Archive for Akira Kurosawa

In the realm of the sensei

Posted in FILM with tags , , on October 4, 2018 by dcairns

This is the kind of thing I might try to teach in a class if only there were time.

Akira Kurosawa had an unconventional attitude to exposition: he liked it. He would cheerfully stage long scenes where the characters draw a map in the sand and make their battle plans, as in THE SEVEN SAMURAI. Kurosawa felt the audience liked to know what was going on and what was going to happen next (though drawing a plan also creates suspense: WILL things go to plan?) and would enjoy watching the characters explain it. As long as one character has motivation to exposit to another, the scene can set up plot points without trampling character credibility.SANJURO opens with a very long sequence of exposition to get its plot going. First, a group of very Earnest Young Men explain to one another what they think is going on. This gets a little dull, beautiful though the staging is, but boredom is not altogether Kurosawa’s enemy. He has HIGH AND LOW open with ten minutes of discussion about the shoe business just so we can be more surprised and excited when the movie abruptly turns into a gripping kidnap drama. Here, the tedium generated by the Very Earnest Young Men is upturned by the arrival of Toshiro Mifune, who is inherently not boring. Better yet, he’s playing the title character, previously seen in YOJIMBO, who is very far from earnest. Though he takes certain things seriously, and can get quite cross about some of them, he has an overall ironic attitude to life.The throng of VEYM have barely been characterised. They have a leader, but other than that they’re all dopey youths in kimonos and tonsures. If we were meant to be able to tell them apart, we’d be somewhat sunk. But they are basically just one character. The reason for having so many of them is contrast: their multiplicity contrasts with Mifune/Sanjuro’s singularity, just as their seriousness contrasts with his irony. So this exposition — which continues, albeit in a new direction, now that he’s joined us — is also an opportunity to show how unique he is.

And so from here on, when the VEYM stand up, he sits down. When they kneel, he stands. When they tense up, he relaxes. When they bow, he picks his toes. Very good work. Kurosawa is the true teacher.

 

 

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The Sunday Intertitle: Prairie Poirot

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on July 29, 2018 by dcairns

Such sloppy speech: clearly the intertitle of a desperado!

THE ORE RAIDERS (1927) is another “Worthless Willie” Wyler short of no particular ambition, doubtless churned out in a week, with a star, Fred Gilman, who’s better at staying on a horse in tricky situations than he is at expressing emotion or holding the eye.

From this historical distance, though, it’s quaint and charming to see a western hero who’s clean-cut, innocent, and shares affectionate banter with his horse (THE LONE RANGER recently attempted the clean-cut, innocent part, but didn’t give Silver enough of an active listening role).

Wyler is developing his craft. In a conversation between Gilman and a rancher who’s reluctantly in league with the bad guys, we cut from a close-up of the rancher reacting to something offscreen, to an optical POV insert of the Texas Ranger badge in Gilman’s pocket and back to the worried rancher, a quasi-Hitchcockian moment that renders psychology visible. Nothing too remarkable about this, but B-westerns typically just consist of wide-ish shots of people doing stuff, and some landscapes.

But THE ORE RAIDERS is a kind of frontier detective story, depending on the following of clues, and Wyler knows to present these signifying objects from his characters’ viewpoints rather than simply as close-ups.

The cigarettes match! Jake Petersen has been here!

Other evidence it’s a Wyler: cutting straight down the line into a scene, ignoring the 45-degree rule that angles are supposed to change. Sometimes, as when Monty Clift silently decides to ditch his lover in THE HEIRESS, this forward jolt can express a character point, dramatizing a reaction. When it just feels like the director popped a lens on because he couldn’t be bothered moving the camera round, it’s less satisfying. (Wyler was tireless in his retakes, but covered the action fairly minimally.)

Again, WW invents fresh ways to dismount his hero — at the climax, Gilman rides up to a bad guy and throws himself from the saddle before the horse has even stopped, knocking the bad guy down then dragging him to his feet and punching him out before the dust has even settled. He’s used himself as a projectile, before that was either popular or fashionable.

Wellman also has a very long lens for filming Gilman riding down steep hills, which he does A LOT. He doesn’t use it as extensively as Leni Riefenstahl or Akira Kurosawa but he does resort to it, proving this was a stylistic choice available before OLYMPIA and THE SEVEN SAMURAI.

The bad guy is not only the target of Gilman’s investigations, but his rival for the girl, making this movie almost identical to last week’s Sunday short subject, THE TWO-FISTER. Perhaps the very lack of variety in these oaters drove Wyler to be more inventive and develop his skills, whereas other directors got stuck in a rut and would still be making the same stuff when TV came in. Not a bad life if you enjoy outdoorsmanship, but no way to be remembered. Wyler was already shooting features, and by 1929 would be breaking away from westerns with THE SHAKEDOWN and THE LOVE TRAP (a part-talkie). Finally he could photograph some rooms, and take his hat off.

Let the stick decide

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 23, 2016 by dcairns

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Early in John Ford’s YOUNG MR. LINCOLN, Henry Fonda drops a stick to decide which path to take in life.

Scene one of Akira Kurosawa’s YOJIMBO, Toshiro Mifune throws a stick in the air to decide which route to take at a fork in the road.

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Now, we know Kurosawa idolized Ford, so do we think this superficial similarity is a conscious homage/steal? I’m inclined to think so. YOJIMBO is Kurosawa’s most American film, since it adapts Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest, and also steals a scene (the one with the giant sadistic thug) from the Alan Ladd film of The Glass Key (or from the book: I don’t remember the scene, but I expect it’s there).

Kurosawa kept a signed picture Ford had given him, and I think also wore a Fordian hat.

Ford to Kurosawa: “You really like rain, don’t you?”