I'm ready to call it on the Criterion Collection project. It's simply impossible to acquire the titles and devote the time it would require to watch the films. The reviews I have posted are often my least inspired work, and I would say that there is little audience for mid 20th century foreign film. That audience that does exist is a specialist audience, and these movie reviews were never particularly sophisticated, let alone well written.
Night and Fog (1955)
d. Alain Resnais
Criterion Collection #197
Just clearing out my Hulu Plus Criterion Collection queue here at the end of the year while everyone is off on holiday! Night and Fog positive: It's only 30 minutes long! Night and Fog negative: It is super about the Holocaust and has much contemporaneous newsreel footage (including, I think pro-Nazi German and French footage) depicting the actual Holocaust: Jews being loaded onto trains, arriving at the camps, their suffering at the camps and of course a bunch of emaciated corpses. I don't have any Holocaust survivors or victims in my family but I grew up going to Sunday school and at my Reform synagogue in Northern California Holocaust education was maybe the most important component. Holocaust and Israel. I've been to Holocaust museums in Washington and Berlin. I've been to the Anne Frank house. I've done everything BUT go to a concentration camp, but Night and Fog seems to be a sufficient replacement for the actual experience.
Personally, I don't find "the" Holocaust to be particularly unique, Genocide seems to be endemic to the human species, it just so happens that the Germans chose a target and a means that left them holding the moral bag.
Stray Dog (1949)
d. Akira Kurosawa
Criterion Collection #233
Stray Dog is a police procedural Kurosawa released the year before his 1950 break-out Rashomon. His other major contemporary crime films were from the 1960s: High and Low (1960) and The Bad Sleep Well (1963). I think you can make the case that Kurosawa's crime films are easier to watch than the period/Samurai stuff that he is famous for. One of the major achievements of the Criterion Collection period is to keep almost Akira Kurosawa's entire output "in print" and available to stream on Hulu Plus.
I think the argument that you make for Kurosawa is that he is the Japanese equivalent to Shakespeare: the single Artist the reader must understand to understand the art of the Artists nation. In this way, the crime thrillers are significant since they show Kurosawa working in the present. The present is very close to the surface in Stray Dog, set in the immediate aftermath of World War II. Rice ration cards are used as currency, and Police Detective Murakami (played by a young Toshiro Mifune) is a solder freshly returned from the end of World War II.
The story is set in motion when Murakami has his gun lifted from his jacket pocket on the bus coming home from target practice. Its loss sets off a frenzied search by the distraught Detective to find his missing weapon. Murakami is paired up with the older sage Sato (Takashi Shimura). The pairing of Shimura with Mifune was a delight, but the real star of the movie is Tokyo in a pre-boom state that provides an unfamiliar perspective on Japan's largest city.
The scene most often referenced comes when Murakami goes undercover to try and find his gun. The panoply of misery approaches anything in Italian neo-realism. The Criterion Collection essay by critic Terrence Rafferty calls Stray Dog Kurosawa's "neo realist" crime drama and that is largely true.
The Golden Coach (1953)
d. Jean Renoir
Criterion Collection #242
Sometimes I'm watching a Criterion Collection title and I'm like, "OK, I guess so." Such is the case with Jean Renoir's "Spectacle Trilogy;" it's not really a trilogy, but the designation of The Golden Coach, Elena and Her Men and French Cancan as such makes sense, since all three are colorful comedies with quality female leads and not much plot. This films- all three of them- are comedies in the Shakespearean/ Elizabeathan/Classical sense in that they are stories that have a happy ending, they are comedies not tragedies, but they are not "comedies" in the sense that we use the term today.
For The Golden Coach, based on a French play which debuted in 1829, this classical, theatrical source material is key to understanding the film. If you watch this movie applying film genre standards of the 1950s and 60s, you will be disappointed and likely think The Golden Coach artistically worthless. On the other hand, if you regard The Golden Coach as kind of a meta-fictional take on performance, taking into account the play-like mise en scene and glorious technicolor costumes and locales, you might pass an agreeable hour and forty five minutes on the couch.
Originally produced simultaneously in three different languages, the Criterion Collection version is in English, so you don't have to read it. The underlying play and this film is set in colonial Peru. A touring troupe of actors plays for the Viceroy, who becomes enraptured by Camilla (played by Anna Magnani) the lead singer/actress in the troupe. He decides to gift her a solid gold coach he's had imported from Europe to Peru, but he is not alone in his affections, having to compete with a local bullfighter and one of the other troupe members. This competition for Camilla's attention sets the plot in motion, and your enjoyment of the machinations will likely be tied to your appreciation of 19th century theater pieces.
La commare secca (1962)
d. Bernardo Bertolucci
Criterion Collection #272
Bernardo Bertolucci is an Italian film maker better known for this work within the Hollywood system. His best known films are the multiple Academy Award winning epic, The Last Emperor (1987) and the racy Last Tango in Paris (1972). He's also had a host of box office duds: Stealing Beauty, Little Buddha, The Dreamers (from 2012?) His later success and foreign citizenship makes him a virtual lock for the early, lesser known films, of major directors category within The Criterion Collection, at La commare secca is especially worthy because the story is by another giant of Italian cinema, Pier Pasolini.
What stands out about La commare secca compared to other Italian films of the same time is the vivaciousness of the camera work. Unlike other early 60s directors from Italy, the viewer is not bored to tears sitting through tedious, carefully framed scenes of existentialist dialogue. Although Bertolucci and Pasolini denied ever seeing it, you can't watch La commare secca and not thing of Rashomon, by Akira Kurosawa.
In Rashomon, the story of a murder is told through the varying viewpoints of several witnesses, all of whom tell a different story about the same sequence of events. So to in La commare secca, the strangulation murder of a prostitute is told from the varying viewpoints of several witnesses, all of whom, it seems, have something to hide or a reason not to be forthcoming. Unlike Rashomon, La commare secca ends with the audience seeing what really happened and the apprehension of the murderer, putting this movie more in the category of police procedural.
Boudo Saved from Drowning (1932)
d. Jean Renoir
Criterion Collection #305
This is the third Jean Renoir film from the Criterion Collection I've watched. The other two: The Grand Illusion (1937) and Elena and Her Men (1956) are "classic" Renoir and "late" Renoir respectively, so that would make Boudo Saved from Drowning "early" Renoir. Renoir is one of those Artist who is known but not watched, a denizen of film studies courses and one night revivals at repertory theaters in places like New York, Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area. Jean Renoir is not riding a recent wave of interest for any reason, there are no A-list Hollywood actresses set to star in reboots of his old films, he's not a particularly cool guy beloved by cineastes.
Jean Renoir's light touch is fully on display in Boudo, shot in 1931, when film cameras, sound equipment and principles of films creation made keeping a light touch difficult. If you look at Boudo's immediate contemporaries in The Criterion Collection, all you see is German Expressionism and silent American comedies by Chaplin and Harold Lloyd. Perhaps the most appropriate comparison is Chaplin, since Boudo, played by Michel Simon is a quasi-lovable tramp who turns the staid and predictable world of bourgeois book seller Lestingois up-side down with his irascible behavior.
The central incident of Boudo Saved from Drowning is in the title of the film. Lestingois, looking at the river through his telescope, sees Boudo try to kill himself by jumping off a bridge. He runs across the street, saves Boudo, and brings him back to his book shop for an attempt at rehabilitation. In its original version as a play in Paris, Boudo was perceived as a kind of satire on the comedy of manners that would have been well familiar to early 20th century audiences. Boudo is a wacky outsider written to stir the pot (and plot.)
The Sword of Doom (1966)
d. Kihachi Okamato
Criterion Collection #280
I took about a month off of the Criterion Collection project because I was roughly half way through the 400ish titles that they make available to Hulu Plus subscribers. One of my insights from this off period is that you can't seriously watch the Criterion Collection without appreciating each constituent element, Japanese cinema and Italian cinema to name two consitutent elements that give me trouble. In the past, I've deluded myself into thinking that readers don't care, but when I actually go back and check the page views for the Japanese Literature and Italian Literature (which both includes films) I see that there multiple posts between the two with more than 100 page views, and a few with 500 or more.
For example, Yojimbo (1961), directed by Akira Kurosawa, has 506 page views. Amarcord (1973), directed by Federico Fellini has 516 page views. Salo/120 Days of Sodom (1975) by Pier Pasolini isn't far behind, with 461 page views. The multiple posts with 100-200 pages views include L'Avventura(I), Kwaidan(J), Boy(J), The Night Porter(I), L'eclisse(I, Branded to Kill, Double Suicide, Samurai III: Duel at Granyju Island and In the Realm of the Senses (400 page views). The average number of page views for a run of the mill Criterion Collection review is between 15 and 40, so all of these films are at least twice as interesting to the Audience for this blog as a normal post.
The Sword of Doom is a Jidaigeki film, one of two genres in mid 20th century Japanese film. A loose translation of Jidaigeki is "period drama" or "historical drama" and it is a genre that precedes the medium of film, with antecedents in theater. Most of the classic Japanese films familiar to Western viewers are from this genre, and they include the entire sub-genre of Samurai films. The Sword of Doom is set at the very end of the timer period typically covered by a Jidaigeki film, with action between 1860 and 1865. It is late enough in history that a handgun plays a part in the story, and the Samurais it depicts seem to just be barely hanging on to relevance.
The lead in The Sword of Doom is the masterless Samurai Ryunosuke Tsukue(played by Tatsuya Nakadai.) Ryunosuke is a bad dude, the first scene has him killing an elderly man for little or no reason. The first major incident involves him banging the wife of an opponent he is facing in a fencing match. He finds out about it, divorces the wife, then kills the dude. It gets darker from there, and ends up with Ryunosuke going mad, plagued by the spirits of all the people he's killed.
Did I mention The Sword of Doom is two hours long? Yeah. The Criterion Collection product page description emphasizes the role of director Kihachi Okamato as the Sam Fuller to Kurosawa's John Ford. I haven't seen enough of the films of any of the directors involved that comparison except Kurosawa, but I would agree that the composition/mise en scene is extraordinary and agree with the observation that Okamato makes the most of the extra wide 2.35/1 aspect ratio used in Japanese film at the time.
d. David Cronenberg
Criterion Collection #712
CLASSIC Cronenberg movie, came out in July 0n the Criterion Collection, fucking LOVE IT. I've seen Scanners maybe a half dozen times at this point. I am a BIG David Cronenberg fan, and I've seen many of his other films multiple times. I've seen: Eastern Promises, in Cincinnati, eXistenz, in Washington DC, Crash I watched on the Left Bank in Paris, Naked Lunch, Dead Ringers, Videodrome, The Fly. They are all more or less great movies, and any characterization of Cronenberg as a "horror" or genre director really misses the genius of his films.
For any serious Cronenberg watcher the early work of The Brood, Videodrome and Scanners is vital. All three are independent films with "B-movie" type descriptions, but all three transcend their budgetary limitations to create enduring works of art, which bear multiple re-watchings. Scanners is, in terms of plot mechanics, a kind of espionage thriller with an overlay of the now familiar mixture of psychology and horror that now defines much of his work.
The wooden performance of Stephen Lack as Cameron Lake, the main "Scanner" of the film, might at first be taken as a poor performance, but is later explained by plot details. The plot involving a nefarious conspiracy between a quasi-governmental private corporation and evil Scanners is classic Cronenberg- even at the earliest stages.
|El Hedi ben Salem plays Ali, in Rainer Werner Fassbinder's 1974 film, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul|
Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974)
d. Rainer Werner Fassbinder
This is a fairly conventional Hollywood style melodrama about an interracial couple in 70s Germany, he is a Moroccan (read "Black") Berber immigrant, she is a much older German woman. They experience the kind of super racist prejudice you would expect in 1970s Germany, overcome that racism, drift apart and then get back together. There's nothing overly creative in terms of the script, the cinematography or the construction of the narrative but the relationship at the center of the film is worth watching and the sensitive treatment of an older woman/younger man dynamic on top of the interracial aspect is emotionally compelling.
d. Stuart Cooper
File Overlord in the category of "great movies from other countries that didn't get a fair shake in the United States." Either they weren't distributed at all- a common experience, or they weren't appreciated at the time, were poorly marketed, etc. You don't normally think that an English language World War II picture shot by Stanley Kubrick's cinematographer a decade before Full Metal Jacket came out would fall into any of those categories, but Overlord wasn't even released in the United States in 1975. Chalk it up to bad timing? The "fall of Saigon," when North Vietnamese forces overran our Southern allies, was April 1975, so I would wager American audiences didn't want to hear about war at that period- let alone the people who buy films for American distribution.
Overlord is an elegant combination of documentary footage of World War II combined with a narrative about a young soldier who faces his premonitions of death as he prepares to be a part of the D-Day invasion. Criterion Collection re-released their edition in May of this year, and Kent Jones wrote an insightful essay to accompany the product page. He posits that the animating spirit of the narrative portion about the young soldier facing death recalls the World War I era work of Ford Madox Ford. A kind of matter of factness and stoicism that have to do with understanding the world is not fair but that there is nothing you can do.
Jones also discusses the incredible amount of documentary footage that Cooper had access to via the British government. Apparently, Overlord started as a simple documentary using that footage, and Copper then convinced people to let him make a larger film.
The Bad Sleep Well (1960)
d. Akira Kurosawa
I've got 29 posts under the Japanese Literature label. 24 of those are Criterion Collection titles, and two are posts about Japanese film but not movie reviews. Of the Criterion Collection titles, Kurosawa directed eight of them. Of those eight, the most relevant film for comparison is High and Low (1963), a more-or-less police procedural with noir-ish elements. At two and a half hours, The Bad Sleep Well is more Shakespearean than Genre influenced in terms of pacing and plot. The inter-generational conflict that extends to murder and certainly includes betrayal pays an obvious debt to the machinations in Hamlet.
The violence of The Bad Sleep Well is as disturbing as anything else you are likely to see in Kurosawa's body of work. A young-ish Toshiro Mifune stars as the son of a man who killed himself to save his corporate employer a potential set back at the hands of the government. Mifune, playing Koichi Nishi, is the bastard son of the dead executive. He switches identities with a friend, manages to marry the crippled daughter of Vice President Iwabuchi, then sets about bringing various parties to justice. Again, the two hours plus run time limits any interest in this film to the margins of those who watch Kurosawa movies or older Japanese films. It's not one of the top 3 Kurosawa films to watch, and probably not in the top 5 either. Top 10, sure.
Compared to High and Low the plot moves at a somber pace, and the setting is not as interesting as the regional location in the other film. Also, the Shakespearean influence inevitably drag down a film.