MMR No. 4: Defending One’s Home

Strolling through the stacks this time I came out with two films that are, on the surface, very different: one a wild flight of fancy and one a gritty dramatization of real events. But the connection this time is a narrative one: both movies involve communities–whether a single family in the Japanese mountains or an entire southern American town–that are trying to take control of their home back from enemies, be they gang violence or some kind of death curse.

First up is a thriller/comedy/musical/demented fever dream from the prolific Japanese filmmaker Takashi Miike. The Happiness of the Katakuris follows the eponymous family as they struggle to operate a bed-and-breakfast in a rural mountain town that, supposedly, will soon be getting a new throughway. The story is narrated by Yurie (Tamaki Miyazaki), the youngest member of the clan. Her mother Shizue (Naomi Nishida) is divorced and on the prowl, entangling herself with a supposed Navy man (Kiyoshiro Imawano) that comes through town. Yurie’s uncle and Shizue’s brother, Masayuki (Shinki Takeda) has a checkered criminal past and doesn’t fit in with his family. His and Shizue’s father, Masao (Kenji Sawada) has been laid off from his urban department store job and dragged them all out to the boonies, along with his wife Terue (Keiko Matsuzaka) and his elderly father Jinpei (Tesuro Tamba), to run his dream business with his family together under one roof. Then, naturally, the bodies start piling up.

The film is as difficult to describe as it is to easily interpret. For one, it meanders off into stylistic diversions on a whim–characters dive into fantastically choreographed and tonally-bizarre musical sequences, at one point the film becomes an actual karaoke video, it switches into stop-motion animation for its more audacious sequences (like the clifftop fight sequence or the volcano explosion, but not the zombie dance number; that’s done with makeup), etc. For another, the plot is equally meandering, inserting non-sequiturs, abandoning what seem like important threads, and throwing up fake-outs just when a major narrative point seems to emerge.

It’s telling that Miike put out a jaw-dropping seven other films, including the notorious Ichi the Killer and the equally brazen Visitor Q, in 2001 along with this one. This movie has the loose feeling of an artist confidently riding a creative stride, its confidence and energy what ultimately makes it compelling, even if it’s not always exactly coherent. Watching it becomes an exercise in disbelief, waiting for the movie to somehow top itself in bizarre antics–which it mostly continues to do, although it does run out of a bit of steam in its second half. What holds it together is a commitment to the cartoonish portrait of family togetherness; it’d be overstating to say the characters have a lot of emotional depth but they manage to resonate anyway, at least enough to justify the rest of the carnival.

Conversely, The Phenix City Story is shockingly frank, particularly by the standards of 1955. Although apparently absent in some cuts, the version I watched began with a newsreel-style piece featuring reporter Clete Roberts (who also appeared in what is oft considered the best episode of M*A*S*H* some years later, by the way) interviewing participants in the true-life events the film depicts. The town of Phenix City, on the Alabama side of the Georgia border, has for nearly a hundred years been run by a ring of corrupt mobsters. The current head of the organization, one Rhett Tanner (Edward Andrews), is concerned that a local community leader, Albert Patterson (John McIntire), will be persuaded to join the latest attempts by concerned citizens to shut down the mob and their illegal casinos. At first neutral, Albert is swayed by the passions of his son John (Richard Kiley) who has recently returned from prosecuting war criminals in Germany, and is convinced to run for state attorney general. This begins a campaign of violence resulting in several murders, the bombing of a house, and Albert’s post-victory assassination, whereupon John takes up the post and the cause.

The movie has–by ’50s standards–a fervent, confrontational tone. Some of it is in the performances, notably Kiley’s eyeball-bulging turn as John, but a lot of it is just in what director Phil Karlson chooses to depict. The film’s opening segment reminds the audience that they can’t dismiss what follows as merely fantasy before driving the point home with images like the corpse of a little girl being heaved onto a lawn. The stakes of this violence are unabashedly political–ordinary American democracy standing up to a villain urging a kind of fascist conformity. It’s also left somewhat inconclusive; part of the thrust of the thing is that much is left to be done, so its easy to read as a kind of call to action.

Formally, the film carries through with the documentary aesthetic of its opening. A surprisingly large number of characters are juggled as the story moves as a pretty brisk pace (again, considering the era in which it was made) that establishes its individuals but is more concerned with the town overall. The frequent and bloody violence won’t shock anyone this side of the 1970s but is remarkably detached for a ’50s film, happening quickly and without overbearing melodrama (which is saved for more appropriate moments, like John’s fiery stump speech approaching the election). The film feels like a forbearer of Law & Order style ripped-from-the-headlines storytelling that blends verisimilitude with an in-the-moment intensity that make it still pretty watchable, even at a remove.

Next time I’m going to change this feature up because I’m having a bit of trouble keeping up with myself. It’ll be more of a roundup–shorter and hopefully more incisive reactions to a larger number of films, based on what I’ve watched recently.

 

 

MMR No. 3: Dysfunctional Families

Again somewhat without realizing it, I chose two films for this raid that have a certain thematic commonality–each of these two films, forty years apart, deals with families falling apart, although for very different reasons and to very different ends.

The Bigamist was released in 1953 and concerns one Harry Graham (Edmond O’Brien), a traveling salesman based in San Francisco. As the film opens, he is seeking to adopt a child with his wife Eve (Joan Fontaine), a process that requires him to submit to a background investigation conducted by the diligent Mr Jordan (Edmund Gwenn). In the course of his investigation, Jordan discovers that Harry has been leading a double life–he has a second wife in Los Angeles named Phyllis (Ida Lupino) who already has a newborn baby. Confounded, Jordan sits down with Harry to learn what kind of circumstances could drive a man to betray both women and flout the laws of society in such a way.

In addition to starring as the aloof-but-vulnerable Phyllis, Ida Lupino also directed The Bigamist. It was her seventh film as a director, beginning with an uncredited turn on 1949’s Not Wanted, making her one of the first female actor/directors in Hollywood. Interestingly, it was written (and co-produced) by Collier Young–perhaps most famous as the creator of the TV series Ironside, and at the time both Lupino’s ex-husband and currently married to Fontaine.

Maybe the real-life relationships involved go a way toward explaining the gentle and emotionally complex tone of the film. Although firmly within the genre of 1950s melodrama, the story isn’t as interested in moral hand-wringing or sordid gossip as one might expect based on the time and premise. Instead we get a difficult portrait of the way three personalities intersect. At the center, Harry is genuinely well-meaning but insecure, unable or unwilling to engage with his own needs until they become obstacles. Eve is smart enough to recognize something’s off but has a foundational faith in the life she’s worked hard to help build. Phyllis is blinded the mask she wears on her pain; she rejects the idea of being too needy or interrogating, making her more susceptible to Harry’s white-knight complexes.

It’s hard not to watch a film like this at a certain remove–melodramatic conventions and shifting acting styles aside, social mores and behaviors have changed pretty dramatically (in ways both fundamental and superficial) over the course of 64 years. The ending reads as ambiguous–Harry is neither excused nor damned, exactly, by either of his wives or society as a whole (represented by a pontificating criminal judge [John Maxwell])–but is that ambiguity more progressive or regressive? I’m honestly not sure, but either way it feels like an unusual film and its tone is impressively sensitive and warm for something so potentially lurid.

The Bed You Sleep In, however, is not what I would call a warm film. Released in 1993, it’s a middle-era work from independent filmmaker Jon Jost, an artist with whom I am not very familiar, but in whom I am now very interested.

The film follows a somewhat indeterminate period in the life of a man named Ray (Tom Blair), operator of a struggling lumber mill in a rural Oregon coastal town. For the first half, we are given a slowly unfolding sense of Ray’s complex relationship with the environment around him; his livelihood depends on the destruction of the very thing that sustains him spiritually. Then comes a turn. Ray’s wife Jean (Ellen McLaughlin) receives a letter from the couple’s daughter, off attending college in Seattle, accusing her father of inappropriate behavior. The second half of the film follows through on the impact of this accusation.

In case that plot description didn’t tip you off, although fundamentally a narrative film, The Bed You Sleep In works better from a more abstract perspective. Which, to be clear, is not to fault the story; the writing and acting are both sometimes painfully raw (with all the multiple connotations of that word), but they’re nerve-shreddingly engaging in part because they feel so unpolished. But between that rawness and the withering intensity of the slow pace, it can be an exhausting film to watch. Long stretches of machinery footage and/or industrial noise punctuate the film throughout. It takes a long time for any narrative momentum to occur, and even when it does it lingers for uncomfortable lengths on the repressed, often inarticulate people it follows. And it ends without really resolving any of its major questions.

But at the same time, that exhaustion and frustration is key to understanding the world the film presents us with, a suffocating small town where conflicting realities are increasingly unable to coexist. And it is the wider world the film is interested in as much as Ray’s inner one, reveling in the natural and social rhythms that surround him. Nowhere is this more apparent than in an extended tracking shot in the center of the film that slowly wheels around a busy cafe at lunch. It goes on for several minutes and adds nothing to the plot, yet nonetheless feels essential; its the only real reference we’re given to the sense of community that so informs the characters mindsets and the gutting sadness that permeates the work.

Granted, it takes a certain kind of patience meet a film like this on its own flawed and individualistic terms. And even if one has the patience, its not exactly an entertaining or pleasant experience, so I don’t know that I can really recommend it, exactly. But it hangs together well enough that I found it to have a pretty visceral impact and I’m intrigued about exploring more of the director’s work.

Next time, though, a pioneering(ly violent) film-noir docudrama and a Takashi Miike movie I really should’ve seen by now.

 

 

MMR No. 2: Two Italian Thrillers from 1970

It happened quite by accident. I’ve been making a mental list of movies to look for for this feature and without really thinking about it, I plucked off that list two films from the same country and year, even roughly (though not exactly) the same genre.

On the one hand, we have The Spider’s Stratagemmade by Bernardo Bertolucci immediately following The Conformist, his first certified international classic and also an exploration of the effects of fascism on consciousness. At face value this film, adapted from a Borges short story, is a politically charged murder mystery. A young man named Athos Magnani (Giulio Brogi) arrives in the small town of Tara to investigate the murder of his father, 30 years prior. His father–also named Athos Magnani, establishing the first of the film’s many ambiguities–was an anti-fascist activist who died a hero to the town, but of course nothing is ever as simple as it seems.

The film dislodges its characters in time and space–the same actors are used in the present as in flashbacks, characters enter the frame from impossible angles, conversations continue smoothly over jumps in action. As the son probes deeper into the conditions that led to his father’s death, the boundary between the two of them becomes more and more insubstantial until eventually he is consumed by the enduring legend, trapped in Tara, waiting for a train that will only ever continue to be late. And he’s not the only one in such a state–the town itself seems to have been arrested in the past; early on Athos observes that there are no young people around, only old people who act young, occupying the same roles and positions in the insular community that they would have thirty years ago.

But what are we to make of this? Is the plot woven by Athos the elder, inspired by the tragedies of Shakespeare (Julius Caesar, MacBeth, and Othello all get specific shout-outs), the stratagem referred to by the title? In other words, has he trapped them all in an artificial bubble by abandoning a difficult truth in the name of political theater? That’s a possible interpretation, but then what’s the connection between his mistress Draifa (Alida Valli) and the lion escaped from the German circus that runs/ran wild through the town? Is she friend or foe, also trapped or the spider herself? Or both? What is the significance of Athos’s mother, conspicuously absent from the action? One gets the sense there is an underlying logic to Bertolucci’s symbolism, but he doesn’t seem completely interested in clarifying it.

But rather than detract from the thrust of the work, the lack of clarity works in its favor, intellectually, anyway. The movie is a vividly coloured (apparent even on the low-quality VHS copy I saw) puzzle box, something to be chewed on and mulled over. It rejects easy conclusions and pat narratives, suggesting that truth is always more complicated than the stories we tell ourselves (and each other). Which means it’s the sort of movie that, experientially, requires a certain amount of patience with European new wave experimentalism, in a way that a more fully realized work (like The Conformist) would transcend.

On the other hand, Dario Argento’s debut feature as a director, The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, is a pretty rollicking bit of entertainment. Its mystery is a bit less obscure–an American writer living in Rome named Sam (Tony Musante) witnesses a woman (Eva Renzi) being stabbed in an art gallery one night, perhaps part of an ongoing series of murders in the city. Enabled by a very easygoing police inspector (Enrico Maria Salerno), Sam becomes obsessed with the case, convinced that something he saw doesn’t add up. Danger and intrigue follow, naturally.

The story has a kind of lurid, B-movie charm, elevated by an undeniably cool–and also vividly-coloured–visual style. But what struck me most about it was watching it in a particular context. For the past couple of years, every October I’ve been making my way through one of the classic slasher series–this year it’s the Halloween franchise–and its really fascinating to see so many of the elements of that genre already in place in a movie like this: spooky phone calls, sexually underpinned violence, absurd psychology, just the overall tone of stalking menace.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise–it’s no secret John Carpenter is an Argento fan and drew influence from the Italian giallo in general and his work specifically. It’s one of a number of foreign influences that worked into the mix of the American slasher; Grand Guignol’s graphic violence was French, Agatha Christie and Alfred Hitchcock were British, etc. This quickly spitballed into reapproaching the film from a nationalist perspective.

It’s strange that the protagonist of an Italian-produced film is an American foreigner; Sam’s girlfriend Julia (Suzy Kendall) points out, at least once, in response to his obsession that he’s “not even Italian!,” so the film acknowledges this. The eponymous animal–which makes a noise in the background of a recording, leading our heroes toward the killer–is a bird from Siberia, in other words Russia. The film was made right when the Years of Lead were kicking up so these national associations probably carried at least some weight in the public consciousness. One could potentially do an analysis from this perspective as easily as one could with Bertolucci’s more overtly political work.

Doing so would be both more involved and far drier than I really want to get with this writing. Perhaps it’s better to focus on the fact that The Bird With the Crystal Plumage is also a damn good thriller in a more straightforward sense. It made me realize how much, Suspiria aside, Argento’s work is a lacuna in my knowledge; he will likely show up in this feature again soon.

Next time though it’ll be a pair of… dysfunctional family dramas: Ida Lupino’s The Bigamist and Jon Jost’s The Bed You Sleep In.

Movie Madness Raid No. 1

I’ve been posting movie reviews at the rate of about one a week lately in an effort to stretch some long atrophied critical (writing in general, if I’m being honest) muscles. This is a format (and for now, pace) that I intend to keep up, but I feel ready to introduce a new feature. Short form pieces–not reviews, but reactions–on older or more obscure films plundered from the shelves of Movie Madness, a local and impressively-comprehensive independent video store here in Portland. This serves the triple purpose of 1) getting me to seek out movies I’ve been meaning to investigate instead of finding something to watch that’s more easily available–encouraging more a more active viewing habit, if you will; 2)  supporting a local business in whose raison d’être I firmly believe; and 3) further stretching the aforementioned muscles by approaching writing about film in a slightly different way.

For the inaugural foray, I chose two films that have been on my watch list for a while: one in the spirit of the season and one by way of a challenge.

Viy (or, Spirit of Evil) is not, even by the standards of 1967, particularly scary, despite being called the first horror movie to be produced under the Soviet state. There is a kind of existential dread about it, but it’s DNA is that of a folk tale–one written down, without much editing if the author is to be believed, by Nikolai Gogol in 1835. The film follows Khoma Brutus (Leonid Kuravlyov), a nogoodnik seminarian who runs afoul of a witch (Natalya Varley) and ends up having to preside over her corpse for three nights, defended against her demonic entourage only by his faith.

It’s the depiction of this entourage on which the movie’s reputation lies and that’s the main reason I sought it out. I was not disappointed. Despite a generally low production value, the expressive sets and inventive practical effects transcend the film’s limitations, slowly building into a weird, psychedelic fantasy nightmare. My understanding is these are largely the touches of one Aleksandr Ptushko, credited here as art director and co-screenwriter but a substantial director and effects wizard in his own right.

It’s hard not to want to read into the dual nature of the church in the story–the seminarians are barely better than criminals, but the power of religious ritual seems to rise beyond them, failing the hero only when he abandons it–but this didn’t strike me as a film overly concerned with a social message. Instead, it’s more experiential. And its a strange and worthwhile experience.

On the other hand, O Thiasos (The Traveling Players) is very much a social message film. It’s also stupidly hard to find in America. A couple unsubtitled versions are on Youtube but there is not, to my knowledge, a region 1 DVD release and even VHS releases are few and far between, so this was a kind of my challenge to see how comprehensive the selection at this place is. It turns out they did have an out of print 2-tape copy, but I had to put down a $150 deposit to rent it (something I was assured wouldn’t have been necessary after a certain number of rentals).

Considered the masterwork of Greek political filmmaker Theo Angelopoulos, the 1975 film traces Greek history between 1939 and 1952, from German occupation through civil war and socialist uprising to the election of Papagos. This larger, national drama is interwoven into an allegorical family drama among the members of the eponymous theater troupe who are constantly interrupted in their performances of a romantic period piece, Golfo the Shepherdess (not only a real play, but the basis of the first Greek feature film in 1914, a fact not lost on Angelopoulos I’m sure). The players have mythical names–Agamemnon, Electra, Clytemnestra, Orestes, etc–and the betrayal and revenge among them mirrors the greater struggle of Greece itself through the period.

Fair warning: this is a long and slow movie–it runs nearly four hours and its average shot length is an insane 2:53 (for reference, 0:15 is on the long end of an average Hollywood film)–but Angelopoulos is clearly comfortable taking his time. I was a little concerned this would be a socio-realist political lecture of a film, easier to respect intellectually than to actually enjoy, but it’s rarely dull and surprisingly warm, dreamlike, and emotive. The camera weaves through time and space in unexpected ways and fills even still, empty moments with drama; important events sometimes take place offscreen before the action drifts back into the frame and years can pass (backwards or forwards) within a single tracking movement.

The push and pull between art and life is also an element in the film’s fascinating mixture. The play itself exists as a fragment out of time–performed in a variety of contexts and rarely finished onscreen, functioning as a kind of history inhabited by different generations, interrupted and rewritten in a kind of palimpsestic way. Even more interesting is the use of music. Much of the film is told through song, but grounded in the diegesis of the film, not at all on the heightened register of the musical. Instead, propaganda songs and folk tunes come to embody different ideas and are used almost like weapons by the characters; a memorable scene involves a kind of musical battle for control of a dance hall between socialist rebels and royalist forces.

The most striking moments, and the emotional anchor points of the film, come in three lengthy monologues, where three of the main characters each describe to the camera their personal experience of a moment of historical violence. The staging of these scenes is simple–Agamemnon (Stratos Pahis) sits on a train car with his family in the background, Electra (Eva Kotamanidou) stands on a rocky beach after being attacked by a group of men, Orestes (Petros Zarkadis) smokes nervously in a doorway–but the stories and their quietly intense deliveries are absolutely gripping and nail down the inseparability of the personal and the political that lies at the heart of the work.

On the next round of Movie Madness Raids, I’ll have reactions to Dario Argento’s The Bird With the Crystal Plumage and Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Spider’s Stratagem. Also look for a review of either American Made or Kingsman: The Golden Circle (I haven’t decided yet) in the next few days.