Archive for My Neighbor Totorro

Listing (badly)

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on September 2, 2022 by dcairns

To be clear — the following is not my list of screenings for the coming semester. It’s my submission for the Sight & Sound Greatest Films of All Time poll.

  1. He Who Gets Slapped
    Year: 1924
    Director(s): Victor Sjostrom
    Comment: My favourite film. It’s not like anything else. Lon Chaney manipulates the audience’s emotions by making shapes with his body, within the shapes Sjostrom makes with his camera. A melodrama in which nothing is really credible but everything is incredibly compelling. The film that draws the line between the laugh of the clown and the snarl of the lion.
  2. The General
    Year: 1926
    Director(s): Buster Keaton & Clyde Bruckman
    Comment: Ten films is such a small number that maybe all the entries do need to be perfect. Formally speaking, this one is: every shot is an essential component. Keaton makes the camera’s observation part of the joke. Each shot says, in a perfect deadpan, “Here we are now. And now this is happening. And so…” Plus you have a cinematic icon as star, a magnificent comedian, an incredible daredevil, working on the biggest canvas he ever got.
  3. Citizen Kane
    Year: 1941
    Director(s): Orson Welles
    Comment: What, I’m going to leave this off, so I can look more like a wild individualist? A brilliant cinematic mind jumps into the medium, determined to see what he can make it do. Tackle everything in a fresh way, from story to performance to camera to design, special effects, sound, editing. It may not actually invent anything but it packs in a ton of radical creativity and unconventionality. The filmmaker conveys his joy at all the tricks he comes up with, which makes the film supremely likeable to me, which it doesn’t get enough credit for.
  4. A Matter of Life and Death
    Year: 1946
    Director(s): Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger
    Comment: The Archers had to have a place on my list, and in truth it could be any of five or six films, but this one marries its experimentation to a story both real AND fantastical, enabling them to stretch themselves in every direction. I love their use of Technicolor and I have, I admit, a mysterious sentimental attraction to stories of WWII. And I have a deep sympathy for Powell’s rejection of realism: as he said, it doesn’t really exist in the cinema. It’s all an illusion. And we know it. Romantic, funny, epic, the film’s breadth of vision puts everything Britain’s made in the past 50 years to shame.
  5. Eight and a Half
    Year: 1963
    Director(s): Federico Fellini
    Comment: There’s the sheer invention; the joy of looking through such a pair of magical eyes; Fellini’s roving camera; his carnivalesque world; Nino Rota’s galumphing score. I don’t know how many more times I can bear to see this one: the last time I was continually on the verge of tears over its beauty. And I don’t get that with other beautiful films. The love of cinema seems to speak directly to me, but to add an acerbic quality, Fellini is quite harsh on himself, via his stand-in Mastroianni.
  6. The Knack… and How to Get It
    Year: 1965
    Director(s): Richard Lester
    Comment: The inventiveness and playfulness of the French New Wave is ported over to a grey London autumn and blended with native surrealism. Screenwriter Charles Wood explodes Ann Jellicoe’s play and, with director Lester, assembles a dazzling mosaic from the pieces. All the choices are surprising, and somehow coherent. And it’s all quite strange: John Barry’s jazz score and David Watkin’s beautiful photography combine with the oddball text to create a feeling that’s a bit mysterious, even while it’s mainly all just bursting with youthful exuberance.
  7. 2001: A Space Odyssey
    Year: 1968
    Director(s): Stanley Kubrick
    Comment: “If he could get rid of the human element, he could make the perfect film,” joked Malcolm McDowell. But here he almost does. By acting, arrogantly, as if nobody had ever made a really good science fiction film, Kubrick solves all the problems methodically but also pushes the genre into epic, mythic, spiritual terrain that even the best sf literature rarely touched upon. Stately, bold, astonishingly beautiful. The great rationalist suddenly blasts us off into a psychedelic experience which doesn’t yield fully to reason. It’s not even certain if the film is optimistic or despairing (yet colourful).
  8. Playtime
    Year: 1968
    Director(s): Jacques Tati
    Comment: Having become a national or international institution, Tati blew his career to pieces with a colossal folly, a two-hour-plus widescreen film about the purgatory of modern urban life, eventually transformed into a playground by the human imagination. With his character of Hulot reduced to one figure among dozens, spread across a vast screen, and with anything resembling a conventional gag or slapstick ruthlessly expunged. Only comedy that astonishes, laughs you can’t explain, comic abstractions, are allowed here. Jokes about things looking like other things, sounding funny, taking too long, not being audible, not being understood. The scale is dazzling, insane. The world received it with a puzzled frown. If you’re on the right wavelength, you’ll instead be almost embarrassed at receiving such a lavish gift.
  9. The Conformist
    Year: 1970
    Director(s): Bernardo Bertolucci
    Comment: Bertolucci had recently cowritten a spaghetti western, Once Upon a Time in the West (another obvious contender for this list). Similarly, here we have a cruel and cynical tale delivered in a lush romantic style. Delerue’s music and Storaro’s photography create an astonishing sweep. The political intent gives the film a sense of passion, even though Bertolucci is quite harsh about his characters. In Trintignant, he has the perfect star for this style, giving a performance that’s elegant, sardonic, sometimes robotic, sometimes a little crazed. I think all my choices have something in common, a sense of filmmakers breaking through all the conventions, asking “Why can’t it be like this instead?”
  10. My Neighbour Totorro
    Year: 1988
    Director(s): Hayao Miyazaki
    Comment: Miyazaki’s films add to the traditional dynamism of the anime form a welcome and surprising poetry. He pays attention to things cartoons usually ignore. A major setpiece here is two little girls waiting for a bus, one of them almost falling asleep. The filmmaker is in tune with childhood because his ambitions are usually simple but profound. Here, he wanted to show city kids what life in the country is like. His version of that is quite idiosyncratic, with the little dust bunny creatures, the cat-bus, and the titular nature spirit, a huge cat-owl thing, utterly benign but a little alarming and obviously very powerful. Very little is explained, which seems like a good lesson for children to absorb: there are mysteries.

Your further remarks

This was difficult! I will wake up screaming as it occurs to me the thing I forgot to put in. Even now I’m dismayed at what I felt compelled to knowingly exclude. No Chaplin, Marx Bros, pre-codes, horror films, musicals, westerns… is this even a list at all?

Without a Sound

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 3, 2016 by dcairns

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Looking at LONE WOLF AND CUB: SWORD OF VENGEANCE and SAMURAI WOLF, and am blow away by the use of sound in these 60s and 70s Japanese samurai flicks. What’s impressive is not so much the steely clashes as the silence around them.

SWORD OF VENGEANCE director Kanji Misumi uses one particularly lucid technique to heighten his swordplay. Much of the film consists of flashbacks depicting how jowly protagonist Tomisaburo Wakayama became a masterless ronin. These flashbacks tend to feature water — rain, a rushing weir. But the water makes no sound. An eeriness is created, from which the shrill clang of blades emerges with alarming clarity. There’s basically no atmos whatsoever, so that the sound mixer’s golden rule — always be having something going on — is abandoned. The audience is always quieter when the film is quiet. We fear our movements will give us away, revealing our position to potential enemies elsewhere in the auditorium, or to the giant, godlike figures on the screen. Heaven help you if you attract their attention.

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Of course, Misumi’s choice also helps distinguish flashbacks from present tense.

Hideo Gosha’s slick SAMURAI WOLF uses silence as the sound of death. Normal sound is cut off with the swipe of a sword — we lose the whistling wind sound, the cries of the dying victim continue for a second, and then get flicked off as with the throw of a switch — this seems to follow the advent of slomo, as a kind of delayed after-effect. As with Kurosawa (THE SEVEN SAMURAI) and Peckinpah after him (THE WILD BUNCH) slomo is the speed of the dying man, that adrenalin shot of death-trauma putting your last moments into a slurred timescape, a last chance to put your thoughts in order before oblivion reels you in. And with no sounds to distract you — how thoughtful of someone.

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The last great repository of silence may be the anime, where, since every sound is added afterwards anyway, Japanese filmmakers still occasionally withhold an effect. Miyazaki does neat things with the SIZE of sounds too — in TOTORRO, the titular nature spirit is big and noisy, but in an extreme long shot he can alight with a comical PLOP, like a fat raindrop. In Otomo’s AKIRA, Tokyo blows up in the opening shot, a black bubble of destruction which spreads and bursts without a single sound, the audio vacuum somehow suggesting a roar too great for any cinema’s speakers.

Pane Pleasure

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on June 28, 2012 by dcairns

What with the Shinji Somai retrospective raging in Edinburgh, it would be hard for me to see my way to writing about anything else for The Forgotten this week — and indeed, Somai is a perfect fit for such a column. “It’s incredible that these films didn’t get a proper release in the UK,” said my friend Duncan. I pointed out that in SUMMER GARDEN, aka THE FRIENDS, the kids sing the theme tune to MY NEIGHBOUR TOTORRO — and THAT masterpiece didn’t get a western release at the time, so what chance could a live action drama made for young adults but featuring a harrowing account of war crimes have?

Despite such apparent commercial disadvantages, SUMMER GARDEN really does deserve to be widely seen, and would undoubtedly be appreciated if it were. You can see a little of it at The Forgotten.