Wednesday, January 21, 2015

KINOSHITA AND WORLD WAR II: PORT OF FLOWERS/THE LIVING MAGOROKU - ECLIPSE SERIES 41


The interesting thing about boxed sets sometimes is, if you’re not familiar with a particular filmmaker, they offer a crash course in his or her themes and style. You can build a foundation, either creating a starting point for further exploration (example: other Eclipse bundles like Early Bergman [review] or The First Films of Samuel Fuller [review]) or provide a broad overview, leaving you to fill in the gaps later (The Essential Jacques Demy [review 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6]).

With Japanese director Keisuke Kinoshita, my only prior experience had been with Twenty-Four Eyes [review], his 1954 film about a small-town schoolteacher. It was an assured drama lacking in histrionics, focusing instead on the common and, arguably, the banal--though, the “everyday” might be a more accurate term, as the small things are given equal weight to the stuff of bigger film narratives. One can immediately see the roots for that kind of storytelling in Kinoshita’s initial films, collected here under the banner Kinoshita and World War II. Indeed, the five films in this, the forty-first Eclipse collection, were made during and just after the war, and reflect Japanese life as it was being lived at the time.


The lead feature is 1943’s Port of Flowers, a seemingly light-hearted movie about two inept con men descending on an island town in hope of bilking the residents out of their hard-earned money. Shuzo (Eitaro Ozawa, When a Woman Ascends the Stairs [review]) and Tomekichi (Ken Uehara, Mr. Thank You [review]) mistakenly try to pull the same ruse. Having discovered that, at one time, an industrialist tried to build a shipyard in this village, only to have the Great Depression wash his dreams away, both men arrive within hours of each other claiming to be the son no one knew the industrialist had. Rather than blow the scheme, the two crooks pretend to be brothers, finding that the love the village had for their alleged father is so great, they are more than willing to believe anything.

They are also more than willing to drop every yen they have to help make the shipyard a reality, and before the con artists realize, they have more cash than they know what to do with. These small-time operators are not prepared for a big score, and fear that they’ll only mess it up. Add to that the charms of village life, and particularly the island women, and they start to have second thoughts about disappearing with the bounty.


Up until this point, Port of Flowers is fairly innocuous, offering only a slight social critique, particularly in relation to a young woman who had left the island in search of a more cosmopolitan existence, only to be sent back under questionable circumstances. There is also a division made between her brother (Chishu Ryu, Equinox Flower, Late Autumn, etc. [reviews]) and the other villagers, as he was able to go to Tokyo and attend college (an accomplishment the con men can’t even claim). Education is poised against traditional values. In its early stages, I assumed Port of Flowers was heading toward State and Main territory: the self-important city folk would find themselves taken advantage of by the country bumpkins.

That all changes on December 7, 1941. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor and the expansion of the war, a nationalistic surge takes over the town, and the con men find themselves swept up in it. If they can build a ship for real, the country could use it, and they can serve in their own small way.

It’s fascinating to see a story about Japanese patriots during the conflict, particularly as the war was still going while Kinoshita was making his film. Had Port of Flowers been made even a couple of years later, the drama would have a different tenor. As they say, the victors get to write history, and so most Japanese stories that followed show the regret and misgivings that were deemed appropriate in peacetime. Think of how some American pundits reacted to Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises [review] last year because its main character never questioned how the planes he was building would be used, and then imagine Port of Flowers being released today. Doesn’t it make sense that the Japanese citizenry would want their country to thrive and prosper and ultimately win? It’s no different than what Clint Eastwood was trying to do by leaving the politics out of American Sniper [review], and look how that turned out.


The thing is, there are no politics presented here, no anti-American or European rhetoric, just average folks seeing the direction their nation was heading and trying to do their part. Kinoshita avoids making the movie propaganda in this way, as opposed to say the straight-up rallying in something like Powell and Pressburger’s 49th Parallel [review]. While Kinoshita did have to get the approval of the government censorship board before making Port of Flowers, it doesn’t feel like he was being swayed to deliver a particular message.

Though, if he had to cut some things here or there, that might explain the abruptness of the ending. Without giving too much away, the con men disappear from the island before the ship they caused to be built is launched--and, indeed, on the same day some of the local fishermen are attacked by Allied submarines--without much explanation. We can fill in some of the pieces, but not to any exact detail. It’s almost like a reel, or at least a scene or two, is missing.


But then, if there is anything to quibble over in Port of Flowers, it’s some of  Kinoshita’s clumsy edits. Most noticeable are the times he tries to build tension by quick cuts that are so quick, they are practically subliminal. These mostly involve the local policeman, whom Kinoshita wishes to make an object of fear for his bumbling bad guys. Most of the rest of the movie has a much more patient mis-en-scene, more akin to Ozu, and thus it makes these sudden flashes of Hitchcockian style all the more jarring.


That said, the first-time director shows some flashes of ambition that work quite well. The natural setting, including the realistic sets, and the way Kinoshita handles the countryside, including bad weather, shows a confidence learned from his previous years as an apprentice. There is also one very effective sequence where the old woman Okano (Chieko Higashiyama, Tokyo Story [review]) relates memories of time spent with the real shipbuilder. She tells the story while on a carriage, and the scenery outside changes from the island view to a rear projection of a life she imagines for herself and her lost love in far away locales. It’s a pretty obvious technique to modern eyes, but it creates a dreaminess that perfectly evokes the feeling of having spent decades pining for what might have been. The effect is helped by Higashiyama’s careful performance. It’s a rare moment of vulnerability for a character who otherwise keeps her guard up. She is quite good, as are Ozawa and Uehara. The duo are subtly comic, avoiding going too broad, and thus making the poor intentioned thieves sympathetic rather than pitiable.


Nationalism is far less of a subtle topic in Kinoshita’s follow-up. Made the same year as Port of Flowers, The Living Magoroku is a propagandist fable, the kind of thing that might have run as a short subject between the cartoon and the main feature in wartime Hollywood, but here extended to full length.

The gist is this: in a rural community, the Onagi family maintains the same farmland that their ancestors fought on nearly 400 years prior. The Living Magoroku even opens with a flashback to samurai clashing on the meadow before cutting to modern-day warriors training for combat in the wilderness nearby. Superstition has left the family’s field untouched all this time. They believe that to break the ground would be to violate the spirits of the ancestors who fell there. The clan is currently overseen by its widowed matriarch (Mitsuko Yoshikawa, Apart From You [review]), who also believes she lost her husband at a young age, as the family has lost all of their men, for even thinking of violating the curse. Her own son, Yoshihiro (Yasumi Hara), believes he is suffering from lung disease. Outside influence is pushing him to cultivate the land, but he is scared.


Enter an army doctor (Toshio Hosokawa) and an ambitious sergeant (Uehara). Both are visiting the Onagi homestead for a similar reason. The doctor is looking to buy a vintage sword from the family, as he foolishly sold his own and needs to restore the lost heirloom and his good name; the sergeant believes he also has such a sword and wants it appraised. Between the two of them, they will sway mother and son to do the right thing.

The Living Magoroku was written by Kinoshita, as well as directed, and he attempts to stack the narrative, creating an ensemble of characters with similar goals and faults to match the Japanese climate of the period. The Living Magoroku consistently works on two levels, each chafing against the other, its own narrative locked in conflict. Kinoshita seeks a balance between tradition and necessity, superstition and reason, honor and pragmatism. Much like the educated man was seen as the voice of civilization in Port of Flowers, so too does logic and experience hold sway here. Land, armor, and weaponry are all things to be revered, but the battlefield is not as important as the fields where the citizenry lives and eats. Nor is sacrifice made only on the front lines.


This is the ultimate thrust of The Living Magoroku: each person must do his or her part, even if they don’t like it. Again, consider American drives for tin and rubber, or warnings how “loose lips sink ships,” the person next to you in this theater may be a spy. It’s not at all subtle, neither in its message nor even in its drama. (And, at its worst, the acting can either be stiff or corny in equal measures; at its best, unmannered and naturalistic.) Still, Kinoshita strives to find the humanity in it all. The personal cost can be repaid, and the group effort leads to extensive bonds. The sergeant strives to unite two young lovers who are unable to marry due to the argument over the land, and the doctor not only restores his family name, but he extends that family when it’s all said and done.


Though the writing seems heavy at times, the overall structure of The Living Magoroku is slick, with Kinoshita confining the action to a few small places, and also isolating the timeframe to two separate visits from both the army men. He also shows an increased movement through the scenes, including elegant pans from one happening to another, like moving from the ground up to spy through a window, creating an overall feeling of connectedness and realism. This is one world he’s operating in, one community. Likewise the visual connections between past and present, the objects and artifacts echoing back to those brief battlefield moments reminding us just how present history is in the day-to-day.



This disc was provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review. The stills shown are taken from the standard-definition DVD release and not the Blu-ray under discussion.


Monday, January 12, 2015

3 WOMEN (Blu-ray) - #230


I’m trying to reach toward a picture that’s totally emotional--not narrative or intellectual--where an audience walks out and they can’t say anything about it except what they feel.”

Robert Altman’s description of his intentions with 3 Women doesn’t really decode the entire thing, but it does give a key to opening up whatever secret book holds the answers. Because 3 Women, which Altman wrote and produced under his own Lion’s Gate banner as well as directed, is not a story that works on paper, it’s not a script with a traditional plot. Its act breaks are more like psychotic breaks, in that the movie transforms twice, shifting when its main characters face trauma, swapping their roles, and yet never stopping to explain. Altman is clear in his nod here to Luis Bunuel, naming a pushy boss Mrs. Bunweill as tribute, and interestingly enough, holds much in common with the movie the Spanish filmmaker released that same year. 1977 brought us both 3 Women and That Obscure Object of Desire. In Bunuel’s film, the lead actress changes mid-way through the picture, a confounding narrative conceit that demands the audience take a leap of faith that it all means something. Altman plays a few parlor tricks of his own. Both these men were driving down Mulholland Dr. a couple of decades before David Lynch.


The story here begins normally enough. A young woman named Pinky Rose (Sissy Spacek) is starting work at a nursing home, and she is assigned Millie Lammoreaux (Shelley Duvall) to train her. The two couldn’t be more different. Millie is tall and composed; Pinky is small and shy. Millie talks constantly, yet no one ever seems to listen; Pinky is always watching, yet others often don’t see her. Millie pretends to be the sophisticate; Pinky is a child. Millie likes dressing in yellow; Pinky is nicknamed Pinky for a reason.

Pinky is also somewhat of a mimic. An emotional and physical chameleon. She is drawn to Millie and soon begins copying her. She borrows a phrase here, a detail there. When Millie needs a new roommate, Pinky seizes on the opportunity. What better way to observe her new obsession than in her natural habitat? It’s like Single White Female for the art house, but without the murderous intent.



Things are up-and-down for the new roomies. Millie notices things being slightly off about the younger woman. Likewise, the landlord’s wife and proprietress of the saloon where Millie drinks, the similarly named Willie (Janice Rule), appears suspicious of the new girl. I suppose in this pyramid, Willie is the crone, and indeed, she and her elaborate paintings have a kind of bewitching effect on Pinky, drawing her in the way the moon draws the tide. The spying girl often observes Willie through water, or in relation to water, like in a fish tank or at the bottom of an empty pool, and every time, Willie can sense the staring almost immediately.



Altman makes great use of the murals that Willie paints (though in reality they were created by artist Bodhi Wind). She does small abstract work that can be hung on walls, though those she tends to riddle with bullet holes, which only calls further attention to their humble size. Her masterpieces, on the other hand, are large and impressive, covering walls or the floors of swimming pools. She depicts mythic creatures, alien and surreal, masculine and violent. In one, which also ends up being the final image of the movie, her bizarre creatures rant and rave at an object in the heavens, suggesting they are as primal as the apes at the start of 2001 [review]. One can presume she is painting the world she sees around her--the saloon is populated by men riding dirt bikes and shooting pistols--but maybe she also feels that desperate pull herself.

Everythng changes midway through 3 Women. In a surprising twist--though not really a spoilery one, it would be sort of impossible to spoil a movie this unconcerned with conventional narrative--after Millie turns on her, Pinky tries to drown herself. Feeling guilty, Millie stands by her while she is in a coma, only to find the girl who wakes up in that hospital bed is radically changed. Pinky is now the assertive one, and Millie can only do her best not to be completely subsumed, to have her entire identity swallowed. It takes another tragedy, this time involving Willie’s baby, to shake things up again. (Digression: It might be interesting to compare how Altman allows the birth to affect the lives of the main characters in a movie about women vs. how the birth scene at the end of his male mid-life crisis picture Dr. T and the Women [review] affects Richard Gere. Is there something to be said for why it is magical and liberating for the man and not for the ladies?)



I briefly considered tracking my feelings throughout my viewing of 3 Women, but that seemed to kind of miss the point of the experiment by intellectualizing it too much. It would also pull me away from the screen and make me focus on the paper, and 3 Women requires undivided attention. That said, in the first half of the movie, there is definitely a feeling of desire and hope, but that translates to pity, as well--which is an audience reaction, not a function of the storytelling. Neither Pinky nor especially Millie are that self-aware. Later, I felt in sync with Millie, as Pinky’s attempted suicide and the fall-out thereafter inspires anxiety in both the viewer and the actress. Duvall is a fascinating onscreen presence. She almost doesn’t seem like that good of an actress. Her delivery can be flat, and she can appear ill at ease. Her gawkiness can be hypnotic, in much the same way her Margaret Keane-like features make her beautiful. I am always hyper aware she is Shelley Duvall, whether she’s playing the scared wife in The Shining or Olive Oyl in Popeye. Yet I find myself enjoying watching her all the same.


It’s a demeanor that is ideally suited for a movie as intentionally dreamy as 3 Women. Shelley Duvall is practically surreal unto herself. This makes it all the more smart to cast Sissy Spacek opposite her. Spacek is naturally more grounded. As Pinky, she maintains the girl-next-door vibe she had in Badlands [review] and Carrie, and yet is utterly convincing when she becomes the more confident and mean of the two roommates. One could posit she’s putting the little-girl-lost routine to bed for good. Performance-wise, she is as natural on screen as Duvall is awkward. I would almost try to argue that all of 3 Women is Millie’s dream, given how menacing a figure her counterpart becomes, but the changes occur in Pinky’s vision. She observes, she sees the rifts, and she dives into them.


Altman approaches all this with a measured gaze. He doesn’t push the odd happenings too hard, he doesn’t go all wonky or psychedelic. Pinky’s early “visions” are more practical. The first superimposition of waves over the image, for instance, uses water that is actually in the scene. It’s only near the end that Altman steps away from this, indulging in one short yet meaningful dream sequence, a kind of quick run through the greatest hits of everything we’ve seen so far. He’s practically working at odds with his own skewed motives here. 3 Women deals with strange events, but Altman makes most of it seem as real as possible. Even the obvious symbols, like the pair of twins that work with Millie and Pinky, are really just twins who work with Millie and Pinky. Though, they do allow for some leading dialogue. “Do you think they know which one they are?” Pinky asks. “Maybe they switch back and forth.


This earthiness and lack of show makes it easier to go along with the more obtuse occurrences, just as Gerald Busby’s distant and ominous music provides a throughline in the sometimes rambling narrative. Altman is far from indulgent, he’s giving the audience as much as required to keep them invested and on track. It’s only in the final scenes, when the lever on the cinematic slot machine is pulled one last time and the titular trio of women slides into its final roles, that some might end up truly confounded. I’ve seen the movie twice now and I’m still not sure if it’s a jackpot of “Ah-ha!” or otherwise some combination of “what’s that?” and “why this?”

I like it anyway. I am fascinated and enraptured, hypnotized by its vibrant colors the way Pinky is hypnotized by Willie’s paintings, every time I watch it. And I don’t worry about what is happening or what it’s trying to say. Which would mean Altman is successful in creating an all-in experience, one that entices and teases and provokes even if it never explains.


Note: 3 Women will be playing the NW Film Center on Sunday, January 18, as part of a Robert Altman weekend.


Saturday, December 27, 2014

TOOTSIE (Blu-ray) - #738


Interesting fact: Blake Edwards’ Victor/Victoria and Sydney Pollack’s Tootsie, both comedies where actors cross-dress in order get a job, were released in 1982. I couldn’t say what was in the air around that time that two of the biggest hits of that year would involve performers of one sex--namely, Julie Andrews and Dustin Hoffman--pretending to be another sex, but it kind of blows my mind that I had contact with both films in their theatrical runs when I was a wee lad of ten years old. I’m not sure I saw all of Victor Victoria in that outing or just peeked in, later to pick up more of it on cable, but watching it again not that long ago during a visit with my family, I was kind of surprised at how frank the film was about homosexuality. My parents must not have really known what they were taking me to.

And now I am equally shocked by how smart and subversive Tootsie is. I know I saw the entire movie back then, but I also know now that I didn’t understand it. In my head, it was a dumb comedy, one that probably didn’t age well, because it was popular, wasn’t it? Could a crowdpleaser from over thirty years ago really stand up to the scrutiny of today? If nothing else, the politics should be all wrong.


Except that they aren’t, and Tootsie has aged incredibly well. In point of fact, it’s still incredibly funny, laugh-out-loud so. And there is nothing to cringe about while watching it because it lacks any meanness. It’s very human and very matter-of-fact and its characters are largely free of judgment. The comedy doesn’t happen just because Dustin Hoffman is wearing a dress, but rather because of the things that happen to him while he’s wearing a dress and the way it challenges his perceptions and what it exposes about everyone.

Written by Larry Gelbart (Oh, God!) and Murray Shisgal (Luv), Tootsie is essentially a rom-com that also has bits of showbiz satire and a social commentary but without hitting too hard on either. It stars Hoffman as Michael Dorsey, a pigheaded actor who, when told he’s too difficult to get work, decides to prove he can get along by dressing up as a woman and getting a part on a soap opera. I really like how the movie treats that decision. If you were to watch Tootsie without any foreknowledge of its premise, what a surprise you’d be in for! There is no telegraphing the scheme, no announcement that Michael is going to create a female alter ego. Instead, Michael is arguing with his agent (played brilliantly by Sydney Pollack), declares that he’ll prove the man wrong, and the next cut is to Dorothy Michaels walking down the street, fully transformed. No time is spent trying on wigs or getting the make-up right, we are told Michael has a proficiency for stagecraft right up front, during the opening credits. Whatever inspires the change, he hits the ground running.


And Dorothy gets the role, in large part because she stands up for herself, an essential component to the character she is intended to play. Earlier Michael tried to coach his friend Sandy (Terri Garr, who is amazing) for the audition, and she flubs it by being too easy to crumble. Michael has no such problem. Or should I say Dorothy. In fact, once she is on the show, Dorothy becomes a bit of a phenomenon. Her fellow castmates, including the soap’s lead actress Julie (Jessica Lange) and a bit player April (Geena Davis), like her because she doesn’t take any crap from their pig of a director (Dabney Coleman); the audience likes her because her feminist ad libs give them a character they can root for.

Though Tootsie’s comedic tone never quite escalates to the level of farce, its plot bears elements of the genre. Naturally, the deeper Dorothy/Michael gets into the charade, the more complicated it becomes. He has to keep up with the ruse, because getting found out would topple a lot of dominoes, not the least of which is that he’s become good friends with Julie in his Dorothy guise while also deeply falling in love with her. The only person to know what he’s doing besides his agent is his roommate, Jeff, played with typical aplomb by Bill Murray, who serves as a sardonic Jiminy Cricket throughout. Murray’s zingers are sharp and funny, as is Tootsie as a whole. It’s a witty movie, smartly written, timeless instead of timely. Some of the jokes are clever and sneaky, some are broad and altogether hilarious. The biggest laugh in the movie is one of its most obvious, a single line delivered by veteran actor George Gaynes (Punky Brewster) when he learns the truth about the woman he has been wooing. “Does Jeff know...?” I don’t know why it’s not a more famous moment, as it’s akin to the “I’ll have what she’s having” line in When Harry Met Sally...; my guess is it’s too specific.

Which is ironic for a movie that feels so universal. But then, that’s Tootsie.


There’s a fascinating incongruity in that this movie is very much of the 1980s and yet also well enough ahead of its time that you’d easily be forgiven for thinking that it came from some other era. While the technique can be groanworthy--that drippy montage out at the farm, for instance, or Dave Grusin’s score, which is so bad I found myself wishing it was somehow a sly subtextual joke--the portrayal of Dorothy avoids the “Ick! It’s a dude!” clichĂ©s one might expect while also making it so she is never the object of ridicule. Sure, there are jokes about Dorothy having to cover a mustache, but that gag is more about practicality and is a comedic red herring, a possible way to expose the truth, rather than anything degrading toward a man identifying as a woman.

Credit due to Hoffman, who likely can identify with Michael Dorsey’s commitment to method and craft, and so can play Dorothy Michaels with the same seriousness. It’s a marvelous performance, heartfelt and honest, and yet also...well, it seems wrong to say it’s not entirely convincing, because I am not sure it’s supposed to be. While it’s pretty much impossible to forget that it’s Dustin Hoffman under the wig and eye shadow, we’re not expected to. Pollack smartly lets context do the heavy lifting in terms of convincing us that Michael could be Dorothy without us ever forgetting that he’s also Michael. The other characters in Tootsie believe that Dorothy is a woman, and they treat her as such, and so we buy into the illusion. And because Dorothy has this dissociative confidence, this belief in herself, the folks around her actually treat her better than they would other women. Which is also part of the point.


Remember above when I said Tootsie was both timely and timeless? There’s something very casual about how the film portrays gender politics, and whether they meant to or were even aware of it, the filmmakers somehow collapse a lot of issues into what is essentially a very human portrayal, achieving a kind of “oneness” rather than a “one-or-the-otherness.” There is a surprising progressiveness in the fact that it’s not Michael’s masculinity that gives Dorothy added courage or strength, but something about Dorothy that makes Michael better. As a woman, he becomes free of his own hang-ups, and it changes his perception. His own battles as a self-involved male actor come into focus, and he somehow channels those frustrations so that he is now reacting as an actress coming up against all kinds of obstacles he never realized existed. In this, Michael manages the best possible trait a performer can have: empathy. He sees what women have to deal with constantly, and he pushes back. Absent of the go-along-to-get-along attitude that results from habitual oppression, he is able to react as any common sense person would and call bullshit everywhere it appears. In other words, he’s not better at being strong because he’s a man, but because it’s the first time he’s having to deal with things that women deal with every day and that he’s otherwise been blind to.

The great thing is that Sydney Pollack and his writing team (which also included several uncredited script doctors, including the legendary Elaine May) avoid the cardinal sin of allowing Michael to have his cake and eat it, too. They overturn the standard for this kind of romantic comedy--or any where the male goes undercover and is privy to the woman’s secret desires--so that when Michael tries to act on the things that he learns as Dorothy, it blows up in his face. Or, more accurately, it’s thrown back at him. Julie may have laid out the perfect pick-up lines to win her heart, but when put into practice, Michael ends up doused in champagne. He can’t benefit from his deceit. (And, honestly, how did you not know that, dude? In practice, the non-line becomes just another line!) In other instances, he’s desexualized. “My mother used to do that to me sometimes,” Julie says to him when Dorothy pets her hair in bed. And one senses that, underneath, Michael is not turned on, he’s legitimately expressing comfort and love. He’s forced to behave toward another human being without taking his own desires into account.

Hell, they even take it one step further: when thrust into the “traditional” feminine roll, like babysitting Julie’s kid, he’s terrible at it. You can put on the uniform, but you have to walk the walk, it’s not just about your undergarments.


It’s not just Michael, though; Tootsie is full of empathy through and through. Dorothy defends battered women in a brief scene on the soap. Julie’s lifestyle as a single mom with a career is never called into question. When the idea of being a gay man or a woman is introduced, no one denounces it. Julie says she’s not able to return another woman’s affection because she’s not together enough to experience broader emotions, and when Michael is asked if he’s gay, he responds, “In what way?” rather than outright refusing. Even Julie’s father (Charles Durning), who falls for Dorothy and then has to deal with finding out he proposed marriage to a fella,  is shown as a quaint old man who tries to see equality for what it is even if he has certain fundamental beliefs that can be seen as antiquated. They aren’t harmful even if they are somewhat wrong. He means well, and he’s trying, and frankly, isn’t that sometimes enough?


It’s that empathy, I think, that allows Tootsie to pull off what otherwise might be a hokey ending. Without giving too much away, the key to Michael making amends is not really explaining Dorothy away, but accepting that she was a part of him. She wasn’t an invention, but an extension. Amusingly, Hoffman gets two credits at the end. He is Michael and he is Dorothy, and both are important enough to get their own byline--even if it is slightly counter to the message that they are inseparable halves.

Which in itself feels rather simplistic now, but we can’t watch such things and judge by modern standards. To do so would be to miss how ahead of the curve Tootsie was and fail to acknowledge that, when it comes to smuggling such a lesson into the mainstream, simplicity is the best disguise. Hell, that’s right there in the movie, too. Michael could be more elaborate or more vain in creating Dorothy, but  instead he basically hides in plain sight. When it comes down to it, Tootsie is so triumphant in that it never really seems to try. All of the above are just natural components of a supremely entertaining movie. The politics are something we put on it as opposed to something Tootsie foists upon us. Like Dorothy, it just is what it is, and that’s also what Pollack and Co. are encouraging the rest of us to be.


For technical specs and special features, see the full article at DVDTalk.com.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

L'AVVENTURA (Blu-ray) - #98


For me, I think what is most compelling about Michelangelo Antonioni’s challenging 1960 drama L’Avventura is how it so effectively upends the mystery genre to serve the director’s own thematic purpose.

More than fifty years before Gone Girl, Antonioni crafted an oblique narrative about a young woman bored to death with her future husband and the state of love in general who in some manner orchestrates her own disappearance. Anna (Lea Massari) is a rich man’s daughter, engaged to Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti), and yet disconnected from her own privileged existence. She tells her father she has no intention of marrying the man, but then makes her friend Claudia (Monica Vitti) wait outside while she has an afternoon quickie with him. The three of them then join other friends on an overnight boat trip to remote waters. While swimming, Anna lies about seeing a shark, presumably to see how everyone will react. She only confides this secret to Claudia. Thus, the other girl is understandably suspicious when Anna goes missing later that day. The travelers have docked at a desolate island. There is no one else on it with them, only an empty shack, and no other way off. Yet, when it’s time to go, Anna has disappeared without a trace. Someone thought maybe they heard another boat, but there is no real proof.


And so L’Avventura becomes a manhunt--at least, after a fashion. The police come to investigate, accusations are thrown, with the fiancĂ© being the first suspect. Sandro and Claudia lead the charge--though separately whenever possible, Claudia does not trust him--and they remain the most dedicated, following whatever leads come up, pursuing a trail that may not be there. It’s along this search that they also derail their own efforts. Sandro kisses Claudia, she rebukes him...and yet, she is drawn to him. Eventually, their attraction takes over. The investigation becomes a romantic getaway. By the time the pair rejoin their other friends--who, bored and unaffected, have carried on with their perpetual holiday--they are behaving as a married couple, alternately bickering and being affectionate. Claudia hates herself just a little; Sandro, as ever, is nonplussed.


But ain’t that just like a man? At least in the way Antonioni depicts Italian society. The men are driven by lust, emerging in the streets as one predatory pack whenever a woman is left to walk unescorted. It happens first with the young American of questionable morals (Dorothy De Poliolo)--who herself claims to be lost and could be seen as a double for Anna--and then when Claudia decides to wait outside when Sandro goes into a shop where Anna had possibly been seen. It’s a reversal of the earlier scene, when Antonioni and cameraman Aldo Scavarda artfully framed Claudia through the crack in the curtains in the room where Sandro and Anna are having their tryst, the audience peering out at the girl peering in, as if perhaps she desires to be up there with them. She is isolated in both scenes, but in the later instance, she becomes the object of sexual craving rather than rebuked. And its Sandro who is now outside observing, witnessing the threat from inside a doorway. Of course, it’s significant that this is immediately after the two of them have made love; the wild animals sense the change.



It’s a split that runs through all the couples in L’Avventura. Anna is not the only one who finds the male/female relationship wanting. (It’s telling that she is reading both F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night, a novel about adultery and the disappointment of marriage, alongside the Bible when she disappears; it’s one of God’s few appearances in the movie, faith is as absent as true love.) The wealthy older woman Patrizia (Esmeralda Ruspoli) tells her would-be paramour Raimondo (Lelio Luttazzi) that she was not made for love, and she rebuffs and belittles his advances. He, in turn, proves he can’t handle delicate things, dropping the antique crockery found on the island, a symbol of a lost civilization that the bored socialites argue over. Who owns it? How would you use it? Even knowing where it comes from makes you the object of ridicule. Why be smart or concerned about things long since dead?


Maybe this is why the woman who is made fun of for allegedly wanting to take the pot and put flowers in it is the one to truly transgress. Giulia (Dominique Blanchar) at first seems like the sweetest of the crew, but when Claudia rejoins her friends, she finds Giulia carrying on with a young painter. She is defiant about it, challenging others to judge her, even rubbing it in her husband’s face. The sweet has been made to run sour. There are no happy endings in love stories, only prison sentences. Which is why Anna gets out before she is locked in. Ironically, by doing so, she dooms her best friend to that same fate. Claudia and Sandro are bound together more by their shared concern over Anna’s vanishing then they are any true affection. The final images of L’Avventura show them unable to separate, subject to their roles (he the philanderer, she the long-suffering devotee), and filled with despair. By all evidence, there is nothing else out there for them because nothing is all that modern man truly has.


It’s been several years since I last saw L’Avventura. I wrote about it the last time, too, in connection with a showing of The Big Sleep to promote my comic book You Have Killed Me. It’s funny how much more obtuse the movie becomes with distance. (Perhaps I am remembering L’eclisse more?) Watching it again, I was struck by how much of a standard mystery the movie really is. Except for the missing woman, there are no strange goings on, no tricky editing or confounding digressions. Sandro and Claudia follow a pretty strict path, going from one clue to the next, the narrative adopting somewhat of an episodic structure. This makes it no less intriguing, though; on the contrary, the simplicity only heightens the tension, leaving wider spaces for the viewer to ruminate on Antonioni’s existential commentary, which he doles out sparingly. Each incident is almost like a prompt, a short philosophical riddle for the monastic cinephile to meditate on.


Monica Vitti proves a marvelous vessel for delivering these messages. She appears innocent and empathetic, truly curious and caring, defying her glamorous image, more like the blonde girl next door to Lea Massari’s more calculating woman of the world. It fits noir conventions, they are analogues to Rhonda Fleming and Jane Greer in Out Of The Past, though they are sadly stuck without a reliable Robert Mitchum. Gabriele Ferzetti makes for interesting casting. He appears too old for both of them and physically unremarkable. Not exactly handsome, you wouldn’t notice him without a spotlight. Not the way you would Marcello Mastroianni or Alain Delon, the stars of Antonioni’s next two movies, which form a thematic trilogy (and which I will be revisiting next).


This might be over rationalizing, but it’s possible that my seeing L’Avventura more clearly has as much to do with the new restoration as it does time. The 4K digital upgrade used for this new Blu-ray presents the film in a way that far surpasses any prior release (my screengrabs, for the record, are from Criterion’s 2001 DVD). The clarity with which one can now view the black-and-white landscapes of Antonioni’s movie is quite something. The desolation felt when stranded out at sea, or how small Vitti and Ferzetti appear in the final moments, is illustrated not just by the widescreen framing, but also the depth of detail that is now evident in high definition. That ocean goes on for miles, and the cliffs and balconies give way to a bottomless view. By contrast, the interiors are confining, whether the hull of a boat or a hotel room. Antonioni’s sad figures are at once trapped by their surroundings and humbled by just how insignificant they appear within them.

As an audience, we are left to feel the same way. I can’t imagine the added effect of seeing it in a theater, of the images writ large. The vastness of Antonioni’s vision would blanket the auditorium. L’Avventura is a haunting motion picture, teasing out answerless riddles while making us feel all the more lost for the fact that the lack of any solution is somehow a fault of who we are.


This disc was provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review. The stills shown are taken from the standard-definition DVD release and not the Blu-ray under discussion.