Friday, September 30, 2011


Time for some self-promotion. I have a new comic out, and if you're in the Portland, OR, area, we are doing a signing tonight to celebrate.

Spell Checkers, vol. 2: Sons of a Preacher Man went on sale this past Wednesday. If you're unfamiliar with the title, don't worry, it's easy to catch up on it, and you can really read any of the two volumes on their own, they are connected but mostly episodic (if that makes sense).

The basic pitch was: Mean Girls meets The Craft, rude humor and magic. For a little primer, you can hear my audio commentary for the first scenes and read the pages over at Stumptown Trade Review. Check it out here.

You'll want to open up one window with the pages and another with the audio and read along with my babbling. Hear the creative process at work, unvarnished and unfocused!

Myself and both artists on the book, Joëlle Jones and Nicolas Hitori de will be at Bridge City Comics promoting the release this evening.

Click on the image for the full press release.

If you need more incentive to come, I just found out that Nico will have a limited number of these prints on hand:

Come on. You know you wanna.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011


Superstition can be an impressive plot motivator, and when tied to a ghost story, even better.

Victor Sjöström's 1921 silent film The Phantom Carriage is a spooky morality play. A campfire parable that is to the Swedish chill what Dickens' A Christmas Carol was to English winters or It's a Wonderful Life [review] to the American can-do spirit in difficult times. Sjöström is best known for playing the professor obsessed with his own mortality in Ingmar Bergman's seminal 1957 film Wild Strawberries, and this picture--which he wrote, directed, and starred in--makes Bergman's casting choice all the more brilliant. Beyond the influence of Sjöström's work on his own, Bergman gave the veteran filmmaker a chance to sew up the thematic threads begun in his own cinematic efforts.

The Phantom Carriage is set on New Year's Eve. As a good-hearted nurse in the Salvation Army, Sister Edit (Astrid Holm), nears death from pneumonia, she asks to see David Holm (Sjöström) so that she may make one last attempt to save his soul. As Edit's friends and colleagues reluctantly look for him, David is drinking in a graveyard with a couple of other degenerates. He tells them the story of his pal Georges (Tore Svennberg), a fellow boozer who cleans up his act every December 31st because he's afraid to die before the New Year is rung in. Georges believes that the last person to die before midnight is cursed to drive Death's spectral caravan for the next twelve months. Unsurprisingly, Georges has been missing since the previous turn of the calendar. Wherever could he be? Mwuahhaha!

When David is finally found, he refuses to visit Edit. Afraid that this act of human callousness can never be undone, his drinking buddies try to force him to go. Their fight ends up with David dead, and the Phantom Carriage comes to pick him up just as the clock hits 12:00. Georges and David are surprised to be reunited in this way, and before Georges can step down and give David the reins to the chariot of Hell, he decides to take him on a tour of his previous wrongdoing so that he might clear his soul of its excess baggage. Through a series of flashbacks and visitations, we learn David's twisted history, including his year-long torment of Edit, who never gave up on him, the first ward of her charitable outpost. Injury to insult, David is the one that infected Edit in the first place. He also tormented his wife (Hilda Borgström) to the point where she is not sure she can carry on with living. In one particularly effective scene, Mrs. Holm tries to lock her husband in the pantry, only to have him break through the door with an axe. Fans of Kubrick's The Shining will quickly see that Ingmar Bergman was not the only one inspired by The Phantom Carriage.

Sjöström, who based his script on a novel by Selma Lagerlöf, has put together an effective, oftentimes unnerving silent horror film. Though there is a moral to David's night of terror, it is not necessarily governed by any particular morality. Sure, Christianity is often evoked, but it's more or less just window dressing for the larger supernatural narrative. David is a bad, bad man no matter what code of ethics you subscribe to, and his horrible fate is more of a human punishment than a divine one. The tour that Georges takes him on is not necessary, he could just take off the grim reaper costumer and be done with it, but he wants his cohort to understand both the awfulness that awaits him and also his own role within that never-ending, gruesome cycle.

The Phantom Carriage is staged on realistic sets, with Sjöström emphasizing the impoverished conditions and how the difficulties of this kind of life can lead to unwise solutions and easy escapes. This is expertly contrasted with the more fantastical elements of Lagerlöf's tale. Sjöström creates a dark, gothic landscape where mists and shadows can believably disperse to reveal unbelievable creatures. Particularly inspired is a short tour of a night's work riding alongside Georges, as he gathers the spirit of a man who shot himself and another who drowned. Sjöström and cinematographer Julius Jaenzon use double-exposure photography to imprint a translucent ghostly stagecoach over the scenes. Georges takes the Phantom Carriage across the water...and then under it. It's an impressive use of early photographic techniques.

But then, we've also seen those kinds of special effects employed elsewhere, and as with any era's innovations, they don't stand the test of time on technical skill alone. There has to be some human element to create a lasting appeal. For the many hats he wears, and as anyone who has previously seen Wild Strawberries already knows, Victor Sjöström is best in front of the camera. He is a tremendous actor, one who is capable of astonishing cinematic emotion. His performance lends an authenticity to David's rollercoaster life: from temptation to reconciliation, disappointment to malice, and then ending at a point of true redemption. Sjöström sells each with equal vitality. Though, I must admit, the most surprising was what a fearsome villain he makes in The Phantom Carriage. It makes me curious to find out if he ever played a bad guy again.

Though set on New Year's Eve, Criterion's The Phantom Carriage is smartly timed to arrive just in time for Halloween. I would happily place it with other Halloween classics, such as the Bela Lugosi Dracula or Robert Wise's The Haunting, or this year alongside the forthcoming home release of Kuroneko [review], as part of my holiday viewing. It's also one you could put on the TV and play as background at a Halloween party, if that's your thing. Of course, only after you've screened it yourself, alone in a darkened room, just you, Death's emissary...and your soul.

Mwuahaha, take two.

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

Sunday, September 25, 2011

LES COUSINS (Blu-Ray) - #581

For his 1958 debut, Le beau Serge [review], Nouvelle Vague pioneer Claude Chabrol told the story of a man moving back to his provincial hometown after many years in the city; for the follow-up, Les cousins, Chabrol flipped things around, including changing the role "types" for his two lead actors. This time, Gérard Blain plays Charles, a mama's boy from the country moving to Paris to study law. In town, he will live with his cousin, the brash and outgoing Paul (Jean-Claude Brialy). One of their friends doubts their relations because they look nothing alike, and Charles defends this as saying they are cousins, not twins. Yet, the divide between the two blood relatives could not be wider.

It's funny when you first see Paul, you know exactly what kind of character he is. His Van Dyke and European poncho is practically the uniform for parodies of the sort of pretentious, privileged douchebag Brialy is portraying. It's a case of the more things change, the more they stay the same, I guess, that Chabrol's visual short cuts still have cultural significance. Paul is a selfish partyboy, living in his uncle's flat surrounded by the old man's trophies and trinkets, symbols of a life well lived (and all shot with loving attention to detail by cameraman Henri Decaë, who also photographed Le beau Serge as well as films for Malle, Truffaut, and Melville). Not the life Paul is living, mind you, he is on a different path. He drinks and cavorts more than he studies, and his friends represent the social register for degenerates, from the older hustler Clovis (Claude Cerval, The Lovers [review]) to the slut Francoise (Stéphane Audran, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie [review]) all the way to the bottom of the heap and the hopelessly emo Philippe (Jean-Pierre Moulin). They drink and they gamble and they carouse, and generally make a spectacle of themselves.

This is the life that Charles is immediately introduced to, and the one he never really fits. Gérard Blaine, who was fiery and charismatic in Le beau Serge, withdraws here. Charles is thoughtful and insecure, with a stoic streak that allows him to mask his anxieties and disappointment. (One is easily reminded of James Dean watching Blaine do his thing.) It's love at first sight for Charles when he sees Florence (Juliette Mayniel, Eyes Without a Face), a girl with a past but whom Charles sees with fresh eyes. He is enamored of her, he can't even bring himself to recite a poem he wrote in her honor. Florence is drawn to his innocence, but Clovis and Paul manipulate her into Paul's bed instead. The girl moves in with the two cousins; rather than have his nose rubbed into his romantic failures, Charles buries it in his books. (The advice of a sagely bookseller, actually, played by Guy Decomble, who would soon play the French teacher in The 400 Blows.)

The portion of Les cousins where the three of them live together recalled for me, in a way, Jean-Pierre Melville's adaptation of Les enfants terribles [review]. In fact, quite a bit of the basic behavior Chabrol assigns to his characters seems inspired by the Cocteau play. Paul regularly engages in self-serving gameplay, taking little seriously and concocting scenarios where he can push others into servicing his whims. In my head, Jean-Claude Brialy is usually dapper and collected, the kind of handsome ladies man he played in Godard's A Woman is a Woman. He is more of a force of nature here. Like the cliché about the shark, he is never at rest, always moving. Clovis, who resents him as much as he likes him, acts as the devil on his shoulder, offering a bit of contrast. Paul does what he does for his own amusement, but Clovis cons and cajoles for spite and thievery. There is a great shot at one of the parties, it happens very quickly, when you see Clovis robbing Paul's secret stash--something we instinctively knew he would do the moment Chabrol showed us that hiding spot in the first act, when the pair were convincing one of Paul's conquests (Geneviève Cluny) to get an abortion. Even in that, the difference between the two men is obvious: Paul is trying to weasel his way out of trouble, whereas Clovis likes the taste of other people's misery.

It's a little disappointing, then, that Chabrol circumvents the expectation of these narrative seeds, and Clovis' demonic personality doesn't have much reward. At the very least, we might assume Paul would completely switch over to Clovis' particular dark side or overtake the master. The sad fact is, there isn't much narrative payoff at all in Les cousins, except for maybe a nod to an old Chekhov aphorism. The ending of the film isn't entirely satisfying. I see the dramatic irony that Chabrol is going for, but it doesn't land with any significant force. The final scene only reinforces the roles everyone plays rather than showing any change. Charles is a perpetual victim, Paul is the thoughtless predator.

I don't know whether to call it the "sophomore jinx," or if perhaps emptiness is exactly what Chabrol is going for. Paul strives for a meaningless world. This is a guy to whom romance is a joke and who recites Wagner arias while wearing military garb. It's all fair game to him, so perhaps Chabrol intended the real tragedy of the finale of Les cousins to be that so much was destroyed with such little consideration. Rather than death by a thousand cuts, it's death by one triviality. Jean-Luc Godard called Les Cousins "a deeply hollow and therefore profound film," and I suppose it could be that this lack of any meaningful center is what makes Les cousins so intriguing. Even as I react against its contrivances, I find myself considering putting it back in my player and watching it again.

Claude Chabrol

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

Thursday, September 22, 2011

LE BEAU SERGE (Blu-Ray) - #580

There could probably be plenty of debate about what is considered the first "Nouvelle Vague" motion picture in terms of content or the definition of a style, but when it comes to getting cameras rolling, there is no arguing that Claude Chabrol was the first to break out of the Cahiers da cinema editorial offices and put something on the screen. Le beau Serge was released in 1958, and fittingly, this drama has themes of revisiting the past, of checking the point of origin and seeing how much things have changed. Chabrol could be making a movie about his hometown of Sardent, or he could be making an allegory about the art of cinema: I loved these movies once, but now I've grown past them, so how do I return to the medium I adore and make it work for who I am now.

Jean-Claude Brialy stars in the film as Francois, a man who finds himself back in the small town where he grew up thanks to a tubercular condition. He hopes that by getting some rest away from the city, he can clear up the spot on his lungs. He immediately finds that the place he knew as a child, for as much as it is the same on the surface, is very much changed. Or perhaps it's him, perhaps it's the eyes of an adult that show him his neighbors in a whole new light. When he mentions grown women he doesn't recall from his youth, his guide reminds him that they were young girls when he saw them last, and he cared nothing for young girls.

He did care about his friend Serge, though. Everyone cares about Serge. The title of the film translates as "handsome Serge," and there is something about this dark, charismatic man (played by Gérard Blain) that makes him the center of attention. Chabrol toys with our perceptions on first meeting him. He and his father-in-law and drinking buddy, the old man Glomaud (Edmond Beauchamp), are spied on the opposite side of the bus from where Francois disembarked. Emile Delpierre's music has a sinister surge, suggesting that these men lurking there are a threat. It's like a cue out of Shadow of a Doubt, announcing the arrival of a dark presence. And, in a way, that's what those two rummies are.

Serge has taken a wife and taken to drinking since Francois left. He is the small town boy who didn't go anywhere, stuck in the expected job, facing zero prospects. He is as excited to see Francois as Francois is to see him, but he also recoils. He is ashamed of his drinking. Serge is also broken. He married Yvonne (Michelle Méritz) because she was pregnant, but the child was born with birth defects. It is now dead and spoken of in hushed gasps. I may be wrong, but there is possibly some suggestion that it was the product of incest, that maybe it wasn't even Serge's baby. There is certainly something creepy going on, the community is shown as being incredibly insular. It's almost like the backwoods society in some horror movies, complete with the failing priest (Claude Cerval) who knows everyone's sins. Serge has cheated on his wife with her sister Marie (Bernadette Lafont), and there is gossip that Glomaud isn't actually Marie's father. Marie displays some lasting interest in Serge's activities, but she is also quick to jump in bed with Francois, who it turns out is quite the pussyhound.

Though, I have to say, despite his much discussed way with the ladies, I am not sure the incestuous relationships within this small group only consist of opposite sex couplings. There is plenty that one can read into the friendship between Francois and Serge. Francois immediately insists himself back into Serge's life, and he is determined to "save" him from the demon wine and his shrewish wife. Serge plays hard to get and moody, alternately embracing his old friend and toying with him. I wouldn't shoot down a theory that he drinks to obliterate his homosexual guilt and to ease a broken heart over Francois having left him. When he gets blotto and goes wandering the graveyard looking for Francois when Francois is with Marie, it's not because his best friend is screwing a woman he screwed, it's jealousy that Francois is with a woman at all. Or really, anyone that isn't him. Later, tables flip and Serge and Marie team up to manipulate Francois. It's all rather messy.

Visually, Chabrol sees a duality in Sardent, one as simultaneously divided and interlinked as the two men. He and photographer Henri Decaë establish a sense of place when they shoot the town, using some of its cramped quarters to their advantage, but letting our unfamiliarity with the area work in their favor, as well. There is something labyrinthine about its streets, and we are unsure of the distance between, say, Serge's house and Francois' hotel, where Serge often drinks. With the wilderness and farmlands surrounding the burg, there is also a feeling of a greater expanse. Marie's house is farther away--30 yards faster if one journeys through the graveyard--but far enough that they can outdistance Serge, just as the small town is big enough for Serge and Glomaud to disappear on one of their benders. Small enough for everyone to know each other's business--including what Francois got up to when he went away--but also able to keep secrets.

I don't recall us ever finding out what kind of work Francois did on his own. Brialy is cool and collected, and he gives off an aura of success. We get the idea that he was probably always the one that did well, and Serge was always kind of the screw-up. Blain is excellent as the capricious drunk. His eyes have a consistent hint of menace, his smile is mocking, and when he cries, it sounds like laughter. Francois' determination to rescue his friend turns into a kind of holy mission, particularly when he digs in his heels after even the priest tells him to get lost. It's a mission that exists in the abstract, however, until Francois is forced to get real about what is really going on. Yvonne and Serge are expecting a second baby, and despite fears that it will be deformed, as well, she carries it to term. Only, on the night that she goes into labor, Serge is nowhere to be found.

Francois goes on a frenzied search for his friend. He refuses to let his child be born without him. He finds Serge drunk and passed out in the snow and drags him home, literally unthawing him. (And I swear, the way they look at each other, if ever they were going to kiss...) It's a transformative event for both of them, and a hopeful finish for Chabrol's debut. Le beau Serge is a bit of a hothouse flower, nurtured to life by a healthy diet of Faulkner and Tennessee Williams, with even a little Hitchcock in its more hysterical moments (particularly in the music). It's structurally loose, but tight in execution, firmly handled by the first-time auteur. It's a wonderful promise from the artist, and only a hint of what is to come.

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

Wednesday, September 21, 2011


Jean Vigo is one of those interesting artistic figures whose reputation far exceeds his output. He's the kind of name that pops up on lists and scholarly surveys and inspires reactions of "What's the big deal?" He made only four films between 1929 and 1934, and two of them were under half an hour, another was less than an hour, and only his last, L'Atalante, reached what we would consider a more standard feature length. Again, that's barely anything compared to other equally revered filmmakers. So, what's the big deal?

This question is raised, and more than amply answered, in Criterion's The Complete Jean Vigo, a two-DVD set (or single Blu-Ray) collecting all of Vigo's efforts with a movie camera alongside some informative supplemental material. A big deal made of a small career that is a verrrrry big deal indeed.

The lead films in the set are the two short subjects Vigo directed, the experimental and fun A propos de Nice (1930, 23 minutes, silent) and Taris (1931, 9 minutes, sound). Both appear to be frivolously produced, with A propos de Nice in particular coming off as a freshman artist being given a new tool and running wild with it. Vigo experiments with double exposure, fades, speed changes, and all manner of other tricks to explore the city of Nice. Most of the footage is shot on the street as documentary; it's in the editing and in some of the staged gags that Vigo draws out a kind of commentary, blending real-life footage with editorial invention. It can be quite funny, such as comparing some exaggerated citizens with similar looks found in nature, or exposing the lingering gaze of a man looking at a pretty girl by showing us what he really wants to see: her clothes disappearing and her silly undergarments exposed, and eventually her completely naked body. Stuffy art has the wind taken out of its sails by seeing a rain puddle gathered in the crotch of a lounging sculpted figure.

Yet, Vigo quickly upends these tricks and tricks his audience at the same time. How do we feel when that same playfulness gets serious and shows us the poor and the starving just around the corner from opulence and conspicuous consumption? It's fairly blunt in terms of social comment, but indicative of an emerging cinematic point of view. Few would take their debut effort into such territory. The effect of A propos de Nice is to equalize the common populace. They all share one city, they are of one people, and the one set being selfish and foolish is all the more so next to their neighbor's misery.

There is a similar equalizing in Taris, in which swimming champion Jean Taris gives a swimming lesson to the viewing audience. Again, Vigo uses experimental effects, including overlapping images, running the film in reverse, and some truly impressive underwater photography. If one wonders where Cocteau got some of his ideas for the many effects shots throughout the Orphic Trilogy, one need look no further. The playful camera work elevates what would otherwise be a standard promo piece for the swimmer, and the ending takes it one step further. Having completed his rather complicated lesson, Taris rises from the pool like some kind of divine being, has his clothes change before our eyes, and exits in a double-exposed shot where he appears to practically walk on water. The glint in his eye suggests, yes, anyone can swim this way, but not anyone can be Jean Taris. There is only one champ.

It was two years more before Vigo made the 44-minute film Zéro de conduite (Zero for Conduct) (1933), a whimsical, semi-autobiographical story of a rundown boarding school losing its tyrannical grip on its all-male student body. Returning from a break, the school has a new teacher--or as they call them, "monitors"-- the happy-go-lucky Huguet (Jean Dasté). He is a bit of a joker, and also a fairly competent physical comedian. Dasté glides through a playground scene, breaking into a scrum and grabbing the ball. He does a handstand on his desk to entertain his charges.

Huguet also turns a blind eye to the scheming of three of his students. Caussat, Colin, and Bruel are planning a special prank for the school's anniversary celebration. The girly Tabard (Gérard de Bédarieux) wants in on the act, but the other boys think he is a snitch. Only after Tabard stands up and curses after one of their teachers makes a dirty pass at him in class does he finally get accepted into the fold. The movie ends with their taking action, assaulting their headmasters from the rooftops in a scene that would later inspire Lindsay Anderson in crafting the ending of If.....

Vigo wrote the script for Zéro de conduite, as well as directing, and though there is a basic plot to the movie, it is structured episodically, like a series of Mack Sennett short subjects stitched together. The kids stage a succession of small rebellions on the way to their final operation. Vigo shoots them in such a way as to capture the magic of youth. An explosion of pillows creates a storm of feathers, and the boys ride through it in slow motion, buoyed by their own sense of immortality. The director also peppers Zéro de conduite with small touches of surrealism: the diminutive principal with the big beard (Delphin), for instance, whose reflection moves in the mirror independently. Or the boy performing a magic trick, where the ball disappearing is really just Vigo's manipulation behind the camera and in the editing room.

Zéro de conduite had trouble with the censors on its initial release due to its frankness regarding disciplinary issues and indiscretions in the school environment. That frankness is also why it still remains so vital after 80 years. It doesn't feel whitewashed, and the problems the boys go through remain relatable while their revenge still provides some wish fulfillment for all of us who ever were unhappy with the teachers and administrators at our school. I wrote a column a couple of months back tracing a link from Hal Ashby to Wes Anderson (and would have included Richard Ayoade's Submarine [review] if I could) and examining the coming-of-age subgenre where imaginative boys cope with the world by unleashing their vivid imaginations. Zéro de conduite has as much a place at the forefront of that tradition as it does with other boy's education movies like If...., The 400 Blows, and Young Törless. On their own, each of those is a pretty impressive legacy for one movie to provide a cornerstone to, but both of them...well, I did say Jean Vigo was a very big deal, didn't I?

L'Atalante has been reviewed separately. Read it here.

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

Monday, September 19, 2011

BLU-REDO: MY LIFE AS A DOG - #178/IF.... - #391

I was recently fortunate enough to review the Blu-Ray reissues of two older Criterion films, Lasse Hallström's My Life as a Dog and Lindsay Anderson's If.... While it was an absolute pleasure to revisit these two favorites, and the high-def presentations were suitably impressive, I was happy enough with my older essays on the movies to use them again. I did, however, update the technical specs, and if you would like to go over the full reviews, including my assessment of the audio/visual quality, click through on the covers to see my DVD Talk entries.

Original version

Original version

* *

Sunday, September 11, 2011

ORPHEUS (Blu-Ray) - #68

"A legend is entitled to be beyond time and place."

Like many folks my age, my first exposure to Jean Cocteau's 1950 art film Orpheus was seeing the famous image of Jean Marais laying in a puddle, sleeping over his own reflection, as the cover to the Smiths single "This Charming Man." With his up-do coif the right combination of styled and messy, Marais bears more than a passing resemblance to Morrissey; then again, it's really the Smiths singer who was co-opting the French actor's look. The image itself had oodles of mystery, a combination of narcissism, romance, and fatalistic morbidity that could inspire a lifetime of bad poetry. I even had a poster of it on the wall of my college dorm, some ten years before I would ever see Orpheus for real.

Watching the film again, the choice of the Marais photo still as a record sleeve makes more and more sense. Cocteau molds the mythical figure into a jazz-age outsider. He is a bard whose popular verse has made him an outcast amongst his bohemian peers, and his brooding manner endears him to teeny boppers nearly as much as his chiseled matinee-star good looks. It's the kind of jarring dichotomy between artistry and fame that Morrissey and his co-writer, Johnny Marr, would infuse their music with. For as much as they were a jangly indie guitar band, they were also a pop band. And for as much as Orpheus is a high-minded art film, Jean Cocteau has also made a pop art masterpiece, employing all the funhouse tricks at his disposal to create a raucous cinematic entertainment.

"Orpheus, your gravest fault is knowing just how far to go too far."

Cocteau's Orpheus has its origins in the famous myth of the troubadour who traveled to Hell to rescue his soulmate, only to fail to live up to the restrictions of his deal with Death upon returning to Earth, but the French director has updated and molded the material to fit the times. Set to a jazzy score by Georges Auric, it prefigures rock 'n' roll in surprising ways, with touches of the skiffle-beat musicals and juvenile delinquent movies that were to soon spring fully formed from Elvis Presley's gyrating hips. The movie opens in a bohemian café. Orpheus has stopped in for a drink, only to suffer the open scorn of his peers and rivals who resent his success. The poet is understandably defensive, since he also has his own anxieties about his flagging abilities. Accomplishment is a difficult mistress to keep maintained in the style to which she has become accustomed. [For another variation on the story, see also Black Orpheus]

On this particular day, a Roll's Royce also delivers the latest enfant terrible of verse, a drunken teenager named Cégeste (Edouard Dermithe). He has just published his first chapbook under the title of "Nudism." It is a collection of blank pages, like John Cage's concertos of silence, and Cocteau's perverse joke on the avant-garde. The car belongs to Cégeste's patron, a dark-haired ice queen known only as the Princess (Maria Casarés, Children of Paradise). Its stoic driver is Heurtebise (François Périer, Nights of Cabiria). Before days end, the café will erupt in a rumble of poets, and Cégeste will be struck down by a pair of motorcycle riding messengers of death. Orpheus will end up in the Princess' car, entangling him in a supernatural plot he didn't bargain for.

As the Rolls Royce drives into unknown territory, Orpheus becomes increasingly aware of the strange situation he has stumbled into. Coded messages filter in over the radio, and the Princess refuses to answer any of his questions. The motorcycle riders are waiting for her at her home, and once there, Cégeste is also restored to life--or a semblance of such. The Princess, as it turns out, is Death herself, and Orpheus is her new fixation. She leaves him in his world, but commands Heurtebise to stay by his side. The driver takes Orpheus home, only to find that there is a scandal surrounding his disappearance. His wife, Eurydice (Marie Déa, Lelouch's Marriage), is hiding from reporters who want to know what happened to Cégeste. A police inspector (Pierre Bertin) is in their kitchen, as well as Aglaonice (Juliette Gréco, Elena and Her Men), a friend of Eurydice's who already hates Orpheus. She is a member of a group called the Bacchantes who will eventually come looking for the poet's head.

For as strange as this sounds, it only gets stranger still. Orpheus starts spending all of his time in the garage, listening to the radio in the Princess' Rolls, waiting for more poetic non-sequiturs from the beyond. He becomes so enraptured, in fact, he fails to see Heurtebise's growing affection for his wife or heed the warnings when Death comes to claim Eurydice. The Princess is as obsessed with Orpheus as her ghostly driver is with his spouse, transgressions that cross the untraversable lines between this life and the next. Once Orpheus finally wakes up to what is happening--the movie makes multiple references to dreams, asserting that this may all be the poet's nightmare--he compels Heurtebise to take him below ground to find Eurydice and bring her back.

This could all be some serious stuff in the wrong hands, but Jean Cocteau approaches his mythic material playfully. He sees the classic story as a metaphor for artistic passion. Orpheus is so taken with his melancholy muse, he ignores the real world, causing damage to his relationships and forcing some reconciliation between what goes on in his head and what is happening in the flesh. Marais plays the poet as a vain, self-serious brat, an eternal teenager who refuses to leave the comfort of his adolescent humors. His relationship with Casarés' raven-tressed Death is practically a gothic parody. The pouty poet is obsessed with his own mortality, and how could he not be flattered to discover that mortality is also obsessed with him! Juxtaposed with this, Marie Déa's blonde beauty plays to the fairy tale conventions of innocence. She is sweetness personified, an expectant mother, the ill-treated lover. Naturally, the dependable Heurtebise, who committed suicide for want of a woman, would be drawn to her; he works for the dark side, he's seen its flaws. It's marvelously realized melodrama, timeless and hormonal, broaching dire subjects but with a light, sardonic touch. This is a romance, after all, where one of the lovers easily flips between the woman he intends to save and the one who took her away--made all the more amusing by the fact that Marais was Cocteau's former lover and Dermithe was his current one at time of shooting. It's not exactly the most lovesick scenario, but it has its charms.

In fact, Cocteau's tiptoeing through the afterlife is actually a lot of fun. His vision of Hell is imaginative and unique, using the ruins and rubble that would have been commonplace in post-War France to craft an image of damnation that is both a sad remembrance of the tragedy that hit his country only years before and a reminder of the resiliency that pulled them through. While some of his special effects seem antiquated and rickety today, Cocteau's films work because the artist embraced the joyous possibilities of motion pictures with a childlike exuberance. The movie camera is his toy, and he wants to learn everything he can do with it. Running the shot backwards, rear projection, make-up, and literal smoke and mirrors are all weapons in his arsenal, and even though he was already an accomplished auteur by this point (he had made his wondrous version of Beauty and the Beast [review] four years prior), he approaches each effect with a gleeful naïveté. Cocteau on a movie set is like a child in a magic shop, eager to sample each trick, always willing to believe that the illusion is real.

It's this wild abandon that keeps Orpheus feeling fresh after all these years. It's why new packs of youngsters and movie buffs keep rediscovering Cocteau's experimental flights of fancy and going along for the ride, maybe identifying themselves in the archetypes, maybe just digging Orpheus for its style and passion. It's the same reason a band like the Smiths or an author like J.D. Salinger has a legacy that far exceeds their output. Jean Cocteau was 60 when he made Orpheus, but he was still a teen rebel, a rock star before there was any such thing. Some dudes start out cool and they stay cool forever.

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

Please Note: The screen captures used here are from the standard-definition DVD released in 2000, not from the Blu-ray edition under review.

Saturday, September 10, 2011


I was hunting around for an old piece on Breakfast at Tiffany's and I stumbled on a collection of capsule reviews I wrote for my defunct DVD column back in February, 2006. I will one day hopefully do something more extensive about La bệte humaine and Young Mr. Lincoln both, but in the meantime, here are my first reactions from the pair's initial release:

La bệte humaine: Jean Renoir made two films with Jean Gabin in 1938. The first was Grand Illusion and is an admitted classic; the second is La bệte humaine (The Human Beast), which sadly has been unavailable for quite some time. Based loosely on an Emile Zola novel, La bệte humaine is a precursor to film noir, with Gabin playing Jacques Lantier, a train conductor who gets cast as the replacement third point in a love triangle after his predecessor is murdered. Lantier is a man of machines, more in love with his locomotive than he’s ever been able to connect with a human. Part of it is that he has a congenital problem that makes him prone to madness and violent outbursts, something that doesn’t effect his interaction with his train. In fact, we see right from the opening shots that he is most free when riding the rails. La bệte humaine is perhaps Renoir’s most unabashed foray into genre filmmaking, a stylish thriller that could have just as easily been made by Hitchcock (though after likely punching up the humor and the threats). Like most Renoir, though, it’s a portrait of human foibles. He loves his characters for all their faults, and he shows them in exacting detail. Criterion has done a stellar restoration on this, as they have with all of their Renoir releases, and they’ve dug up a few vintage extras to round out the package. Most interesting is a television segment from the ’50s where Renoir is reunited with La bệte humaine’s femme fatale Simone Simon, and he gives a lesson on directing by remaking a scene from the film with her.

* * *

Young Mr. Lincoln The Criterion Collection offers a classic film from 1939, starring Henry Fonda and directed by John Ford. It’s hard to nail down what I liked best about this fantastic and charming movie, as every aspect of it worked in tandem to achieve the best motion pictures have to offer. Fonda is exceptional as Honest Abe, who at the time of the story is merely an up-and-coming lawyer in Illinois. His easy way with words matches his ambling gate step for step, as Fonda completely transforms himself into the tall and gentle legend (he’s given a little help by an excellent make-up team, providing the actor with a fake nose that blends smoothly with his recognizable facial features). Ford matches Fonda with gorgeous photography. His stunning vistas would draw away from the actor if handled by a less capable director. Here, they work in conjunction with Fonda’s performance to show how in tune Lincoln was with the American landscape. Criterion has done another excellent job restoring an old film, delivering exceptional picture and sound. There are also some informative extras, including various programs about Ford and Fonda. The 1975 interview with Fonda, who was then in his '70s, shows how vivacious of a personality he really was, and it’s worth it just for the anecdote about him and Jimmy Stewart drunkenly plotting to dig an underground tunnel into Greta Garbo’s house.

The other films I covered that month were Elia Kazan's Pinky, Dave McKean's MirrorMask, the Keira Knightley-led Pride & Prejudice adaptation, and a Hollywood-based indie called The Young Unknowns.

And it turns out I either lost that Breakfast at Tiffany's review or I am nuts and never wrote it. I was working on a new piece, anyway, now that the movie is on Blu-Ray.

Sunday, September 4, 2011


This may sound strange or even reductionist, but I think Japanese director Koreyoshi Kurahara's style is most easily summed up via his credits sequences. The films in the boxed set The Warped World of Koreyoshi Kurahara, the 28th entry in Criterion's Eclipse series, come from different genres and have varied tones and styles, but the filmmaker's approach to the titles, with one exception, remains consistent. After an introductory scene, Kurahara carefully chooses a moment to freeze the image, introducing the name of the picture on top of this still, capturing his characters in flux. Sometimes it's serious and shocking, sometimes it's hilarious and humiliating. Then the rest of the credits roll with the image stopping and starting, the text juxtaposed with the isolated moments, working with the music to indicate the emotional weather patterns inside the atmosphere we are now entering. These sequences are always stylish and never dull, and Kurahara often closes his films in a similar matter, reminding us at the outset and at the finish that this is cinema, it is artifice, even as he asks us to step into a realm that is entirely his own.

Kurahara was a contract worker at Nikkatsu studios starting in the late 1950s; he continued making films well into his later life, though regularly altering his style in unpredictable ways. Warped World picks up in 1960 as the director experienced an artistic sea change, coming into his own through standard genre pictures, eventually exploring his personal vision using popular stars in vehicles that look familiar when taken at face value but turn out to be stranger and more unique than they initially appeared. Kurahara's films tend to follow characters who have become trapped and are desperate for a way out. Some of them are reserved and calculating, others are agitated and rebellious. Not all of the quintet represented here hit with the same accuracy, but part of the point of the collection is to illustrate how versatile Kurahara was. The scattershot approach means there likely won't be a bull's-eye every time, but generally, he gets close enough.

The Warped World of Koreyoshi Kurahara kicks off with a bang. Intimidation (1960; 65 minutes) is a tight crime thriller, a story of blackmail and double-crosses that is sometimes called the first Japanese film noir. (As always, the use of the tag is debatable; I think Hitchcock's Rope, or his TV show, is a more apropos reference point.) Bank manager Takita (Nobuo Kaneko) is heading to a promotion at the main branch--coincidentally, run by his father-in-law--when a local gangster (Kojiro Kusanagi) threatens to expose some bad loans he extended himself unless Takita pays him 3 million yen. He suggests Takita rob his own bank, since no one will ever suspect the boss of thieving. Seeing no way out, Takita tries to pull of a late-night heist. Despite his best efforts to keep him out of it, Takita's assistant Nakaike (Akira Nishimura, The Bad Sleep Well [review]) gets tangled in the burgling. Nakaike has been under Takita's thumb his whole life. The other man jilted Nakaike's sister, Umeha (Mari Shiraki), to marry Kumiko (Yoko Kozono), who was Nakaike's girlfriend at the time. Had Nakaike married her, he'd be in Takita's professional position; instead, he warms the man's sake. Insult to injury, Takita is still having an affair with Umeha. We see a predatory chain running through this community: Takita may be intimidated by a crook, but he has been intimidating Nakaike in one way or another their entire lives.

When you think about it, that's a lot of backstory for a movie that barely crests an hour in length, but Kurahara has wound these things so tight, you'd barely notice. The screenplay is by Osamu Kawase, from a story by Kyo Takigawa, and Kurahara stages their material with precision. What at first appears to be mannered social drama quickly gives way to pulpy twists and turns, with the actual bank robbery staged in nail-biting silence, like a more direct take on Dassin's safecracking in Rififi [review]. From that point on, the change-ups come pretty quick. Pardon the referential joke, but it's all downhill from there. Kurahara and cinematographer Yoshihiro Yamazaki compose elegant shots, arranging the actors throughout the scene to emphasize their hidden relationships, while using tight close-ups to underline their anxiety. Intimidation is a sophisticated genre exercise that will keep you guessing right up until the memorable final moments. It's a movie where no one gets what they want, where all selfish intentions yield empty results, and innocence is as ephemeral as a flame from a lighter.

The same year that Kurahara made Intimidation, he also made the juvenile delinquent picture The Warped Ones (1960; 75 minutes). Part of the "Sun Tribe" subgenre chronicling the frustrations of post-War Japanese youth, The Warped Ones is a semi-formless picture, its verité style mirroring the aimless day-to-day of its criminal subjects, bookended by those energetic freeze frames to emphasize the feeling that these are stolen moments, snapshots arrested in time.

Tamio Kawachi, a regular participant in Seijun Suzuki films, stars in The Warped Ones as Akira, a petty thug and pickpocket. Akira appears to be in a state of constant agitation. He is always overheated, always squirming; he looks like he would claw off his own skin if he could. He hangs around with a prostitute named Yuki (Yuko Chishiro), and the pair of them gets arrested when a straight-laced newspaper reporter (Hiroyuki Nagato) helps the cops pull a sting on them in the jazz club. When Akira gets out of prison a month later, he has a new friend, another crook named Masaru (Eiji Go).

While joyriding in a stolen car, the trio run across the snitch and his girlfriend, an abstract painter named Fumiko (Noriko Matsumoto). They kidnap Fumiko, and Akira rapes her. Telling her where the police station is after he is done is the closest the jerk gets to compassion, and it suggests that maybe she has gotten under his skin in some way. When she tracks him down weeks later to tell him she has gotten pregnant, he rejects her, but then shortly after, he seeks her out. It's an emotionally harrowing push-and-pull. He doesn't want to be with her, but he won't stay away from her. Things get even more complicated when Fumiko encourages Yuki to seduce the reporter so that he'll feel the same shame she feels; her intention that if he is also sexually abused, they will be equal again, but that backfires. (Men are dogs, y'all.)

The Warped Ones' jumpy narrative leapfrogs over customary transitions, cutting from scene to scene without much caution for how it all connects together. Time is elastic. This could be one long day, or it could be several months. On one side of the social register, the characters don't express themselves, they don't know how, but the way Kurahara and screenwriter Nobuo Yamada show Fumiko's pretentious art friends behaving, the filmmakers don't have much respect for the hoity toity, either. It's one of the best scenes of the movie. Akira wanders into Fumiko's party and is immediately humiliated by her friends, who view him as a living art exhibit, an example of a primitive man wandering the modern streets. (You know, like Kramer in that one episode of Seinfeld.) They laugh at him with the same cruel abandon that he and his pals laugh at the misfortune of their victims. In fact, despite the harsh twists of fate that follow, that laughter keeps going, building to a maniacal pitch (alongside their increased disregard for human life) in the film's final shot. It's framed from a god's eye point of view (a stylistic trademark of Kurahara's), as if to say life is absurd, it will always be absurd, and Akira can toss as many guffaws to the heavens as he can muster, but the heavens will never answer.

[Note: The credits and liner notes on the Warped Ones box suggest that the artist character is Yuki and the prostitute is Fumiko. Indeed, all articles on the film, including the IMDB and Wikipedia entries, say the same thing. The dialogue and onscreen text in the actual film has the names switched, however, so I have followed what I saw and heard, and have decided that the actresses attached are correct for each name based on Yuko Chishiro's return to the role of Yuki in the later film Black Sun.

The 1964 film I Hate But Love (105 mins.) seems as far away from The Warped Ones as you can get, but though the romantic comedy appears on the surface to follow a standard line, it's actually extremely off-model in terms of genre expectations.

It begins like any number of 1960s love stories, with two career-minded lovers juggling work and romance and failing to find a balance. Daisaku Kita, played by matinee idol Yujiro Ishihara, is a popular media personality who hosts a TV show that finds the true stories behind the most intriguing classified ads of the day; his manager, Noriko (Ruriko Asaoka), builds him a packed schedule day in and day out, but never fails to book time for their personal engagements, just the two of them. The business partners have been dating for exactly two years--or as Noriko counts it, 730 days--but their passion is waning, largely because they have been denying it. Wooing is fine, but hands off, buster!

Like I said, this all plays like a glossy Hollywood love story. Even the zippy music by Toshiro Mayuzumi (Reflections In A Golden Eye) would fit right in on the MGM lot, soundtracking the latest coupling of Doris Day and Rock Hudson. I Hate But Love takes a strange turn, however, when the frustrated Kita impulsively agrees to go on a cross-country road trip to fulfill the wish of one of his news subjects. A long-distance love affair between an average woman (Izumi Ashikawa) and a country doctor is about to bear fruit in an unusual way: the woman has saved up to buy the doctor a jeep so he can help more sick people who might not have access to health care otherwise, all she needs is someone to volunteer to drive the vehicle to the mountain village he calls home. Eager to prove that love is real and affirm his own humanity in the process, Kita jumps behind the wheel. Seeing it as career suicide, Noriko chases after him. What follows is a cross-country journey on which the philosophical implications are only outweighed by the media circus that erupts around it. The farther Kita goes, the more fraught his journey becomes; as he grows more determined, Noriko gets more frazzled. It all builds to an oversized climax that has ironic consequences and surprisingly affirmative results.

I Hate But Love is well done, with solid performances from the leads and an assured directorial vision. It's the one movie in The Warped World of Koreyoshi Kurahara to be shot in color. Yoshio Mamiya, who also was DP on The Warped Ones, is behind the camera again, and he makes the best of both real locations and rickety rear-projection to give life to this absurd road trip. I Hate But Love not only reteams him with Kurahara, but it also puts the director back together with Ishida and Asaoka; they made the wildly successful Ginza Love Story that same year. I Hate But Love would prove a big hit.

Yet, I have to admit, I didn't enjoy it all that much. The comic tone at the start of the picture seemed contrived and outdated, while the more serious middle portion struck me as disjointed and straining credibility. That said, the outlandish mountaintop finish kind of makes it all worth it. Though you can likely guess what happens to the central couple, there are several unexpected twists in the final few minutes that definitely prove I Hate But Love to be a rom com of a different stripe.

Tamio Kawachi, star of The Warped Ones, returns for Black Sun (1964; 95 mins.), and so does the anarchic tone. It's a sequel of sorts, featuring analogues of the characters if not the exact same individuals. Whereas the earlier film ended in howls of laughter, however, Black Sun closes with a primal yowl, a sound that mixes both the exhilaration of freedom and despair at its cost.

Kawachi is still a jazz lover and a car thief, but he's not nearly as restless or angry as his younger version. Now he goes by the name Mei and squats in the condemned husk of a Catholic church. Its owners keep threatening to tear it down, and he has replaced the religions icons with photos of great jazz musicians. When Mei isn't stealing cars, he's digging up salvage to buy records. The opening of Black Sun shows him exploring a junkyard. The bombed-out post-War wasteland could just as easily double as a post-apocalyptic landscape, a parallel that is likely intentional. Kurahara's film, including its evocative title, has a doomsday aura around it. Nuclear power plants are visible in the distance. It's both of its time and slightly outside of it. The ruined buildings serve as a constant reminder of the tragic end of World War II, as do the occupying American soldiers that patrol the streets. It's a bit ironic, then, that Mei has embraced one of the popular art forms of the occupiers. Entertainment and junk culture is the greatest weapon of modern colonialism.

Then again, African American musical traditions, be it jazz or rock-and-roll or hip hop, have always had greater political and social significance, something that Kurahara, working again with a script by Nobuyo Yamada, is putting to use in his story. It's rebel music, the anthems of outcasts, and one of those outcasts will change Mei's life. Chico Roland plays Gill, a black soldier who is accused of having gunned down a white serviceman. We don't know if he's guilty, he insists he's not and that the greater "they" are out to kill him. He shows up at Mei's squat with a machine gun and a wounded leg. Mei is excited to meet a real black American, but the language barrier and Gill's desperation put the two at odds. Gill bullies his hostage until the tables turn; Mei gets the gun, and in a bizarre sequence, paints the American's face white and his own face black. Disguised, they leave their hiding place and go to Mei's favorite jazz club, where he shows off Gill as his "slave."

This topsy-turvy relationship is a distorted foreigner's version of The Defiant Ones. The scenario not only speaks to race relations in the 1960s, but also to the tension between Japanese citizens and the Americans, who are squatting in Mei's ruined country just as much as he is living in one of their abandoned churches (a harsh symbol when you consider all the implications). When Gill and Mei hit the road and realize that there is no turning back, the military police have identified both of them and their car, the two men begin to come together, finding that their common bond is that they are being abused by the same white institutions. This all leads to yet another of Kurahara's surprising conclusions. I don't want to give away what causes that scream I referenced earlier. I guarantee, you won't see it coming.

Kawachi is once again very good, though his performance in Black Sun is not nearly as hyperactive as in The Warped Ones. Despite his habit of racial profiling, Mei is essentially a good guy with a genuine enthusiasm for jazz and black culture. He has a greater range of emotions than Akira had: sarcastic, playful, angry, distraught. Unfortunately, Chico Roland is a terrible actor, and his unconvincing performance is hampered by some of the worst ADR this side of an Italian spaghetti western. For as much as his onscreen actions are exaggerated, his vocal performance cranks it up several notches still.

The true MVP of Black Sun is the music. Toshiro Mayuzumi, who so effectively mimicked Hollywood's most ebullient orchestration in I Hate But Love does just as well here crafting a jazz score. Granted, he is helped by having the Max Roach Quartet to record the tunes. (In the credits sequence, Mei goes into a record shop and orders the soundtrack by name.) The bebop not only adds bounce to the more energetic scenes, but in the final act, creates an emotional mood, conveying the sadness and fear of Black Sun's doomed fugitives.

Kurahara shifts gears again for the last film of the series, Thirst for Love (1967; 99 mins.), which also happens to be his final effort as a Nikkatsu regular. This somber, erotically charged film is an adaptation of a novel by infamous Japanese author Yukio Mishima, and it stars I Hate But Love's Ruriko Asaoka as Etsuko, a young woman trapped in a bizarre family after her husband's unexpected death. Some time has passed, and Etsuko's new role in the clan is as her father-in-law's live-in mistress. Her sleeping with the old man (Nobuo Nakamura) might be out of place in another family, but the whole set-up is dysfunctional. Etsuko's brother-in-law (Akira Yamauchi) lives at home with his wife (Yuko Kusunoki), sponging off his father and proud of it. He is sterile, and so has no kids, and he clearly has a thing for Etsuko.

She, on the other hand, is obsessed with their underage handyman, Saburo (Tetsuo Ishidate). She is flattered when she catches him staring at her from outsider her room, angry when he doesn't wear socks she bought special for him. The sexual tension is loin deep, and everyone must wade through it as they would a swamp. The weight of all this desire becomes too much to bear when Saburo impregnates another servant (Chitose Kurenai) and the family meddles in the affair, making plans for their hired hands with little regard for what they may actually want for themselves. The class divide being what it is, they mostly get away with it, too, resenting any resistance. Money is the only weapon either side has: giving it, taking it, extorting it.

Ruriko Asaoka is an alluring screen presence. She has an austere beauty and an uncanny ability to express hidden desire covertly. Thirst for Love smolders like an E.M. Forster or Edith Wharton adaptation. The inexpressible is always on the verge of coming to the surface, the act of denial is more charged than any succumbing to impulse. Kurahara molds his style to the material. This is his quietest film, and though the aesthetic choices aren't as gonzo as previously, they are no less bold. The director, who co-wrote the script, creates an authorial persona, maintaining a certain distance from the material while also trading on the interior lives of his protagonists. Voiceover duties are swapped between different characters, and sometimes the narration appears to be spoken by the director himself (a god's eye view of a different sort). Kurahara and Mamiya often abstract the visuals from the spoken word, showing landscapes at a distance or bodies close up, almost as if divorced from what is being said aloud. Other times, onscreen text relates what can't be shown.

In Thirst for Love, instead of using freeze frame images for the opening credits, Kurahara lingers on Asaoka's naked body, isolating different portions--her stomach, her neck, her shoulder--with a fetishistic eye. Still images appear elsewhere, but in this film, they are the province of memory. Our only glimpses of Etsuko's life with her late husband come via a series of photographs put together in a style reminiscent of Chris Marker. Kurahara also uses this device for present moments of extreme passion, restraining his mis-en-scene as if to make up for Etsuko's lack of the same. He also injects color, using bright red screens to show how hot her lust burns inside of her.

In keeping with Mishima's literary themes, Etsuko's denial of the self is wished for nearly as much as she considers it a torment. She inflicts physical punishment on herself, and also maneuvers to have the situation with Saburo blow up in her face. It may seem like a bizarre route to take, but it ultimately liberates her from the grip of her married family. This is something she has in common with all of Kurahara's protagonists, they all have some kind of arduous metamorphosis prompted by an untenable living situation. Be it the overlooked clerk in Intimidation or Akira/Mei limited by his squalor, or even Daisaku Kita in I Hate But Love being hedged in by fame and exiled from his love by his regrettable arrangement with Noriko, the journeys of struggle that comprises their narratives have a real destination. Whether what they find there is good or bad is debatable in some cases, but all of these characters have moved or changed position in some manner. In Etsuko's case, she literally moves on, stepping at last out of the black-and-white and into the color. Her world has indeed warped, and now it's something completely new.

The Warped World of Koreyoshi Kurahara - Eclipse Series 28 lives up to its title. The five movies here really do show a self-contained image, like a Bizarro World inside a cinematic bell jar. Kurahara's vision of post-War Japan is one where an occupied people struggle with class structures and a lack of opportunity, resorting to drastic measures and selfish gestures. It's a crazy scene, start to finish, and you'd be hard-pressed to find anything quite like it on either side of the Pacific.

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