Stuff I Watched (And Maybe You Will, Too): LATE SPRING

 

Late Spring - quote

I’ve read a lot of articles namechecking Yasujiro Ozu over the years but I personally have never had the opportunity to access his films until recently. (When it comes to Japanese cinema, I’m more of a Kurosawa man myself.)

Perhaps  Akira Kurosawa’s best-known films with their emphasis on action and/or suspense have proved to be more accessible to western audiences. (Hollywood has adapted several Kurosawa films, the most successful being The Magnificent Seven, an Americanized version of Seven Samurai ( which featured the mighty Toshiro Mifune – one of my all-time favorite screen performers.)

Late Spring - book

Mr.  Ozu specializes in understated family dramas like Tokyo Story (recently voted No. 1 in a poll of 358 directors conducted by Sight and Sound magazine) and Late Spring, part of a series of “seasonal” works which also includes Early Summer and  Autumn Afternoon.

Late Spring - Ozu
Yasujiro Ozu directing Late Spring

Ozu films were not widely available globally until the 1970s, according to film prof Louis Giametti. They were considered by distributors to be “too Japanese” to appeal to foreign audiences.  Mr. Ozu was, Prof. Giametti writes, “a champion of traditional values, particularly that quintessential Japanese institution, the family.”  For that reason, things may appear to many Western viewers to be moving too slowly as Mr. Ozu meticulously records details of everyday Japanese family life. He is not interested in heavy drama. The characters move at their own speed: they will not be rushed.

Late Spring - Criterion

Recently I spotted a Criterion Collection reissue of 1949’s Late Spring at the local library.  Lovingly remastered by the Criterion folks, the package also includes scholarly yet accessible essays plus some words from the master himself. The package also includes a second disc, Tokyo-Ga, a documentary by the great German director Wim Wenders (Wings of Desire, Buena Vista Social Club), recording his 1983 odyssey to Japan in search of the Tokyo which inspired Mr. Ozu’s films. Along the way he meets and interviews Chishu Ryu, a regular in Ozu films and Mr. Ozu’s longtime assistant, Yuharu Atsuta, who comments on the master’s unique style (he always liked to film with the camera several feet above the floor and using 50 mm lenses). On Mr. Ozu’s preferred method of shooting, Prof. Giametti writes “Ozu treated his characters as equals …for the most part, they are ordinary people, neither very virtuous or very corrupt … kept his camera neutral and dispassionate. Eye -level shots permit us to make up our own minds …”

Late Spring - Ryu 2
Chishu Ryu in “Late Spring”

Thanks to Mr. Ozu’s film I felt I really knew this family and thanks to Criterion’s thoughtful packaging and the accompanying Wenders documentary I felt I knew a little more about Yasujiro Ozu and his art.

Late Spring - Ms. Hara
The one and only Setsuko Hara in Late Spring

Notably missing from Mr. Wenders’ doc is frequent Ozu leading lady Setsuko Hara. Ms. Hara, with her luminous eyes and expressive features, plays a devoted daughter to her elderly professor father (Ryu) in Late Spring. She will learn to her sorrow that she must leave her father and start her own life. Despite the appearance (to some) that little is happening the film is quite poignant and the ending can be ineffably sad.  After the passing of Mr. Ozu in 1963 Ms. Hara retired from acting, resumed her real name (Setsuko Hara was a stage name), went into seclusion, refusing all requests for interviews and died in 2015. But we can still view her haunting femininity and screen presence on film.

Some things need no translation.

Late Spring - T-shirt

 

 

 

 

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I Got It at the Library: CUL-DE-SAC

Cul - Opening

I’m not saying it’s dated. I just got the feeling  director Roman Polanski read Beckett (I’m thinking here of Waiting for Godot) and watched a lot of Harold Pinter theatre pieces while co-writing the screenplay with Gerard Brach. (There were times when I felt I was back in my Film Studies class again. This film, by the way. was made prior to Mr. Polanski’s exposure to temptation and tragedy in Hollywood.

Cul - polanski
ROMAN POLANSKI- Portrait of the Artist as a Young Film-maker

A brilliant cast of 1960s players navigate through the psychological mind games of the screenplay. Lionel Stander, a familiar face (and voice) in 1930s and 1940s movie and radio, was forced to flee to Europe after he ran afoul of the House Un-American Activities Committee. He plays  American gangster Dickey, who holes up in a castle after a botched robbery. The castle.on a bleak island, is inhabited by a retired English executive,George (Donald Pleasance) and his flirtatious (and much younger) French wife, Teresa (Francoise Dorleac). The cast also includes future star Jacqueline Bissett (billed here as Jackie Bissett)  in  one of her first film roles. (A pair of sunglasses hides those now famous eyes.) No one does humiliation better than Mr. Pleasance aided and abetted by the gorgeous Mlle. Dorleac (Catherine Deneuve’s sister, whose promising career was cut short by a fatal car accident at the age of 25). Mr. Stander, of course, is bullish and aggressive in the role of Dickey. Mix these personalities together, stir in Mr. Polanski’s caustic wit, and you have a combustible combination that is bound to blow up in your face at some point.

Cul -Donald &Francoise
Francoise Dorleac and Donald Pleasance – A Talent for Humiliation

I signed out this 1966 film because I was intrigued by the cast of characters, I have always been a fan of Mr. Polanski’s world view (Brrr!) and c) it was chosen for restoration by the Criterion Collection. If you are not already familiar with the brand (and most serious film buffs – and filmmakers – are), the Criterion Collection a) always shows great taste in cinematic art and  b) lovingly restores films of its choice and packages them with interviews, booklets and other background material. So even if I am unfamiliar with a work, I know that any film, no matter how old (or obscure, to me) chosen by the Criterion folks for their distinctive and caring touch will be viewing time spent well.

CUL - Stander

Lionel Stander in CUL-DE-SAC

 

 

“Forbidden” Viewing

Room - poster

Even seasoned film critic Sean Axmaker doesn’t know quite what to make of Winnipeg (Manitoba, Canada) based filmmaker Guy Maddin’s The Forbidden Room.

All he knows is that on an instinctual and aesthetic (I’ve always wanted to use that word in a sentence) level,  he likes it (I think): “Maddin makes no effort to make sense of any of it, or even worry about any kind of dramatic closure. It’s all about the texture, the weirdness, the quality of the cinematic moment. This is not for audiences who demand story and character and narrative logic.” 

Predictably some of the audience critics at rottentomatoes.com did not share his, uh, enthusiasm. A  “reviewer” who calls himself  K Nife Churchkey wrote: “I feel I should review this simply to counteract the acclaim this film has received thus far. This film is an annoying mess …” (The film scored a 95% critical approval rating – 54 critics rated it Fresh, 3 critics went for Rotten) 

Another audience reviewer (Kristi Moore, who gave the film two and a half stars) opined:  ‘I’ve never done acid but Forbidden Room is what I think it would be like if I ever did” 

The thought of viewing it on drugs crossed my mind. I haven’t taken anything stronger than Aspirin  for several decades now but Ms. Moore’s comment does  remind me of a friend of mine back in the day who claimed he would go to see a movie twice – once to see it stoned and again to see it straight. (He would have loved this film, although whether he would have to see it twice is debatable.)

Room - Dupuis
Heavy, man!

There is something hallucinatory about the film –  a series of unresolved stories flash across the screen – a submarine crew fights to stay alive; a lumberjack attempts to rescue a kidnapped woman; a man murders a servant because he forgot his wife’s birthday (Men! Do not try this at home) – over a dozen tales and all served up like a series of lost silent films so badly scratched and degraded that even the Criterion Collection wouldn’t touch them.

Shot in Montreal and Paris, the film features the cream of French-Canadian (Roy Dupuis, Sophie Desmarais, Caroline Dhavernas) and European talent (filmmaker/actor Mathieu Amalric, the terminally weird Udo Kier, the always intriguing Charlotte Rampling, the enigmatic Maria de Medeiros). all of whom enter the esoteric spirit of the project with freak flags flying. 

David Lynch may be an auteur – they would have to think of a whole new five-dollar term to describe  Guy Maddin.

And what is this fascination with flapjacks

Room- Maddin & Johnson
Guy Maddin with youthful protege Evan Johnson (who co-wrote and co-directed Forbidden Room with Mr. Maddin)

Bunuel, Brothel & Belle de Jour – Fact or Fiction?

Belle - film poster

I first saw Luis Bunuel’s Belle de Jour when I was a university sophomore  light years ago after reading some tantalizing reviews and lured by the world class beauty and mystique of French goddess Catherine Deneuve (23 years old at the time.)

I recently watched Belle de Jour again, decades later, this time on  a Criterion Collection DVD and realized I could remember every single scene. This from a guy that cannot remember plots of Midsomer Mysteries that he saw several years ago. Okay, sometimes I remember whodunit but not why they dun it. Nevertheless, the Brit TV show is one of my favorites.

Anyway, the peerless Mme. Deneuve plays the enigmatic Severine, the wife of a handsome, well-to-do doctor (Jean Sorel) who lives a comfortable existence in  Paris. Too comfortable, as it turns out, since she has a rich fantasy life in which she inhabits various scenarios in which she is debased or defiled.

Belle - poster

Director Luis Bunuel, working from longtime collaborator Jean-Claude Carriere’s adaptation of a novel by French author Joseph Kessel, blurs the line between what is really happening on screen and what is only happening in Severine’s mind. (After all, this is the same director who filmed two different actresses in the same role in That Obscure Object of Desire and collaborated with surrealist madman Salvador Dali in the notorious Un Chien d’Andalou.)

Belle- Bunuel &
Director Luis Bunuel & Catherine Deneuve

In an interview with film critics (and close friends) Jose de la Colina and Tomas Perez Turrent (included in a  booklet along with the Criterion DVD) Bunuel insists that the scenes in which Severine works part-time in an upscale Parisian brothel really happen but in the same interview the famed film-maker also says (and I quote) “I myself cannot tell you what’s real and what’s imaginary in the film. For me they form the same thing.” He also tells his friends in the same interview: “When I make a film, I set it free. If you two see it differently from how I made it, that’s all right. I would even accept that your version is better.”

At any rate, Mme. Deneuve, with her porcelain features and detached air, represents perfect casting. Or, as frequent Village Voice contributor Melissa Anderson puts it, in an essay included in the Criterion booklet, Mme. Deneuve’s facial features are an “exquisite blank slate …. onto whom all sorts of perversions could be projected.” I should note here that Bunuel merely introduces the various brothel scenarios and leaves the viewer to fill in the blanks. (A year later, Frank Zappa would ask, “What’s the Ugliest Part of Your Body?” in the song of the same name and reply, “I think it’s your mind.” Hmmm, I wonder if he saw  Belle de Jour.)

And, no, I never did find out what is in the box proffered by the Japanese businessman. Ms. Anderson quotes Bunuel in her essay as saying that the contents of the box is “whatever you want it to be.”

Belle -box
Catherine Deneuve and the mysterious box

The same quote could apply to this film.

PS The Criterion disc also inclueds a video discussion of the film featuring writer and sexual-politics activist Susie Bright and film scholar Linda Williams.

 

 

I Got It at the Library: The Killing/ Killer’s Kiss (Criterion Edition) Part 2

No, this is not about the cable TV show. (I covered that in an earlier post.
No, this is not about the cable TV show. (I covered that in an earlier post.)

It was while I was watching a blurry print of 1935’s The Thirty-Nine Steps (I know. I don’t get out much) that I realized how accustomed I have become to the impeccably restored versions of vintage black & white films in the Criterion Collection. (No, this is not a paid endorsement.) In addition to pristine prints of classic b&w (and color) films the Criterion DVDs usually offer interviews with key players and/or film critics and authors. (There is often a booklet inside the DVD with an essay and/or other material relating to the production.  I don’t know what was included in The Killing DVD cuz the booklet was missing when I checked out the DVD from the library. Put Rex Libris on the case. Oh, sorry, that’s another post.)

The Killing (Criterion Collection)
The Killing (Criterion Collection)

I was thinking of this while watching the Criterion DVD of Stanley Kubrick’s 1956 classic The Killing (which comes complete with 1955’s Killer’s Kiss on a separate disc.) 

Being a film nerd I couldn’t help but admire Kubrick’s eye for casting. I wasn’t the only one. TIME magazine likens a group shot of the cast (which includes Elisha Cook Jr. Timothy Carey, Jay C. Flippen, Ted de Corsia and Joe Sawyer) to ” a class photograph from San Quentin.”  

Killing - san quentin

Sterling Hayden plays Johnny Clay,the leader of this gang of mugs. His elaborate scheme to rip off a racetrack ticks along like the proverbial Swiss watch but there is one thing Clay hasn’t included in his plan – the human factor (and, of course, that always messes everything up.) 

Sterling Hayden in The Killing
Sterling Hayden in The Killing

Although confident in his cinematic skills, Kubrick realized his original story for his previous film (Killer’s Kiss) was weak.  Kubrick’s producer, James B. Harris, found the source material for their first collaboration together, a paperback thriller called Clean Break by Lionel White. 

The Killing paperback (formerly Clean Break) - Studio "suits" came up with the revised title.
The Killing paperback (formerly Clean Break) – Studio “suits” came up with the revised title.

It was Kubrick’s idea to hire the dark prince of  pulp noir, Jim Thompson, to write additional dialogue in his own distinctive style and his fingerprints are all over this film. For example, the bittersweet dialogue between Cook and iconic B-noir femme fatale Marie Windsor (she’s bitter, he’s sweet) is pure Thompson (at least, to my ears). 

Elisha Cook & Marie Windsor in The Killing - Jim dandy dialogue
Elisha Cook Jr. & Marie Windsor in The Killing – Jim dandy dialogue.

Let the film scholars dissect the work for Kubrick’s innovative camera style, his attention to detail and his eye for composition and framing. 

I liked the film for Kubrick’s purposeful sense of pacing, the gritty dialogue, the artful use of lighting to add atmosphere and heat to the proceedings and, of course, the fabled cast of character actors assembled by the young master. (Yes, Cook is the snub-nosed “gunsel” in The Maltese Falcon.)

killing - criterion logo

The Criterion edition of The Killing comes with some informative extras, including an interview with Mr. Hayden lensed by a French film crew in the last few years of his life. The DVD also comes with soundbites from producer Harris and  a featurette with Robert Polito, author of the Jim Thompson biography Savage Art. (Both the Harris and Polito featurettes were shot expressly for the Criterion folks.)

In the Harris featurette, the veteran producer/director/screenwriter recalls working with Kubrick (“One thing I learned from Stanley is ‘You do not let the actors accommodate the camera, you let the camera accommodate the actors … you stage the scene, the actors rehearse and, then, you bring in the camera and decide how you’re going to cover it … preserves the naturalness of the actor.”) Mr. Harris also reveals that in his role of producer he contributed $130,000 of the film’s $330,000 budget (chipping in 8o grand of his own money and borrowing some cash from his father.) Apparently, Frank Sinatra was also interested in the White novel but Harris snapped up the rights before Ol’ Blue Eyes could make his move.

In the Thompson featurette, Polito says the way the Thompson family tell it, (Jim)Thompson worked very closely with Stanley Kubrick on the screenplay and “was either expecting a sole screenwriting credit or a dual screenwriting credit”. When he saw the film at a screening room in Manhattan and saw he was only credited with “additional dialogue” he went ballistic. Polito says Thompson saw this as “a slap in the face”. Nevertheless, he worked with Kubrick again on 1957’s Paths of Glory.

(With all of his novels out of print in  North America , Thompson remarked grimly to his wife that he would probably become famous ten years after his death. In a twist right out of one of his bleak novels, Thompson’s work was “rediscovered” in the 1980s. Several of his books were turned into films including the Oscar-nominated The Grifters and 1976’s The Killer Inside Me (remade in 2010). Today Thompson (who died in 1977) is considered a modern master of so-called Noir fiction.

The Killing - The End

 

How Swede It Is: FANNY and ALEXANDER (Pt. 3)

Stuff I Learned from the Extras on the Criterion Collection 5 Disc Set of  “Fanny and Alexander”:

….. This film was Ingmar Bergman’s first experience working with children. Up until then he had thought kids would be too hard to control on set and would not take direction well. However, as the behind-the-scenes doc shows, the master filmmaker loved working with his two leads (and with all the children on the set, for that matter. )

Ingmar Bergman with Bertil Guve and Pernilla Allwin on the set of Fanny and Alexander
Ingmar Bergman with Bertil Guve and Pernilla Allwin on the set of Fanny and Alexander

.… Bergman had to borrow money for plane fare from live-in actress girlfriend Harriet Andersson to fly to Cannes where  studio execs had entered his 1955 comedy Smiles of a Summer Night without asking him first. The director said he first found out about his film’s success at the Cannes festival while sitting on the toilet at his home and reading the newspaper. 

fanny - smiles 2

….  The scene in which Death plays chess with a Knight in 1957’s The Seventh Seal is one of the most iconic images in the history of film. However, in his own words, Bergman tells us the scene was inspired by a painting he saw in a church. “Albertus Pictor’s painting, he was the famous medieval church painter. There’s a painting, Death playing chess with a Knight. So it all came naturally.”

Death (Bengt Ekerot) and  Antonius Block (Max von Sydow in The Seventh Seal
Death (Bengt Ekerot) and Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) in The Seventh Seal: “To paraphrase my old pal Bob Dylan ‘ You’re only a pawn in my game.’ “

… Bergman tells an interviewer he can’t stand to watch his own films.  “I get nervous and I start to cry. I need to pee and I feel miserable.”  (Come to think of it, that was my reaction while watching Cries and Whispers.)

How Swede It Is: FANNY AND ALEXANDER (Part 2)

DVD cover for Criterion Collection 5 disc set
DVD cover for Criterion Collection 5 disc set

Fanny and Alexander was Ingmar Bergman’s last theatrical release and the Criterion folks decided to mark the occasion in style with a 5 – count ’em – five disc boxed set.

Originally made for Swedish television the Fanny and Alexander box set includes the complete 5 hour Swedish TV version. That version was later whittled down to a three hour opus for theatrical release (included in the set.)

Among the extra features is a disc devoted to the lensing of the film. This kind of behind-the-scenes look may be almost obligatory today.  However, it was not a standard  feature in the early 1980s. And it is still a rarity for  the filmmaker himself to produce it. That’s why The Making of Fanny and Alexander is must viewing for Bergman buffs and, for that matter, any serious student of filmmaking because the featurette is edited by the famed director himself and contains some fascinating footage of the master at work.  Especially interesting is the collaboration between Bergman and fabled cinematographer Sven Nyqvist.

Sven Nykvist and Ingmar Bergman on the set of Fanny and Alexander 1982
Sven Nykvist and Ingmar Bergman on the set of Fanny and Alexander 1982

The 5 disc set also contains an hour long interview which Bergman gave  for Swedish TV   shortly after the film was released internationally.

Ingmar Bergman during 1984 interview (Everything on the box set is subtitled. And I wouldn't want it any other way.)
Ingmar Bergman during 1984 interview (Everything on the box set is subtitled. And I wouldn’t want it any other way.)

The crowning touch is a disc with a series of introductions to Bergman’s early films excerpted from a Swedish television series conducted at the filmmaker’s private cinema  on Faro Island when Bergman was in his 80s.  (The North American equivalent -for me- would be watching Martin Scorsese discussing Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and other modern classics he has given to the world over the period of his remarkable career. )

 

Ingmar Bergman directs Erland Josephson in a scene from Fanny and Alexander
Ingmar Bergman directs Erland Josephson in a scene from Fanny and Alexander