Sunday, June 29, 2008


Paul Schrader's 1985 biopic of the Japanese author Yukio Mishima, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, is a thoughtful and inventive examination of a writer's life and how it both influences and is influenced by his work. It's a rare case of a willfully arty film that manages to make the question of style over substance immaterial, as they ultimately are one and the same.

As the title suggests, Mishima is broken into four sections, each meant to portray an important stage in the author's life and show the progression of his ideas toward the extreme activist he would eventually become. Each chapter begins with a "present day" sequence that takes place on November 25, 1970, the day Mishima (played by Ken Ogata, recently seen in The Hidden Blade) and four soldiers from his private army, the Shield Society, took a general in the Japanese army prisoner in an attempt to commandeer his troops, overthrow the capitalist government, and return the emperor to the seat of power. When this coup failed to yield results, Mishima committed seppuku, or ritual suicide, rather than see his ideals fizzle. (Some believe this was intention all along, that Mishima never expected the plan to work and was more concerned with setting the stage of a spectacular death.)

From these scenes of Mishima on his way to his mission, Schrader shifts each of the first three chapters into the writer's past. Starting with the boy at age 5 (Yuki Nagahara) and working his way forward into his teen years, and then into his artistic triumphs and adulthood. The flashbacks are all filmed in black-and-white, which serves to differentiate them from the second stories. In addition to the flashbacks, Schrader also chooses one of Mishima's many novels that best exemplifies that period of the work, and he creates a miniature adaptation of said work.

The story begins with chapter 1, "Beauty," where the awkward young boy grows into a man, looking to change his position as a misfit in this world and embrace love and the goodness that life has to offer, the things that are beauty personified. For this section, Schrader chooses to adapt the 1953 novel The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, the story of a Buddhist acolyte (Yasosuke Bando) with a severe stuttering problem whose "deformity" prevents him from finding love, forcing him to always remain separate. He fixates on the golden temple where he is studying and eventually becomes intent on its destruction. Turning it to rubble blots out the false promise he can never fulfill. This action actually teaches him something about beauty, about how it's best to halt it at its apex rather than let age diminish its luster.

From there, Schrader moves to chapter 2, "Art," where Mishima, tasting his first blush of success, begins to ponder how to resolve the false and finite nature of beauty and realize the artist's purpose of preserving said beauty. In his novel Kyoko's Place a young actor turned body builder (Kenji Sawada) realizes that despite his personal perfection, bodies decay. Art is nice, but it requires no sacrifice. He enters into an abusive relationship with a female gangster (Setsuko Karasuma) who begins to use his body as a living sculpture. Real blood is a greater expression of true beauty and art than the false blood spilled on a theatrical stage.

This lesson informs chapter 3, "Action," where Mishima begins to question his role in the world. Words can express ideas, but like how beauty without art fades, so too do ideas go nowhere without action to back them up. The novel for this section is Runaway Horses, a later work about a young soldier (Toshiyuki Nagashima) who forms a cabal of like-minded youths to stage a revolution and restore Japan's honor. As his plan falls apart, he tries one last action before turning his sword on himself. Here the fiction dovetails nicely with the reality, as we go into chapter 4, "Harmony of Pen and Sword," which concerns itself entirely with Mishima's last day on Earth, along with commentary taken from his last book of personal writing, Sun and Steel. (Again, fiction gives way to reality--though reality as seen by Yukio Mishima.)

Each of the novel adaptations is filmed in a colorful, abstract style that borrows from classical and contemporary theatre. Golden Pavilion is the most abstracted, with the sets being obvious facades, while Kyoko reflects a more neon and illusory 1950s. As Schrader moves the timeline forward, each style gets a little more realistic, until it collides with the reality of Mishima's story and the actions of the Shield Society. All of the chapters show the parallels between the writer's life and his fictions, with his childhood struggles to be understood transforming into the acolyte's stuttering, his destruction of canonized literary stylizations being his razing of the Golden Pavilion. So, too, is he later a stage actor, a body builder, and the revolutionary soldier, as the man of letters wrestles with his self-image and the truth of his self-expression.

It's as deep as I've seen anyone go into the life of an artist, certainly multiple steps up from the overly obvious moments of inspiration we see in modern biopics of creative types of various stripes. Schrader and his co-writers, Leonard Schrader (his brother) and the Japanese adapter Chieko Schrader (his sister-in-law), are searching for the true connections, going beyond the standard tale of one life and digging deep into material to show how the writer lives many different existences. He borrows from real events to inform his fiction, but then must alter his life to live up to the ideal he created for himself.

Through it all, Mishima's obsession with death is clear. From his missed opportunity to die for his country in WWII (his own surprising cowardice haunting him ever since) and his study of samurai texts, he begins to dream of an exit that has greater meaning than passing away from old age while home in bed. If action is the only way to give ideas true meaning, then the final action must matter, too.

Though ostensibly an American production--Mishima was produced by George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola for Coppola's Zoetrope Studios--the film was shot entirely in Tokyo using Japanese actors speaking Japanese. The distinctive costume and production design was also by a Japanese artisan, Eiko Ishioka, who prior to this had worked in mediums other than film, but has since gone on to design costumes for Bram Stoker's Dracula and The Cell, among others. She brings a special flare to the novel sequences, creating an alternate reality in keeping with Yukio Mishima's unique vision. The author's estate initially cooperated with the production, but later withdrew their support over objections of depictions of Mishima's sexuality. Likewise, the Japanese government didn't like seeing the writer's rebellion glamorized, and so the film has never been released theatrically or on video in Japan. (Though, oddly, it can be show on TV, but only with the homosexuality censored.)

It's a bizarre contradiction. The author's work is still venerated in his home country, so why must his life be taboo? Could the irony be that in the act Mishima saw as his final achievement of his artistic ideal, he actually boomeranged back to being the outcast?

Criterion releases Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters as a double-disc set in conjunction with its separate release of the short film Mishima wrote, directed, and starred in himself. 1966's Patriotism adapts a short story he wrote about a soldier and his wife committing seppuku in 1936, and two scenes about the filming and release of Patriotism are included in Mishima. For information about Patriotism, read my review of it here.

Though Mishima was released on DVD by Warner Bros. in 2001, it has been out of print for some time. That disc generally got very high marks. There have been some changes made between the transfer seven years ago and the new one, however, some of which will be up to debate as far as what some people might prefer, but all of which are approved by Paul Schrader and cinematographer John Bailey, so ultimately you'll have to take it up with them.

The most notable change, and the one that should make just about everyone happy is that the old transfer was a 1.75:1 aspect ratio, and the Criterion disc restores the film to its original ratio of 1.85:1, meaning more information now appears on screen. There have been some color changes and digital enhancements made to some scenes on Schrader's insistence, and these will only be noticeable to those who know the old DVD by heart. Overall, I thought this transfer looked pretty good, with the distinctive color schemes popping in all the right ways and none of the pixilation that sometimes marred the older release.





Overall, I think the colors of the movie pop way more in the new version, while the old one looks faded and grainy by comparison.

The original Japanese soundtrack has been mixed in Dolby Digital stereo and sounds very good. Philip Glass' marvelous score for the picture is the true test of any mix of this movie, and his orchestration rings through loud and clear.

There are a couple of alternate audio options for viewers to choose from. There were several versions of the narration recorded for the movie. The default option is the Japanese language narration, but you can also choose the late Roy Scheider's English voiceover that was included in the theatrical release or Paul Schrader's somewhat different voiceover recorded as a guide track for Scheider (available here for the first time; the other two options were on the old DVD).

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters - Criterion Collection is a beautiful art object unto itself. Really, Criterion deserves a round of applause for this one. Designer Neil Kellerhouse, along with co-art director Sarah Habibi, has created a bright, embossed boxed set that is as garishly distinctive as Eiko Ishioka's set design and that also plays on the puzzle element of the movie's structure. The outer slipcase has enough room to hold both the DVD sleeve and the 56-page book that comes in the set. The four-sided gatefold sleeve has two trays for the DVDs and a breakdown of the four chapters of the movie printed on the inside. The book has photos, credits, a new critical essay by Schrader-expert Kevin Jackson, information on the film's ban in Japan, and an on-set account from Eiko Ishioka.

Sometimes a DVD set comes along where the nature of a unique production is matched by an equally extraordinary DVD package. Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters - Criterion Collection is one of those sets. Paul Schrader's biopic of the controversial and provocative Japanese author works on multiple levels to break down the writer's life, to show how much of it is interior and how fact and fiction blend into one another. From the script to the production design and the music, every stage of this production strove for something special. This new double-disc set peels the curtain back further to show us how they achieved what they did and more about the reality of the subject. This is one other art films should emulate when making their way to DVD. Don't just fill the space, but fill it well--a sentiment Yukio Mishima could likely get behind.

For a full rundown on the special features, read the full article at DVD Talk.


"'Well, then...' The lieutenant's eyes opened wide. Despite his exhaustion they were strong and clear, and now for the first time they looked straight into the eyes of his wife. 'Tonight I shall cut my stomach.'

Reiko did not flinch.

Her round eyes showed tension, as taut as the clang of a bell.

'I am ready,' she said. ‘I ask permission to accompany you.'

Yukio Mishima's 1961 short story "Patriotism" is a vivid examination of ritual suicide and a staunch tribute to the resolve of his main characters. The young lieutenant in the Japanese Imperial Army chooses death rather than have to hunt down his friends and compatriots, men who, in service to the Emperor, staged a revolt against his poisonous advisers in February, 1936. 31 years of age, the lieutenant is a newlywed, having married the 23-year-old Reiko six months prior. Their short union has brought them intense passion as well as near-perfect bonding. From the start, the soldier prepared his spouse for the sad truth that a warrior's wife must follow him into death, and when the time comes, she accepts it without fail.

Even today, the level of detail the controversial Japanese writer unleashes in this tale is astonishing and disquieting. Small trinkets of their marriage home are described, as is the nature of their resolve, their intentions for how they will be found in death. Prior to committing seppuku, they enjoy one last night of lovemaking, and, unsurprisingly, they embrace each other with the gusto of lovers heading to their own graves, who know this will be their final coupling. Mishima describes this vigor in exacting prose, writing of every inch of their body, their every movement, with a erotically charged vocabulary. Sights, smells, the feeling of skin on skin--no sense is ignored. It is as arousing as the events that follow it are grisly.

In samurai films, when a warrior kills himself, he quickly cuts across his belly and falls over. At most, there is also a second who beheads him before he experiences too much agony. This is not the kind of easy death Mishima wishes to describe, because it is false and because there is no heroism in action that simple. Therefore, the lieutenant's self-disembowelment is described with the same level of detail as the sex. It's slow, painful, and requires tremendous determination of both the husband and the adoring wife who witnesses it. She must go after he does, left behind to prepare the house for those who discover them. Mishima gives her a quicker death, but no less brutal. Its swiftness is like a great, surging relief.

For Mishima, ritual suicide in service to Japan was an ultimate expression of one's love of country and representative of values that had been lost following WWII. The lieutenant's suicide note consists of five words: "Long live the imperial forces." There is no self-pity, no outpouring of emotion*. State what you mean to do, and act. To Mishima, this was strength, honor, and above all, patriotism.

Five years later, the author, whose previous film experience had been as lead actor in the crime picture Afraid to Die, stepped behind the camera to write and direct an adaptation of "Patriotism." In this short film, known in Japanese as Yûkoku and sometimes given the full title Patriotism, the Rite of Love of Death, Mishima also plays the lieutenant, and Yoshiko Tsuruoka, in her one and only film role, plays Reiko. This movie has long been out of circulation and subject to much speculation. After Yukio Mishima committed seppuku himself during a failed coup d'etat where he sought to restore the Japanese emperor to power, it is said that his wife Yoko destroyed all existing prints of the movie. In 2005, materials for Patriotism were found in an airtight tea box in the author's old home. Criterion presents the movie here in both the original Japanese and a slightly different English version (the intertitles are written in English), presented in a sturdy, gorgeously designed box alongside a thick booklet featuring the original "Patriotism" short story and a lengthy essay by Mishima about the production of the cinematic version.

The story in the 27-minute film follows the original short narrative exactly, though adhering to the social mores of 1966 in terms of what details can be shown. One way around this for Mishima is to stage the film as a classical Noh drama, placing his actors on a bare stage and shooting without dialogue. The backstory is explained on scrolls that appear as intertitles between each chapter. Decorating the room where the couple will spend their last night is one piece of decorative calligraphy, mentioned briefly in the short story, kanji spelling out the words "Wholehearted Sincerity." It's a constant reminder of their intentions.

Recasting the story in a traditional theatrical form gives Patriotism the noble air of historical pageant. Removing dialogue means that the action is all in gesture, adding further to the fact that the committing hara-kiri is also a gesture, an action instigated with a specific intention of effect. Since he can't show all the carnal detail of the sex between the lieutenant and Reiko, Mishima falls back on the greatest strength of his prose: his eye for detail. The lovemaking is shown entirely as close-cropped shots, the camera framing specific body parts, mainly focusing on the eyes, but also showing hands, tousled hair, the stomach, and boldly, Reiko's tender kisses on her husband's neck. Though the suicide is far more graphic, it is shot in the same way, with Mishima seeing that an image of clenched teeth or the splatter of gore on Reiko's kimono will carry home the emotional punch of the suicide while the viscera will illicit the required repulsion in the viewer. I was actually pretty surprised by how graphic the soldier's death was, the blade sliding across his abdomen, torrents of bloody flowing from the wound, and eventually his entrails spilling onto the floor.

Strangely, Mishima hides his eyes for most of this scene. Outside of the lovemaking, he is always in uniform, and he wears his hat so that the visor covers his eyes. I am not sure what this means as far as a stylistic choice**, but it echoes homoerotic and fetish imagery in a way that the sexually ambiguous author may or may not have intended. At the very least, it represents his own fetish-like obsession with ritual suicide, which we also see in the way Reiko briefly licks the blade of her dagger before plunging it into her throat.

The most poignant scenes of Patriotism are reserved for Reiko in the film, just as they are in the short story. Mishima allows us passage into her inner life far more than he lets us into the head of the lieutenant. The movie opens with her packing up her tiny animal figurines, each one reminding her of aspects of her life with her husband. The dreamy, superimposed images of his hands caressing her, as well as of a sacred shrine, brought to mind the surrealist shorts of Jean Cocteau. (Likewise, the use of traditional Japanese theatre brings to mind another Criterion release of a Japanese film about lovers taking their own lives, Masahiro Shinoda's Double Suicide.) It's as if she is forced to feel the loss for both of them, the kind of doubt and regret that the lieutenant's stoic sense of duty will not afford him. After his body has fallen, she fixes her make-up, settles the house, and then takes her life, falling on his body, the lovers ending in an embrace. Where his blood was dark on white walls, hers is white on black, her purity her strongest virtue. (Though, it also looks a little like semen, thus emphasizing the concept of sex and death, as exemplified in the two main acts of the film.)

The final shot of the dead couple shows them transported to a sandy rock garden, with the rakings of the gravel swirling around them in such a way that it looks like a giant fingerprint. I am a bit baffled by this, not sure if I am reading too much into it, but I am also intrigued by the possibility. Traditionally, the rock garden is a place of tranquility, also representing a vast sea of purity and peace. Had Mishima seen the other visual interpretations, even greater meaning could be gleaned from the choice. Could the artist be indicating that a greater fate has crushed these two under its giant thumb? Or is this the fingerprint of all humanity, the larger whole represented by the pair?

There is no denying that Yukio Mishima's Patriotism is an effective piece of cinema. Though I can't imagine all viewers will agree with his assertions about the nobility of taking one's own life as a philosophical gesture, for a provocateur as infamous as Mishima, his success comes from the fact that no one who watches his movie will be able to avoid a strong reaction of some kind. The emotion of the acting, risen to operatic levels by the shooting style and the orchestral score, along with the precise artistic choices of the sex/death montages make for a striking motion picture experience. With all of the great bonus features, the Criterion release of Patriotism also serves as a gateway into the larger tableau of Yukio Mishima's art. Dig through it all--the book, the interviews with Mishima on the disc, and the excellent new documentary reuniting surviving crew members--and you'll likely have your curiosity piqued sufficiently to desire more.

Criterion's release of Patriotism is timed to coincide with the their edition of Paul Schrader's biopic, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, which includes scenes about the making of this movie. A review of that film will follow shortly.

* One must wonder what Mishima would have made of The Fire Within.

** Actually, as the director reveals in his essay in the accompanying booklet, Mishima chose to do this to emphasize that the soldier was a creature of duty and little else, and thus he hid any gateway into the man's interior self from the audience. My initial reaction, though, is also bolstered by the same essay, where Mishima details the lengths he goes to in order to get the right details of the clothes. Or, really, by seeing photos of him that are out there that show him posing in leather next to a motorcycle, very Village People/Judas Priest.

Saturday, June 28, 2008


Given that I write more reviews than what you see here, below is a list of non-Criterion films I covered in the past month that may be of interest to Criterion fans.


* Baghead, a conflicted indie comedy/drama/horror film that never quite gels.

* The Strangers, an underrated horror film with lots of style and a classic storytelling approach.


* Cassandra's Dream, the most recent of Woody Allen's British period, a morality play that's substance is sometimes overshadowed by its familiarity.

* Catherine Deneuve 5-Film Collection, with the gorgeous star striking out four out of five times. Disappointing. Featuring films directed by Jean Aurel, Jean-Paul Rappeneau, Alain Corneau, and Andre Techine, and co-starring Sami Frey, Claude Brialy, Gerard Depardieu, Yves Montand, and Alain Delon.

* Diva - Meridian Collection, the influential French thriller from the early '80s. Seems to me it mainly skates by on reputation, the actual product leaves something to be desired.

* High Noon: 2-Disc Ultimate Collector's Edition presents a classic western that's a classic for a reason: it's awesome.

* Joy Division, an involving documentary about the influential Manchester band, directed by Grant Gee. Full of great music.

* Persepolis, the animated Marjane Satrapi adaptation gets an ultra-fine DVD release.

* Popeye the Sailor: 1938-1940, Vol. 2, the second collection of the hysterical Fleischer cartoons about the world's most famous brawling sailor.

* Sophia Loren 4-Film Collection, a 50/50 collection of films starring the actress ranging from 1954 to 1970. Of note are a musical extravaganza celebrating Naples and a Vittorio De Sica picture co-starring Marcello Mastroianni.

* The Sword in the Stone - 45th Anniversary Edition, a new release of the fun Disney Arthurian fantasy that doesn't appear to be that new at all.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008


I'm working on a new short comic book story that involves the actress Julie Christie as a topic of discussion. This is a bit of a boon for me, as it gives me an excuse to spend some time reviewing some of my favorites of her films. Given that the script revolves around a brief affair and a missed opportunity at love, Billy Liar is a natural point of reference. In the film, Christie plays Liz, a free spirit who breezes in and out of Billy's life, never settling for too long, always on to something more. For him, she represents escape, and she even opens the hatch for Billy to jump through with her, but he doesn't have the bottle to step across.

Billy Liar was Julie Christie's third film, but the first role to really get her noticed by the public. It's a supporting part, barely more than a cameo, but director John Schlesinger clearly saw the star cresting over the horizon, as he gave her the final spot in the opening credits. "And JULIE CHRISTIE," it proclaims, as is normally done for a big name that doesn't get a place above the title but deserves to be singled out. Though the actress is really only in four scenes of the movie, not counting her background role in Billy's fantasies, she ends up being the thing you remember most about it. Our first introduction to her ends up completely separating us from Billy for the only time in the entire movie, following Liz around town, watching her turn heads wherever she goes--often quite real reactions, as this sequence was shot on the street, verite style. That final shot of her looking out the train window, her expression a mixture of pity, regret, and true caring, is the sort of thing that probably haunts many a man's dreams as the years grow long. In that moment, Julie Christie represents the opportunity missed, the moment we let pass that we should have grabbed. She is the girl Everett Sloane saw on the ferry and remembers fondly in Citizen Kane. She is Lady Ashley in Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises. The blue-haired girl in my own book, The Everlasting.

Not that I should let Liz completely overshadow poor Billy (played by the marvelous Tom Courtenay), but she does end up being the central point in the screenplay where the character has the chance to finally stop talking and actually do something. His nickname of Liar is well earned. He tells stories about sisters that don't exist, injuries his father never sustained, has two fiancées at the same time, and a host of other mistruths large and small. He's an interesting character, because though he fits in with so many other creative dreamers that we've seen in other movies, he's not always redeemable in his actions. Unlike, say, Max Fischer in Rushmore, who also dreams big and tells plenty of fibs, Billy has never stopped to think about the feelings of others. Where Max's tall tales eventually get him in over his head and he becomes careless, he's never really malicious. Selfish, sure, but not callus.

Billy is indicative of the "angry young men" who populate many of the 1960s British dramas, though he's more fanciful than a bruiser like Richard Harris in This Sporting Life or the caustic Richard Burton of Look Back in Anger. Like a lot of men of his age at that time, he feels caught between the older generation who are insistent on holding him to their oppressive values system and a future that is moving too fast for him to catch it. Choosing to shoot on location in various locations around Northern England, Schlesinger finds poignant visual representations of Billy's mental predicament. There are multiple shots of buildings being torn down while others are being rebuilt. Billy's hometown is being terraformed all around him, and yet he is the same ol' Billy Liar.

The key to our having sympathy for Billy is in Tom Courtenay's performance. Though the small-minded and obnoxious people around him--his boorish father (Wilfred Pickles), his self-important boss at the funeral home (Leonard Rossiter) with his models of plastic coffins (talk about a metaphor for a foreboding future!), the shrill Rita (Gwendolyn Watts) and the prudish Barbara (Helen Fraser)--are enough to make us understand why maybe Billy would need to retreat into his imagination, it doesn't really excuse his lack of moral consequence. He shouldn't be sympathetic, yet Courtenay manages to make the boy extremely vulnerable, always spreading a thin layer of anxiety under the braggadocio. Billy fears his own lies will collapse on top of him, and he'll be stuck going nowhere forever.

It also helps that his fantasy world, excepting the multiple times Billy guns down family and friends with a pantomime machine gun, is so tame. Novelist Keith Waterhouse, adapting his work to both stage and screen in collaboration with Willis Hall, concocts for Billy a rather quaint kingdom called Ambrosia. The very name conjures up how inoffensive and insubstantial this fantasy world is. Though the classical derivation of the word comes from the Greek and a mythical nectar of the gods, thus being named for an outdated concept in service to long-passed deities, a more modern use is for the name of a sickly sweet kind of fruit salad. Made with sour cream and Miracle Whip, it's a gooey and doesn't really stick to the ribs. It's also something your grandmother would make to take to church potluck, declaring "Everybody loves ambrosia." A kingdom of Ambrosia would thus be strangely comforting, relatively colorful, and of little nutritional value.

Yet, to fall backward into a pile of ambrosia, as Billy does when he disappears into his head, you'd receive a rather soft landing. There is an unspoken loneliness that comes with these daydreams, however, in that there are few other people in them. Liz stands in the background--a foreign secretary of some kind, as Billy tells her, in the one scene where he actually opens up to someone--but she never speaks. Otherwise, Billy casts himself marching in the more important roles, including, most humorously, as a black soldier in a parade. Though we might gasp at the blackface, by having the character break the fourth wall and wink at the audience, it somehow makes it all okay.

Billy's fate at the end of the picture is bittersweet. The boy who cried wolf ends up getting knocked down by the one lie he actually believed. Having thought he was going to get a job writing for a television comedian (Leslie Randall), he quit his post at the mortuary (itself stifling and symbolic of the lack of life around Billy; he also has a love scene in a cemetery) and tells everyone he is moving to London, only to discover he has misunderstood the response to his writing samples. It's on the heels of this failure, though, that Liz offers him his chance. He can go with her and they will be married, getting out of town once and for all. This should be everything that Billy could hope for, especially since, even through his two false engagements, Liz was always the girl he wanted.

So, why then, can he not go through with it? Liz knows it probably even before he does, hence how his suitcase appears on the station platform before he can conveniently miss getting back on the train, having jumped off to buy milk, that most wholesome of drinks. I suggested at the outset that it was cowardice, that Billy didn't have the guts when it counted, but as I wrote this all out, my thoughts became more clear. It's that bit about not having any sense of moral consequence. To run to London, Billy would leave behind troubles at home and the mess he's created for himself at work, as well as the broken hearts of Rita and Barbara, without actually dealing with them. It would be a true escape, a cut and run.

To stay means to accept the responsibility of what he has done, to face it and be a man. This makes way for the final fantasy, of Billy marshaling his troops and marching back to the house he grew up in, prepared for the war of his life. With this decision, Billy Liar may have let Julie Christie go, but he finally embraced himself and what it means to be a man.

Sunday, June 22, 2008


"Time never dies. The circle is not round."

Macedonian director Milcho Manchevski made Before the Rain in 1994, and it was the first film to be shot in his native country after it became an independent republic following much political turmoil. Thus, it is of little surprise that the narrative largely concerns itself with the nature of violence and the schisms between people, particularly the ones that form in our inability to express ourselves. Or perhaps more accurately, the disparities in the methods we choose for expression.

Manchevski, a photographer and music video director most famous for directing Arrested Development's "Tennessee" (included on this DVD), was quite ambitious for his debut feature. Before the Rain is broken into three separate sections that all connect in some way or another. Like a Kieslowski triptych, you won't always see the connections immediately, but as the writer/director pulls his threads together, the image he is creating does tighten up into something that is, for the most part, profound.

Story #1 is "Words," and it involves a scared Albanian girl, Zamira (Labina Mitevska), who hides out in the room of a Macedonian priest, Kiril (Gregoire Colin). The young clergy has taken a vow of silence, so even when her hunters come searching for the girl, whom they have accused of murdering one of their family, he refuses to admit she is there, neither through words or any other means. This includes lying to his head priest, who expels the two of them from the church once the lie is exposed, making the girl Kiril's responsibility. He can speak now, but they still can't communicate verbally, as she only speaks Albanian and he only speaks Macedonian.

In this simple set-up, Manchevski quickly introduces the conflict that is threatening to tear Macedonia apart. The separate languages is the first line, and the second is religion. The Albanian minority is largely Muslim, while the other Macedonians in the area are Christian. In this sense, Zamira and Kiril are the most unlikely of allies, praying to different versions of God that many would say are mutually exclusive. Though Manchevski is admirably sympathetic to his religious characters, avoiding portraying them as cartoons, I don’t think the director is that sympathetic to them overall. Note how quickly Kiril embraces the idea of a new life, planning to take the girl and journey all the way to London, where he has an uncle that will help them.

London is the setting of Story #2, "Faces," and the movie takes a hard shift from the rural environs of Macedonia to the urban sprawl of Britain. Anne (Katrin Cartlidge, Naked) is a troubled woman working for a news agency. The vast scope of their coverage is represented in the pictures she must sort through, where a snapshot of Madonna's breasts is of equal importance to more gruesome shots from European war zones. Anne is estranged from her husband, newly pregnant, and not at all prepared for the unannounced reappearance of Aleksandar (Rade Serbedzija, who is probably familiar to many American viewers from a recent stint on "24"). Aleksandar is a war photographer who has just left his assignment in Bosnia under a dark cloud. He wants to take Anne back with him to his native Macedonia. She refuses, not knowing how to deal with her current state of being, and also fearful of the violence happening on the continent.

Of course, in a movie like Before the Rain, Anne is going to quickly discover that as long as one place in the world suffers from violence, then nowhere is safe. An unexpected attack in the restaurant where she is dining--an old, unexplained feud between two men that erupts into something that effects everyone, a microcosm of the world's problems--alters her life again whether she likes it or not. Before his departure, she had noted how Aleksandar's face had changed, telegraphing a change in him. In the final scenes of this segment, another face communicates a much more horrific transition.

Story #3 is "Pictures," and it is the longest of the movie. It involves Aleksandar's return to his hometown, where he discovers that everything is too tellingly the same. Old blood feuds are as alive as old romances (Aleksandar pines for his high school sweetheart, who is Albanian), and the changes in the country have only made certain divides grow even wider and less traversable. Aleksandar has come to the same town we saw in "Words," and his relatives are the men who hunted the little girl. Though his intention was to leave the field of battle to find some peace in the familiar, as it turns out, battle is what is familiar.

It's probably telling that Manchevski chose "Pictures" as his main story, that the mode of expression that Aleksandar had been using to communicate the horrors of the world to a populace that rarely sees such violence is the one most related to the director's own. He, too, is using pictures to show the moviegoing public what has been happening in Macedonia. Thus, Manchevski must also feel quite deeply what it means for Aleksandar to forsake photography. He takes only one photo in Macedonia, a family portrait that shows how out of step he is with his native people. Just as the auto timer was about to snap the image, Aleksandar swats an insect. In the picture, his family is looking at the camera, stable and frozen in place, while Aleksandar is looking away, restless, trying to stop a nagging problem.

Anne had told Aleksandar that he has to pick a side, something a journalist is never supposed to do. Cozying up to one side in Bosnia is what caused his existential crisis, and he'd rather stay out of it back home, as well, but his former flame (Silvija Stojanovska) also pushes him to take a stand. It's her daughter that the men have been after, and there are intimations that maybe it could be Aleksandar's daughter, just as even though Anne tells her husband that her baby is his, there is no way to know for sure. Anne wanted to tell Aleksandar that she was pregnant, but when she asked him if he wanted to have children, the expression on Aleksandar's face is all she needed for an answer. I think Aleksandar's eventual decision, however, is not a statement that one can't remain neutral forever, but having chosen one side, he must redress the balance by this time choosing the other--though this is a function of his own code, and not necessarily an overall point of Manchevski's.

Milcho Manchevski has a pretty solid grip on what he's trying to do here. As a first-time director, he shows an exceptionally capable eye for visual images, working with director of photography Manuel Teran (District B13) to create a strong sense of place, from the sweeping, almost epic shots of the open fields of Macedonia to the more claustrophobic, gray streets of London. In keeping the metaphor of the constant movement of time, Before the Rain is a movie that feels like it is constantly in motion, only stopping for the most intimate moments, when two people take the time to stop and talk. I like how the story titles move us from one code to another: from words being the most fundamental of our communication tools, language being one thing that makes us distinctly human, to faces, which we universally share, and finally to the still image, which both freezes time and allows it to travel anywhere in the world.

These metaphors are handled much better than the titular imagery. In each story, there are multiple references to an oncoming storm, the climate of the day always being just before the deluge. It's not exactly a new metaphor, and the execution can be heavy handed, particularly in the final shots, when the music swells and a montage makes sure we understand the full connections at last. Manchevski's independent budget also becomes apparent when the story takes its violent turns. I suppose I could accept an argument that the killing of an obviously toy cat and the London shooter's gun with its ridiculously ample ammunition clip are purposely fake in order to comment on how consumers of Western entertainment view violence, but even if that were true, it's a misguided artistic conceit that takes the viewer out of the movie and undermines the gravity of Manchevski's larger issues. Plus, it's an inconsistent technique. While the footage of real calves being born could be put up as juxtaposition, of how in Before the Rain birth is natural and death by gun is not, we'd still have to reconcile other realistic scenes of violence, such as the children burning the turtle in the beginning.

Of all of Manchevski's artistic choices, the one I find most interesting is his treatment of time. "Time never dies. The circle is not round," shows up more than once in the movie. It's spoken by a priest in "Words," and then it's seen as graffiti in "Faces"--the slogan thus following the path of the rest of the movie from active to still. It's a seemingly contradictory statement since the movie is very much a circle, with the ending of the film taking us right back to the beginning.

And yet, this return does comes as a bit of a surprise. That's because there are several story points that are out of joint. Time in Before the Rain is a wavy, inconstant line that only doubles back on itself at random. In "Words," Anne looks at photos of Kiril and Zamira that she receives prior to Aleksandar's departure, though most will wonder later if he actually took them (as events will show us, he clearly could not, at least not by that point in the timeline). After he has left and is on his way to Macedonia, Anne also takes a call for Aleksandar, someone from Macedonia whom we assume is Kiril and that would lead us to believe the photographer is actually the uncle he mentioned in London.

These happenings cannot be reconciled with where Aleksandar eventually ends up in the story, at least not unless we are missing a chunk of time in Anne's life. I don't see this as a flaw, however, it looks to me like this is by design. It's almost as if Before the Rain is a time travel movie, and Aleksandar's going back in time accidentally instigates the events he is trying to stop. Certainly that has happened in a kind of literary sense, as he has tried to return to his childhood home as a way to escape violence and then becomes a part of it.

It's through this seeming anomaly that Before the Rain makes its most compelling argument for the inevitability of human action and the difficulty we have in affecting change. Life goes on and on, despite our best efforts to help or hinder it. In that sense, it is larger than us. Time is beyond our control. The same priest who first says that "Time never dies" amends that assertion in the final montage to "Time doesn't wait." The final shot of Aleksandar, though, and the beatific look on his face, tells us that this is not a warning to get out of its way, but instead an admonition that we best not dawdle too long before jumping in and at last say what we mean, to at last pick a side.

Heading for the tree of life...?

Friday, June 20, 2008


In Greek and Roman mythology, the Furies are avenging spirits whom act on behalf of the wronged dead. Portrayed as female, and often three in number, they have appeared in works by Virgil and Dante and can be seen as the inspiration for the three witches in Shakespeare's Macbeth. In Anthony Mann's 1950 film adaptation of Niven Busch's cowboy novel The Furies, that is the name given to the ranch run by the hard-living T.C. Jeffords (Walter Huston), and the sprawling landscape takes on the significance of these spirits. The land itself is spoken of as if it were an entity, invoking the power of the elements themselves, controlling the lives of all that live within and orbit around its borders. In that way, this Furies is also a little like those other mythical women, the Fates, working their looms to weave the destiny of man.

The basic story of The Furies (the screenplay is by Charles Schnee) is not that different from other family drama westerns. A father runs his ranch, tries to dominate his children, one proves more headstrong than he envisioned, and they lock horns. The movie's trappings are different than a regular western, though, with stronger psychological and metaphorical significance than your standard shoot 'em up. With its gender shake-ups, The Furies is to westerns what Leave Her to Heaven was to film noir.

T.C. spends most of his time gallivanting around the country, spending money he doesn't have and leaving his daughter, Vance (Barbara Stanwyck), to take care of the business and cover his debts. Theirs is a strange, competitive relationship, uncomfortably close, with daddy's little girl wrapping the old man around her finger and stubbornly getting her way. Roles amongst T.C.'s children are reversed. Normally it's the son who would perform these tasks, but Clay (John Bromfield) is meek and too quick to kowtow. He dresses like a cowpoke dandy, and isn't much of a man. In the movie, across the board, Mann is suggesting that the true controlling force of civilization is female. Vance later sees her future self reflected in the wife of a wealthy banker (Beulah Bondi), realizing that men's fancies are easily manipulated, and it's up to women to stay steady.

The dead that has to be avenged in The Furies is the late Mrs. Jeffords. We know little about her, just that when she needed her husband the most, he abandoned her. As penance, he preserves her bedroom exactly as it is, forbidding all else to enter. Every time T.C. returns from one of his excursions, he spends an hour in there, paying tribute. The memory of Mrs. Jeffords is felt everywhere on the ranch. She can even be seen as the first in the traditional three Furies, an active force in her own revenge. In the first scenes of the movie, Vance wears her mother's old dress in preparation for her brother's impending wedding, and the mantle is passed.

The third Fury, then, is probably Flo Burnett (Judith Anderson), the gold digger that T.C. brings back to the ranch. After T.C. ruined his daughter's chances of marrying Rip Darrow (Wendell Corey), the son of a man whom T.C. feuded with, swindled, and killed, making him the second of the wronged dead--Vance has devoted herself to running the homestead, and the introduction of another woman threatens her position as the future head of the Furies, as well as her relationship with her father, which at this point is almost like a marriage itself. In order to reassert her proper authority, Vance attacks Flo, marks her, and thus makes her complicit in the plot to ruin T.C. by keeping her from completely joining with her new husband. It's fitting that Vance wounds her eye, as it causes her to see T.C. and his faults clearly. Again, there is a switch-up. T.C.'s actions against Rip were to show his daughter what kind of man she thought she loved, and Vance then does the same for Flo. The attack is vicious, but also expertly framed by Mann, who uses mirrors to show the audience the secrets his characters would sooner conceal.

This is where the story shifts into high-gear Greek tragedy. Banished from her father's kingdom, Vance takes to the hills to seek shelter with her best friend since childhood, Juan Herrera (Gilbert Roland). The Herreras are one of two Mexican families who continually squat on the ranch, insisting on their rights as the indigenous people who first populate the area. When T.C. and his feral right-hand man El Tigre (Thomas Gomez) attack the Herrera home in an attempt to drive them and Vance off the Furies, the old man once again invokes the wrath of the land. He also creates another angry spirit that will need to be avenged, and it becomes an important component in his downfall.

T.C. continually tries to assert himself as the ruler of his particular wilderness, and he continually fails. He performs a great feat of strength by wrestling to the ground an untamable steer nicknamed "the King of the Furies." Little does he know that in doing so, he is subduing his own majesty. It's the last of the cattle to be rounded up, and with that act completed, all those that he has wronged can now move against him.

Vance is an interesting character. For as much as she is meant to take on male responsibility, she maintains her traditional femininity. She can never completely shed her compassion, and she is always ready to forgive her father, right up until the end. Her justice would come with balance, and part of setting right all of the grievous wrongs T.C. has committed against the land and its people, to prevent further tragedy, is to honor the family line and the traditions that he constantly ignored. She will restore what is rightfully theirs to the Darrows and the Herreras, but she must also pay the proper respect to the accomplishments of her father. Barbara Stanwyck was probably best known for these kinds of roles, modern women who could hold their own in a man's world without sacrificing their womanhood. It's probably her iconic status that allows her to slip into the western genre without it seeming jarring or campy, the way Joan Crawford comes across in Johnny Guitar. Traditionally, women have very specific roles in westerns, and Stanwyck dismantles them all.

At the same time, her character will also have to be dismantled. There is a connection to the femme fatale here, and in that Vance has to be at least partially neutralized. Though she does not have to surrender all of her independence, embracing that traditional femininity does require that she ease back at least some. Her relationship with Rip Darrow becomes her key back to her birthright, and their union is also essential to ensuring that the cycle of disaster stops.

The other great performance of the film is from Walter Huston, whom was a seasoned pro and already a legend of cinema at this point. He was a chameleonic performer, able to play oddball characters like the prospector in the previous year's Treasure of the Sierra Madre or the evil prankster in The Devil and Daniel Webster, as well as upstanding men like the troubled banker in American Madness or even more straightforward patriarchal roles. Here he is able to play a patriarch that lives his life with wild, selfish abandon, and the performance reflects the freedom that comes with that lifestyle. He's tough, charismatic, and quick to anger, but also nearly unflappable, always ready for the next challenge. His turn as T.C. has an added poignancy in that it was the actor's final bow in cinema.

Anthony Mann's direction is also a star unto its own right, capturing the wide expanses of the ranch as well as the ominous weather patterns that signal the coming doom. Though the filmmaker is best known for more manly pictures, including several two-fisted noir pictures and a series of westerns with Jimmy Stewart, his handling of the interior drama in The Furies shows he was just as comfortable in the bedroom as he was out on the plains.

Anthony Mann

Criterion has come up with a near-perfect transfer of The Furies. Shown in full frame (though pictureboxed), the 1.33:1 black-and-white image is free of blemishes and nicely rendered so as to capture all of the tonal subtleties.

All of the stops have been pulled out for the packaging for The Furies – Criterion Collection. The disc itself is in a cardboard case with a plastic tray, and it includes a pocket for the accompanying booklet. The 36-page supplement features stills from the movie, chapter listings and credits, an essay by critic Robin Wood, and a 1957 interview by Charles Bitsch and Claude Chabrol that was originally printed in Cahiers du cinema. Along with this is a brand new printing of the original Niven Busch novel that the movie was based on. The DVD sleeve and the 268-page novel both fit snugly in a sturdy outer box. Each element also follows the same design model so that everything is of one piece, making a unified collection.

Of the documentaries on the disc, my favorite by far was a section from a 1967 episode of the British TV show, The Movies, focusing on Mann and titled "Action Speaks Louder than Words." This 17-minute excerpt has Mann sitting down to discuss his theories of drama and why westerns are an ideal genre for it, as well as his philosophy on violence and heroism. Though The Furies is not discussed directly, many of his other westerns are. There aren't clips from these movies, just still frames, but some of what is discussed includes scenes that were deleted to meet demands of the censorship board, which fits some of what Mann has to say about how we react to seeing the darker side of action.

All said and done, The Furies – Criterion Collection is a top-shelf package for a unique western. Directed by bruised-knuckled filmmaker Anthony Mann, the psychological drama matches the sweeping emotions of Greek tragedy to the wide open American plains. Barbara Stanwyck shines in a fascinating role of a woman at odd with her gregarious father, played with exuberance by Walter Huston. Daughter goes against father for the ownership of their massive ranch, subverting traditional family roles and playing out the drama to its most catastrophic end. The passions run hot, and the graves are cold.

For full technical specs and all the special features, read the full article at DVD Talk.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008


Though not part of the Criterion Collection proper, this disc is released through the studio's parent, Janus Films, in conjunction with the main brand.

Oh, for the simplicity of The Red Balloon!

When was it decided that children only liked films that were overly designed and spastically edited? Was it when the A.D.D. kids grew up and started making films themselves? Or was it when the bean counters gained control and started marketing and focus grouping everything to death?

French filmmaker Albert Lamorisse remembered that it doesn't take much to capture a child's imagination, and that's why his 1956 short film The Red Balloon has remained an ageless classic, finding a place in the hearts of every new generation that has come along since its release. The concept is so obvious and perfect it's amazing it hadn't been done before. Young Pascal, played by the director's son, leaves his Parisian home for school, and on the way, finds a red balloon tangled around a street lamp. He carries it with him, treating it like a precious treasure to be protected, and as his reward, the balloon takes on life and begins to follow Pascal around on its own.

It's the wish fulfillment of an imaginary friend. One day this pal that only you can see unexpectedly gains form, striking back at the disbelievers and shielding you from life's bullies in a way you can't do yourself. Who wouldn't want a red balloon that can float through the air and bonk your school's principal on his head?

Much of The Red Balloon is spent traveling the streets of Paris, and I was caught completely unaware by Edmond Sechan's tremendous photography in the picture. Though shot in a full frame aspect ratio, Sechan keeps his shots wide in order to capture the full panorama of the city's architecture and the beautiful skies that hang overhead. The balloon moves through the landscape like a giant "You Are Here" dot on a map, a special tour guide to lead us through the City of Lights. Since the movie's central themes touch on the joy of viewing life with innocent eyes, it's only too fitting that the camera lens should have the same sense of wonder. This new DVD print is sublime. It's so clear, we see every crack in every wall, every detail of the city's canvas, no matter how small. The special effects that keep the balloon afloat are completely invisible, as well. The magician protects the integrity of his tricks.

The genius of The Red Balloon is that it's a metaphor for childhood itself. Pascal is at an age where his imagination lacks for nothing, and the world around him is a glorious place that can only be sullied by the people who have lost their youthful perceptions. Adults don't understand Pascal's attachment to his balloon and see it as a hindrance. (Excepting the old janitor, my favorite of the passing characters in The Red Balloon. Completing the cycle of life, the old man has returned to childhood and is able to appreciate the magic of a basic toy.) The other kids want to possess it and destroy it, the mob being afraid of what they don't understand and envious of what they don't have. In its way, this is also the plight of the artist: discouragement is everywhere, people are afraid of what's new, and we hate it when our friends become successful.

Thankfully, Albert Lamorisse feels that the child and the artist in us all deserves to be nurtured. Thus, in his world, kindness and imagination are rewarded, and innocence is preserved. In those final images, when the balloons of the city rally to Pascal's defense, lifting him high above the fray, one little boy flies away from cynicism and despair, and in watching The Red Balloon, so can we all. Let the marketing departments spend billions to try to make us feel like kids again; I can buy myself a balloon for less than a buck.