Where Forgotten Films Dwell

Welcome to this site! It exists for one reason: to preserve the memory of films that have been forgotten about or under-appreciated throughout the ages. Take a seat, read an entry, leave a comment. You might discover your new favorite movie!

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Něco z Alenky (Alice)

Directed by Jan Švankmajer

Originally written in 1865 by Charles Lutwidge Dodgson under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll, the tales of Alice in Wonderland have become one of the most famous and influential fantasy stories ever published. It has inspired countless writers and become a magnificent cultural force to be reckoned with. But it has also been a magnificent inspiration to the world of cinema. To date, there have been 20 film adaptations, four of which were animated, three silent, three made for television, and two musicals. The most famous is the 1951 animated Disney film, whose versions of the characters have become so ingrained in the mind of the public that they have become the default interpretations. But in some ways, it isn’t the best. It is probably the most approachable to both children and adults, but it seems watered down to those familiar with the original story. The countless riddles and social commentary that popularized the original stories were replaced by happy-go-lucky song sequences. There is never a real stranger in a strange land vibe as Alice is more than happy to dive right into the bizarre aspects of Wonderland. That is why the best film adaptation of the Alice in Wonderland stories was done by Jan Švankmajer, a Czech surrealist. His film, who’s translated title is simply Alice, does the best job of interpreting the story and bringing Wonderland to life with all of its bizarre and terrible occupants.

Švankmajer is known throughout the film world as one of the true pioneers of animation. His work has inspired people from Tim Burton to Terry Gilliam. But how, and why? The key to this answer can be found by exploring Alice, which was also his first full length film. In it, he combines real life actors with stop motion animation. Alice, played by Kristýna Kohoutová, is an ordinary, if not bored, little girl living in the countryside. She sits in her room one day throwing stones into a little cup of tea to pass the time. But this stops when a stuffed rabbit in a glass case comes to life, pulling the nails out of his feet and breaking out of his enclosure. He pulls a watch out of a long cut in his stomach where he had previously been stuffed. Wiping the sawdust off the watch, he utters the infamous words, “Oh no! I shall be late!” But he doesn’t say it. A large pair of lips and white teeth appears on the screen and narrates his dialogue. In fact, whenever there is any dialogue, even from Alice, the same mouth appears and speaks the lines.

But we have barely entered the surrealist rabbit hole. Or, in the case of Alice, we have a bottomless cabinet in the middle of a desert that functions as an elevator. That’s right. The rabbit runs off-screen from Alice’s room to appear in a desert. He dives into the shelf in the cabinet. Alice runs into the same desert and crawls into the tiny shelf only to be deposited in a cramped space that begins to go down into the ground. She sees glances of other floors littered with oddities from the mid Nineteenth century like old bug collections, jars of eyes, and dusty wooden toys. She finally stops only to be dropped off in a smaller room with a plate of cookies on a table.

From here, those familiar with the story of Alice in Wonderland will know what happens next. She goes about meeting strange characters and personalities. She rendezvous with the White Rabbit, the Mad Hatter, the March Hare, the Caterpillar, and the Red Queen. The Cheshire Cat appears to be missing, but we don’t really notice. Alice consumes different things and shrinks/grows. And we, as the audience, feel completely disoriented with the proceedings. But there is something different in Švankmajer’s approach to the story and characters.

It establishes its own rules and then breaks them. The tarts which in one scene make her bigger make her shrink in another. Spatial relationships are developed and ignored, such as the scene where her tears fill a room, spill out, and then become a river. Laying in the water, we notice that the room has disappeared. Where did it go? Where does the water keep coming from?

But the key element that makes Švankmajer’s interpretation of Alice in Wonderland so unique are the characters. None of them look anything like how we have come to expect them. Well, the White Rabbit does, but there isn’t a lot of room for interpretation concerning a white rabbit. But Švankmajer goes about with glee, twisting and distorting the popular characters until they seem like lurid dreams or nightmares. Most of Wonderland’s inhabitants are small creatures comprised of junk and dead animals. There are birds with bird legs, creatures with stuffed bodies but pearly animal skulls, and raw chunks of sentient meat. Startled yet? Well I haven’t even begun to describe the regular characters.

The White Rabbit and Friends

The March Hare is a wind-up toy that constantly must be rewound. The Mad Hatter is a garish wooden puppet that doesn’t so much drink his tea as he spills it all over his beard. The Caterpillar is a sock with glass eyes that chews holes into wooden floors and convinces Alice’s socks to try and escape. And I leave you to discover how Švankmajer interprets the Queen of Hearts and her servants.

The Caterpillar

So why is this version of Alice in Wonderland so superior to all other adaptations? It is probably because it does its source material justice. The original stories were shocking and intriguing. When they are simply adapted to the screen, those familiar with the stories will know what is coming, and therefore not be as terrified. But Švankmajer doesn’t give his audience, especially those who know the story, any such comfort. Alice is as shocking and hallucinatory as the first novel. Is it for children? Probably not. Is it for adults? Maybe. That is, if they want to see how far down into Švankmajer’s mind they are ready to go. Just don’t expect it to be a comfortable, or relaxing, trip.


Wednesday, May 26, 2010

La Coquille et le Clergyman (The Seashell and the Clergyman)

Directed by Germaine Dulac

The film is so cryptic as to be almost meaningless. If there is a meaning, it is doubtless objectionable.” – British Board of Film Censors

Before Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí challenged the world with their one-two punch of Un Chien Andalou (1929) and L'Âge d'Or (1930), there was another film that proved that the worlds of surrealism and the cinema were perfect bed partners. It was a bold, confusing film that makes as much sense now as it did back when it premiered: none. To be sure, there are established characters and a general storyline, but these are quickly forgotten by the audience as the film casts its strangely hypnotic spell. The film in question was the notorious The Seashell and the Clergyman, directed by Germaine Dulac and based off an original scenario by Antonin Artaud, a famous French playwright. When it premiered in Paris on February 9, 1928, it caused a massive uproar and scandal. It was so controversial that it made Artaud insult Dulac at the premier, reportedly calling her a cow.

So how can one describe such a film? Certainly it should not be described chronologically through its narrative, as other films would be. That would be just as effective as giving a plot synopsis of Un Chien Andalou. You might explain what happens on the screen, but the purpose, the method, and the intent would be entirely lost on the reader. So perhaps we should begin with a quote from Artaud himself, “It's a film of pure images. The Seashell and the Clergyman does not tell a story but develops a series of mental states, which are deduced from each other as thought is from thought.”

And what are these mental states? What purpose do they have? Probably the best answer can be drawn from the film’s opening shots. We see a clergyman with a key walking down a dark hallway where he unlocks a door. Through the door is another dark hallway. He walks down it and unlocks another door. Behind it is…another dark hallway with another locked door. While this may seem mindlessly repetitive, it probably is the key to the very nature of the film. The hallways represent our minds and the doors are our inhibitions. The film is the key and the clergyman the director. By watching, we are opening ourselves up to new ways to see and interpret the world.

From here we receive a puzzling sequence of events. The clergyman encounters a soldier and a maiden in a checker-floored room only to chase them off-screen where they appear outside in a park. Why is he pursuing them? The film exposits that the clergyman is obsessed with the woman. But for what? Is he driven by some sexual urge? Maybe. But then again we see scenes where he imagines himself strangling her.

These are intermixed with visions of him traveling on the ocean aboard a Chinese junk to a volcanic island fortress. We then see the inside of a palace where housemaids are dusting a massive scrying ball wherein the clergyman’s face appears. It would seem obvious that the palace itself is inside the volcanic island. But maybe it isn’t. One shouldn’t be surprised if they were simply two juxtaposed images that our minds subconsciously connect with each other.

Other scenes involve an alchemist’s lab where the soldier steals a bowl of mercury, an exorcism where the soldier flails his sword about while the clergyman crawls across the floor, and a street where the clergyman creeps after the girl. Later, he confronts the couple and seemingly transforms into a monster. In a strange point of view shot, he cracks and splits open his rival’s head only for it to repair itself. We then witness the clergyman throwing the soldier into the volcano. Afterwards he rips off the woman’s brassier and the film begins to stretch crazily as if somebody was switching camera lens. And then a shot of the bowl of mercury.

Was it all an illusion? Did it actually happen? The same can be said about the plots of Un Chien Andalou and L'Âge d'Or. Did anything happen at all? Some would say that The Seashell and the Clergyman was nothing but a random succession of images. After all, how many Chinese junks and volcanoes are there in France? But that isn’t the case. Dulac herself wrote, “My entire effort has been to search, in the action of Antonin Artaud's script, for harmonic points, and to link them through well thought out and composed rhythms. I can say that not one image of the Clergyman was delivered by chance.

So the viewers of The Seashell and the Clergyman are presented with the following: a series of almost incomprehensible images, bizarre characters, and unusual sets that combine to tell a story. What is that story? Is it a tale of a lusty priest? Quite possibly. After all, there was quite an anti-clerical bent in early surrealist cinema (one need only explore the works of Buñuel to know this). But I think that explanation is too easy. I believe that The Seashell and the Clergyman has an agenda for its audience. What that agenda entails is for the audience to figure out. Perhaps the story is meant to make no sense. Perhaps Dulac’s goal was to rework how we think. And just like the opening scenes, the film penetrates our subconscious, going deeper and deeper until we cannot see where we are going.

Part One of Three

Part Two of Three

Part Three of Three



Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Editor's Note: Two Surrealist Classics

Cinematic surrealism isn't all Buñuel and Cocteau, you know. There have been many influential artists who have delved into the world of surrealism in film. Many are not known for various reasons: some are overshadowed by such titans as Un Chien Andalou and L'Age d'Or, and others are simply forgotten about.

So get ready, readers. Over the next two days I'm going to hit you with two great surrealist classics that most people have never heard of.

The fun starts tomorrow.

I hope you will enjoy!

-The Editor
Nathanael Hood

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Editor's Note: Great News from Cannes

Well readers, the greatest film festival in the world has come to a close for the 63rd time. How was it? Well, according to Roger Ebert...it was pretty lukewarm. As he wrote on twitter: "Where are the basterds when you need them?"

But that's not to say that there were not some incredible films showing this year. Kiarostami, Loach, and Leigh, all past festival winners, were in full force this year. Unlike their European counterparts, most of the American productions, like Woody Allen's "You Will Meet a Tall, Dark Stranger," Oliver Stone's "Wall Street 2," and Ridley Scott's "Robin Hood," were shown out of competition. Only one American film was in competition for the Palme D'Or, Doug Liman's "Fair Game." I guess as an American I can't complain. After all, America took home two Golden Palms last decade. The point of international film festivals is to spread the love. Oh well, there is always next year...

But who are the winners?

Well, the infamous Palme D'Or was given to Thailand's "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives" by Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Allow me to indulge by quoting BBC News concerning the content of the movie. After all, I haven't seen it yet.

Directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, the winning film is about a dying man who is visited by his late wife and his missing son, who has become an ape...Suffering kidney failure, the character is visited by a selection of spiritual beings, both human and animal, as the director uses a dreamlike style to examine the themes of reincarnation and animism.

Weerasethakul gave what could be one of my favorite acceptance speeches in history, saying, "I would like to thank all the spirits and all the ghosts in Thailand who made it possible for me to be here."

I am personally shocked and amazed that he won. I am aware of his work, having seen "Mysterious Object at Noon," his first film. It was a bizarre, experimental film that I have no reservations in saying that I hated. But I did admire his tenacity and willingness to innovate. In all honesty, I distinctly remember the first time that I heard that he was entering a film into this year's festival. I saw his name on the list and I thought, "Wouldn't it be a hoot if he won?" And so, truthfully (would I ever lie to you?) I rooted for him in the back of my mind. I had no expectations for him to win. So I was gobsmacked when Weerasethakul won. Just proves how surprising life can be when you root for the underdog. So, hurrah for Weerasethakul and hurrah for Thailand, as this is the first time that the country has won a Golden Palm.

I have one more little note to add. The winner of the Un Certain Regard category (basically the films that were recognized as good enough to be in the festival but not good enough to compete for the Golden Palm) was South Korean director Hong Sang-soo's "HaHaHa." Why is this important? Because Hong Sang-soo was in a unique opportunity to be one of the first directors to win both of Cannes' top prizes, as he had a second film competing for the Palme d'Or. What film was it.

A little film entitled "The Housemaid."

That's right. One of this year's favorites for the Palme d'Or was a remake of the classic 1960 thriller, "The Housemaid." As in, the movie that I have previously written about on this site. So I would encourage all of you to do three things.

1) Read the review. It can be reached at this link:http://forgottenclassicsofyesteryear.blogspot.com/2009/11/housemaid.html

2) Watch the original. It can be watched for free at this link:

3) Keep an eye out for the remake. If your local theaters show it, see it. If worse comes to worse, download it. But only as a last resort!

So now we have a whole year ahead of us until the next Cannes Film Festival and I have a new list of movies that I need to see.

Guess it's time to get back to the grind and watch some more movies.

Life can be sweet sometimes.

-The Editor
Nathanael Hood

Thursday, May 20, 2010

少年 (Boy)

Directed by Nagisa Oshima

To the cinephile, there are certain Japanese directors that come to mind as celluloid titans: Kurosawa with his relentless innovation, Mizoguchi with his devout humanism, and Ozu with his patient wisdom. But there are other names that rocked the foundations of Japanese cinema that are not as familiar to Westerners, or even to their Japanese counterparts, such as Imamura, Teshigahara, Suzuki, and Nakahira. These are some of the members of the Japanese New Wave, or the Nuberu bagu from the French Nouvelle vague. Arising in the late 1950s and lasting throughout the early 1970s, the members of the Japanese New Wave represented an explosion of cinematic experimentation and innovation. Arising from Japanese movie studios, the directors of the Japanese New Wave were committed to questioning, critiquing, and deconstructing social conventions. Shohei Imamura shocked audiences by delving into the private and public lives of the dregs of Japanese society such as prostitutes, pornographers, and murderers. Seijun Suzuki, a master of low-budget genre films, was eventually fired from his movie studio for making “incomprehensible films” that confused audiences but would go on to inspire the likes of Quentin Tarantino and Jim Jarmusch. Hiroshi Teshigahara gained international acclaim for his avant-garde shorts and experimental feature films. But of all the Japanese New Wave directors, none were as notorious or influential as the legendary Nagisa Oshima.

Oshima was one of the most prolific directors of the Japanese New Wave and one of the few to have internationally successful films. Unlike his Japanese New Wave brethren, Oshima’s roots are more similar to those of the French New Wave. He began his career as an analytical film critic who later sat in the director’s chair. His first few movies reflected his opinions as a film critic. His second film, A Cruel Story of Youth (1960), is often compared to Godard’s Breathless (1960) and Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959). But as his career progressed, he started to move away from filmmaking that was intended to revolutionize the industry and began to make films that, like the work of other Japanese New Wave directors, were intended to challenge Japanese social norms. Night and Fog in Japan (1960) scrutinized Japanese political and social movements. Death by Hanging (1968) was a Brechtian examination of the Japanese legal system and racism towards ethnically Korean Japanese. His most famous film, In the Realm of the Senses (1976), was a controversial (many would even call it pornographic) look into the sexual lives of two outcasts from Japanese society.

But one film that frequently gets overlooked is the powerful and heartbreaking Boy (1969). Different from all of his other films, it was a devastating look into the life of a young boy who is forced into a life of crime by his family. Similar to In the Realm of the Senses, it was based off real events that Oshima read about in Japanese newspapers. In 1966 a family was arrested for traveling all over Japan and faking getting hit by cars only to swindle money from the unfortunate drivers. The family gained notoriety for frequently making their son pretend to be the victim of their staged pedestrian collisions. Within ten days of reading the article, Oshima had constructed a team to make a film adaptation of the story.

Oshima was always a stylistic chameleon. Unlike his compatriots, who could usually be defined by set of established stylistic tendencies, Oshima changed his techniques as he moved from film to film. Night and Fog in Japan was dominated by long takes and beautiful widescreen compositions, Violence at Noon (1966) used extensive jump cuts (like Godard did in Breathless), and Pleasures of the Flesh (1965) played like a soft-core “pink film.” So how would one describe Boy? My best approximation is that it feels like an Ozu on fast forward. It is a deliberately paced film that doesn’t rush itself, even during the car accident scenes. Each frame seems like a carefully constructed photograph. But instead of featuring his characters as the heart of his compositions, Oshima uses his constructions to isolate his characters. They are rarely in the center of the frame and instead dwell at the top, bottom, or sides of the frames. They are frequently shot in wide areas such as streets, country sides, and by the end the frozen wastelands of northern Hokkaido that make them seem small, or diminutive. This serves to remind the audience that this criminal family is isolated from regular society.

Much like a film by Ozu, Boy centers on the social dynamics of the family. The father is as abusive veteran of the Second World War. He dominates his family and has trained them to be able to skip town at a drop of a hat. The mother is a loving parent, but is frequently powerless against the whims of her husband. Against her judgment, she is forced into using her oldest son as the fall person in their scams after she gets pregnant. It is obvious that she wants more out of life, but is unable to escape from her family. Whether her decision to not abandon the family is derived from genuine love for her children or from her feelings of responsibility as a wife and mother is unclear. All that we are certain of it that she is not in control of her life.

But the true star of the film is Toshio, the young boy who must pretend getting hit by cars. Played by real life orphan Tetsuo Abe, he gives one of the greatest child performances ever committed to the screen. A product of a broken childhood, Abe brings an unusual life to his character. Toshio obviously hates his life and what his family makes him do. In fact, he runs away from his family several times. But each time he returns to them. Caught up between what he wants and his love for his family, particularly his infant brother, he is unable to exist by himself. He needs his family and works to protect them, even after they are captured by the police at the end of the film.

Easily the most endearing relationship in the film is between Toshio and his younger brother. In three key scenes, one on a boat, one on an airplane, and one in a snowy field, we see the true love and affection between the brothers. Toshio entertains his brother by teaching him words and telling him fantastical stories. One such story is of aliens from the Andromeda galaxy who will one day fly down to earth and destroy all of the evil people. Is Toshio talking about his mother and father? It’s impossible to know. But these scenes are among the most powerful in Oshima’s

Eventually, the family is captured by the police in Hokkaido. They are captured for two reasons. First, they are photographed by the police after one of their victims refuses to pay them to keep the incident quiet. This allows for the family to be recognized by the authorities from all over Japan. The second is because they literally have nowhere else to run, as they have pulled their scheme all over Japan and Hokkaido is the last place where they won’t be recognized by the police or the hospital staff. In one telling scene, the family stands at the northern most part of Japan where they read a sign that describes the intersection of the oceans surrounding Japan. They have literally reached the end. But even after they are captured, Toshio refuses to cooperate with the police. But why?

To understand the answer, one must first understand why Oshima made the film. He always enjoyed making films about Japanese society’s outcasts. So a family of criminals would obviously inspire Oshima. But what is Oshima trying to accomplish with Boy? Is it to demonstrate that even outcasts can band together and take care of one another? Is it a satire of Japanese social mores where even an abused boy cannot betray his family? Or is it like Toshio’s story about the aliens from Andromeda in that it is just a piece of fantasy? Perhaps it is all of these things. Then again, perhaps it is none of them. That is the genius of Oshima. Some films can be figured out, their symbols decoded, and their characters’ motivations identified and analyzed. But Boy seems to defy these answers. Maybe that was Oshima’s reason for making it. It depicts the contradictions and hypocrisies of a society where people cannot escape from the bonds that define them, even when it threatens their well-being. So in a way, Boy is one of Oshima’s most political films. It may not have Brechtian overtones or the other attributes that made his films so notorious, but Boy is just as rebellious and defiant as anything that Oshima ever made. It is up to the audience to figure out how and why.


Tuesday, May 18, 2010

絞死刑 (Death by Hanging)

Directed by Nagisa Ōshima

In a small building next to a Japanese prison, we witness an execution. Sanctioned by the Japanese government, the condemned, a man by the name of “R,” is scheduled to be hanged by the neck until dead. His crime was the rape and murder of two women. We see all the steps of the highly bureaucratic process that R must pass through: the last rites, the inquiry concerning if he has a will, the last meal of fruit and cakes, the last cup of tea, and one final cigarette. As is expected, everything is carried out with military proficiency. The only thing that breaks the calm of the proceedings is the shaking of R’s body. But even that falls silent after the trapdoor opens up beneath him and his body takes the fatal plunge. But as the narrator explains, something goes wrong. R’s body rejects his death. Somehow, R survives being hanged for seventeen minutes. Such is the opening of Death by Hanging, one of Japanese cinema’s most challenging and unique films. Directed by Nagisa Oshima, that great cinematic iconoclast of the same ilk as Jean-Luc Godard, it is a stunning examination of free will, guilt, justice, and ethnic prosecution.

The plight of R, an ethnic Korean living in Japan, leads to great mayhem and confusion within the ranks of the prison staff. Should he be hanged again until he is dead? Do they have the right to hang an unconscious man? These are just some of the questions thrown around in the opening minutes of the film. When R is successfully revived, he does not have any memory of his crimes or of himself. Labeled as amnesia by the resident doctor, R’s condition only further complicates things. One guard is quick to point out, “He must realize his guilt is being justly punished. That’s the true, moral, ethical purpose: It’s not just a matter of killing him.” Another guard disagrees, only for the chaplain who administered the last rites to cut in and say that his soul has already departed and it would be a sin to kill the empty body. But another guard suggests that they should try and restore his memory. If he remembers who he is and what he has done, then they can hang him again.

But perhaps recounting every single argument contained within each scene is the wrong approach for explaining this film. To do so would entail a summary of every single philosophical idea that is put forth by the characters. And, much like the characters in a Dostoyevsky novel, the people who inhabit Death by Hanging spend their screen time discoursing on philosophy, morality, politics, and religion. It is the methods that these officials use to restore R’s memory that must be examined. Their methods will range from the rational to the absurd, from the hilarious to the horrifying. But that is Oshima’s genius: by examining the method we get a clearer picture of the killer’s (and society’s) motivations. To comprehend the why, we must first explore the how.

And what is Oshima’s method? The opening scene where we witness R’s execution is filmed like a tightly knit documentary. But as soon as we learn that R has survived his execution, the entire tone of the film changes. From here, Oshima propels the film into the waters of pure fantasy. He begins using techniques originally employed by the great German playwright Bertolt Brecht, who pioneered the concept of “epic theater,” which believed that theater should not cause the audience to identify or emotionally connect with the characters or actions before them. Instead, Brecht believed that the theater should cause the audience to undergo “rational self-reflection” which would lead them to form a critical view of the action before them. Oshima, a committed leftist, immediately challenges the audience at the beginning of Death by Hanging by introducing the audience to a survey which says that a large majority of Japanese people support the death penalty. He then has his narrator ask the audience how many of them have actually witnessed an execution. It is obvious that in Death by Hanging, Oshima has a clear agenda.

Another attribute of Brecht’s “epic theater” was called Verfremdungseffekt, which roughly translates as a “defamiliarization effect.” Essentially, this entailed that the playwright must make sure that the audience remembers that they are watching a play which involved, as Brecht himself wrote, “stripping the event of its self-evident, familiar, obvious quality and creating a sense of astonishment and curiosity about them.” One such method to achieve this end is the use of explanatory placards on stage. Oshima transposes this technique onto the screen by using seven intertitles that inform the audience about what is about to happen. They alienate the audience and force them to take an active part in observing the actions.

But perhaps I have given a bad impression of this film as a cold, surgical assault on the audience. I’m not denying that it is, but it contains some of the darkest humor that has ever graced the cinema. Also a Brechtian concept, the film’s dark humor underscores the absurdity of the situation and places the audience into a state of contempt for the authority figures. The best examples of dark humor in Death by Hanging involve the various prison and government officials trying to reenact R’s crime so that his memory will be restored. They play rape and kill each other in front of R’s stoic face all while trying to maintain their dignity as government officials. The climax of these reenactments comes when one of the officials decides that the resident priest would make the best innocent victim and attempts to rape him. Another scene involves the officials taking R to the scene of his crime, a high school, where they try to reenact the crime with a local school girl. When the officer who is reenacting the crime gets too carried away, he accidentally kills the school girl, causing the officials to flee from the roof.

But perhaps the most memorable example of Brechtian dark humor comes at about the middle of the movie where the officials try to recreate R’s home environment, hoping that it will jog his memory. In a tiny room covered with newspapers, they try to act out the various characters in R’s family. They cavort around complaining how hard life is and how miserable they are. But then a voice is heard, “Make it more Korean.” The officials pause for a moment, and then they continue their recreation by indulging in the crudest Japanese stereotypes concerning Korean immigrants. They twist and shout on the floor, screaming like madmen, making obscene gestures towards their genitals, and act like imbeciles. Predictably, this does nothing to restore R’s memory. But it isn’t a total lost, not for the audience at least. This scene draws attention to the other major theme in Death by Hanging: the trials and tribulations of ethnic Koreans living in Japan.

What many don’t know is that the character R from Death by Hanging was based on a real person. His name was Ri Chin’u, an ethnic Korean who murdered two Japanese school girls in 1958. Despite his crimes, Chin’u was a very intelligent young man whose writings where he confessed and wrote about his crimes were later compiled into a collection entitled Crime, Death, and Love. Much of it was comprised of a correspondence with Bok Junan, a Korean journalist who held sympathies to North Korea. Oshima, a great fan of Chin’u (he believed that his writing was so good that it deserved to be included in high school textbooks), incorporated these discussions into Death by Hanging by including a character who claimed to be R’s sister. She attempts to convince R that his crimes were justified by Korean nationalism and that they were fair retribution against an enemy that had killed untold numbers of Koreans in past imperialistic expeditions. But when R rejects her, she says that she cannot accept him anymore out of her duty as a Korean. Of course, after her outbursts concerning the evils of Japan, she is quickly hanged by the prison guards.

R is depicted as a man in the midst of a struggle that he can never escape from. When he eventually regains his memory, he states that he should not be hanged on the grounds that it would make his executioners murderers. Of course, earlier in the film it is revealed that most of the guards took place in the invasion of Korea. They took great pleasures in remembering how they would kill up to fifty Korean civilians at a time. So R’s plea does not convince them to let him go. But his prosecutor curiously agrees with R’s reasoning and lets him try to leave the execution building. When he tries to leave, he is taken aback by an intense burst of light. It becomes obvious that as a Korean he will never be accepted by the Japanese. So R is stuck in the midst of two dilemmas: the morality of execution and his role as an ethnic Korean. Eventually, he is hanged again. But when his body falls through the hole in the floor, his body disappears, leaving an empty noose. What does this symbolize? Does it mean that as a man who can have no identity in Japanese society he doesn’t exist? Or does it mean that as a Korean he is impervious to the whims of the Japanese government. In a final Brechtian sweep, Oshima leaves the conflict unresolved and open for interpretation by the audience.

Death by Hanging is a devastating cinematic enigma. It can be interpreted in countless ways, and yet the audience always seems to be conscious of Oshima’s agenda. In Death by Hanging, Oshima creates a bizarre world of fantasy and reality, where people are killed only to appear alive in the adjacent scene and men are defined by the society that dominates them. Perhaps Death by Hanging is a riddle that never can, or ever should, be solved. After all, if there was a clear answer, then the audience would be free from having to draw their own conclusions. That is Oshima’s master stroke: a movie that forces people to think, not to feel. After all, is there anything more dangerous than a public that reacts emotionally instead of calmly and rationally? Only by thinking can we achieve the society that Oshima, and even Chin’u, wanted. Whether or not that is a good thing, well, that is also up to the audience.

Nagisa Oshima


Monday, May 17, 2010

Note from the Editor: We're on Flattr!!

Hello readers!

Great news! This site is now a proud member of Flattr!

What is Flattr, you ask? Well, it's a new online based method for making mircopayments to sites that you like! Basically, it's like favoriting a video on youtube, except when you favorite it, the maker gets paid! I am extremely excited about this! To explain, please watch the following helpful video!

To become a member, go to their website at flattr.com.

This is a great way to support this site and make sure that it can keep operating. Plus, with more money I will be able to get more obscure and unheard of movies, which means more reviews!

Look for the flattr button on this site!

-Nathanael Hood

Friday, May 14, 2010

Note from the Editor: Brief Break

Hello readers,

I have some bad news. I am currently being treated for a medical disorder that has plagued me since childhood. As a result, I will be unable to write reviews for some time. I will return to writing on this blog on May 18.

Nathanael Hood

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Bab el Hadid (Cairo Station)

Directed by Youssef Chahine

After an original screening of Cairo Station in 1958, it is reported that a man spat in the face of its director, Youssef Chahine, saying, “You have given Egypt a bleak image.” A film about a degenerate who kills women as a result of fits of rage brought on by sexual frustration, it was unlike anything the country of Egypt had ever seen before. Until then, Egyptian cinema had been defined by feel good movies that presented mindless escapism for the masses. But here was a film that dared to explore the darker side of human nature and carnal desire. By today’s standards, it is very tame. There is no explicit sex and there is only one on-screen murder. But it was still provocative enough to enrage Egyptian society. The country’s critics condemned it as a blight on Egyptian cinema. The film was then banned for twenty years. It was only when it was shown in foreign film festivals two decades later that the world began to realize the film’s sheer genius. Now, the film that was originally hated and banned in its home country is recognized as one of its finest.

The film centers around a simple-minded newspaper-seller named Kenaoui (played by the director Chahine) who works at a Cairo train station. By all standards, he is a degenerate, a sexual deviant who obsesses over sex, but cannot get it. Indeed, when we first meet him we find him being asked for a telephone token by a pretty girl. A point of view shot informs us that he barely heard her. All he can do is stare longingly at her beautiful legs. But he does more than just ogle women on the platform. Back home in his beaten down shack out on the tracks, he cuts out scantily clad women from the newspapers that he is supposed to be selling. He creates a kind of disturbing museum exhibition of cut-out women on his walls which he hungrily stares at all day.

His desire is fueled by Hanuma, a beautiful woman that he wishes to marry. She makes her living illegally selling drinks to passengers on trains. In his shack, he draws drink baskets on the pictures of women so they will resemble her. In his mind, they are the perfect couple. But in reality, she is engaged to Abu Serib, a porter who is desperately trying to set up a union. Despite her engagement to Abu Serib, she takes great pleasure in leading Kenaoui on. Played by Hind Rostom, one of the great Egyptian sex symbols of the 1950s, she is a whirlwind of ravishing cruelty. Consider the scene by a giant fountain where Kenaoui confesses his love for her. He gives her his mother’s solid gold necklace, a priceless heirloom, as a wedding present. Her reaction is to flippantly say that it is fake. Unfazed, Kenaoui tells her of the life that they could share and how hard he would work to provide for her. With a sinister smile she listens until she cannot restrain herself anymore and rebukes him.

As he is teased by Hanuma, his behavior becomes more and more erratic. He begins to fantasize that they live together and attacks a cat that he believes is mocking him. Reports start to come in that different women have been brutally murdered and decapitated all over the city. These rumors seem like mere gossip, at least until Kenaoui beings to cut up the women on his walls. It is revealed that he is the killer who murders when his sexual frustration gets to a boiling point. In one of the film’s best scenes, he attacks a female worker at the station with a gigantic knife. The film utilizes dramatic and swift editing during the murder scene as the camera shifts back and forth between killer, victim, knife, and a barking dog that happened to be nearby. This kind of furious editing predated the infamous shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho by two years. To say that it influenced Hitchcock is nonsense, as he would have had no way of seeing it after it was banned in Egypt. But the similarities are unbelievably uncanny.

In fact, the similarities with Hitchcock are abundant. Take one scene where Kenaoui watches a crate with the body of his victim being carried by porters onto a train. Several times, the workers almost open it up to reveal the body. They struggle with it, commenting how unusually heavy it is. It is reminiscent of the famous scene in the cellar from Notorious (1946) where Ingrid Bergman knocks over a bottle containing uranium. Both scenes play with the audience, taunting them with dangers that get closer and closer until we cannot take it anymore.

Another similarity is the character of Kenaoui. He can be interpreted as a mixture between Norman Bates (Psycho) and John Ferguson (Vertigo). He is a madman, like Bates, who is driven to kill by his own neurosis. And much like Ferguson, he is driven forward by an obsession with a beautiful woman. Just as Ferguson tried to possess a dead woman by making another dress up just like her, hair color and all, Kenaoui tries to possess Hanuma. He becomes so obsessed by her that his rejection leads him to lose his mind.

Cairo Station is an amazingly complex film, but it doesn’t feel like one. It isn’t bogged down by its own plot as many intricate thrillers are. Instead, it moves with a lively energy that gives the film a life of its own. Notice how in the opening scenes the editing cuts only last long enough for the characters to deliver their lines before the camera is whisked away somewhere else. It is as if the film itself is mimicking the hustle and bustle of the train station. The plot takes time to develop each character, but we never feel like we are watching needless exposition. This is a tightly crafted, expertly executed film.

Great films need great directors. Cairo Station was blessed with one of Egypt’s greatest directors, Chahine, at its helm. During his career that spanned over four decades, he established himself as one of Egypt’s most active, controversial, and talented directors. While he constantly evolved as a director, one thing remained the same during his career: his love for his country. Born a Christian, Chahine would distance himself from organized religion later in his life. When he was asked if he would identify his religious beliefs, he answered: Egyptian. It was with this mindset that Chahine created Cairo Station. It examines the difficulties and problems that plague Egypt’s society, such as rampant sexual repression. But at the end, the forces of good manage to stop Kenaoui before he can kill his beloved. It is a desperate cry that Egypt, flawed as it might be, can overcome its own problems and set a course for its own better future. How appropriate for a man who did so much to influence the course of cinematic history.

Part One of Cairo Station


Wednesday, May 5, 2010


Directed by Enzo G. Castellari

The Old West is a land entrenched with mythology. Stories of legendary gunslingers, fierce Indian braves, and ruthless cattle barons flood across the mind like ever present tumbleweeds making their lonely journey across the scorched desert. But the West wasn’t always interpreted as such a mysterious place. In America, the birth land of the Western, they usually were somewhat based in reality. There were, of course, understandable embellishments, but the Westerns of Ford, Hawks, and even Mann took place in world that could be perceived as our own. The Spaghetti Western changed all of this. Named “Spaghetti Westerns” because they were mostly produced and directed by Italians, they represented a niche genre of about 600+ films made from the mid-sixties to the late-seventies. Usually shot in cheap locales reminiscent of the American Southwest, such as the Andalusia region of Spain, they were low budget masterpieces of cinematic thrift and originality.

They were usually directed by Italians, populated by Spanish and Italian extras, and sometimes graced by the presence of a Hollywood star. Since the cast would speak several different languages on set, dialogue was sparse. The little talking that was provided would be dubbed into different languages in post-production. Thanks to the abundance of cheap Spanish and southern Italian extras, they frequently took place on the US/Mexico border. What they may have lacked in substance, they made up in style. Slow motion gun fights, creative cinematography, evocative music, and brooding protagonists were just some of the stylistic innovations that propelled Spaghetti Westerns into pulp greatness.

But more importantly, Spaghetti Westerns reinvented the genre with new themes and character archetypes. Suddenly, cowboys became objects of myth. In a heartbeat they would be able to kill six men with six bullets. Morality became distorted even more than in the James Stewart and Anthony Mann collaborations. The “heroes” became capable of being just as ruthless as the villains, since they were usually motivated by revenge. The most famous Spaghetti Westerns are the “Dollars Trilogy,” directed by Sergio Leone, scored by Ennio Morricone, and starring Clint Eastwood as the “Man with No Name.” They are seen as some of the first Spaghetti Westerns ever made.

If the “Dollars Trilogy” established the genre, then a small film entitled Keoma ended it. It wasn’t because it was a bad film. Instead, it acts as a kind of eulogy to a dying genre. It both celebrates the genre’s history and mourns its passing. In an incredible article on the film, author Danel Griffin writes:

“This knowledge of its own fate is ultimately what makes Keoma such a sad experience: Every tiniest detail here understands that it symbolizes a finished era in European cinema. The film’s characters are certainly lost in their personal sadness; its themes deal with impending death; its camera work, which often rests thoughtfully on a character’s conflicted face as its gloomy music plays, is slow and despairing.”

Truly, this is a film that pulls no punches. It knows what it is and what it represents.

Our hero, if we can call him such, is a half breed Indian named Keoma. We meet him returning from the Civil War to find that his town has been overcome by a devastating plague. In the chaos, the town has fallen under the dictatorial rule of a group of thugs controlled by an ex-Confederate raider named Caldwell. Among his posse are Keoma’s three half-brothers who hate him for being a half-breed. Flashbacks to his past reveal that even as children they hated him. Now, they have grown up and have guns. They intend to keep Keoma out. But Keoma has other plans.

While most of the people in the town hate him, he still has a few allies. First is George, his former slave and friend who took advantage of his new-found freedom by crawling into the bottom of a bottle. He also meets up with his father, who has become mercilessly wizen by old age. Together, they embark to smuggle food and medicine into the town. All goes well at first, but as fate would have it they are eventually discovered. The chances of a peaceful resolution have been destroyed. These men know they must destroy each other or lose control of the town. Everything leads to one last showdown where brother must fight brother and family ties must be severed with hot lead.

The movie is both a visceral experience and a metaphorical triumph. It evokes nothing less than the death of its own genre. The dying town represents the institution of the Spaghetti Western, which at the time of Keoma’s production was already in its death knells. Keoma’s desperation to keep the town alive can be interpreted as director Enzo G. Castellari’s attempts to preserve the genre. Castellari, an Italian director who made his livelihood on Spaghetti Westerns, must have known that his days were numbered, so he put everything that he had into Keoma. Nicknamed the “European Sam Peckinpah,” Castellari was a genius at shooting scenes of violence, particularly in the form of gunfights. His flair is evident in Keoma as the hero shoots his way through the villains who have taken over the town. Few directors have been able to choreograph violence. Plenty have been able to use fanciful editing to make violence seem orchestrated, but to truly make violence an artistic, and not just visceral, experience, it requires the likes of Sam Peckinpah, John Woo, and Enzo G. Castellari. Each time a body is hit and crumples to the ground, Castellari uses his beloved slow motion. He dwells on each death like a god pulling the strings of his subjects from high atop Mount Olympus. We are reminded that these are people who are being killed, and not just evil villains.

The themes of life and death are central to Keoma. One of the most important scenes in the movie is when Keoma is captured by his brothers and “crucified” onto a wagon wheel so he can be displayed before the entire town. Yes, in a sense Keoma is a Christ-like figure. We sense this in the last shootout where Keoma guns down his three brothers in an old barn. The entire time that the brothers are killing each other, a pregnant woman screams from labor pains on the barn floor. This juxtaposition of life and death leads the audience to realize that for the town to survive, for the child to have a future, Keoma must sacrifice his own brethren. His own flesh and blood is the price for the town’s future. After the smoke clears, the three brothers and the new mother lie dead. All that can be heard are the muffled cries of the newborn baby. A woman beseeches Keoma to stay and take care of the child so it doesn’t die. Keoma jumps on his horse and yells, “He can’t die. And you know why? Because he’s free. And man who’s free never dies.” I guess the same thing can be said of the Spaghetti Western. By choosing to seal its own fate in Keoma, Castellari made sure that the genre that he loves would never suffer the pitiful fate of so many others.

Go here for the aforementioned article on this film: