Παρασκευή, 31 Ιουλίου 2009


Presumably one of the string of "movies that don't make sense" that led Nikkatsu Studios to promptly fire the Japanese director following the debacle of BRANDED TO KILL and in the process turn him into an icon of Japanese cult cinema to be celebrated by the likes of Nagisa Oshima and Shohei Imamura perhaps not for what his work really was but for what it symbolized (a youthful rebellion against a studio system as rigid and oppressive as Japanese society), STORY OF A PROSTITUTE is in the same time a war melodrama, a rather conventional love story that you could see come out in Hollywood in the 50's, but also a Seijun Suzuki film.
A genre director who slaved away from b-movie to b-movie working from scripts that had little difference from one to the next, Suzuki developed, out of artistic frustration with the trappings of cookie cutter studio film-making, an irreverent visual grammar which often existed for the sake of it. In his way however, and perhaps unwittingly, he became a precursor of sorts to the Japanese New Wave of the 60's.Story of a Prostitute shows both facets of his work. A crowdpleasing genre film and a visual tour-de-force. But unlike stuff like TOKYO DRIFTER, or indeed Branded to Kill, films that often appeared to be little more than empty exercises in stylish bravura where the only reward possible for the viewer was a confirmation of Suzuki's bold, audacious approach, Story has a dramatic heart. The director approaches the love story between Mirakami, an orderly to an abusive adjutant who is brainwashed to docile acceptance of military authority, and Harumi, a passionate prostitute working a Japanese camp somewhere in Manchuria in the days of WWII, with sincerity and honesty.In the same time he punctuates the main plot with set-pieces that truly dazzle with their inventiveness. Harumi running through a shellshocked battlefield to an injured Mirakami; Harumi's fantasy of Mirakami rushing in slow-motion through a white-washed scene to save her from the abusive officer. All this filmed in stark black and white, with fast tracking shots around walls and behind wooden panels, beautiful exterior shots of Manchurian landscapes which dwarf the figures walking them, intricate framing in depth and poignant symbolic touches that give an almost existential air to proceedings.
It's true that some of Suzuki's experimentations, jarring cuts and slow motion shots, don't quite work; and it's true that the movie in the end lapses into a kind of didacticism that hasn't aged very well. But for the most part this is, not only a stunning display of visual bravado to please the art-house crowds, but also an excellent war drama that ranks among the best of the decade.
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Some eastern sea that lay heavily in the dawn, attended in its far horizon by titanic walls of smoke and crowned by spires of fire and hot gouts of burning oil arching in the air. This deceptive sea reflecting the sky above is made of crude oil. Notable enfant terrible of New German Cinema and devoted documentarian of man's quixotic struggles against a world that bears them false witness, Werner Herzog mounts his camera on a helicopter and takes us through the war-ravaged desolate landscapes of Kuwait's oil fields. Yet oddly enough and perhaps contrary to what anyone would assume, there's no politics involved, no topical Gulf War content through which to see the destruction. This is pure Apocalypse stripped of all context and left to sear its awe-inspiring images into the viewer's memory. These oil fires the result of the scorched earth policy of Iraqi military forces retreating from Kuwait in 1991 after conquering the country but being driven out by Coalition military forces. In a truly apocalyptic manner, Herzog simply invites us to "come and see" the works of man. Reciting short passages from the book of the Apocalypse as sweeping aerial shot after sweeping aerial shot expose a land ravaged by war, the earth tarred far as the eye can see, a vast steppe of black tending to the rim of the world, the skies charred by enormous fires and billows of smoke. This is really a documentary on the apocalypse, on some end to the world, the Gulf War a paradigm of all wars to end it with. A truly awe-inspiring spectacle of destruction and abandonment that mirrors man's insubstantiality when measured up against nature in his own power to destroy it. Not a documentary in the traditional sense but mostly a plot less 60 minute expedition in the deep recesses of a wartorn desert that lets the grandeur of its visuals see it through with Kubrickian aplomb. In the end the workers reignite some of the oil wells they previously extinguished. Herzog muses in his voice-over: "Now they are content. Now they have something to extinguish again".

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Peter Tscherkassky is an Austrian avant-garde filmmaker who works exclusively with found footage. All of his work is done with film and heavily edited in the darkroom, rather than relying on technological modes.

A fragmented glimpse of images pulsating with chaotic rhythm out of all control and reasoning as they fight white margins for room in Tscherkassky's palette, LE ARRIVEE if nothing else at least it can be safely called unique. Mirrored frames being split by white margin and trying to reassemble again like the poles of a magnet, a train approaching station and colliding with itself in white-hot blistering chaos. There's not much else that can be said for the 2 minute short film other than it definitely shows an artist pursuing his unique vision. As a prelimary of things to come, I'd say Le Arrivee is an alluring watch, rough yet oddly compelling.

His second entry in his Cinemascope trilogy plays and feels like a longer version of the previous entry, LE ARRIVEE, except with all the skullfuckery and aural destruction amplified tenfold. It starts off with a mystifying shot of a house bathed in stark noirish atmosphere pulsating and trembling as though with energy of its own, like something culled from a Robbe-Grillet film and pushed through a meat-grinder. A woman enters the house. The house soon transforms into a swirling hell, as though pulled and stretched into another dimension with time and space ripping apart in the seams. At some point we're looking at formless chaos, wave after wave of white noise washing over the screen, rolls of film tortured, an epileptic symphony of power electronics conjuring sheer cacodemony. It is a strange thing to behold, this nine minute short, definitely harsh and uninviting but worth a watch for the adventurous viewer.

Available on YouTube here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Unw8YYKYZPQ

This is the third short film in his Cinemascope trilogy and is in many ways similar to the previous entry, OUTER SPACE. A woman walking across a carpet, combing her hair, a man enters, grimacing faces superimposed, a woman smiling. At some point Tscherkassky's hands appear cutting up the film in the optical printer. A monochromatic canvas where images with their sense of equilibrium damaged and beyond repair attempt to re-align with their other selves. The closest comparison capturing the same sense of disjointed, jarring mayhem are glitch artist Kid606 with his cutups and sampling (minus the pop sensibilities), the noise of Merzbow or the hydraulic electronic grind of James Plotkin's Atomsmasher.

Available on YouTube here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3pUBm-bMRcw


Austrian experimental filmmaker Peter Tscherkassky inserts Sergio Leone's iconic spaghetti western The Good, The Bad and The Ugly in the meat grinder of his optical printer and proceeds to rip it to shreds and rearrange it back into a tangled network woven with walls of white noise, epileptic negative images coalescing with their positive selves and tiny particles of movement broken out of their proper place and stripped of all direction: the elements of the "to the left, to the right, back and forth" grammar of narrative space, discharged from all semantic burden. What remains is a self-sufficient swarm of splinters, shards of image flying directionless, furrowed with the traces of the manual process of production. Tuco being hanged a thousand times. Angeleyes' telescope burning holes of image in a black frame, out of these holes a face emerging, voyeurism invoking the object of its desire. Like other Tscherkassky works, Instructions is a painful watch that is guaranteed to make your eyes bleed. It will be of interest to those searching for new ways to dissect cinematic form but I'm not sure about the rest.

Available on YouTube in two parts. Start here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0AbyrGAPMHs


A kaleidoskopic image of Andy Warhol, presumably found footage from some interview, is slowed down and played over sudden pangs of screeching white noise. Warhol's own distorted, delayed, voice guides us through the gaseous hallucination. It doesn't really get anywhere, it's an experimental short after all, it's not meant to reaffirm preconceived notions of form but rather play with them, deconstruct them, and piece them back together in different abstract ways, see what might come of it. Maybe something unexpectedly great will emerge from the broken shards of image and sound, this too not as an end in itself, but as a means to enrich form. Mainstream cinema of the last 20 years (not to say anything about MTV) has thrived on the ideas of pioneers like Matsumoto. Worth a watch for the adventurous viewer.



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Τετάρτη, 29 Ιουλίου 2009


You gotta love the spaghetti western multiverse. The iconoclastic vision of a west where good guys get shot point blank with no warning and little reason, where cartoonish villains chew the scenery (usually exteriors shot around Rome) and sweat profusely in extreme close-ups, and the laconic anti-hero walks away from the girl robbing us of the romantic conclusion for the sake of cynicism alone. A lot of people call Sergio Corbucci's films 'depressing'. I find that a bit dodgy as far as descriptions go. I think bleak and unforgiving are more apt mostly because 'depressing' suggests a level of sentimentality almost every Eurowestern director ignored in favour of painting characters in broad strokes. It makes sense that Corbucci wanted to blow off some steam with COMPANEROS after the unremitting one-two sucker punch of bitter nihilism he served us with THE GREAT SILENCE and this (although he would later revert back to his usual tricks with the gritty and vulgar SONNY AND JED). There's still a certain amount of caricature that detracts from the overall grim tone of the movie, in this writer's opinion it hurts more than does any good to have a needless inclusion of three kids dressed like hippies skulking around town in search of gold and trouble. And it hurts to have Mario Adorf playing Mexican one-handed bandit El Diablo as over the top as he always plays his characters.Those minor gripes aside there's more than enough here to wet the palate of the spaghetti aficionado. Shootouts galore, the population of an entire town reduced to crawling naked in the dirt, the typical iconic badassitude of the laconic antihero (played by Johnny Halliday), the moral bankruptcy of almost every character in the movie. Corbucci might never receive the acclaim of the more famous Sergio or the American patriarchs of the genre but you and I know that's a gross injustice for a very talented director. His dynamic shot selection, in depth staging with objects sticking close to the camera and receding in the background, his flair for quick pacing and feverish energy in moving a story that wasn't always all that along, the way he photographs open spaces, everything in his work makes me believe that if Corbucci was American and had emerged 15 years earlier along with Mann and Hawks, the Cahiers du Cinema critics would have lauded him as an auteur worthy of serious critical consideration instead of ignoring him as one more bread-and-butter genre director for hire from their neighbor country.


The same year he formally debuted with FUNERAL PARADE OF ROSES (the film that inspired the visual palette of a certain CLOCKWORK ORANGE), Matsumoto made plain and obvious with this 12 minute short film that not only had he mastered the experimental short format in ways other Japanese experimentalists of the time like Shuji Terayama couldn't even dream, but was further able to do so with nothing of the haughty distanced (let's face it, often pretentious) attitude of an experimental intelligentzia that often strives to elevate itself above the very audience it purports to address. No this is visceral filmmaking. A helter skelter of late 60's counter-culture psychedelia played in two separate screens, images of student riots, drag queens getting ready for a night in town, fires, juxtaposed against swinging hippies, Japanese women casually arranging their wardrobe, people commuting to work, and various cartoon strips, all this played over a collage of news report snippets telling about the Communist threat, radio recordings, Rolling Stones, Japanese pop tunes, and Hitler speeches, while flickering images of fires and difigured babies flash over the screen now and again. It's all pretty anarchic and adds up to no concrete narrative but it all makes sense in a purely audiovisual way (hence cinematic, oddly enough for a film made up mostly of found footage), the overarching feeling and atmosphere Matsumoto is trying to communicate emerging from the patchwork of cut-up images and sound crystal clear.As further testament to the cultural embargo of sorts that makes even high profile Japanese directors like Shinoda, Suzuki, Gosha, and Kobayashi still relatively unknown in the west, this ought by all means to be as much a cult item representative of its time, almost audaciously ahead of it and fresh and modern, as anything Kenneth Anger ever did. I suspect the day Japanese cinema receives its proper due is the day many the cinematic status quo and history as we know it will need to be thoroughly devised.



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Τρίτη, 28 Ιουλίου 2009


Out of all the gritniks of 70's American cinema, Walter Hill seems to be the only one to hover in that godforsaken limbo between relative obscurity, the kind of limited exposure that can be worn as a badge of honor by cult afficionados by reason of the exclusivity it provides, and relative fame, having slipped at least one movie into public consciousness with THE WARRIORS. A director that didn't quite made it into Sam Peckinpah's echelon but also enjoyed a not-quite-A-list level of commerciality that eluded people like Monte Hellman or Richard C. Sarafian. And here he is back in 1978 turning out in only his second film not just a bonafide classic of its time, of that particular time and place and bleak filmic movement heaving with disillusionment that was 70's American cinema, but also one evocative of styles and directors past and echoes farreaching perhaps even in areas that Hill touched on merely by shared influence. At the center of the action the alienated laconic Driver, no doubt a resounding echo of spaghetti western antiheroes, but also the ronin of Japanese swordplay movies of the 60's. If Hill swaps his weapon of choice from a six-shooter to a muscle car, if he removes him from the open prairies and places him smack dub in the middle of a bleak urban cityscape almost Blade Runnerish in its evocation of a faded noir past, he still channels the same aimless existential angst of the drifter that inhabits Sarafian's Vanishing Point and Melville's Le Samourai. Indeed out of all the unlikely influences one can use to describe THE DRIVER is Melville's clinical crime film. Ryan O'Neill carries himself with something of the expressionless debonair attitude of an Alain Delon. The dialogue he exchanges with an equally expressionless (and strikingly beautiful) Isabelle Adjani is clipped and stilted, the delivery as wooden as something from a Robert Bresson film. Bruce Dern as the monomaniac cop obsessed with his arrest not in the name of justice but as a personal bet he must square, provides the animated sometimes comic counterpoint against which The Driver is measured and if the action set pieces, long chase scenes through dark nameless city streets and decrepit backalleys played to no music but the screeching of tires, break the monotony of the film they do it by providing a monotony of a higher tempo. In the end THE DRIVER is all about the atmosphere and ambience it evokes. Undercutting any tendencies to make a riproaring action thriller out of a stark clinical crime film, to squeeze a romantic subplot out of characters that are not fit for romance because they're never allowed to develop as threedimensional human beings, Walter Hill wisely keeps the movie focused on its atmospheric neo noir qualities.



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