Sunday, June 30, 2013

Nagisa Oshima | Ai no Korīda (In the Realm of the Senses)

dancing to death
by Douglas Messerli

Nagisa Oshima (writer and director) Ai no Korīda (In the Realm of the Senses) / 1976, USA 1977

Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses is usually described as a “controversial” or “difficult” movie, the controversy, presumably, focused around the question of how much sex to actually portray in a non-pornographic movie. Many critics and audiences, particularly of its day, simply labeled it as pornography and tried to squelch it. In the US and Britain it was hard to view an uncut version of the film until the 1990s, when it was released on tape. The movie, filmed in France, has still to be seen uncut in Japan. Fortunately, Criterion has recently reissued a uncut version restored to its original deeply-hued colors.
     Thirty-seven years after its creation, this film is surely less startling than it might have been in 1976. But, at moments, it is still hard to watch, not because of its sexuality (and as critic Dana Stevens has written, this is a film not only about sexuality, but is itself an image and expression of sexuality)—almost all adults have seen penises, vaginas, breasts, and human beings fucking—but because of where it takes that sexuality, into the realm of the senses which go far beyond the sexual act, completely encompassing the couple, Sada Abe (Eiko Matsuda) and Kichizo Ishida (Tatsuya Fuji), to such a degree that love is moved to the arena of a bullfight (which is how the Japanese title translates), a battle between a human toreador and the beast within. 

     In the Realm of the Senses begins with a lesbian molestation, perhaps the most normative love portrayed in the work, and quickly moves to voyeurism and rape before moving on the transgressive self-indulgences that include the consumption of menstrual blood, savoring foods that have been first sauced in sexual juices, group sex, a rape of an elderly geisha, exhibitionism, child molestation, and finally sadomasochistic acts that increasing involve violence and strangulation, those actions ending in Kichizo’s death, Sada castrating him, and writing out a message in blood across his chest: “Sada and Kichi Together Forever.”

     Some clearly see the couple’s complete obsession with sexuality as liberating; Stevens describes it as precisely that, a film that offered an alternative to the increasing militarism of the time, 1936, in which the real-life characters, upon whom this work is based, had lived. I suppose, might I have seen this film at the age of 30 in 1977, it may have impressed me that way. Certainly I, myself, had been quite obsessed with sex just a few years earlier, before I had met my lifetime companion, Howard. But today I think that is a misreading of Oshima’s work. Despite the intense beauty of Oshima’s images, what Stevens describes as the work’s “lavish pictorial beauty (virtually every frame could be the subject of a Japanese erotic woodblock print),” I believe Oshima was pointing to the couple’s obsession not as opposed to the rising cultural violence and self-destruction, but as representative of it. Just as in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò of a year earlier, the behavior of the central figures (in Pasolini’s case very much centered upon the abuse of children) gradually transform their sexual behaviors into increasingly bizarre social interchanges that reflect the society at large—in Pasolini’s example, the Italian fascist community—using the characters’ plunge into death and self-immolation to reveal the societal shifts. Oshima, in this work, has certainly not given up his political concerns, so intensely tied up in each of his films to sexuality, just to show us a couple that transgress the world around them. No, in their foul-smelling cage of a geisha house, Sada and Kitchi, like the society at large, are consuming themselves, devouring their own bodies in their increasing sexual and violent appetites.  

      Although I see this film as a substantially powerful work, it is, nonetheless, a movie about perversion. Even the geishas, none of them innocent of sexually-defined behavior, describe the couple as “perverts.” Indeed, it is just for this reason that it seems ridiculous to describe In the Realm of the Senses as pornography. For, in the end, Oshima’s work is very much a moral statement, and, like so many of his films, an attack upon certain historical moments and cultural values of his own country.

Los Angeles, June 28, 2013
Reprinted from Nth Position

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Ingmar Bergman | Vargtimmen (Hour of the Wolf)

bitten by a snake
by Douglas Messerli

Ingmar Bergman (writer and director) Vargtimmen (Hour of the Wolf) / 1968 (the viewing I saw, in conjunction with the museum’s “Kubrick and Co” series of films. was at the Los Angeles County Museum’s Bing Theater of Art on June 21, 2013)

Directly after his experimental, highly artificed, and self-conscious masterpiece of 1966, Persona, director Ingmar Bergman, with greater self-confidence, determined to further explore the mental angst of his characters, many of whom had previously been forced to suffer what has been described as a “night journey,” a series of psychological tests that can exorcise their inner demons or end, as in in the case of Johan Borg (Max von Sydow), in insanity and death. Except this time round, Bergman, clearly no longer felt limited to the kind of psychological realism of works such as The Wild Strawberries or even the allegorical pantomime of a film such as The Seventh Seal, but felt confident enough to link his work to Fellini’s Juliet of the Spirits (1965), while referencing the early monster films such as Tod Browning’s Dracula and James Whale’s Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein. The work’s structure and some of its tropes, moreover, draw on Mozart’s The Magic Flute, an opera that would continue to fascinate Bergman throughout his life, leading eventually to a 1974 filming of the work.

With such a broad range of influences, it is no surprise that many critics have described the various symbols and images of Hour of the Wolf as simply failing to “coalesce into a coherent pattern” (Dennis DeNitto in World Film Directors). Yet, I argue, it is this very rich overlay of associations and structures from film and opera history that transforms Hour in the Wolf much like Persona, from a work of psychological realism into metaphoric depiction of what it is like to gradually go insane as a being falls into ever-deepening fears and doubts.
     The story of this film hardly matters: with his wife, Alma (Liv Ullmann), Borg (Max van Sydow) arrives at the small island of Baltrum (Bergman’s favorite location to play our psychological crises) where the artist seeks rest. But even more than previously, Borg is approached, like Tanino in Mozart’s fable, by strange and inexplicable beings which he can only describe as demons—a Bird-Man, insects, meat-eaters, a schoolmaster—all of whom terrify him and keep him up at night in horror.
      His strong and supportive wife determines that she can save him, reading his hidden diary (sometimes directly at the camera) to reveal the horrors Johan is facing. Among the revelations in his “dagbok” is a former love affair with a woman, Vernoica Vogler (Ingrid Thulin).
      In the final scene of the film, after having lost her husband to insanity, Alma, again addressing the camera, speaks: “Is it true that a woman who lives a long time with a man eventually winds up being like that man? I mean to say, if I had loved him much less, and not bothered so of everything about him, could I have protected him better?” The question is crucial to understanding the film, for, in her determined love, Alma, staying up through the night to lead him back into morning light (the same pattern of Mozart’s opera), she herself soon encounters these dark beasts. Approached by a Baron von Merkens (Erland Josephson), they are invited to his nearby castle, where the couple endures a surreal-like dinner party. After dinner, the baron’s wife (Gertrud Fridh) invites the couple into her bedroom, revealing a portrait of Veronica by Borg himself, stating “It has become like part of my solitary life. I love her.” The terrified Borg and Alma leave the castle, with Alma confessing her fear that she may lose her husband to the demons.

During a following long night, Borg admits to his youthful obsession with Veronica and his childhood punishment, where he was locked in a cabinet by his parents who had convinced him also lived a small man who fed on children’s toes. The most frightening revelation of the night, however, played through a dramatically startling montage of images, is about the day he has returned home to report that he had been bitten by a snake. As Borg fishes, we see a young boy, dressed only in scanty swimming trunks, lying in the sun on a nearby rock, clearly flaunting his body at the man. The boy moves somewhat closer, finally moving to the very rock from which Borg is casting his fishing rod. The tension mounts, culminating in Borg’s murder of and drowning of the young child!
      We cannot know whether this confession represents another haunting “demon” of Borg’s of his imagination or a real event in his life, but we do comprehend that the incident, real or imagined, demonstrates his sexual confusion: obviously he has killed the child because of his own sexual attraction to him. If the boy can be perceived as the snake, attempting to lure Borg into sexual activity, the dark forces within the grown man, those of the evil Queen of the Night, rush forward to destroy the snake, just how Mozart’s The Magic Flute—a puppet version of which has been performed in the baron’s castle—commences. Borg is clearly a Tonino, a man who must be further tested in order to make his Panina (Alma) his true wife.
      As one of the baron’s guest again invites them to the castle, mentioning that Veronica Volger will be among the invited guests, Borg produces a pistol, supposedly to protect them from what he describes as “small animals,” and when Alma tries to dissuade him from his clear obsession, he shoots her, racing off to the castle.
      At the castle, Borg not only meets the “Bird-Man” (Mozart’s Papageno obviously), but all the other demons of his dream. His face is painted—lipstick, eyeliner, face powder—as if he were suddenly a figure in drag before entering a room where the seemingly dead Veronica lies under what appears to be a winding-sheet. When Borg lifts it, he discovers the beautiful Veronica very much alive beneath, but laughing, as he suddenly realizes all of the demonic figures of the castle are watching. Borg’s breakdown is nearly inevitable; he cannot consummate the sexual act, his homosexual proclivities coming once more to the foreground: “I thank you, the limit has been finally transgressed,” he shouts, as the demons attempt to devour him, he racing into the underbrush. He has failed the tests.

      Although Alma has survived the shooting, and witnesses his final attack, she can no longer help him as Borg disappears into the woods (the same direction, incidentally, we see Giulietta heading at the end of Fellini’s film), a world into which Alma can never enter. “Is it true that a woman who lives a long time with a man eventually winds up being like that man?” The question is the answer.
      Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf is less a story of a couple, one of whom is suffering from psychological angst, than it is an opera itself, an wonderfully overwrought series of overlying images and references to world literature about the inability of a human mind to accept the monsters he perceives within himself.

Los Angeles, June 22, 2013

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Marcel Carné | Les Enfants du Paradis (Children of Paradise)

a sleepwalker on a roof
by Douglas Messerli
“I would give up all my films to have directed Children of Paradise.”

                                                                              —François Truffaut

Jacques Prévert (screenwriter), Marcel Carné (director) Les Enfants du Paradis (Children of Paradise) / 1945

I love movies so much that I don’t like picking out my favorites—there are so many!—but if I were required to select my very favorite film, I might be tempted to name Les Enfants du Paradis, which I watched with absolute delight once more the other day. Certainly it is a “stagy” film, a film in a grand theatrical manner, with dramatically-acted performances that might be said to represent the very last great example of its own genre. Later films of the novelle vague would be far more spontaneous, clever, and more deeply involve their audiences, but none has the luster and polish—like a perfect pearl—as does Prévert’s and Carné’s tale of the Paris theater scene of the early 19th century. And there are very few films made that can match its sophistication, and no film that I know has its narrative depth, even though the storyline is quite simple. Gone with the Wind, the American film to which the French one has been likened, in comparison, is a tinny music box, while Children of Paradise sings out like an organ accompanied by an entire orchestra.

      Much has been written about the miracle of the making of this film during the Vichy rule of France, when the director and cast feared not only censorship but Gestapo arrest: one of the leaders of the Resistance was arrested as an extra on the set, and the film’s set designer, Alexandre Trauner and one of the composers, Joseph Kosma had to remain in hiding because they were Jewish. Starving extras, so Carné revealed in an interview, made off with food to be filmed on the banquet table, even going so far to hollow out the bread from beneath the crust of a baguette.         

       Yet Carné insists that it was a work largely free from internal tension, which can only be attributed to the high level of professionalism among the entire cast, at the center of which stands the beautiful and calm Arletty, playing Garance Reine, a woman loved, each in their own manner, by three very different men, a shy romanticist who acts as a pantomime (Baptiste, played by the unforgettable Jean-Louis Barrault), a loquacious and self-assured actor (Frédérick Lemaître, acted by Pierre Brasseu), and wealthy and snobbish Count (Comte Édouard de Montray, performed by Louis Salou). A fourth man, the true villain of the piece, Lacenaire (Marcel Herrand) might also love Garrance if he had a heart, but he is so selfish, so locked within himself that when he finally acts out his jealousy by killing the Count, it represents more of a meaningless murder than an act of honor.

       Surrounding these central characters are numerous other actors, including the gentle Nathalie (Maria Casares) who deeply loves Baptiste, various street figures—in particular the ragman Jérico (Pierre Renoir) and a blind man who turns out to have perfect sight—and a cast of thousands who throng the Boulevard du Crime and the audiences, particularly those “gods” hovering at the top of the grand Funambules theater. These “gods,” the poor who shout, clap, boo and openly evaluate the performances below, are the “children of paradise” who make or break the actors’ careers, and ultimately through the course of this more than three-hour epic, bring both Frédérick and Baptiste to fame.

     No one in this Breughel-like world is entirely appealing. Although Garance may be beautiful and desirous to all, she, from the first scene presented as a narcissist as she gazes at herself in a tub of water, while men pay to ogle her. She is also witness not only to Lacenaire’s robberies, but is told by him of his murderous deeds without her even blinking an eye. The only statement of morality she utters, when Lacenaire declares “I’d spill torrents of blood to give you rivers of diamonds,” is the muted “I’d settle for less.”     

     Frédérick may be suave and handsome, but is also a rake, willing even to bed his landlady, Mme. Hermine, in order to keep his room and double bed. The actor is also quite self-centered.

      The Count, with whom Garance ultimately and unhappily settles into a relationship, is dismissive of almost the entire world of the everyday people who make up this movie, and is willing to duel with almost anyone at whom Garance smiles. Even the self-centered and truly despicable Lacenaire is more honest than the self-deluded Count.

     Although Natalie may appear innocent in her true love Baptiste, she is selfish enough to try to prevent Garance from even seeing him.

      It is Baptiste, finally, who we realize is the true “hero” of the piece. He is the only one who, when he speaks of love, truly means it, even though he has never comprehended love’s simplicity, only its difficulties, which he plays out time and again in the great pantomimes he performs before us. Like his character, Baptiste is a willing lover, but has no ability to effectively express himself; he is mute, able to express his seriousness only through comic gestures and the pained expressions of his beautifully gaunt face. Yet, it is only he who wins the love of the two central women of the work, Garance and Nathalie.

       But even the likeable Baptiste is dishonest, if not with his wife, at least with himself. He is a dreamer always, a man of the moon, who, as Natalie aptly describes him when he finally does attempt to consummate his love with Garance: “He is a sleepwalker on a roof,” a man who if he is not carefully left to awaken himself may fall to his death.

       Several critics and directors, over time, have complained that the film, despite its length, seems attenuated, cut away from a series of deeper stories we still desire even after the rich narratives the film has revealed. In part this is simply because the film, like a Balzac novel or great Victor Hugo epic, is a fiction that has given us such a rich palette, we feel slightly betrayed that it must come to an end. At the same time that I viewed this movie, I was reading Proust, and the similarities of the texture between the two are notable.

      But also, I think we feel the work is slightly truncated not only because of its narrative density, which seemingly demands, in turn, more and more stories, but because we never do observe Baptiste’s awakening. At work’s end, the lovestruck “clown” goes rushing after Garance’s carriage as she, a seasoned cynic when it comes to love, determines to awaken him by rushing back to her wealthy Count (without knowing he has been murdered). The great film ends only with Baptiste’s pleading gestures, the welling tears in his eyes (as well as in the audiences’ eyes surely); he remains a sleepwalker, a dreamer rather than a skin-and-bones character who might come to terms with the love of his wife and son. The theater of Carné’s world, in short, does even come to a close with the curtain’s fall, and certainly everyone in those 1945 showings must have realized that the world it was depicting, the allegorical presentation of a golden pre-War France, had in fact died. If love was still possible, it was only through the cold vision of more open eyes.

       Just as Proust’s vision, Carné’s was a remembrance of things of the past, allowing little in the way of direction for what lay ahead.

Los Angeles, June 18, 2013

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Michael Fengler | Warum läuft Herr R. amok (Why Does Herr R. Run Amok?)

over the moon

Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Michael Fengler (writers and directors) Warum läuft Herr R. amok (Why Does Herr R. Run Amok?) / 1970

In one of only two of Fassbinder’s collaborative films, he and Michael Fengler focused on the story of a hard-working, ordinary man, an architectural draftsman, whose life slowly comes apart, resulting in a shocking series of actions.

      Except for the outline of the story, most the film’s dialogue was created on the set in improvised collaboration with the film’s major actors, including Kurt Raab (as the central figure), Lilith Ungerer (as his wife), Fengler’s son Amadeus, Franz Maron (as the Boss), Harry Baer (as an office colleague), Peter Oland (another office colleague), Lilo Pempeit (as the beloved office typist), Hanna Schygulla (as the wife’s school friend), and numerous others—most of whom use their real names throughout.

      The movie begins with four jokes, the first about blindness:

                         You hear the one about the guy who goes into a bakery,
                         Orders a loaf of bread? “White or black?” the baker asks.
                         “Doesn’t matter,” the guy says. “It’s for a blind person.”

The second joke is about a horse long enough to seat 8 people, which reveals the subject’s general ignorance of the species; the third, about a young boy who asks how far it is to America, his mother answering, “keep swimming”—a joke about, as writer Jim Clark suggests, futility. The third is about a man murdering his wife. In a sense, these jokes, shared by Raab’s office mates, Harry Baer, Peter Oralnd, and Lilo Pempeit, as they leave the office walking through a dreary side street in Munich, serves almost as an overture to the film we are about to see. And  the film in general, like these quips, seems to be comic.

     Although Raab, in one of the first scenes of the film, tells his wife that he is tired, that he is overwhelmed by his work at the office, she, a beautiful Scandinavian-like blonde, remains supportive—even though she, clearly the driver in the family, has just had a minor accident. Her beauty and faithfulness to her slightly overweight and dowdy husband remains throughout the picture, and seemingly gives support to her husband’s gradually deteriorating life. Although her friend, Hanna Schygulla, staying with them for a couple of days, evidently “does nothing” for a living—Raab slightly poking fun at her somewhat empty life (“You’re a step ahead of us, an independent being.”) it is a mild rebuke without deep bitterness—Raab seems comfortable with the somewhat provocative guest.

       Another scene, in a record shop, where Raab attempts to find the record of a song he and his wife have heard on the “hit parade,” continues the bubbling sense of irony, as the two young shop clerks giggle about his old-fashioned taste in music. But the record, which he nonetheless does find, is to be a gift for his wife, and, despite the slight mockery of two women, he comes off in good spirits, bringing home a present which, momentarily at least, reminds the two of their romantic youth, “Ages ago.”

       Raab suggests that he will soon be sent to the main office, where he hopes that his job will entail more variety and, perhaps, even a higher salary. And his wife shares his good prospects in imagining a new apartment and even new furniture to go in it.

       His parents, visiting the couple, seem, at times, a little unpleasant, but they clearly dote on their grandchild Amadeus and begrudgingly admire their son’s choice of a wife. Oma (Maria Sterr), however later becomes more critical, particularly when, during a forest walk in the snow, Amadeus goes temporarily missing, suddenly determining to play hide-and-seek. A school teacher complains that Amadeus, although intelligent, is inattentive, sometimes even forgetting the questions she has asked; he also has difficulty saying the German SH sound, although is not taunted by the other students for this defect. Like his father, the boy is sometimes quiet and a bit unsociable      

     Gradually, we perceive that the superficially normal and well-established routines of the Raab household are confining and frustrating for both husband and wife. Lilith complains of another friend, who is “hysterical.” Raab is gently upbraided by his boss for not being able to put his architectural renderings in three dimensional concepts. Raab admits that he prefers drawing windows to the walls which he is assigned to create.

      On the street, Lilith desires consumer objects which the couple can ill-afford. In one particularly revealing scene, apartment friends gather, bitchily commenting on Lilith’s husband’s increasing weight, the wife’s lack of cultural involvement, and other issues while Lilith projects the myth that they will soon be moving to a larger apartment, seating herself next to a neighbor’s husband, who seems far more accommodating that the two critical women friends, particularly when they begin to speak of Amadeus.

    A bit like a predetermined automobile crash, which apparently has occurred to Lilith before the movie has begun, Raab gets drunk an office Christmas party, attempting to toast his colleagues—one already passed out at the table—while his boss and his sister grow more and more uncomfortable as Raab rambles on, trying to speak lovingly and kindly of his “strict” boss, characterizing him as a friend at the very moment the couple determine to hurry away from the event. Raab’s cry, “We could have been buddies,” reveals, like the joke about the horse, just how unacquainted he is with the “beast” he has tried to ride. The futility of his act, an attempt of a usually taciturn man attempting to speak out, is represented by his wife’s bitter comments: “the older you get the stupider, the fatter.”

      A visit to the doctor reveals that Raab suffers from severe headaches and high blood pressure, but the doctor’s only suggestion is that the patient give up liquor and—even more importantly, in a film where absolutely everyone except the child consumes dozens of cigarettes in constant clouds of smoke—tobacco.

      If the events of the film have grown increasingly serious and tense, the attentive viewer has felt this intensity in numerous other ways through Fassbinder’s and Fengler’s often hand-held, documentary-like camera, in which, time and again, Raab is kept slightly out of the picture. Focusing on two or three figures at a time, the director’s frame keeps his central character at the edges, holding on the periphery a man whose very job is to represent every door, window, and wall. In the rooms he actually inhabits he has hardly any space in which to live. Throughout, it is as if not only that Raab is one of the quiet beings at the edges of life, but is simply not heard. During a long and painful scene in which he sits with an old friend talking about their school days, when they were forced to attend Sunday church services where they sang “when grief and pain oppress me,” Lilith sits apart on the couch in clear disgust of their shared and distant memories.

      On the other side of the coin, the long penultimate scene of the film presents us with a nearly unbearable “friend” of Lilith’s, again comparing her evidently more affluent life with the more sedentary world of her friend. Little by little, she describes her vacations: “I can think of nothing but skiing.” In a long story—as Raab, again almost erased out of the scene as he attempts to watch television—she recounts how she learned to ski, going through everything from her flirtatious affairs with her ski instructor to the names of several skiing actions she experienced before proclaiming, finally, her new achieved skills, where she ultimately goes “over the moon,” clearly representing the thrill of making the long plunge down the mountain, adding, almost as a coda, the needed acquisitions: “I bought myself new skis, steel ones, and ski pants.”  Still at the edge of the film’s frame, Raab’s movements are barely sensed, as he lights a metal-casted candelabra before, suddenly appearing at the other end of the screen, he moves toward the guest, pounding the object into her head. As Lilith appears, he repeats the action upon her, before, slowly and carefully entering his son’s room, from which he perceive through his shadow, the action is repeated.

      Showing up at the architectural office, the police report the three murders, questioning Raab’s boss and colleagues before they are told that Raab is in the bathroom. After a long pause, the police break into the toilet, only to find that Raab has hung himself.

      The actions we have just witnessed, as critics have observed, make us reread the entire film. Why did this ordinary man, we can only wonder all over again, truly go amok. One might be tempted to read this work as a kind of black comedy in the manner of Joe Orton’s plays—if only the slow mounting evidence of the societal abuse of this everyday human being were not so painfully tragic. At work’s end we can only read the voyage “over the moon,” as a trip into sudden lunacy, a break out from the stale and claustrophobic world in which Raab has lived his entire life into a downward slope directly into death.

Los Angeles, June 15, 2013
Reprinted from Nth Position (July 2013).

Monday, June 10, 2013

Vincente Minnelli | The Long, Long Trailer

a failed paradise

Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich (based on a novel by Clinton Twiss), Vincente Minnelli (director)
The Long, Long Trailer / 1954

For several weeks now I have been trying to get a moment to review a film from my childhood, beloved by my family (one of the very few we attended as a family) at the time. My mother, in particular, was a big fan of Lucille Ball, and The Long, Long Trailer was ostensibly another occasion to see the couple together in the comedic high-jinks style of the television favorite. Playing Tacy Bolton, Ball is about to marry Nicky Collini (Desi Arnez), a relationship that will surely be fraught with all the zaniness that the TV’s Lucy imposes every week upon her husband, Ricky. Everyone in the audience of the day knew the formula: Tacy would involve Nicky in an adventure that would cost money they could ill afford, leading to a series of comically terrifying events in which Tacy could play out her manic physically comedic shticks.

     In this version of their “on the road” adventures (which they performed in their various trips throughout Europe in their television show), Lucy convinces a very dubious Nicky that they should buy a trailer—not a little “junior” trailer which she first proposes, but a long, long trailer, the New Moon, representative of both the sleek modernity of the period but also of the early 1950s increasing mobility. Since Nicky works as a civil engineer in this go-round, wouldn’t it be perfect if she could follow him, from job to job, serving him up great meals in their own moving palace, a place he might return to each night wherever his itinerant life might lead them?

     Since most of the Post-World-War II culture was on the move, I am sure to the writers Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich (basing their script on a novel by Clinton Twiss), thought it was the perfect metaphor for the era in which American families were stretching their legs in what suddenly seemed like a large country. During the same period my own family traveled on summer vacations to St. Louis, South Dakota’s Black Hills, and eventually all the way to California. Each year I would joyfully send away to nearly every state’s tourism board for informational pamphlets, and would help plan for our trips.

     But someone forgot to tell the writers, director Vincente Minnelli, and his cast that this was meant to be a comedy. Although from time-to-time Lucille Ball tries to steer it back into range of her forte, she does it with such pouting grimaces that we hardly recognize the zany friend of Fred and Ethel.

    The film begins in a kind of panic wherein Nicky is seen rushing through the mountains through a downpour of rain in search of his missing “house.” When he finally discovers it in a small trailer park, he pours out his heart to a potential buyer (the man is intending to buy Tacy’s trailer), deploring a world where “when you come home to your home and your house is gone,” and damning a world in which, like a turtle, you carry your house upon your back. The couple whose life the story is about to recount has clearly broken up, and the rest of the movie suffers for our knowledge of the seemingly unfortunate results.

      While the TV Lucy is presented as a kind of innocent maniac, Tacy is represented as the ultimate consumer, a woman determined not only to purchase the largest of all trailers, but a new car which can pull it along with hooks, buckles, pulleys, ropes, and everything else needed to carry the beast with her and her husband. She fills it up, moreover, with every pot, pan, dish blanket, towel, and article of clothing that she can get her hands on; poor Nicky cannot even find room for a few articles of clothing and his golf bags. But the consumerism is not just about commercialism but includes nature itself, as she grabs up large rocks throughout their voyage, representing the places they have been, as if her own mind cannot retain them. Preserves, piccalillis, and other potted foods join in her already overflowing larder—this despite the fact that she hardly ever has the opportunity to cook a full meal during their disastrous voyage.

      All of this is made even worse by the fact that this film represents this couple’s world in the most claustrophobic of spaces. Even upon their first visit to the trailer show, both are impossibly surrounded by others in the small spaces in which they are expected to live. Soon after, at the wedding, Nicky cannot even find a way to reach his new wife through the masses of celebrants. I have already mentioned the scene where Tacy imports into the trailer nearly every object she has received as wedding presents, along with a whole retinue of giggling women friends. Upon their wedding night they are overtaken by an army of trailerites, led by the well-meaning but over-bearing Marjorie Main, who, convinced that Tacy has passed out (as she observes Nicky trying to simply carry his new bride over the doorway), spikes her drinks with a sleeping pill.

      Indeed, it appears throughout the film that this newly-married couple hardly ever has a moment to sexually consummate their union. The second night the exhausted Nicky falls to sleep, while Tacy cannot even lay down in her slanted (the trailer is trapped in mud) separate bed. Surely they cannot have slept comfortably in Tacy’s angry aunt’s home, particularly after they and the trailer has destroyed most of the woman’s gardens and sawed off a whole driveway wing of the beautiful house. As they plan the drive up to 8,000 feet, Nicky announces he will be away all night at the local garage as they work on the auto in preparation for the trek.

      Finally, the very stereotypes of American sensibilities make this film unpalatable. One might almost have thought that the usually suave Minnelli, who so lovingly created the American family of Meet Me In St. Louis, had transmogrified into Frank Capra in his presentation of the Americans Tacy and Nicky encounter during their trip. Does each car following the long trailer in an early scene have to be filled with hooting and shouting hillbillies? Do all the wedding guests have to be ridiculously insensitive dunces? Do the “trailerites” have to remind us more of a league of corny sloganeers than legitimate travelers? Is it truly necessary to have Tacy’s family represented as a grotesque mixture of Gothic types (posing almost as if Grant Wood were painting the Addams family), including a truly batty sister? This is an ugly America which, even if Tacy is loud and silly and Nicky insensitive and selfish, seem somehow completely unrelated to their attempts to achieve a normal relationship

     As she does over and over in the TV series, Tacy/Lucy lies, seriously endangering her and her husband’ lives; she has simply been unable to abandon her consumerist sensibilities enough to  get rid of the numerous rocks she has hoarded. And, so it seems, as we have already glimpsed in the first scene of this now fairly bleak presentation of the American 1950s, their relationship is, quite literally, on the rocks. Is it any wonder, given the consumerist, claustrophobic, unconsummated, and caricatured world of this movie? In the end, the characters can only bleat out what should have been expressed by the writers and directors: “I’m sorry,” as the put-upon couple reenter their failed paradise, the door, caught in the wind of the storm, seemingly the only celebrant of what might finally happen within.

Los Angeles, June 9, 2013

Friday, June 7, 2013

Nagisa Oshima | Kaette kita yopparai (Three Resurrected Drunkards)

becoming korean
by Douglas Messerli
Masao Adachi, Mamoru Sasaki, Tsutomu Tamua and Nagisa Oshima (writers), Nagisa Ōshima (director) Kaette kita yopparai (Three Resurrected Drunkards) / 1968



In Three Resurrected Drunkards, Japanese director Nagisa Ōshima uses a 1960s comic genre to discuss far more serious issues. Like a mix of the Beatles’ and Monkees’ movies and Jean-Luc Godard, Ōshima takes his three musicians of the Japanese band The Folk Crusaders through a series of semi-comic, self-conscious adventures.

     On a beach, this group of mismatched drunkards, Kazuhiko Kato (described throughout as a “beanpole”), Osamu Kitayama (shorter), and Norihiko Hashida (very short) somewhat darkly point their fingers at each other’s heads in a goofy mock re-enactment of the famed Eddie Adams photo of a Vietcong guerilla being executed, The Folk Crusaders hit song, “I Only Live Twice” playing in the background. If the game there are playing has more dark undertones than comic ones, so too does their somewhat blasphemous song about heaven being a place where “the booze is good and the girls are pretty,” run by a god who is an “old meany.”

      That soon is played out within the plot, as the three go swimming, their Japanese soldier uniforms being stolen from beneath the beach by a hand that replaces their uniforms with those of Korean soldiers, along with some money. Returning from the water, two of them are forced to dress in the Korean costumes, while beanpole retains his own dress.

       From that outward transformation, along with their insistence to a local tobacconist that a popular brand of cigarettes costs only 40 yen (the real price is higher), things go quickly from bad to worse, as the police begin following them and other beach dwellers are on the attack. Only a mysterious woman is evidently willing to help them, suggesting they steal other’s clothing. At a local spa they try just that, but are suddenly attacked by the Koreans who have stolen their clothes and are forced to return to their Korean costumes, as they are captured and sent to Korea’s Pusan Bay, before being sent away to Viet  Nam to the war in which they die.

   Waking up once more to see the mysterious girl hovering over them, the three change, this time into her dress and blouse, attempting to get away once more, only to meet up again with two AWOL Koreans, who restore them to their Korean identities.

         Ōshima’s theme, clearly, is the Japanese xenophobia, in particular their hatred and dismissal of Koreans. On the streets of Tokyo, the three, film camera in hand, ask citizens a simple question: “Are you Japanese?” which each time gets answered with the words “No, I’m Korean,” clearly satirizing the real situation of racial purity. And when the film suddenly begins all over again, including the ocean swim, the robbery, the event at the tobacconists and the attempt to steal clothes at the spa, the trio answer their questions slightly differently, this time admitting and even embracing their enforced Korean identities.

Nonetheless, the three find themselves in a further series of misadventures, particularly because one of their group has fallen in love with the mysterious and helpful woman, whom, they have discovered, is also Korean.

       It hardly matters what happens in the end, for everything in this film happens over and over as in a surreal dream, the story forever repeating itself due to the Japanese society’s clear inability to learn from history. The last scenes of the film take us to a mural that portrays the very scene which trio was imitating in the very first scene, a horrible image of Asians murdering Asians, just as the boys had pretended to shoot one another at the beach, the director revealing that the comedy is, in fact, a tragedy the society must face.
Los Angeles, June 7, 2013

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Kejni Mizoguchi | Yoru no onnatchi (Women of the Night)

bad girls
by Douglas Messerli

Yoshikata Yoda (story, based on the novel by Eijirō Misaita), Kenji Mizoguchi (director) Yoru no onnatachi (Women of the Night) / 1948, USA 1979

Kenji Mizoguchi’s powerful post-war film is also somewhat problematic. A woman, Fusako Owada (Kinuyo Tanaka) whose husband has not yet returned from the war, is living, rather uncomfortably, with her tubercular son with her husband’s brother. The brother has little income, and Fusako and her ailing child must often fend for themselves. Attempting to sell one of her summer dresses, Fusako is told by the seemingly friendly clothes-merchant that she should try prostitution, which shocks the struggling woman.

      Back at home, her teenage sister-in-law, Kumiko (Tomie Tsunoda) arrives to report that there is news of Fusako’s husband. Together they rush to his former place of employment, only to discover that, after surviving throughout the war, he has died of malnutrition, leaving behind only a few personal belongings; even his worn uniform has been destroyed. The head of the company, Mr. Kuriyama (Sanae Takasugi) offers his condolences and his help if needed.

      Soon after, Fusako’s child falls into a seizure and dies. Cutting into the future, we see Fusako, now better dressed, on the street, where she accidently encounters her long-missing sister, Natsuko, and the two take tea to celebrate their reunion.

     Natsuko, we discover, is working as “dance hall hostess,” and Fusako is now working as an executive secretary to Mr. Kuriyama. Natusuko asks if she might move in with her sister, and Fusako agrees. After an utterly depressing beginning, accordingly, it now appears that the world has improved for the two sisters. However, as soon discover, Fusako’s price for her position is the sexual attentions of her boss, who we also discover is smuggling cocaine. While Kuriyama’s is away on business appointment, his assistant rushes into his office report to Fusako that the police are on their way, entrusting a large cache of the drug to the secretary, who is told to hide it in her home.

      When she arrives home, she discovers her door is locked from inside. When Natsuko finally opens it up, we discover Mr. Kuriyama within; the two have obviously been also having an affair. Furious with the betrayal, Fusako leaves home, disappearing from her sister’s and Kuriyama’s life. Secretly, she has taken the clothes-merchant’s advice and tutelage (the elderly woman also apparently serves as pimp for several women), joining the numerous street-walkers of Osaka.

       If some critics have complained of Mizoguchi’s cuts across space and time in the story I have recounted so far, I would argue that instead of creating confusion, it allows the inevitable surprises of life itself, and we quickly assimilate these alterations in the condition of his character’s lives. Yet the sudden transformation of Fusako, while perhaps inevitable given the difficulties of her life, seems almost inexplicable. How could a woman horrified of the concept when she was in greater need, suddenly turn to such a way of life? We must wait until later in the film, perhaps, to comprehend a rationale: her utter hate of men, and her desire, after being lied to by Kuriyama, to seek revenge.

       When Natsuko discovers that her sister has been spotted on the streets, she goes in search of her, but is mistakenly arrested with numerous other prostitutes in a police round-up. Once the women are booked, they are taken to a prison hospital and tested for syphilis. At the hospital, the two sisters again meet up, Natsuko explaining her mistaken arrest. Although Fusako is now angry with her sister, she remains protective, assuring her that she will be freed and everything will be fine once she proves she has contacted no disease. Shockingly, however, Natsuko discovers that only is she infected, but that she is pregnant. Yet she quickly becomes determined to have the child and take the cure to rid her of syphilis. When she later explains the situation to Kuriyama, with whom she has been living, he demands she have an abortion and is unsympathetic to her situation. Now also jilted, Natsuko begins to bring home men from her job and to drink heavily.

      In one of the most exciting moments of the film, Fusako, still locked away in the hospital, escapes over the wall, returning to the streets before, finally, returning home to find Natsuko drunk, about to give birth. Fusako demands she join her, lifting up the near-lifeless body, as she takes her to a woman’s refuge. At the refuge, Natsuko goes into labor; the child is stillborn, but she survives. Authorities try to convince both women to change their lives, but Fusako still resists, angrier than ever and now a hard-boiled street creature.

      A similar situation has previously occurred with her young sister-in-law, Kumiko, who, having run away from home and been refused refuge in the Owada apartment, has met a young street boy, who rapes and robs her, abandoning the innocent girl in an inn where the local prostitutes beat her and steal her clothing. Kumiko is forced to join them to survive.

       In the final and most moving scene of this film, Fusako accidently meets up with Kumiko when she is called to observe a beating of the young intruder into the older prostitute’s territory. Recognizing her, Fusako demands that the women cease beating her, but the girl, now as hard-boiled as her sister-in-law is unrepentant and determined to remain on the street, in response to which Fusako herself beats the young girl, taunting her for her degeneracy and the condition of her life before breaking down into tears, the young girl seeking solace at her knee. Determined to take the girl to safety and, finally, to abandon the profession herself, Fusako lashes out against the other violent women, who, in turn, fall upon her, beating her relentlessly. Finally a group of on looking prostitutes intercede, realizing the truth of Fusako’s insistence that “there should be no women like us.”

       So Mizoguchi’s film ends, strangely, with a moral indictment, damning these “women of the night.” But given the harsh conditions of these postwar women and the continual unfeeling righteousness of several of the religious and social figures he has revealed throughout, it seems, in the end, that the director is somehow ignoring the implications of his own tale. Despite the frankness of Mizoguchi’s film, offering up open discussions of prostitution, rape, syphilis and women committing violence, the denouement would seem to return these women once again into home-bound roles that often means complete self-sacrifice. Although Woman of the Night quite clearly shows us that it is the men in these women’s lives who have helped to destroy them, the film ultimately seems to suggest that the women alone must redeem themselves, must reject the demeaning and destructive roles they have embraced. In a strange way, however, it is only as prostitutes that these women seem to have any power in the post-war Japanese society. Mizoguchi does not show one woman, other than the child-like acolytes of the women’s refuge—given daily quite meaningless “pep” talks by the center’s director—who is permitted any dignity. It is clear that the sometimes “rightist” film director was of two minds about the predicament of his “women of the night,” quite brilliantly revealing their plights while blaming them for their decision to choose this method of survival. The paradox he has created is nonetheless a fascinating one, worth pondering through viewing this mesmerizing film.

Los Angeles, June 5, 2013
Reprinted from International Cinema Review (June 2013).