We (and by we I mean all of us, not just those people) succumb so easily to the extremes when contemplating our demise: apocalypse or enfeebled withering. A bang or a whimper were the only options Eliot gave for the world’s end; burn out or fade away, as rock and roll fans rewrote the line. In truth, however, most of us do not die in either flames or impenetrable shadow. We stumble along, perhaps weaker, and needing a cane for support, but also hopefully wiser and more patient, and at one point in the midst of our going on comes neither of the drastic poles, but merely a cessation. I do not know what Akira Kurosawa’s final days or hours were like, I do not know how peaceably he met his fate. But I am certain he reached it with a greater serenity than most of us, for in his final film he’d given himself a marvelous reminder of the nobility of carrying on.
[Originally published inThe Weekly, December 25, 1985]
Somewhere in the 16th-century Japan of Akira Kurosawa’s Ran, four horsemen—a warlord and his three sons—sit atop a hill, each facing a different point of the compass. The world spreads below them and, in Kurosawa’s high-angled, space-collapsing telephoto compositions, above them, too. The surrounding vastness of hill and vale is like a great green wave, at once the measure of the horsemen’s noble sway and a trembling surge, perhaps only momentarily arrested, that might break over them at any time.
When the poet-hero of Jean Cocteau’s Orphée, his creativity straitjacketed by easy popularity, approached an old mentor for advice, the sage’s response was brutally succinct: “Astonish us!” Cocteau’s poet was a man in his prime; Akira Kurosawa is 75 years of age. Yet with his new film Ran, this magisterial motion picture director, universally and rather complacently accorded the status of old master for more years than most of us can remember, has usurped the prerogative of young geniuses in the arts: He astonishes us, and then astonishes again, and again.
Antonio Pietrangeli is the greatest Italian filmmaker of the sixties you’ve never heard of and his bittersweet I Knew Her Well (1965), starring Stefania Sandrelli as a country girl in Rome trying to break into show business, is his masterpiece. Young and beautiful, Adriana (Sandrelli) is able to get by on her looks, taking temporary jobs between modeling gigs and screen tests, and she’s savvy enough to understand that sex is a commodity to be traded for favors from press agents, managers, and minor celebrities. But she’s far from cynical, at least at first, as she plays the game and enjoys the nightlife, and she’s even a bit naïve, constantly hooking up with charming, good-looking cads who have a habit of abandoning her. It’s episodic by nature, a series of snapshots from her life, and directed with the light touch of a frothy Italian comedy that belies the mercenary society and cruel behavior of the rich and successful.
Pietrangeli co-wrote the film with Ettore Scola (among others) and they offer a satirical portrait of the shallow celebrity culture and Roman nightlife of La Dolce Vita with both a more vicious edge—the callous treatment of a washed up actor (played by Ugo Tognazzi) is truly painful—and a breezy, easy style. The simple irony of the title isn’t hard to fathom. None of the men ever bothers to get to know Adriana at all, dismissing her as a silly beauty good for a one night stand, and Sandrelli plays her as a seemingly frivolous, capricious young woman with nothing on her mind, kind of Italian Holly Golightly without the cynical calculation. Yet she’s more perceptive than anyone realizes as she navigates the mercenary world with energetic optimism before she grows disillusioned in the final act of the film. Sandrelli has a kind of blank, oblivious beauty that makes her great casting for simple, silly, not-too-bright characters (see The Conformist) in her youth, and Pietrangeli uses that surface frivolity beautifully. She’s simply heartbreaking.
The new 4K restoration of Ran (1985), Akira Kurosawa’s epic re-imagining of Shakespeare’s King Lear in sixteenth-century Japan, runs for a week at SIFF Cinema Uptown. Tatsuya Nakadai plays the aging warlord who divides his empire among his three sons and slips into madness as he is neglected, betrayed, and stripped of his dignity. Kurosawa is not merely true to Shakespeare’s story, he brings scenes alive with a cultural twist and a visual mastery, from the pageantry of warriors filling vast fields of green with red and white flags and uniforms to the howling storm that strikes during the warlord’s spiral into madness. The spectacle is brought home with delicately observed performances and beautifully sculpted relationships, an intimacy that gives the epic its soul. I haven’t seen the restoration but I imagine those colors are more vivid than ever. Chris Marker’s documentary A.K.: The Making of Akira Kurosawa’s Ran (1985), a profile of Kurosawa on the set of the film, also plays at SIFF Film Center.
Jacques Becker’s Antoine and Antoinette (1947), the first film in SAM’s “Cinema de Paris” series, plays on Thursday, March 31 at Plestcheeff Auditorium. Individual tickets are available on the day of show on a first come, first served basis. Details here.
The Cinerama is one of the only ten theaters in the country to show Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice in a 70mm film print. It will run for a week on film, and then revert to DCP on Friday, April 1, so celluloid junkies should make a plan for that first week. And remember: the Cinerama sells reserved seating so you may want to purchase in advance. The Cinerama webpage is here.
In The Hidden Fortress (Criterion, Blu-ray+DVD Combo, DVD), Akira Kurosawa melds western fairy tale adventure with Japanese history for a pre-Samurai era classic of a young princess and a determined General (the gruff ruthless, and often comically exasperated Toshiro Mifune) trying to escape from behind enemy lines with a fortune in royal gold. Long recognized as one of George Lucas’ primary inspiration for Star Wars (among other things, the bickering peasants who wander into the odyssey inspired R2D2 and C-3PO), it’s Kurosawa’s his first go at the widescreen format and he proves to be a master at it, dynamically spreading his compositions out to an epic scope and boldly setting his cascade of sharp action scenes against a magnificent landscape. It’s a grand adventure of flashing swords, thundering horses, giant battles and intimate duels, Kurosawa’s most purely entertaining film and one of his biggest hits.
Mastered from a 2K digital restoration with mono soundtrack and an alternate 3.0 surround soundtrack preserving the original 1958 “Perspecta Stereophonic” soundtrack and presented in DTS-HD on Blu-ray. New to this release is commentary by film historian and Kurosawa expert Stephen Prince and the documentary about the making of the film created for the 2003 series Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create. Carried over from the earlier DVD release is a brief interview with George Lucas, who talks of his love of the film and the work of Kurosawa. The accompanying booklet features an essay by film scholar Catherine Russell.
Samson and Delilah (Paramount, Blu-ray) was something of a warm-up by Cecil B. DeMille, classic Hollywood’s defining big screen showman, for his ultimate Biblical epic The Ten Commandments. This bible story was on a decidedly smaller scale but it had all the elements that DeMille had perfected back in thirties: treat the patrons to a spectacle of sin and flesh, then punish the bad behavior with a smiting of (dare I say it?) Biblical proportions. The script is dopey and the stars unconvincing, but DeMille puts on quite a pageant.
Victor Mature plays the brawny strongman Samson, who kills a lion with his bare hands in the first act. Half of the shots reveal that he’s tussling with a moth-eaten ruin but it’s still manly enough to rouse the passion of Hedy Lamarr’s Delilah. Samson heaves enormous building stones at enemy soldiers, all but takes apart a royal house in a wild brawl and for finale pulls down a temple around him with nothing but the strength of his massive arms. Never mind that DeMille’s special effects often lack the weight of conviction, it’s all in the showmanship and De Mille is as gaudy as they come. This has all lavish sets, slinky outfits, wicked Philistines, sexy maidens, and holy retribution in glorious Technicolor. Mature walks a plodding balance between grinning arrogance and righteous vengeance as God’s strong arm on Earth while Lamarr purrs through her turn as the Bible’s bad girl, a temptress with a wicked sense of vengeance. George Sanders contributes his brand of silky villainy as the Saran of Gaza and DeMille brings out the ham in him.
It’s been remastered in HD but the Blu-ray features no supplements except for the trailer.
[Originally published in Movietone News 57, February 1978]
Dersu Uzalais about a man who’s getting old and can’t live as he always has, who’s facing life’s end. As a forebodingly “late” film by an aging director, it might also be about Kurosawa himself. Kurosawa was born in 1910, which happens to be the first date we see, superimposed over an iridescent, lacelike pattern of autumn trees, in Dersu Uzala. The matched dates may or may not be coincidental, but the interwoven allusions to different kinds of birthâ€”of a man, a film, a memory, and even of a portentous little eddy of civilization that rustles into life in the next image of the movieâ€”are all very much part of this undespairingly contemplative tale of friendship whose enclosing images are that of birthplace and gravesite. There is an old man in the filmâ€”the Chinese whose wife was stolen by his brother some twenty years agoâ€”who we think must be nearing the end of his life, but who manages to see things that we don’t and perhaps can’t see. “He’s far from here,” Dersu (Maxim Munzuk) says when Arseniev (Yuri Solomin) suggests inviting the old man over to enjoy the warmth of their fire; “he sees his house, his garden all in blossom.” This is more than just memory, though. Seeing what “isn’t there” is a way to talk about vision in terms of creating metaphors, and that becomes one of Kurosawa’s recurring motifs.
What a couple of weeks for DVD collections. They’re usually paced through the year until the Christmas rush, when the emphasis is on the new, the familiar and the cult. Well, Christmas came early this year for fans of classic cinema, and of course it hit while I’ve been traveling and have had less time than usual to explore them. So I’ve sampled my way through each of these sets, seeing two or three films from each collection and dipping my toe into the supplements (which is a moot point for some of them). I wish I’d had more time to view and more time to reflect and write, but as I’ve got a single weekend before I’m off again, I’m going to get through these before they are completely outdated. I present them chronologically: oldest films to most recent.
Presenting Sacha Guitry (Eclipse Series 22) (Criterion)
How did the reputation of actor, playwright and filmmaker Sacha Guitry, once the toast of French theater and cinema and popular culture, so slip into obscurity over the years? In the United States, at the very least, he is barely a footnote and his films all but impossible to see. This box set of four comedies from the thirties, written and directed by leading man and defining personality Guitry, goes a long way to correcting both oversights. The Story of a Cheat (1936) takes the idea of narration to a new level in a comic memoir of a reluctant scoundrel (“What have I done to the Lord that people constantly solicit me to engage in crime?”) recounting his life in snappy flashbacks with running commentary. The visual credits sequence alone (which surely inspired Orson Welles’ visionary trailer to Citizen Kane) is a treat. The Pearls of the Crown is even an even more intricately cut bauble of a lark, a tale that bounds through history (and multiple languages) and over the globe to trace the journeys of seven perfect pearls, and once again teases the audience with its tongue-in-cheek storytelling and droll self-awareness when it comes to actors playing multiple roles.