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Kurosawa's Ran

I finished Kristin Lavransdatter last week and have a half-written post about it, but have had unexpected demands on my time this week and haven't been able to finish it. In the meantime, just a quick note about this film.

What a magnificent epic! I really didn't know what to expect. I only knew that it's  considered one of Kurosawa's most important works, and that its plot is based loosely on King Lear. According to Wikipedia, Kurosawa was already working on the story when he first encountered Lear, and that for him it originated with a Japanese story about a king who had three sons. In any case there are a lot of clear parallels with Lear, but it's not simply a retelling of the story in a medieval Japanese setting. 

I'll restrain myself from going further, and also from gushing, and just say that if you like Kurosawa's work at all and haven't seen this one, you must. Apparently he had a huge budget to work with, and obviously a great deal of money and time went into it, as it features several large and complex battle scenes. Among other things it's an enthralling visual spectacle, not only in the big scenes but in smaller and intimate ones as well. 

The title, by the way, puzzled me a bit, as it isn't the name of any character. Again according to Wikipedia:

The complex and variant etymology for the word Ran used as the title has been variously translated as "chaos", "rebellion", or "revolt"; or to mean "disturbed" or "confused".

Kuroran.jpg
Theater poster, from Wikimedia: Fair Use, Link


About Endlessness

That's in italics because it's the name of the movie. I read this very intriguing review this morning, and may even go so far as to check local theaters to see if it shows here, which is probably unlikely.

In 75 concise minutes (as long as any movie needs to be), About Endlessness is completely provocative and satisfying. Each sketch dramatizes a random incident in a Scandinavian city. These scenes, stylizing the real and the imaginary, are light as air — capriccios that go to the heart of human experience.

It's by a Swedish director, Roy Andersson, whose name I don't recall having seen before, but based on the review I think I might like his other work in addition to this one. Of course it helps that the reviewer invokes the near-sacred name of Ingmar Bergman.

I wouldn't agree that 75 minutes is enough for any movie, but it strikes me as a reasonable target for most.

Here's the trailer:

 


Ozu: Late Spring

As I expected, I liked it more this time. Such a simple story: a widower and his daughter, who's getting on into her twenties. He wants her to get married--or does he? She doesn't want to get married--or does she? The resolution of the situation is fairly straightforward, and deeply poignant. 

Knowing that the film was released in 1949 made me wonder about the conditions under which it was made--I mean both the physical and psychological conditions, the war having ended only four years earlier and the country still under occupation. There is no direct reference to the war or the occupation, which seemed puzzling. According to Wikipedia, filmmakers--and everyone, I suppose--were subject to a certain amount of censorship by the Allies, which explains this curious absence. A few images like this one are implicit references to the occupation:

Late_Spring_Coke

You'll notice that the sign is in English. A bit after this moment the two bicyclists pass a sign giving the load limit of the road, also in English. 


Yasujirō Ozu: The End of Summer

I very much liked the two Ozu films I've seen, Late Spring and Tokyo Story, in spite of some difficulty in adjusting to the mannerisms, especially the vocal mannerisms, of a language and culture so different from mine. As I said when writing about Late Spring back in 2011, it's

a difficulty I've had with other Japanese films made prior to 1960 or so: the facial and vocal expressions are just culturally different enough for me to feel that I'm not quite sure what's going on underneath, not quite connecting as I should.

It's hard to explain, but there often seems to be a disconnect between the sounds I hear and what they seem to mean based on what the character is saying and the expression in the voice. 

I've seen Tokyo Story twice, which is at least part of the reason why, after the second viewing, I decided that I like it a little better. But I want to see Late Spring again. Ozu made several films with similar seasonal titles, and I'm working my way through those I haven't seen, which now leaves Early Summer, Early Spring, Late Autumn, and An Autumn Afternoon. That list is in chronological order: Late Spring was made in 1949, An Autumn Afternoon in 1962. 

I'm not sure why I picked End of Summer as my next one. Like the other two I've seen, it's a very low-key family drama involving partings of some sort. It seems that Ozu has produced a series of delicate and subtle variations on a modest theme. There is not much "drama" here, using the word in the colloquial half-slang sense that's developed in recent years: no shouting, no weeping, no accusing and demanding. These three films at least are centered on generational connections and their dissolution. This is not violent rebellion, as has been typical of American and European art since at least the '60s, but the quiet relinquishing of ties as time and especially the changing times push or pull families apart. It seems more than likely to me that the changing times are more important than they may seem at an outsider's glance. It's never given more than passing mention, but it seems present in things like the juxtaposition of traditional and modern dress, of street signs and advertisements in Japanese and English ("Drink Coca-Cola!"), of urban and pastoral imagery, and in the rarely-mentioned but significant awareness of the war.

As for the specific film that I sat down to write about: well, for the first half of The End of Summer I didn't like it as well as the other two. That's in great part because I wasn't sure what was going on. The family relationships are more complex, involving more people, and I had trouble keeping track of who was who and exactly how they were related. As far as I noticed, none of this was ever directly explicated. I'll admit that there was an element here of the Westerner sometimes having trouble distinguishing Asian features when they are somewhat similar: I had that problem with two of the three young women, sisters and a sister-in-law, who, to my eyes, looked rather like each other. This is not quite as ethnocentric as it sounds, as I sometimes have the same problem with Euro-American films where there are two characters of the same sex, age, and coloring. (The third young woman was played by Setsuko Haro, whose face is pretty distinctive and memorable.) 

TheEndOfSummerNoriko, Akkiko (Setsuko Hara), Fumiko (l-r). I don't have any trouble telling Noriko and Fumiko apart when they're together. 

The plot involves the misbehavior of the family patriarch (no problem recognizing him) and is mildly comic--only mildly to me, anyway--through the first two thirds of the film. But all around this man's foolish renewal of a past romance with an old flame who's grown cynical (if she was ever otherwise) there is that air of puzzled melancholy as the younger generation wonders what to do with him and with themselves.

Whatever disappointment I felt in that first hour or so was compensated for by the fact that the film is in color. The characteristic long still interior shots are just as they are in the other two works: taken from a couple of feet off the floor, looking down a hallway with people coming and going at the other end, looking from one room into another, looking through a door to outside, from ten or fifteen feet away so the visible area is very small. These views of the characters from a certain distance could have the effect of making theme seem isolated, but they don't work that way for me. Instead, by giving the interiors so much space, the effect is of people very much enclosed and protected within a receptive home. And the color makes one aware of the richness of the houses and furnishings--there's a lot of warm wood--in a way that black and white can't. And as for the exterior scenes--well, the landscapes made me want to visit Japan.

Towards the end I was very much won over. The final twenty minutes or so are as powerful as anything in the other two films, and perhaps even more beautiful. I don't want to spoil the ending for anyone who hasn't seen it and might do so, so I won't say any more. I will certainly be seeing this one again. 

I had about decided to cancel my Criterion Collection subscription, as I had gone many months without using it at all. There just didn't seem to be all that much there that I wanted to see, and the app or site or whatever you call it is obsessed with...well, let's just say cultural trends which don't interest me. But recently I made an effort to search out directors like Ozu, and found enough to make the service worthwhile for another few months anyway. 

I can't find a trailer online, but YouTube seems to have several copies of the whole film. Must be some sort of copyright gap.


The Gentlemen

I can't remember whether the previous Guy Ritchie film I saw was Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels or Snatch. I do remember that it was very cleverly plotted, well-acted, quick-witted and quick-moving, and at least half-funny in its depiction of the British underworld. The Gentlemen is very much the same, and I enjoyed it. But there is something not quite right in treating rather vicious criminals as witty and glamorous, and imparting a light-hearted quality to acts of violence. It's all done with an ironic wink, which I guess is better than doing it seriously, but still, it seems unhealthy. 

Continue reading "The Gentlemen" »


The Vast of Night

This is a fairly low-budget sci-fi movie which as far as I know is available only on Amazon. Set in the late '50s in a small town in New Mexico, it's presented as an episode of a television show modeled on The Twilight Zone, complete with an introduction in Rod Serling's voice and prose style. I found it enchanting, so much so that I watched it a second time. It's basically a straightforward UFO story, in many ways typical: it could be an episode of The X-Files without Mulder and Scully, but it's done with such skill and atmosphere that it gives new life to what have become the conventions of UFO mythology.

Continue reading "The Vast of Night" »


The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly Revisited

I really enjoyed it this time. (See this post from a week and a half ago for background.)

It's been over ten years since my first viewing of it. Wondering now about my mostly negative reaction then, I vaguely recall that we (my wife and I) were watching it at night and I was sleepy long before the end of its nearly three hours. Also, at the time we had an old CRT television, not especially big and of the old nearly square proportions. So the wide-screen picture, formatted for CinemaScope or whatever it was, was squeezed into a smallish rectangle in the middle of the screen. And the layout of the room was such that I was relatively far away. We finally made the switch to a flat-screen a few years ago, and although it isn't very large, my favored chair is very close to it. And I have a halfway decent sound bar setup  for the audio, and as we all know the score is an important part of this film.

So on this viewing I got something much, much closer to the visual experience of seeing it in a theater, and it did draw me in immediately in a way that it certainly did not before.

I still have some reservations--Tuco's almost comic villain laugh, for instance. And Eastwood's strong silent narrow-eyed menace is laid on too heavily. And I can certainly understand the revulsion of some contemporary critics at its violence. It's not really an improvement in our culture that we've now seen so much worse. It veers pretty close to nihilism, pulled back from that brink by the minimal but solid ethical code of Blondie ("the Good"). The treatment of the Civil War as a more or less meaningless struggle between more or less interchangeable forces is very much of its time, and of time since. I'm sure a great deal has been said by critics about the interplay of American Western and 20th century European sensibilities and culture in that vision. 

It's not among my favorite films, but I see its appeal and its strengths now. And I want to see the two Leone-Eastwood predecessors in the "Dollars" trilogy. 


I Think I'll Watch The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly Again

No doubt avid readers of this blog will recall that eleven years ago I wrote about being disappointed in the Sergio Leone westerns ("I Have Failed to Become A Sergio Leone Fan"). The topic came up in the recent discussion about Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, and I started thinking I might give Leone another try. I didn't really expect that to happen anytime soon, though, as it was only available on DVD, my wife isn't interested in seeing it again, and our Netflix DVD list is very long.

So along comes this commentary on The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly by Kyle Smith at National Review. (The review contains spoilers, by the way, though I guess that's not very important for a fifty-year-old work.) Besides being interesting, it mentions that the movie is now available for streaming on Netflix. So more or less out of curiosity, I watched the first few minutes of it last night, and was very much drawn in. I will report when I've finished it.

I must say that the very and justifiably famous opening title music is almost ruined for me by the silly-sounding "wah WAH wah," which sounds like a comedian imitating a trombone. I'm sure there are recordings of it that use some instrument there instead. 

Kyle Smith, by the way, is a critic whom I consider interesting and worth reading but not entirely trustworthy. That's because he disrespected Bergman a while back. 


Once Upon A Time in Hollywood

This is not the sort of movie that I usually go out of my way to see. As far as I can remember I don't think I've ever seen an entire Quentin Tarentino film, just parts of Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill, more of the former than the latter. Nothing that I've read about his work has made me think I'd like it, though I did find much of what I did see of Pulp Fiction enjoyable. What made me seek this one out was a review which said it was a great picture of Los Angeles in the late '60s.

Not that I was anywhere near Los Angeles in the late '60s. But I certainly have a weak spot for pictures of that period, and by "pictures" I mean pictures--photographs and films taken at the time. So I thought I might enjoy this movie for that reason if no other. I've been much preoccupied lately with the way the passing of people who have lived in a particular time and place means that it is truly lost to memory, and I find myself enjoying those memories. Yes, it's nostalgia, but there's also an irrational sense that by refreshing and expanding my own memories I'm somehow keeping that world real and alive.

Anyway: there are two things to note about the title of this movie. First, the allusion to the Sergio Leone Western, Once Upon A Time in the West. The protagonist, or one of them, of the Tarentino film is an aging Hollywood star who's being offered a chance to revive his career by acting in spaghetti Westerns. Second, "once upon a time" is, as everyone over a certain age knows (I fear the young do not), the way to begin a fairy tale, and this is in a sense a fairy tale.

The aging star, Rick Dalton and his stunt double, Cliff Booth, played by Leonardo di Caprio and Brad Pitt, respectively, are buddies, though the relationship is also master-and-servant to some degree. They are old-time movie and TV people, most well-known for a TV series called Bounty Law. But the series has been cancelled for some years, and Dalton is more or less a has-been. 

He's still rich, though. It's 1969 and he lives on Cielo Drive. If that rings a bell, it's because it was the street on which Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate lived when the latter and several others were murdered by the Manson gang. Dalton lives next door to them, and yes, that is vitally important to the plot. 

I was a little hesitant about seeing this movie, knowing that it involved the Manson murders, which have always been especially disturbing to me because of their association with the counter-culture and its favored drugs, and knowing Tarentino's reputation for depicting violence. And without giving away too much I will say that there are some five to ten minutes of pretty graphic violence, but will also direct your attention again to the title. By far most of the film's 2 hours and 40 minutes are spent on the doings of Dalton and Booth, the trials of the former trying to revive his career and the latter simply trying to get a job and to do what he can as a friend to Rick--and, importantly, to George Spahn, owner of the Spahn Movie Ranch, which is home to the Manson family.

A good bit of time is spent on the two of them, or some other combination of people, driving around Los Angeles in Dalton's Cadillac while the radio plays various well-known and not-so-well-known songs from the time. (I would be surprised to learn that Buffy Saint-Marie's version of "The Circle Game" was on AM radio. Not in Alabama it wasn't. According to Wikipedia, it reached #109 on the Billboard charts, so maybe it got played a bit in California.)

Booth pays a memorable visit to the Manson family. And Sharon Tate goes to the movies. I think that scene is what I'm going to remember most about this movie. On a shopping errand she passes a theater which is showing a junk movie in which she appears (The Wrecking Crew: Dean Martin as Matt Helm, secret agent). Delighted to see her name and picture on the advertisements, she coaxes the theater staff into giving her free admission (as though she could not afford it), and watches the movie with effervescent childlike delight, like a little girl thrilled at seeing herself in a home movie. It's a sweet, silly, poignant moment, and I hope Sharon Tate really was something like that. 

I gather that a typical culture wars sort of argument has taken place over Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: Dalton and Booth are the good guys here, and they're also pretty reactionary, griping about the damn hippies. Some liberals took offense at this, some conservatives applauded it. I didn't really see it that way. I mean, it's there, but for one thing, the Manson family surely was as creepy, frightening, and disgusting as they are portrayed here. And for another, Dalton and Booth certainly look good and admirable in comparison to homicidal maniacs, but they are drunken hedonists, not exactly Knights of the West riding against the Dark Lord. 

Sorry if this is a little disjointed. I've been trying to get to it for a couple of days and may not have another chance for another couple of days. Final word: I greatly enjoyed this film; it did not seem too long at all (which I rather expected it would); I want to see it again.


3:10 To Yuma

Several years ago (more than several, actually) I had the notion of watching the old-time Westerns that are considered classics. I went through several of them--The Searchers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and maybe a couple of others. I was somewhat disappointed, especially as I loved Western stuff when I was a kid, and didn't go any further. 

The other day something reminded me of another film that's usually ranked with those others, 3:10 To Yuma, from 1957. I found it on the Criterion Channel, which I have not used very much and am wondering whether I should cancel, and watched it, in two roughly 45-minute sessions.

I really liked it, and it's definitely my favorite of its type at this point. It's a good story, pretty convincing for the most part in spite of the conventions of the time. It's about a rancher who ends up, more or less against his will, solely responsible for getting a captured outlaw on that 3:10 train, with the outlaw's gang trying to stop him. Glenn Ford, atypically, plays the outlaw, and is very effective--genial and charming with just a hint of menace. 

But what I really love about it is the photography. It's very crisp black-and-white, and full of the Western scenery that I love. The story is set in southern Arizona, and I think it may have been shot there, or perhaps in some part of southern California where the landscape is similar. You can get a sense of the quality in this Criterion Collection trailer:

The song, by the way, has nothing at all to do with the plot, except for the title reference. 

The movie is based on an Elmore Leonard story by the same name. Being an admirer of Leonard, I was curious about the original story, and found it at the local library in a collection called The Tonto Woman and Other Western Stories. I suppose I have to say that I was disappointed in the story. It's pretty slight, its action including only roughly the last half of the movie. It's a case where you could argue that the movie is better than the story, though I don't really trust my judgment there, since I encountered the movie first. Some of the other stories in the collection are really good, though. And they have a sort of potato-chip, can't-eat-just-one appeal. I think I've read half of them now, and I only got the book a couple of days ago, with no intention of reading more than the one story.

There's a 2007 remake of the movie which apparently got pretty good reviews. I may watch it sometime. My interest was dampened a bit by a clip which I saw on YouTube, thinking it was just sort of a trailer, which gave away the very different ending.

Many years ago in college I had a Southern Lit teacher who had a very old-style  genteel southern accent, and who once, when whispering and giggling broke out in class, said to the culprits "I fail to see the humor." Only in his accent it came out as "I fail to see the Yuma."  It's unfortunate for me that I still remember that after almost fifty years.