Monday, November 07, 2005

Re: Great Directors - The Films of Yasujiro Ozu

Re: Great Directors - The Films of Yasujiro Ozu

Relatively unknown in America, but an acknowledged master and influence on nearly every major Japanese director of the 20th century, Yasujiro Ozu has created a unique body of work that rivals the works of William Shakespeare in its examination of the motivations common to our human species. Ozu seems to have invented his very own blend of social study with comedy that allows people to chuckle at issues that touch our more vulnerable emotional states.

Ozu’s style is simple and perhaps well-known to his audiences: the camera sits roughly three feet off the floor and seldom moves, giving the distinct impression that you, the viewer, are sitting on the floor with your ever-changing panorama of hosts and hostesses. The metaphorical restaurateurs that populate Ozu’s films serve up the microcosm of family and all that comes with it: birth, growing pains of childhood, the plight of education, easy and uneasy transitions into adulthood, gender issues, marriage (to be or not to be), bustling careers, failed dreams, separations, alcoholism, tragic suicides, easy deaths, tender reconciliation and the age-old questions that come with old age and the inevitable confrontation with death.

Here is a short list of some of the films that I would recommend without reservation:

1)Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice (1952) A potpourri of Ozu’s themes all woven together in a satisfying tale – a great place to start for Ozu initiates.

2)Tokyo Twilight (1957) A tragic tale of a disintegrating post-war family that features a fleet of masterful performances that will melt the coldest of hearts.

3)Good Morning (1959) A tale of two adorable kids who take on a vow of silence because their parents won’t buy a TV – a great introduction to Japanese film for kids.

4)An Autumn Afternoon (1962) Ozu’s last film tenderly reveals a father facing old age as his daughter contemplates marriage – more great performances from the Ozu stable of actors!

5)What Did the Lady Forget? (1937) FUNNY story of a liberated young woman that visits her fairly conservative aunt and uncle and sets out to break their exalted social taboos.

6)Early Summer(1951) This spacious film features a great performance by Setsuko Hara a dutiful daughter whose family is trying to find a husband. While the theme may be familiar to Ozu fans, the performances and the subtleties of emotion and psycological understanding are the reasons this director has carved out a place that is unique in the history of cinema.

7)Tokyo Story(1953) One of Ozu's most highly acclaimed works, this film presents an elderly couple visiting some of their children in Tokyo, only to find themselves not particularly welcome in their fast-paced urban lives. The couple return to their country village at a time of tragedy that brings the family together at the film's end in a heartbreaking and unforgettable way.

8)Floating Weeds(1959) Shrouded in Ozu minimalism, this film tracks the movements of a band of traveling actors who have settled temporarily in a fishing village. While stranded without work, the actors in Ozu's film give the great director lots of personalities to explore and merge in dramatic and non-dramatic conflict.

Re: Great Directors - The Films of Akira Kurosawa

The Films of Akira Kurosawa (1910-1998)

For those that have heard of Akira Kurosawa but have never seen any of the great director’s work, here is a list of essential classics. Acknowledged as the creator of not one, but many undisputed masterpieces (Ikiru, Seven Samurai, Kagemusha, Ran, Rashomon, High and Low, Dersu Uzala, Stray Dog, Red Beard, Throne of Blood, The Hidden Fortress, Yojimbo, The Idiot), Akira Kurosawa helped to revolutionize Japanese Cinema while providing inspiration for other directors (George Lucas: Star Wars, John Sturges: The Magnificent Seven, Sergio Leone: A Fistful of Dollars). Kurosawa was particularly successful with adaptations of great literature, using works by Shakespeare (Ran, Throne of Blood) and Dostoevsky (The Idiot) as a springboard to create some of his more compelling and complex narratives.

1) Seven Samurai (1954)
This film has rightly earned unanimous international acclaim since its release in 1954 for providing us with a complex story rich in historical overtones handled with absolute technical brilliance and superbly realized by a notable cast that features some of Japan’s finest actors from the period.

Desperate farmers hire seven samurai (who wander the land after the fall of warlord feudalism in 16th century Japan) to defend their land from bandits who pillage their village. The samurai organize to train their meager army of not-so-innocent peasants, create a plan of defense, and enact one of the greatest hand-to-hand battle sequences ever conceived and delivered on film (the final battle sequence occupies nearly 1/3 of the movie’s total 3 ½ hour duration). Seven Samurai is an outstanding allegory of social reconstruction conceived in post WWII Japan and has inspired countless imitations but few rivals. (The film served as a blueprint for The Magnificent Seven, and is thought by many critics to have revived the Western genre in American cinema).

2) Ikiru (1952)
Kurosawa’s heartbreaking chronicle about a man searching to give meaning to his empty bureaucratic life once he discovers he has stomach cancer. The first half of the film focuses on the principal character as he wanders the seedier side of Tokyo nightlife. The second half of the film takes place at his funeral, where many members of the community gather to debate his greatness and/or folly. Finely sculpted characters, a unique narrative structure, an inquiry into what constitutes our individual identity, and an unparalleled performance by Takashi Shimura make Ikiru an unforgettable film event.

3) Rashomon (1950)
Rashomon features several breakthrough ideas on film narrative and structure. The movie opens amid the ruins of Rashomon, a palace once occupied during the great era of warlords. The beggars that find shelter there swap stories and we become the audience of a tale of the rape and murder of a princess. When the suspects appear at a trial, the story is told through the multiple perspectives of its participants.

4) Ran (1985)
Based on Shakespeare’s King Lear, Kurosawa has his great warlord divide his province between his three sons to fatal consequences for all. Ran is perhaps one of Kurosawa’s most well-known film by American audiences and received several academy awards for its stunning art direction and costumes.

5) Yojimbo (1961)
Great music and comic action drive this follow-up to Seven Samurai, and forms a companion piece to Kurosawa’s Sanjuro (1962). Fans of John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven will find the original model to retain all of the psychological intrigue and action of its western-styled descendant.

6) Stray Dog (1949)
Kurosawa often instigates his more successful character studies by turning the world of his protagonist upside down. In the unforgettable Iriru, the central character discovers he has stomach cancer and will enjoy precious little remaining time on earth. In High and Low, a rich businessman’s life careens toward disaster when his son is kidnapped by greedy corporate extortionists. In Stray Dog, a young detective (played by Toshiro Mifune in his first film with Kurosawa) leaves a crowded streetcar on a miserably hot day only to find his gun has been pick-pocketed. As in Ikiru, this existential crisis forces our hero to hit the seedy streets of Tokyo in search of his weapon, or his symbolic identity. Echoing noir classics like The Big Sleep, once detective Murakami penetrates the criminal underworld a whole new swarm of crimes unfold as Mifune descends further and further into psychological and social chaos.

7) Throne of Blood (1957)
This powerful adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth set in the tradition of Japan’s Noh Theater may be one of the greatest readings of the bard’s oeuvre. Kurosawa re-imagines Macbeth as Isuzu Yamada (acted miraculously, as always, by Mifune), a brave knight fighting to protect Spider’s Castle. While returning to from battle to receive a medal of valor, a forest spirit foretells his future and the rest is the stuff of history – warrior kills king and becomes king only to be killed by another warrior who takes the throne for himself.

Brilliant photography exploits Kurosawa’s insistence on shooting the majority of the film in extreme fog, which ideally underlines the idea that the land itself is closing in on the mad warrior. The final scene, where arrows rain down on the dying warlord, is one of the more celebrated (and imitated) endings in cinema.

Re: Great Directors - The Films of Luis Bunuel

Re: Great Directors

The Films of Luis Bunuel
Bunuel’s movies are rarely easy to summarize or categorize. His career as director scans several decades and due to the strikingly original nature of his work, many are considered without compare. It would be hard today to find a film that could be confused with Exterminating Angel, L’Age D’or, or The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisies. Luis Bunuel is acknowledged (along with Andre Breton and others) as being one of the founders of surrealism – a style that informs all of his work in unique and unpredictable ways. Bunuel’s writings, while not widely read, range from surrealist fragments to insightful expressions of criticism for film and the theater along with his autobiographical musings. Highly influential and yet rarely imitated (successfully), Bunuel’s movies were created in many countries, as the maverick filmmaker seemed to find it difficult to call anywhere his home for very long. Financial support for his work varied from year to year and from place to place, and yet he was able to make strikingly original movies on several continents for comparably far less money than many of his more celebrated peers.

1) Un Chien Andaldou (1929)
Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali proclaim the death of rationality in this short film that has earned its rightful exalted place at the dawn of the surrealist movement. One of the most oft-quoted works in the history of film, movie-goers have seen many of the famous images without ever seeing the work as a whole. Eyes are sliced open by razors, flowers and stigmata appear in the hands of angels, and buildings burn to ash with the same detached level of observation. The editing allows the images to move quickly, as if a great host of scenarios were passing on a speeding train of light.

2) Los Olvidados (1950)
Los Olvidados stands as one of the most visionary of all Bunuel films, and is one of several undying masterpieces from his Mexico City period (1940’s – 1950’s). A viewing of the film today reveals its influence on an entire new genre of movies that might include Amores Perros, Ratcatcher, George Washington, Elephant, and City of God.

Translated to English as The Forgotten Ones, Los Olvidados received scathing criticism from the Mexican film industry. Friends close to Bunuel also complained of the portrayal of impoverished youth struggling to create social order and resist a criminal life on the streets of Mexico City. In a style remnant of Italian neo-realism at one turn and, during the nightmare dream sequences, producing effects that recall his surrealist collaborations with Salvador Dali, Bunuel handles the children’s violent deeds while refraining from romanticizing or criticizing his subject. He refuses to answer the questions that accompany the social problems inherent in the movie, which frees the film from unwanted moralizing or the urge to provide a happy ending.

Bunuel is said to have spent a great deal of time in the capital city’s slums befriending the criminal youth (Stephen Hart – Bunuel’s Box of Subaltern Tricks ©2004), and the result is not unlike Larry Clark’s 1995 shockumentary, Kids. 54 years after its creation, Los Olvidados haunts us with images of children relying on little other than their courage to survive life on the streets.

3) The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz (1955)
On the eve of the Mexican Revolution, young Archibaldo de la Cruz believes that he has wished the death of his nanny while contemplating his mother’s music box. Moving to “the present”, the film hovers from flashback to present tense, where Senior de la Cruz is confessing a myriad of imagined crimes, all tenderly illuminated by Augustin Jimenez’ crisp photography and shuffled along with some of Bunuel’s most deftly satirical and comic romps. The music box becomes Sr. de la Cruz’s principal fetish, which accompanies, (and re-kindles) his penchant for murdering women. Will he conquer his obsessions and get the girl? If so, how do we define “get”…check it out and see for yourself.

4) Nazarin (1959)
One of the most beautifully photographed of all Bunuel films, Nazarin captures the harsh Mexican landscape for a tale of a turn-of-the century wandering cleric who has shed his priest’s garmentsin hopes of comforting the poor, free from the Church’s chastising shadow. He is accompanied by two desperate women and an assortment of life’s outcasts. His is a Christlike effort, to wring charity out of a peasantry locked in the absurd cruelty of their environment, but also locked into the very material reality of being human. (PFA guide)

5) The Exterminating Angel (1962)
This film holds a special place in my heart as it is the confessed all-time favorite film of Don Van Vliet (Captain Beffheart). The cream of Mexican society gather for a meal only to find themselves mysteriously held captive by nothing other than their own inexplicable anxieties in this utterly unique meditation on class and meaninglessness.

6) Belle du Jour (1967)
Catherine Deneuve descends into the subconscious of the upper middle-class and turns idle afternoons into a foray of prostitution and sexual perversion in order to exorcize a few of her formative demons in this hypnotic examination of power and sex. An obvious influence on films like Barbet Schroeder’s Maitrese, Polanski’s Repulsion and many others.

7) The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972)
In Luis Buñuel’s deliciously satiric masterpiece, an upper-class sextet sits down to dinner but never eats, their attempts continually thwarted by a vaudevillian mixture of events both actual and imagined. Fernando Rey, Stéphane Audran, Delphine Seyring, and Jean-Pierre Cassel head the extraordinary cast of this 1972 Oscar winner for Best Foreign Film. (Summary: The Criterion Collection)

Cine Mexico at Film Forum & PFA

Cine Mexico
Featured at Film Forum (NYC) Summer 2004, and at Pacific Film Archive (Berkeley) Winter 2004.

Many American viewers are unaware of the great tradition of filmmaking in Mexico and how that industry has reflected its society’s idealism and proud cultural heritage from its historical origins to the present. Cine Mexico showed moviegoers that Mexican cinema has paralleled many of the stylistic penchants that have driven countless Hollywood classics – from “western” styled folkloric pieces to Peliculas Romanticos, and absurdist comedies that rival the adventures of the Marx Brothers.

Here is a short list of some of the memorable films I caught at Film Forum and PFA. Many of these are available on VHS, but have not ye**.3*t made the transfer to DVD. I borrowed a few descriptions from the PFA reader’s guide and those entries are marked accordingly.

1) That’s the Point (1940)
This is the film that established the comedian Cantinflas as a superstar – the Charlie Chaplin of Spanish-language films. But where Chaplin used silence, Cantinflas’s urban vagabond, the pelidito, confronts the arrogance and hypocrisy of the Mexican middle-class with words – lots of them, brilliantly woven into a web of semantic confusion. (PFA)

2) Tender Little Pumpkins (1948)
A botched suicide attempt leads to a veritable conga line of comic events in this delightful musical starring Tin Tan – the Mexican equivalent of Jerry Lewis. (PFA)

3) Aventurera (1949)
Moody melodramas known as rumberas were, like their heroines on screen, socially condemned by the middle class only to become forbidden pleasures for their cult following. Aventurera is considered the epitome of the genre and features a dynamic performance by the Cuban rumba dancer Ninon Sevilla, the queen of the cabareteras, cast successfully against Andrea Palma. (PFA)

4) Miroslava (1993)
Miroslava is about a woman whose life was so much larger than the life she had to be a movie star. Considered one of the most beautiful actresses in Mexican cinema history, Miroslava acted in about two dozen films before committing suicide in 1955 at the age of 25. (PFA)

5) Frida (1984)
I much preferred Paul Leduc’s Frida to Julie Taymor’s recent effort. Where Taymor rushed you through her smorgasbord of color, image and flesh, Leduc allows you to float effortlessly in Frida’s interior worlds. Subtlety and grace are the operating principles in illuminating the serious detachment needed for Frida Kahlo to find her unique and delightfully disturbing vision. (PG)

6) Illusion Travels by Streetcar (1954)
One of Luis Bunuel’s Mexico City chronicles, Illusion posits a revolutionary manifesto as two streetcar workers hijack one of their repair subjects and give unbridled service to the sprawling metropolis. A cleverly funny look at the absurdity of bureaucracy, Illusion takes the neo-realistic aims of the Bicycle Thief and couples it with a logic that would have pleased Eugene Ionesco. (PG)

7) Danzon (1991)
Set in Mexico City and Veracruz, Maria Novaro’s 1991 dreamy tale is a road movie led by an unlikely heroine. Maria Rojo plays Julia, who leaves Mexico City to search for her long-term dance partner, Carmello. Inciting a delicate character study that would satisfy fans of Central Station, Danzon casts Julia to the dancehalls of Veracruz, where she meets characters that could have easily graced the early films of Pedro Almaldovar (but without the forced hyper-anxieties). Filled from end to end with exquisite music, most of which is performed by groups on screen, Danzon is an endearing character study packed with compassion for the human experience and the subtle epiphanies of a woman in pursuit of liberation and self-discovery. (PG)