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Ôinaru gen'ei (1999)
A significant piece of the puzzle.
"Poets are mortals who, singing earnestly, sense the trace of the fugitive gods, stay in these tracks and trace for the mortals, their brothers, the way toward the turning. But who among mortals can trace such a track? Traces are often hard to behold and are always the legacy of an assignation that is barely felt." -Jean-Luc Godard, Histoire(s) Du Cinema
Kiyoshi Kurosawa has proved many times over that he is one of the filmmakers who is both most attuned to our present condition and best able to get this vision on screen. He generally accomplishes this (somewhat) within the strictures of genre, in films like Cure and Pulse, but Barren Illusions comes much closer to pure art film.
Its most memorable shot is a long uncut sequence in which the young couple at the center of the film wander through a children's park in which balloons and beach balls are strewn about, and proceed to half- heartedly amuse themselves with them in about as many ways as possible. This is, in fact, what they do throughout most of the film. A friend brings recording equipment to their apartment and tells the girl to repeat a few phrases on acoustic guitar and keyboard, and then loops and arranges the results. The music, a sort of woozy trip-hop, reflects the total lack of effort expended in producing it. It's hollowly pleasant. The boy decides they should buy a dog, and they're seen around with it a few times, having the same kind of superficial fun they always have, before it's taken away. The theme of purposelessness which pervaded Bright Future is also at the center of this film, but whereas it manifested itself in unfocused rage there, here there is simply ennui.
In one of Kurosawa's trademark moments of magical realism, what appear to be a bunch of feathers begin streaming past the girl's window as she faces the other way in her room. Upon noticing this, she immediately closes the shutters. It turns out it's the beginnings of an epidemic of pollen. The boy is caught by it in the park and escapes into a washroom. A middle-aged doctor tells him that teens are particularly susceptible to an allergic reaction, whereas he himself is largely immune, and prescribes the boy a medication which tends to cause impotence.
Kurosawa has been criticized for placing these types of blatant analogies in his films (I'd say the pollen is a clear stand in for depression), but they're made palatable by the richness of their surroundings. The significance of the tree is explained quite early in Charisma, and yet the viewer will struggle to maintain the analogy as things grow more and more complex. There are no easy readings of Kurosawa films. This is even commented upon by characters in Retribution and Serpent's Path, essentially goading the audience as to whether they've solved the puzzle. His methods remind me of an interview I saw with Krzysztof Kieslowski, who said that when Poland suffered under censorship, there was a special bond between audience and filmmakers, as they both thought critically and worked together to subvert the censors. This bond was lost with the breakup of the Soviet Union, after which audiences began to engage passively with films as entertainment, as most Western audiences do. Although Kurosawa does not face similar problems, I believe his films attempt to engage the critical faculties of his audience in a similar manner. It could also be the case that Kurosawa's insights aren't fully worked out and systematic, but "the legacy of an assignation that is barely felt," and that he is just slightly less lost than the rest of us.
Sex is almost never present in the film, although it is alluded to a number of times. The young couple are themselves quite sexless, with her boyish haircut and his feminine features. After one of their breakups, she is picked up by another young man at a soccer game, allowing our male protagonist to briefly assert his masculinity when he physically assaults the other young man at McDonalds and reclaims his place in the seat across from the girl. Earlier, she is clearly distressed that he is taking the medication, given its side effects, but nothing more is said on the matter. At one point, after eating dinner at home, she clutches at her stomach and falls to the floor. It is unclear whether she feels sick or whether it is the pangs of an absence which the dog may have briefly assuaged. When he asks if she's alright, she replies, "I'm dead." After he helps her to bed, there's a brief erotically charged moment which elicits a laugh from her, but he immediately returns to cleaning the dishes, while she gets up and tells him, "I'm leaving."
As with any Kurosawa film, the world around the young couple is not inert. There is a criminal element, and violence seems to spring up randomly. The girl encounters a co-worker at the post office who advises her not to bother with a broken photocopier. "The machine hasn't worked since 2000. And yet nobody does anything. Why won't someone do something?" After their next encounter, the woman jumps off the roof of the post office. There's a drum procession, young thugs, and prominently placed American brands all over. What the significance of any one of these elements might be is as much of a puzzle as ever, and yet they're cut through with a significance which we all understand intuitively. They come from the world which surrounds us, a world which is not particular to Japan.
Kurosawa films often end in a sort of apocalyptic chaos, as though this is the only resolution he can see these problems building towards. Bright Future has vaguely revolutionary undertones. Barren Illusions proffers neither warnings nor solutions, and yet it is one of his most damning critiques of the current state of things.
Blast of Silence (1961)
Apparently Martin Scorcese had called this his "favourite New York film." Whether that kind of auspicious praise will ever result in Blast of Silence rising from the shroud of obscurity is doubtful. Director and star Allen Baron ends his commentary by voicing his support for auteur-ism, and Blast of Silence is the kind of singular, ugly vision that's destined to remain cult. I'd assume that Scorcese's love of the film largely comes from its cinematography. The fact that this movie even got made is largely because of its threadbare budget. Studios allowed Noirs with little mainstream appeal to be made because they were generally cheap and their dark thrills appealed to enough people that they made money. Blast's budget was so tiny, they simply went around New York stealing shots, with actually late 50s New York streets populated by actual late 50s New York people. Baron chose to only shoot on overcast days, so that the film had a uniformly grim look. The result is incredible, and the dingyness of the Greenwich Village or waterfront locations only add to the mood of the film. But what Scorcese might really be saying is that Blast is a key influence for a film like Taxi Driver. For a film this steeped in misanthropy and undiluted hate to be released in 1961 is amazing, and the fact that almost no one saw it and Baron gained little acclaim for it is not a surprise. The lead actor pulled out at the last minute after being offered a paying role, so Baron screen tested for the role himself, and ended up giving himself the part. The voice-over says it all: Baby Boy Frankie Bono was born in pain and raised in an orphanage. He hates almost everyone and is only comfortable when alone. In fact, he dreads having to interact with anyone. Fortunately, he's found an ideal profession as a contract killer. When he bumps into some of his fellow orphans, fully grown and living in New York, Bono's feelings throw him off his game. Lorrie sees his loneliness and, through her compassion, makes Bono see that he could have a better life. But Blast of Silence is pure Noir, and we all know what fate has in store for Bono. By the time he realizes her kindness stems from pity rather than romance, he's already given his employers the impression that he's cracking up, and guaranteed that this job would be his last. The seam of vicious ugliness that runs through this film remains visceral to this day. Seeing as Peckinpah's Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia was skewered upon release in 1974 for its bleak vision, Blast of Silence didn't stand a chance in 1961. Blessed with an abundance of compelling visuals and a single-minded plot far ahead of its time, it's truly a lost gem. Baron ultimately retired from films and is probably best known for directing episodes of Charlie's Angels, but, if you ask me, he's got one masterpiece in his resume. And what a cold, dark masterpiece it is.
American Psycho (2000)
I've never read the book, but I know a lot of people who did, and they tend to not like the movie. Now, I always think movies based on books should be judged as separate entities. It's adapted by a screenwriter and interpreted by a director, and they may make choices that the author didn't intend. This doesn't instantly make one or the other better or worse, they're just different. That being said, it seemed like the reason a lot of the fans of the book were disappointed was because Mary Harron wasn't interested in depicting scenes of extreme gore. This isn't a Fulci film and it isn't Hostel, it's brilliant social commentary and comedy. Of course this is the most pitch black sort of humour, but it cracks me up. Most of the humour comes from this central point: Patrick Bateman is a psychopath, a completely soulless person incapable of thinking of anyone but himself, and in the booming 80s Wall Street world, he fit in perfectly. It's been noted that Bale's performance even caused some viewers to like Bateman. But how couldn't they. Look at all of his "friends" and "lovers." They're able to feel empathy, they choose to live this way. They're the monsters. Bateman can't help but be like them. So when Bateman raises an axe to Paul Allen (played by the equally despicable Jared Leto) you can't help but share in his glee. The yucks don't stop. The business card one-upping (uh, I think they're all the same), Bateman's call for a return to morals at some ridiculous restaurant, the girl who confuses "mergers and acquisitions" for "murders and executions." In particular Bateman's lengthy monologues about his awful taste in music (early Huey Lewis was too "black sounding," Genesis really came into their own once Phil Collins took the reigns.) These tend to precede his violent acts, and I think they're the crux of the film. While he has a lot of knowledge and has clearly put a lot of thought into his opinions, the music he loves and his appreciation for it is just like him, soulless. A perfect surface wrapped around a gaping void. Anyways, I could go on, but I have to return some videotapes.
Joshû 701-gô: Sasori (1972)
Where High and Low art collide, that's where I want to be
I think there's a lot of fellow film fans out there who have no time for snooty snooze-fests like the films of Ingmar Bergman or any of those "inspirational tales of redemption" that people like Roger Ebert want to shove down our throat, but are far too intelligent to sit through the vast piles of pumped-out schlock that people find a way to appreciate. So when a film can be equally artful and entertaining, it's a reason to rejoice. If you love Lynch's Wild at Heart, or Miike's genre work, like Dead or Alive, I cannot recommend Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion enough. The structure of the film is pure rape-revenge exploitation and women in prison boobfest, but the acting and directing elevate this into the realm of truly great films. While the camera-work throughout is disorientingly perfect, scenes like the shard-of-glass fight scene prove Shunya Ito is truly masterful. Even a throwaway scene like upper tier prisoners putting on lipstick and discussing Matsu's fate is made surreal and psychedelic by the truly bizarre sound effects. Meiko Kaji in the lead carries the defiance and cold eroticism of her character perfectly. I actually think Chan Wook Park's choice of the lead for his recent Sympathy for Lady Vengeance had something to do with her resemblance to Kaji. Apparently that's her singing in the theme song too. Gotta check out Lady Snowblood. Much of the violence in this film is truly cringe-worthy, and I mean in the good way. It's effective because it makes you uncomfortable. I'd also like to clarify, my understanding of Matsu's betrayal is that she was sent by her Narc boyfriend as bait, as he knew that she'd be found out and raped, so he'd have the blackmail he needed to form an alliance with the drug dealers. If seeing him drop money on her after the deal is cut isn't enough for you to root for her revenge, the endless torture she suffers in prison will be. I'd give this 10 if it weren't for a couple of things, the digging scene is overly long, although that probably has more to do with the script Ito was given to work with, and I've heard the sequel is even better. Still, if you like any of Park's revenge trilogy, Miike films, Kurosawa's Yojimbo or the works of Dario Argento and George Romero, do yourself a favor and watch Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion.