Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Catching Up: Awesome Directors

Wow, it has been over a month since I've updated this damn thing. I find myself in the position of being too lazy to post/not finding enough time to post, while still not having the heart to let it completely wither away.

It's a tough call. On the one hand, no one reads this. I tried to spread the link to last years Police Academy marathon write-up and as far as I can tell generated no new traffic. So that's demoralizing, I guess, although I haven't really tried to promote it too hard.

On the other hand, it's actually a lot of fun to go back and re-read my own posts. The blog was even more of a diary than I realized, and it's amusing to see what thoughts I was having about what films a year ago. Ever since I stopped posting regularly back in November, I've been slowly but surely combing through the old posts and trying to correct them; not just the plethora of spelling and grammar mistakes, but also trying to punch up the language and make the posts read better.

What I've decided is, even if no one ever reads any of this, I still enjoy having this around as a personal record. So I'm going to try to keep intermittently updating the blog. I got burned out a bit on the "Shitty Movies by Great Directors" thing, mainly because I didn't feel I had the time to do it justice, but I may return to it over the summer when work is slow. Right now, I figured I'd throw down some random musings about some movies I caught this winter.

Shenan's grad school career has afforded me a wonderful opportunity. This past semester, she has been gone every Tuesday and Wednesday evening at class. I have been using these times to watch movies that Shenan wouldn't want to see. I don't mean that in a considerate way; it's not so much that I'm avoiding movies she wants to see on the nights she's gone, so much as I'm getting a chance to watch movies I wouldn't otherwise get to watch with her around.

That's not a knock on her. Shenan is a remarkably tolerant girlfriend in putting up with my movie nerd shit, but there is a lot of nerd shit I want to watch that she (understandably) has no interest in.

I used this semester as an opportunity to brush up on some filmmakers I had either admired in the past, or felt that I needed to become more familiar with. I watched 3 films from each director. Here are some random thoughts on what I watched.

Akira Kurosawa

Kagemusha - For a director who seemed reluctant to switch from black and white, Kurosawa does some interesting stuff with color here, especially in a weird, near-psychedelic dream sequence. Kurosawa was a stylish director, but I was not expecting that kind of flamboyance. Kagemusha is Kurosawa doing what he does well: an epic adventure with a humanist heart. Maybe a little too heavy on the epic-ness and a little too light on the humanism, but still an ambitious achievement. Kurosawa's epic battle scenes maybe be a fraction of the size of Peter Jackson's, but they are ten times as spectacular.

Throne of Blood - Kurosawa's take on MacBeth is notable for being the only Kurosawa film I've seen completely lacking in sympathetic characters. Throne of Blood is a study in human greed and evil, presenting a nightmarish world of violent conflict, ominous castles occupied by power-hungry soldiers, and dark, shadowy and seemingly endless forests filled with evil spirits. More or less the opposite of what I have come to expect in a Kurosawa film. It's faithful in tone and in plot generalities to the source material, but recontextualized in a samurai/feudal Japan setting. Kurosawa's other samurai films tend to feel like westerns, but Throne of Blood more like some weird samurai/Shakespeare/film noir hybrid.

Red Beard - This turned out to be a great follow up to Throne of Blood because it starts out by wallowing in darkness, but gradually transforms into a celebration of the goodness of humanity. Watching these movies in this order, it's like you get pulled through the wringer, but you come out whole at the end, and you feel better for it. The inspiration feels more inspirational because Kurosawa acknowledges the darkness first. The sweet ain't as sweet without the sour, etc etc.

Werner Herzog

Stroszek - Gloriously oddball. Herzog has made some of the most visually intense films I've ever seen, but not in a saturated color, perfectly framed, elaborate, expensive-looking Atonement sort of way. It's more along the lines of... he thinks up or finds the craziest-ass things and puts them on film. And he uses these mind-blowing images to try to capture the essence of something beyond normal comprehension. His movies are almost comparable to the final sequences of 2001. Not in the sense that they look like an acid trip, but in the sense that the filmmaker has an epic vision of mind bending events. I never thought that a dancing chicken could be so strange, hypnotic and convey a horrific sense nihilistic dread, but that's Herzog for you.

The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser - I had recently watched Truffaut's Wild Child before seeing this, and Herzog's film is a more philosophical version of similar material. Both films examine individuals raised without human interaction and their subsequent integration into normal society. Wild Child is, as the title suggests, about a boy who was abandoned in the woods and grew up alone in the wild, and Kaspar Hauser is about a man who, for reasons never made clear, was locked inside a room alone his entire life and is one day set free. Truffaut's film is concerned with the formation of language and expression, the joy of creativity, the relationship between father and son, and tries to examine both what the boy gains by becoming socialized (love, companionship, means of expression), and what he loses (connection to nature, individualism). Herzog goes a little further into the intangible... what would this man understand about the nature of reality? About logic? About other people and his relation to them? And are his seemingly strange perceptions any less valid than our own? In typical Herzogian fashion, it's not that all these questions are answered (it's called Enigma and not Obvious Explanation for a reason) so much that the fun is in raising them.

Woyzeck - The Herzog/Kinski collaborations are stuff of legend. Herzog has a willingness to rush headlong into insanity, and Kinski was maybe the only actor who could keep pace. That's why I found this one surprisingly disappointing, it's down right laid back when compared to the likes of Aguirre or Fitzcarraldo. There were definitely some nice, quirky touches here, but it lacks the obsessive passion that distinguishes the best Herzog films.

Errol Morris

The Thin Blue Line - When I was a little younger I think I had this sense that documentaries should strive for objectivity or fairness, and try to capture reality. Now I realize that that is a reductive way of thinking, and doesn't allow for much "filmmaking" to actually take place. What's great about the Errol Morris films I've seen is that they display a vision. They are biased, visually intense, emotional. And in this case, The Thin Blue Line is also actually important: it helped get an innocent man off of death row.

Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control - What's neat here is that the subject of this documentary is entirely manufactured. What I mean is, Morris tells the stories of 4 different eccentrics who have nothing whatsoever to do with each other. What Morris does is intercut the stories to draw parallels between the different, otherwise unrelated subjects, and illustrate points about creativity, philosophy, and maybe obsession. And Morris kicks the style up to 11, with an intense score, fast cutting, Natural Born Killers-esque switching of film stock, etc.

Standard Operating Procedure - I've enjoyed some of Michael Moore's films in the past, but I wonder if he feels embarrassed when he watches movies like this. Errol Morris' thoughtful, complex and disturbing documentary about Abu Ghraib is every bit as opinionated and provocative as Moore's films, but makes Moore's smug, self-congratulatory style seem amateurish by comparison. I mean, I get that can be part of Moore's charm, but watching Morris' work underlined for me Moore's failures as a filmmaker.

Yasujiro Ozu

Late Spring - Ozu's films a little hard for me to talk about because they seem simple yet they stir up some complex emotions. The films appear minimalist in story and visual style, but upon closer inspection actually contain many interesting, bold flourishes. The story of Late Spring centers around a young woman being pressured into a marriage she wants no part of... yet we never see her groom-to-be, nor is the wedding actually shown. Those are major artistic decisions, not necessarily immediately noticeable but not something you see in most films.

Early Summer - Not a sequel, although it is somewhat of a different take on similar things. It's mentioned often how, as his career progressed, Ozu moved his camera less and less. His final films, from what I've read, consist entirely of static shots. This is a somewhat earlier film of Ozu's, so he still moves the camera some times. In fact, the final and most moving shot in Early Summer is a tracking shot of a field, slowly passing by as a breeze rustles through the plants.

Good Morning - This was a little weird; an Ozu comedy crammed full with fart jokes. Including a scene where characters fart in time to music while exercising. Has to be seen to be believed.

John Ford

Stagecoach - I'm not a huge western fan per se, but I can appreciate a good one. I figured this was worth seeing not just because of Ford's involvement, but also that it was the film that turned John Wayne into a star. It's a fun western, though certainly not a must-see.

The Grapes of Wrath - The interesting story here is that Ford held somewhat right-wing political beliefs, yet this is a story often discussed as having a left-wing message. I didn't necessarily sense any tension between ideologies going on in this film, perhaps Ford thought it was a great story worth telling despite its politics.

My Darling Clementine - Entertaining retelling of the Wyatt Earp/Tombstone story, with Henry Fonda in the Earp role. Again, I'm not inherently crazy about westerns, but this is a good one.

Jean-Pierre Melville

Le Doulos (aka The Finger Man) - Knew I'd have to circle back some day and catch-up on the films of Melville, the French master of the existentialist crime drama. His crime/noirs are all variations on the same premise: a cold-hearted criminal (who is the protagonist) plans a major score while a cynical, world-weary cop with fascist leanings closes in. Oh, and the "hero" always dies in the end. What makes these movies so damn good is the precision with which Melville directs the heists, and the stylish but sparse attitude he applies to both the look of the films and their protagonists. Le Doulos is noteworthy for its entertainingly convoluted plot, and for a performance by Jean-Paul Belmondo that feels like a more legitimately badass and iconic version of his character from Breathless.

Le Deuxième Souffle (aka Second Wind) - As I recall, this one took a little while to get going but picks up as it goes along with a great heist sequence, a few interesting twists and a nifty suspense sequence involving a hidden gun. All of his films portrayed the police negatively, and this one especially so, where the police are depicted as beating suspects into confessions and even pulling off an elaborate ruse to trick one crook into ratting out his friends.

Un Flic (aka A Cop aka Dirty Money) - The cool thing here is that this is another reworking of the Melville formula I mentioned above, only this time the focus is shifted somewhat off the crook and on to the cop pursuing him. And in a neat twist, Alain Delon, the actor who played the crook role in Melville's sweet Le Cercle Rouge and more importantly in his masterpiece Le Samourai, is cast as the titular cop for this go around. But let me pose a question to you: how much can one unfortunate detail derail an otherwise excellent movie? Because for the first half or so of Un Flic, I was convinced that it was going to be Melville's next best movie after Le Samourai. Then came the centerpiece heist sequence. It involves a man grappling down from a helicopter onto a moving train, which is a little too much to take, but is not the real problem. The real problem is the the helicopter and the train and both very, very, very extremely obviously tiny models that Melville tries to pass off as the real thing. I can't properly describe how badly this breaks the spell of the film... they actually look like toys. It takes a while for it to recover, and it's a damn shame because the movie surrounding this distractingly phony sequence is top notch. It's amazing how 2 or 3 minutes of screen time can greatly alter the rest of a film.

Ernst Lubitsch

The Smiling Lieutenant - It's maybe a little shocking to see what they could get away with in terms of sexual references in some of these pre-code films. It may be tame by today's standards, but you're really not expecting to see characters in an early 1930's musical comedy make unmistakable allusions to fucking (in terms more polite than that). As with most Lubitsch, this is light on its feet and immensely charming.

One Hour With You - Again with the sexual content, here even the title is a reference to the sex act. This is another funny and charming musical, surprisingly frank, cynical and maybe even progressive in its message that married couples are almost incapable of remaining faithful, and that if they love each other then they might as well forgive each other their transgressions.

To Be Or Not To Be - I'll give this one the benefit of the doubt, since it was made during WWII, that Lubitsch and the rest probably weren't aware of the full scope of the atrocities committed by the Nazi party. That would explain why they would make a lighthearted comedy about a troupe of actors trying to infiltrate the Nazis to help the resistance, complete with jokes about concentration camps. Hard to judge this one, when so much of it made me feel a little uncomfortable. I know that wasn't the filmmakers intent, but knowing what we know about the Holocaust, it's hard to view this one the way it was intended to be viewed. Shortly after seeing this one, I saw Truffaut's The Last Metro, which also involves Nazis, WW2 and a troupe of actors. And while it features Truffaut's usual light touch, it doesn't feel as inappropriately silly as Lubitsch's film.

During the year I was regularly updating my blog, I made a big deal about my Kommittment to Klassiks. What's funny is that in the past few months, since my K2K has ended, I've done a way better job of watching klassik, older, artsier films. Not only the ones listed above, but I've also caught up on other stuff, including a buttload of Truffaut. It's like I had to stop trying, and then suddenly I started watching a lot of great movies.