The Classic Symbiotic Collaborations Blogathon: Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune

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For nearly as long as there has been cinema, directors have found actors who so succinctly covey the director’s vision of their characters that they work together over and over.  From Griffith and Gish to Ford and Wayne to Scorsese and De Niro the combination of a great director and a great actor have given film lovers something to look forward to.  Even if the result isn’t greatness, the result is always interesting.  In the history of cinema no director-actor combination has been more artistically fruitful than Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune.  Through nearly 20 years and 16 films they together produced a collaborative body of work without peer.  Fifty years after their final film together was released, their combined efforts read like a laundry list of must see films of world cinema; Rashomon, Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, The Hidden Fortress, Yojimbo, Sanjuro, High and Low, and Red Beard just to name the best regarded (which in case you weren’t counting is half their collective filmography).  To appreciate their work together, I’ve chosen to focus on three films: their first together Drunken Angel, the first in which Mifune alone had top billing Throne of Blood, and their final film together Red Beard.

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According to Donald Richie’s book The Films of Akira Kurosawa (the first English language volume on Kurosawa) Kurosawa called 1948’s Drunken Angel his first picture.  “In this picture I was finally myself.  It was my picture. I was doing it and no one else.”  In truth it is Kurosawa’s seventh film, but it was the first he had full control of, and it was the first featuring Toshiro Mifune.  The story of the relationship between an alcoholic doctor (Takeshi Shimura, Kurosawa’s great collaborator for the first ten years of his career) and a tubercular yakuza (Mifune) in postwar Tokyo, it touches on themes seen throughout much of Kurosawa’s films:  master-student relationships, the Westernization of Japanese culture, the perils of capitalism.  Though a very good film one sees both director and actor finding their way, not yet the icons they would become.  Mifune seems as if he doesn’t yet have the confidence to fully realize the explosive nature that would come to characterize his acting in years to come.  The bursts do come occasionally, but not with the energy and conviction seen later on in movies like Rashomon and Seven Samurai.

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Kurosawa seems too to be just settling into his artistic vision.  Though this would never be mistaken for an Ozu or Mizaguchi film, this is not yet the artist that would take the cinematic world by storm two years later after winning the Golden Lion at the 1950 Venice Film Festival for Rashomon.  The dynamic editing and bravura set pieces that became his aesthetic hallmark in both period pieces like Seven Samurai and contemporary pieces like High and Low are lacking here.  The one hallmark of Kurosawa that is here is weather.  There is a Kurosawa downpour, no light rain, no pleasant breezes in Kurosawa.  The rain comes in buckets, and the winds are monsoonal.  Though filmed during the winter, one can feel the heat in a Tokyo slum during summer.  And the weather always seems to reflect characters’ state of being or act as harbingers of change in his films.  And in this, Kurosawa is all ready a master.  In the Criterion Collection release of Drunken Angel, Richie’s commentary addresses this: “One could call this simplistic, the way that you could  I suppose call the plots of these pictures simplistic.  At least morally, at least philosophically. But you are not tempted to do so, it is done with such panache, and done with such finesse, and done with so little visible demand that you feel things, that you donate your feelings to Kurosawa.  You go right along with him and don’t even realize it.”

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By 1957’s Throne of Blood, both actor and director were fully formed.  An adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth transposed to 16th century Japan, Throne of Blood gives Mifune top billing alone.  In films like Rashomon and Seven Samurai, Mifune may have stole the show, but he was just one of an ensemble and Takeshi Shimura was still Kurosawa’s top actor.  Here Mifune alone is the star (though it can be argued that he himself was Mifuned by Isuzu Yamada who plays his wife).  Playing Taketori Washizu (Macbeth), Mifune gives one of his most energetic and finest performances.  Though many may find his acting over the top in the film, Kurosawa seems to have desired big performances from his male leads in his Shakespeare adaptations (see also Tatsuya Nakadai in Kurosawa’s late period masterwork Ran), and how Mifune delivered .  The interplay of Mifune’s caged tiger turn and Yamada’s very subdued, more stereotypically Japanese performance are one of the film’s great strengths.  As he paces back and forth mulling a decision, she sits placidly and moves him toward his fate (remember, it is Macbeth).  Mifune’s intensity went beyond his pacing and line readings.  In Stuart Galbraith IV’s dual biography on Mifune and Kurosawa The Emperor and the Wolf, Takeshi Kato who played a bit part in the film, relayed this anecdote; “Three cameras shot Mr. Mifune coming at me with a sword.  I put a piece of wood up my sleeve for safety when he stabbed me.  However, Mr. Mifune was so quick and powerful that he broke right through the wood and really stabbed me!”  For Throne of Blood and his two other 1957 films, Mifune won the Manichi (annual film awards sponsored by a Japanese newspaper conglomerate) Award for best actor.

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For Throne of Blood, Kurosawa took the combination of cinema and theater past just adapting The Bard.  Both the soundtrack and make-up are heavily influenced by the Japanese Noh theater, a strange combination as Shakespeare’s plays were for the masses and Noh the entertainment of the Japanese aristocracy.  However Kurosawa makes the disparate elements work.  Mifune’s make up makes his a face appear more and more like a mask traditionally used in the Noh.  Despite the theatrical pedigree Kurosawa had no interest in merely filming a staged play as was so often the case in Shakespearean adaptations, such as those of Laurence Olivier.  Kurosawa was insistent on doing more than this, and more than was the norm for Japanese historical dramas, “I’ve always thought the Japanese jidai (period film) is historically uninformed.  Also, it never uses modern film-making techniques.  In Seven Samurai we tried to do something about this, and Throne of Blood had the same feeling behind it.”  And Kurosawa achieved his goal.  Axial cuts, quick cut pans, multiple cameras, wipes to break scenes, and telephoto lenses, these are his modern techniques.  And recognizable to fans of Kurosawa as trademarks of his style through the 60s, and in the case of the axial cuts, lenses and cameras, beyond.  Throne of Blood was also a sneak peek of what was to come….in thirty years.  This was Kurosawa’s first film that ends on a note of hopelessness, a note that wouldn’t be seen again until his “late period” 70s and 80s films.

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In scholarly accounts of Kurosawa’s films (Richie’s book and Stephen Prince’s The Warrior’s Camera are particularly valuable in this area), the word didactic often comes up.  In his films, Kurosawa does seem to be trying to instruct his audience and we do see master-pupil relationships in his films.  Red Beard was his only film where this relationship is the subject of the film.  Sixteen years had passed since Drunken Angel when filming began.  The young gangster being schooled by the drunk doctor is now an elder doctor teaching a wealthy young doctor at a medical clinic for peasants during the Tokugawa period.  The relationship between the doctors though, is one of unlearning.  Red Beard (Mifune) teaches the young doctor Yasumoto (Yuzo Kayama) by showing that sometimes you must forget what you’ve learned in theory, to make a difference practically.  Because of television’s lessening of film audiences, Kurosawa “wanted to push the confines of movie making to their limits.”  Both Richie and Prince find this film to be unique in Kurosawa’s oeuvre.  Richie saying “the plot is as complicated as anything in Dickens, but there is no overriding form.  The film, to be sure, is vaguely cyclical.”  Despite not going so far as the French or Japanese New Wave directors were in demolishing classic film form, for a man whose films had arrow straight plots, this was a departure.  As was the story which moved away from the real world groundings typical of Kurosawa.  Per Stephen Prince, “Unlike the films of Ozu, Bresson, and Dreyer, which, it has been suggested (by Paul Schrader, my notation), belong to a tradition of ‘transcendental style,’ Kurosawa’s work has always exhibited an exclusive commitment to the surfaces of the material world.  Red Beard, however, is the exception.  This is a deeply spiritualistic film.”  In the years that followed, Red Beard remained the outlier.  As changing tastes, difficulty obtaining financing, and a failed suicide attempt led to Kurosawa trading spiritualism for nihilism.

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In his work with Kurosawa, Red Beard is a bit of an outlier for  Mifune as well.  His performance is far more subdued than seen in any of the other period pieces done with Kurosawa.  And for the first time in over ten years, Mifune was not the focus of the film.  Red Beard may loom over the film, but it is the young doctor who gets more of the screen time.  Instead of the animalistic Mifune of the 50s or the swagger of his wandering ronin in Yojimbo and Sanjuro, we get closer to middle aged man Mifune was in the mid 60s.  Now being the master in this film, maybe what happened next was inevitable.  Though the split between the two men was never explicitly detailed by either, the common story is this: The two year shoot for Red Beard, during which he could do no other films, left the financially strapped (a failing production company and bad decisions) Mifune questioning further collaborations with Kurosawa.  And Mifune taking work in lesser films left Kurosawa cool to more films together.  In Galbraith’s biography he says “the artistic benefits of working with Kurosawa were outweighed by the overwhelming business concerns that constantly plagued him (Mifune)” and that “Kurosawa felt betrayed and refused to understand how the actor could appear in inferior films.”  And thus ended what the British critic David Shipman called “The greatest actor-director partnership in film history.”

 

The Symbiotic Collaborations Blogathon is hosted by the CineMavens Essays from the Couch.  Go read all the great posts by a higher caliber of writer than myself.

France on Film Blogathon: The 400 Blows

When the average American film goer thinks of France in movies it is usually restricted to a few themes: tourist destinations, romance, culture, maybe even food or international intrigues.  Those with an affinity for classic Hollywood movies may have the popping Technicolor images of An American in Paris or ever so suave couple of Cary Grant and Grace Kelly being even more beautiful than the Riviera in Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief.  To those who move beyond American cinema and cross the Atlantic to the continent, we are allowed to glimpse France through the eyes of the French.  We are let into French life, to see it without the romantic filter. In the French New Wave, a new generation of filmmakers decided with revolutionary zeal to make truer to life films.  To shoot films out of the studio and in real world locations, apartments, cafes and city streets.  To tell personal and autobiographical stories.  And perhaps the most personal films of the New Wave were made by Francois Truffaut.

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For his first feature the critic turned auteur Truffaut looked to his childhood for inspiration (the time of life he often looked to for inspiration).  It follows the director’s film self Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Leaud) through his home and public school life to theft and reform school.  In the film’s post credit sequence, Antoine is caught with a pinup picture being passed around an all boys class.  From the beginning Antoine is marked as a troublemaker, but it is mostly in an unfair sense.  We never see Antoine doing anything the other kids don’t do, Antoine just has the merde luck to always get caught.  The most joyful scene in the film is Antoine and his friend Rene (based on Truffaut’s childhood friend Robert Lachenay) ditching school to see movies, also the film’s first scene to feature overt editing a bit of the self consciousness the New Wave also became known for.  Antoine is caught in lies about skipping school, including a particularly large lie, eventually runs away from home.  Finally steals a typewriter and is sent to reform school.  Leading to the finale and one the greatest closing shots in all of cinema.

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With The 400 Blows, Truffaut does something rarely seen in American cinema: an adult film about childhood.  Just as the romantic veneer is stripped away from Paris when seen through the eyes of a Parisian, Truffaut strips away the nostalgia so often apparent in American films on the topic.  There is no perfect family with a perfect child.  In most American family films, the strife comes from without.  With unflinching honesty, Truffaut shows it comes from within.  The parents are characterized as largely absentee and disinterested.  His mother stepping out on his step father, the step father more interested in his car rallies than Antoine.  Though family members were horrified by Truffaut’s characterizations according to Robert Lachenay “He could have been much harder on the parents.”

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And in that I find what makes this film so quintessentially French.  In French cinema there has always seemed to be more of a sober eyed view of life than in the cinema of America.  From realistic views of childhood in this and the film’s great influence, Jean Vigo’s Zero du conduit to holiday films like Arnaud Deshplechin’s 2008 A Christmas Tale.  French filmmakers are more than happy to remove the saccharine ideals of American films as commerce, and give an honest accounting.  So much of our cinema is giving the audience the dream, in France there is the artistic and intellectual integrity to give them the reality.

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Truffaut’s own childhood was as troubled as his protagonist’s.  Born to an unwed mother, abandoned by his father, he was raised by his grandparents for a time, then by his mother and stepfather.  When Truffaut was Antoine’s age, it was during the Nazi occupation of France.  He was sent to reform school, also for stealing a typewriter , joined the military and final found a home when taken on by legendary French film critic Andre Bazin.  Under Bazin, Truffaut became a well known French critic (long time Cinemateque Francais director Henri Langlois called him the greatest critic who ever lived) and finally became a filmmaker.  The director of 21 features Francois Truffaut died in 1984.

 

 

The Criterion Blogathon: Army of Shadows

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Spoilers abound…

The characters of Jean Pierre Melville’s drama of the French Resistance Army of Shadows are the living populating a world of death.  They are operating in a world of classical tragedy, their fates are decided.  These characters are not heroic “good guys” trying to pull off an epic operation to end the war, they are struggling to stay alive.  They are flawed people resisting as best they can during the German Occupation, hanging on to a slim hope for survival, or awaiting their inevitable demise.  Following the film’s opening scene, a recreation of German soldiers marching past the Arc de Triomphe and down the Champs Élysées, a pervading sense of doom hangs over the picture.  From Eric de Marsan’s haunting score to Melville’s cool color palate draining life from the people and landscapes alike, the film gives a feeling of uneasiness that doesn’t let go.  Even after the film has ended.  Adapted from the anecdotal novel by Joseph Kessel (also the writer of the source novel for Luis Buñuel’s Belle du Jour), Army has an episodic narrative that mostly follows Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura) leader of a small group of résistants; including Mathilde (Simone Signoret), Félix (Paul Crauchet), Jean-François (Jean-Pierre Cassel), Le Masque (Claude Mann),  and Le Bison (Christian Barbier) and finally Gerbier’s boss Luc Jardie (Paul Meurisse).  Lino Ventura was a rare actor.  As powerful in moments of quiet and stillness as in chaos and action, it is easy to see why Melville wanted Ventura in the role despite the two men not being on speaking terms dating back to their previous film together, Le Deuxiemme Souffle.  Ventura’s gravitas and physical presence are required for Gerbier.  With little establishment of character, we see most of the movie’s characters early on in the film deferring to Gerbier.  With Ventura, an explanation of why isn’t necessary.  His imposing persona and quiet confidence make it plain, he is a  man people would follow.   This is made clear in the scene following Gerbier’s escape from German custody early in the film.  What for me amounts to Army‘s defining scene, and the one that obliterates the idea that Melville was perpetuating the romantic myth of the Resistance is the killing of the man responsible for Gerbier beginning the film in a prison camp.

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Following Gerbier’s escape he along with Félix pick up a young man named Donat.  The scene of Donat’s execution is the film’s most brutal scene, and one of the two most powerful scenes in the film.  Upon arriving to the house where the deed is to be done, Gerbier and Félix are informed that neighbors have moved in next door and that there is no silencer for the pistol.  They search the kitchen for a knife, but only find towels.  The men discuss how they now will kill Donat, while the young man cowers in the corner as his death is decided upon.  Finally Gerbier decides that Donat is to be strangled with the towels, and despite the objections of the other men Gerbier wills it to be done.  It is devastating.  Félix strangles the now gagged Donat, while the only sounds on the soundtrack is the crying and muffled shrieks of Donat while Félix stares blankly and Gerbier holds his legs  Where most films would sanitize the execution of Donat, as to keep the audience firmly on the side of the “heroes,” Melville is uncompromising.  The action of the death is ugly and uncomfortable.  Donat’s muffled cries carry with you after viewing.  Melville does not allow for a white washed version of the Resistance, he shows that even on the side of right, horrible acts were committed.  This honesty, combined with Melville’s direction and the power Ventura’s and Crauchet’s acting makes the scene unforgettable.

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As good as Ventura is in the film, Simone Signoret as Mathilde, may be better.  Signoret here is middle aged, past her 1950’s sex symbol status.  Throughout the film Mathilde seems the most capable operative, and the most brazen.  It is Mathilde that takes the most risks.  Going out in disguise, and to the German prison to plan the escape for Félix and taking part in the attempted prison break.  She also takes the biggest, and ultimately most costly risk:  carrying a photo of her daughter.  She is captured by the Germans and they use the daughter as leverage to force her to divulge information.   Melville leaves it ambiguous as to whether or not Mathilde reveals anything to the Nazis, but it does not matter.  In a clandestine world the chance cannot be taken.  She must die, and those closest to her pull the trigger.  From Silien and Maurice in Le doulos to Alain Delon not being able to pull the trigger in Le samourai, in Melville’s world of hyper masculinity, there is no use for emotion and sentimentality.  They can only lead to death.  Nor is there  use for any kind of recognizable real world femininity.   Despite charges of misogyny, his 60’s films in particular, Melville’s late films exhibit more of an asexuality than a hatred towards women.  Signoret’s Mathilde is part of the increasingly sexless women of Melville’s late period.  The women become “one of the guys”, to the point that by his next film Melville had no female characters of consequence.  In her great study Jean-Pierre Melville: An American in Paris Ginette Vincendeau says: “Despite the erasure of her sexuality, and despite her courage as an agent…Mathilde’s femininity makes her the weakest link: against Gerbier’s express advice she keeps a picture of her daughter, providing a point of vulnerability that leads to her death and possibly that of others.”  Ultimately, the killing of Mathilde is a futile murder.  Following her death, title cards give us the fate of the men in the car.  None survive the war.

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Upon the film’s release in the United States it received near universal acclaim from American critics.  Sandwiched, chronologically, between his two late period masterpieces Le Samourai and Le Cercle Rouge, Army of Shadows was held in the same regard.  Amy Taubin in Criterion’s release called it “Elegant, brutal, anxiety-provoking, and overwhelmingly sad,” Newsweek’s David Ansen named it the best foreign film of the year, and in The Chicago Reader Jonathan Rosenbaum said ” I didn’t even want to admit at first that it’s a great film, but now I think it may be Melville’s best.”  The best summation of Army of Shadows, one quoted by Taubin in her Criterion essay, may be in Roger Ebert’s Great Movie essay: “Rarely has a film shown so truly that place in the heart where hope lives with fatalism.”  The praise was also noteworthy in that the film wasn’t shown in America for 27 years following its French release.  Released in France on September 12, 1969, residual effects of the May ’68 uprisings, rejection of DeGaulle and the World War II generation by the youth culture, and the continuing move to the political far left  by a majority of French intellectuals (to Maoism of all things) helped conspire to keep Army of Shadows unseen on this side of the Atlantic.  At the time, the sway of French film journal Cahiers du cinema over American art house film programmers was quite strong.  And in Cahiers, Jean-Louis Comolli gave it a particularly scathing review, referring to it as “the first and greatest example of Gaullist film art.” (In 1998 Cahiers devoted an issue to reappraising the work of Melville, acknowledging the great director he was.)  However contrary to this reading of the film and contrary to many other Resistance dramas of the time, Is Paris Burning? in particular, Army of Shadows is a somber and unromantic look at the Resistance.  And a powerful masterpiece of French cinema.

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Jean-Pierre Melville (1917-1973) made thirteen films in his career, following his own time in the Resistance and the Free French Army.  Many of which are, or have been available through Criterion including Army of Shadows, Le samourai, Le deuxiemme souffle, Le cercle rouge, Les enfants terrible, Leon Morin, Preist, Le doulos, Bob le Flambeur, and Silence de la mer.

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A big thanks to Criterion Blues, Speakeasy, and Silver Screenings for hosting this blogathon.  The Criterion Collection has given a great richness to cinephilia and I happy to have had the chance to take part in this with other movie lovers.  Please click on the link and read as many of the blogs as you can.

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Blanc de Noir: Fargo

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I didn’t watch the first season of FX’s anthology series Fargo whiled it was airing. Admittedly I tend towards snobbery, and the thought of a television series based on a film I love, made by filmmakers I love turned my nose up. I smelled a rat, television looking for a built-in audience to bump ratings and ad revenue. Last week I gave in and gave it shot (my shrink has recently informed me I need to do more things I don’t want to do, and this was I all I could muster right now). While the series obviously wasn’t of the quality of the film, it was an entertaining and enjoyable watch. Well acted and mostly well written, my only qualm with the show was the too clever, too smart master criminal antagonist whose (nearly) every machination works out perfectly. It is a character device of crime shows that I feel has seen its day and I could do without.  Despite this, finding it a pleasurable experience, I decided to get into season 2, which hits its halfway point tonight.

Season 1 was set in 2006, in keeping with Joel and Ethan Coen’s 1996 film which took place in the near past.  The series stuck to many conventions of the Coen’s film.  A small town female cop protagonist Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman), a husband (Martin Freeman) taking part in a crime against his wife, genre explorations (of noir in particular, if not with Coen’s witty subversions of the genre).  With season 2, the show runner Noah Hawley has taken a few steps away from the Coen’s vision, while remaining true to the movie’s spirit.  There are still nods to Midwestern politeness and snowscapes, but thus far season 2 has felt more Hawley and less Coen.  And this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

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Fargo has jumped back to 1979 for season 2, taking us to a case we heard about in season 1.  Molly Solverson’s retired Minnesota State Trooper father Lou (S1: Keith Carradine S2: Patrick Wilson) ran a diner that was a frequent locale in the first go around.  A couple times Lou referenced a 1979 case and Sioux Falls and a lot of bodies.  That, one can assume (even with all the ass, you, and me implications) is where this season will end up.  Between the cops, the North Dakota crime family the Gerhardts, and the Kansas City crime outfit trying to buy the Gerhardt’s business, the pieces are in place for a messy show down, but getting there should be fun.  While Jean Smart has been fantastic as the matriarch of the Gerhardt clan, it has been the Kansas City outfit with the most interesting, Fargo-est criminals.  Everybody Loves Raymond‘s Brad Garrett as Joe Bulo and Bokeem Woodbine as Mike Milligan, have the swagger, wit, and menace that would fit in a Coen brothers film.  Woodbine in particular is fantastic, there have been a few occasions over the first four episodes where I have found myself just wanting what is happening at the time to be over, and for Mike Milligan to be back on screen.

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Usually these moments occur during the scenes of Peggy and Ed Blomquist (Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemmons).  There has been nothing wrong with the acting, and their arc seems essential to the series. But their storyline hasn’t really grabbed me.  It is kind of a femme fatale noir line.  But the sociopathic woman, clueless husband/love interest bit has been done to death (see: 90% of all films noir).  While we are yet to be sure of all of Peggy Blomquist’s motivations (feminist self realization seems to be the only one we know of), as of right now I don’t care enough to think too much on it.  Nearly 50% of the season gone, that is a bit of a problem.  However, Wilson, Danson, Smart, Garrett, and Woodbine do more than enough to pick up the slack, and with any luck Nick Offerman’s Walter Sobchek-esque character, Karl Weathers, will make some more appearances. To paraphrase him, if John McCain can hold out for five years of Vietcong thumb screws, I can make it through two characters I don’t really care about.

Fargo does have a depth beyond that of the average crime drama. The 1970s setting also allows for some commentary on the changes taking place in the 70s and commentary on America today.  We see the KC outfit’s corporate model looking to take over the family business of the Gerhardts. Through Peggy, Mrs. Gerhardt and her granddaughter Simone (Rachel Keller), women questioning their traditional position in patriarchal society.  Garrett’s character quips at one point of Mrs. Gerhardt “she’s tough.  But you know…a girl.”  There would be room to address race as well, although I have a feeling that Milligan wasn’t necessarily conceived as a black character.  Though he seems to be the most educated character in show, which in itself says something.   Many characters in the show are also war veterans living in a post Vietnam world.  While Offerman’s character is the conspiracy theorist, burnt out, too much time in the shit vet, Wilson and Danson reflect many of the vets I have know (my grandfather in particular).  People that have seen the horror of war, don’t talk about it, wish they didn’t think about it, and don’t ask for any adulation for it.

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Through four episodes, through Minnesota and North Dakota, season 2 of Fargo moves on towards Sioux Falls with much to be decided.  Lou Solverson will survive, but who else will?  What will become of the Gerhardts, the KC outfit, the Blomquists?  Did anyone eat the Ry-burger?  And will the visitors return?  I want to believe.

Fargo airs Mondays at 10 PM on FX

TCM Discoveries Blogathon: La Jetée

This entry is part of the TCM Discoveries Blogathon hosted by The Nitrate Diva.  Please click on the link at the bottom for a full list of participating bloggers.

“Nothing tells memories from ordinary moments. Only afterwards do they claim remembrance, on account of their scars.”

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The above quote, from Chris Marker’s La Jetée, I chose as one apropos to the films of Chris Marker and my relationship to La Jetée.  The primary themes of Marker’s films are memory and time, and for me, discovering La Jetée is a good memory from a bad time.  About a decade ago, I was having my second long struggle with depression and anxiety disorder.  As was the case with my first bout, on days when getting out of bed was a task I was not equal to, I found solace in cinema.  I would turn on TCM and regardless of what was airing, I watched. Good, great, bad, mediocre, drama, comedy, thriller, musical.  I watched.  Most of those were ordinary moments, being a largely painful stretch they have thankfully evaporated.  I cannot remember 95% of the movies I saw during that period, but I can, in minute detail, remember La Jetée. 

At 4:30 AM following the TCM Import, what I thought was going to be one of those old and/or odd shorts that TCM uses as time filler began.  When I saw the Janus Films logo I knew I was wrong.  When from a black screen came the whir of jet engines, followed by a still photo of Orly airport, chorale singing, and then the voiceover: “This is the story of a man marked by an image from his childhood” I knew I was very wrong.  In less than two minutes, with two sounds, one image and fourteen words, I was hypnotized, I was in another world.  And for the next 25 minutes I was a captive to this film, transfixed on the my television screen until the last image and line of voiceover rendered me slack jawed.

Wait…what happened? What did I just watch?

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La Jetée is a wholly unique film.  And film is the correct word for it, because La Jetée isn’t really a movie.  Save for one shot in the middle, it is comprised entirely of still photos.  Although in a certain respect it does move, through brilliant editing.  Marker and editor Jean Ravel’s montage is perfect.  Using only still photos, knowing how long to hold an image on screen is the film’s genius, reinforcing the importance of memory.  The photos were almost like faded recollections I had suppressed, washed of their color by time.  Frozen moments stood before me, some long enough to burn into the imagination, some so quickly as to be a glimpse.  Some in succession with dissolves to give the illusion of movement, like a reflexive wink and nod to the nature of cinema itself.

Despite its experimental nature, the film has rather straightforward narrative.  Straightforward for science fiction anyway.  In most films, time travel, a post apocalyptic setting, and a “mad scientist” tend to turn me off more than draw me in.  In La Jetée they worked for me, along with the beauty of the images and the disquieting soundtrack to pull me farther and farther into this other world until I felt almost as though I was the protagonist.  There was even an allusion to Vertigo, Marker’s (and my) favorite Hitchcock film.  I was having a real moment of connection to a work of art, like in that moment it was made just for me.

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The soundtrack requires further mention.  The spare and frankly creepy nature of the soundscape created deepened my relation to the protagonist.  Excepting the voiceover and the handful of musical cues, almost all of the sounds I heard were  unnerving.  Screeching, whispers and mumbles, and a loudly thumping heartbeat.  The heartbeat was particularly disquieting.  As anybody that has experienced a panic attack can tell you, when they come it can feel like your heart is beating right behind your eardrums.  And this further added to my overall feeling that this was not a movie I was watching, but one that I was experiencing.

That feeling of experience is a solitary one for me in movie going life.  I have felt films more deeply in my heart, I have certainly have had more joyful times watching a movie.  But La Jetée is the only time that I felt that the frames were being projected inside my mind, not something I was viewing.  If it is the film mimicking the fragmented way we remember, or just where I was mentally at the time I do not know. I do know that it has stuck with me for a decade now, the man marked by an image from childhood has claimed remembrance in my memory.

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Chris Marker (1921-2012) was a poet, fiction writer, critic, essayist, photographer, filmmaker and multimedia artist.  Though La Jetée is his best known work, there are many films in his idiosyncratic and singular oeuvre worth seeing; Sans Soleil, AK, and Le joli mai among my favorites.

Post Script:

I know.  I haven’t really gone into the plot, the narrative.  And I am not going to.  Should you be kindly enough to have read this and you haven’t seen La Jetée, I hope I have done it enough justice with my limited writing ability to make you seek it out.  And I don’t think that I can give any kind of plot summary without ruining the film.  This being an entry for The TCM Discoveries Blogathon, I feel the story is a discovery you should make for yourself.

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My Noir Summer: Scarlet Street

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Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street is one of three Films Noir the German ex-pat director had released in the U.S. during 1945 (Woman in the Window, Ministry of Fear) , and it contains all the hallmarks of Film Noir.  A doomed protagonist in Edward G. Robinson’s Chris, a sad sack, emasculated cashier.  Joan Bennett as rotten to the core femme fatale Kitty. Claustrophobic interiors, shadowy exteriors and in the opening scene, a nighttime avenue dampened and lit in a way that it oozes that Noir street sheen.  Where it differs from many Noir of the period is in the ill fate of Robinson’s Chris Cross and the event that leads to that fate, fitting into British critic Raymond Durgnat’s subheading “Middle Class Murder” in his 1970 essay Paint it Black: The Family Tree of Noir (1).

Christopher Cross is not a detective.  He is not a gangster.  He is a cashier and amateur painter.  It is not past sins that destroy him.  It  is not the pushing by the femme fatale towards committing crimes that dooms Chris, it is his kindness.  His fate is sealed not in committing crimes, but in halting one.  And in his weakness following a party thrown by his employer JJ to honor Chris’ years of loyal service.  Seeing JJ get into a car with a young woman Chris says to a coworker he offers to walk to catch a bus, “I wonder what it’s like to be loved by a young girl like that.”  Walking the man to the bus stop takes Chris out of his way and renders him lost. He comes across a policeman and receives directions to his subway stop.  Moments later Chris witnesses a women(Kitty) being assaulted by a man (later revealed as Kitty’s boyfriend Johnny, played with slimy gusto by Dan Duryea).  Chris runs to her aid and knocks the man cold with his umbrella.  In his following interlude with Kitty, he tells her he is a painter.  Her having seen a Cezanne that sold for $50,000 leads Kitty and Johnny in to believing Chris is wealthy and ripe for a fleecing.  This sets in motion events that lead to Chris’s estrangement from his brow beating wife, his paintings becoming recognized (though Kitty is believed to be their painter), losing his job, and ultimately Chris’s murder of Kitty.

Despite New York Times  critic Bosley Crowther’s assertion that Robinson’s performance is “monotonous,” (2 it feels like the monotony of it is designed to payoff the murder of Kitty.  The bullied, weak man finally snapping gives the scene all the more intensity.  It allows the filmgoer to forget that they are watching the man who played Little Caesar long enough to make the act as shocking as Lang’s staging of it is.  Upon Kitty’s revelation to Chris that she hates him and is in love with Johnny, Chris stabs an icepick into her several times in a scene that doesn’t contain a cut away to a shadow of the deed as was standard at the time.  Kitty covers herself with a comforter, but we see the explosion of violence.  Through circumstance Johnny is arrested and executed for Kitty’s murder.  This is where the film begins its subversion of the Hollywood code of the time, that left criminals in jail or dead at the conclusion of the film.  Chris runs into a crime reporter on the train who tells him of his theory that no one gets away with murder, because even if not arrested for it, having committed the crime will drive the responsible party insane.  Chris begins hearing Kitty’s voice saying “Johnny,” “we can be together now,” and her repeating things she said on the night of the murder.  Finally Chris decides to hang himself, though he is saved by a man in his building.  But homeless and guilt-ridden, Chris doesn’t want to be saved he wants to be punished.   He is not given that out, and must suffer further.  Andrew Sarris called Lang “the cerebral tragedian of the cinema.” (3)  This is worth remembering at the finish of the movie as Chris’ painting of Kitty and it’s wealthy new owner pass by him and Cross wanders alone into a fate worse than jail, a fate worse than death.

 

(1) Reprinted in The Film Noir Reader Alain Silver and James Ursini, Editors

(2) New York Times 2/15/1946

(3) The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968

A Man Can Die But Once: Game of Thrones

NOTE:  This post will discuss Game of Thrones vis-à-vis George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels, and may contain potential spoiler for the TV series.

 

 If the consummate cliché of American film and television of the 20th century was the happy ending, in the 21st it has been supplanted by death.  Death to end series, death to end episodes.  Main characters and secondary characters,  no one  is safe.  No series has taken on death, from the stunning  to the clichéd, quite like David Benioff and DB Weiss have with Game of Thrones.  With the demise of Ser Barristan Selmy on Sunday’s “Sons of the Harpy”, Benioff and Weiss have once again dispatched a character alive and well in George R.R. Martin’s novels.  The reason for which, when looking at the source material, is murky at best.

Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels currently weigh in at over 4,000 pages.  Game of Thrones has less than 10 hours of screen time each season to convey what is in those novels.  By and large, they have done a great job of keeping the meat of Martin’s story intact(despite the objections of a section of Martin’s book fandom).  Martin’s novels are densely populated with subplots upon subplots, minor houses and characters that are only important to the subplots. While these make for interesting and entertaining reading, these are subplots which there just isn’t room for in an hourish long television program beholden to a budget and a ten episode season.  Adapting both A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons into one season would seem a Herculean task.  However, the travelogue, world building and subplot heavy nature of these novels, makes them the perfect place for Benioff and Weiss to double up and make up for splitting the third novel of Martin’s series into two seasons.  Through the  fourth episode of Season 5, tightening up the story lines from Feast and Dance has made for exciting, taught, fascinating TV.  The episode ending addition of Barristan the Bold to the list of the living dead makes one wonder, will this add to the story, will it make it better?  Or has Martin’s willingness to kill off key characters left Benioff and Weiss feeling the need to amplify that willingness?  Or worse, has killing characters become emotional manipulation and a story telling crutch?  On GoT Season 4 DVD Benioff stated that Night’s Watch brothers Pyp and Grenn (both living in the novels) were killed off in the show to give a human cost to the Night’s Watch battle against the Wildlings.  Reasonable, but the effect seems better achieved by the death of Ygritte (even if it was the clichéd death in the arms of your love) without throwing in two characters far removed from their most meaningful screen time in Season 1.

At the same time, the television adaptation is also an opportunity for Benioff and Weiss to add story twists of their own, and as in any adaptation choices in story and character have to be made. It will be interesting to see how these choices play out on the show, especially when the show and when(or as many of his book readers wonder if) Martin’s novels reach their conclusions. And interesting to see what names are added to list of Barristan Selmy, Pyp and Grenn, Rob Stark’s wife ( Talisa-show, Jeyne Westerling-novel), Pyat Preen (the Qartheen warlock), Xaro Xhoan, Mance Rayder (maybe), Rokharo, Irri, all dead on screen, alive on the page. Some of these characters killed off in the show (or in Xaro’s and Mance’s cases seemingly dead) do have a substantial role in the books beyond the point where the show now stands, Barristan among them.  Ultimately, the question will be did they die in vain or for the good of the realm?