Saturday, July 28, 2007

Early Summer

Sandwiched between Late Spring (1949) and Tokyo Story (1953), this 1951 feature by Yasujiro Ozu is the least discussed film in his Noriko trilogy, as well as the sunniest--or, more accurately, the least melancholy. Although its plot resembles the earlier film in some respects, here Noriko/Setsuko Hara is much more independent: instead of passively submitting to her relatives' desire for her to marry, here she disobeys her family by choosing to marry Kenkichi Yabe/Ryukan Nimoto, a widower with a small child.

Typical of Ozu's post-war period, there isn't a whole lot of plot. Noriko's boss suggests a match, and although we never see the man (Noriko only gets a peek after refusing to marry him) we're given several indications that he's not a great choice: he's forty, and hires a private detective who shows up at the home of Kenkichi's mother, Tami/Haruko Sugimura, to ask her about Noriko (an encounter that's recounted afterwards in the dialogue). When Tami tells Noriko of her wish that she marry Kenkichi, a childhood friend of Noriko's who's just accepted a position at a hospital far away from Tokyo, she sees an opportunity to escape her family and accepts without consulting either her family or the groom. After leaving, she runs into Kenkichi who's just returning home; they make small talk and go their separate ways without Noriko ever bringing up the subject of marriage. When Tami tells Kenkichi the news his reaction is difficult to gage; it's his mother who's most happy about the arrangement. As much as Noriko's family is thrusting marriage on her against her will, she and Tami are doing the same to Kenkichi.

In both films, Noriko's family puts pressure on her to marry because they believe it's best for her, paying little or no attention to what she wants for herself. In Late Spring, during Noriko's final vacation with her father/Chishu Ryu before marriage, she makes one last plea for things to go on as they have, which her father brushes aside by giving her a lecture on how a happy marriage requires hard work. Here the family is less than thrilled by the idea of Noriko getting married to a man twelve years her senior, but her brother, Koichi/Ryu, views the situation pragmatically: Noriko is too old (twenty-eight) to expect any better and this could be her last chance to get married. When she chooses a husband for herself, the family, convinced they know what's best for her, reacts badly. By asserting her independence Noriko alienates her parents and brother, breaking up the family.

The film never explores the reasons for Noriko's initial resistance to marriage. In Late Spring we learn that she became ill during the war due to forced labor, and during her long recovery became accustomed to taking care of her father. It's also suggested that Noriko is disgusted by sex, and she finds the idea of a family friend getting remarried to be a disgrace. In an essay on the film Roger Ebert sums up her feelings as: "Once is bad enough." Here there's no mention of past illness, and this Noriko appears to have a much healthier view of sex. Even before Tami's proposal, Noriko says she thinks Kenkichi should remarry, and later confides that she doesn't trust a man who's forty and still single, suggesting that he may not be able to satisfy her sexually.

The film contains fewer allusions to the war (we learn that Noriko's mother, Shige/Chieko Higashiyama, hasn't given up hope for a son who hasn't been seen since the end of the war, but that's about it) and I can't recall a single referrence to encroaching Americanization--as opposed to Late Spring where Noriko's prospective husband is rumored to resemble Gary Cooper and her young cousin loves to play baseball--though it's intriguing how the situation for women in Japan seems to improve between the two films. In the earlier film Noriko didn't have any means of income, but here she not only has steady employment as a typist but is also a published writer in her spare time; in any early scene Kenkichi remarks that he found her latest book amusing. However, in choosing to marry him, she must give up her job (when Noriko asks her sister-in-law, Aya/Chikage Awashima, how the family will manage without her income, she replies that they'll compete to see who can do a better job of economizing) and assume the role of primary guardian of Kenkichi's young daughter, meaning that it's unlikely she'll continue to write.

Early Summer may not equal Late Spring or Tokyo Story--two of the most sublime movie ever made--as this Noriko is less fully realized than her other cinematic incarnations, but on its own terms I wouldn't hesistate to call this a major work: subtle, complex, often funny and surely deserving of more attention than its recieved.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Modern Romance

I've seen six of Albert Brooks' seven films to date, loved all of them, and would say that four--Real Life (1979), this 1981 feature, Defending Your Life (1991) and Mother (1996)--are flat-out masterpieces. Modern Romance, Brooks' second film, can be seen as the middle part in a loose trilogy of films about the intersection of life and the movies along with Real Life and Lost in America (1985). It can also be seen as the final nail in the coffin of a cycle of personal films to come out of Hollywood in the 1960's and 70's: the story suggests a thinking person's Raging Bull (1980), and Heaven's Gate (1980) is referrenced in the dialogue.

The film belongs to a subgenre of romantic comedies, the relationship movie, whose most famous practitioner in America is Woody Allen (in France, Agnès Jaoui is only the first example that comes to mind, and indeed, Allen has a huge French following), but where Annie Hall (1977) is strenuously apolitical, consumerism is a core theme throughout Brooks' ouvre. In Lost in America, a bigger home and a new car are symbols of moving up the corporate ladder, so when advertising exec David Howard/Brooks doesn't get the promotion he's expecting (vertical) but a transfer (horizontal), he suddenly realizes that everything he's worked for is a lie. Here, Robert Cole/Brooks is an editor in Hollywood and his clothes, car, home and possessions suggest a successful--and therefore attractive--bachelor. After breaking up with his on-again-off-again girlfriend, Mary Harvard/Kathryn Harrold, Robert goes on a buying spree. The two stores we see Robert walking into, a health food store to buy vitamins and a sporting goods store for running shoes, are both in the business of selling an image of a healthy living. "I'm starting a new life and I think running should be a part of it" is a key line. When Robert begins to suspect Mary's already seeing some one else and impulsively decides he wants her back, he buys her a stuffed giraffe and leaves it on her doorstep.

In Real Life the intersection of cinema and reality is a head-on collision between a documentary film crew and a middle-class American family; in Lost in America David and his wife, Linda/Julie Hagerty, are inspired by Easy Rider (1969) to quit their jobs and drive across the country in an RV. Here it's suggested that Robert has inherited all his ideas about love from pop culture (the soundtrack is full of syruppy romantic ballads, including "You Are So Beautiful" over the opening credits), and as a portrait of male insecurity and obsessive jealousy, the film sometimes feels like an illustration of Laura Mulvey's thesis in "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." Mary is an ambiguous character to say the least though not quite a femme fatale. After making up with her, Robert finds a phone bill showing that she made two extended phone calls to a number in New York in the middle of the night; at first she lies and says it's a woman, but when Robert tells her he called the number and a man answered, she defends herself by saying they were broken up at the time. Robert's jealousy may be well founded in reality (just because you're paranoid doesn't mean people aren't plotting against you) yet we can't help but feel that Mary shouldn't have to defend herself to him, even if discovering the phone bill wasn't an intentional violation of her privacy.

It's fitting that the film-within-the-film which Robert is editing is an impersonal and evidently schlocky science fiction movie because, after the 70's, the costs of film production rose to such an extent that it's become almost impossible to make a personal film inside the mainstream; even what passes for independent fare these days (Little Miss Sunshine, Sideways, etc.) is disappointingly safe, apolitical and unchallenging. Brooks is a filmmaker with a voice so distinctive that one learns to recognize it the same way one recognizes certain novelists; there's a world of difference between the films he only acts in, even good ones like Broadcast News (1987), and the films he directs. In ways big and small, from his use of scrolling text at the end of many of his films to his openness in allowing the viewer to empathize with multiple viewpoints (in Modern Romance, Robert and the director of the film he's working on/James L. Brooks argue about how a scene should be edited and both points of view are perfectly valid), Brooks has created a body of work as distinctive as Yasujiro Ozu with whom he shares a taste for long takes, minimal camera movement and domestic drama. None of his films have been big hits, but most of them are on DVD; is there any director better hidden in plain sight?

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Trouble Every Day

This 2001 feature by Claire Denis belongs to a cycle of recent French art movies, including Marina de Van's In My Skin (2002) and Bruno Dumont's Twentynine Palms (2003), that appropriate elements of American horror movies to other ends. All three have divided audiences but Denis' film has been further marginalized by its botched distribution; after premiering at the Toronto film festival, it opened commercially at the Quad in New York and then disappeared off the face of the earth--or at least North America (in the absense of a region 1 DVD there is, however, a good, region-free DVD by a Hong Kong label with an excellent transfer and English subtitles). The aim of this essay is to pay homage to the film's nuance and seriousness. Its sensuousness, on the other hand, seems self-evident and why bother trying to do justice to the beauty of Agnès Godard's images in words when we have the film itself?

Trouble Every Day is the story of two couples. Coré/Béatrice Dalle is suffering from an unnamed affliction (basically vampirism) that compells her to feed on human flesh. The first time we see her is on the outskirts of Paris where she has an anonymous sexual encounter with a truck driver; that night, her husband Léo/Alex Descas finds her sitting in a field next to the trucker's body. The next day Léo locks the windows and doors before leaving for work as a physician, but Coré uses a drill she's hidden under the bed to escape. We first see Shane/Vincent Gallo, an American chemist, and his bride, June/Tricia Veysset aboard a plane en route to Paris where the two are honeymooning. Gradually we discover that Shane is a former colleague of Léo's and is suffering from the same affliction as Coré; he will spend the rest of the movie searching for Léo in the hope of finding a cure.

One subtext running through the film is contamination, and in particular contaminated blood, but before you write the film off as a crude, over-determined metaphor for AIDs, it's not clear how Shane and Coré were infected or if it's sexually transmitted (Shane is asked if he and Coré became lovers to which he responds: "I wish we had"). On the plane Shane starts to feel queasy and rushes to the bathroom; there he's tormented by the imaginary image of June lying in a bed under blood-soaked sheets and covered in blood. This is Shane's nightmare: his virginal bride sullied by his dark sexual appetites. It's not clear whether June is in fact a virgin (unlikely in this day and age, although she is American so you never know) though it is clear that she and Shane don't have sex; during an intimate embrace, he quickly rushes to the bathroom to jerk off so that he doesn't murder his wife like Coré murdered the the truck driver.

Denis, as always, is acutely aware of class difference and here June, who wears expensive haute couture clothing presumably paid for by Shane (it's not clear whether June works though the possibility that she doesn't re-enforces the notion of her and Shane's marriage as highly traditional), finds her mirror image in a maid/Florence Loiret working at the swanky hotel where she and Shane are staying in Paris. Denis makes this connection explicit when he cuts from the maid washing her feet in a sink in the hotel's basement to June doing the same in her hotel room. Unlike June, the maid wears too much make-up and is French so therefore definitely not a virgin (there's a shot of her boyfriend picking her up after work on his motorcycle), and Shane begins to pay her more and more attention as he withdraws from his wife, culminating in the maid's eventual rape and murder at his hands.

In the end, Shane's search for a cure hits a deadend. A sympathetic chemist/Hélène Lapiower gives him Léo's address in the suburbs where he finds Coré covered in the blood of her latest victim, recalling Shane's nightmare on the plane. Realizing Léo doesn't have a cure, he strangles Coré in despair and returns to the hotel where he murders the maid. Afterwards, June finds him taking a shower in their hotel room and he says he wants to go home. There ain't no cure for lust.

Monday, July 16, 2007

An Introduction

As you may (or may not) have deduced from the title, which is a referrence to a Fritz Lang western, I'm going to be using this blog to write about cinema. There are two general ways of writing about cinema: in the present-tense (reviews, festival reports) and the past-tense. Given my present geographic isolation, I've decided to take the long view and write in some depth about films I've seen at least two or three times and had some time to think about. I don't intend to write about everything I see because not every film merits closer inspection; that said, one shouldn't assume simply because I'm writing about a particular film that I consider it a canonical masterpiece. When I discuss a film, I'm beginning with the assumption that the reader has already seen it so I won't bother with spoiler warnings. My aim, beyond staving off bordem while I look for a real job, is to engage the reader in a discussion about the cinema: its history, where it is today, its value.