Archive for Akira Kurosawa

Unstarry Nights

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Painting with tags , , , , , , , on July 3, 2021 by dcairns

Maurice Pialat’s VINCENT is, for some reason, the first Pialat movie I’ve gotten around to. I’ve owned the Masters of Cinema Blu-ray of it, and POLICE, for ages. This should prompt me to watch more.

I mean, one could complain — the movie is long and often slow and one ends with no huge sense of understanding the main character — it’s not clear whether he’s ill or mad, his eventual suicide comes out of left field, and although he was clearly not a happy man, there’s no obvious MOTIVATION behind him suddenly shooting himself. So any desire for narrative neatness is defeated.

Pialat in interviews seems obviously complicated, a tricky customer, but he never says anything that would help guide you through his movie. He never discusses the large fictional elements he inserted into VVG’s life. Some of the movie’s deleted scenes seem like they might have helped a little, and that may be why they were deleted.

But it seems churlish to me to complain about the movie’s length (it’s not THAT long but it does SEEM quite long) when so much that’s good in it wouldn’t be there if there was a serious attempt to chip away everything that doesn’t look like a story. In the hostelry where VVG has taken a room, we see people in the back bar, and then a big hay cart comes by the window, VERY CLOSE.

(Had to photograph it off TV because I can’t frame-grab Blu-rays currently.)

“That’s amazing,” I said.

“I was about to say that,” said Fiona. But neither of us could decide exactly WHY it was amazing. The reverberant trundle and rattle of the cart in the night street is part of its gentle ominous loveliness. Certainly it relates to one of the film’s major strengths, its evocation of time and place. Without trying to transform the landscape into a Van Gogh painting, as Minnelli and Kurosawa in their own ways do, it creates an immersive beauty. Paul Verhoeven once said that when you make a period movie, you often can’t afford to pan an inch to the left or an inch to the right for fear of exposing something modern (CGI has almost removed that problem). Pialat’s filmmaking makes it feel like the painter’s world surrounds us completely, and everything we see is real.

He seems to have had a fair bit of money, but there are no Parisian street scenes, so the budget wasn’t unlimited. He’s just really good. The performances are startlingly informal, they feel present-tense but at the same time they’re never anachronistic (the prostitute singing Carmen with da-dum da-dum raunchiness). It puts you inside Van Gogh’s world but can’t or won’t put you inside his head. But it succeeds so exceptionally at the former that it still impresses no end.

It’s a Gas!

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 24, 2021 by dcairns

Chaplin is BOUNCING at Mutual. If THE RINK is just riotous misbehaviour with a fig leaf of farce plot, EASY STREET, with its mostly-parody temperance theme, a “reformation melodrama” as David Robinson calls it, is tightly plotted and the rambunctiousness is sort of ABOUT something.

It’s a very simple plot — simplicity is working well for CC at Mutual, by concentrating on one strong narrative line, or intercutting a couple, he’s been drawing back from the slightly random cutaways he’s apt to use: Character X is asleep. Here he is asleep. Here he is STILL asleep because we needed to trim a bit out and didn’t want to cause a jump cut. Here he is waking up, which is important, but we’re seeing it now because we had another gap to fill, and you won’t actually see him do anything for another five minutes.

This kind of thing was no doubt common in other comedies, but Chaplin does it A LOT. Whichever nouvelle vague fellow (Rivette?) said that Chaplin was the greatest editor only has a case to make once you get further along in the career.

Fade-up on Charlie asleep in an exterior corner of the New Hope Mission. He evidently hasn’t read the sign or got the message. He’s just been billed as “The Derelict” and then an intertitle calls him The Lost Sheep and the first image confirms those words in strong terms. I’d argue that basically only the first and last shot of this brilliant short are serious, the rest is playful and parodic even when it seems melodramatic or sentimental.

A thing I hadn’t realised before is that Chaplin preceded his attempt as sentiment by making fun of sentiment, and this is how he slowly dripped it into his work.

Charlie awakens and hears Edna Purviance singing. She must be singing beautifully because her hair is all backlit. She’s so good, Charlie goes into the church to investigate. Some mild comedy is produced from his uncertainty how to behave. Chaplin has produced some quite caustic commentary about churchmen (the opening of POLICE) and some flat-out contemptuous slapstick (the rotten egg in the hymnbook in THE TRAMP) so this seems at first a big change of viewpoint. But there’s still something lightly satirical — Charlie is only interested in religion because he’s interested in Edna. His feelings for her are quite tender and chivalric, rather than the impish and impudent flirtations of yore, but they’re romantic not religious.

Charlie’s change of character is signalled by him returning the collection box he’d planned to steal, which takes the curse off any preachy quality. Rather than being touched by his reformation, we gasp at the perfidy he’s moving on from.

There’s a comedy drunk in the mission played by John Rand, which means we get to see him without a big black moustache. Later he’ll play a kop and the cookie-duster is back on for that.

Also: the dramatic close-up, expertly used. Closeups in early Chaplin were usually just shots of the girl with a puppy or something. A bit of cuteness for variety, one of those slightly random cutaways. This is strong filmmaking.

There’s some tasteful humour with a baby — Charlie only THINKS its micturated on his leg. The baby, no trouper, stole Charlie’s moustache, perhaps intent on becoming a Pubert Addams avant la letter, an outtake that seems not to have survived.

We cut from this backlit, religiose idyll to the startling contrast of Easy Street itself. The T-junction becomes a Chaplin meme — it looks like a London street, as everyone has by now pointed out (I read it in Robinson first). But the shape is a useful one because it gives the impression you’re seeing a lot more than you are. A surrounding city is implied but unshown and unbuilt. In fact, we’ll see later that if you run off one end of Easy Street you find yourself in an LA location shot, and if you keep running you wind up back on another end of Easy Street.

The scene is of indescribable chaos. A bunch of thugs is beating up a bunch of kops. Eric Campbell, “the bully,” is leading the thugs. Beardless and shaven-headed, he’s discarded his usual air of an overinflated melodramatic villain of the moustache-twirling variety, and is now a figure of terrifying strength and violence, and at the same time a comic exaggeration of that idea.

Now Charlie has to choose to become a kop, something almost unthinkable. In THE CURE, Chaplin would delete a scene where he acts as unofficial traffic cop to a lot of drunken (dis)orderlies and their bathchair-bound clients, and the assumption by Brownlow & Gill, who use the clip in the priceless doc series Unknown Chaplin, and David Robinson agrees, is that Charlie can’t be seen to impose order out of chaos when his whole personality is based on the reverse of that. Well, in this film, he does little BUT impose order out of chaos, but at least he does it by hitting people on the head.

The police station interior seems to have been shot during or after a shower of rain, and indeed bad weather did delay filming on this one. Mostly Chaplin just waited for the weather, but he seems to have decided to compromise on this one shot. Since his studio was open-air, he couldn’t very well have shot the mission interiors with rain pouring down.

The reason the kops are desperate for men is that Big Eric keeps mangling them, sometimes so badly that they are transformed into floppy dummies. We love a good floppy dummy here in the Shadowplayhouse, and this film has some terrific substitutions, performed without the aid of the jump cut. Charlie doesn’t know any of this, however.

The first honest citizen to get a look at Charlie in Kop kostume is convulsed in hysterics. Charlie knocks the guy unconscious with his baton and has him hauled off the the cells. Any worry we may have had that our agent of misrule is going to become boringly civilised is dispelled. He’s going to carry on being a little brute but enjoy his ability have people locked up instead of just thumping them.

As promising as this line may be — or not — the movie has other plans. Charlie is given Easy Street as his beat, which means he’ll rapidly be running into Big Eric. The film has set Eric up as a genuine figure of terror, which is a whole new thing for Chaplin to play with. The hobos in THE TRAMP and the “gypsies” in THE VAGABOND were early attempts at setting the Little Fellow up against vicious characters who don’t know they’re in a slapstick comedy and don’t expect to play by those rules, but this is more intense, because Chaplin has taken the trouble to show Eric being savagely effective against someone other than Edna.

Now we have SUSPENSE — “He’s behind you!” — dramatic irony/poignancy — Eric has been set up as a menace and nothing about Charlie suggests he’ll be able to cope with his hulking opponent. It’s great. Fear is such a useful component in comedy. My mother never liked Chaplin particularly but anything that injects terror into comedy gets her SCREAMING at the TV.

Eric has just played his own game of peekaboo, causing the entire degenerate population of Easy Street to vanish whenever he whirls to face them, so he has been set up as not only a man who can tear the pants off policemen, but one who can terrorise a score of people with a mere look.

This is all impressive because it’s both funny and dramatic, and the dramatic parts — the fear and poignancy — enhance the comic, and vice versa probably.

Chaplin’s slow approach from extreme long shot stresses his tininess compared with Eric. Standing parallel, they’re eye to eye only because of the tall sidewalk, and when Eric steps up onto it, dwarfing Charlie, it’s a little like the big guy emerging, inch by inch, from the sidewalk loading bay in CITY LIGHTS, until Charlie’s bravado vanishes in his shadow.

Also, tracking shots! There are five simple motivations for moving the camera — following characters; showing a moving character’s POV; the psychological reaction intensifier; telling a story by showing things in succession; exploring space. Surprisingly, Charlie’s tentative first moves were of the last-named kind, and they sometimes seemed like distractions. But his pull-back from Edna’s portrait in THE VAGABOND worked as a combination of spacial exploration and storytelling. His push onto the dance floor in THE COUNT is a stab at following characters, but the relationship of dancers and camera was slightly amorphous. Here, tracking along with Charlie and Eric keeps them roughly the same size but also adds importance to them, increases the involvement of our eyes, intensifies our emotional response.

It’s all the more suspenseful because Charlie is simply trying to pretend Eric doesn’t exist — just about the weakest thing he could do.

Charlie wanders around Chaplin’s set, followed by Rollie Totheroh’s camera in a deadpan pan.

As Charlie loiters by the police telephone, trying to get his hand on the mouthpiece without the rest of his body showing any interest — so that Eric will disregard his hand, seeing it as an independent creature for which Charlie is not responsible (this is a good technique if you’re operating a puppet in plain view and you want people to believe it’s alive) — Charlie produces his sickly smile, a Rik Mayall effect not seen on the Chaplin countenance since the cinema scene in TILLIE’S PUNCTURED ROMANCE. And that wasn’t even the Tramp character.

Grabbing the phone but getting caught at it, he transforms it by mime into a snake charmer’s flute, to which surely Bully Eric could have no objection? I mean, everybody likes music, right?

This has an unexpected but gratifying effect — Eric, who is not the sharpest lug hammer in the box, grabs the phone and looks into it, to see if it really does have musical properties. I think. The motivations of large and terrible men may be slightly beyond me. Charlie seizes the moment and clonks his new friend on the bristly occiput with his truncheon. No effect.

This may be the first time anyone thought of doing a basic slapstick wallop and having it not work, and using that for comic terror. A technique copied by everyone, or certainly by Roger Moore and Richard Kiel. I think maybe Sean Connery and Harold Sakata also.

Everything Chaplin’s doing is suspense-based, without Hitchcockian editing but with performance that adjusts the audiences focus from character to character in less than the blink of an eye. And it’s all comedy too.

Eric is apparently taking such pleasure in his work — menacing is fun! — he wants to demonstrate what he’s going to do to his victim on a lamp post — Easy Street is a portal to Victorian London so I’m not saying “streetlight.” It’s like when Withnail attributes imaginary threats to wrestler Jeff Wode:

‘In fact, he’d probably tell you what he was going to do before he did it. [Starts acting out the scene in his head] “I’m going to pull your head off”. “Oh no, please, don’t pull my head off”. “I’m going to pull your head off because I don’t like your head.”‘

Eric can’t tell Charlie because it’s a silent film, so he SHOWS, and Charlie seizes the chance to humanely gas his opponent.

Fiona, like many audiences before, was fairly horrified by this part of the struggle — Campbell, an early progenitor of the mutant chief in Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, makes a grisly spectacle of succumbing to asphyxiation. But it’s all done with scientific care and the community’s best interests.

Fiona was twice fooled into thinking Eric was dead. He’s like Michael Myers, only with a face.

Charlie is now a figure of fear like Eric had been, and he reprises the gag where the street’s populace creeps into view behind him then flees in terror when he turns.

When the other kops come scurrying round the corner to see if Eric is really defeated, I unaccountably get an Akira Kurosawa vibe. Certainly Kurosawa saw Chaplin films as a kid, and certainly he became a master of moving actors in groups in wide shots. It’s the way they scatter horizontally upon emerging here…

Charlie lights a ciggie and blows up the gaslight.

Next — the movie just pretends that didn’t happen — he helps a desperate woman who’s stolen some groceries. That is, he helps her steal MORE. He’s an unconventional policeman. Like Special Agent Chester Desmond, he’s got his own M.O.

Modus operandi!

This middle part of the film is somewhat aimless, but Charlie’s good deeds impress Edna favourably. We meet Loyal Underwood, a relatively new member of the stock company, playing a feeble little guy who’s somehow fathered a small army.

Eric regains consciousness at the kop shop, snaps his handcuffs, and initiates a donnybrook. Batons have no effect! He shoves one constable out of shot for an instant, and when he drags him back into view, the fellow has metamorphosed into a floppy dummy, and is used to belabour his fellows. All done with framing rather than the more usual jumpcut.

Meanwhile Charlie is feeding the children as if they were chickens. “I do that because I despise them,” Chaplin told someone or other. Strange, for a man who’d have so many kids himself.

Eric goes home and gets into a Punch and Judy fight with his wife — for a moment she seems like she might subdue him by sheer ferocity, but soon she’s in trouble. Charlie rushes on over to see what’s up, then rushes away when he sees what’s up. Eric follows.

There now occurs a chase sequence as M.C. Escher might have designed it. Charlie runs off the right arm of the T-junction, onto an LA street, turns right onto another L.A. street, then reappears on the left of Easy Street, a journey which looks like this —

It’s a good trick if you can do it. Perhaps a hole in spacetime is involved. Perhaps the same phenomenon that allowed a woman with a cell phone to turn up for the premiere of THE CIRCUS?

Having successfully folded space like a DUNE navigator, defeating Eric should be a doddle, but in fact Charlie struggles quite a bit. He’s chased through Eric’s flat, then winds up back there, then manages to drop the stove on his enemy’s head. I vividly recall my Dad explaining to ten-year-old me exactly how fatal that would be.

Chaplin could presumably have ended the story with Eric’s defeat but surprisingly he keeps going. Edna is abducted by a bearded Henry Bergson and, in a parody of Griffith’s to-the-rescue cross-cutting, he keeps cutting back to The Derelict sitting idly in Eric’s ruined home, relaxing after his busy day.

Edna is imprisoned with a sinister junky who, after shooting up, becomes possessed of rapacious desires. I don’t know what’s in that syringe but when Charlie’s dropped on it, he transforms into a furious Viking berserker. It’s a startling drugs moment, repeated in MODERN TIMES where an accidental noseful of marching powder transforms the Tramp into a fearless and energetic thumper of felons.

Pounding and kicking the junky and Henry is a mere nothing, taking a flying drop-kick at eight men and knocking them all out of frame is slightly more effort. Judo throws follow. Henry’s ample belly serves as a kind of trampoline to propel our hero back to (Easy) street level — you can tell Chaplin has someone waiting to catch his arms and pull him the rest of the way. The clinch with Edna is delayed slightly by a pratfall — Chaplin is anxious not to let excitement completely replace comedy.

The ending, with Easy Street transformed by the judicious use of extreme violence into an urban paradise, is obviously somewhat satiric. Eric, who did not die, is now a smartly dressed model citizen. An employment agency, strategically placed, lends some slight credibility to the reformation of the neighbourhood. A new mission is prominent too, and when Charlie and Edna walk towards it arm in arm, all thought of parody has flown.

Chaplin hasn’t stopped bouncing — his next film accentuates the reformation-parody so it can’t be taken seriously at all, and substitutes increasing anarchy for the enforcement of order. And the Tramp takes a breather…

Pacific War is a contradiction in terms

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 25, 2021 by dcairns
The chairman is thinking about Taiwan

Last night I started watching THE BATTLE OF OKINAWA (1971), subtitled A TEMPESTOUS CHRONICLE OF THE SHOWA PERIOD, “tempestuous” being the understatement of the period, and I hope to finish it today (bad viewing habits, huh?).

It’s directed by Kihachi Okamoto, whose stuff I haven’t got into before, and it has a zip to it. After David Lean’s embrace of direct cutting in LAWRENCE added a spring to the step of the lumbering epic form, new possibilities opened up, largely ignored in the west. Compare this to those dreadful Mirisch Company war movies, huge, flat and lifeless, cinematic Saharas of imagination.

In principle, it’s doing the same things as a piece of oily flotsam like BATTLE OF MIDWAY — archive footage is blithely intercut with modern pyrotechnics and star cameos (Tetsurô Tanba, Tatsuya Nakadai). You know they’re serious because they show you actual corpses before the main titles roll. (Being serious can lead to worse violations of taste than being flippant.) The stock shots are anamorphically stretched to fit the Tohoscope frame and look miserable.

But but but. The cutting is both nimble and eccentric. Surprising details are emphasised in surprising places and at breakneck speed (a scene ends, almost nonsensically, on an ECU of a sex worker’s toes). The characters are all finest quality Japanese cardboard with very emphatic playing in the A. Kurosawa manner, which works fine as they all need to make an impression in nothing flat.

The music is constantly lighter and more playful than the situation seems to warrant — none of this is going to end well — perhaps the same national tendency that gave us Gojira’s jolly march and Sanjuro’s baby elephant walk. Masaru Satô so that makes perfect sense and is personal more than national. In fact, now that I check, it’s by But the counter-intuitive choice imparts a grace and lightfootedness that propel the film forward without the usual grinding of gears.

An obvious comparison would be TORA! TORA! TORA! but the auteur of that one is Twentieth Century Fox and so it plods pachydermic through its history lesson, a literal-minded behemoth. Okamoto can dance.

I know some of this story, though. It’s going to get really horrible, isn’t it?