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.