifies the film’s theme of deliberately deceptive appearances. Michael Small’s sparse music score nicely reflects this irony in its use of a quick series of falling notes for solo trumpet. At its best moments, it calls to mind heroic aspirations echoing ineffectually off the spacious, sterile architecture that becomes the film’s principal and most memorable visual image.

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The Pakula Parallax

[originally published in Film Comment Vol. 12 No. 5, September/October 1976]

There is no more classical filmmaker than Alan J. Pakula at work in the American cinema today—a description that applies at several levels. Among contemporary directorial hotshots he is a comparative veteran, having been employed in one capacity or another in the studio system since the late Forties. The meticulous production values of his films suggest more affinity to the Old Hollywood than to the Age of the Cinemobile, although the seamless fusion of location work and impeccably detailed soundstage recreations (Stroheim could scarcely have improved on stuffing the All the President’s Men wastebaskets with authentic Washington Post trash) sit well with presentday preferences for verismo.

The Parallax View
The Parallax View from the Space Needle

Similarly, the astonishing density of performance he elicits from the merest bit-player yields the kind of behavioral richness associated with the ensemble professionalism of a bygone generation of character actors. Indeed, he goes one better. Even when a performer is trotting out his or her familiar specialty number (William Daniels’ fidgety-smarmy political aide in The Parallax View, Valerie Curtin’s teary collapse when Woodstein appears at her door a second time in All the President’s Men), the character has an edge and validity that suggest Pakula has taken the player back to the origin of the shtik, and beyond.

Another salient element of the director’s “Hollywood classicism” is his almost Hitchcockian shrewdness about tone and pacing. This figures crucially in All the President’s Men‘s success as an irresistibly compelling general-audience picture which neither sacrifices seriousness of purpose nor betrays the attenuated time-and-space conditions of the events it recounts. In fact, in All the President’s Men and its companions in the so-called “paranoia trilogy,” Klute (1971) and The Parallax View (1974), entertainment (suspense, excitement) and art (critical perspective, formal perception, humane comprehension) are served collaterally by way of sheer, goosepimply engrossment. (And even though The Parallax View, for one, failed to dent the box office, every audience I saw it with was riveted to the screen.)

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The Parallax View: An Introduction

[Originally published on the Turner Classic Movies website on March 2009.]

Alan Pakula’s The Parallax View, a political thriller with an unmistakable resemblance to the Kennedy assassination, was not the first conspiracy thriller to emerge from Hollywood – you can trace the lineage back to The Manchurian Candidate in 1962 – and it was not a hit when it was fitfully released in 1974. But its reputation and stature has only grown in the years since and it is arguably the definitive conspiracy thriller of the seventies.

Warren Beatty as investigative reporter Joe Frady
Warren Beatty as investigative reporter Joe Frady

Warren Beatty stars as investigative reporter Joe Frady, though when we first glimpse him in the film he’s merely a face in the crowd around Senator Charles Carroll (William Joyce). He tries to bluff his way into an exclusive gathering for the Senator at the top of the Space Needle in Seattle but is rebuffed and thus left on the ground when the Senator is shot and the gunman killed in an escape attempt. “There is no evidence of a conspiracy,” concludes a panel of judges, who proclaim it the work of a lone gunman. (We, of course, know there was at least one accomplice who slipped to safety.). It’s the film’s answer to the Warren Commission and Pakula shoots the tribunal floating in a sea of shadow, a tiny image that slowly, ominously grows larger as the credits roll. By the end of the sequence, they fill the screen with an image as distorted as their conclusions.

In those first few minutes, Pakula establishes an atmosphere of unease and a distrust of authority that never lets up. When we catch of with Frady three years later, being hounded by the police for his investigations into drug crimes and enforcement, he comes on like a dogged reporter from a thirties newspaper drama with seventies style, a mix of old school and modern sensibility. But even he is dubious of conspiracy claims until fellow reporter and ex-girlfriend Lee Carter (Paula Prentiss) turns up dead (a suicide is the ruling, but Frady doesn’t buy it). She’s the seventh of twenty witnesses to the Senator Carroll shooting to die in the three years since, and once Frady takes up the case, he discovers that he is also now a target. With the tacit support of a paternal editor (Hume Cronyn), Frady follows his clues to the mysterious Parallax Corporation and, with the help of a former FBI agent (Kenneth Mars) and a psychologist (an uncredited Anthony Zerbe), catches the interest of a sinister recruiter (Walter McGinn). “If you qualify, and we think you can, we’re prepared to offer you the most lucrative and rewarding work of your life.”

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Aguirre, The Wrath of God – Defying the Natural Order

Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972) was Werner Herzog’s fifth feature film—his first with Klaus Kinski—and arguably his most compelling, resonant, and admired early work. Its opening titles announce its subject as an expedition led by Pizarro in search of El Dorado, that crossed the Andes descended to the jungle floor, and made an ill-fated decision to attempt a raft trip down river.

Klaus Kinski as Aguirre
Klaus Kinski as Aguirre

From its opening moments, the film has a dual focus. The opening titles, fictitiously evoking Spanish conquistadors—an expedition, set in 1560, supposedly led by Pizarro, who died in 1541—suggest a narrative fiction film, perhaps a fable about imperialism. But a breathtaking series of early images, of clouds, of a vertical mountainside with a fragile human chain descending, as much from the clouds as the summit, suggest a lyrically poetic documentary portrayal of man inter­acting with—and being overwhelmed by—the natural world. In many ways, of course, the two are comple­mentary; the narrative of imperialism is largely one of conquerors subduing natives before being, in turn subdued and engulfed by the land.

This double focus is not surprising for Herzog, who persistently blurred the distinctions between documentary and fiction. Fata Morgana (1970) contains some of the most poetically evocative landscapes ever filmed, but Herzog reportedly believes there’s a narrative in there somewhere, based on a creation legend. And the “straight” documentary Land of Silence and Darkness (1971) uses its factual subjects as starting points for metaphysical exploration. Finally, the early Herzog “fiction” film with the fewest “real­istic” trappings, the ponderously stylized Heart of Glass (1976)—complete with a cast “acting” while under hypnosis—nearly collapses under the weight of its self-conscious ramblings.

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La Femme infidèle

[Originally written for the University of Washington Office of Lectures & Concerts Film Series, May 22, 1973]

La Femme infidele
La Femme infidele

For some time it was easy to regard Claude Chabrol as far and away the least of the nouvelle vague Big Three. Whereas Truffaut gifted us with bittersweet, occasionally wry affirmations of an abounding, Renoiresque life force and Godard challenged us to tag along as he sought new ways of looking at movies and at the world as well, Chabrol seemed to be playing games of a highly dubious, unrewardingly perverse nature. His early works, like Les Cousins and À Double Tour, reveled in the habitually petty and gradually escalating nastiness of very unattractive human beings; their occasional doses of broken-field camera movement and hothouse color tended less to exhilarate the viewer than to inculcate a sense of the director’s rash presumptuousness. (It was irritating to feel the nagging doubt that even though convention insisted such bravura displays had no place in depictions of such folks and their tainted milieux, Chabrol knew that, too, and had the germ of a serious purpose in flouting convention — though a failure of technique or timing usually flawed the unexpected track or crane or whatever, and hence restored one’s sense of complacent moral/aesthetic superiority before one was forced to concede Chabrol the point.) Bourgeois resentment tended to be upheld by the reviewers and the distributors: most Chabrols that managed to get to the States scarcely got beyond New York thanks to pans or lukewarm appreciations and soft grosses. Even at home Chabrol did not fare as his fellow critical confreres–turned–filmmakers, and eventually his resources (a wife’s personal fortune) ran out. The mid-Sixties found him making commissioned films, wishful James Bond imitations (Le Tigre aime la chair fraîche, Marie-Chantal contre le Docteur Kha, Le Tigre se parfume à la dynamite). The case seemed closed. Then, about the time Godard went politicking into anticinema and Truffaut threatened to get lost in Hitchcock imitations, Chabrol came back with Les Biches, and the thing was so gorgeous, so enthralling, yet so quirkily self-aware at the same time that I, for one, began to wonder whether this once trivially quirky gentleman mightn’t turn out to be the foremost classicist of the New Wave. And after La Femme infidèle, Que la bête meure, and Le Boucher, I’ve stopped wondering.

La Femme infidèle looks like the director’s masterpiece to date. It’s certainly a masterpiece. From the opening, almost functional glide along the front of the Desvallées’ suburban home, the film gathers itself with delicate relentlessness and moves toward one of the most lucid and fulfilled closing shots I’ve ever experienced. A major charm and, beyond and through that, a major strength of Truffaut’s films is that they are rife with “moments.” In Baisers volés or Deux Anglaises et le Continent these moments tend to accrete toward a deep conviction of the artist’s — and sometimes his characters’ — receptivity to life’s bounty. (In the contemporary world of Baisers volés and the continuing saga of Antoine Doinel, they testify toward the ultimate shaping of a random life; in the temporally distant cinematic country of a Deux Anglaises or a Jules et Jim they reverberate with remembered heartbeats, the knowledge of missed opportunities, the tenderly comic sense of people who caught at life with such fondly absurd deliberation that they crushed it; in a La Mariée était en noir or La Sirène du Mississippi, they suggest the flutter of a sensibility (Truffaut’s) whose instincts run counter to the generic house rules. Chabrol’s films — at least, once one has sat through them and is in a position to consider the whole of the individual movie — suggest a kind of organic containment or completion. This is hardly to say that Truffaut’s films lack form. Rather, their very form encompasses a sense of spontaneity, of accident: shots and scenes may go by very rapidly, as if they were pieces of a larger spatial and temporal reality but only these snatches of perception are important to the director and to us and so they are all we see. Truffaut is capable of long-take scenes and Chabrol is capable of fragmentation; but even Chabrol’s techniques of fragmentation and disruption tend to reinforce our sense of the scene’s relation to the entire movement of the piece.

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Claude Chabrol – The Classicist

This piece was written about fifteen years ago for a cinema biographies project that never came to fruition. None of it appears to need changing, but by way of updating I’ve appended a comment on a recent Chabrol picture seen in the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival. —RTJ, June 24, 2009

 

Claude Chabrol
Claude Chabrol

Claude Chabrol was one of the “young Turk” critics-turned-filmmakers who constituted the New Wave of French cinema at the turn of the ’60s. At the time, he ran a distant third to the iconoclastic, theoretical Jean-Luc Godard and the warm-hearted, soaringly lyrical François Truffaut. But in the late ’60s, Chabrol emerged as a magisterially accomplished classicist, with an unbroken string of masterpieces that established him as one of the world’s finest directors. He has managed to remain commercially viable—indeed, awesomely prolific—over the ensuing decades, while pursuing his own distinctive, coolly detached vision of life and cinema.

He was born in Paris but raised in the provincial village of Creuse; just as Godard eventually returned to his native Switzerland, so Chabrol has often set his films far from the capital of the nouvelle vague, and frequently made the very specific climate and landscape of his narratives key to their spirit and meaning. Chabrol père was a pharmacist, and grand-père before him; Claude initially studied to follow in the family tradition, but switched to literature and then political science and the law. Arguably, all these disciplines left their mark (did the lapsed pharmacologist take ironic relish in doing a film of Madame Bovary?), but in truth he had been claimed early by the cinema. At the age of 12 he started a film club (they showed their movies in a barn), and as a student in Paris he hung out at the Cinémathèque Française with such fellow cinéastes as Truffaut, Godard, Jacques Rivette, and Eric Rohmer, with whom he would collaborate on the first serious book-length study of Alfred Hitchcock in 1954. This was a natural outgrowth of his writing, from 1950, for the revisionist film journal Cahiers du Cinéma, which regularly denounced the big-studio “Tradition of Quality” in French filmmaking and looked to such Hollywood masters (then largely unheralded) as Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, and Nicholas Ray as exemplars of personal authorship through figures of style.

In 1952, Chabrol married a woman named Agnès Goute (and assimilated her surname into one of his Cahiers aliases). She was an heiress, and in 1958—after a lamentable turn as a publicist in 20th Century–Fox’s Paris office—Chabrol drew on her fortune to finance his writing-directing debut, Le Beau Serge. This provincial drama, focused on the tensions that grow out of a visit by a friend from the city, was well received critically, and Chabrol went on to reverse the strategy—countrified Gérard Blain visits sophisticated urban relative Jean-Claude Brialy—in Les Cousins (1959), which won a prize at the Berlin Film Festival.

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Jean Renoir’s River

Jean Renoir’s world-view, famously stated by a character the director played in The Rules of the Game (1939), is that “Everyone has his reasons.” Although Renoir recognized the corollary—that some reasons are better than others—he always understood the complex motivations that drive human actions. And that understanding, in turn, helped him to animate his characters—sympathetic or not—with a vibrancy that makes them compelling screen presences.

The River - ritual and culture
The River - ritual and culture

Renoir’s work of the thirties, including his “official” classics, The Grand Illusion (1937) and The Rules of the Game, is often considered his finest work. And his deceptively simple work in Hollywood during the forties is often underrated. But perhaps his greatest sustained achievement came with the four color films of the fifties: The River (1951), The Golden Coach, (1953), French Cancan (1955), and Elena and Her Men (1956).

The River, Renoir’s first film in color and last in English, showcases the thematic richness and empathetic characterization that define the director’s best work. A film of astonishing physical beauty, The River is one of the richest explorations of man’s place in the natural world ever filmed. From the opening sequence, a series of shots of life along a river in India, the film explores man in nature, integrating human experience into a larger order encompassing all life.

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Ramin Bahrani’s Chop Shop: “It’s Alive!”

[ed. note: Director Ramin Bahrani arrives in Seattle to conduct a “Master Class” workshop for Northwest Film Forum on Tuesday, April 28. On Wednesday, April 29, Bahrani will introduce a special screening of his new film, Goodbye Solo, with a Q&A to follow, also at NWFF. To mark the occasion, Jim Emerson has allowed us to reprint 2007 piece he wrote on Bahrani and his earlier films. Thank you, Jim.]

[Originally published on Jim Emerson’s Scanner’s blog on September 7, 2007.]

Alejandro Polanco plays... Alejandro
Alejandro Polanco plays... Alejandro

Within the first 30 seconds or so of Ramin Bahrani’s Chop Shop, you know you’re in good hands. I’ve written quite a bit about how much I loved Bahrani’s debut feature, Man Push Cart, from its opening shot to its final ingenious moment, and Chop Shop is a piece of filmmaking that is every bit as observant and assured. So, that first shot: A cluster of day workers stand in wait. This could be anywhere — California, Texas, Mexico, South America — but the first thing you sense is that it’s not: it’s this particular place, even if we don’t know the name of it yet. The camera (hand-held, but not shakycam style) pans to the left as a truck pulls up. A guy gets out and picks two men for the job, telling a persistent kid, “I don’t need you today” — and the accent is unmistakably NY. As the pickup pulls out, the kid hops into the back.

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Nagisa Oshima and In the Realm of the Senses

[originally published in a slightly different form in the Oregon Daily Emerald in 1977]

Nagisha Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses (1977) was a cause célèbre even before it officially opened in the United States, thanks to a bizarre Customs Office decision to confiscate a print rather than allow the film to be screened at the New York Film Festival. This censorship was particularly conspicuous directed, as it was, against the first film with hardcore sequences by a certifiably “serious” director; by 1977 Oshima was well-regarded, if not widely-known, for creative, pathmarking films like Boy, (1969)Death by Hanging, (1968) and his best film, The Ceremony (1971). Oshima’s projects had blended the roles of fearless provocateur and serious artist, most successfully in The Ceremony; in Senses, as in his earlier Night and Fog in Japan, the provocateur took center stage, with unhappy aesthetic results.

Tatsuya Fuji gets serious
Tatsuya Fuji: the aggressor

Commercially, though, the publicity could hardly have been more favorable: an award-winning director and subtitles to bring out the art film crowd, and censorship for the First Amendment crowd, with maybe also a genteel slice of the overcoat crowd (knowing it was the “real thing”). In combination with the acclaim the film garnered, it created what passes in the marginal realm of the art film an international sensation, becoming the first widely-distributed Oshima film; from there his career inflated with bigger budgets (Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983), with David Bowie, no less)and more provocative themes (Max, Mon Amour, (1987) reportedly a tale of romantic attraction between a character played by Charlotte Rampling, and an ape named Max); after further work was interrupted by serious health problems he ended his career with one of his most compelling and effective films, Gohatto (Taboo) (1999), about gay sex in the military.

By the standards of domestic porn, even in its time, Senses was fairly tame stuff, with hardcore sequences too brief and intermittent for serious overcoaters, but it does include, by my unofficial count, along with heterosexual couplings: masturbation, gay sex, voyeurism, sado-masochism, bondage, rape, intergenerational sex, hints of sex play with a child, symbolic bestiality, dismemberment, castration, a sexual act of murder, and necrophilia. In addition, the soundtrack contains enough groaning, moaning, sighing, panting, grunting, and heavy breathing for a wrestling tournament.

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24 City – The Children of Mao and Microsoft

Jia Zhiang-ke’s style, temperament, and circumstances uniquely suit him to chronicle his subject: turn-of-the-century China. His early films focused on youth, dislocated between the reality of, the backwater areas where they live, and the beckoning promise of an urbanized “modernity” of their dreams. More recently, he set The World among young workers in an urban theme park consisting of of scaled-down versions of international landmarks like the Eiffel Tower : faux cosmopolitanism as a part daily life. If Godard famously examined the children of Marx and Coca Cola, Jia’s subjects are offspring of Mao and Microsoft.

The factory
The factory

His newest, 24 City, is framed—at least for a while—as a documentary reporting the transformation of a Cold-War-vintage urban weapons factory—on what has become prime real estate—into “24 City,” a five-star residential and resort complex. The movie seems to telegraph Its formula in early sequences that interview some of the the factory’s first workers: earnest, idealistic, stoic, and hard-working, in contrast to later subjects who seem cheerfully crass and unapologetically materialistic. But Jia is as much trickster as chronicler, and deftly mixes faux and “real” footage to subvert that facile formula.

The factory opened in the late 1950s, and an early interviewee, a self-assured efficient-seeming technocrat, recounts a working life of commitment and diligence, patriotically serving nation and factory. As hard as he works, though, he describes himself as a piker next to his early mentor, who worked harder and used equipment more resourcefully, ingeniously finding ways to use worn tools lesser workers would long ago have discarded as beyond useability. The mentor himself then appears to confirm this, smiling a bit diffidently as he recounts never missing a day of work– holidays and Sundays included—and working occasional nights as well. And he confirms, and even embellishes the accounts of re-using worn equipment until it brings to mind the story in The Searchers: ordinary man rides a horse until it’s dead; a Comanche gets on that horse, rides it for 20 miles, then eats it.

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Playing Fair with Mel Gibson’s “Passion”

passioncrownofthorns
Christ's suffering: "a down-and-dirty, medieval vision of flesh ruined and violated beyond enduring"

[Originally written for Queen Anne News, 2004]

In the week since I attended a press screening of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, I’ve talked and argued about religion, with believers and unbelievers alike, more than I have in decades. Every film reviewer, pundit and talkshow host in the country has fervently weighed in for or against this controversial, ultra-gory reenactment of the final 12 hours of Jesus’ life. So much, frequently hysterical, verbiage has heaped up that the movie itself — the way it looks, moves, its way of shaping a primal story into art — gets buried. Indeed, many have just skipped the film entirely, so that their opinions won’t be hampered by actually experiencing the gospel according to Gibson.

As almost everyone knows by now, Mel Gibson invested his own money in this 126-minute visualization of Christ’s Passion — not the euphemized, abbreviated, cleaned-up version that contemporary Christians have mostly espoused, but a down-and-dirty, medieval vision of flesh ruined and violated beyond enduring. (One Catholic novelist objected “to the way Gibson’s film disturbs [emphasis mine] our sense of peace and acceptance of the cross.”)

Distasteful and even embarrassing to many latterday Christians, this horrific chapter of Christ’s life on earth obviously possesses some special, visceral appeal for Gibson, a traditionalist Catholic whom some accused of anti-Semitism even before the film was released. (For the record, I didn’t register any anti-Semitic subtext in The Passion, and I didn’t come away filled with hatred for anyone. For me, the operative emotion was pity: for benighted humankind and Gibson’s religious hero.)

Take a look at the final 15 minutes of Gibson’s 1995 Oscar-winner Braveheart; it’s startling to see how literally Gibson rehearses — sometimes shot for shot — for The Passion, with himself as the suffering Christ. Praying for the strength to die well; spread-eagled on a cross; tempted by a satanic figure; empowered by the eyes of those who witness his awful torture; inspiring his followers with the sustaining legacy of Braveheart‘s last image, a sword-cross planted in the earth — the bloody end of Gibson’s Scots hero presages the formal, stylized contemplation of his god-man’s lengthier, equally barbaric Passion.

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