Saturday, November 28, 2015


We cover the news, we do not manufacture violence.

Haskell Wexler was already an accomplished cameraman in 1969 when he picked up the device for himself to write and direct Medium Cool, a film that dissects his own vocation while also challenging the social mores of the late 1960s and the role media was playing in the shifting cultural landscape. The technique he employed was audacious, combining cinema verité with the emerging gonzo American style, predicting both 1970s Hollywood filmmaking and the more current intersection of citizen and celebrity.

Medium Cool follows John (Robert Forster, Jackie Brown), a cameraman for network news who is always on the go, always on the hunt for a story. While John has political interests--he sees the importance in reporting protests and racial incidents--Wexler doesn’t prop him up as a do-gooder or a saint. From the start, he is part of the machine. Medium Cool opens with John and his partner (Peter Bonerz) filming an accident on a freeway off-ramp. The carnage is exclusively theirs, and to protect their scoop, they only call for an ambulance after calling “cut.” John may aspire to report more important stories, but he’s not above exploitation when it suits him. (And this, some four decades before Nightcrawler [review].)

And he’s not always conscious of it, either. As Medium Cool progresses, John will find himself confronted with the real lives on the other side of his camera lens. For instance, after filing a story about an African American cab driver (Sid McCoy) who dutifully turned in $10,000 left in the back of his taxi, only to have cops accuse him of skimming off the top, John tries to dip into the well a second time for a “human interest” story. Not only do the black militants that the cabbie associates with reject John as a civil rights tourist, but the cabbie tells him how drastically being a cause célèbre has upended his life. John quickly proves himself to be every bit the voyeur they accuse him of; he fails to listen to the other side with anything but an opportunistic filter.

It’s only happenstance that pushes John out of his bubble. When he mistakenly thinks a young boy (Harold Blankenship) is trying to rob his car, he ends up meeting the kid’s single mother (Verna Bloom). The woman, Eileen, has a matter-of-fact way about her that compels John to listen. Romantic interests emerge.

For as linear as that basic story description sounds, Wexler does not plot it out like a romantic comedy or even a soapy drama. Medium Cool breaks from conventional narrative structure. It is episodic and immediate, blending documentary footage with the fictional scenario in a way that is more stream of conscious than it is cause-and-effect. In some cases, like the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Wexler puts his actors in the mix alongside real politicians and punters; in others, he re-creates the historical moment. In one particularly chilling scene, his camera pans across the staff of a hotel kitchen while they go about their jobs. Bobby Kennedy can be heard giving a speech from the next room. The context sinks in slowly. This is the speech where Kennedy will be assassinated. The sequence ends with the shots ringing out, and Kennedy’s staff bursting into the kitchen, but cuts before we see anything. The comment this juxtaposition makes is sharp: Wexler asks us to consider the normal people around the scene, to think about how their lives are affected, rather than gaze at the blood and guts of the tragedy. Then again, if Medium Cool is asking whether the media encourages violence, is this scene telling us that violence will happen whether they are there to chronicle it or not?

Despite being a cinematographer of some renown (he shot Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and In the Heat ofthe Night before Medium Cool, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest [review] and TheConversation after), Wexler isn’t precious about his shots. He is more concerned with the extraneous details--shooting feet rather than faces, for instance, in order to capture the mud and the muck--and the immediacy of the moment. This only serves to aid in the erasure of any boundaries between truth and invention. If the staged actions are as unpolished and unpredictable as the footage of real events, then how do we tell which is which? As one of the black men tells John, “You have to be alive to be honest.” Wexler is putting this to the test. He wants his cinema to breathe deeply.

Medium Cool is a politically charged movie. It’s frank about race and class, and how both are represented in the media. Sadly, there’s not much said here that wouldn’t apply to now. Much of what should be passé or even comical remains unchanged over 40 years later. A scene featuring middle-aged white women learning how to handle guns at a shooting range as a response to the civil unrest all around them is perhaps a bit too prescient. Likewise, a humorous segment about how the military are practicing violent crowed control techniques appears tame next to the militarized police deployed to political demonstrations in recent times. Medium Cool is as much about 2015 as it is 1969.

Which isn’t to say it isn’t of its time. The interlude at a psychedelic rock concert, be it real or no, almost plays as parody, as does much of the hip lingo. That said, Medium Cool is embedded in the zeitgeist. The aesthetics have much in common with Easy Rider [review], which was released the same year. In fact, one could make a case for the two films having the same ending.

This doesn’t make Medium Cool any less incisive. On the contrary, it’s at its best when it critiques itself. Or is it when Wexler critiques himself? John is no less closer to the truth when he and Eileen go to the convention. He is still too much of an insider to see what is going on outside. Quite literally. He’s working his way through the crowd in the hall, while she is outside with the protesters, putting her in harm’s way when violence breaks out.

In watching these moments, of the actors interacting with the activists, we must consider Wexler’s central query. Is he just as guilty as his protagonist for chasing the story? Is this film, by invading and portraying true events, altering those events by being present? Does showing it transform the happening? And by doing so, do we end up like Eileen and John, a part of the lie and unsure of whether or not we’re still truly alive?

Monday, November 23, 2015

IKIRU (Blu-ray) - #221

Akira Kurosawa was still a relatively young man in 1952 when he made his elegy for old age, Ikiru. Yet, somehow the director still managed to make a deeply felt and wisely observed drama about obsolescence and dying.

Ikiru, which translates as “To Live,” stars Takashi Shimura, the dramatic heavy of Seven Samurai [review], as Kanji Watanabe, a reliable career man at City Hall. Watanabe is known for his predictability: he hasn’t missed a day of work in three decades, and each of those days, he ate plain udon noodles for lunch. So it is that the entire office is rocked when Watanabe fails to show up one morning--a morning that stretches into five days. What could have happened to the man?

Well, we know, even if everyone in the film does not. Watanabe has been diagnosed with stomach cancer and only has six months to a year left. Unsure of what to make of this news, Watanabe decides to keep it to himself. He doesn’t tell his staff, nor does he tell his son and daughter-in-law. Instead, Watanabe enters a kind of fugue. He wanders the city looking for the life he previously rejected in order to raise his offspring. His wife died when their son was very young, and as we see in a series of flashbacks, Watanabe put everything into making sure the boy had a good life. How devastating it must be then, that now that it counts, the old man can’t trust his son with the most important news he’s ever had.

Watanabe spends one night on a bender with a libertine writer (Yunosuke Ito (The Burmese Harp, I Will Buy You [review]) and then he also connects with a young woman from his office (Miki Odagiri) who is bored and herself looking for a change. He confides in these people what he can’t tell anyone else, and at first this provides some succor. There’s only so much frivolity a man of purpose can endure, however, before he must find that purpose again. For Watanabe, it’s undertaking a project no one else wants and proving that City Hall can be more than just paper pushers. One last stand to do something that matters.

Whether or not this worked is the subject of Ikiru’s final act, when Watanabe’s co-workers debate what caused such a change in the man they had only known to be unwavering and meek. It’s an interesting shift, one that allows Kurosawa to avoid portraying Watanabe’s inevitable end, even if the outcome is pessimistic. If you can’t fight City Hall, you probably can’t change it, either.

Ikiru goes to plenty of emotional depths and ponders the darkness with an unflinching courage; yet, it is never dull, much less morose. You’d think watching an old man waiting to die would feel a little bit like death itself, but Takashi Shimura has a sympathetic face and an undeniable screen presence that makes it impossible not to watch and wait to see how it turns out. Kurosawa is not the only one taking a few metaphorical steps forward in tie, Shimura is playing it older, too. Watanabe is slow and hunched and speaks at a level only slightly above a whisper; it’s almost like you have to lean in yourself to hear what he is saying and share in what is happening. And plenty happens--though it’s mostly disappointing for Watanabe. He realizes how little his life has affected, and how much he has been taken for granted. Shimura’s stooped posture makes it look like he is hunting for something, and perhaps he is. Perhaps he’s looking for that lost spark to reignite Watanabe’s passion in his final days.

As low-key as this all may sound, the results are riveting. At times, Kurosawa stages the tale with as sure a footing as most see in Watanabe. As the old man loses that footing, at times we tumble into a kaleidoscope of memory. Past decisions are seen to have a direct effect on the present, and it’s heartbreaking to see all of that effort come out wrong.

Or does it? Surely our estimation of Watanabe is different than his estimation of himself. Because even if you can’t change the system, one individual really can make a difference. Watanabe’s newfound stubbornness, which he enacts in an almost zen-like fashion, turning the subtle force of his meekness into undeniable insistence, forces his co-workers out of their complacency, even if it is just to make the old man go away. Folks who never met Watanabe before also see him as an immovable object. When gangsters who would rather see the park land turned into a red light district come to strong-arm the city officials, they find they are no match for Watanabe. They look in his eyes and see he will not be moved. On the flipside, Watanabe makes positive change where it counts: in the lives of the people living in the neighborhood that gets transformed.

Those among you looking to upgrade your previous edition of Ikiru will be happy to know that the 4K digital transfer on the new Blu-ray is well worth swapping for. The image is not without its flaws, there are occasional irreparable scratches on the short, but the overall clarity is quite wonderful. The old extras are also carried over, including the Ikiru-specific installment of the excellent Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create documentary series that spans many of the Criterion Kurosawa releases.

This disc was provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

Sunday, November 22, 2015


Sure, I’m for hangin’, just as long as I’m not the one being hanged.”

Two things come to mind when trying to figure out how to tackle a respected perennial like Richard Brooks’ 1967 adaptation of In Cold Blood. One, how we’ve come to take truth and reality in entertainment with a mountain of salt; two, anyone who thinks we’ve become desensitized to film violence hasn’t seen this movie recently.

In Cold Blood is based on a book byTruman Capote, whose novel-length reportage is said to have invented the true crime genre. One could argue that the book represents Capote’s truth and isn’t strictly the cold hard facts, but the author’s meticulous depiction of all the details surrounding the 1959 murder of the Clutters, a family of four in Kansas, nevertheless changed how the common populace consumed information about despicable crimes. Capote focused not just on the brutal killings and the investigation that followed, but also the things that got the main players to that terrible night. The book sticks with the murderers all the way to the end and up the steps of the gallows.

Brooks, who wrote the screenplay for Dassin’s Brutal Force [review] and also directed films like the Conrad-adaptation Lord Jim [review] and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, doesn’t stray too far from Capote’s approach, even if he must distill the events into more concise morsels. He is also required to dramatize the story, it’s the nature of his medium. There are actors who must stand in front of the camera and re-create the details. It’s a sticky business. If In Cold Blood has any flaws, it’s that Robert Blake’s incisive portrayal of gunman Perry Smith creates a little too much sympathy for the devil, and the victims are little more than objects serving the main narrative. How is it that we know of the relationship between Smith and his parents, but nothing of the relationship between the murdered parents and their two children?

Then again, that might have made what was to come too harrowing, and the re-enactment of the horrendous murder of four is already plenty unsettling without us having much emotional connection to the dead beyond the prototypical nuclear family they represent.

It’s actually an interesting storytelling trick. Though Brooks begins In Cold Blood on a linear track, he skips the crime itself, showing Smith and his partner, Dick Hickock (Scott Wilson) approach the Clutter home, but then cutting to the next morning, when the bodies are found by neighbors coming to pick Nancy Clutter (Brenda C. Currin) up for church. What follows is a circuitous journey around the American west by the killers while, back in Kansas, Police Detective Alvin Dewey (John Forsythe) gathers evidence against them. Brooks only takes us back to the dreadful incident when Perry Smith at long last confesses.

This dreaded flashback hits in unexpected ways, both for how it plays out in terms of actual “plotting,” but also for how unsettling it is. For the most part, the violence happens off-screen, yet Brooks gives us just enough detail that we feel the horror in full. It’s a gut-punch of a sequence. Weigh it against countless episodes of Law & Order opening with descriptions of countless off-screen murders, and In Cold Blood packs more power than the whole of them combined.

Part of the reason for that is Brooks has the benefit of truth on his side. We know this happened, we know the consequences are real. Yet, perhaps the use of the term “horror” is not without merit, as there is something to the writer/directors’ pacing that is not unlike a horror movie. He makes us wait, he withholds what we know is coming, and he allows us to become complacent. And almost complicit. As an audience, we’ve been fascinated by the chuckling Dick and the twitchy Perry, who are more alive than not just the victims, but the police and the Capote stand-in, the invented reporter Bill Jensen (Paul Stewart, Kiss Me Deadly [review]). Forget cop shows, years of westerns and gangster movies have put us on the side of the outlaws, and In Cold Blood compels you to ask just who it is you’ve been rooting for.

And then, in a complete rope-a-dope, after it’s turned you against these charismatic criminals, the film compels you to ponder whether their end is fair. Brooks sets up a self-fulfilling prophecy early on by having the cop challenge the reporter, saying (and I paraphrase) that first the press asks why the cops haven’t done more, until they catch the killers, at which point the papers start shouting “police brutality,” only to finally try to excuse the bad guys they previously demanded be brought to justice by decrying the conditions that drove them to their heinous acts. While Brooks skips the middle bit, he does end by raising some questions about the effectiveness of capital punishment. Once again, it’s the details that matter. He is meticulous about showing the process of preparing Perry Smith for his final punishment, and this time, he lets the violence occur within the frame. In his hood, Perry is rendered anonymous, a lone figure dropping to his death, hanging there in gruesome isolation, a freak show for us to gawk at and recoil from.

Brooks’ In Cold Blood came along at an interesting time. Though on the surface it looks like an old Hollywood film--familiar actors, it’s black-and-white at a time when color was used for pretty much everything--In Cold Blood embraces the emerging freedom of the late 1960s. Dick’s coarse language, the matter-of-fact references to carnal acts, the homoerotic teasing--these all speak of the progressive cinema of the time.

As further evidence to how In Cold Blood straddled the line between fiction and nonfiction, the eyes on this movie poster are from images of the real killers, not the actors who portrayed them.

Even in how it is put together, In Cold Blood is anything but a studio picture. Brooks takes us far from the sound stages and back lots of the traditional Hollywood assembly line. Most of In Cold Blood is shot in the actual locations, including the Clutters’ home and the gallows where the killers were hanged. At one point, Currin even rides Nancy Clutter’s own horse. It’s a rather eerie turn, one presumably done to remind viewers that what they are watching actually occurred in the not-too-distant past. In an age where we’ve become jaded by countless scripted television shows passing themselves off as verité, it’s amazing to consider how bold--and chilling--a move this really was.

Of course, one cannot talk about In Cold Blood and not mention Brooks’ phenomenal collaborators. First, there is the music of Quincy Jones, which is effective and sparse, contemporary without being overbearing. Second, the photography of Conrad Hall (Fat City [review], The Rose). How many out there first watched In Cold Blood after seeing the famous scene where the rain on the window causes a tearful reflection on Robert Blake’s face in the cinematography documentary Visions of Light? Hall’s vision here is amazing, straddling a line between reportage and art. There is a beautiful clarity to his images, and a depth of field, that adds credence to the dramatization. Watching In Cold Blood is like watching a film noir that’s really happening.

The sum total of all these efforts defies age. In Cold Blood remain 100% effective and just as relevant. It’s also just a damn fine movie, one anyone can watch without knowing its origins, and it would be just as intriguing. It’s truth that would play equally as well as fiction.

There are plenty of extras on the Criterion Blu-ray for In Cold Blood, including several vintage pieces with Truman Capote. Perhaps of most interest is the short documentary film With Love from Truman made by Albert and David Maysles upon the release of the book, In Cold Blood. We see Truman in his natural habitat discussing the nature of the “nonfiction novel” with a reporter, sharing some of his research materials, and even reading from the book. Listening to him fawn over a photo of Dick Perry, it’s easy to see why some people questioned just how close the author got to his subject. It’s certainly not helped by his own defenses of his compassion for the “lonely” inmate.  Breakfast at Tiffany’s [review] fans will also appreciate a scene where Capote walks past the store with no less than Alvin Dewey and jokes and shares anecdotes about his relationship with the famous brand.

This disc was provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review. 

Monday, November 16, 2015


While I would eventually like to review each film of the Apu Trilogy in full, in the meantime, I am reposting my short review from The Oregonian, originally published in May 2014, to mark the release of the Criterion boxed set. 

Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy is a milestone of international cinema. Released between 1955 and 1959, the cycle of films follows the life of one Indian boy as he becomes a man, starting at the turn of the century and spanning decades.

The wandering adult Apu of “Apur Sansar (The World of Apu)” is a long way from the lively child of “Pather Panchali.” Joyful early years give way to sorrow and loss. By the end of middle film “Aparajito,” Apu is fending for himself.

Ray was influenced by Italian neorealism, and, in turn, you can see some of Apu in Francois Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel movies. Yet the Apu Trilogy is without peer in the director’s depiction of his particular corner of the world.

Sunday, November 15, 2015


There’s a different rhythm to early sound films. Though discussion always focuses on how many actors and actresses found it difficult transitioning from silent films to talkies, be it due to an unsuitable voice or a lack of proper vehicles, there was also a transition required of the people behind the cameras. The staging and pacing was different once dialogue was required. Indeed, even filming was different, because you had to accommodate for the actors having to say actual words out loud and capturing them on microphone.

So, just like with actors, only the most adaptable directors carried on and even flourished. John Ford in America, to name one example. Hitchcock in England. And Julien Duvivier in France.

The Eclipse set Julien Duvivier in the Thirties offers up four of the director’s first sound films, starting with DavidGolder, released in 1930 and made a full decade after Duvivier’s first silent film. Though neither as well-known nor as accomplished of the director’s most popular feature, Pepe le moko, David Golder--and indeed, all of the quartet here--shows a skilled artist eager to master his evolving craft. From the opening sequence of David Golder--a rapid-cut, impressionistic overview of the cultural, industrial, and economic situation in France at the 1920s--it’s clear Duvivier is ready to zoom into a new era.

David Golder was based on the novel of the moment, a dramatic tome by Irene Nemirovsky, who enjoyed a renaissance in recent years with her novel Suite Francaise. The David Golder of the title, played by regular Duvivier leading man Harry Baur (the Jean Valjean of Raymond Bernard’s Les Miserables [review]), is a free-market businessman about to get a lesson in the ups-and-downs inherent in capitalist bullishness. Our first exposure to the man is his relishing the ruin of a former partner who plotted against him and struck out on his own. When said partner commits suicide, Golder is unmoved. He insists the traitor should have reinvented himself, something Golder has had to do many times. Turn your loss into a win.

Karma comes around pretty fast, though, and Golder finds himself on shaky ground, and partially because of the very thing he tried to deny in business: a personal life. Golder’s wife (Paul Andral) is living a lavish existence on the Riviera, spending money alongside the couple’s spoiled daughter, Joyce (Jackie Monnier). As things unravel for Golder, he shows where his true loyalties lie. He’d rather let his wife sink if it means his daughter can swim. Unsurprisingly, Mrs. Golder is not going to go down so easy, not without pulling the rug out and dragging her husband with her.

David Golder touches on a lot of important issues, including class, privilege, and race. Despite his money, there are many who look down on Golder because he is Jewish. Baur plays the dour character with an appropriate heaviness. He is as self-isolating as he is self-made. As a father, he is exasperated and indulgent, and the sprightly blonde Monnier uses his own weight against him, both narratively and in terms of performance. She is as airy as he is grounded. The contrast tires us as much as it does Golder himself, meaning we are as exhausted as he is at the end, a strange feat of empathy on the part of Duvivier.

Though the camera stays relatively stable for the majority of Duvivier’s film, it never feels dull or static. Scenes are long and there are gaps in dialogue, the way there often was before directors learned how to fill all that space, but there is also a precision to what is chosen that suggests that Duvivier is already comfortable with conversation. Sure, more is said that in a silent film’s intertitles, but the lack of excess means no word--or moment--is wasted. 

By 1932, when Duvivier remade his own Poil deCarotte, any hesitancy about movies with sound had long since passed. One could argue there might have been an added confidence in fleshing out material he already knew so well, though my own memory of the silent version of Poil de Carotte is hazy at this point, so I can’t say definitively how much the later effort differs [my review of the 1925 version is here].

Poil de Carotte is based on a novel by Jules Renard. It stars Robert Lynen as “Carrottop,” the youngest of three children in the Lepic family. His nickname is for his red hair, given to him affectionately by his father (a returning Baur), but generally used derisively. The Lepics are dysfunctional on their best day. Madame Lepic (Catherine Fonteney) doesn’t much care for her third child, instead doting on her oldest boy Felix (Maxime Fromiot), a bully and a thief, and the self-absorbed middle child, the girl Ernestine (Simone Aubry). Monsieur Lepic means well, but he’s distracted, particularly once his campaign for mayor is underway.

This leaves Carrottop (real name: Francois) to his own devices, and the imaginative boy is plagued by ghostly visions and a suicidal impulse. Both are shown by Duvivier via inventive special effects, including one scene where two dream images of Carrottop debate his future over the boy’s sleeping body, the proverbial angle and devil sitting on his shoulder. The superimposed figures are simple, but effective. Duvivier is stretching himself throughout Poil de Carotte. Armand Thirard and Emile Monniot’s cameras have become more active observers, sometimes probing a scene, moving between the players, and following the action within the frame. (Thirard was also a cinematographer on David Golder). In a particularly important segment, Carrottop’s youthful desires turn to a jealous rage, and the filmmakers let the anger take over. As the child whips on his horses, driving his wagon faster and faster, they use overhead shots of passing trees to show speed, POV vantage points from the front of the wagon to demonstrate the child’s looming madness, and also a wide view from behind, showing us how wild Carrottop’s path has become.

The cutting is sharper here, too. Editor Marthe Poncin uses dialogue to weave in and out of scenes, ironically juxtaposing a line with the image that follows, or stitching two separate pieces of dialogue together to connect different events.

Of course, all the technical wizardry in the world wouldn’t save Poil de Carotte if the performances were bad, and Duvivier pulls a particularly impressive turn from his young star. Lynen is the essential component of the film, and his performance is full of humor and emotion. He is equally convincing joking around as despairing over what he perceives to be his inescapable fate. The climactic scenes of his final attempts to end his life are disturbing and raw, but perhaps more memorable is the tenderness that comes before, when he shares a sweet moment with his childhood romance (Colette Segall). It’s an exchange so honestly felt, it’s almost too bad the film didn’t end there, with the innocence of young love giving Carrottop courage to carry on, rather than the borderline mawkish reconciliation between father and son.

The following year, Duvivier would attack genre in the most impressive La tête d’un homme, adapting the work of Georges Simenon. On the surface, this is a fairly conventional procedural: a man (Gaston Jacquet) loudly grouses in a crowded bar that he’d pay handsomely for his rich aunt to be killed and an opportunistic eavesdropper takes him up on it. When the deed is done, Inspector Jules Maigret (Baur) has to figure out who did the deed. He suspects the nephew is involved, and that the dim delivery man (Alexandre Rignault, Eyes Without a Face) that they’ve apprehended is just a patsy. The real culprit is Radek (Valery Inkijinoff), a Czech immigrant with a terminal illness and sociopathic tendencies.

La tête d’un homme isn’t really a mystery, it’s a character study. Duvivier shows us all the pieces, and we are generally one step ahead of Maigret. The central question is what is motivating Radek. Is he just a bad dude or is there something else behind it? His character unpeels slowly, with Inkijinoff projecting a cold confidence that eventually devolves into a more unhinged pathology. His performance in the latter half of the film seems to be cribbed somewhat from Peter Lorre’s in M [review], but Inkijinoff doesn’t sell it nearly as well. He’s best when being charming and calculating.

Harry Baur is barely recognizable as the detective. He is calm and cool, the wheels constantly spinning in his brain, and relatively unflappable. It’s easy to see why Duvivier used him over and over. You hardly track that it’s the same man from picture to picture. He can do anything, and should be listed alongside Michel Simon and Jean Gabin as one of the unforgettable masters of early French cinema.

Duvivier’s structuring of Simenon’s crime fiction is elegant and effortless. Thirard and Poncin return on camera and editing duties, and clearly the crew has locked into a groove by this point. The eye is drawn through a scene carefully, Duvivier making sure we see the right clues. He also remains inventive, with one stand-out sequence illustrating both the drudgery of canvassing witnesses but also the speed to which one cop follows up on leads. In the scene, the officer remains in the same space within the frame, but the locale keeps changing. Duvivier placed his actor in front of a rear-projection screen and has him talking to actors via pre-recorded footage, effectively jumping from location to location but without ever cutting. At one point, he even has another actress walk on to give the cop an answer, as if she were on the other end of the shop from the person the cop is facing. For modern audiences, the effect is obvious, but that doesn’t make it any less clever. (And watch for the actress tossing a look directly at the camera as she walks back off. Oops.)

The final film in Julien Duvivier in the Thirties is perhaps the best. Released the same year as Pepe le moko, Un carnet de bal (or Dance Card) is a crafty ensemble piece reminiscent of Max Ophüls. It stars Marie Bell as Christine, a newly widowed woman in her late 30s whose present grief inspires her to look back at past loves. A dance card from a ball she attended at age 16 provides a road map, of sorts; she will visit each of her former dance partners and see how the intervening decades have treated them. Also, they will hopefully know the whereabouts of Gerard, the one who got away.

What Christine finds on her journey surprises her. Life takes funny turns in twenty years. The lawyer has become a crook (Fernandel), the artist is now a priest (Harry Baur). Some of the men have married, some have had children. Most have realized their dreams on some small scale of success, even if, in some cases, tragedy followed. Christine is ill prepared for these turns of event, and even less so for the one underlying theme in the tales of all her former suitors: their lives changed the night of the dance, the night she broke all of their hearts.

Thought never explicitly stated, what Duvivier’s script explores are the reverberations a small action can have. In this case, the casual offer of affection, and the subsequent withdrawal of the same. Christine is never presented as callous or mean, except perhaps by the mother who claims her son took his life when Christine rejected him; yet that mother is reacting with her own broken heart, and we have no reason not to believe Christine when she says the boy had never confessed his feelings. Or could that be Christine’s greatest sin? She was oblivious. Even now, her real goal isn’t really to catch up with these old beaus, but to find out something about herself, and the irony is that, despite how things turned out for them, the one-time suitors whom she hurt have lived richer lives than the one of sheltered wealth she chose instead.

Un carnet de bal flows smoothly from one episode to another. Duvivier plays most of it straight. Outside of some intriguing cross-fades, he never really calls attention to his technique, the craft has become invisible. In fact, the director inadvertently creates his own metaphor for his style. When Christine first starts to reminisce about the fateful night of her youth, the memory literally dances in, a slow superimposing of past over present. It’s beautiful and elegant, an enticing invitation to follow where the reverie will lead.

As an artist, Julien Duvivier has done the same. His inventions have intrigued, his constructions occasionally dazzled, even as he slowly erodes the evidence of each, immersing us in his narratives until we are so thoroughly involved, we forget all else.

These discs were provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

Sunday, November 8, 2015


I’m probably about 35 years too late for a first-time viewing of Watership Down. The renowned and somewhat legendary downer of an animated movie passed me by in my childhood, a victim first of my family’s ban on movies and second by my rejection of “adult” animation when that ban was eventually lifted. (And by The Black Stallion, no less. See also: my review of Hopscotch). A devotee of Looney Tunes and Disney, I had drawn a line in the sand when it came to more mature or out-of-bounds cartoons, only capitulating as Robotech and anime took hold. It’s weird the rules we make as kids. I guess part of adulthood is when we stop trading so easily in absolutes. (Most politicians and reality television celebrities notwithstanding.)

Which, let’s face it, my isolation did me no favors. Watership Down could have helped me get ahead of this game a little. Martin Rosen’s 1978 animated adaptation of Richard Adams’ novel--which I remember trying to read once--offers what some of the greatest children’s entertainment has managed over the years: a glimpse at the adult world through the eyes of youth.

The story is one perfect for animation. Watership Down tells of a group of rabbits that leaves its familiar warren in search of a new home after one of their number, a bunny named Fiver (voiced by Richard Briers), has a vision of a bloody future. Though the Chief Rabbit (Ralph Richardson) does not believe this prophecy, as outside observers, we know it to be true. The camera gives us a glimpse of the land developer’s sign announcing the new buildings coming to the open field. As we know, the encroachment of man means certain death for woodland creatures. Pretty soon, this field, and all within it, will be gone.

Fiver’s brother Hazel (John Hurt) believes his story, and he rallies a handful of others to leave the warren with him. This includes Bigwig (Michael Graham-Cox), the sergeant-at-arms, as it were; he will become the muscle on their trek. Along the way, the rabbits will find all manner of peril: predators, famers, captivity, and even other rabbits with their own territorial instincts. Naturally, this is all metaphor. Adams’ original story uses the anthropomorphized hares to say something about the human condition. Youngsters watching Watership Down will be made privy to the basic needs that all living beings require, including hunger, shelter, and the compulsion to procreate. At one point, Hazel realizes that his new community is all males, and so even if they do establish a new home, they will die out, there will be no second generation. This is not something I would have been able to cotton at age 6, when Watership Down was released, but surely there would have been an ah-ha moment somewhere down the road, as I likely would have watched this movie again and again.

For all this reality, though, we must not forget that we are watching talking cartoon rabbits--or rather, we actually do need to forget, we have to accept the illusion. And so the story is framed in myth, beginning with a folk tale about the origin of the world and the rabbits’ place within it. This sets up symbolism that will carry through the whole of the film, including the benevolent white rabbit and the ominous black rabbit. This opening, as well as a later sequence soundtracked by Art Garfunkel singing “Bright Eyes” (a song written for the movie), features some of the more interesting visuals in the film, abstracting the more traditional animation style to present something reminiscent of the paintings and tapestries of different indigenous cultures. This could partially be the influence of the film’s original director, the experimental animator John Hubley (whom I briefly wrote about here). Hubley passed away during the early days of production, but his eye for the different is important to Watership Down, which might have had less of an impact if it more closely mirrored the popular Disney style as so many have over the years (Don Bluth, for instance). The trippiness may have made Watership Down popular with the midnight movie crowd, but that undercuts the importance of those sequences as the connector between the reality of the world being created in the script and the two-dimensional drawings representing it. The fable gives us a reason to invest while also laying a groundwork for the interior reality; we can believe in the fantastic (in this case, talking animals) as long as the fantasy has some foundation.

To be honest, even with the clear high-definition transfer on the Blu-ray--or perhaps more so because of it--some of the animation in Watership Down leaves something to be desired. The figures often lack any defined outline, making them appear separate from their backgrounds, which though lovingly rendered in very detailed brushstrokes, come across as more static than I think the filmmakers intended. The inconsistencies speak to the herculean task of creating a full-length feature film in this way, especially without the resources or know-how of a more established studio. Watership Down’s faults are certainly forgivable, and their prevalence in my mind is probably, once again, down to my lack of nostalgia for the material.

Those caveats certainly don’t diminish Watership Down’s impact. The storytelling is still quite strong, and some of the choices are daring even without placing Watership Down in its historical context. As a friend pointed out to me earlier when discussing the movie--the novel is one of her favorite’--the interesting thing is there is no hero. Hazel is not a character who is actively remarkable. Quite the contrary, he expects Bigwig to take point in most things, and the mission is reliant on Fiver’s vision; rather, my friend suggests Hazel’s role is to see the strength in others and foster that. In that sense, he is the best kind of leader. Once again, a good lesson for young folks to learn. We all have our roles, and a community supports that to the benefit of all and the detriment of none.

This is a lesson that extends beyond one population or society. The journey of Hazel and the rest in Watership Down is life itself: birth and death, desire and satisfaction, peace and war, honor and treachery. This is the stuff that carries us all through at some point, and for a youngster picking up Watership Down at the right age, Adams and Rosen provide a sort of how-to guide that will likely stick with him or her throughout the years.

As adults, Watership Down’s lessons are not revelatory and the story doesn’t always thrill, but the bigger narrative points make for a good refresher course. A reminder of values we may have lost, an example of the person we maybe wished we could be. Big ears, fluffy tail, and all.

Friday, October 30, 2015


I wouldn’t necessarily say they saved the best for last, but there is a finality to Genocide that makes it the perfect choice to round out When Horror Came to Shochiku.

Released in 1968, Genocide was directed by The X from Outer Space’s Kazui Nihonmatsu [review], who here perfects his gonzo mash-up style while also taking his anti-war and technology themes to their furthest conclusion. At stake this time around is pretty much everything. Once again, the movie opens with an incident involving an aircraft (see also: Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell [review]). In this case, a U.S. bomber flying over a Japanese island carrying a hydrogen bomb. A swarm of insects sets upon the craft, first causing a PTSD freak-out from one of the crew members, an African American solider named Charly (Chico Roland, Black Sun [review]), and then disabling the engines, forcing the crew to eject their cargo and bail out.

Things only get more complicated from there. The Americans mobilize to find the lost bomb, and when the rest of the crew is found dead, an amnesiac Charly is the only key to figuring out where the explosive ended up. Meanwhile, one of the islanders, a bug collector named Joji (Yusuke Kawazu, The Inheritance [review]), turns up in town with a U.S. Air Force watch and finds himself charged with the murder of the dead pilots--even though the cause of death is quite clearly some kind of pestilence. Joji’s sweet wife Yukari (Emi Shindo) goes out of her way to help her man, even though it’s rumored that Joji has a white girlfriend on another island. Yukari summons Dr. Nagumo (Keisuke Sonoi, also in The X from Outer Space), a scientist Joji collects bugs for, to help him escape the murder charge. This works out, because Nagumo has seen some strange goings-on in the insect community that he’s eager to check out first hand.

Convoluted enough for you? Well, just you wait. The United States is not the only one on the hunt for the lost atomic weapon. There are also “Eastern Bloc spies” in the mix, and one of their number is Annabelle (Kathy Horan), Joji’s alleged girlfriend, who not only turns out to be a bit of a bug aficionado herself, but she’s also an Auschwitz survivor who hates all warring nations. The Americans are just as bad as her Nazi captors since, after all, they unleashed nuclear horror on the world. All of these crazy insects are Annabelle’s, she’s been breeding them to be more poisonous and wants to use them to destroy mankind.

Only not so fast, Annabelle! If sci-fi horror movies have taught us anything, it’s that nature is not as cooperative as all that. When Charly escapes Annabelle’s clutches--did I mention her Commie henchmen kidnapped him after he got his memory back and told everyone his buddies were killed by deadly bugs, not Joji, but Joji himself had already escaped and hooked up with his white ladypal?--the bug poison in his body causes him to hallucinate and rant about the genocide that we were promised in the title. Curious as to whether it’s all in Charly’s head or perhaps he’s maybe seen some truth the sober eyes are unable to envision, Dr. Nagumo lets himself be bitten by one of the bugs. Once the venom hits his bloodstream, Nagumo finds himself part of the hivemind, and the chatter between the winged terrorists reveals that they are also trying to rid the Earth of humanity. It’s one thing if man wants to kill himself with atomic energy, but the insects aren’t going to sit by and let the humans kill them, too.

Thus, this crazy film becomes a race against time. Who will triumph and get the bomb first? The Americans? The Communists? Why don’t Annabelle and the bugs realize they have a common goal? What of the fact that Yukari is expecting? Should she bring a baby into the world when its father is heading to the gallows?

There is a lot to parse through in Genocide. While the peace message is the most prevalent, Nihonmastsu and screenwriter Susumu Takaku complicate things by also touching on misogyny, racism, and the granddaddy of modern existential problems--just because science allows us to do something, does that mean we should? Not to mention the film’s climactic conundrum of whether or not it’s reasonable to sacrifice the few to save the many.

This last question can’t be answered with any real satisfaction, as the violent shootout between the two sides (irony?) ends in calamity. The final shots show us a most terrible conclusion, but also one glimmer of hope. Kind Yukari has escaped on a tiny boat, away from the carnage, mother and child serving as the last salvation for humanity. It’s like the end of Children of Men [review], only with no hint of a rescue.

In terms of style, Genocide fits in with the other films in When Horror Came to Shochiku: cheap special effects, science gone wrong, the ghosts of war invading the present day (and represented visually by intrusive, abrupt inserts), and a general distrust of mankind’s most common impulses. Just as Goke’s alien invaders saw us as hopelessly caught up in our own drama, so too do the bugs here completely dismiss any notion that we can save ourselves. Perhaps that’s why they decide not to go along with Annabelle, the human factor is unpredictable and she could make things worse for them in the long run.

This is horror as nihilism. No ghouls, goblins, or golems will ever be as terrifying as we are ourselves. The faint glimmer of hope that an individual might stand up and do the right thing is dashed time and again, the efforts that one person makes aren’t enough, the fight is futile, the bomb drops anyway or the aliens have already won, and even if we could pick up and carry on, the planet doesn’t want us anymore. Consider it this way: the bugs in Genocide could just be a metaphor for climate change. In both cases, we have manufactured the problem in the name of progress, and reversing what’s already been done seems nigh impossible. Though the movie is bizarre and freakish and as unpredictable as a practical joke, the punchline is all kinds of chilling.

Excuse me while I go pour myself a good stiff drink.