Sunday, April 23, 2006

#54: For All Mankind

For All Mankind, 1989, directed by Al Reinert.

In the "America in the 60's" montage that used to play in my head when someone mentioned the era, the moon landing got about five seconds. And you know exactly what five seconds they were; the blurry television feed we've all seen of Neil Armstrong dropping the last few feet to the moon's surface.

Altamont got more screen time than Neil, because Gimme Shelter isn't grainy video footage. But it turns out that the astronauts shot on film, too, and For All Mankind is Al Reinert's painstaking compilation of that footage. Here, for example, is a still from the movie of Alan Bean taking his first steps on the moon (during the second moon landing):

That's a little bit better looking, even with the lens flare, no? For All Mankind pretty definitively replaced that grainy footage of Armstrong with much stranger, much more haunting imagery.

Reinert's film is not a traditional documentary by any stretch of the imagination. The movie opens with the following titles:

During the four years between December 1968 and November 1972, there were nine manned flights to the Moon.

Twenty-four men made the journey. They were the first human beings to leave the planet Earth for another world.

This is the film they brought back...

...and these are their words.

That's all the context For All Mankind gives you; there's no stentorian narrator or subtitles identifying who or what you're seeing. Which is still not that strange for a documentary, although it's rare for a documentary about science, history, or both. In a typical vérité documentary, however, the filmmakers usually go for the appearance of unmediated reality; events in the order they actually happened. Reinert's movie isn't like that. Instead of presenting a history of the Apollo program, or profiles of the men who made it happen, his movie is a string of basically contextless images accompanied by sound from interviews with the (unidentified) Apollo astronauts. They've been edited together not in chronological order, but into a sort of composite moon mission, from liftoff to splashdown, that uses footage from all nine missions (and other missions entirely). So, for example, you might see a shot of the Apollo 17 astronauts boarding an elevator and cut to the Apollo 16 astronauts exiting the same elevator eight months earlier. I've never seen a documentary entirely like this one; it's not based on the facts so much as a subjective recreation of a moon mission.

Reinert's style has implications both good and bad. On the positive side of the scale, he is able to use the best possible shots of any stage of a moon mission he wants to show. On the negative side, jumping around in time means there's very little room for character. The astronauts blur into a kind of composite person, as do the NASA employees in Mission Control; there's very little human interest in the movie as a whole. What's strange is that I enjoyed it; my taste in documentaries usually runs to work that's exclusively human interest (Errol Morris, for example). I'll make an exception to that rule in the case of For All Mankind, because the footage Reinert uses is so strange and beautiful. For me, a lot of the pleasure of this movie came from the unexpected details, like the ice falling off the outside of the Saturn V rocket during launch.

In retrospect, it seems obvious that a rocket that carries vast quantities of liquid oxygen and hydrogen would quickly be covered with frozen condensation, but I hadn't put together what that would actually mean until I saw For All Mankind's footage of ice dropping from the rocket into the inferno beneath its engines.

Another obvious-in-retrospect detail is the way lighting works in a vacuum. On Earth, objects have a certain warmth that I guess comes from light hitting the never-wholly-transparent atmosphere. Which isn't something that's noticeable at all until you see film shot on the surface of the moon:

Look at the absolute blackness of the sky in contrast to the brightly-lit surface: this is lunar day. But there's nothing above the surface to diffuse the light, so the sky is pitch black. You can't really see the effect on video footage, but on film I found this combination of harsh sunlight and absolute darkness endlessly fascinating.

More familiar, but just as striking, are the film's images of earth from space. I think everyone's been overexposed to these images, but they're worth reconsidering anew. For example, look at the strange glow the clouds have here:

Perhaps part of the beauty I rediscovered in these images came from seeing them as motion footage instead of stills; perhaps it was Brian Eno's excellent score; perhaps it was seeing them in the context of what it took to bring this footage back. But I found myself moved by even old chestnuts like this shot of the earth (which I saw every day for a year; it was on the cover of one of my high school textbooks):

Part of it is certainly presentation; Reinert blew everything up from 16mm to 35mm, and corrected for camera jitter and film speed (it was shot with variable speed cameras, usually at speeds slower than 24 fps). None of these images have ever looked better. And some of them had never been seen before, as in the following two shots of rocket stages separating:

Now that's camerawork even Bruckheimer would have a difficult time recreating. As you can see, in the first shot the camera is outside the top part of the rocket—and in the second shot we're looking up from inside a lower stage as it begins spiraling back to earth. Which raises the question of how this could possibly have been shot; the answer is weirder than the footage itself. The cameras that shot this were designed to burn up on reentry, just like the rocket stages they were attached to, but not before they ejected their heat-shielded, parachute equipped film canisters. The exposed film was then caught in mid-air by C-130 transport planes dragging huge nets behind them. The idea was to let engineers study the film if anything went wrong with staging. Given the exceptional quality of these images, and the extraordinary effort required to bring them back to earth, it seems churlish to criticize Reinert for presenting them as though they are from a moon mission (they're actually from an unmanned Saturn V test flight, as he explains on the commentary).

In fact, For All Mankind is filled with footage that's not what it seems to be: the trans-lunar burn is actually reentry footage, all the spacewalk footage is from Gemini missions, and of course the moon-landing footage was shot on a sound stage in Arizona. Well, I'm just kidding about the last one (I think), but there are enough misrepresentations in the movie to give the people who pick apart Michael Moore's films years of work to do. Reinert points them out on the commentary track, as well as his reasons for using footage from other missions where he did. The spacewalk footage, for example, is from the Gemini missions because those rockets had larger windows (Reinert uses this point in the commentary to rail, amusingly, against the tiny windows on the Space Shuttle). The commentary is interesting, because it's obvious Reinart is remarkably unconcerned with accuracy (even going so far as to stage a shot of the moon through an Apollo command module window). His goal, instead, is to produce something much more subjective than a standard documentary. And that's what the subject demands; we've all seen enough photos from space that only a radical recontextualization like this film can command our attention.

So far, I've written about For All Mankind as though it was as arid and alien as the moon itself. This isn't entirely true. Reinert includes a lot of footage of Mission Control, and interesting human and period details creep in almost despite the way the film is cut. You do see the stereotypical NASA employees with crewcuts, looking sternly at monitors, as in a thousand movies:

But there are things about Mission Control that have somehow not made it into the collective unconscious. For one thing, everyone smokes. For another, the NASA dress code was a little more lax by the end of the program:

Coolest. Mission Control Guy. Ever. The footage of the astronauts themselves is less interesting; once you've seen one guy do a zero-g somersault you've pretty much seen them all. There's an interesting section about the music the astronauts took with them: Reinert includes Buck Owens and Merle Haggard on the soundtrack, with recordings that seem to have been made especially for the Apollo astronauts. Other than that, however, since the film gives you next to no information about the astronauts you're seeing, the sections inside the ship didn't do much for me. And unfortunately, the voiceover doesn't have a lot to recommend it either.

There's one exception, an account of a dream one of the astronauts had about finding a pair of astronaut doppelgängers on the moon, in identical space suits, who'd been there for thousands of years. Reinert pairs this with a particularly haunting cue from Brian Eno, and footage from a rover of the empty lunar surface. It's a moment where the whole film comes together, and you're forcefully hit with the weirdness of the whole thing. Nearly 40 years ago, we shot men in rockets to the moon. Then we stopped. Reinert tells you very little about why we did this. But with such a unique moment in human history, having a record of what it looked like is invaluable. That's what For All Mankind provides.


  • All was not fun and games for the bearded, long haired hippies running Mission Control, as this still chillingly reveals:

    Only a space program run by an ex-Nazi like von Braun would feed its employees Cremora.

  • For All Mankind has one of the weirdest special features ever: a gallery of astronaut Alan Bean's paintings of the space program. Here, for example, is a painting entitled "America's Team... We're #1":

    The DVD has no fewer than 24 of these paintings, each with audio commentary.

  • The DVD also features launch footage of each of the precursor rockets to the Saturn V. For the record, that's the Mercury Redstone, the Mercury Atlas, the Gemini Titan, and the Saturn 1B. My dad had models of all of these in his childhood room; I hadn't thought of them since I was eleven or twelve, but when I was little I used to love taking apart the stages of the Saturn V model. Not that that's of much interest to anyone but me.

  • There's just a little bit of the Apollo 13 near-disaster in For All Mankind, and like most of what you see, it's presented without context or explanation. Al Reinert returned to the topic later, however; he went on to write the screenplay for Apollo 13 (with William Broyles Jr., from Jim Lovell and Jeffery Kluger's book Lost Moon) .

  • For All Mankind is the second Criterion film to use NASA's actual Mission Control room as a location. Here's Mission Control launching men to the moon:

    And here's the same room launching Owen Wilson into the hearts of moviegoers everywhere:

    I'm not sure which mission accomplished more for humanity, but even with Michael Bay at the helm, Armageddon cost less.

Monday, April 10, 2006

#53: Sanjuro

Sanjuro, 1962, directed by Akira Kurosawa, screenplay by Ryuzo Kikushima, Akira Kurosawa, and Hideo Oguni, from the novel Peaceful Days, by Shugoro Yamamoto.

I don't envy anyone who works in film marketing. Most companies have years to build up a customer base and a brand. But a studio might sell fifteen different movies in a year, and the marketing department has to build an audience out of nothing for all of them. It's no wonder that sequels are popular with studios; most of the marketing work is already done for them. Since an audience that has some familiarity with the original film knows pretty much what they can expect from the sequel, advertising campaigns have less work to do. So it's rare that a sequel varies much in tone from the original movie; it's counterproductive. (For a recent example of why this is a bad idea, take a look at Son of the Mask). Sanjuro, the sequel to Yojimbo, is an exception to this rule. Yojimbo is a dark comedy; it has its moments of levity but you can still see its roots in hard-boiled fiction. Sanjuro, on the other hand, is nearly a straight comedy. The difference in tone comes from the fact that the sequel is an adaptation of a novel that had nothing to do with the original. Kurosawa had been working on an adaptation of Peaceful Days when Yojimbo succeeded—at the studio's request, he rewrote it with the Sanjuro character from Yojimbo at its center. It was released only eight months after the original; I don't know when the decision to make a sequel was made, but this must have been a very fast production. So it's not too surprising that some of the seams show.

The marketing department aren't the only people who can take shortcuts in the sequel. Because the audience already knows the characters (or in this case, the character), the filmmakers can spend less time on exposition. I wrote earlier about how the opening credits of Yojimbo go out of their way to impress viewers with Sanjuro's heroic stature. Kurosawa needed to do this work because for most of the rest of the movie, Sanjuro doesn't seem particularly heroic. In Sanjuro, however, the audience already knows Mifune's character, and is waiting for him to show up. So the movie opens in a way that would have been suicide if this were the first in the series: with a lengthy conversation, without context, between nine samurai about their local government's corruption. Four dull minutes later, Mifune swaggers out of the shadows behind them. The effect is something like a recurring character on a sitcom entering to canned audience applause.

In Yojimbo, a large part of the suspense was waiting for Sanjuro to start acting like a hero. In the sequel, Kurosawa doesn't spend any time on this; the movie opens with Sanjuro saving the life of the nine hapless samurais he's overheard. And when I say "hapless," I mean it:

They don't exactly project an air of competence. For the rest of the movie, Sanjuro does his best to keep these guys alive, despite their almost limitless ability to screw up. Where the comedy in Yojimbo came from Sanjuro's ruthlessness, Sanjuro depends on the physical humor that comes from these nine stooges. They move and react as a group, and a great deal of the movie's appeal rests on Sanjuro's reaction to their incompetence. That reaction is pretty well encapsulated in the following still, from their first surveillance mission:

Yes: they seem to cause him physical pain. Depending on whether you believe the subtitles in the film itself or in the trailer, he's either telling them that they can't walk around like a centipede, or criticizing them for following him like dung follows a goldfish. Either way, he's not happy. Another highlight is a mini-montage of Sanjuro trying to sleep while the samurai keep giving each other updates on the movements of their enemies. There are a lot of great reaction shots of Toshirô Mifune looking unhappy to have been awakened, but here's one of the best:

There's something about a hero that's not a morning person that's immediately appealing to me. At the end of that sequence, the samurai come up with a half-baked plan to capture their enemies; Sanjuro's response ("Not a good idea. But it may keep me awake.") is for the ages.

Sanjuro isn't just different in tone and structure from Yojimbo. In Yojimbo, Sanjuro is a little morally better than the men he is killing, but they all seem to operate from more or less the same position of ruthlessness. In Sanjuro, in contrast, the nine hapless samurai are very good at observing the formalities of honor, which is continually compared unfavorably to Sanjuro's slovenly appearance and rude behavior. Also, Sanjuro looks at least a little bit at the psychological cost the main character pays for his status as outcast. Here's Sanjuro's reaction to a group of prostitutes dancing from Yojimbo:

A still doesn't capture it, but alarm and distaste both come to mind. Compare that to the longing and curiosity he displays in Sanjuro, observing two women laughing with each other:

There's real pain there. What's more, in Sanjuro, Mifune's character genuinely regrets killing when he doesn't have to; he's furious when the incompetence of the samurai he's protecting means he has to slaughter a room full of guards (and the killing itself is treated differently—he's shown chasing down men hiding behind doors and whimpering). Compare that to the man who kills three gamblers without provocation as sort of a job interview in the first movie.

Strangely, most people seem to write about Sanjuro as though it were psychologically less interesting than Yojimbo. As best as I can tell, this stems from two things. First, the minor characters in Yojimbo are all morally compromised, whereas in Sanjuro there are several characters who are trying to do the right thing. But to this I would argue that all the characters except for Sanjuro himself are cartoons, in both films. So the movie where he has some doubts and regrets about the path he's chosen seems realer to me.

The second reason is something that has always driven me slightly mad about film criticism: the closer a movie is to a comedy, the less likely it is that critics will allow that it has anything of value to say about the human condition. Sanjuro is more lighthearted than Yojimbo; ergo Yojimbo is the better movie. To paraphrase Martin Amis, if a movie isn't funny, it must be serious. This has always struck me as ludicrous, but I can find no other explanation for people who believe that Crash is a more insightful movie than The 40-Year-Old Virgin. The difference between Sanjuro and Yojimbo isn't that great, of course. And Sanjuro has its own problems—the structure is just kind of one-thing-after-another, the nine samurai are completely indistinguishable, it's hard to keep track of the plots and counterplots. But Mifune's character seems more complicated and interesting to me in this film than in Yojimbo. And you can't ask much more from a quickie sequel.


  • As you can imagine, having nine samurai (ten, counting Sanjuro) on screen simultaneously poses unique problems of composition. Kurosawa always sets Sanjuro apart from the others; look how immediately your eye is drawn to Mifune in this shot, for example, just by making him face the other direction:

    You can also get a since from this shot of just how indistinguishable the nine samurai are; it's interesting to compare this to Seven Samurai, where Kurosawa makes a large group of characters unique and distinguishable. Of course, he takes two hours longer to do this, and the Sanjuro movies are really unconcerned with characters other than Sanjuro himself. In any event, if you're a cinematographer looking for unique ways to draw the eye to one person in a large group, this movie is worth studying carefully.

  • Given how important composition is in this film, it's incomprehensible to me why Criterion would crop the image. But they did. If you look at the still above where Mifune is followed by the other nine samurai in a line, you can see that part of his face is missing, and only eight of the other samurai are visible. I'm not certain that the ninth samurai is actually in the shot, but I am quite sure that they've botched the transfer. For one thing, the aspect ratio comes out to about 2.08:1, not 2.35:1. For another, take a look at these opening titles:

    I'm no expert in Kanji but it looks to me like parts of the image on the left and right are missing (the missing image on top and bottom is my own cropping error; black titles + black letterboxing = mistakes!). Of course, at the time they did the transfer, apparently the only available version was fullscreen, so it's definitely an improvement. But here's hoping Criterion redoes this transfer at some point in the future. (Update: They did).

  • And while I'm complaining about the quality of the DVD, its technical specs list it as Dolby Digital Mono, while the trailer promises "Perspecta Stereophonic Sound."

    Which is it, mono or stereo? (Update: It turns out it was a little of both. Perspecta was a mono-to-simulated-stereo system that went out of use in the states by 1957. You can read more about it here).

  • The trailer bears one earmark of a quickly thrown-together sequel: production footage instead of actual footage from the film. This would probably have been done when scenes had not yet been edited. I believe Kurosawa is the man in sunglasses in this shot.

    The crew's clothing is a little jarring behind the samurai garb in the foreground.

  • I won't spoil the surprise with a still, but watch for a shot of spurting blood that makes Tokyo Drifter look understated. Actually, it makes Dead Alive look understated.

  • Adapting a previously-written script to become a sequel is not as rare as you might imagine. The most recent example (which I have not seen) is Saw II, which was a script that had been turned down all over town for being too much like Saw, until the Monday after Saw opened. A few drafts later they were ready to shoot... and cinematic history was made!

Monday, April 03, 2006

#52: Yojimbo

Yojimbo, 1961, directed by Akira Kurosawa, written by Ryuzo Kikushima and Akira Kurosawa.

I've always had a sentimental affection for antiheroes, from Nic Cage's Yuri Orlov straight back to Milton's Satan. It's no surprise, then, that I enjoyed Yojimbo, Akira Kurosawa's skillful fusion of archetypes from gangster movies and Westerns. Toshirô Mifune plays Sanjuro, a samurai with no master, and from the first shot, you know he's going to be something of a Byronic hero.

Kurosawa follows him with the camera from behind all through the credits. He towers over the mountains! To gaze upon his face is to gaze into the abyss! And so on. By the time he turns around, he's gotten the heroic stature he'll keep throughout the film. Which is not to say he's a conventional hero. At the film's opening, he more or less randomly wanders into a town with, shall we say, something of a violence problem. Townspeople watch him walk down the main street from behind windows, but no one's outside. No one, that is, except for the happiest dog in the world, bounding down the street:

Yes, that's a human hand. And yes, David Lynch stole this for Wild at Heart. The great thing about the dog eating the hand is this: it's a joke. One person jokes about it briefly afterwards, but that's it. As far as I could tell, you never see whoever had their hand cut off. It seems Tarantino didn't completely invent referenceless violence.

In the samurai movies I've seen so far, where there's a town in trouble, bandits can't be far behind. Yojimbo is different; the town is tearing itself apart. There are two warring groups of criminals, and nearly everyone is associated with one or the other (the two exceptions are a man who runs a restaurant of sorts, and the coffin-maker). Rather than trying to save anyone from anything, Sanjuro sticks around because, as he puts it, "In this town, I'll get paid for killing. And this town is full of men who'd be better off dead." Then he gleefully plays both sides against each other for his own profit. You can see visually what he's up to here:

That's Sanjuro at the top of the tower, watching both sides preparing to kill each other (they don't--they're interrupted). And you can see how he feels about the prospect of observing this kind of slaughter in closeup:

He could be watching the best circus in the world. As you can see, he's not a hero in the Shane mold, the kind who's slow to rile, but uses violence when absolutely necessary. This is a man who introduces himself to the townspeople by killing three men for no good reason; he resorts to violence early and often, and he takes genuine pleasure in it.

Things go according to his plans for the first half of the movie (which is to say, both factions gear up to annihilate each other and offer him increasing amounts of money to side with them), until the unexpected arrival of Unosuke, a more valuable fighter than Yojimbo. See if you can figure out why he's such a terror on the battlefield:

I'm not sure why Unosuke has a sword as well as a revolver, but as you can see, Sanjuro's swords are outclassed. Is Unosuke an honorable fighter, there to remind Sanjuro of the ideals he betrayed by becoming a mercenary?

Not so much, it turns out. Unosuke complicates the balance of power, but he doesn't add any moral complexity. The rest of the movie more or less follows traditional stereotypes of the Western: Sanjuro, against his better judgement, helps out a poor family; this act of kindness leads to his capture and torture, until he escapes and takes on his enemies in a showdown in the town's main street. The difference here is that by the time Sanjuro defeats his enemies, everything of value in the town has been destroyed, and the population is down to three citizens, all old men (Sanjuro surveys the situation and says, "Now it'll be quiet in this town"). It works as a Western or a black comedy—take your pick. As Bowsley Crothers pointed out at the time (calling it a "forthright travesty"), the only thing it's not is a samurai movie; there's nothing Japanese about it except the cast and crew.

Yojimbo may be predictable, but a movie built around a Byronic hero like Sanjuro doesn't need to have a fresh plot to succeed. It just needs to make sure that its antihero is fun to watch. Toshirô Mifune's performance is truly exceptional, and saves the movie. He has a kind of lazy cool about him that owes more to gangster movies than Westerns. Check out his expression below: the man closest to him has just said, "Kill me, if you can!"

Mifune chews on his toothpick, looks at him with the "are you sure?" expression you see in the still, and deadpans, "It'll hurt..." The man draws his sword, Sanjuro shrugs his shoulders, remarks, "No cure for fools." Then he kills the man and two of his friends. And a new screenwriting cliché was born, the "action-hero-wisecrack-before-slaughtering-enemies" so beloved of the Die Hard movies. I suppose it's unfair to blame Kurosawa for John McClane (though it would make a great dissertation). Mifune's performance is such swaggering fun you can forgive Yojimbo its excesses, its cartoonish characters, its unlikely plot turns. The pleasures this film has to offer are all on the surface; no one will ever call it insightful or penetrating. But if you're willing to spend a few hours coasting on the surface of things, you could do worse than watching Toshirô Mifune destroy a town for fun and profit.


  • Donald Ritchie believes this is the best photographed of all of Kurosawa's films. There are a lot of striking compositions, most having to do with objects in both foreground and background. Here's a shot that struck me: the head of one of the warring factions, his wife, and their son are arguing. Look how claustrophobic he makes the normally expansive 2.35:1 frame here.

    The cinematography is by Kazuo Miyagawa, who also shot Rashomon.

  • While we're on the subject of Miyagawa, his C.V. includes a movie called Zatôichi to Yôjinbô (Zatôichi Meets Yojimbo), which would appear to be in the tradition of the Godzilla movies (or the Abbott and Costello ones, for that matter), pairing heroes from past films. Toshirô Mifune apparently reprises his role from the original Yojimbo, although this time his character is named "Sassa" instead of Sanjuro. Zatôichi, by the way, was a blind swordsman played by Shintarô Katsu in at least 25 films and a television series. It sounds pretty shameless—has anyone seen it?

  • It's not unusual for a trailer to have footage that doesn't end up in the final film; trailers are usually cut before the film is locked. But the trailer for Yojimbo seems to have footage from a complete alternate version of the final scene. In the finished film, Sanjuro faces off against all the surviving bad guys, who approach him in a large group:

    But in the trailer, the same footage of Toshirô Mifune is paired with shots of Tatsuya Nakadai approaching alone, like this:

    This makes it appear that the final standoff is a one-on-one contest between Sanjuro and Unosuke. And the trailer ends with this Great Train Robbery shot, which I also don't remember being in the final film:

    It looks like Kurosawa shot an alternate version of the final fight—and I can only imagine he did it exclusively for the trailer, since it wouldn't make sense to have Unosuke alone in this scene.

  • Yojimbo has pretty culturally varied ancestors and progeny. Kurosawa was supposedly inspired by Red Harvest, a Dashiell Hammet novel in which the Sanjuro character is a detective playing gangs off each other. Kurosawa set it in Japan, Sergio Leone set it in the west (as A Fistfull of Dollars) and Walter Hill set it back in gangland territory for New Line Cinema's Last Man Standing. Apparently there's something about setting up evil people to kill each other that transcends cultural differences.