幕末太陽傳 Bakumatsu Taiyoden (A Sun-Tribe Myth from the Bakumatsu Era, aka Sun in the Last Days of the Shogunate, 1957)

It’s all too easy to think of the 19th century here in the UK as the ‘Victorian era’ for the most part, and have an idea of what kind of feeling and look to expect from a 19th century-set film. However, other countries obviously have their own eras, and the Bakumatsu era lies towards the end of the 19th century in Japan, when the shogunate was ending and Japan was moving towards a less isolationist policy.


I get the feeling that the great works of Japanese art heralded in the West are generally in your Kurosawa school of well-mounted historical epics, but this Japanese favourite is clearly a comedy. The central character, a grifter who is mostly called “the Grifter” (Frankie Sakai), strikes me as nothing so much as a John Belushi-like figure of excess and troublesomeness, as he makes his living doing odd jobs and taking advantage of people at a brothel. The introductory section set in the modern era immediately suggests some contemporary criticism of Japanese post-war morality (under which prostitution was banned), but this works as a period-set rambunctious comedy from the time when Japan was starting to embrace the rest of the world, albeit not always willingly.

CREDITS
Director Yuzo Kawashima 川島雄三; Writers Kawashima, Shohei Imamura 今村昌平 and Keiichi Tanaka 田中啓一; Cinematographer Kurataro Takamura 高村倉太郎; Starring Frankie Sakai フランキー堺, Yoko Minamida 南田洋子, Sachiko Hidari 左幸子; Length 110 minutes.
Seen at aunt’s home (DVD), Gullane, Tuesday 26 December 2017.

Women Filmmakers: Cécile Decugis

Cécile Decugis (1934-2017) has never really been a prominent film name, which is a shame. She may have only made a handful of short and medium-length films as director (which I like well enough), but she makes it to my Women Filmmakers’ feature for her more prominent work as a film editor. She worked on some of the most important French Nouvelle Vague films of the 1950s and 1960s, films which were known particularly for their innovative editing (usually ascribed to their more famous directors). These films include many of the works of Éric Rohmer (she worked with him through to the 1980s), as well as a few other minor works you may not have heard of like À bout de souffle (Breathless, 1959) and Les Quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows, 1959, along with Marie-Josèphe Yoyotte, another editor, of Martinican heritage). Her activism on behalf of Algerian independence began in the late-1950s with her first short film, and ended up costing her two years in prison from 1960-62. Her own films were often about people in a certain existential confusion, it seems to me, and I got a chance to see them at the invaluable Il Cinema Ritrovato festival (though I only caught half of the full programme).

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Criterion Sunday 239: The Lower Depths (1936/1957)

I am perhaps missing something, but Renoir somehow contrives to make this story of the poorest in society seem like another of his genteel comedies of etiquette and civility, a twirl through upper-class society mores but with shabbier clothes and fewer prospects. It certainly doesn’t feel like something based on a Russian source, but then perhaps in 1936 that’s not the kind of story that was needed. The poor and the rich are just part of a continuum perhaps, all on the same level, and certainly the Baron character moves swiftly and easily between the two. Still, not much seems particularly convincing, though Gabin remains a watchable screen presence in the lead role as a likeable thief.

A few decades later and Kurosawa’s take on Gorky’s slum-set drama really gets the sense of grinding poverty that eluded Renoir, I think. That said, by this point, Mifune’s scowling renegade character seems a little weary, barking at all the other characters in the way that hardly ingratiates him as a charismatic centre. No, instead this film is really about all the other flophouse inhabitants, each of whom has their various intersecting thing going on (and reminds me a little of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Hana). To be honest, none of it ever really held me, but Kurosawa has a way with the camera and the staging that remains impressive.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection

Les Bas-fonds (The Lower Depths, 1936)
Director Jean Renoir; Writers Yevgeni Zamyatin Евге́ний Замя́тин, Jacques Companéez, Renoir and Charles Spaak (based on the play На дне Na dne by Maxim Gorky Макси́м Го́рький); Cinematographer Fédote Bourgasoff Федор БУРГАСОВ; Starring Jean Gabin, Suzy Prim, Louis Jouvet; Length 95 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 11 February 2019.

どん底 Donzoko (The Lower Depths, 1957)
Director Akira Kurosawa 黒澤明; Writers Hideo Oguni 小国 英雄 and Kurosawa (based on the play На дне Na dne by Maxim Gorky Макси́м Го́рький); Cinematographer Kazuo Yamasaki 山崎市雄; Starring Toshiro Mifune 三船 敏郎, Kyoko Kagawa 香川 京子, Isuzu Yamada 山田 五十鈴; Length 124 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 14 February 2019.

Criterion Sunday 190: 蜘蛛巣城 Kumonosu-jo (Throne of Blood, 1957)

The most striking aspect of this (very loose) adaptation of Shakespeare is the mist that swirls about the characters, especially at the start as they ride about, lost, in “Cobweb Forest”, and again at the end with its strange uncanny trees. The costume design, too, is richly detailed, as Kurosawa transposes the story to feudal Japan, with a number of competing warlords seeking to usurp one another’s power and thus Shakespeare’s story doesn’t seem out of place at all, even within Kurosawa’s own oeuvre. Toshiro Mifune has never been more expressive in his facial acting — perhaps too much so at times — and the persistent sense of imminent danger, as well as those atmospheric effects, remain the finest achievements of this adaptation.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Akira Kurosawa 黒澤明; Writers Shinobu Hashimoto 橋本忍, Ryuzo Kikushima 菊島隆三, Kurosawa and Hideo Oguni 小国英雄 (based on the play Macbeth by William Shakespeare); Cinematographer Asakazu Nakai 中井朝一; Starring Toshiro Mifune 三船敏郎, Isuzu Yamada 山田五十鈴, Takashi Shimura 志村喬; Length 110 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 7 January 2018 (and years earlier on TV).

Criterion Sunday 146: Летят журавли Letyat zhuravli (The Cranes Are Flying, 1957)

It’s worrying to recall that I’ve put off seeing this film for so long (a couple of decades since I studied film and first learned about it) because I just thought it looked a bit dull and earnest, in a typically propagandistic Soviet sort of way. Anyone who’s seen it will know this is totally the wrong idea to take of such a glorious work of almost pure cinema. Indeed, it far more presages the French New Wave in its lyrical flights of fancy, its crisp editing and remarkable monochrome cinematography. It’s a love story set against the backdrop of World War II — familiar enough — but it fights shy of any too obvious symbolism, and though you can somewhat predict how things will go, it also confounds some of those expectations. It really is a masterpiece.

Criterion Extras: Simply nothing, except an essay in the booklet. I’ve been critical of these bare-bones releases in the past (the sort of thing one imagines they started the Eclipse imprint to do), but it’s such a startling and beautiful film it almost needs nothing aside from a clean transfer of the print — which it has.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Mikhail Kalatozov Михаи́л Калато́зов; Writer Viktor Rozov Виктор Розов (based on his play); Cinematographer Sergey Urusevsky Серге́й Урусевский; Starring Tatiana Samoilova Татья́на Само́йлова, Aleksey Batalov Алексе́й Бата́лов; Length 97 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 26 February 2017.

Criterion Sunday 139: Smultronstället (Wild Strawberries, 1957)

Another one of those classics that always crops up on lists (I’ve been watching a few of them recently, not least on the Criterion Collection) but it succeeds on the basis of Victor Sjöström’s performance as the old professor close to death. He’s looking back on his life, often watching scenes from 50-60 years earlier, and seeing — as we are — what a difficult man he’s been and how he needs to open up. There’s heavy-handed use of the various women he meets (and has known) to drive the point home, which works if you accept this is very much told not just about him, but from his point of view.

Criterion Extras: There’s a commentary track by Stephen Prince, who covers many of the themes, although I am not such a huge fan of his style, though he appears on plenty of Criterion’s Bergman releases. There’s also an introduction by Bergman, which I gather is an outtake from one of the many documentaries about his life and work.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Ingmar Bergman; Cinematographer Gunnar Fischer; Starring Victor Sjöström, Bibi Andersson, Ingrid Thulin; Length 91 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 8 January 2017.

Criterion Sunday 49: Le notti di Cabiria (Nights of Cabiria, 1957)

Looking over a plot summary for Nights of Cabiria, I admit I found myself somewhat exasperated to see yet another Fellini film based around a happy-go-lucky prostitute. Surely a male-authored fiction by one such as Fellini (whose co-writers all look the model of patriarchal entitlement) could be counted on to treat sex workers as little more than adolescent male fantasies of sexual availability. After all, I found some of the treatment of the prostitute character in 1973’s Amarcord to be rather puerile and breast-fixated — hardly uncommon in 1970s cinema in particular, and that particular film was clearly made from the point of view of teenage boys. In any case (to return to the film under discussion), here, earlier in Fellini’s career, the spirit of his filmmaking seems different, closer perhaps to the neo-realism of his roots. There’s a real generosity towards the title character (played by Giulietta Masina), introduced being pushed into a river by a boyfriend who makes off with her purse, and who goes on to be screwed over by a succession of further weak men. She’s had a difficult life, but she has a strong friendship with a neighbour (and fellow prostitute), Wanda, with whom she has plans to get out of the game once they’ve paid off their mortgages. It’s once again a film with an episodic, wandering narrative, but at the core of everything is Cabiria, who despite her many setbacks manages to retain a cheerful if at times sarcastic demeanor. This is hardly to say it’s a feminist masterpiece, but it’s certainly got a lot more depth than I’d initially given it credit for.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Federico Fellini; Writers Fellini, Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli and Pier Paolo Pasolini; Cinematographers Aldo Tonti and Otello Martelli; Starring Giulietta Masina; Length 118 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 16 August 2015.

The Ranown Cycle of Westerns

Strictly speaking, the ‘Ranown Film’ credit applies to only two films (Ride Lonesome and Comanche Station), but it’s generally extended to refer to the cycle of six (or sometimes seven) Westerns directed over a five year period by Budd Boetticher, produced by Harry Joe Brown and starring Randolph Scott (the latter names combining for the production credit). I haven’t seen 1959’s Westbound (a contract picture for Warner Bros. that Scott was tied to, and which Boetticher directed though didn’t personally consider part of the cycle), but certainly the other six combine to create a singular body of work. They’re united not just by their director, producer and leading man, but by their common shooting location in California’s Alabama Hills, and their themes — generally speaking, they’re about men and the manifestations (and perhaps, if we’re being generous, limitations) of masculinity. For these are very much manly films, though there are women in them (and some strong supporting roles at that, particularly Gail Russell in Seven Men from Now and Nancy Gates in Comanche Station). Indeed, “A Man Can Do That” is the subtitle of the somewhat patchy documentary about Boetticher included as an extra on the boxset of the latter five films, and much of the dialogue has that kind of laconic old-fashioned ring to it, along the lines of “A man gets to thinking…” that emphasise the hero’s status as a lone outsider forging his own way in a tough frontier country. No doubt some of this comes from Boetticher’s own interests and upbringing, manifested by his fascination with bullfighting (a subject he returned to in a number of his other films), but this is an enduring trope of a genre that has periodically returned to popularity since, but was still in its most classical phase in the 1950s, prior to the revisionism of the latter part of the 60s.

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