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!

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

მონანიება (Repentance)

Directed by Tengiz Abuladze
Georgian SSR

A smartly-trimmed mustache lies nestled in his philtrum. Thin, frameless glasses dig into the ridge of his nose. A black shirt and leather suspenders stretch over his plump frame. His lips straddle a cavern from which escape sweet lies, manic ramblings, and operatic arias. Stretched into a smile, they betray the empty promises of a hollow man. In the evening he will charm you. In the morning he will arrest you. And for reasons apparent only to himself, you will disappear.

For years Varlam Aravidze served as the mayor of a small town in Soviet Georgia. His death was marked by public mourning and a pompous funeral. But the next morning his rigid corpse seemingly materializes in the garden of his son Abel’s house. The body is quickly reburied. But again, the next morning the body appears in Abel’s garden. The exasperated police take the only option they can think of: arrest the dead body so it can be held for an inquiry. This Kafka-esque farce continues for several more days. The body is reburied and dug up again night after night. Finally the grave is covered in a massive metal cage. But still, the body returns.

One night the perpetrator is finally caught in the act. She is revealed to be a local pastry chief named Ketevan Barateli. She is swiftly brought to trial where she freely admits to exhuming Varlam’s grave but refuses to admit guilt. “As long as I live Varlam Aravidze will not rest in the ground,” she declares. And so she begins the flashback which will engross most of the rest of Tengiz Abuladze’s Repentance, a brave and powerful film that seeks nothing less than the catharsis of an entire nation in the wake of decades of Stalinist control. Originally shot in 1984, the film was shelved for several years by Soviet authorities. Premiering at the 1987 Cannes Film Festival, the film was seen by an estimated 60 million Russians and was celebrated for being one of the true masterpieces of post-glasnost Soviet filmmaking.

The journey through Ketevan’s past as she witnesses the rise of the despotic Varlam is painful and heart-breaking. At first Varlam, played by esteemed Georgian actor Avtandil Maxaradze, appears as little more than an oafish buffoon. His inauguration plays like a scene from a Charlie Chaplin film: as his speech is swallowed up by a booming brass band he is soaked by a burst water main. He receives pleas from Ketevan’s artist father Sandro to save a historic church with apparent compassion and sympathy. One night he arrives at Ketevan’s house with two assistants - who are dressed like they just came from a reception given by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - bearing gifts of flowers and caged birds. A swish of Varlam’s cloak materializes a playmate for Ketevan out of the aether in the form of a young Abel. Varlam and his assistants belt out jaunty opera tunes before jumping out of the window onto horses which whisk them away into the night.

That night monstrous dreams plague Sandro and his wife; dreams of dark corridors, fields of mud, and above all the smiling figure of Varlam being speed through the Georgian countryside  in a blue automobile. In the morning Sandro is suddenly arrested by soldiers clothed in medieval metal armor. As Sandro is removed, one soldier clumsily plays the piano while another spirits away the paintings on his walls. The same paintings, one should mention, that Varlam was so enthusiastic about praising the night before.

Soon much of the entire town vanishes. The once charming Varlam has morphed into a gibbering madman, spewing out nonsensical rhetoric during speeches like “Four out of every three people are our enemies!” Without warning, Sandro’s church is demolished in the night. And finally, the men in metal armor come for Ketevan’s mother.

Certainly Varlam was a composite of numerous 20th century dictators, what with his Hitler mustache and Mussolini build. But it is his similarities with Joseph Stalin, Georgia’s home-grown tyrant, that warrant the most attention. After all, for all of its fame as a Soviet film, Repentance is first and foremost a Georgian work of cinema. The film is steeped in metaphors for the rise and rule of Stalin. Much like Varlam, Stalin was well-known for his chameleonic abilities to change his personality depending on the situation. As Julie Christensen writes, “Another central link between Varlam and Stalin, as the Georgians understand him, is the changing face of the evil dictator: concerned patriot, enlightened ruler, scheming maniac, and sadistic pervert. Stalin was well-known for his ability to don masks and change his identity, and [Maxaradze’s performance] centers around that motif.”

If we accept the interpretation that Varlam was a Stalin stand-in, then the film takes on a greater, richer meaning than it would if it was a simple treatise on despotism and man’s capacity for cruelty. An essential element of Georgian culture is their treatment and veneration of the dead. Continuing her astute analysis of Georgian society in Repentance, Christensen elaborates: “The past and its remains are holy...[Ketevan], a Georgian woman, denies Varlam proper treatment of a dead hero and violates his grave.” The third part of Repentance deals with Abel and his son Tornike coming to terms with Ketevan’s revelations about their patriarch. Unable to cope with the guilt, Tornike commits suicide and Abel personally steals Varlam’s body and unceremoniously throws it off the side of a cliff. These scenes involving the confrontation of a dictator’s true legacy and the decanonization of his status as a cultural hero provided catharsis for Georgian audiences in a manner other Soviet countries could not appreciate as fully.

Of course, to view Repentance as a mere metaphor would be to rob it of its simple visceral pleasures. The film is full of heart-breaking images such as Ketevan and her mother searching for Sandro’s name among messages scrawled into logs by prisoners upstream. Abuladze delights in warping the boundaries between different times, spaces, and cultures. The soundtrack will sway between austere classical music and blaring pop. In one scene a blindfolded Lady Justice stands in a prison courtyard next to a political insider merrily playing a white piano. In another Sandro and his wife lay buried up to their chins in dirty muck in the countryside. Elsewhere Varlam’s ghostly spectre peels the skin from a fish in a dark church while Abel begs for Absolution.

While the rest of the world’s socially-conscious cinema seems to be trapped by the limitations of stark realism, Abuladze dares something more. In Repentance, the sword of surrealism is wielded in the name of social commentary and Georgian justice.

Friday, November 29, 2013

泥の河 (Muddy River)

Directed by Kōhei Oguri

There are films about children and there are films about childhood. The former merely contain child actors. But the latter are about the world that children inhabit, the emotions and experiences that accompany growing up; the mysteries borne of misunderstandings, unanswered curiosities, and the temporarily inexplicable. Films about childhood ask questions but scarcely provide answers. For the life of a child is one of censorship and confinement. They have yet to figure out the world because the world hides things from them. But they see. They listen. And they think.

The great films about childhood consistently rank amongst the best ever made: René Clément’s Forbidden Games (1952), François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959) and Small Change (1976), Víctor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive (1973), and Hector Babenco’s Pixote (1981) to name a few. Perhaps this is because it takes a true master filmmaker to penetrate that realm without seeming exploitative or needlessly sentimental. So when films like Kōhei Oguri’s Muddy River appear, it is our duty and privilege to acknowledge them.

Quite simply, Muddy River is one of the best Japanese films about childhood. As Oguri’s directorial debut, he demonstrates the kind of wisdom and restraint that eludes most veteran filmmakers. The film was praised upon release by international critics, earning him several awards and a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film (inevitably losing, perhaps justifiably so, to István Szabó’s Mephisto). But now the film languishes in obscurity, being almost impossible to find on VHS or DVD. But Muddy River surges with a timeless vitality. If and when it finally receives a proper release, audiences will be amazed by its enduring artistry and wonder why it hasn’t been canonized as one of the great Japanese classics.

Almost a decade after the end of World War Two, 9-year-old Nobuo Itakura lives next to the mouth of the Kyū-Yodo River in Osaka. The first blossoms of what would become known as the “Japanese post-war economic miracle” have begun to bloom: the city has been largely reconstructed, new families are springing up, and Nobuo’s parents are able to run a small yet respectable noodle shop. But the scars of war live on in those, like Nobuo’s father Shinpei, unfortunate enough to have survived the fighting. “There must be lots of people out there who wish now that they’d died in the war,” he wearily comments one night. This statement, overheard by a sleepless Nobuo, seems prophetic. For the next day three such unfortunates drift their way in Nobuo’s life.

Nobuo meets the first, a young boy his age named Kiichi, on a bridge one rainy day. They swiftly become friends and Kiichi invites him to his houseboat, a ramshackle piece of junk that miraculously stays afloat. Nobuo is shocked by what he sees: desperate poverty the likes of which he never imagined. Kiichi’s shoes are full of holes, they have to ration clean drinking water, and they have almost no food. Kiichi’s widowed mother, Shoko, has been forced into prostitution, bringing clients to her private room at night while her children sleep just a few walls away. Kiichi’s older sister, Ginko, seems spiritually crushed, perhaps aware that she is doomed to follow in her mother’s footsteps.

And yet Nobuo and Kiichi become inseparable. Though initially apprehensive about their mother’s reputation, Shinpei and his wife Sadako welcome Kiichi and Ginko into their home with open arms. There are many quiet moments of soft comedy during this sequence wherein Ginko tries to get Kiichi to behave properly in spite of their “uncivilized” upbringing. Shinpei throws out a couple of friends who come to their shop for noodles only to mock Kiichi and Ginko’s mother for being a whore. Sadako quickly comes to treat Ginko as the daughter she never had, giving her a pretty (and expensive) dress and taking her to a bathhouse.

Time passes and little moments come and go: Nobuo witnesses what may or may not have been a man drowning himself in the river, a barge captain throws Nobuo and Kiichi a melon as they pass by their houses, and the two of them go to a local festival only to accidentally lose their spending money. In one scene, Shinpei takes Nobuo to visit his dying ex-wife in her final moments. These scenes may seem superfluous to those accustomed to more traditional cinematic narrative techniques. But they are just as essential to the film as any other. After all, is childhood ever a straight, streamlined chain of events? More often than not childhood is composed of distractions, daydreams, and seemingly innocuous vignettes that for whatever reason become burned into our memories.

And then there is the hardest emotion for children to swallow: sadness. One night Kiichi invites Nobuo onboard his house and lights a series of crabs on fire. Such an act of cruelty seems out of place and repellent. But as Nobuo tries to save one, he accidentally spies Shoko with a client. They make eye contact for a brief moment. And then we realize, in the pit of our stomach, that with the boon of a customer Kiichi and his family will have to move on. And the next day, to Nobuo’s confusion, the boat, and his friend, are gone. Why did Kiichi incinerate the crabs? Was it to repulse Nobuo and make their separation easier? That is one explanation. But the true answer remains elusive. All that remains is the pain, the loss, the loneliness.

Throughout the film Nobuo and Kiichi catch glimpses of a legendary giant carp that inhabits the murky bottom of the Kyū-Yodo River. Declaring it their secret, it becomes one of the impetuses for their friendship. In Japanese culture, the carp, or “koi,” is a symbol of strength and masculinity that is frequently associated with young children. It is believed that this tradition stems from an ancient Chinese legend wherein carp transform into dragons if they manage to swim upstream and jump over a waterfall located at the Dragon’s Gate. Many try, but most fail. 

In post-war Osaka, some boys were blessed with enough prosperity to escape poverty and become mighty dragons. But many, like Kiichi, were swept away downstream until all that was left of them were memories. Muddy River is one such memory, resplendent in its beauty, agonizing in its honesty.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

To Sleep with Anger

Directed by Charles Burnett
The United States of America

In the backyard of his comfortable home nestled in the bosom of South Central Los Angeles, Gideon throws a handful of feed into the chicken coop. Though nowadays he can most certainly afford to buy his chickens from the market, his Deep South beginnings betray him. The sun is bright and the brown ground scuffs his bare feet. In the living room, his wife Suzie leads a group of pregnant women in breathing exercises. The only sounds to be heard are her gentle voice, the exhalation of air, and the scurrying of her grandson Sunny upstairs. Next door a young boy noisily blows on a trumpet in the attic. The squawks and honks elicit the laughter and jeers of neighborhood children. For Gideon and his family, such is just another afternoon in the black middle class.

But all is not well. Sunny’s father, “Babe Brother,” the youngest of Suzie’s two sons, is unreliable and neglectful: he spoils his child, forgets about his mother’s birthday, and weasels his way out of helping Gideon fix his roof. And so, Gideon is angry with his son’s laziness and dishonesty. Junior, Suzie’s eldest, resents the “special treatment” he is convinced his parents gave Babe. And Babe is frustrated by his family’s suffocating demands. Though far from dysfunctional, the threads keeping this extended family together have begun to fray. Anger and resentment have started to creep into the recesses of their everyday lives. And elsewhere strange omens abound: Gideon’s dreams are filled with images of burning fruit and flaming feet, objects in the kitchen knock themselves over onto the floor, and their toby, a kind of protective charm passed down through the generations, goes missing.

And then comes a knock at the door.

In his pocket, a ratty address book. In his hand, a hat. On his lips, a smile brimming with honeyed affection. His name in Harry, and it’s been thirty years since last they’ve met. And though Gideon and Suzie are eager to welcome their old friend into their home, they have no way of knowing the evil that has crossed their doorway. And so the trap is sprung in Charles Burnett’s piercing meditation on African-American folklore simply titled To Sleep with Anger.

The title comes from an old saying: “Never go to bed angry.” Perhaps originating from Ephesians 4:26, the saying explains that couples should never go to sleep if they have unresolved issues or differences. To do so would only allow that anger and frustration to fester and take deeper root. Indeed, as the title would suggest, To Sleep with Anger watches as Gideon and Suzie’s family is corrupted from within by their enigmatic guest.

At first Harry is warmly amiable and friendly, though perhaps a bit rustic and superstitious. When somebody accidentally touches his feet with a broom, his goes pale and immediately throws salt over his shoulders. During a card game with Babe Brother he pulls out a knife to pick his thumbnail. He delights in showing Sunny the rabbit’s foot tied to it, explaining that it is meant to replace his toby which he “lost years ago.” He even helps Junior with his work around the house.

But ever so slowly, a more sinister side of Harry begins to seep out. He harasses and humiliates an old “blues singer” girlfriend who has converted to Christianity. His suggestion of holding a fish fry leads to the introduction of an assortment of drinkers, gamblers, and degenerates who seem to materialize onto their front porch. Eventually his poisonous words convince Babe Brother to abandon his family. Finally, the tensions borne of Harry’s presence leads to arguments, fighting...and murder.

Much of To Sleep with Anger originates from the personal experiences of director Charles Burnett. Though born in Mississippi, he was raised in Los Angeles where he managed to attend UCLA’s graduate film program. Burnett, alongside other UCLA students from the 60s to the 80s, such as Julie Dash and Haile Gerima, would help start the L.A. Rebellion, a movement of African-American filmmakers who would create a distinctly Black Cinema. Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1977), his Master of Fine Arts thesis, was a penetrating glance into the African-American culture present in Los Angeles’ Watts district. To this day it is viewed as one of the masterpieces of Black American cinema.

But if Killer of Sheep took a Neorealist view of urban culture, To Sleep with Anger is positioned firmly within the Gothic. The film isn’t an observation, but an indictment of a community trapped between the contemporary and the traditional. Indeed, Harry has been described by Burnett as a character archetype from rural African-American lore: “He’s a [trickster] that comes to steal your soul, and you have to out-trick him. You can bargain with him. But you have to be more clever than he is.” If Gideon and Suzie’s family personifies those black families who sought to transition into the American middle class, then Harry is their Southern roots come knocking with temptations of superstitions, blues, and corn liquor. Harry is the embodiment of the ambivalence felt by many African-Americans (including Burnett himself) towards a past that provided a rich cultural milieu at the expense of slavery, servitude, and oppression.

These struggles are repeatedly pronounced via juxtapositions within Gideon and Suzie’s household. Watch how Burnett’s direction alternates between the realistic and the fantastical. Listen to the soundtrack’s struggle between pious church music and seductive blues guitar. Observe how simple superstitions like folk remedies and the observance of omens betray outward attempts at modernization. To Sleep with Anger is a thick, multi-textured film that begs for multiple viewings. To see it only once is to merely glean over the surface of one of the richest experiences in American Black cinema.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

乱れ雲 (Scattered Clouds)

Directed by Mikio Naruse

What is he supposed to say? What can he say to the grieving family that he ripped asunder? Though the courts may have found him not guilty, he can hardly cope with the guilt of his actions. So against the advice of his colleagues, he attends the wake. After bowing to the portrait of the deceased, he turns to the man’s family.

“Mrs. Eda...I am Shiro Mishima, of Meiji Commercial. I’m very sorry about the accident.”

The father balks indignantly. “You? Are you the driver? Are you the one who killed my son?" Silence. Yes, Mishima was the driver who, while entertaining company guests, accidentally ran over Hiroshi Eda. But he didn't just kill Hiroshi that fateful day, he destroyed the happy plans he had made with his wife Yumiko to move to the United States and start a new life. Now Yumiko is merely an expectant widow. As Mishima is quickly escorted from the wake by a colleague, she blasts him with a look filled with all the hatred, contempt, and impotent fury that her soul can muster.

So begins Mikio Naruse's Scattered Clouds, a melodrama of impossible love that marked the end of one of Japan's greatest filmmakers. In two years Naruse, director of 87 feature films, would be dead. Though usually overshadowed by contemporaries like Akira Kurosawa and Kenji Mizoguchi, Naruse gained a reputation over four decades of work as one of the definitive early Japanese filmmakers. And if Scattered Clouds was his curtain call, it stands as nothing less than his apotheosis.


After the wake, Yumiko and Mishima coincidentally end up in the same small town in rural Japan. Yumiko’s name (and inheritance) was revoked by her family, forcing her to move in with her sister Ayako who runs a country hotel. Meiji Commercial, seeking to avoid further scandal, unknowingly transfers Mishima to the same location. It is the kind of twist that can only occur in the most extravagant of melodrama. Yet for Naruse, who devoted much of his career directing shomin-geki, or films about the lower middle classes (particularly concerning women facing incredible adversity), such a development serves as a dramatic catalyst instead of as a convenient method to further the plot.

Indeed, Naruse’s protagonists frequently retreat to the countryside where they discover great insights into their own personal struggles. In Floating Clouds (1955), an obsessed woman follows the object of her affection to the countryside after he is transferred. In Yearning (1964), the roles are reversed: a young woman is pursued by her brother-in-law to Northern Japan after she romantically rejects him. But in these films, the movement to the countryside precedes the rejection of affections. In the end, both the woman from Floating Clouds and the brother-in-law from Yearning are abandoned. But the opposite occurs in Scattered Clouds: the movement to the countryside serves as the impetus for Yumiko and Mishima to fall in love. And if not for a cruel twist of fate, we could fully believe that they could have lived happily ever after.

At first, Yumiko is understandably distant from Mishima. Both have been terribly wounded: Mishima by his inconsolable guilt and Yumiko by the loss of her future. But they slowly become drawn to each other. Visits to Ayako’s inn lead to lunches which in turn lead to afternoons spent together in the countryside. During one outing, Mishima catches a fever and Yumiko spends the night taking care of him. As Mishima fades in and out of consciousness, he repeatedly tries to convince Yumiko that he is better and that she should leave. It is here that we see the true brilliance behind Naruse’s restrained direction: as Mishima suffers and Yumiko stands vigil, their internal emotional turmoil is expressed by the sounds of a terrible thunderstorm. Though frequently experimental in his early years, by his later career Naruse had developed a very subdued style, utilizing simplistic frame compositions and unobtrusive filming/editing techniques. His sparse screenplays relied chiefly on the actors’ abilities to physically emote their unspoken emotions. Therefore, the physical inaction of the actors juxtaposed with the violence of the storm outside results in a scene of overwhelming power.

But in the end their love can never be. News comes that Meiji Commercial is transferring Mishima to Pakistan for a minimum of three years. Mishima tries to convince Yumiko to come with him. But just before they can leave, they witness a car accident almost identical to the one that killed Hiroshi. In that moment, they realize deep inside themselves that their love if futile. The film ends with them sharing a meal at an inn. Mishima says that he will sing her a local song that supposedly will bring happiness to whoever hears it. As he sings, Yumiko gently weeps. And then, the film ends.

While some may find such an anti-climax jarring, it is essential to understanding Naruse’s work. Naruse once mentioned of his characters that “if they move even a little they quickly hit the wall. From the youngest age, I have thought that the world we live in betrays us; this thought still remains with me.” Such ingrained pessimism makes sense when examined from the perspective of Naruse’s life: his parents died when he was young, he struggled his whole life against poverty, and he was often delegated to thankless jobs while working for major studios. Through his films, Naruse evoked feelings and emotions inaccessible to most filmmakers...and audiences. As Michael Koresky once wrote: “[Naruse’s] stories are inhabited by people, generally women, imprisoned in their domestic and professional circumstances by the status quo, and hinge on tragic accidents and other twists of fate...[They are] reflections of everyday life, with vivid material presence and indelible figures who remain outwardly serene even as battles rage within. Naruse’s characters’ acquiescence to the way things are exemplifies the Japanese term mono no aware, which describes a resignation to life’s sadness.”

Let me leave you with one final story. While Naruse was near-death, he expressed his desire to make “a film to be shot with only white curtain backdrops, no real sets, no exteriors, all concentration on the nuances of human movement expressing feeling carved down to the quick.” Naruse never got to make that film. But then again, he rarely got what he wanted. Much like his protagonists, he was cheated out of his dream at the last minute. But such is life.

Such is life...

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Guess What Time It Is? That's Right: Hiatus Time!!

I really hate writing these messages, but I feel like I have to: I am going to have to go on a temporary hiatus. Having just graduated from graduate school, I am too busy looking for a job and dealing with (paying) freelance work to give this site the proper focus that I would like. So, I will be taking a break until September. Until that time, I hope to feature some guest posts on this site!

Until then, thank you for your patience and patronage!

Nathanael Hood

Friday, May 31, 2013

La Ragazza Che Sapeva Troppo (The Girl Who Knew Too Much)

Directed by Mario Bava

When later asked about his film The Girl Who Knew Too Much, director Mario Bava responded that he did not regard it fondly. In addition to being “preposterous,” he mentioned that it left such an insignificant impression on him that he couldn’t even remember the actors who played the leads. “Perhaps it could have worked with James Stewart and Kim Novak,” he remarked. Yes, maybe if he had the same actors as Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) the film would have been more famous. But as it stands, The Girl Who Knew Too Much is seen by many critics as a technically accomplished but insignificant entry in Bava’s oeuvre. And, in many respects, the film’s lukewarm reception isn’t unwarranted. The story is clumsy, rife with inappropriate (and ineffective) comic relief, and greatly overshadowed by the cinematography. And yet, The Girl Who Knew Too Much may very well be one of the most important horror films in history. Why? Because it served as a bridge between the horror of Hitchcock and Hollywood and the future of Italian horror, a much beloved and often imitated genre known simply as the “giallo.”

Giallo, the Italian word for “yellow,” is a term used to describe a series of mystery novels published by Mondadori in the late 1920s which boasted bright yellow covers. As the series became more popular, other publishers mimicked Mondadori’s marketing techniques until the term giallo became synonymous with the mystery genre. The term continued to evolve when giallo stories were adapted for the cinema. And, indeed, The Girl Who Knew Too Much was the very first giallo: a film hybrid mixing the mystery, horror, and thriller genres. Bava would further define the giallo with Blood and Black Lace (1964), a film which introduced extremely graphic and stylized violence (almost always committed against beautiful women) and an iconic black disguise donned by the narrative’s main killer. However, Blood and Black Lace’s contributions to the genre were mostly visual. It was The Girl Who Knew Too Much that would establish the traditional giallo narrative structure.

Much as the film’s title would suggest, The Girl Who Knew Too Much was heavily influenced by the work of Alfred Hitchcock. It centers around a young American woman named Nora who travels to Rome in order to meet her aunt. However, almost immediately after she arrives she finds herself in the middle of a terrible murder plot. First, her aunt dies when she goes to see her. Next, she is mugged in the Piazza di Spagna. And finally, she witnesses a bearded man murder a young woman and drag her body away before she can alert the authorities. There are two very Hitchcock-esque traits to be found in these opening scenes. First, Nora is an innocent woman thrown into violent circumstances beyond her control. In Hitchcock’s films, this frequently manifested itself as the Wrongly Accused Hero plot archetype. Second, whenever Nora tries to tell people about what she saw, she is dismissed or ignored. Together, these create a perverse atmosphere of paranoia and dread; a sense that the world is cruelly and deliberately conspiring against the protagonist.

After the attack, Nora decides to independently pursue the truth surrounding that terrible murder. A devoted reader of mystery novels (we see her reading one on the plane to Italy) the likes of which inspired the film to begin with, she starts her own investigation. Along the way, she makes several allies: Dr. Marcello Bassi, the man who had been caring for Nora’s aunt, Laura Torrani, one of her aunt’s dear friends who lets her stay in her house, and an investigative reporter named Landini who had been investigating a series of murders attributed to the “Alphabet Killer,” a serial killer known for picking out victims with names in alphabetical order (“A” -- Gina Abbart, “B” -- Maria Beccati, “C” -- Emily Craven). However, it doesn’t take long for her snooping to catch the attention of unwanted parties. She receives an ominous phone call that says, “D is for death.” Nora’s last name? Davis.

Watching The Girl Who Knew Too Much, I was struck by how often Bava mimicked Hitchcock’s cinematographic techniques. The film’s black and white photography was obviously largely inspired by Hollywood film noir’s high-contrast, expressionist cinematography. But Bava seems to transform the camera itself into an omnipresent character. One shot in particular reminded me of the famous Sebastian mansion tracking shot in Notorious (1946): when Laura first invites Nora into her home, the camera tracks them as move through the rooms before breaking away from the two women and zooming in on the doors of Laura’s husband’s locked study. Then, via an unfortunate smash edit, it continues to zoom in until it focuses on a picture of Laura’s husband. While much of the rest of the film’s blocking, framing, and camera movements are highly subjective and reflect Nora’s state of mind, this shot is an enigma. There are literally no characters nearby who could be seeing what the audience is witnessing. This shot is from the camera’s point of view and exists for the benefit of the audience. In a stylistic flourish that Hitchcock frequently indulged in and practically perfected, the audience is transformed from fellow spectators into voyeurs.

And, essentially, voyeurism is at the heart of giallo. As the genre would evolve, it would become more and more indulgent with its use of colors, sets, and murder scenes. Red herrings, like some of the plot cul-de-sacs in The Girl Who Knew Too Much, would become a favored technique of giallo directors to keep its protagonists, and by extension the audience, misdirected and confused. Why were so many giallo victims women? Probably because, on a very primal and unspeakable level, killing a beautiful woman is like smashing a stained glass window with a rock. Both are destructive acts, but they are impossible to look away from. We take perverse pleasure in watching such corruption and annihilation. Where did this sense of voyeurism come from? Hitchcock. And in between Hitchcock and giallo is Mario Bava. Or, more specifically, The Girl Who Knew Too Much.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

American Pop

Directed by Ralph Bakshi
The United States of America

“I had this dream that animation could be the medium of the people...if Disney worked for the middle class, I was gonna work for the kids in the street.” - Ralph Bakshi

Somewhere in New York City, a skinny young man with hair as yellow as corn weaves in and out of a nerve-frayed punk wasteland. He carries a bag of narcotics which will soon pulsate through the veins of a generation of alienated musicians. It is the 1980s and everyone he meets seems bleary-eyed, sick, and apathetic. However, as he struts down the streets, he hears a sound which catches his attention: an Orthodox Jew singing a hymn. The young man stops, turns, adjusts his sunglasses to get a better look. Something stirs deep inside him and he begins to pulsate in time with the singing. As he walks away to meet his customers, the young man can’t shake the odd rhythm.

This young man is Pete Bolinski. And though he doesn’t know it, he has just reunited with a heritage that he didn’t even realize was his birthright. It is a heritage of culture and religion, of traditions lost in the shuffle of war and tragedy. It is a heritage of several generations of young men who in seeking to find their place in American society helped forge it. But most of all, it is a heritage of music; a heritage of American pop.

Audacious in scope and staggering in ambition, Ralph Bakshi’s American Pop is one of the great iconoclastic animator’s most indomitable films. The film manages to chart nearly 90 years of history in approximately the same number of minutes, creating a lush tapestry of emotion and drama that attempts nothing less than a summation of 20th century American popular music.

Most sources claim that American Pop follows four generations of the Bolinski family. But actually, it covers five. The first is Rabbi Jaacov Bolinski, the victim of a late 1890s pogrom in Tzarist Russia. As his community is attacked by Cossacks, Rabbi Jaacov forces his wife and ten-year-old son, Zalmie, to flee as he stays behind to finish his interrupted prayer and protect the Torah. The scene of Jaacov’s death, his family’s flight, and the ghetto’s destruction is set to the sounds of a Ukrainian religious chant. This haunting music is like a kaddish for the Bolinskis as they mourn the loss of their old lives, their old ways, their old songs.

As a nation of immigrants, American culture and music was borne not on its own shores, but from the tattered remnants of the Old Countries. In this way, Rabbi Jaacov Bolinski and his martyred songs are just as important as his descendants.

Zalmie and his mother eventually take up residence in New York City’s Lower East Side. While Mrs. Molinski slaves away in the garment-district, Zalmie finds work handing out chorus slips at burlesque houses. His talents as a singer are quickly discovered by the other performers. After Mrs. Molinski is killed in the Triangle Shirtwaist Company holocaust, Zalmie becomes a full-time performer specializing in “juveniles,” or roles that take advantage of his angelic voice.

But after receiving a vicious throat wound during World War One, he abandons the stage and falls in with mobsters so he can support his new wife and child, Benny.

As a teenager, Benny throws himself into the world of music and becomes a jazz piano virtuoso. And yet, there is something...off...about Benny. I suspect that today he would be diagnosed with either autism or Asperger’s. Painfully shy and rigidly introverted, he doesn’t even scream or cry when he watches his mother get accidentally killed by a bomb intended for Zalmie. He just silently watches and continues playing the piano.

He eventually marries the daughter of Zalmie’s mob boss and impregnates her. But it’s easy to suspect that if the marriage hadn’t been arranged, Benny would have lived a life of self-imposed celibacy

Despite Zalmie’s objections, Benny enlists to fight in World War Two. In one of the truly transcendent moments of Bakshi’s career, Benny discovers a piano in a bombed out building in Nazi Germany. As he begins to play As Time Goes By, a Nazi soldier emerges from the rubble and takes aim at him. Benny pauses for just a moment before playing the first few bars of Lili Marleen. The Nazi, overcome with emotion, closes his eyes. For a few short seconds they partake in a communion of beauty and joy. “Danke.” Gunshots. A blood-stained piano.

Cut to years later and Zalmie’s son, Tony, is a spaced-out pressure cooker of anger and fear who steals his stepfather’s car and goes on a cross-country roadtrip. During one stop in Kansas, he finds a moment of peace with a beautiful blonde-haired, blue-eyed waitress. We suspect that this tryst will be one of the last times that anything will truly make sense in his life. For Tony is so uptight that he seems doomed to self-destruction.

Once in San Francisco, Tony joins a six-piece rock group as a harmonica player. Visions of Haight-Ashbury, heroin, and rock ‘n’ roll coalesce into the mother of all bad trips that leaves his lover, the lead singer of the band (an amalgam of Grace Slick and Janis Joplin), dead of an overdose and himself stranded in New York City with a familiar-looking blonde-haired young boy.

Perhaps realizing that his continued presence will only serve to doom his son, Tony abandons the boy (after taking his acoustic guitar to pawn for drug money).

The boy eventually becomes a man: Pete Bolinski, drug-dealer extraordinaire for the New York punk scene. Just as Zalmie before him, Pete is a stranger in a strange land, forced to hustle for survival on the mean streets of NYC. And just like his fathers before him, he is destined for a career and future in American pop. One day he forces one of his clients to record one of his songs or he will cut off their supply. The band reluctantly agrees. The rest...is history.

American Pop saw the height of Bakshi’s talents both as a storyteller and an animator. The rotoscoping techniques that Bakshi experimented with in Wizards (1977) and The Lord of the Rings (1978) reach new levels of beauty and magnificence in American Pop.  By rotoscoping his characters (and historical footage from classic movies like The Public Enemy [1931] and Stormy Weather [1943]), the film exudes an aura of authenticity, almost like an animated documentary.

Unlike his earlier films like Heavy Traffic (1973) and Coonskin (1975) where characters were represented as extreme racial caricatures, Bakshi and his animators took great pains to detail every nook and cranny of their subjects. Some might find this technique repellant, but I think it highlights a facet of Bakshi’s work that has gone criminally under-appreciated and under-examined: his warm humanism.

As I see more and more of Bakshi’s films, the more and more I’ve come to view him as a cinematic humanist of the same caliber as Jean Renoir and Robert Bresson. Yes, Bakshi exploits crude stereotypes. He is provocative, but very rarely towards individuals. Bakshi’s crosshairs are always pointed at corrupt societies, manipulators, liars, con men, and sell-outs. His characters wear the grotesque labels of racism, homophobia, misogyny, and hatred as badges of honor, transforming them into weapons with which to annihilate the ignorant. Here in American Pop, Bakshi refuses to simplify his characters. They are fat, misshapen, ugly, scared, and transcendentally beautiful.

Some might say that American Pop is a tragedy that mourns the destructive influence of American society on the marginalized. But I think Bakshi had other ideas. Notice how, despite everything that the five generations of Bolinskis lose, they always have the music. It is an inexplicable bond that connects them together through the fires of war and the march of time. It is something that can never be broken, defined, or explained. It is the fire of the pogroms, the crowded seats of vaudeville halls, the bleary-eyed piano players, the human debris of the Lost Generation, and the punks with nothing to lose. It is American Pop.