The Hidden Blade (Kakushi ken oni no tsume, Japan, 2007)

Caste-based repression

The Hidden Blade is the second of director Yamada Yōji’s Samurai trilogy, all of which were based on short stories by Fujisawa Shûhei, and was scripted by him and Asama Yoshitaka. I saw the first of the set, Twilight Samurai (Tasogare Seibe, 2002), on its release and thought is superb. I’ve recently caught up with the other two though the last, Love and Honour (Bushi no ichibun, 2006), didn’t grab me; The Hidden Blade did.

The films are set just before the Meiji restoration that ended Japan’s isolation by bringing in western ideas and, at the same time, changed the role of the samurai; the time was also featured in the superb The Last Samurai. During this transition period, unlike the violent heroism of Kurosawa’s warriors, the samurai were functionaries of court. In Love and Honour our hero is poisoned whilst tasting food for the local lord; he’s permanently blinded and has to deal with his emasculation. In The Hidden Blade the hero, Katagiri (Nagasa Masatoshi), rails against the hypocrisy of his rulers whilst being forced to write a manual for using western weapons; a marvellous symbol of our civilising influence! For the samurai there will be longer the honour of using the sword but the ignomy of mechanical weapons. There’s a humorous thread throughout of the inability of the samurai to march in unison or even run with any speed.

Underneath the political intrigue is a simple love story to which the couple in question don’t even notice themselves as it has no possibility of fulfilment due to their caste differences. The performances of Nagasa and Matsu Takako, who plays Katagiri’s servent Kie, are marvellous. We know that they are in love despite the fact there is no interaction between them that directly signifies this is the case. In addition, the beauty of both landscape, buildings and costumes are  pleasures in all three films of the trilogy; cinematography is by Naganuma Mutsuo (as it was with Twilight Samurai).

The Hidden Blade is not a film without action as there is a climactic battle where Katagiri is ordered to kill his friend who has rebelled against the feudal system. The rigid cruelty of the era is shown in the over-riding impulse of duty and in its treatment of women and lower castes.

Yamada is a formidable artist, and he’s still making films in his late ‘eighties; unfortunately, as far as I can tell, few of them are available in the UK.

Tehran Taboo (Germany-Austria, 2017)

On the margins in Tehran

Directed and co-written (with Grit Kienzlen) by Ali Soozandeh, this is a startling representation of Tehran from the perspective of a prostitute. Startling because it is impossible for films made in Iran to show such things; Soozandeh emigrated to Germany over 20 years ago. In the 1990s Iranian cinema produced a ‘new wave’ of films with directors such as Abbas Kiarostami, the Makhmalbaf family and Jafar Panahi that were ‘validated’ by western criticism. Even in these films censorship meant that it was impossible to represent the earthier side of human life, if the directors had wished to do so directly. So the films are a bit like mid-20th century British cinema, exemplified by Brief Encounter (1945), where the only stiff things in the narrative are lips. Hence seeing Tehran Taboo is something of a shock especially as the first scene shows a prostitute attempting to give a blow-job in the front seat of a car whilst her five-year-old son is sitting in the back.

The woman, Pari (Elmira Rafizadeh), is the character around which three narratives are woven: her attempts to look after her boy; a neighbour’s wife stifled by Islamic orthodoxy; a young would-be musician being conned into providing proof of virginity after a one-night stand. If the narrative around Pari seems to contradict her actions described in the first paragraph it is a tribute to the film that we understand that she has no choice but to do what she does. The hypocrisy of the ruling clerics is laid bare as is the stifling patriarchy that many women suffocate under.

As can be seen from the image, the film is rotoscoped: live action film is rendered as animation. Soozandeh explained he chose this method as he couldn’t film in Tehran and didn’t want to fake the city by shooting in Jordan. Hence, the animation’s lack of photo realism ensures that the representation of the setting is not compromised as it’s clearly not realist. The impact on the spectator is not unlike that of Waltz with Bashir, another serious rotoscoped film. However, unlike in the earlier film where the visuals conveyed the dreamlike memories of the protagonist, here it is obviously reality that is being rendered. The impact of this is to emphasise we are seeing what ‘shouldn’t’ (at least as defined by the censors in Iran) be seen: it’s both unreal and real. ‘Unreal’ because it is animated; ‘real’ because no doubt that such events depicted in the film happen.

This was Soozandeh’s debut feature; I look forward to the next one.

In the Fade (Aus dem Nichts, Germany-France, 2017)

Seeking justice

Writer-director Fatih Akin is probably known more for arthouse fare, such as The Edge of Heaven, however In the Fade is genre-based. That said it did play at Cannes and Diane Kruger won a well-deserved best actress award for her powerhouse performance. Generically it is a thriller, with a revenge narrative, but Akin doesn’t play the genre elements straight as the pacing, after the initial narrative explosion, is fairly slow as Kruger’s Katja comes to terms with her loss. The human element is as important as the genre’s urgency.

I usually find court room scenes the least interesting aspect of crime thrillers but here it was interesting to see how the German judicial system works. However Akin, through the reptilian performance of the defence lawyer Haberbeck by Johannes Krisch, possibly unbalances the presentation by suggesting the system is loaded against the victim. Of course it may be true but this is also a well-worn trope of Hollywood and often used to justify vigilantism such as that practised by the eponymous Dirty Harry (1971); Akin does not have such right-wing sympathies.

What makes In the Fade particularly interesting is the focus on generic elements that are usually glossed over in the desire for narrative pace; such as the protagonist’s grief noted above. There’s also a brief, telling exchange between Katja and one of the witnesses for the prosecution.

Spoiler alert: another key divergence from generic norms is the conclusion which is particularly bleak. As Katja is primed for vengeance she suddenly demurs and we sense a humanist, arthouse, conclusion about not reducing oneself to the level of the aggressors; here the neo-Nazis who have murdered Katja’s husband, of Kurdish extraction, and son. However, the film doesn’t leave it there.

Akin has said he was inspired by actual neo-Nazi attacks on ‘immigrant communities’ and how the police tended to focus on the immigrant group itself rather than right wing extremists. This proves to be a very minor part of the narrative as the focus is on Katja who is in virtually every scene; the police investigation happens offscreen. Hence the film becomes more about personal trauma (her relationship with her parents and in-laws is well-drawn) and so neglects the wider political implications. That would be a different film and one that may be more interesting.

The reason to watch the ridiculously titled In the Fade (it is called more appropriately Out of Nowhere in German) is Kruger’s performance coupled with the generic variations; it’s available on Netflix.

The Cotton Club (US, 1984)

The Mob

I remember walking out of a screening of The Cotton Club when it was first released, though that wasn’t entirely due to the film, and was surprised by actually how good the film is. I hadn’t noticed that director Francis Coppola had financed a ‘director’s cut’ (called ‘Encore’) that appeared last year, however it seems the version I’ve seen (on Talking Pictures) is the original version so that doesn’t explain the discrepant responses. Coppola made his name with the The Godfather (US, 1972) but, as the title suggests, The Cotton Club is more than a gangster movie. As the legendary venue in Harlem, that hosted Duke Ellington amongst others, in the pre-World War II period, it had a massive impact on popular music. Fascinatingly, what Coppola did, with his co-screenwriter William Kennedy (and story contribution from Mario Puzo), is make a hybrid musical-gangster film; two genres that, in terms of mood, are essentially polar opposites. Bugsy Malone (UK, 1976) did the same but it was a pastiche.

Even more interesting is the narrative which barely entwines the genre; it is, in effect, two films in one united by characters and location. Richard Gere’s Dixie is a cornet player (Gere showing his chops with some elan) who gets mixed up with James Remar’s Dutch Schultz, but much of the musical narrative centres on Gregory Hines’ Sandman who has nothing to do with the gangster and little to do with Dixie. This clearly spooked the financiers in 1984 as apparently many song and dance sequences were cut and the ‘black’ storyline, featuring Hines and Lonette McKee as Lila who can pass for white, severely downgraded. As is so often the case, in the re-edit the black characters were subservient to the white experience whereas (presumably) Coppola’s original, even though the lead was Gere, balanced the narratives much more.

The Musical

In the musical genre song and dance sequences usually serve to move the narrative forward by, for example, bringing together the romantic leads. In The Cotton Club they are shown for their own sake and hence slow the narrative’s momentum, something anathema to Classical Hollywood. But bloody hell aren’t they good; particularly the Hines’ brothers’ (above) routines! The Encore version doesn’t seem to be available in the UK but I’d love to see it.

Coppola was one of the most interesting directors of the 1970s and 1980s: in addition to the first two Godfather films (Part II, 1974), there was The Conversation (1974), Apocalypse Now(in several versions, originally 1979), One From the Heart (1981), Rumblefish (1983) and Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988). Ultimately he was too arty for the box office and his big imagination demanded big budgets. Maybe Christopher Nolan is today’s equivalent with grandiose, thoughtful films but Coppola worked in numerous genres giving greater variety to his work.

In the Fog (V tumane, Germany-Netherlands-Belarus-Russia-Latvia, 2012)

Everyone loses

It’s not surprising that the non-propaganda war films that came out of the Soviet Union, and come out of the former Soviet Union (in this instance Belarus), are particularly brutal in their representations. As The Unwomanly Face of War (1985) by Svetlana Alexievich details, the reality of war was virtually unimaginable depravity and, as the eastern European war was particularly a territorial battle, it was a fertile ground for ‘hell on earth’. British and American movies, at least, tend to emphasise heroism and, in the case of the former, contribute to the myth of British exceptionalism; a myth that’s been shown for what it’s worth during the current pandemic. Indeed, the recent VE day celebrations erased the Soviet contribution as if they had never been allies. The extreme right wing newspaper, the Daily Mail, even called the day ‘Victory over Europe’ somewhat ironic as, before the war, it was on the side of Hitler and no doubt would be today.

Director Sergey Loznitsa adapted Vasily Bykov’s novel which focuses on the consequences of an act of sabotage against the occupying Nazis. It was Loznitsa’s second film as director; he’s probably better known for Maidan (Ukraine-Netherlands, 2014) that documented the uprising in the Ukraine. In the Fog did compete for the Palmes d’Or at Cannes and although the tension sags occasionally it’s a fascinating film (available until May 23 on the Kino Klassika website).

The film’s narrative unveils itself through a series of flashbacks (although there is one scene that I cannot fit into the narrative at all; I must have missed something) that piece together how we come to the opening situation where Burov (Vladislav Abashin), a partisan, has come to punish Sushenya (Vladimir Svirskiy). This is preceded by a virtuoso long take, hand held camera through the village where the Nazis are staging an execution. The characters are taciturn, seemingly doing ‘what a man’s got to do’; what is striking about Alexievich’s book is how different the women she interviewed dealt with their war experiences compared to men who had sunk into silence. Sushenya, even though he does eventually explain what happened, knows that words are useless and he’s as trapped as Josef K is in The Trial.

Oleg Mutu’s cinematography captures to glorious beauty of the forest but I found the night time scenes less credible. Other than the uncinematic virtual darkness, night time in the countryside is incredibly hard to film; however, even taking that into account, I kept expecting to see an arc light appear in the scene: it was distracting.

That didn’t distract from the power of the film and its central metaphor: the fog of war. In Errol Morris’ documentary of that title (full title: The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara, US, 2003) the US Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War candidly explained his reasoning for the brutality of war. Whether you agreed with him or not probably depends upon your political orientation but the fog our protagonists deal with is not abstract, they are in it. In the UK, many on the right are telling teachers to ‘be brave’ and go back to school (Private Schools, which the elite attend, are shut until September): keyboard warriors happy to have others take the risk. In the Fog firmly places the spectator in the nightmare ensuring the film speaks to our emotions.

 

 

 

I vitelloni (Italy, 1953)

Art out of ordinary life

I vitelloni doesn’t have an English language title because it’s untranslatable. Wikipedia suggests The Bullocks or The Layabouts and the subtitles on this restored version (on MUBI UK) uses ‘young bucks’, which is appropriate. Five young lads are bored in Rimini (co-writer and director Frederico Fellini’s home town) and do what young lads do (probably) everywhere: dream of a better life through self-entitlement. It is also strikingly Italian: Fausto (Franco Fabrizzi) (a ‘ladies man’ in the terminology of the ’50s) is already 30-years of age and finds himself, at the start of the film, in a ‘shotgun’ wedding’; Alberto (Alberto Sordi) readily weeps about the grief his sister gives their mother.

Only the intermittent narrator, Moraldo (Franco Interlenghi), seems to have his head screwed on but even he lies to his sister (to whom Fausto is married) about his mate’s infidelities; though it’s clear the deception of his sibling is as much to protect her as his friend. Such was the sexual politics of the time.

Fellini’s start in cinema was as a scriptwriter for neo-realist classics Rome, Open City (Roma città aperta, 1945) and Paisan (Paisà, 1946). Neo-realism was over by the 1950s but the influence is still evident in this film in the ordinary settings and ordinary characters. However, Fellini’s master of camera placement, particularly in crowd scenes, scream artifice rather than the ‘slice of life’ evident in, for example, Bicycle Thieves. The ballroom scene, for example, is a consummate masterclass in shooting masses of people coherently. Weaker filmmakers would use a montage including extreme long shots of the dancing mob and medium shots of legs in movement and so on. Fellini, too, uses montage but also has the camera moving through the mass and managing to artfully frame the characters at the same time. The effect is to give energy the portrayal of the scene to show how much fun everyone is having.

Artfully composed

To describe shots as ‘poetic’ can be obfuscating, however the scene at the beach where the protagonists stare into the distance (image at top) has a melancholy that not even the characters seem to be particularly aware of. Hence it is poetic as the image has more to offer than what at first meets the eye. Similarly, the wind swept, littered, deserted squares (something of a characteristic of Fellini’s films) give a sense of desperation that has an existential edge; this was particularly the case in La Strada (1954), one of his most famous films, when Gelsomina (Giulietta Massina) is trying to escape from her ‘husband’.

The Company You Keep (US-Canada, 2012)

Old school

Robert Redford, Julie Christie, Susan Sarandon, Nick Nolte, Chris Cooper, Terrence Howard, Stanley Tucci, Richard Jenkins, Brendan Gleeson, Sam Elliott and youngsters Anna Kendrick, Shia LaBeouf and Brit Marling all in one film! It’s an extraordinary cast list and probably a tribute to Producer-Director Redford’s contact book. It’s the last film he’s made as a director and Christie’s last film appearance to date and a sense of retro pervades the film as it deals with politics in a way that harks back to ’70s films, such as Three Days of the Condor (1975). Given the age of the protagonists, Redford was in his mid-’70s, there’s also a valedictory tone as characters reminisce about their radical youth and what happened since.

Lem Dobbs’ screenplay, based on Neil Gordon’s novel, is adept at showing the inevitable disappointment of how the radicalism, of anti-Vietnam War protestors (specifically the Weather Underground – or Weathermen), ended in disappointment even though America eventually withdrew from South East Asia. If Reagan wasn’t enough in 1980s the repressive state of politics post-9/11 made it worse and this has even been topped by the ludicrous Trump. The narrative highlights complication of being a parent whilst trying to oppose the state which, given the bourgeois nature of the nuclear family, gives a reactionary feel to the resolution. However, given the nature of parenthood it is, at the same time, convincing. That’s a pretty neat trick to pull off as the film careers toward a ‘Hollywood’ ending (though the film was independently produced). If this paragraph doesn’t make sense that’s because I don’t want to include spoilers – the film’s available in the UK on BBC iPlayer for another 20 days.

The film is as interesting as much for its use of stars as its narrative. Usually I find cameo roles distracting as there’s disappointment that more isn’t seen of the actor, however here it works as it adds to the valedictory mood of the film. All of the named (LaBeouf aside whose bratty journalist I think is meant to be admired) are superb; Britt Marling even makes an impact when we are introduced to her character as a voice on the phone. Christie, drawing on her own radical past, is as luminous as ever and Sarandon does droll with a ferocity unequaled by any contemporary actor; LaBeouf in his scene with her is annihilated. Cooper, Gleeson and Elliot all exude gravitas; Tucci and Howard both signify professionalism; Jenkins’ conflicted lecturer and Nolte’s roguishness are effortlessly portrayed; Kendrick makes an impact with what little she is given and Redford’s Redford.

Ben Dickerson’s book Hollywood’s New Radicalism (IB Tauris, 2006) featured Sarandon on its cover and showed how films like Bamboozled (2000), Bulworth (1998), The Cradle Will Rock (1999), Erin Brokovich (2000), Bulworth (1998), and Mystic River (2003) all had interesting things to say. Hollywood’s gone pretty much mute now, though, to be fair, Adam McKay does try (The Big Short, 2015, and Vice, 2018); it’s probably that Hollywood rarely had much to say about politics and it’s only through the telescopic lens of history that there appeared to be loads of radical films at the turn of the century and in the New Hollywood era of the 1970s. Hence The Company You Keep is a pretty vital watch.

Let the Sunshine In (Un beau soleil intérieur, France-Belgium, 2017)

On the pull

A middle-aged woman, newly divorced, looking for a ‘second-time around’ romance from a female perspective; what’s not to like? Scripted by Christine Angot and Clair Denis (the latter directing), Let the Sunshine In could have been entitled ‘all men are arseholes’ except that would have pandered to the belief, held by some, that feminists are man-haters. Rather, with the exception of one (Marc played by Alex Dacas), the men are represented as self-centred egoists which is far from an unusual combination. As Xavier Beauvois’ Vincent says, “I’ve just got back from Brazil and fancied shagging you.”

At the centre of the film is Juliette Binoche’s Isabelle who is somewhat a victim of her completely human urges. The script is superbly written, often the conversations consist of fragmentary sentences the gaps of which are easy to fill in. All the time I felt like shouting at Isabelle to ‘leave him!’; ‘him’ being whichever man she was hoping to form a liaison with. Part of the difficulty of the film is that it is difficult to believe that men could be so stupid in the presence of such a sexy and talented (she’s an artist) woman but I guess that’s the point. Binoche may be the ‘sex siren’ of the moment for middle aged men who don’t covet young flesh.

The ending, which I won’t give away, is quite brilliant. Two stars of French cinema, Gerard Depardieu and Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi, suddenly make an appearance; the latter momentarily. The former plays a ‘fortune teller’ and Depardieu’s performance is quite sensational and you suddenly realise the undercurrent of what he’s saying. Indeed, much of the film is funny but the laugh appears after the event (well, it did for me) as it takes a while for the subtext of what’s just be said to sink in.

Isabelle is certainly not perfect as she repeats mistakes and acts against her better judgment; again a very human thing to do. That said, the milieux is specifically French where the bourgeois-intelligensia have an over-exaggerated opinion of themselves and the whole film can be seen as a send up of these people and a strand of French cinema that celebrates their lives. Denis, however, isn’t being vindictive, the fun she pokes is gentle except for one scene when Isabelle loses it with a pretentious land owner.

Apparently the film was made quickly when a project fell through and is loosely based on Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse.

 

The Deadly Affair (UK, 1967)

James Mason and Simone Signoret: where’s the glamour gone?

Coming two years after The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (UK), one of the best of many John le Carré adaptations, The Deadly Affair was a prestige production that wasn’t afraid to hit the downbeats essential to any portrayal of le Carré’s anti-hero Smiley (though the James Mason’s character is called Dobbs; Paramount had apparently copyrighted original). Unlike its predecessor, Smiley/Dobbs is the protagonist in The Deadly Affair, the title a double entendre about the suicide/murder that serves as the narrative disruption and the character’s strange relationship with his wife, Ann. She’s played by Harriet Andersson, made ‘famous’ in Bergman’s Summer with Monika (Sweden, 1953), and her casting was typical of British cinema of the time when female foreign actors were cast in sexually ‘loose’ roles.

As ever, Mason is brilliant; he moved from heart-throb roles, such as The Wicked Lady (UK, 1945), to a top Hollywood star, A Star is Born (1954), and a great Hitchcock villain in North by Northwest (1959), before returning to British cinema in the 1960s (see Georgy Girl). Contrast his dashing highwayman of 1945 with his sexually impotent Dobbs 20 years later and you see a fearless actor; similarly, Simone Signoret who was the sexy ‘other woman’ in Room At the Top (UK, 1959) here plays a concentration camp survivor that looks old beyond her years.

Grim is the tone of the film and so was its box office despite having an Astrud Gilberto song and a soundtrack written by Quincy Jones as well as the aforementioned stars. Cinematographer Freddie Young, according to Wikipedia, used a ‘technique of pre-exposing the colour film negative to a small, controlled amount of light (known as “flashing” or “pre-fogging”) in order to create a muted colour palette’; rarely has ‘Swinging London’ looked so glum. Director Sidney Lumet eschewed glamorous locations, except for the Serpentine Restaurant in Hyde Park, and stages the few action sequences superbly; Lumet had one of the more interesting careers in commercial cinema, he often looked beyond the box office.

The ending of the film is particularly good with its lack of sentiment. There’s humour too: Lynn Redgrave as a ditzy airhead and Harry Andrews forever snoozing whenever he sits down. One climactic scene is set during the performance of Marlowe’s Edward II, with David Warner on stage, in what looks like a particularly brutal RSC production by Peter Hall. The film was based on le Carré’s  first novel Call for the Dead (1961); I saw it on Talking Pictures.

Carry on Cabby (UK, 1963)

They don’t make them like this any more

It’s probably a good thing that such blatantly sexist films – see above – like this are not made anymore. Except, of course, the Carry On… films (1958-92) were not quite as straightforwardly reactionary as the poster suggests. For a start, the men are all pathetic, self-absorbed idiots; the competent gender is female. This is expressed in Cabby through Hattie Jacque’s character who, in umbrage at her husband’s (Sid James) attitude toward her, starts her own cab (taxi) business, in secret, and easily beats him at his own game. In comedies it’s relatively easy to dramatise such subversive representations as we’re obviously not meant to be taking it seriously however in order for the humour to work it has to draw upon generally recognised tropes; in other words, maybe men deep down knew their hubris was ridiculous. Talbot Rothwell’s script gives James lines that demonstrate his own stupidity in one sentence: he bemoans not knowing what his wife’s up to but refuses to ask her if she isn’t going to tell him without him having to ask.

A Bamforth postcard

The film’s poster isn’t a million miles away from the style of Bamforth’s smutty/bawdy postcards that drew on the Musical Tradition of double entendres and terrible puns. I’m not sure the Carry On… series’ style of humour has any purchase for today’s youngsters, or even those slightly older; how much is my enjoyment for them nostalgia or a funny bone trained by the films during my formative years? In writing about them John Hill suggested:

‘the earlier films… focus on… institutions which bear most heavily on working-class experiences… the ‘them’ and ‘us’ attitude characteristic of certain forms of working-class consciousness refers primarily to the experience of authority relations, especially petty officialdom.’ (Sex, Class and Realism: British Cinema 1956-1963, 142-3)

The series ran for over 30 films showing how popular it was with the mass audience, even whilst the latter was declining for cinema during the 1960s. It was a healthy antidote to the middle-class niceties of Anna Neagle (directed by Herbert Wilcox) but without the gritty realism of the new wave, which invariably featured working-class characters. In Cabby the conflict is not with officialdom and the gender wars, of course, are resolved in favour of men who get to act the heroes in a typical Carry On… ending which dramatises collective action. However, it is noticeable that the collectivism of trade unions is shown not to be desirable.

The key to the series’ success was the actors; in addition to the aforementioned, other regulars grace the film: Kenneth Connor, Jim Dale, Liz Fraser and Charles Hawtrey. The men’s attitude toward sex is puerile and apparently typically British, who seem to feel they could never compete with French eroticism, and I wonder to what extent the passionless, middle class, stiff upper lip attitude (evident in Neagle’s films for example) informed these representations. The censorship of anything sexually daring only started to loosen during the ’60s and it wasn’t until the mid-’80s that the industry (self-)regulator changed its name from British Board of Film Censors to British Board of Film Classification. In 1969 Carry on Camping brought female, topless nudity into the mainstream by starting the film with characters watching Nudist Paradise (UK, 1960); one of a number of ‘nudies’ that circumvented censorship by documenting, as opposed to dramatising, life on a nudist camp. If memory serves, Carry On Up the Khyber (1968) is the best of the films.