Archive for Kon Ichikawa

The Monday Intertitle: Comin’ Thru the Rye

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , on October 21, 2013 by dcairns

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From Pordenone Festival of Silent Film — RAGENS RIKE, or THE LAND OF RYE. This late-silent Swedish rural drama of love thwarted/fulfilled, begins with a figure standing, centre-frame, waist deep in a field of the titular food crop. A dissolve repositions him further in the distance, and another diminishes him to little more than a smudge.

And I am astonished to find this sequence of shots in 1929, since it will be repeated exactly in Kon Ichikawa’s AN ACTOR’S REVENGE (1963) and again in Terrence Malick’s THE NEW WORLD (2005). And yet it seems not that likely that Ichikawa saw Ivar Johanssen’s film, or that Malick saw either, though of course it is possible. Maybe wheatfields naturally evoke diminishing jump-dissolves in a film-maker’s mind, the way the centre aisle in a church always makes them want to do tracking shots?

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The film is beautiful. Two student competition winners provided the live piano score, without benefit of having seen the film first, and they did a fine, sensitive job. The movie contains a great drinking contest scene, with blurry impressionistic effects to simulate drunkenness, lots of romantic outdoorsy stuff that the Swedes seemingly loved, and a great intertitle, very late in the story, which I can’t show here as I don’t have a copy of the film. The village is in turmoil due to the results of a single romantic problem. “The prophet” — a kind of heretical preacher admired by the lower village, is asked for help. He cuts to the quick: “You’re so stupid! Let the boy marry the girl and everything will be fine!”

Of course, being a Swedish movie, it takes another twenty minutes or so for this to get sorted out.

A Night at the Olympics

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on July 30, 2012 by dcairns

Look, I hate sport, let’s get that clear. All forms of organized, competitive excercise exercise — a word I use so rarely I’ve literally forgotten how to spell it — are basically spectacles from the deepest, trident-jabbing bowels of Hell, somehow excreted up onto the earth’s surface by some repulsive subterranean eruption of fecal urgency.

“There’s the swimming,” suggests a friend. But I hate the swimming too. I don’t like the sounds it makes — echoing, splashing and yelling. If you close your eyes during the swimming, you will immediately picture yourself in Godard’s ALPHAVILLE, watching hi-tech executions. All sports either sound bad, look bad, are monumentally boring, are outbursts of vile nationalistic/territorial (or sectarian) aggression, or are just naff.

So I haven’t been looking forward to the Olympics. Still, they have a certain cinematic tradition (although I recommend the Ichikawa TOKYO OLYMPIAD far more highly that the Riefenstahl) — and I take seriously Richard Lester’s comments about the surge in filmmaking brio in Britain in the sixties being partly down to the high spirits occasioned by England’s winning the world cup. There can be a cultural crossover, just as winning the war led to a few years of dynamic, imaginative and confident cinema culminating in the glorious year of 1948.

Back when New Labour won the general election under Tony Blair, before we had to face what that actually meant, there seemed to be a similar upsurge in creative confidence, but it was manifested purely in the world of pop music. I mean, most of the lottery-subsidised cinema of the era was crap, as useless, pointless and confused as the Millennium Dome.

So whether the Olympics will do anything for Britain, apart from sucking money out of other areas, is something I’m a bit skeptical about. But still, grumbling is something we Brits do well, so I did decide to watch Danny Boyle’s Olympics opening ceremony, if only to moan at it.

There was plenty to moan at, and a certain amount to enjoy. Boyle’s everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach meant there was always plenty going on, even if the BBC camera teams couldn’t always find it. An opening countdown with numbered balloons bursting, went all random on us as the editing rendered it as SIX… FOUR… THREE… ONE… I’m not saying I could vision-mix a live event as complicated as this and do any better, or even as well. I’m just saying it didn’t work.

Likewise, the entrance of a thousand furiously drumming drummers in near silence was a strange choice, if it was a choice, although when the volume got tweaked they made a suitably big noise.

Niggles aside, what of the overall concept? At first it seemed like a bag of bits, a typically incoherent vision of what Britain is (cricket! suffragettes! Chelsea pensioners!), starting from an arbitrary historical point that had nothing to do with the timeline of the Olympics (which might have added some rational structure). I can’t see why, if you’re chucking in a nod to both world wars, James Bond, Mr Bean, the Queen (with corgis rendered digitally jittery like the victims of Rage in 28 DAYS LATER) and a statue of WInston Churchill that comes to life, like Kali in THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD, you can’t also have Robin Hood and King Arthur. But you can, it seems, have Kenneth Branagh dressed as Isambard Kingdom Brunel reciting a speech from The Tempest. For no reason.

Ken was actually a good choice for this kind of thing, though. He’s not one of those actors who can look as if he’s not acting, but if the occasion demands it he can, like Tod Slaughter, look like he’s acting his socks off and enjoying every minute of it.

And the bit where all the curious industrial revolution imagery (an event which falls in between the original Greek Olympics and the event’s modern revival) paid off with the big glowing rings forged in the furnaces of Hell the industrial revolution rising into the air was colourful and striking. And the cutaways of Boyle’s non-professional performers looking up at it with genuine, if perhaps unnameable, emotion, were oddly powerful.

Boyle’s problem is he can’t simplify, I’d say. Which is why his Mr Bean skit was over-edited and merely gestured towards laughs it hadn’t a hope of getting, and why there was always so much going on. It would have been a relief for all the activity to stop more often and allow us to FOCUS.

Still, muddled, busy, tacky and bloated as it was, the spectacle was oddly pleasing. Or not too infuriating, anyway. I can now retreat to a darkened room and watch movies until the whole nasty affair is over.

Kon gone

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , on February 16, 2008 by dcairns

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Kon Ichikawa just died this week, aged 92. A good age, admittedly.

He directed on of my all-time favourite movies, maybe even a Top Ten contender — AN ACTOR’S REVENGE. My big regret is that AAR’s lack of commercial success in Japan prevented Ichikawa from working in that heightened, theatrical mode again — arguably his TOKYO OLYMPIAD shares some of the same qualities, and Ichikawa undoubtedly made other great films, FIRES ON THE PLAIN for one, but AAR is sui generis, as they say in Japan. The kabuki scenes have the same delirious fusion of reality and fantasy (the performer’s vision is transfigured by the theatrical experience, conjuring a whole imaginary world for them) as THE RED SHOES. And in Ichikawa’s film, the theatrical elements escape the stage and wantonly transform the supposedly “real” scenes. Also, it’s part film noir, part revenger’s tragedy, part samurai saga, with a dementedly romantic jazz score and a transvestite hero.

Made to celebrate star Kazuo Hasegawa’s 300th film appearance, and to punish Ichikawa for previous uncommercial films, the movie is the perfect example of a filmmaker triumphing over difficult conditions (admittedly with the aid of considerable funds). Hasegawa was clearly too old and heavy-set to play the lead role (which he had created in a 1935 serial version), but Ichikawa encourages us to overlook his protagonist’s Steiger-like burliness by stylising EVERYTHING (and also casting Hasegawa as a devil-may-care bandit). Everybody else in the film finds Hasegawa stunning and convincing as a woman (including the other Hasegawa!) so we have little choice but to go along with it — not quite believing, but indulging the storyteller as we do in the early stages of a play. We know the stage isn’t really a battlefield or a palace, but we make believe. Once the film has us doing that, it can have its way with us utterly.

Ichikawa pulls off something that’s widely presumed to be impossible.

An Actor Prepares

If only there were more movies like this. I’m not a huge Peter Brook fan, but i admit he’s onto something when he says that just because the standard way of staging a play is to have actors impersonate characters and act out scenes, that needn’t be the only solution. Anything that tells the story to the audience is acceptable (and you might not even have a story!) AN ACTOR’S REVENGE tells its story with breathtaking beauty, but isn’t concerned about believability at all, except in a psychological sense. I don’t even think it’s THAT extreme an approach, but it’s light-years beyond anything in mainstream cinema.

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This end sequence seems to be referenced in Terence Malick’s THE NEW WORLD!

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I think I might toast the Great Man by running THE BURMESE HARP for the first time.

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