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Heart of Glass

Werner Herzog seemed to court risks, artistic and personal. Heart of Glass (1976), may be his most ambitious, stylized, and explicitly allegorical film, and seems in retrospect to mark the point where his relentless risk-taking overreached his limits. Heart of Glass in conventional terms is a failure, ponderous, stilted, overwhelmingly pretentious, but one that still somehow seems achingly close to greatness.

Heart of Glass
Heart of Glass

The images in the opening sequence—cows grazing in early morning mist while a nearby man sits lost in thought, water cascading over a falls (shown through a gauze filter)—fuse poetically into an overwhelming, ultimately indescribable visionary experience. Heart‘s ending, almost as arresting, somehow lacks the emotional resonance of the opening, perhaps because of the oddly unsatisfying quality of much of what we see between the two sequences. And a measure of the film’s failure is the way these two sequences seem curiously unconnected, aesthetically, emotionally, or narratively, to the story they frame.

Somewhere in Heart of Glass is a story, but its contours and logic are so murky that it’s almost impossible to find. Herzog’s characters are often, as here, questing for something. Usually, though, the metaphysical dimensions of their quests are suggested in mundane activities: as a dwarf tries to climb onto a bed where an eager woman awaits him (Even Dwarfs Started Small, 1970) or a trio of Germans tries to make themselves a home in Wisconsin (Stroszek, 1978),their frustrations and failures gradually take on universality; the “meaning” emerges from the material. But in Heart the characters’ quest—to recover a lost formula for making beautiful glass—is presented in such self-consciously symbolic terms that it’s obvious what they’re “really” after is something big, like “transcendence” or even the “meaning of life.” In case anyone misses this, a “prophet” wanders through the film, uttering profundities and even, in one ponderous scene, predicting World War I and the rise of Hitler in heavy-handedly symbolic terms. Give him pancake make-up, black robes and a chessboard, and he could be a refugee from Bergman’s Seventh Seal (1957).

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Land of Silence and Darkness: What it Means to be Human

Land of Silence and Darkness(1971) was Herzog’s first feature-length documentary (his previous feature, Fata Morgana [1971] begs to be classed as a metaphysical documentary, but by Herzog’s daffy description, is sci-fi). The subject matter, the struggle for human communication, is such a natural for Herzog that in some ways the film is quintessential early Herzog. It follows Fini Straubinger, a leader of, and advocate for, the deaf and blind in Germany, through a life of constant activity, entertaining and visiting people without sight or hearing. But the narrator tells us that after she first lost her sight and hearing in a fall down stairs, she was bed-ridden for seventeen years. The tremendous drive and will that enabled her, finally, to rise from her bed is now channeled into the almost obsessive drive to communicate that is the implicit subject of the film, or at least its central mystery and driving force.

Land of Silence and Darkness
Land of Silence and Darkness

Herzog seems determined to share her point of view: the film’s opening shot, a distorted black and white image of clouds above a road anticipates her later account of a dream describing her memories from when she could see and hear. But the film’s ability to share her point of view is limited by a perverse tension inherent in trying to use film—a medium that communicates solely through the senses of sound and sight—to examine people who can neither see nor hear.

Lacking words, Fini communicates with others and perceives the external world through touch. The film describes a touch alphabet, in which different types of touches express verbal symbols. But the most telling communication in the film comes from touches that create a sensory sharing more immediate and less ordered than language.

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Even Dwarfs Started Small: Persistence and Futility

A singularly evocative setting for the action
A singularly evocative setting for the action

Herzog’s Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970) stands out as one of his most singular films. It has virtually no story-line (“dwarfs raise hell” probably exhausts the subject) and its harsh tone seems to confront its audience, aggressively demanding some kind of response. Even the title seems a kind of challenge: why the word “even,” which seems to imply that somehow dwarfs would be the last, rather than the first people one would think of as having “started small?” And yet, despite its obscure “meaning,” Even Dwarfs Started Small is a perfectly appropriate title.

Herzog makes much of his instinctual approach to film-making and, indeed, his films often seem to have emerged almost directly from his unconscious. Of the camel that presides over the climax of Dwarfs Herzog has said, “I only know the camel has to be there.” And he added: “I have no abstract concept that a particular kind of animal signifies this or that, just a clear knowledge that they have an enormous weight in the movies.” Whether or not one takes these pronouncements at face value, Dwarfs‘s images, inexplicable as they may be, provide a singularly evocative setting for the action.

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Signs of Life: Longing for a Rational, Ordered World

Although Signs of life (1967) was Herzog’s first feature film, it has few of the self-conscious, look-at-me-making-a-movie film school tricks that often characterize first efforts. Compared to the director’s later work, it seems muted, but it contains many of its director’s signature motifs and devices: strikingly bizarre, expressive images; off-beat, occasionally off-the-wall humor rooted in behavioral eccentricities; a sense of the limitations of verbal communication; visual and verbal references to moving in circles; and an obsessive concern with how characters confront a natural order that is often indifferent, if not actively hostile, to human aspirations.

Signs of Life
Signs of Life

As a strictly fictional film, Signs is closer to Stroszek (1977)—the central character in each is named Stroszek—than to much of Herzog’s intervening work. Signs even employs a narrator whose comments apparently impose order on the action by explaining and describing it. Certainly, compared to later films like the wildly anarchic Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970), Signs seems almost conventional.

Stroszek’s situation in Signs of Life is typically ironic and perverse. A paratrooper we never see leave the ground, he was wounded in occupied territory, during a lull in the fighting, circumstances that, perversely, offered the illusion of safety. He is introduced in extreme long-shot as a helpless, wounded figure; we are told he is a passenger in a truck crossing a desolately beautiful landscape, and we first see him as a motionless figure on a stretcher being carried into a hospital. Through the balance of the film, his world remains out of kilter, and eventually he goes mad and assaults the world, setting off fireworks to prevent the sun from rising.

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Not Quite Hollywood – Disreputable and Delirious Downunder Movies

Mark Hartley’s unabashedly affectionate Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story Of Ozploitation!, his tribute to Australian genre cinema, is one of the rarities that justifies my passion for documentaries about films and film history: a smartly made look at an otherwise neglected aspect of film history and culture, packed with colorful stories, witty observations, punky attitude and real history, and delivered with unrestrained passion and excitement for the subject. This is Hartley’s feature debut, but his resume includes scores of featurettes on Australian movies—from the official classics to the cult items, the high and low of cinema culture—for DVD supplements. In addition to the first person history this has given him, it’s also been an entrée to the directors, actors and other filmmaking folks of the era, and he is able to bring a wealth of voices to his film: witnesses to the thriving domestic Australian cinema that gets overlooked in the rush to praise the more respectable and dignified offerings.

Richard Franklin's "Patrick" - once the highest grossing film in Italy
Richard Franklin's "Patrick" - once the highest grossing film in Italy

As Hartley reminds us, there was no Australian film industry to speak of—and certainly no celebrated Australian New Wave, with its gentile historical subjects and tasteful filmmaking—when producers like John D. Lamond and Anthony I. Ginnane and directors like Tim Burstall cashed in on the newly-minted ratings code of 1971. They turned out raucous R-rated sex romps and boorish comedies to critical disdain and popular success, not just domestically but internationally as well. When the nerds-and-boobs (and more!) formula wore thin at the box office, horror films (Patrick, 1978, Razorback, 1984), action movies (The Man From Hong Kong, 1975) and car culture outlaw thrillers (Stone, 1974, Mad Max, 1979) became the coin of the grindhouse and drive-in realms, many of them quite profitable, most of them exportable, virtually all of them deplored by the Antipodeon arbiters of taste and culture.

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St. Nick in Seattle

David Patrick Lowery’s new film—and first feature—St. Nick was showcased at the shorts film festival Rawstock 5 at the end of July. Having liked all of Lowery’s earlier work that I had seen, I didn’t want to miss it, or the rare chance to meet the film maker in person.

St. Nick
St. Nick

My anticipation was not misplaced. St. Nick is a constant adventure in light, shape, texture, and color. There’s narrative, too, to be sure. But it emerges only after the film and its central mystery have hooked you through images and episodes that tickle your sense of wonder and tease your curiosity.

How did these two kids get to where they are? How far are they from home? Why are they on their own? Lowery lets these questions hang in the back of his film. His interest lies not in their back story or motivation but in their resourcefulness, their sense of adventure, the enthusiasm with which they embrace the world. In a word, their kid-ness.

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Oh, the Humanity! Post-Apocalyptic Drear in “Terminator Salvation”

If movies indeed tap into the zeitgeist, Terminator Salvation, director McG’s grim reboot of the 25-year-old man vs. machine franchise, speaks to a demographic in awfully low spirits. Will this relentless, episodic slog through post-apocalyptic drear, punched up by paroxysms of extreme violence, deliver at the box office and resurrect the Terminator series (sequels are already in the works)?

Christian Bale vs. machine
Christian Bale vs. machine

Set in 2018, after nuclear Judgment Day, Salvation‘s ruined world has been leached of all color and signs of life. The days are steeped in sickly beige-brown, the noirish nights drenched in rain. Hunted down by machines of assorted shapes and sizes, the few remaining humans, always starkly lighted, resemble gaunted concentration-camp survivors stripped of any expression but a reflexive hunger to stay alive. (“We’re in the cattle car now,” despairs a fellow picked by an über-machina transporter.)

Lock-jawed Christian Bale plays grizzled resistance messiah John Connor as if programmed to project nothing but single-minded rage laced with unstoppable courage. Happily, Connor’s unlikely brother-in-arms (Aussie newcomer Sam Worthington, soon to star in James Cameron’s Avatar), a convicted killer reformatted by Cyberdyne, occasionally permits himself a welcome break from the stoic mode. On screen more and longer than Bale, permitted to act human once in a while, Worthington, like homeboy Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight, steals the film away from Bale. Call it minimalist charisma.

So here’s the rub: if you’re making a film about a cosmic struggle between men and machines for dominion of the earth, the question of what makes human beings valuable, special, worth saving, is crucial. In Salvation, there’s no punch–no flesh and blood–to that question. Clichés like “We bury our dead” are trotted out, but Salvation never jacks us into the psyches of the non-machines we should be rooting for. The film’s emotional oxygen is so thin that the protagonists don’t seem wholly there; they’re “types” cloned from the headier worlds of Cameron’s two Terminators, Mad Max, the Aliens franchise, Battlestar Galactica, and even TV’s The Sarah Connor Chronicles.

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Star Trek – Not So Boldly Going

The upcoming statement isn’t exactly going to set the internet on fire, but here goes: I’ve got a bit of a beef with Harlan Ellison, namely for his oft-crowed, dependably nerd-enraging assertion that the OG Star Trek series was nothing more than a “cop show in space.” Although said statement does serve to nicely deflate the pomposity that has grown around the franchise’s later incarnations, it also dismisses the very factor that made the concept so memorable for a casual fan such as myself; namely that earnest essence of parable-rich weirdness which went far beyond the cardboard sets and aliens with Russian accents. Computers being talked to death, OK Corrals in space, evil designated by goatees: these are the things that linger past the phasers and prime directives.

Chris Pine as Captain Kirk: back in the Captain's chair for the first time
Chris Pine as Captain Kirk: back in the Captain's seat... for the first time

Star Trek, director J.J. Abrams’ much-ballyhooed attempt at giving the ravaged franchise a reboot, doesn’t exactly prove Harlan right, but it doesn’t really go out of its way to find new frontiers, either. Although undeniably a lot of fun — along with his standard snappy patter, TV vet Abrams’ command of both pacing and big screen environs has grown visibly since Mission: Impossible 3 — the final impression is of a slightly self-conscious undertaking kept so busy appeasing both nervous hardcores (Kirk still likes green chicks!) and newbies alike (but he also misses his father, in easily recognizable blockbuster fashion!) that it never quite manages to blaze its own trail.

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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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Silent Light – Mortals and Miracles

The screen opens on the night sky, the stars glowing (not twinkling, mind you, but crisp and sharp and dense as seen from the clarity of a desert, with no city lights or urban pollution to muddy the view). The sounds of night are the only soundtrack, hyper-attentive to the natural world of insects. The starfield suddenly starts to bend and warp as the screen spirals and the camera readjusts. It’s only when the orange and green of dawn begins to overpower the black sky and drown out the stars and dark shadows of silhouettes are slowly revealed that we realize it is the horizon. It’s like watching the world being born in front of our eyes, with the sounds of farm animals waking to the dawn and the Earth rousing from slumber taking over the soundtrack. The camera silently tracks in to the scene, creeping so slowly it’s almost imperceptible but for the shifting perspective.

silent_light_2
Mennonites in Mexico

I can’t recall ever seeing such a vision of dawn as the birth of a new day, of the turning of the Earth as a literal rebirth of life, in a film, let alone in the defining first images. Silent Light, Carlos Reygadas’ third feature, is set in a Mennonite community in Mexico, an insular pocket of agrarian people that feels almost like a portal to old Europe within modern Mexico. This is not some Luddite culture – Johan (Cornelio Wall), the gentle patriarch of the farm family we meet over silent prayer and bustling breakfast, drives a sturdy new pickup and harvests the fields with combines and he joins his children to watch a DVD in a portable TV in a van – but these people hold close to their values, their religion and their way of life. Reygadas’ measured pace and the reflective observation of his patient camera is in tune with the movement of seasons and the cycle of crops, rather than the rush of urban life carved up into deadlines. It’s also in tune with the austerity of their surroundings and the quality of their spiritual lives. They are not a simple people, which sounds more like an insult than a description, but a community of people who seem to take the time to experience every moment, whether it is silent prayer over the breakfast table or a family bath in an outdoor pool.

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Murnau in Germany – DVDs for the Week (Pt 2)

The Box Set
Murnau: A Six DVD Box Set

DVD has been as good to F.W. Murnau as any silent legend has a right to expect. Milestone Films released a gorgeous edition of his final film, Tabu, back in the early days of DVD. Flicker Alley released the 1922 rarity Phantom (restored by the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation) a few years ago. Fox collected his American features — Sunrise (one of the unequivocal masterpieces of world cinema) and City Girl, along with a documentary tribute to his lost drama Four Devils — in the magnificent box set Murnau, Borzage and Fox. And Kino, which released the American versions of Murnau’s Nosferatu, The Last Laugh and Faust on DVD, has been faithfully upgrading and adding to the library with stateside releases of restorations helmed by the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation. Murnau: A Six DVD Box Set is an upgrade from Kino’s five-disc The F.W. Murnau Collection from 2003. The disc of Tartuffe is the same the rest of the set is either upgraded or brand new: the recently restored German editions of Nosferatu and The Last Laugh (previously available from Kino in two disc “Deluxe Editions”) and the DVD debuts of The Haunted Castle and The Finances of the Grand Duke and the original German version of Faust, which are also available separately (with Faust offered in a two disc “Deluxe Edition” featuring the earlier DVD release). Milestone’s Tabu, which was on the earlier set, is not here, but it is available separately from Milestone. Confusing? Yes, it can be. If you’ve been picking up the restored upgrades all along, you’ll probably want to skip the box and just pick up the three DVD debuts separately. If you don’t have any of the restored versions, however, the box set is an essential instant collection for the Murnau fan or the silent movie obsessive.

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Shimizu in Japan – DVDs for the Week (Pt 1)

Two box sets reveal the riches of two classic filmmakers with radically different pedigrees. F.W. Murnau has long been considered one of the great directors of world cinema and Kino’s new Murnau: A Six DVD Box Set introduces two rarities in beautifully restored editions and an astounding restoration of Faust. (The review follows later this week.) Hiroshi Shimizu, however, is practically unknown in this country. Travels with Hiroshi Shimizu is as much a discovery as a celebration of this marvelous filmmaker, and I hope it’s merely the beginning of a revival.

Eclipse Series 15
Eclipse Series 15

Look up Hiroshi Shimizu on the IMDb and you’ll find 42 films made between 1924 and 1957 listed under his name. According Michael Koresky in the liner notes to the box set Travels With Hiroshi Shimizu (the 15th set from Eclipse, Criterion’s budget-minded label), he made over 150 films by most counts. That’s a lot of films for a director largely forgotten to time, even in Japan, but it isn’t the number of films that’s most alarming about his neglect. It’s the deftness and stylistic joys, the humor and humanity, the unexpected rhythms and a delightful stories on display in this set of four features. And the longest one of them clocks in at 76 minutes, although the term “tight” or “efficient” doesn’t seem to be appropriate to the generosity of his filmmaking. They are simply small stories, miniatures you might say, which unfold at their own distinctively wandering pace.

The title Travels with Hiroshi Shimizu is perfectly evocative of the films, not simply because they are about characters in transition – a bus driver on a mountain road route, seasonal masseurs who are walking to their summer position at a mountain resort in the first scene, vacationers at a mountain inn during the summer in a momentary community – but because Shimizu as much travel guide as storyteller, taking us on a tour of people and places and the stories of their lives.

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