Archive for Ran

The Frozen Moment

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

I was looking at THE DEVIL’S OWN, the remarkably non-excellent late Alan Pakula thriller, which has a very impressively staged, if overblown and morally indefensible, street battle at the start. Amid all the mayhem, Pakula (and editors Tom Rolf & Dennis Virkler) freeze the action with a quick, beautifully-composed shot of a corpse. It fractures the all-movement flow of the edit and injects an icy feeling that partially redeems the scene from its gung-ho pyrotechnics.

It also rang a bell with me, and I found myself trying to figure out whether Pakula had pinched the idea from some other film I’ve seen.

The first thing that came to mind was this shot from John Milius’s DILLINGER ~

It has a similar look, but it appears at the end of the scene so it has a different, less disruptive effect. I had an instinctive suspicion that there was a common source both Milius and Pakula were swiping from, and I knew that I KNEW that source, if I could but remember it.

I started wondering if, given Milius’s tastes, the answer might be Kurosawa. I remembered these shots, in RAN (another late-ish film, and one ABOUT lateness, old age) ~

Kurosawa intersperses the apocalyptic battle that occurs midway in this film with static snapshots of the slain, their busy, living former comrades hurrying past them in foreground or background. He takes you out of the desperate action and briefly drops you into a more contemplative, restful space. Called death.

But RAN was made some time *after* DILLINGER, so couldn’t be the influence. THE SEVEN SAMURAI seemed a possibility, reminding me that it’s been far too long since I watched it. But I couldn’t actually remember such a shot used in such a way, so that couldn’t be the specific thing I was remembering.

Then I did a class on Orson Welles for my 1st year students, and there it was, in CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT ~POSITIVELY the shot I was trying to remember, coming as a sudden, shockingly still interruption of the hand-held chaos of the celebrated and influential Battle of Shrewsbury sequence. By coincidence, the appearance of THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND reminds us that Milius and Welles apparently knew each other at least well enough for the latter to parody the former as a character in his movie-world movie. And I can well imagine Milius and Pakula admiring CHIMES enough to borrow an effect without particularly paying attention to what the effect was FOR.

Welles actually pulls this trick twice. Each time, the shot contains furiously racing characters but our eye goes to the face of the fallen man, and the camera’s stillness puts us in sympathy with him, not those running about madly behind him.

But it’s still possible that this touch is to be found in earlier battles by Kurosawa OR — a distinct possibility, this — Eisenstein. If anybody knows for sure, point me in the right direction.

The Sunday Intertitle: Exterminating Angel

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 10, 2011 by dcairns

Strange, isn’t it, how little-seen the early work of Michael Curtiz is? Or perhaps not so much strange as symptomatic — the desire of the auteur movement to see filmmakers justify their seriousness by exploring recurring themes tends to exclude Curtiz, whose reputation is that of a guy mainly interested in shiny floors. There’s the sadism, which turns up frequently in the Errol Flynn movies and also in his on-set behaviour, but sadism and shiny floors are apparently not enough to build an auteur reputation.

Of course, CASABLANCA is revered, as are a number of other MC movies, including his pre-code work almost en masse. But much of that is credited to “the genius of the system” and the kind of film buffs who most often praise CASABLANCA are those who don’t care so much about directors. The fact that the film was shot without a clear ending in mind is used to suggest that great films just happen as freakish accidents. I don’t want to insult the movie gods by suggesting they don’t play a key role, but the skills of a director like Curtiz count for something too.

You will never in a million years guess who this is. Scroll to bottom of page to find out.

To embrace Curtiz as artist, you need to accept his concentration on the visual surface as his work as neither strength nor weakness, but simply fact: it’s the kind of filmmaker he was.

A ragged angel arrives to kick some ass.

And so to SODOM AND GOMORRAH, made in 1922 in Germany when Mike Curtiz was Mihaly Kertesz, even though he was born Mano Kertesz Kaminer. It’s a historically very revealing work, and still quite enjoyable.

Since Curtiz’s Hollywood biblical spectacular NOAH’S ARK has just enjoyed an American DVD release, it’s interesting to compare it with the earlier silent epic. Like ARK, and DeMille’s first version of THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, it folds its Old Testament folderol into a contemporary narrative designed to show the continuing relevance of the yarn. You need a mega-budget for this, as such continuing relevance may not be obvious unless you have a fortune to throw at it.

A single boudoir scene of S&G contains enough sheer beauty to supply the town of Bedford for a year.

In S&G, we meet a sleazy oligarch, Georg Reimers, fresh from wiping out his competitors on the stock exchange, who throws a colossal orgiastic party (it’s pretty mild, really) to celebrate his engagement. His son arrives, with friendly priest Victor Varconi in tow, and immediately falls for dad’s betrothed (the interesting Lucy Doraine, real-life wife of Curtiz), who’s just provoked a suicide attempt by her former lover, a sculptor who’s been working on a statue of her entitled “Sodom” (secretly, I believe she may have been justified in calling it off on this basis alone).

As the events reach an anti-climax, the femme fatale takes a nap and has a dream in which she provokes one man to murder the other, is sentenced to hang, and then has another dream within the dream in which she’s in ancient Sodom. The dramatis personae of the modern movie are recast as biblical, or at least epic movie, personalities, with the priest as the destructive angel come to demolish the sinning cities (as in Robert Aldrich’s SODOM AND GOMORRAH, the second city of the title never actually shows up). Doraine finds herself playing, with Lynchian ease, both Lot’s wife and the Queen of Syria.

It’s what I call an epic!

Apart from its seemingly influential narrative structure (I mean the embedded bible tale, not the loopy dream-within-a-dream bit) S&G looks forward to later German mega-productions like METROPOLIS, and even stuff like RAN where no direct influence is likely — check out the final destruction of the city, above.

Did this movie influence DeMille’s TEN COMMANDMENTS, released the following year? Or was the idea of bible tales with modern bookends something in the air? At any rate, it’s useful to see a film like S&G, which fills in some blanks in film history, as well as being a peculiar and impressive piece of work in its own right.

Now, the answer to the mystery posed above —

Who’d have thought the slender, puppyish youth in S&G could be Walter Slezak?

Love Conquers All

Posted in FILM, Mythology, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 10, 2008 by dcairns

The heat is on 

SIEGFRIED, the first part of Lang’s DIE NIBELUNGEN, has quite a lot of magic and fantasy elements — a dragon, petrifying dwarfs, a lake of fire, a magic satsuma bag that turns you invisible when you stick your head in it. In part two, KRIEMHILD’S REVENGE, most of that is stripped away, and what we get, mainly, is Kriemhild’s revenge.

(Which is all about LOVE. It’s rather like Lang and his Mrs. to re-conceive romantic love as the most powerful destructive force in the universe.)

It’s during this part, which I don’t think I’d ever really watch all through before, shame on me, that things started to feel familiar.

There'll be a hot time in the old town tonight

Well, a burning fort is a burning fort, but it slowly dawned that Kurosawa was maybe the right age to have seen Lang’s epic two-parter on its first release (AK mainly saw American and European films as a kid with his dad) and that there’s a rogue element in Kurosawa’s RAN that doesn’t come from Shakespeare’s KING LEAR, the movie’s credited source. The avenging woman.


In Kurosawa’s 1985 masterpiece, Mieko Harada puts in a terrifying turn as Lady Kaede, whose family were massacred by the Lear figure in his youth, and who has been married to one of his sons. With cunning, strength and a vampiric sexuality, Kaede manipulates the men around her into a course of action that results in the total destruction of her enemy’s family.

The critics, impressed but nonplussed by this extra-canonical character, likened her to Lady Macbeth and suggested that her presence compensated for the loss of Lear’s daughters from the storyline (Japanese women could not inherit a kingdom, so Kurosawa had performed a sex change on Goneril, Regan and Cordelia, turning them into Lord Hidetora’s sons). The second point is basically true, Kaede supplies a feminine evil that would otherwise be absent, but of course Lady Mac is not a figure of vengeance, she is merely ambitious for her husband. The particular brand of treachery practiced by Kaede and whose true purpose is kept concealed from us until the moment of her triumph/death, corresponds far more closely to the models of Brunhild and Kriemhild provided by Lang’s film.

(Incidentally, in both Lang and Kurosawa, this Oni-Baba devil-woman figure takes over the story altogether and becomes the strongest and most involving character.)

hey Mieko

I’m so convinced of this connection that I would declare the matter proven if I could in any way show that AK had seen DIE NIBELUNGEN, which I can’t.


The Flame and the Arrow

In the ever-reliable Patrick McGilligan’s Fritz Lang, The Nature of the Beast, we learn that Lang ignited his Hun fortress personally, by firing a flaming magnesium-tipped arrow onto the roof of the primed edifice. The crowd of extras watched awestruck (you can see them shift their weight from foot to foot in a kind of dazed dance) as the castle, a former factory building, was reduced to cinders inside ten minutes.

Kurosawa’s longtime assistant, Teruyo Nogami, has written a fabulous and heartbreaking book, Waiting on the Weather, about her career alongside A.K. Her account of the conflagration scene in RAN is both mind-boggling and thrilling. The 1.17 million-dollar specially-constructed castle was to be filmed by five cameras, as star Tetsuya Nakadai, playing the insane Lord Hidetora, descended the steps. Then those five camera crews had to get the hell out of the way so Hidetora could be filmed leaving the front gate, the castle still blazing behind him. Not the kind of scene you can retake.

An arrowing experience

The castle, coated four times with cement, and filled with lumber to make it burn more slowly than Lang’s factory, was set alight.

‘”Ready!” shouted Kurosawa, in an unusually high voice. The cameras all started rolling at once.


‘Clouds of white and gray smoke billowed from the castle windows. Cries of “The smoke is rolling! Smoke is ready!” rebounded from the castle.

‘”Action!” thundered the director. The bar on the clapperboard snapped down.

‘”Nakadai!” This was the actor’s cue. All eyes turned to the castle entrance. We were breathless with suspense. Kurosawa gripped the megaphone tightly with apparent concern. Pure white clouds of dry ice swirled and billowed, but no Hidetora came out. His eye pressed to the camera, Takao Saito said to his assistant, “No sign of him?” Kurosawa muttered worriedly, “What’s he doing?”

‘Then all at once a clatter arose inside the castle, and through the smoke Hidetora finally appeared, carrying his sword scabbard. Some twenty-five seconds had gone by, but it seemed like an eternity.’

Anyhow, they get the shots. Once things are a little more relaxed —

‘As Nakadai came over, looking pleased with himself, Kurosawa burst out, “You took so long coming out, I was worried. Was everything okay?” Nakadai laughed. “I took my time because I thought it wouldn’t do to rush.”‘

You would think that a shoot like that would be the highlight of the book, but it’s just ONE OF MANY. Buy this book.