Tuesday, March 31, 2009



* Che--less a full review, more of a brief recount of the experience and the day, including meeting Steven Soderberg.

* The Great Buck Howard loses a bravura John Malkovich performance in an overly genial script.

* I Love You, Man, a gut-busting bromance with stand-out performances by Jason Segel and Paul Rudd.

* Watchmen--as in, man, are you going to be looking at your watch. A lot.


* Elegy, the recent Philip Roth adaptation with Sir Ben Kingsley and Penelope Cruz.

* Max Fleischer's Gulliver's Travels, the classic cartoon gets a fishy remastering.

* L'Innocente, the final film of Luchino Visconti is a steamy winner.

* The Kaiser's Lackey, a 1950s East German satire that has lost some of its bite over the years, thought it still retains its artistic vigor.

* Paul Newman X 2: The Helen Morgan Story, a fairly average biopic about a doomed singer, and The Outrage, Martin Ritt's perplexing remake of Rashomon.

* The Robe, the overwrought, overripe religious picture is only really notable for being the first studio production released in Cinemascope.

* The Romance of Astrea & Celadon, an Eric Rohmer period piece that gets stuck up its own class.

* The Scarlett Johansson Collection, collecting three more indie-minded movies featuring the actress.

* Yentl, the Babra Streisand musical is a real eye-opener.

Monday, March 30, 2009


World War II left a lasting impact on a lot of filmmakers, for obvious reasons, though there seems to be a particularly special connection to wartime stories for European directors who lived in occupied nations. Many French directors have looked back at the Resistance and tried to make some sense of what happened as well as celebrate the heroic individuals who fought the good fight, in much the same way that some Japanese directors would later confront the post-War American occupation through film. Less often covered, however, at least in my cinematic experience, is the period during the war when Germany had set up camp on Italian soil. Last year, when I reviewed Roberto Rossellini's Era notte a Roma, I was not only surprised by the subject of the story, but also by the famed Neorealist's honest depiction of his own people. In one scene, one of the foreign soldiers asks why no Italian he meets is ever in favor of the war, because if it's true no one was behind it then it never should have started, and the response is that citizenry was more than willing to sway with the wind. When the war was good, it was popular; when it was bad, it was never popular. It's an all-too human response, I suppose. This scene also came to mind when I recently saw an episode of This American Life in which an Iraqi immigrant set out to travel America to learn what the U.S. really thought of the Iraq conflit, and he wondered why if everyone was so against our being there, no one stopped the invasion of his country from going forward.

A year before he made Era notte a Roma, Rossellini tackled related material in his controversial box-office hit Il Generale Della Rovere (1959)--though even that had not been his first time examining the internal struggle of occupied Italy, as fans of his breakthrough Roma, città aperta well know. Yet, I think both Il Generale Della Rovere and Era notte a Roma are significant in that they do represent a bit of a stylistic shift, a narrative style approaching something more akin to Golden Age Hollywood than the gritty strictures of Neorealism. Even so, Rossellini puts his stamp on the material, taking the more conventional structure and infusing it with his trademark realism.

Il Generale Della Rovere is the story of Emanuele Bardone, a con man played with believable salesmanship by Vittorio De Sica, best known as the director of Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D. Bardone is all things to all people. In the opening scene of the movie, he ingratiates himself to a Nazi Colonel by the name of Müller (Hannes Messemer) by telling him that unlike his fellow Italians, he thinks the war is a good thing; when speaking to those fellow Italians, however, he is far less kind about the Germans. Bardone's latest hustle requires him to play both sides. Having found a willing deskbound sergeant (Herbert Fischer) to go along with his scheme, he solicits bribes from families that have a relative in Nazi jails, skimming off the top before he passes the cash along for promises that the accused won't be shipped to Germany. Whether these promises are carried out is of little concern to Bardone as long as he can string the suckers along and keep paying for his gambling habit.

Or so we would at first believe, but Bardone is a difficult guy to figure out. It's never clear when he's being honest, and so, as part of the audience, it's hard to differentiate his true intentions from the game he runs. Perhaps he's so caught up in it, he can't figure it out either. He's willing to rob one girlfriend (the luscious Giovanna Ralli) to keep his con going, but not another (the equally luscious Sandra Milo), proving that there are people in the world whom he really cares for. When he is eventually caught, Bardone makes an impassioned speech about the burden of his task and the hope he couldn't bear to destroy, and he sure sounds like he means it. Could he really care for them all, could be believe in what he's doing? It's possible. Still, it's a lot like listening to Bernie Madoff talk about how he wanted to stop thieving but had dug himself too deep to ever get out of the Ponzi racket he'd set up. Any sensible person would think that all one has to do is at some point stop taking the money and start giving it back.

Bardone isn't taken down by his own greed so much as he just picks the wrong mark. Though the Fassio family looks like a good bet due to their obvious wealth, Carla (Anne Vernon), the wife of the arrested man, never really believes that Bardone is any kind of saint, and when facts get in the way of his lies, she isn't afraid to turn him in. This puts Bardone in the custody of the aforementioned Colonel Müller. Having problems of his own, Müller realizes that they are ones that Bardone's particular talents could solve. A recent attempt to capture the renegade Generale Della Rovere when he snuck into Italy to join the partisans was botched by Müller's soldiers and the Generale ended up dead. More valuable as a living asset, Müller convinces Bardone to go to prison in Della Rovere's stead so that the Germans can use the folk hero as a bargaining chip. The plan continues to morph when the Resistance leader codenamed Fabrizio (Giuseppe Rossetti) is believed to be amongst a group of men recently picked up in a raid. If the fake Generale can uncover which of the jailed is Fabrizio, he will be given a fat wad of cash and safe passage to Switzerland.

Pretty much from the moment he enters his prison cell, Bardone starts to become aware of how far out of his own control his life has swerved and has to face the gravity of the scams he's been pulling. The walls of his cell are covered with the last words of the four men who previously inhabited it. Their expressions of futility and acceptance and farewells to their loved ones could be notes for any of the families he took money from. He also must deal with the fact that the men all around him are in that prison for a reason: because they believed in something. Not only is he in there pretending to be a hero he most certainly is not, but he also has up until this point believed in no one but himself. Nobody says it, but the irony is that Bardone is the only prisoner who is actually imprisoned for committing a real crime.

A fundamental question of literature from the middle third of the 20th century is the meaning of action. Writers like Hemingway and Chandler looked at themselves and, by extension, the people around them and asked, when the chips are down, what did I do? What did you do? This is an extension of the existential school of thought, and an idea largely associated with Albert Camus, himself a member of the French Resistance. In the end, each of us can only be judged by what we chose to do. Even if it's the wrong side, even if things go against you, at least you were part of what was going on. Far worse to be the person who did nothing, who just waited it out. From WWII, we got the notion of "the good German," the ones who went along to get along, who claimed innocence because they were not a part of the atrocities, but whom others would say were guilty because they didn't do anything to stop them either. In Il Generale Della Rovere, one of the men picked up with Fabrizio insists it's unfair that he should be punished the same as the rest, he was never part of any movement; the others say he deserves worse for that very reason.

As it turns out, this man was also a banker who reaped the rewards of the wartime economy. This puts him on par with Bardone, a man who set aside all principles in service of his wallet. The difference is that now Bardone is in the position to change his fate. Since he started pretending to be the Generale, he has started to assume that role, offering soothing words to his fellow prisoners when they ask for them and even taking command to calm them down in an air strike. The moral choice for him is whether he continues to only save his skin or he starts working for others, as well. Hell, even choosing to go along with Müller whole hog would be better than getting pushed around.

Bardone's transformation is a believable one for how it happens by degrees. There is no great epiphany, no shining light on the way to Damascus--even if Rossellini does actually use a small skylight to illuminate one of the final puzzle pieces in the con man's change. This is what makes the earlier ambiguity about the character's true motives, as well as De Sica's ability to play him as such a greasy chameleon, so important. If we had one strong opinion about what kind of a man Emanuele Bardone really was, then the lessons he ends up learning walking a mile in Della Rovere's boots would be pat. It would be like a sports movie where the chubby, nerdy kid goes from being the underdog to the hero of the big game. No mystery to the change, he was just pushed through training and into digging down deep so he could be part of the team. Bardone does what he does for himself, joins the cause by his own decision, realigns his moral code to fit what he has seen and heard rather than a grab at glory.

Unsurprisingly, Roberto Rossellini does a marvelous job at recreating war-torn Italy for Il Generale Della Rovere. From Bardone's cramped apartment, packed full with the accoutrements of a stage show (the charlatan's tools), to the bombed-out cityscapes, the environment is haunting and real. This is partially aided by some carefully placed newsreel footage showing the destruction and the cost of human life. Some argue that Rossellini was intending to draw a clear line between the real and the fake and emphasize the notion of film as invention with the difference between the stock footage and sets, but I didn't notice any line between when watching the picture. This is because the fiction is so vivid. Particularly memorable is the cold and imposing prison Bardone is sent to. I would have imagined Rossellini must have used a real jail, but it turns out it was a set built at Cinecitta. The director's production team deserves some extra credit for building such a harsh interior, so convincing in its cold and imposing design.

It's a fitting outer symbol of the harsh interior of Bardone, the moral prison that he has created for himself. The key to unlock this prison is also the key to unlocking his lost humanity, and it's the quest that drives Il Generale Della Rovere. He can clear his conscious with the same effectiveness as the frequent wipes Rossellni uses to erase the images on the screen and move the story along. It's that deftness of craft that makes this film truly great. It's why despite the heaviness of the subject matter, it all goes down so easy. A story expertly told, both in front of the camera and from behind it, Il Generale Della Rovere glides by. It's tightly wound drama, written without any excess, a perfect personal journey of one individual set against the backdrop of the larger world that he has tried to deny, but which he has affected and that has affected him in turn.

A new video essay by Rossellini expert Tag Gallagher explores the history behind the film, both the reality that informed the story and the stylistic approach the director employed in making the movie. Entitled The Choice, this fifteen-minute piece is an essential supplement, recounting the real-life inspiration for the story, the political climate that almost destroyed the picture, and Rossellni's personal reluctance to make the movie and how that affected the production. I don't quite agree with Gallagher's assessment of the sets used in the picture, but difference is the spice of debate.

That's Rossellini in the center with the handkerchief.

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

Thursday, March 26, 2009

DANTON - #464

It's easy to pigeonhole a director based on our own limited experience of his work. My previous exposure to Polish filmmaker Andrzej Wajda was the Criterion boxed set Three War Films, an incredible triptych of on-the-ground stories set in the mid-century turmoil of Poland's internal revolution and their struggles with the Communist influence. These were radical films, made under government scrutiny and threat of censure. As far as I knew, this was Andrzej Wajda.

So, what then when a DVD of his 1983 historical epic about the French Revolution, Danton, comes along? I was surprised to say the least, but pleasantly so when I actually sat down and watched the movie. Of course, Wajda was more than I was giving him credit for. How could he not be? Why make so boneheaded an assumption?

The Danton of the title is Georges Danton (Gerard Depardieu), an architect of the Revolution and a founder of the tribunals that brought the ruling class a dose of working-class justice. Having since become a bit of a folk hero--they call him "the Man of August 11," referring to the day the king was toppled--and also grown fat on the spoils of the struggle, he has continued to be beloved by the citizenry but has turned into a thorn in the side of the governing body. Of particular frustration is his connection to the newspaper of Camille Desmoulins (Patrice Chereau), which is highly critical of the ruling Committee. In particular, Danton's one-time ally Maximilien Robespierre (Wojciech Pszoniak), who is in the midst of his "Reign of Terror," silencing his dissenters with the guillotine, casting himself as the despotic father nurturing the infant liberty towards maturity with some tyrannical tough love.

The script for Danton is credited to five different writers (including Wajda) and was based on a play. It mainly involves the final days of Danton's struggles with Robespierre, the political posturing, the backroom arguments, and the incendiary public debates, leading to a kangaroo court where Danton is accused of conspiracy against the foundling government. Though ostensibly a talking heads drama, Wajda has made anything but a simple point-counterpoint back-and-forth. This is an electrified political thriller, a war picture in its own right, it's just a different kind of battlefield. Wajda and cameraman Igor Luther are always on the move, circling characters, moving across the angry throngs, working within the rooms of power the way they might also run through trenches on the front lines.

In these scenarios, words are as forceful and deadly as any bullet, and this makes Gerard Depardieu perfect casting as Georges Danton. In watching The Last Metro just a couple of days ago, I was struck by how physical Depardieu is onscreen. He puts his whole body into a role, and he makes Danton a self-described clumsy oaf, rarely sitting still, bobbing and weaving around the scenery like a drunken boxer. At the same time, Depardieu has his way with the language, displaying his voice like a great muscle. In one scene, meeting with Robespierre at a hotel, the actor at first plays Danton as a giddy child excited to meet his hero, and then he flips to angry and brutish, before dropping it down again, making it less hero worship and almost a love affair, manipulating and humiliating his opponent with each turn. Later, he declares that it's his voice that will see him and his group through their trumped-up trial, and he commands the room with such vigor, he eventually loses his one true power, his most fearsome muscle growing hoarse, flaccid. It's a simple symbol of his political loss, the freedom fighter being robbed of his freedom.

By contrast, his opponent is meek, bottled up, and fragile. Robespierre is shown as sickly in the very first scenes, his compromised principles turned to a kind of cancer the way his oppressive policies are tearing apart the fledgling democracy. Wajda isn't subtle about it. Our final visions of the tyrant is of him sweaty and cowering under a sheet, the linen pulled over his face like a death shroud. We aren't meant to feel sorry for this man, nor are we meant to have any question about what side we're supposed to be on. In a kind of twisted play on the old convention of children reflecting our violent society in their play (perhaps best used by Peckinpah in The Wild Bunch), Wajda closes on a young child rattling off the basic principles of the Revolution, a laundry list of all Robespierre has thrown away.

It makes sense that Wajda would be so up front with his political message. Apparently at the time he was making Danton, the Polish Solidarity movement was falling under the wheels of the ruling government, which also might explain why the director was working in France. I'll leave it to others with more historical knowledge to dissect how that all connects (Leonard Quart covers some of those points in his liner notes in the DVD booklet), just as I'll let others dissect the truth of Wajda's version of history (a couple of historians are actually listed in the opening credits). I will note, however, that this film is everything I wished the Rossellini history films had been but weren't. Roberto Rossellini wanted to bring history to life, but his dogmatic style arguably drained all the life right out of them. Andrzej Wajda's version of history has all the blood, spit, piss, and vinegar that fuels revolutions. Under his lens, it's a living thing, full of human bluster and human blunders, and it's riveting.

Kudos also to Criterion for finding another interesting artist to do the cover illustrations for Danton, as they did with the Ophuls releases last year and with their hiring of various comic book artists. Riccardo Vecchio has a loose line quality that is almost anarchic in its approach to likenesses, and it totally fits Wajda's energetic cinematic portrait. Visit his site and be sure to check out the Shakespeare covers he's done.

Sunday, March 22, 2009


It's funny that we never actually see the Parisian subway at any point in Francois Truffaut's 1980 film The Last Metro, because it's the subway that the title refers to. As we are told in the spirited voiceover at the start of the picture, the last metro is specifically the last train that runs before the Nazi-imposed curfew in occupied France. If you don't catch that one, you're stuck wherever you are for the night whether it's safe to be there or not.

The significance of this is fairly obvious. Whether we see anyone on the train or not--and it is actually mentioned more than once--Truffaut's cast are stuck between two defining choices: either live life as if time really is about to run out, or carry on as if there will always be another chance, another train to come along when you need it. It also suggests that one can get out or stay, flee or hunker down. And, of course, the subway is underground, true freedom is in hiding.

Truffaut, along with co-writer Suzanne Schiffman, have trained their spotlight on a theatrical troupe preparing a new production to amuse the downtrodden Parisians looking for a temporary escape through entertainment. Their theatre is famed for the artistic hand of its founder and director, Lucas Steiner (Heinz Bennent), a Jew who is believed to have fled to South America before the Germans came barreling in. This left his wife, Marion (Catherine Deneuve), to run the show, and with the help of Lucas' directing partner, Jean-Loup (Jean Poiret), they are going to helm a new play, Disappearance, using the notes left behind by Lucas, who also wrote the script under a pseudonym. Little does the rest of the cast know, however, that Marion, a former film star now strutting the boards, is hiding her husband in the cellar under the stage. He never left the country and hasn't really surrendered his director's chair, either.

This is just one of the many secrets in The Last Metro, a film in which the term "duplicity" is less of pejorative and more of a means of survival. Everything must have a double meaning, everyone a double role. Lucas has adopted the guise of a Norwegian woman to write Disappearance, and the double meaning of his play-within-the-film will serve as commentary on his own plight. Likewise, all the actors have the two faces they wear, the on-stage and off-stage personas. Some, such as the homosexual Jean-Loup and the lesbian costume designer Arlette (Andrea Ferreol), are also hiding their sexuality, their true personalities sublimated to the rule of law. Just as, of course, there is occupied France and Vichy France, though really only one France at its heart.

And then, of course, there will be the two men in Marion's life. In addition to Lucas, a new actor has joined the company to play the male lead in Disappearance. Bernard Granger, appropriately played by a virile and physically forceful Gerard Depardieu (in the film, he is compared to Jean Gabin in Le Bête humaine), has come to them from the Grand Guignol, the theatre renowned for its bloody horrors. It's fitting, given the horrors that rage all around them, that he'd want to get away from the blood and guts. Beneath Granger's disarming exterior, however, is a sensitive actor and a passionate man who balances a love for performance with a love of country. His secret life is being part of the Resistance.

The Last Metro follows the acting company through rehearsals to the initial stagings of their play, chronicling the personal mishaps and the political obstacles they must endure to keep their lives rolling forward. Someone is always watching, and it's not always someone who bought a ticket. Getting panty hose is no less difficult nor less important than Marion's continued efforts to get Lucas to free territory. Jean-Loup must make diplomatic connections and shake hands with the enemy, including an egotistical, anti-Semitic theatre critic (Jean-Louis Richard), in order to keep the stage lights lit--and eventually, he pays his own price for this limited collaboration. Then again, many have to get by any way they can. The young actress Nadine (Sabine Haudepin) takes any part she can get, regardless of what it means to her self-esteem or reputation. Likewise, Bernard must harness some of his more violent impulses for the greater good, a mission he is not always successful at completing.

Amongst this, Bernard and Marion must also keep their romantic impulses under control, a situation that Truffaut hints at throughout The Last Metro, but a development that he perhaps plays too close to the vest. Yes, there are glances shared, and even more unseen looks from Bernard to Marion that suggest something more is going on with him, but to be honest, when love emerges in the third act, it does seem a little tacked on. I would guess this is something Truffaut realized himself, and thus he plays with the notion of the film's own staginess in The Last Metro's epilogue, where he kind of turns the whole thing in on itself. Even so, this clever wink plays like an afterthought rather than something we should have expected all along.

That's really the only complaint I can muster for The Last Metro, though. Outside of that, the movie is an expertly crafted, multi-layered drama. It critiques without proselytizing, philosophizes in a matter-of-fact manner, and shows character through action rather than explanation. In that sense, seeing how well his less-is-more approach works for him through the rest of the picture, one can't fault Truffaut too much for not seeing when he maybe went too far with it.

Most of the film's action takes place inside the theatre, and Truffaut and production designer Jean-Pierre Kohut-Svelko create an elaborate world within, complete with its own class structure. The untouchable is hidden in the basement, the ruler lives in the uppermost tier, and on the ground, everyone is equalized. The stage is the thing, and Truffaut peels back the curtain to show us the theatrical world the way he bent the screen to give us a peek at movies in Day For Night. (Point of fact, there was to be a third film about music hall that would create a trilogy of sorts, Truffaut's portrait of the entertainment world, but it never came to fruition.) Again, it's a picture inside a picture: the theatre being a fictional world within occupied France, that part of France being a fictional structure within the whole of the country, France a part of the world, and on into the universe.

Clearly in love with his subject, Truffaut spares no indulgence in creating an almost surreal façade of 1940s Paris. Gorgeous theatrical posters dot the streets, and the stage sets in the theatre are painted in bright, beautiful colors. So, too, are the clothes of his actresses sparkling flowers in comparison to the drab uniforms of the Nazis. Catherine Deneuve, with her gorgeous and fiery hair, switches from the shocking red of her stage costume to the more dowdy uniform of a theatre owner. No surprise, then, that by comparison, Depardieu is always dressed more seriously, ready for whatever business necessary.

The greater romance, one could argue, is not between Marion and Bernard, but between art and its audience. If in troubling times all the Parisians had to lift their spirits was a night out at a play, then the players would continue to perform. Francois Truffaut is paying homage to the resilience of the entertainers, showing how the dedication to their craft was also a dedication to their people, whether it be the subversion of writing a meaningful play or being a secret member of the Resistance, or even just stepping out every night and putting on a show regardless of the threat. Or, hell, just having the foresight to make sure your show ended in time for your audience to get the final train of the evening. In the end, it was for the good of all of France, providing an alternative to accepting a ride on that last metro to God knows where.

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

Saturday, March 21, 2009


So, a cold virus has me a little behind this week with my review for The Last Metro, but I promise I will have it up as early as I can this coming week, with reviews of the rest of Criterion's March releases soon to follow.

In the meantime, I thought I'd point out that one of Criterion's main graphic designers, Eric Skillman, has just released his first comic. Owners of the Berlin Alexanderplatz boxed set might recognize the art style on this cover:

click for larger version

My editor at Oni Press, James Lucas Jones, grabbed me a copy at New York Comic-Con, and I just got my hands on it today. The book contains five crime stories, somewhat in an EC Comics/Alfred Hitchcock Presents vein: short pieces with a swift kick in the end. All the tales are drawn by different artists, all with different yet complementary styles tied together by the matching coloring approach. Artistically, there are shades of Paul Pope, Phil Noto, Mike Oeming, and the comics series Criminal, and yet every story is drawn with its own unique spin. If you like any of those other guys, you oughta like Egg, as well.

Read more about Egg at Eric's blog. Online sales to come soon. Edit: And here thet are.

The lead story in Egg, "These Kids Today..." is drawn by Connor Willumsen and is slated for publication in Popgun, Volume 3, coming out at the end of March from Image Comics. Joëlle Jones and I also have a story in that book, a pulpy boxing number called "The Jailhouse Swing," colored by the amazing Laura Allred. Here is the opening page:

"The Jailhouse Swing," page 1

Crime is a popular subject around here, and Joëlle and I have two more stories on the way featuring the criminal element. One is "Gone Doggy Gone" in the anthology Portland Noir, a collection of stories set in our homebase of Portland, Oregon. Ours is the only comic-book story in the anthology. (See some art here.)

Next is our full-length take on the old-school private detective genre, the graphic novel You Have Killed Me, coming from Oni Press in May. Click on the image below for more information.

We're both really proud of You Have Killed Me. I just received the first lettering proof today. By no small coincidence, in the same envelope with my copy of Egg #1.

Friday, March 13, 2009


In keeping with their mission statement, Criterion's Eclipse series once again brings together a collection of neglected films in a no-frills package in hopes of giving new life to material left by the wayside. In addition to their fantastic bundlings of films from well-known directors, the series has also created a space for more obscure creative powers. Early in the run, Eclipse released two masterworks by pioneering French filmmaker Raymond Bernard; last summer, they introduced a lot of us to the pleasures of Russian auteur Larisa Shepitko; and now four entries later, they unearth a quartet of early Japanese films by Hiroshi Shimizu.

Travels with Hiroshi Shimizu - Eclipse Series 15 is one of those delightful eye-openers that only come along once or twice a year, the kind of thing that surprises and dazzles the uninitiated and leaves those already in the know nodding their heads and wondering what took us all so long. A graduate of the earliest days of the Japanese studio system, Shimizu was a working director. IMDB's listing for the man lists a whopping forty-two films made between 1924 and 1957, though in the liner notes in this set, Michael Koresky posits that he made upwards of 150; from what I can tell, these are the first to ever be on DVD in the United States. It's one of the few cases where I wished the Eclipse Series actually did have an extra DVD bonus or two. I'd love a documentary feature to tell me where Hiroshi Shimizu came from and even more importantly, why he disappeared.

Travels with Hiroshi Shimizu starts of with a bit of a whisper. The 1933 silent film Japanese Girls at the Harbor (76 minutes) is a minor melodrama and may cause you to wonder at first what all the fuss is about. The script, adapted by Shimizu from a story by Toma Kitabayashi, is fairly typical. In the seaside town of Yokohama, schoolgirl Sunako (Oikawa Michiko) falls for local bad boy (Ureo Egawa). He goes by the name of Henry, a modern pretension that likely should have signaled to Sunako what kind of guy he is. He likes to hang out with gangsters and chase a little action on the side, namely a much faster girl named Yoko (Ranko Sawa). In a fit of rage, Sunako attacks her rival, leading to her exile out of town and the life of a bar geisha. By chance, she runs into Henry again, and he's now married to her school chum, Dora (Yukiko Inoue). Will Sunako learn from their happiness and get her own life back on track, or will she once again claim her man?

There aren't many narrative surprises in Japanese Girls at the Harbor. The Sunako character and thus, the resolution, really can only go one of two ways, and it doesn't take much to figure out who her mysterious neighbor is. What makes the film important, however, is the style that is already beginning to emerge. Shimizu displays an assured facility with the camera as well as a natural sense of framing. His mise-en-scene has a modern aesthetic in terms of his switching between close-ups and longer shots. He has an observational eye that is simultaneously inquisitive and attentive and a developing sense of movement. Outdoor shots at the waterfront, in particular, take on an almost contradictory intimacy in the way the director stands back and follows Dora and Sunako and watches their estrangement grow. They are practically silhouettes, yet their body language and the way the landscape isolates them lays their souls bare.

Shimizu also uses jumpy editing instead of a conventional zoom in revelatory scenes. Rather than one smooth push, he cuts from one camera position to the next, leaping closer to his guilty subject. I suppose the rough edits, harsh and almost violent in the evident physical damage to the film, are indicative of how ahead of his time he was, that he was maybe a couple of jumps ahead of the technology, too.

The three years between Japanese Girls at the Harbor and Mr. Thank You (1936; 78 mins.) might as well have been three decades given the degrees of sophistication that separate the two films. Criterion skips over at least six notches in Shimizu's belt to get from there to here, and in that time Shimizu had also made the switch from silents to talkies--though the sound era was enough of a new development that his working class cast of characters still aren't entirely sure what talkies are when the subject comes up.

Based on a story by the wonderful Japanese author Yasunari Kawabata, the titular Mr. Thank You is an overly polite bus driver (Ken Uehara) who shuttles townsfolk up and down the mountain where they live. His name comes from his habit of loudly thanking people along the way who step aside to let his vehicle pass, and the film follows him over the course of a day as he drives from the village at the top of the mountain to the train station at the bottom. Set during an economic depression, the passengers are all concerned with their various states of poverty, unemployment, and social standing. Mr. Thank You has driven many of the local girls down the mountain that have never made the return trip, sold into factory work or prostitution in order to help their families pay the bills.

One such girl on this trip is an innocent seventeen-year-old (Mayumi Tsukiji) heading to the train with her mother (Kaoru Futaba), where the two will reluctantly say good-bye. We don't know for sure what exactly is happening to the girl at first, but the true meaning of her journey is largely sussed out by the one other female traveler on the bus, a worldly drifter (Michiko Kuwano). Be it her innocence or her perceived ruin, the girl draws the attention of the men on the bus, including that of the driver, who over the course of the trip woos the girl in ways even he doesn't realize until they are pointed out to him.

Mr. Thank You is a film of constant motion. Whether Shimizu's camera follows the bus, peers out its windows, or catches the background as it passes while focusing on the interior passengers, we are always traveling. Quite effectively, Shimizu even puts us on the road, barreling down on the pedestrians whom Mr. Thank You must pass, and then dissolving to them as they walk away and the driver shouts his gratitude. In one way, we are watching the downward momentum of people on their way to various states of ruin, but in a much more hopeful way, we are also seeing how roads and transit are connecting people in a manner that was never possible before. The bus driver is a benevolent figure who knows everyone along his route, who isn't at all reluctant to do a favor like pass on a message or pick something up at a shop the next town down.

Nowhere is there a better symbol of the two sides of transport, the consequence of progress, than the sweet young road worker that Mr. Thank You stops to say farewell to. She was part of a crew of Korean immigrants building the mountainous path, but now that it's done, she is moving on to the next assignment. Though her hands went into changing the land, she can't afford the bus fare to enjoy the fruits of her labor in a modern style. Likewise, her father died while the progress was being made, and she must leave his grave behind in this foreign land to continue working elsewhere--the new leaving the old, the price of advancement, and also the plight of society's most marginalized individuals all rolled into one bittersweet package.

Comparing Hiroshi Shimizu to Max Ophuls may be a bit of a stretch, but there is something reminiscent of Ophuls' dizzying, constantly moving camerawork and the way Shimizu keeps his own story going forward while also making sure to turn and look at what is going by. Both unmoor their cameras in order to show the movement of life, but also to drink it all in and not miss a single detail. They both also have a true affection for the characters they capture, and in Mr. Thank You, Shimizu's portrait of the poverty stricken and their perseverance is sweet, hopeful, and positively endearing.

Two blind masseurs walk into a vacation spa...

Despite all the movement in Mr. Thank You, and though this next film does open with a marvelous tracking shot where the camera is always several steps in front of its main characters as they walk up a mountain road, Shimizu puts his camera down for The Masseurs and a Woman (1938; 66 mins.). He continues his interest in chronicling the smaller details of lives not normally chronicled, but within the confines of the mountain hotels where much of the action in The Masseurs and a Woman takes place, it's better to sit still, pick a vantage point just beyond the edge of the room, and watch.

Though the title does sound like the premise for a dirty joke, I assure you, it is not. Two blind men working as traveling masseurs (Shin Tokudaiji and Shinichi Himori) spend their summers in a mountain resort servicing the guests. One of them, Tokuichi, is so obsessed with his own mobility, he makes every walking trip into a race, counting the number of people he can pass on the road. Possessed of an incredible sensory perception, he can also determine who is near as they approach. Just by her smell, for instance, he can detect that one of the women on a passing carriage is from Tokyo. When that woman, Michiko (Mieko Takamine), finds these things out, she becomes intrigued by the man and his special skill set.

The masseur, Tokuichi, is intrigued in return, and he even develops a bit of a crush. Already self-conscious about his blindness, these feelings of love are further complicated by the woman's growing friendship with another man (Shin Saburi) visiting the resort, as well as a mysterious rash of robberies that seem to occur wherever the woman also goes. Are Toku's suspicions of Michiko valid or simply the result of his confused desire? When the truth is revealed, Shimizu, who also authored the script, yet again shows a tremendous sensitivity to the role of women in Japanese society at the time.

He also shows a tremendous appreciation for natural environments. In all four of these movies, the director used real locations to add a realistic character to his films. The mountain retreat of The Masseurs and a Woman is idyllic, and Shimizu takes his characters out to the streams and into the woods and photographs them amidst all the wonders to be found there. This realism gives an added oomph to the simple honesty of the story, which is at turns humorous, intriguing, and poignant.

You can also see the filmmaker's technique continue to improve. The jumpy zooms of Japanese Girls at the Harbor are used again in The Masseurs and a Woman, this time moving in on two pairs of feet in flight. Gone are the rough splices, replaced with smooth moves from one shot to the next. Fittingly, the movie also ends on another traveling shot, the camera once again in motion. This time, however, instead of preceding the walking masseurs, it follows a departing carriage, peering around a bend to wave good-bye.

The final film in the box, Ornamental Hairpin (1941; 70 mins.), also takes place at a seasonal mountain resort. A group of travelers come together for a summer amongst nature, and they find their tranquil retreat upset by the regular arrival of new and larger groups of vacationers. At the opening, it is a group of geisha, their presence on the road flanked by tall trees reminiscent of the start of The Masseurs and a Woman. Their noisy partying and sapping of the hotel's services annoy the other patrons, particularly a grumpy professor (Tatsuo Saito). Even after they are gone, their presence is felt, as a soldier on furlough, Nanmura (Chishu Ryu), steps on a hairpin left behind in the bath. When the owner, Emi (Kinuyo Tanaka), learns that he has been hobbled by her lost accessory, she returns to help him recover.

Love appears to be a foregone conclusion for these two. Nanmura dismisses his injury as an act of fate, likening the hairpin to poetry and claiming it is verse that has pieced his sole. Whether he realizes it or not, his group of new friends, which includes a married couple as well as an old man and his two grandsons, speculate over whether the pin's owner will be beautiful. When Emi arrives, they all concur that she is, and a quiet affection quickly grows between her and her victim as she watches him rehabilitate. All have seemed to forget that she was with the geisha, and only a few brief references to her past life remind us that she was not living a common existence back in Tokyo. Rejecting her newfound life of simplicity to return to the commitments she ran out on hangs heavily over her, becoming the thing that can be worried about instead of worrying about the ongoing war, itself alluded to less than even Emi's forsaken profession.

There is a sense of playful abandon in Shimizu's careening through the forest with his characters. Ornamental Hairpin is episodic in structure, a blustery anecdote of the professor saying something pompous here, the young boys busting that pomposity with a joke there. Subtle hints of class creep in, particularly since most of the central guests are sharing rooms and eating rationed food to get cheaper rates, while the Hiroyasu couple (Shinchi Himori and Hideko Mimura) is able to afford their own room and upgraded meals. At the center of it all, though, is the love story, though it's one only told in glances, in the space in between. The only open display of any affection is when Emi carries Nanmura on her back to help him the rest of the way when he is trying to traverse a rickety bridge as part of his challenge to walk on the hurt foot. Again, Shimizu is tipping his hat to the shifting roles amongst the sexes, to the added burden that women have begun to carry.

Though all of his films have a bright demeanor and a glass-half-full optimism, there is also a practicality to the features in Travels with Hiroshi Shimizu. There is always a sense that contentment is being lost, that advances are made in trade of something fundamentally good. As time wore on for the director, his stories seem to suggest that there is less of a chance for societal salvation. All of these movies end with some kind personal transformation for one character or another, but in both Japanese Girls at the Harbor and Mr. Thank You, there was also an element of community rallying around the one who needed redemption. That community is reduced to a duo in The Masseurs and a Woman, and the promise of a new life is something that lays beyond the conclusion of the film and even then, without the two who see the change being together. So, too, are the would-be lovers in Ornamental Hairpin kept apart. For Emi to free herself of all the things that bring her down, she must stay out of Tokyo, even when Nanmura returns there. She has happiness, but it's not without tears. Their plight surely mirrors that of many wartime affairs.

Though the first shot of Ornamental Hairpin is wide and contains the many, the last shot is closer in and contains a single person. Even so, it's Emi climbing the same steps that Nanmura had to climb to prove he was healed, and so too is she proving that she is whole again.

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

Friday, March 6, 2009


In the middle of watching Akira Kurosawa's 1971 feature film Dodes'ka-den, I had to stop the movie and go out and run some errands. As I did, I caught myself more than once repeating the title in my head in much the same way the film's connecting character, Rokuchan (Yoshitaka Zushi), did in the movie. Rokuchan is known by the cruel nickname "Trolley Freak" because the mentally challenged boy spends his days driving imaginary streetcars through the slum where he lives. "Dodes'ka-den" [doh-dess-kah-den] is the sound the train's wheels make on the tracks, and he chants it over and over whenever his pretend vehicle is in motion.

For me, that kind of speaks to the experience of participating in the cinematic experiment of Dodes'ka-den: you either accept the fantasy or you do not. If you do, you're fully in it; if you don't, the film is likely to confuse, irritate, and even bore you. As Kurosawa's first color feature and the film often cited for his creative exile and slower output in the latter decades of his life, Dodes'ka-den is one of those films many cinephiles are aware of but fewer have seen. It is hotly debated amongst those who have viewed it, sometimes called a minor fugue from the Kurosawa symphony, other times called the lost masterpiece. I had personally only seen clips of it, and usually just scenes of Rokuchan chugging along. I know one documentary or another on Kurosawa's career used Rokuchan's personal fantasy as a symbol of Kurosawa's artistic stubbornness, and that seems wholly fair. I am sure the great director would see the irony that years later some viewers of Dodes'ka-den would think that he himself played the painter who accidentally sets up his easel on Rokuchan's imaginary track, is forced out of the way, and then scolded about his stupidity*. It's like his own creation was trying to tell him something--or maybe the philistines and naysayers had somehow invaded his subconscious.

Dodes'ka-den is a difficult film to describe succinctly. It's an episodic picture, a series of interlocking vignettes set in a Japanese slum. It quite literally looks like a village built in the middle of a garbage dump, and in some cases, the domiciles appear to have been put together out of material found in the refuse. One beggar (Noboru Mitani) and his son (Hiroyuki Kawase) actually live in an abandoned car, while the dilapidated huts that make up the town appear as a hodge-podge. One man's house looks like scrap metal melted together, while the homes of a pair of workers and their wives are painted in blocks of primary colors. Kurosawa also matches their clothes to their houses: the couple in the yellow house wear yellow, the couple in the red house wear red. In this, Kurosawa uses his debut outing with color film to his fullest advantage, using a stylized palette and, in the case of the beggars, exaggerated stage make-up, to add a little surreality to the bleak reality he is portraying. This impoverished village is both part of reality and separate from it, and its citizens live with both the squalidness of their existence and the dreams that transport them away from their misery.

This makes Rokuchan the signalman for fantasy and possibility, his invisible train linking his neighbors to the better lives they dream of. Kind of like how a train serves as the link between Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood to the Neighborhood of Make Believe on the old Mr. Rogers TV show. If Rokuchan could keep at it through the good and the bad, there was no giving in. In a similar fashion, the most downtrodden of the locals, the beggar and his child, keep an elaborate ongoing fantasy running where the father designs the house that he will someday take his child to. It's probably telling, though, that he starts building this house with the gate, keeping the barrier between the imaginary and the real intact.

The beggar man's fence is one indication that the people in Dodes'ka-den are always trying to keep the harshness of reality at bay. Being poor usually means soldiering on even when the wolf is at the door, so this would make sense. The local kids throw rocks at Rokuchan and call him names, which he steadfastly ignores, and his mother (Kin Sugai) regularly washes away the graffiti drawings of "the Trolley Freak" before her son can see them. There are also several who constantly drink, such as the red and yellow men (Kunie Tanaka and Hisashi Igawa) and the lecherous Kyota (Tatsuo Matsumura), who forces his niece (Tomoko Yamakazi) to work while he guzzles sake. Linked to this are several instances where some people attempt to trade places, a kind of metaphorical change of station. The color-coordinated couples swap spouses for a time, and the old man of the community, Mr. Tanba (Atsushi Watanabe), calms down a rampaging drunk with a samurai sword by suggesting they switch places for a while, let him carry the burden of the blade.

Mr. Tanba is one of the more fascinating characters in the story. He could represent many things. He is an artisan running his own engraving business from his home, and he reacts to everything with a Zen calm. He is also benevolent toward his neighbors. When a thief (Sanji Kojima) breaks into his home in the middle of the night, he directs the robber to where he keeps the money and promises to have more next time. When the beggar's son grows sick, Tanba offers to take him to a doctor. Another sequence plays almost like a parable. An old man (Kamatari Fujiwara) gripped in despair tells Mr. Tanba he would rather be dead than go on living, and Tanba supplies him with a fake poison, tricking him into realizing he'd rather stay alive. Is Mr. Tanba a kind of god living amongst his creations?

The various fantasies eventually give way to harsh realities. I guess those imaginary fences aren't as protective as one would think. It's actually interesting to note that when things start to go wrong for the various characters, we don't see Rokuchan for a while, almost like his absence is the key to the change. There is also a suggestion that staying in a fantasy world and not heeding reality when it's required could lead to one's misfortune. The beggar's son grows ill when his father decides not to boil some fish before they eat it, even though the sushi chef told the boy to cook it when he gave it to him. Likewise, the beggar ignores Mr. Tanba's urging to take the child to the doctor. Then there is also the unbendable Mr. Hei (Hiroshi Akutagawa), who is so troubled by his past that he can't get out of the loop of memory and move forward. He's the only man in the dump with a lock on his door.

Yet, there is also a message that being steadfast in one's sense of personal belief and honor will get people through their travails. For instance, the lazy Kyota does not stay true to what is right, and he ends up having to pay a price, whereas Mr. Shima (Junzaburo Ben), an office worker with a severe nervous tic, stands by his wife (Yuko Kusunoki) because she has always been loyal to him, and they get through their struggles. Also on the side of the resolute, the ever-patient Ryo (Shinsuke Minami) cares for his wife's many children, ignoring rumors that not all of them, if any, are actually his. As he says, he believes he is their father, he loves them as such, so what does any further talk matter? Fantasy has its upside and it also has its downside, but life must be taken care of, as well.

In this way, of course, Rokuchan remains. He begins Dodes'ka-den, and he closes the movie, as well. His fantasy is one of duty, of having greater responsibility, and of constant motion. He may be stuck on his track, but that's no reason to sit still. Similarly, Kurosawa was in an industry that no longer wanted him, but he never stopped creating new visions. At one point, Kurosawa was even going to have all the paintings of trollies in Rokuchan's home be his own handiwork, but he realized that his art style was too mature, it didn't fit the fantasy, and for the better of the movie, he let reality encroach just a little bit.

Perhaps a smidgen more reality would make Dodes'ka-den go down easier for those who find its charms difficult to ascertain. Kurosawa needed to boil his own fish, as it were. There are hints of that other Japanese master, Ozu, in some of the stories and the overall tone of the film, but the end result is more like a "Fractured Fairy Tale" version of Ozu, his suburban families having fallen on hard times and congregated to this one location. Even so, Ozu is Ozu and Kurosawa is Kurosawa, and the former would never have allowed the quirks through, but without the quirks, Dodes'ka-den would not have anything near the curious status that it has now--and that would be a very bad thing. Akira Kurosawa had already proven what he could do with more conventional narratives, and this more complicated endeavor was the precursor to his final handful of films, which were at once more personal and more epic. Somewhere along Rokuchan's pantomimed trolley tracks, there was probably a switch that diverted his route from the expected destination to something more adventurous or even more dangerous. Dodes'ka-den was that switch for Kurosawa, a detour through a neighborhood like no other.

* The IMDB trivia page for Dodes'ka-den says that the painter is Kurosawa in an uncredited cameo, but I have found nothing to back that up. To my eye, that is not the director, and beyond that, the credits include a listing for Kazuo Kato as "the painter."