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!

Saturday, June 26, 2010

LA Film Festival Review #3: The Red Chapel

The Red Chapel
Directed by Mads Brügger
Rating: 4 out of 4 stars

If The Red Chapel isn’t the best documentary in years, it is certainly the bravest. It follows three men as they attempt to bring down the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) from the inside. It doesn’t help that one of them is a journalist, one a comedian, and the last a self described spastic (i.e. sufferer of cerebral palsy). Armed with only a few video cameras, a small crew, and cajones that would make Werner Herzog jealous, they descend into the heart of Pyongyang to uncover the truth behind the abhorrent evil that is the DPRK. The fact that they accomplished what they did and got back out alive (and with all of their footage intact) is nothing short of a miracle.

While I was trying to construct this review, I tried to think of other examples of documentary makers who put themselves in harm’s way all for the sake of their work. A few films and scenes in particular come to mind: Sacha Baron Cohen bungling the national anthem at a rodeo in Borat, Michael Moore challenging Guantanamo guards to give 9/11 survivors medical coverage in Sicko, and Herzog diving under a continent of ice in Encounters at the End of the World. But they all pale in comparison to what Mads Brügger and his crew get away with. Never before have I been so simultaneously terrified and captivated by a documentary before.

The film follows director Mads Brügger and two Danish-Korean (yes, you read that right) comedians who pose as a troupe named The Red Chapel. They enter the DPRK under the guise of a cultural exchange wherein they will perform “classic Danish comedy.” But in reality, it is a compilation of some of the most overblown and deliberately bizarre acts ever composed. Simon (the comedian) plays the straight man who, armed with his ever present guitar, spends the entire act abusing and humiliating Jacob (the spastic). Why pose as a comedy troupe? As Brügger explains at the start of the film, comedy is the weak spot of every dictatorship.

And so they cavort around the DPRK raising havoc in as many ways as possible. During the presentation of flowers to the statue of the “Eternal President”, Kim Il-Sung, a rite which all foreigners are required to take part in, they read an inappropriate Danish children’s poem in front of the deified figure. They sing an impromptu song at the Korean Demilitarized Zone. An unwilling Jacob is forced to take part in an anti-American demonstration on the anniversary of the start of the Korean conflict. During one of their performances in front of a selected audience they break out into The Beatles’ Hey Jude and get the crowd to clap and sing along. But the best parts are watching how their handler’s try to control their reactions to their ridiculous and offensive antics.

But as guests of the DPRK, they are subjected to an almost unreal set of regulations. They must constantly be sheparded around by a state handler, in this case the ever-suffering Mrs. Pak. They are not allowed to leave their rooms at night. And even worse, every night they must hand over all of their footage to Korean censors who make sure that they do nothing to insult or belittle the DPRK and its glorious leader Kim Jong-il. So this creates the most interesting dynamic of the film, they must constantly act like they are enjoying themselves while secretly acting subversive. By the grace of God they didn’t have Danish translators, so they speak their native language whenever they want privacy. This leads to several of the film’s best scenes where they say something derogatory in Danish only to contradict it in English, the langua franca used by both parties. For example, take one scene where they admire a Korean memorial. Jacob matter of fact says in Danish, “It’s the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen in my life.” Cut to Brügger who informs Mrs. Pak in English that, “It’s the most beautiful thing he has ever seen.”

This actually addresses one of the film’s most compelling forces, the presence of Jacob. In the DPRK people who are retarded or physically disabled are shipped off to prison camps. For most of the North Koreans that The Red Chapel encounter, Jacob is the first and only handicapped person that they have ever seen. As such, he is the only person who is allowed to speak his mind. His interactions with Mrs. Pak are extremely touching, especially the scene where he manages to make her say that she wishes that he was her own son. In that moment, we see a lifetime of fear and suffering in her eyes. “Did she have a son? What happened to him,” we can’t help but think.

In fact, for all of the humor and shock value of The Red Chapel, it is also devastatingly tragic. After visiting an elementary school for North Korea’s smartest, most talented, and most well fed students, Jacob retreats to their hotel and breaks down. I’m not sure how many of my readers have ever heard a person with cerebral palsy have an emotional breakdown, but it is an experience unlike any other. Jacob loudly wails that he is devastated that there is nothing that he can do to stop their suffering. He knows that their smiling faces were all a facade and that they can never escape from the dystopian horrors of North Korea. For all of his antics, Jacob is by far the most human of the troupe. Simon is content to protest at first, but quickly accepts a role as an observer. And Brügger has no choice but to push them to risk their lives for the sake of his documentary. In one scene Jacob challenges Brügger by asking him, “Don’t you have any moral scruples?” He answers, “When dealing with the North Koreans, no I don’t.”

Don’t forget that for all of its strange customs and the sometimes entertaining Dr. Seussian logic that is used to run itself, North Korea remains the worst dictatorship in the world. As Brügger points out, in the 1990s North Korea suffered one of the worst famines on record, resulting in the loss of several million to starvation. Quite simply, Kim Jong-il murdered millions of his people with his foolish agricultural policies and unwillingness to support them. In the meantime, he has held those unfortunate enough to survive in the most closely monitored police state in human history. Mads Brügger did not set out to make a comedy. He set out to make a film that would bring the North Koreans to justice.

They used their comedy routine to demonstrate how controlled and oppressive the DPRK truly is. It is horrifying to watch how The Red Chapel’s handlers force them to change their act so that it is more “acceptable.” Their act, which for all its craziness was founded in classic Danish comedy sketches, was completely rewritten by a North Korean cultural protégé. What started as an act that featured Simon and Jacob as being equally important ended with a bastardization where neither were allowed to talk, they had to use whistles and kazoos to communicate, and Jacob had to pretend that he was a healthy man merely acting like he was handicapped. Even worse, although they were promised that their act would be non-ideological, they are forced to include a propaganda declaration at the end of their performance where Simon is made to say something along the lines of, “One heart, one mind, one Korea. For this we live. For this we will die.” As Brügger points out, the only culture being exchanged in North Korea is North Korean.

At the end of the day, The Red Chapel is an entertaining, but utterly unsettling documentary. It might very well go down in history as one of the most important documentaries of the decade. At its premiere at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, it won the Grand Jury Prize. It is now making the film festival circuit and gaining significant momentum. And you know what, they deserve it. The Red Chapel took more heart and courage to make than most film makers will use in their entire careers. It is simultaneously one of the scariest, boldest, funniest, and just plain human documentaries ever made. See it not only for its superb craftsmanship, but for the people suffering in North Korea. See it for Mrs. Pak and all of the others who must continue to suffer the nightmare that is the DPRK.

Monday, June 21, 2010

LA Film Festival Review #2: Down Terrace

Down Terrace
Directed by Ben Wheatley
Rating: 31/2 out of 4 stars

Shortly before the start of our screening of Down Terrace, director Ben Wheatley walked up to the podium in our theater and introduced his film. “This is a film about miserable people doing miserable things to each other,” he dryly informed us. It doesn’t help that practically all of the characters are teetering on the brink of a chasm made of desperation and ennui. For when these characters are left to their own devices, they have time to think. When they have time to think, people start dying. But don’t assume that Down Terrace is a kind of action packed criminal thriller.

Imagine, if you can, if Mike Leigh directed a British episode of the Sopranos written by the Coen Brothers. This is probably the closest that one can get to explaining the essence of Down Terrace and its power. It is essentially a kitchen sink drama about a beleaguered family. It just so happens that they are all hardened criminals. The film begins with a young man named Karl (Robin Hill) and his older father Bill (Robert Hill) being released from prison. They arrive at their house where they are met by some of their close friends like Garvey, who owns a local club, Chris Pringle, a man who obviously has retired from some form of British special military forces to raise his son, and their Uncle Eric who we immediately feel shouldn’t be trusted. They drink, have cake, sing songs, and trade some good natured ribbing. But this is all a ruse. Karl and Bill know that somebody ratted them out, landing them in prison. They have every reason to believe that one of the men sharing their cake and tea is the snitch. It is just a matter of figuring out who…

Unlike many other films about criminal families, the first hour is spent developing the social dynamics of the various family members. Bill, a disillusioned ex-hippie, is a cynical old man who is content to slip into obscurity while passive aggressively destroying those around him. Karl is a clearly disturbed man-child who is prone to angry and irrational fits and resents the power that Bill seems to wield over his life. And then there is Maggie, Bill’s wife. God bless her, for she seems so defeated by life that when Bill and Karl break into fights, she ignores them and continues on with her housework. She loves Bill and longs for the good old days when it was just the two of them, but life has taken its toll. She, like the rest of the family, seems to be slipping into a state of lethargy.

But this changes when Karl’s girlfriend Valda appears at their doorstep with her belly poking precariously outward. This serves as the catalyst for the entire film. Bill and Maggie are not convinced that it is Karl’s and try to talk him into “getting rid of her before he gets too attached.” But Karl has other plans. He decides that he will support Valda and their child. But this presents a challenging dilemma for Karl: how can he become a father and avoid becoming like Bill? Watching him come to terms with his new life provide several of the film’s best moments, as the two try and bond with each other. One of the best scenes in the film is when Karl invites Valda over for dinner with Bill and Maggie. While they sit at the table, they engage in such astounding passive aggressive assaults that it is a wonder that nobody immediately dies as a result.

And this film does contain its fair share of death. Near the two thirds mark of the film, it begins to become clearer who may have betrayed them. They begin to suspect and interrogate people. This is when the bodies start piling up at a truly Shakespearean rate. A good third of my notes on the film were nothing but records of who killed who and how. And yes, these executions are done in the style of your typical mobster film. They are quick, graphic, and seem to come out of nowhere. But in a sense, they are some of the most effective hits that I have ever seen on film.

Let me explain. In most movies, executions propel the plot forward. But there are only a few times that showing the deaths are necessary to the plot. Sure, they are fun to watch, but many times they add nothing to the film other than an R-rating. They could be just as effective if they were shown off screen, like the infamous murder scene in Hitchcock’s Frenzy. But in Down Terrace, the execution scenes are not only critical to the plot, they are imperative to the development of the characters. For example, there is a scene where one character, who we had been led to believe was a timid person, cruelly poisons someone. It is shocking because we never thought that this character was capable of such violence. Their entire character was redefined by the act of murder.

But it must be remembered that the violence in Down Terrace is a means to an end. The heart of the film is its dry, deadpan British wit and how it is used and abused by a family that is slowly imploding. It is alarming when the characters go from joking about cups of tea to bickering over the difficulties of burying a body in the woods. There is always a kettle on and a folk tune playing in the foreground that serves as an ironic counterpart to the action onscreen. And so we are lured into a deadly facade. They may be miserable people doing miserable things to each other, but the characters in Down Terrace are part of one of the most startlingly original films to come out in some time.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

LA Film Festival Review #1: Of Love and Other Demons

Of Love and Other Demons
Directed by Hilda Hidalgo
Rating: 3 out of 4 stars

The characters in Hilda Hidalgo’s adaptation of the classic novel Of Love and Other Demons by Gabriel García Márquez inhabit a world of striking boundaries. Located on the tiny island of Costa Rica, there is a sharp distinction between that which is right and modern and that which is ancient and evil. The most beautiful building on the island is the seat of the Catholic Church, headed by a plump bishop who bemoans how the natives reject the Church for their old pagan religions. He presides over a land where the only white people are the nobility and the upper echelons of the faith. The natives are forced to live in poorer quarters where they can easily escape the view of the Cross and practice their old traditions. In this land, the tenuous balance between the two ways of life is fragile.

Therefore, it is made even more devastating when two lovers find themselves trapped between the two parts of society. It all begins when 13 year old Sierva María, a child of high nobility, is bitten by a rabid dog one morning in the marketplace. Terrified for her health, her father enlists the help of the Church who claim that she does not harbor an infection, but instead is possessed by demons. So she is locked away in the basement of a small convent where she is tied down to her bed as she wastes away. Convinced that she is not sick but possessed by Satan, the local bishop sends his assistant, 36 year old Cayetano Delaura, to be in charge of her welfare. A man of letters, Cayetano realizes that she is not possessed but merely sick. But the bishop will hear nothing of it, so he continues his watch over Sierva until she begins to invade his dreams.

As a man of faith, he cannot touch her. But as a man of science, he cannot abandon her. Herein lies the great conflict within the film. As Cayetano realizes that he is falling in love with Sierva, he has to make a choice between his faith and his heart.

The story may sound like a rehash of the classic Romeo and Juliet story archetype wherein two people fall in love only to be separated by some controlling force. But it is much more. Instead of blind love, each lover is confronted with challenges that redefine how they see the world and each other. Sierva finds herself trapped between two opposite worlds. Her “caretakers” represent blind faith as the nuns who attend her merely cross themselves when she throws up instead of trying to heal her. But one day a fellow captive sneaks into her cell to keep her company. This woman represents a complete lack of faith as she expounds humanist sayings such as how when we die, we cease to exist and how there is no God. Cayetano represents a median between the two extremes. A devout Catholic, he believes in possessions and the devil, but is hesitant to diagnose her as possessed. Constantly with his nose in a book, Cayetano dreams of one day working in the Vatican library. So he surrounds himself with knowledge that the Church finds questionable.

But Cayetano also finds himself in a state of confliction. His master is brunt and unreasonable, but he cannot challenge his authority. He needs to be with Sierva, but realizes that doing so may damn his soul. So we watch how the two lovers develop and how their feelings grow. In the furtive moments that they spend together in her cell, their passions are revealed, but suppressed. Watching their body language is a sensual delight, as a single caress becomes symbolic of a full consummation of love.

And really, Of Love and Other Demons is a film obsessed with such caresses. The cinematography constructs a world of evocative pastels and subdued hues. The brightest colors come in the form of the small insects and lizards that Sierva plays with. The soundtrack is filled with soft, gentle melodies that echo the lullabies that nannies croon to cranky, tired children. The director, Hilda Hidalgo, controls the pacing with a smooth, gentle touch. The film is consumed by striking close-ups that seem to regard Sierva’s face and long crimson hair and Cayetano’s constantly worried profile as a kind of fetish. It is a slow moving, delicately streaming film that plays like a poem or a passage of Márquez’s prose.

Hilda Hidalgo

Report from the Los Angeles Film Festival

Well readers, I have some great news.

I have been given the privilege of attending the Los Angeles Film Festival!

For two days.....

To only see three films.....

I guess I should mention that I am only getting to go to the festival because I am staying with family who happens to live very close to the festivities. I will be leaving them on Sunday, so I will not be able to attend screenings for its entire week and a half run. But that's all right! I still get to see great works of art!

So for the next couple of days I will be writing short reviews on the three films that I have been privileged enough to see.

Also, our great friends at Cinematheque have agreed to let me post my three reviews on their site! So go over and check it out! Their address is: http://cinematheque.leithermagazine.com/

So, I'll see you all later with three new reviews!

Nathanael Hood
-The Editor

Friday, June 18, 2010

素晴らしき日曜日 (One Wonderful Sunday)

Directed by Akira Kurosawa

There is a scene in Akira Kurosawa’s One Wonderful Sunday that seems like it was pulled straight out of an Italian neo-realist film. The two main characters, a young army veteran named Yuzo and his cheerful wife Masako, are standing in line at a theater to buy cheap tickets to a performance of Shubert’s “Unfinished Symphony.” It is a rainy Sunday afternoon, the only time that the two are able to be together for the entire week. They only have 35 yen between them, yet they are determined to make it last. Unfortunately, as they approach the front of the line, the remaining tickets are all purchased by two shady characters that immediately start scalping them to the people in line. Infuriated, Yuko calls them out and challenges them for their dishonest practices. But Yuko is easily overpowered and ends up sprawled on the cold ground. Humiliated, Masako and Yuko retreat from the line and reenter the burnt ruins of post-war Tokyo.

Parallels can be drawn to the infamous scene in Bicycle Thieves (1948) by Vittorio De Sica where Antonio Ricci catches the man who stole his bicycle only for him to be rebuked by the man’s neighbors, who protect him, and the police. Both films feature male protagonists being wronged by an uncaring society living in the bombed out shell of a city reduced to rubble by the assaults of World War Two. Both are desperate to provide for somebody else: Ricci for his son, Yuko for Masako. And finally, both defeated characters take some form of comfort in their companions. But while Bicycle Thieves ends on a tragic note, Kurosawa’s first film during the American Occupation ends on a triumphant note. While it may be disorienting and even outrageous to some cinematic purists, in hindsight the ending of One Wonderful Sunday is an almost eerily accurate prediction of Japan’s future concerning their post-war reconstruction and the subsequent economic miracle that made them the second most powerful economy in the world. Combining Kurosawa’s early passion for neo-realism with his unbendable optimistic humanism that defined his younger years, One Wonderful Sunday remains one of the most important, yet frequently overlooked, films in Kurosawa’s oeuvre.

Much like Kurosawa’s other great film to explore the psyche of post-war Japan (the other being the less than hopeful I Live in Fear), Yuko and Masako inhabit a cold, uninviting world. Filmed less than two years after the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we see the streets littered with rubble and trash. The presence of Occupational forces is always implied, but never actually shown. We can see expensive clubs and burlesque houses that look freshly built. During one scene where Yuko and Masako window shop for a house that they might one day move into, they run into a wealthy couple wearing chic Western clothes and furs who sniff their noses at the poorer couple. Indeed, the Tokyo that they inhabit is one of two worlds: the Westernized reconstructed city and the desolate remains of the old Tokyo that somehow survived the fire bombings. Yuko and Masako drift between the two as they fantasize about a newer, better life that they might one day lead. They dream of opening a snazzy new coffee house with a victrola playing classical music and large tables for parties and smaller ones for lovers. In the ruins of a leveled building they act out their dream with Masako as the happy hostess and Yuko as the customer. Their joy is cut short when a group of people surround them and they are forced to flee.

They travel to cheap sights all over the city, stopping at parks and the zoo to watch the contented animals that get taken care of better than their fellow humans. They stop to play ball with a group of poor children in front of a tenement building so dilapidated that the concierge pleas with them to not take up a room there. They find a kind of happiness with one another as they share their dreams and aspirations. But their attempts at keeping each others’ morale high takes their toll, and in a devastation scene Yuko decides to go home and curls up in a ball on the floor of his room. He realizes that there isn’t much to hope for. By day, he is a laborer who shares his cramped room and board with a friend. Masako isn’t much better off as she lives in a four-room apartment that she shares with 15 relatives. Their lives are constricted and meager with no sign of hope on the immediate horizon.

But showing such despair was discouraged by the American Occupation and the film happily ends with a heartwarming, if somewhat forced, scene wherein the two lovers enter an empty amphitheater and Yuko pretends that he is conducting an orchestra to play Schubert’s “Unfinished Symphony,” the very performance that they were not able to attend. It isn’t long before Yuko almost collapses with the sheer absurdity of it all in a fit of hopelessness. Here, Kurosawa breaks the fourth wall by having Masako encourage the audience to give Yuko a round of applause. Standing in front of the camera with tears rolling down her face, she pleads, “All you people, applaud. All you young lovers, applaud for your dreams.” In hindsight, the decision to break the fourth wall seems like a poor one. In Japanese theaters Masako’s pleas were met with an awkward silence by the audience that made the film seem surreal and bizarre. But it isn’t long before an unseen orchestra is heard and Yuko finds himself conducting one of the most beautiful compositions ever written. The film ends with the couple lovingly embracing, an unusual move in a Kurosawa film and Japanese cinema in general, but required by the Occupational censors. Kurosawa wisely sidesteps this by showing the embrace from behind the characters, making it unclear whether they are actually kissing or just hugging. But the scene retains its power with Kurosawa utilizing bold crane shots to swoop around the characters in the midst of their passion.

Maybe the addition of such a schmaltzy ending was counterproductive to the film’s desired effect. After all, such happiness is almost unheard of in Italian neo-realism, the genre that Kurosawa openly adored and emulated. But in a way, it gives One Wonderful Sunday its own appeal. It represents a society in the midst of great change and the desire for a better tomorrow that was felt by so many Japanese people. There is something finite about tragic endings. After all, Antonio Ricci clearly doesn’t have any other options at the end of Bicycle Thieves. For all intensive purposes, his story is over when the film ends. But a happy ending suggests the possibility of future endeavors and challenges. While the film may end, it is clear that Yuko and Masako’s story is not over and they have a long future ahead of them. In the decades to come, Kurosawa’s films would get better and he would become more accomplished as a director. So in a way, One Wonderful Sunday not only represents the future development of Japan, but also the progression of Kurosawa’s career. The Occupational years were difficult times, but they resulted in an amazing tomorrow. One Wonderful Sunday seems to predict that and stands as a testament of hope for those who must bear the full brunt of the transition. The times may be harsh, but the flowers and music will always be there for those who try and look.


Monday, June 14, 2010

歌麿をめぐる五人の女 (Utamaro and His Five Women)

Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi

The year was 1946, near the start of the American Occupation of Japan following World War Two. It was a time of great transition for Japanese film making. The nationalistic propaganda films of the Thirties and early Forties with all of their strict guidelines concerning content and presentation were gone only to be replaced by a new set of rules. To some directors, the new rules created an atmosphere of unheard of freedom. Akira Kurosawa seized on the opportunity to show lovers together and showing affection in a field of flowers in One Wonderful Sunday (1947), an image that would never have been allowed under the Japanese Imperialist government. Yasujiro Ozu was able to make his first film in five years with The Record of a Tenement Gentleman (1947). But then there was Kenji Mizoguchi, the third godfather of Japanese cinema. He struggled to get his first post-war film made. The reason was that he wanted to make a period film. Critic Freda Freiberg wrote that:

In this early period, the Occupation censors were fearful of period films, which they erroneously believed to be the chief purveyors of undemocratic values – ultranationalism, feudalistic ideology and militarism. Mizoguchi had to assure them that there would be no swordplay and that his hero was a man of the people, a democrat ahead of his time.

The film would be about Kitagawa Utamaro, one of the greatest Japanese printmakers and painters of woodblock prints who ever lived. It would be entitled Utamaro and His Five Women (1946). While many critics gloss over this segment of Mizoguchi’s career in favor of his artistic prime during the early Fifties, Utamaro and His Five Women is arguably one of the most important films that he ever made. The reason is that it is the closest we have to a cinematic autobiography of one of the cinema’s greatest auteurs.

The film, obviously, centers on Utamaro and his relationships with five very different women. The first is the refined courtesan Takasode. Next we meet the arrogant geisha Okita. Later in the movie we meet Yukie, the daughter of a wealthy artist and a shy peasant girl named Oran. And finally there is the aging geisha Oshin who hovers around the characters in this film begging to be painted again like when she was younger. Each woman plays an integral part in Utamaro’s life and creative endeavors. Utamaro, most widely known for paintings of women known as bijinga, regards each of them as sources of inspiration and devastating conflict in his life.

When we meet Takasode, she is having Utamaro paint a sketch on her back which will later be tattooed. We watch Utamaro’s uncontrollable joy as he lovingly sketches a beautiful woman onto this courtesan’s back. We witness him in the prime of his talents. Unfortunately, Takasode repays the favor by running away with a man named Shozaburo shortly after the tattoo is completed. While others are amazed by her arrogance, Utamaro shrugs it off saying that such is to be expected when one is using a living canvas. Of course, this act sets in motion a chain of events that will steal from him two of his best models.

Shozaburo was the object of Okita’s eye. When he leaves her, she rebounds by clinging onto one of Utamaro’s disciples named Seinosuke. Seinosuke had recently left his old art master after losing a painting duel with Utamaro. Unfortunately, by leaving his old master, he left Yukie who was desperately in love with him. Yukie follows him and tries to get him back but is cruelly rejected by Seinosuke.

With so many models gone, Utamaro descends into a fit of artist’s block. In order to break his artistic impotence, Utamaro’s etchings merchant Tsutaya takes him to a daimyo’s palace where he makes his female subjects fish naked. In an obvious reference to the American Occupation, they force him to consider new artistic inspirations in order to make him productive. In reality, all they care about is getting him to make bigger and better pieces. Their efforts to influence Utamaro’s work represent attempts to control what he makes and how he does it.

Much like Mizoguchi in the wake of the American Occupation, Utamaro finds a new source of inspiration from their trip to the diamyo’s palace. He spots Oran as one of the women fishing and is immediately enraptured by her beauty. He demands that he be allowed to paint her. He declares that it will be his masterpiece. Even Seinosuke is captivated by her and begs to paint her. Therefore, if Tsutaya represents the American Occupation, Utamaro and Seinosuke’s new artistic spark represents the outpouring of creativity in post-war Japanese cinema. Their old models Takasode, Okita, and poor Oshin are virtually forgotten about. They can be interpreted as the old guard of Japanese cinema that was abandoned by film makers after the American Occupation. It becomes even more symbolic when in a fit of jealous rage Okita locates and kills both Takasode and Shozaburo. With one model dead, one sentenced to be executed, and one completely ignored, Utamaro can focus his attentions to his new muse and begin a new wave of creative genius that will inspire countless artists for years to come.

If the entire story of Utamaro and His Five Women is symbolic of Japanese cinema and its transitions during the American Occupation, then Utamaro himself can be seen as a symbol for Mizoguchi. Going back to Freda Freiberg, she points out that:

Both of them worked in a popular mass-produced medium operated by businessmen, and chafed under oppressive censorship regimes; both frequented the pleasure quarters and sought the company of geishas; but, most significantly, they both achieved fame for their portraits of women.

For Mizoguchi, the plight of women would remain a constant theme in his work. Many of his greatest films revolve around female characters that are abused, neglected, and exploited by Japanese society and in particular, Japanese men. It is believed that this stemmed from events in his life. Mizoguchi’s sister had become a rich man’s mistress to pay for his education. He was even attacked with a knife by a geisha lover that left an incredible scar on his back. These events led to Mizoguchi being strongly sympathetic to exploited women in his films, leading to him being posthumously named one of the cinema’s first great feminists.

So if the plot of Utamaro and His Five Women can be interpreted as an allegory for Mizoguchi and Japanese cinema in general during the American Occupation, it can also be read as a stinging critique of how women were treated in Japanese society. If the film can be interpreted in this way, then the two most sympathetic characters are Yukie and Oshin. Determined to walk in the footsteps of his mentor, Seinosuke callously abandons Yukie even though they were engaged to be married. When she pursues him and begs to be taken back, he ignores her. In one of the most unbearably cruel scenes in Mizoguchi’s career, Seinosuke is confronted with a new model to paint. Yukie arrives on the scene and again implores him to take her back. But all Seinosuke can do is beg the model to allow him to paint her. Walking less than a foot away from Yukie, he seems to ignore her pleas and her very existence all the while begging for the attention of this new woman. Devastated, Yukie runs away crying. Seinosuke begins to paint the new model, completely oblivious to the horrific treatment he has just bestowed his one-time bride-to-be.

And then there is poor Oshin. Once a favorite of Utamaro and a star geisha, she has lost a Japanese woman’s most precious commodity: her youth. Women ignore her and men chide and insult her even when she is attending to them as a geisha. Her slender form has bulged out into layers of fat and premature wrinkles, leading one of her customers to mock her by saying she is built like a wrestler. Having expired as a model and a geisha (i.e. her desirability as a woman), her last resort is to marry one of Utamaro’s employees. What is her motivation for marrying him? Could it be love? Maybe. Or it could be that he, already at an advanced age himself, is the only man who would have her? Or could it be that she just wants to be near Utamaro in the vain hopes of being painted again so she can feel wanted and desired just one more time? The movie is unclear.

What the film isn’t unclear about is its concentrated examination of an artist during a great time of change. Just as Mizoguchi had to endure new rules and regulations considering his films, Utamaro had to seek out new sources of inspiration. In the process, innovations are made, but people are forgotten. By the end of the film, of the five women in Utamaro’s life, only one is fit to be painted. Call it the price of progress, if you wish. But at its heart, Utamaro and His Five Women is a stinging indictment of Japanese society and its treatment towards women as well as a telling portrait of an artist in a state of transition.


Thursday, June 10, 2010

In the Mouth of Madness

Directed by John Carpenter
The United States of America

Do you read Sutter Cane?

Some directors seem to move towards one film for their entire careers. Don’t be confused, I don’t mean that some directors only create one good movie. I’m simply saying that from a thematic and stylistic standpoint, some directors seem to summarize everything that makes them great in one film. Alfred Hitchcock seemed to combine all of his talents and neuroses in his masterpiece Vertigo (1958), Mulholland Drive (2001) can be seen as David Lynch’s manifesto, and more recently, A Serious Man (2009) seems to be the film that the Coen brothers have been destined to make for their entire careers. Such is the case with 1994’s In the Mouth of Madness. Directed by legendary horror auteur John Carpenter, it seems to be the epic climax of his career before phasing out in the early 2000s. Critically panned by critics, it has nevertheless gained a sizable cult following since its release. Why? It’s difficult to say. It isn’t the scariest film that Carpenter ever directed. That honor goes to Halloween (1978). It doesn’t have his best usage of special effects. The Thing (1982) has a monopoly on special effects greatness. So why do people connect with it so much?

The answer has to do with one of John Carpenter’s greatest strengths as a director: the ability to create an atmosphere. Originally working as an independent film maker, Carpenter learned how to manage his craft with insanely small budgets. In order to compensate for a lack of expensive special effects, Carpenter was forced to rely on such dreaded cinematic techniques as actual suspense and scares that didn’t rely on gory decapitations. That’s not to say that his movies were not violent. But consider two of his earliest masterpieces, Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) and Halloween. Yes, many people were killed in them. But they didn’t rely on the death scenes to create terror. In Assault on Precinct 13, a cross between Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Rio Bravo (1959) wherein a group of people are besieged in a police station by a merciless group of gang members, worked because of the unceasing feelings of claustrophobia and dread created by the cramped set and the masterful camera work. Halloween, while scary in its own right for its shocking and gruesome death scenes, is a classic because Carpenter was able to convince the audience that Michael Myers was an unstoppable, inescapable villain who represented evil incarnate. We were scared by Michael Myers because we never knew when he would show up and whenever he did he was completely impervious to resistance.

After a successful run as an independent film maker, Carpenter gained the support of Hollywood. As a result, he was finally free to exercise his special effects muscles. He created such films as The Thing (1982) and Big Trouble in Little China (1986). While they have recently been accepted as cult classics, at the time of their release they were received poorly by both critics and the box office. And so, disillusioned by Hollywood, he returned to independent film making. After a few mediocre films, Carpenter returned with In the Mouth of Madness, a film that combined both his earlier talent for creating suffocating situations and his new-found skills for graphic special effects. The result is nothing short of genius.

The story feels like what would happen if Stephen King and H. P. Lovecraft sat down for a round of coffee and absinthe. It revolves around private investigator John Trent who at the start of the film is committed to an insane asylum. From the confines of his comfy room with the nice white, padded walls, Trent recalls the story of his descent into madness to a man named Dr. Wrenn. The idea of a character relating a story from the inside of an asylum is only the first reference to the great and twisted mind of Lovecraft.

But as his story begins, it feels like a chapter out of Stephen King’s latest novel. A famous horror writer named Sutter Cane (played by the irreplaceable Jürgen Prochnow) has gone missing along with the manuscript of his most recent novel. Hired by Cane’s publisher to find him and locate the manuscript, Trent and Linda Styles, a representative of the publishing firm, set out for Hobb’s End, New Hampshire. We immediately sense an interesting dynamic between Trent and Linda. Trent believes that Cane’s work is hogwash and thinks little of his masses of fans who have literally begun to riot over his disappearance. Linda is a huge fan of Cane’s and believes that there is something special to his work. In other words, Trent is founded in skeptical reality while Linda is immersed in the realm of fantasy. This theme over what is and isn’t real plays an enormous role in the development of the film.

As they drive along looking for a town that doesn’t exist on any maps, they begin to experience strange phenomenon. They start having hallucinations of monsters and decrepit bicyclists. But the strange occurrences get even stronger when they miraculously find the town. It seems to be a quaint New England town that has been abandoned for fifty years. The white paint on the buildings is covered with cobwebs and dust and the streets and shops are devoid of people. But that even that changes when they start to see ghostly images of children and dogs running through the streets. When they arrive at their hotel, it becomes apparent that something is dreadfully wrong with the town as nobody has heard of Sutter Cane but everything seems to be straight out of his novels. It is as if they literally inhabit one of his books…

The trouble with writing about horror is that if you give too much about the plot away, it can rob potential audiences of the full experience. But, if you don’t say enough, they won’t be convinced that the film is worth seeing. So I’ll try to find a compromise by saying that by the end of the film the town has been transformed into a kind of hell for Trent and Linda. Having meet Cane in the basement of an old church that has been desecrated by evil rituals, they discover that its inhabitants have been transformed into creatures straight out of their nightmares.

They try to escape but they are unable to flee the town. Consider one scene where they get in a car to drive away from a mob. They drive a few feet only to find that they end up right where they started. They repeat this futile act a few times with each instance ending in failure. It is here that Carpenter’s talents as a film maker reach their peak. How can you escape from Hell if you are not sure if it even exists? Hobb’s End seems to be a creation of Sutter Cane who has surrendered himself to a dark force that wants to destroy the world. Can a town really exist if it only is a figment of a madman’s imagination? And if it can, how did Trent and Linda end up there? Can they escape from something that might not even exist?

I want to stop talking about the plot here. I find this difficult because there is still a third act of the film after they leave Hobb’s End where Trent is forced to deliver Cane’s manuscript to his publisher. The delivery and publication of Cane’s new novel would literally destroy the world. But I leave that for the viewer to experience. Suffice to say that Carpenter’s greatest strength is the ability to make us wonder what is real and what isn’t. By the end of the film, the audience will be wondering if there even is a difference. That is the mark of a great film maker. When you can make an audience question reality and whether or not it even exists, you have exceeded in transcending your artistic or intellectual medium. It doesn’t hurt that In the Mouth of Madness is obscenely entertaining and terrifying to boot. Why wasn’t it well received by critics but now loved as a cult classic? Perhaps critics didn’t know how to react to such a bold statement from a director who had made his name doing “popcorn flicks.” Perhaps they thought that coming from John Carpenter, such mastery was impossible. Watch the film and judge for yourself. Just be careful, it’s hard to not go insane when you are the last sane man on the earth.


Thursday, June 3, 2010

Red Rock West

Directed by John Dahl
The United States of America

The term film noir is so readily thrown around today to describe films that it has almost lost its meaning. Certainly, there are certain characteristics of film noir that have entered the common knowledge: the film fatale, chiaroscuro cinematography, hard drinking and heavy smoking private dicks. But the heart of film noir is almost impossible to describe. People have even written books and devoted careers to defining the genre, and we are probably no closer now than we have ever been in figuring out what makes a film a film noir. Oh, it’s much easier when a film is sixty or seventy years old. There are certain tells: the aforementioned attributes, men escaping their pasts, moral ambiguity, and B-movie sensibilities. But trying to diagnose neo-noir films is a monster all of its own. The most basic definition of neo-noir are modern day films that feature elements from classical film noirs of the 1940s and 1950s and updates them with new themes, idea, and stylistic tendencies. Probably the two purest neo-noir films are Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) and Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat (1981), the latter a kind of remake of the classical film noir Double Indemnity (1944) by Billy Wilder. But flash forward to the early Nineties. It was during this time that a slew of films came out that are probably the closest ancestors we have to the golden age of film noir.

Don’t be confused, I am not referring to films that borrow film noir characteristics for style’s sake. Films like Reservoir Dogs (1992), Pulp Fiction (1994), and Basic Instinct (1992) borrow heavily from classic film noirs. But at heart they are Hollywood A-movies. The same can be said of the works of the Coen Brothers. While their works, especially the pitch perfect Fargo (1996) and The Big Lebowski (1998), are some of the purest distillations of film noir sensibilities ever committed to the screen, there is still a disconnect between them and the classic film noirs: they were well received by critics and audiences. That’s not to say that the classical film noirs were never well received. In fact, many of them were nominated for Academy Awards. But they were almost always meant to be cheap entertainment. They were only embraced as art once they were seen by Europeans, in particular the French. Humphrey Bogart once famously quipped that when he never considered his work in film noir to be anything other than B-movie material. So the best film noir were made not knowing that they were creating a new genre. It was only after they were lauded by international art critics that the great film noir were seen as anything other than cheap entertainment.

So now we go back to the Nineties. While the Tarantinos, Coens, Lynchs, and Manns were busy shooting homages to the great film noir classics, a new breed of movie appeared. They were a new generation of B-movies. Made by no-name directors and frequently starring actors that nobody has ever heard of, they were made on tiny budgets and pulled in even smaller profits. These are the true successors to the classic film noir. They were films like Miami Blues (1990) by George Armitage, The Hot Spot (1990) by Dennis Hopper, and the masterpiece After Dark, My Sweet (1990) by James Foley. Many were based off classics by the legendary noir authors like Jim Thompson, Charles Williams, and Elmore Leonard. Most of these films have been forgotten. And why not? Nobody heard of them, and even fewer went to see them. But many of them were genuine works of art that shared a kindred spirit with the works of Howard Hawks, Billy Wilder, and John Huston. One of the best films that came out of this era was the devastatingly powerful Red Rock West (1992).

It stars Nicolas Cage as Michael Williams, an ex—Marine drifting through the Midwest looking for work. He has a bad leg left over from an attack while he was in the service that left him the only survivor of his unit. His bad leg prevents him from getting any work. So he stumbles into a small Wyoming town named Red Rock. It’s a small town where everything, even the beer, seems like it has a coat of rusty dust over it. He goes into a bar where the bartender (J. T. Walsh) mistakes him for a hit man that he had hired to kill his wife. Noticing his Texas license plate, he asks him if he is “Lyle from Dallas” and if he is there for the job. Desperate for work, Michael says yes. He is handed a stack of cash and told to off his wife. Not willing to have blood on his hands, he goes to his wife Suzanne (played by Lara Flynn Boyle) and warns her. After sending a message to the sheriff’s department about how the bartender, named Wayne, is trying to kill his wife, he skips town. Unfortunately he accidentally runs over a man by the side of the road. When Michael, good Samaritan that he is, brings him to the hospital, he is detained when the doctors find two bullets in his chest. The police arrive to arrest him. When they arrive, he is horrified to find out that Wayne is also the local sheriff.

Realizing that Michael isn’t “Lyle from Dallas,” Wayne takes Michael into the woods to execute him. The only problem is that Michael manages to escape and is picked up by a kindly man (played by the late, great Dennis Hopper) on the side of the road. The man seems friendly enough and warm to Michael when he discovers that he is a fellow Marine. But their friendship comes to a brief end when he drives to Wayne’s bar and announces that he is “Lyle from Dallas” and is looking for the owner. From here we follow Michael, Lyle, Wayne, and Suzanne in a four part cat-and-mouse game.

Half the fun of the movie is trying to figure out the different characters’ motivations and guessing whether or not they can be trusted. A good example is the dynamic between Michael and Suzanne. When Michael escapes from Wayne and Lyle, the latter of whom wants him dead because he “doesn’t like loose ends,” he goes to Suzanne’s house. He tells her the situation and she suggests that they flee to Mexico. They agree, but first they need to go steal some money from Wayne that rightfully belongs to her. We are led to believe that it is part of her life insurance money that Wayne tried to have her killed for in the first place. But we discover that not all is as it seems. It turns out that both Wayne and Suzanne are wanted criminals on the run with over $1.9 million from a robbery. We are stunned to learn that Suzanne’s affections have been the work of a cool, calculated femme fatale that would make Phyllis Dietrichson proud. For the rest of the film, we are unsure whether or not she is bluffing or telling truth when she says she wants to run away with Michael. We know she is manipulating him, but we don’t know what she will do with him once she is done.

So, innocent Michael is placed inside a situation that he cannot escape among people who, for various reasons, want him dead. I hesitate to give any more of the story away for fear of ruining it for those who haven’t seen it. One thing that I will divulge is that things get much more interesting when Lyle discovers that Suzanne and Wayne have almost two million dollars hidden away and decides that he wants it. From here, Hopper takes his performance in a totally new direction. While he had been pleasantly restrained for the first part of the film, the promise of two million dollars drives him to that special kind of madness and crazy that only Hopper can pull off. There is one scene where all four characters are in a car at gunpoint and Hopper makes them drive towards an incoming train…but I don’t want to give it away. Let’s just say that it defies convention in a scene that not even Hitchcock could have dreamed of.

But the heart of this film is the four characters and their relationships. The entire movie boils down to a scene in a graveyard where the money is supposedly stashed. At this point, Michael, and the audience, has been so battered and betrayed that we know that he can’t trust anybody. This scene is a masterwork of writing and editing as it switches between the different characters as they produce guns, knives, and impromptu weapons with which to threaten each other. The tables are turned so many times that their legs fall off. We don’t know who to root for. We just hope that Michael can get out alive.

So why is this film a perfect successor to the classic film noir? Well, let’s start with the story, a tale of contract killers, deceiving women, and hidden money. I could replace Cage in my mind with either Humphrey Bogart or Robert Mitchum. That isn’t to say that his performance was bad. It’s just that it so perfectly matches the persona that these men portrayed in their work. He is trapped with no way out. The only difference is that Bogart and Mitchum played characters trapped by their pasts. Cage plays a character trapped by his present. The story itself plays out like a great novel by Chandler, perfectly matching the classical noir style in terms of tone and content.

But there is another reason why this film is a true successor to the classical noirs: it was a low profile film that was quickly forgotten about. In fact, despite being well received at the Toronto Film Festival, it was released by Columbia-Tristar as a direct-to-video film. It later toured the US in various art houses, but that wasn’t enough to cement its legacy. But times have changed. With the advent of the internet, we can learn about forgotten films like Red Rock West. In fact, at the time of writing this it is being streamed for free online for Netflix members. For those who haven’t seen it, locate this film and watch it. I wouldn’t be surprised if in a couple of decades, film critics will look back at films like Red Rock West and proclaim that it was one of the best noir films of the Nineties. And it is so nice to be ahead of the loop, isn’t it? It would have saved Michael a lot of trouble, that’s for sure.