As historian and critic Tim Dirks notes on his excellent website, “war and Anti-War Films often acknowledge the horror and heartbreak of war, letting the actual combat fighting or conflict (against nations or humankind) provide the primary plot or background for the action of the film. Typical elements in the action-oriented war plots include POW camp experiences and escapes, submarine warfare, espionage, personal heroism, ‘war is hell’ brutalities, air dogfights, tough trench/infantry experiences, or male-bonding buddy adventures during wartime. Themes explored in war films include combat, survivor and escape stories, tales of gallant sacrifice and struggle, studies of the futility and inhumanity of battle, the effects of war on society, and intelligent and profound explorations of the moral and human issues. Some war films do balance the soul-searching, tragic consequences and inner turmoil of combatants or characters with action-packed, dramatic spectacles, enthusiastically illustrating the excitement and turmoil of warfare. And some ‘war’ films concentrate on the homefront rather than on the conflict at the military war-front. But many of them provide decisive criticism of senseless warfare.”
Archive for the ‘Criticism’ Category
As it says on the website for the podcast of the show, “Tonight on Inquiry we welcome back Wheeler Winston Dixon. He is the James Ryan Endowed Professor of Film Studies and professor of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. His new book is Streaming: Movies, Media and Instant Access. Professor Dixon declares that we are now in the “postfilmic era”, a time when movie film will no longer exist and all movies will be shot digitally. DVDs will also cease to exist as all films will be “streamed” and movie houses, those that are still extant, will only show digital copies of movies. But what are the implications of all of this for the art of film, the preservation of old films and how we watch movies? The answers are disheartening and a little bit frightening. Tune in and find out why.”
As critic Michael Koresky notes in a superb essay on the Criterion website, “among all the important directors who emerged in Japan just after World War II, Masaki Kobayashi would distinguish himself as the most aggressively social-minded. He used cinema to speak eloquently against rigid and corrupt systems that denied or abused individual rights, and to indict a status quo that allowed amorality and venality to flourish. His three-part magnum opus, The Human Condition (1959–61)—an existential portrait of one man’s efforts to maintain his integrity in a rotten world, and a condemnation of the machine in which he is ultimately little more than a cog—marked the high point of the period early in his career when he began to grapple with these difficult themes, in a string of arresting, socially committed films set in contemporary Japan, none of the rest of which are widely known today. With these films, produced between 1953 and 1962, Kobayashi tried to make sense of a postwar nation that he believed had lost its bearings, and in the process became a mature morally and politically engaged cinematic artist.
Having studied philosophy and art history at Tokyo’s Waseda University, Kobayashi turned his attention to film after graduating in 1941, and got an assistant director position at Shochiku studios. Only eight months later, however, he was drafted into military service. While stationed in Manchuria and the Ryukyu Islands, the left-leaning, pacifist Kobayashi remained opposed to the actions of the Imperial Army, even declining to ascend past the rank of private when his superiors wanted to promote him. Deeply affected by his experiences in a war he would later call ‘the culmination of human evil,’ he returned to Shochiku driven to express his dissent on-screen. First, though, he assisted on his mentor Keisuke Kinoshita’s middle-class comedies and domestic dramas, exemplars of the studio’s preferred style at the time and which influenced the largely apolitical content of his own first films, My Sons’ Youth (1952) and Sincerity (1953).
Kobayashi’s third film, The Thick-Walled Room, completed in 1953, was a different story. It demonstrated the seriousness of the filmmaker’s intent, and it was among the first films in Japan to deal openly with the nation’s wartime legacy. It concerns a group of B and C (second- and third-tier) war criminals—rank-and-file military men who acted on orders—who have been imprisoned and treated cruelly by members of the American occupying force, though their superiors have gone unpunished.
The film, based on the diaries of real-life prisoners, treats the low-ranking soldiers not as innocents but as dupes of a system that will not assume responsibility for its actions. Rather than take a broad historical approach, Kobayashi turns this raw material into intimate drama, his immediate, exquisitely composed black-and-white images evoking his characters’ psychological anguish; meanwhile, the shadowy prison in which they’re held is effectively filmed as a looming character in itself. Though the American occupation had ended in 1952, the Japanese government feared that The Thick-Walled Room’s incendiary content would offend the U.S. and demanded that Shochiku either cut or withhold it. Kobayashi was unwilling to trim the film, so it was shelved until 1956.
The controversy surrounding The Thick-Walled Room didn’t do much to ingratiate Masaki Kobayashi with Shochiku head Shiro Kido. For decades, Kido had fostered a specific house style in shomin-geki (contemporary stories of everyday life)—lyrical films about love and family directed by such auteurs as Yasujiro Ozu and Keisuke Kinoshita, Kobayashi’s mentor. After The Thick-Walled Room was shelved in 1953, Kobayashi went back to this gentler mode of filmmaking, coming out with several sentimental films, including Three Loves (1954), Somewhere Under the Wide Sky (1954), Beautiful Days (1955), and The Spring (1956), works that in their affirmation of small-town values recalled Kinoshita’s megahit Twenty-four Eyes (1954), which regarded loneliness, war, and death from the perspective of a deeply moral schoolteacher. Kido was impressed by Kobayashi’s output, and the director eventually felt that he had enough support to set out again for the angrier, more political territory that was closest to his heart.
I Will Buy You (1956) was Kobayashi’s first step back in that direction. The subject matter—the machinations behind the scenes of professional baseball in Japan—may not initially seem particularly inflammatory. But this is hardly the kind of sports movie that we’ve become accustomed to in the West, with epic triumphs and last-minute redemptions, or even the kind that Japanese audiences were used to—the long popular supotsu-mono genre generally focused on disciplines like judo and karate. The suspense in this deliberately paced, scathing examination of the greed that drives the sports world is predicated not on how many home runs its star player will hit but on how much of his and his handlers’ souls will be lost in the process.
Baseball had been Japan’s favorite sport for decades by the time the film was released. Kobayashi fully intended to shock viewers with his takedown of the beloved institution. (The outrage his treatment of the subject conveys may seem quaint today, when we’re more cynical about sports’ corporate interests.) Adapted from a Minoru Ono novel, the film is told from the perspective of and narrated by Kishimoto (Keiji Sada), a ruthless scout hot to sign the up-and-coming college player Kurita (Minoru Ooki) to the major-league Toyo Flowers. Kurita, also being courted by the Handen Lilies, proves to be a tough sell, however, as the scout must appeal not only to him, his poor rural family outside Osaka, and his skeptical girlfriend, Fueko (Keiko Kishi), but also to his tough-minded and avaricious mentor, Kyuki (Yunosuke Ito), who acts as much out of slimy self-interest as Kishimoto does.
There’s little sports-film catharsis in I Will Buy You—and relatively little baseball. Most of the interactions are pitched like boardroom negotiations, shot by Kobayashi with clinical detachment and often in ominous shadow. The world Kobayashi depicts may be a hollow one (notwithstanding Kishimoto’s climactic crisis of conscience, when he states, ‘It is our job to be ruthless and unaccountable . . . Because we see people like Kurita not as players but as commodities’), but there’s an exhilaration to the film’s truth-seeking. In bearing witness as he saw his country losing its moral way, Kobayashi also demonstrated how trying times can serve as a crucible for art.”
This is a brilliant analysis of the film, and a brilliant film, as well. Kobayashi is absolutely unforgiving in his portrayal of the potentially corrupting influence on money in big time sports, and as with the other films in this Criterion set, particularly The Inheritance, his view of the world is bleak indeed, yet all too accurate in the final analysis. Far from being punished for their actions, the protagonists of both films occupy a world in which cunning and deception are the norm, and which almost rewards evil – there’s no sincerity of thought or action here, only sheer self-interest. As one might expect, the transfers of the films here are absolutely flawless, with meticulous subtitles, and an absolutely essential part of any cineaste’s collection.
It’s disconcerting to think that Kobayashi thought that he was making these films for posterity, as his testament to the world, and how black and white filmmaking has all but vanished, as well as film itself, and were it not for the efforts of Criterion, these films would never see the light of day. Kobayashi is a superb filmmaker, and his pitless vision of social commerce rings all too true in the current 99%/1% landscape of society on a worldwide basis. All of the films in this set are remarkable, but for me, I Will Buy You, beginning with the unambiguous directness of the film’s title, is a one-of-a-kind indictment of greed and human weakness, and makes American noir sports films like Champion seem weak tea indeed.
As Foster points out, “I’m always attracted to films that cause an uproar, critical polarization, outrage, anger, dismissal, and confusion. Thus I was drawn to the Mexican film Post Tenebras Lux when I read about the decidedly mixed critical reaction it received at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. It was loudly booed, some critics were openly hostile and dismissive towards it, and yet Carlos Reygadas, who directed the film, was awarded the Best Director Award at the same festival. Audiences at Cannes, though, have a history of booing films that are later hailed as masterworks. BAMcinétmatek recently ran a series of films that most agree are masterpieces, but were initially rejected and “booed” at Cannes. Films such as Buñuel’s El (This Strange Passion, 1953), Antonioni’s L’eclisse (Eclipse, 1962), Dreyer’s Gertrud (1964), Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), Bresson’s L’argent (1983) and Cronenberg’s Crash (1996) are among the list of films that were initially met with loud jeering, harsh criticism, and general incomprehension.
After a cursory glance at reviews, I fully expected an almost incomprehensible, dull, self-indulgent, inscrutable and difficult, if not impossible film. I figured I could always leave early if it was downright awful, but I had a sneaking suspicion that it might be quite the opposite, and my suspicions were more than confirmed. I am so thrilled that I was fortunate to see such a dazzling and beautiful film projected on the big screen. Where others found an overly “demanding” and “difficult” film, I felt Post Tenebras Lux was anything but “difficult.” I experienced the film as an exhilarating and sublime poetic examination of patriarchy and class wound into a liberating and absorbing dream-like narrative deliciously open to interpretation and openly imaginative.
Post Tenebras Lux is purposefully rendered precisely in the realm described in Buñuel’s words, “somewhere between chance and mystery.” Like Luis Buñuel, Carlos Reygadas values highly both freedom and imagination, and I find it very disturbing that so many critics, those whom should champion films that embrace the dream state between chance and mystery, reject the film as too difficult. Carlos Reygadas actively gives the gift of freedom of interpretation to the audience, but, unfortunately, many critics seem to reject that free space of imagination that Buñuel valued so highly. Ironically, ‘Post Tenebras Lux’ translates from Latin into ‘Light After Darkness.’ Perhaps if critics would return to the film for a second viewing, they may be lucky enough to experience that revealing glow and step out of the darkness into light.”
As I note at the beginning of my essay, “in the early 1960s, director Roger Corman was on fire. Coming off a wave of ultra-exploitational titles for the fledgling film production/distribution company American International Pictures (AIP), which arguably defined late 1950s teen cinema, with such titles to his credit as Premature Burial, Pit and the Pendulum, Creature from the Haunted Sea (all 1961), Last Woman on Earth, The Little Shop of Horrors, House of Usher (all 1960), The Wasp Woman and A Bucket of Blood (both 1959), as well as She Gods of Shark Reef, Teenage Cave Man, Machine-Gun Kelly, War of the Satellites, I Mobster (all 1958), and Sorority Girl, Teenage Doll, Rock All Night, The Undead, Attack of the Crab Monsters and Not of This Earth (all 1957), Corman had mastered genre filmmaking, and was looking around for a new challenge.
The range of Corman’s work during this period is astounding; Pit and the Pendulum and House of Usher were the first two Gothic horror films in Corman’s long-running and highly influential series based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe; A Bucket of Blood and The Little Shop of Horrors were two of the first truly ’sick’ comedies, both shot in a matter of days; Machine-Gun Kelly introduced a young Charles Bronson to audiences, in a period piece designed as a nod to the Warner Bros. gangster films of the 1930s; Teenage Doll and Sorority Girl were pure teen exploitation; and Attack of the Crab Monsters, War of the Satellites and Not of This Earth were clear-cut science fiction.
Most of Corman’s films during this formative period were shot in a week, on budgets of $100,000 or less – The Little Shop of Horrors was famously shot in two days and a night, for roughly $40,000 – although the Poe films represented a real step up for the young director, at least in terms of physical production values. With 15-day schedules, budgets in the $300,000 to $400,000 range, Panavision and Pathécolor, Corman could relax a little, and take some more time with the material.
But even on these films, he often finished ahead of schedule, and he seemed driven to make one film after another, all of them incorporating thematic concerns outside the realm of conventional genre cinema; teen crime, peer pressure, consumerist materialism, even humanist parables, as in Teenage Cave Man, in which the ‘Stone Age’ the protagonists are living in is revealed in the film’s final moments as actually being a post-apocalyptic world after the Third World War has destroyed most of the planet.
While Corman could dabble in social commentary in these films in a rather light and tangential fashion, as a lifelong liberal filmmaker he longed to do something utterly uncompromising. Bolstered by the continuing commercial success of all of his previous films, he decided to direct a film on the racial tensions of the 1960s, shot on location in the American South. And so, right in the middle of his run of commercially successful films for AIP, Corman went off on his own and, with his own money and no studio support, made The Intruder (1962) for a mere $80,000, creating one of the most brutal, honest, and unflinching examinations of American racism in cinema history.”
Madman, shaman, mystic, brilliant actor and filmmaker and a complete pain in the neck, Dennis Hopper started out in the early 50s with a chip on his shoulder and enormous talent, falling in with James Dean and appearing in Rebel Without A Cause, though clashes with the director, Nicholas Ray, caused his part in the film to be severely cut down. What followed was an epic journey through the last days of the Hollywood studio system, the making of the counter-culture classic Easy Rider, and his lost masterpiece, The Last Movie, which as Folsom makes clear went through so many different edits that a “definitive” version of the work is almost impossible to identify. After that, a spiral into drugs and madness, and then one of the biggest comebacks in film history in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, a whole second career as a director of his own films, an artist, and a world class collector of other people’s work.
Using archival sources and interviews, writing in a free form style reminiscent of both Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe, Folsom paints a compelling, multifaceted picture of this deeply conflicted and influential filmmaker, pursued by countless demons of his own making, and yet still able to create work of lasting beauty and quality despite it all. I met Hopper just once, at a screening of The Last Movie at Preview Theater in New York in 1971, just before the film came out; I was editing one of my own films there, and stumbled into him in the hallway, looking for change for the Coke machine. He invited me to the screening, which was specially set up for critic Judith Crist — who clearly didn’t like or understand the film — and was polite and forthcoming about the difficulties of the film even for an unsympathetic viewer, which Crist clearly was. Universal hated the movie, too, and dumped it in one theater, where it closed in a few weeks; never mind that it had won the Critics Prize at the Venice Film Festival.
For myself, I was knocked out by the film, and had another connection to it — my friend and colleague Brad Darrach at Life Magazine, where I worked as a writer and critic in 1969-70, had gone down to South America for the shoot, and witnessed all the madness, excess and brilliance of the production first hand, so I had a pretty good idea what to expect. Sadly, and somewhat amazingly, the film isn’t available legally on DVD, though bootlegs and downloads abound, perhaps appropriately for such an outlaw film. But it would seem that it’s time for Universal to put out The Last Movie in an official version, so that everyone can see for themselves what Hopper was capable of when left alone with a decent budget and complete creative freedom, including final cut — one of the most adventurous, challenging, and utterly original movies ever made.
As I note, “the roots of [Bielinsky's film] The Aura go way back in Bielinsky’s childhood, to a screening of John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972), which so mesmerized the young cineaste that he refused to leave his seat until the management gave him a poster of the film as a souvenir. Over the years, Deliverance occupied almost the entire space in the young director’s mind, and it’s worth noting that even as he suggested after the success of Nine Queens that he might next like to try his hand at ‘a psychological thriller,’ the first draft of the script for The Aura was written in 1983, the year he directed the short film La Espera, and graduated from the national film school. The film was in every way darker and more fatalistic than Nine Queens; as he declared from the outset of the film’s production, The Aura was designed to please no one but its maker.
As Bielinsky told Jorge Letelier in the film journal Mabuse, ‘the [film’s] theme is crime, but its structure allows for more discussions because […] I decided to accept a series of brutal and dangerous breaks in the structure, because in a genre film audiences expect a certain type of structure and rhythm according to the rules of the genre in question. I opted to go on breaking those rules, so that things wouldn’t happen when they were supposed to happen.’ And this, indeed, is precisely what sets The Aura apart from more traditional crime ‘thrillers’ – it is, at its heart, a study in psychological penetration, gesturing back to the director’s early studies in psychology, and his examination of the ethos of machismo in Latin American society.
And it’s clear that as an omnivorous moviegoer, Bielinsky knew, much better than most of the people who interviewed him, that Nine Queens had been a work of precise calculation, every bit the same sleight-of-hand trick that the film itself celebrated. Make The Aura first? Not likely. Make a crowd pleaser first, designed to appeal to the widest possible audience, and then, if you were lucky and worked hard, you just might get a shot at a script that had been kicking around in your file drawers since your 24th birthday – a work so dark, so uncompromising, so willfully designed not to please, that it might as well have been Godard’s Le Petit Soldat or Les Carabiniers (both 1963), films which represented an outright assault on their respective audiences. And when an unsuspecting critic suggested that someone like David Mamet might be an influence on Bielinsky’s work, the director was quick to disabuse them of that mistaken notion.
When David Edwards ventured that Mamet might perhaps have been ‘a particular influence,’ Bielinsky good naturedly, but firmly, put Edwards in his place, saying that, ‘well, you know I was writing ideas like this before I even knew David Mamet existed! Of course, it’s flattering to be compared to him because he’s such a great scriptwriter and playwright. But, you know, Mamet didn’t invent this. There’s a whole history of con man movies before he came on the scene. I mean, I think about films like The Sting, Paper Moon, The Flim Flam Man, House of Games, the films of Fellini and other Italian films I saw when I was a teenager.’
So the roots of both Nine Queens and The Aura run deeply into not only Bielinsky’s past, but the past of cinema as a whole, and now, with the immense success of his first film, and the American remake racking up acceptable grosses, producers who were formerly unwilling to take a chance on Bielinsky’s pet project now agreed to participate. True, he had to cobble together financing from a variety of sources, and especially in the wake of Argentina’s financial collapse, everything – not just filmmaking – was a daily struggle, but at length, all was in place, and Bielinsky was allowed to embark upon the dark journey of The Aura which, though he did not know it at the time, would be his last testament as a filmmaker.
If Nine Queens presents the picture of a world becoming undone, a picture, in the words of Michael Chanan ‘of a corrupt society, where everyone is conning everyone else, a metaphor for a dangerous political situation on the verge of coming to a head, with a closing scene – as a bank puts up its shutters and depositors clamor for their money – that is nothing short of prophetic,’ then The Aura shows the aftermath of that society’s collapse, which is now no longer a joking matter, but rather a deadly serious fight for survival.
As reported in Dawn.com, Scorsese urged his listeners to preserve our shared cinematic heritage before it disappears, a sentiment which I am in absolute agreement with. As Scorsese noted, “I believe we need to stress visual literacy in schools. Young people need to understand that not all images are out there to be consumed like, you know, fast food and then forgotten. We need to educate them to understand the difference between moving images that engage their humanity and their intelligence, and moving images that are just selling them something.”
As Dawn.com’s anonymous correspondent added, “to fully comprehend the language of moving images, it is essential to ‘preserve everything’ from blockbusters to home movies by way of films that may not look like works of art on first showing, [Scorsese] said. To prove his point, Scorsese screened a clip from Vertigo – hailed today as a work of genius, but at the time of its release in 1958 regarded as just another in a string of crowd-pleasing Alfred Hitchcock psycho thrillers.
‘[Vertigo] came very very close to being lost to us,’ he said, adding that over time, viewers can identify and appreciate elements in a film that might not be evident upon its initial release. ‘Just as we learned to take pride in our poets and writers, and in jazz and blues, we need to take pride in our cinema, a great American art form. It’s a big responsibility, and we need to say to ourselves that the time has come to look beyond weekend box office numbers and start caring for films as if they were the oldest book in the Library of Congress,’ [Scorsese] said.”
Esther Eng, a pioneering feminist director, is the subject of a new documentary. As Elizabeth Kerr notes in a review of the documentary, Golden Gate Silver Light, which premiered at the Hong Kong International Film Festival, in The Hollywood Reporter, “Wei’s feature doc is clearly a labor of love — she also edited, produced, wrote, shot and narrated — and the workload often shows. The voice-over (difficult under dramatic circumstances) is academic and frequently stilted, the subtitles are riddled with inconsistencies and spelling errors, and Wei is given to hyperbole (there are many “masters” and “legends” referred to in the film). The HDV photography is functional and efficient and nothing more, and the film is heavy on stock footage and archival photos (though that is likely beyond Wei’s control). Despite the technical and cinematic shortcomings, festivals should provide Golden Gate Silver Light a healthy life on the strength of its subject, and the film could find a place on specialty cable and even in academic circles.
Wei begins her search for details on Eng’s life in the city of her birth, San Francisco, and follows her footsteps to Hollywood, then Hong Kong and finally back to the United States where she died in New York in 1970. Along the way Wei tracks down the bystander who found Eng’s personal journals and photos in a dumpster (which he donated to the Hong Kong Film Archive) and as many surviving family and co-workers — many former Cantonese opera stars fleeing the war in the 1930s — as she could to paint a rough sketch of the unconventional woman. The conversations with Eng’s now-elderly peers complement the material supplied by periodicals and Hollywood biographers and film critics (including The Hollywood Reporter critic Todd McCarthy). The fact that Wei found two with a semblance of knowledge of Eng speaks to just how unjustly she’s been disregarded.
One of Golden Gate’s strengths is its seamless ability to weave history, Sino-U.S. relations and social standards together to allow for inference and context. When the Chinese Exclusion Act kept Eng from pursuing her chosen career, she left for Hong Kong, where the same individualist streak made her a local celebrity, which stemmed as much from the success of the five films she made there to the exotic lesbianism no one seemed to care about. When she returned to the United States, she was a successful filmmaker — who cast Bruce Lee as an infant girl in one of her last films, Golden Gate Girl (1941).”
About the Author
Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of numerous books and more than 70 articles on film and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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In The National News
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