Monday, November 29, 2004

#2: Seven Samurai


So, after a long delay thanks to Netflix sending me the wrong version, I've finally seen Seven Samurai (1954, dir. Akira Kurosawa, written by Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, and Hideo Oguni). If you're a language purist, you can call it Shichinin no samurai, or for real deal insane purists, 七人の侍.

I've got a sordid past with this movie, actually. In fall of 1997 I took The Feature Film at Williams, which was a great class, despite being a gigantic lecture-type thing. Jim Shepard, Shawn Rosenheim, and Stephen Tifft taught it; they were great, the class was great, and what interest I have in film these days has a lot to do with that experience. If you'd like a taste of the class, here's Jim Shepard's review of Analyze This, which ends up being more or less about The Godfather and Goodfellas. I think he wrote a more recent essay about those movies in The Believer but I don't have that issue. Anyway, point is, these guys were solid; I never missed a lecture. For me to be up in the morning that fall was no small feat. So. As I recall, screenings of movies were Monday nights at 7:00 and 9:00, class was Tuesday & Thursday mornings, and we did a movie a week. Being the kind of slackass I am, I pretty much only made the 9:00 screenings. When Seven Samurai was showing, I came, as always, to the 9:00 screening. I was there a few minutes after 9:00, and the movie had already started. So I sat down and watched an hour and a half long movie about samurai. I didn't think Kurosawa did a great job developing the characters, but I enjoyed it. The next day in lecture, we watched a clip, which I'd never seen, and which was far too long to have been shown between 9:00 and 9:05. So I did a little research on the web and realized there'd only been a 7:00 showing; I'd been two hours late and had no idea. Point is, this is a long, long movie, a solid 207 minutes. So be prepared for that.

That said, watch it in one sitting, it's great. The movie suffers a little from the sense of belatedness that I talked about when writing about Grand Illusion, and I want to revise my comments there. I mean belatedness in the "arriving too late at the party to appreciate the innovations in the movie since I've seen them revised and improved upon since then" sense, if that is, in fact, a sense. For non-English majors, the English major sense of the word is "having arrived too late on the historical scene, at the end of a Western modernity that had completely mapped out the landscape in advance." Not my definition (stole it from here), but it's pretty good. It's usually a synonym for "why I can't finish my novel." Point is: when writing about Grand Illusion, I implied that belatedness was mostly a problem for technical innovations, and now I see that isn't true; narrative innovations suffer from it too. And I guess I mean narrative innovations in the sense of "plot points," not storytelling techniques. Seven Samurai has been ripped off more times than I can count. It's about a group of villagers in midieval Japan who hire a group of Samurai (one guess how many) to protect them from a roving gang of bandits. The first half of the movie covers hiring the bandits and building defenses around the village; the second half is all about the attack. There are entire scenes that have been lifted out of this movie into others; the whole sequence where the ragtag band of Samurai are recruited is in heist movies, escape movies, defend the village from the bandits movies, and so on and so forth. The samurai themselves have been put in other movies; there's:

  • Kikuchiyo: The wild and crazy guy who doesn't seem to have the discipline to be a samurai at first. Desparate to prove himself worthy. Has a mysterious past.
  • Kambei: The wise, older samurai who leads the group. He has a great sense of the absurd and tragic, but perserveres.
  • Heihachi: The guy who can always be counted on to make a good natured joke and brighten the mood when things seem hopeless.
  • Katsushiro: Rich, young, inexperienced, over-eager, he proves himself in the end

And so on. These characters have shown up in some version or other again and again and again. Kurosawa didn't invent these characters, but if you take any movie that features a motley gang facing impossible odds, from The Usual Suspects to Hard Ball (that's right, I said Hard Ball), you'll see these guys show up. And as Hard Ball taught us all, the most important thing in life is showing up.* Kurosawa does these characters better than most other people, but I've seen them before. So don't expect many narrative surprises from this movie.

The acting is solid straight through. Toshirô Mifune is a whole lot of fun as Kikuchiyo; he takes an insane amount of glee in causing chaos. There's a great sequence where he goes behind enemy lines to steal one of the bandits' three matchlock rifles. Kikuchiyo kills a bandit, wears his clothes, sits happily down next to another bandit on guard, who thinks he's one of them. The bandit says something about what a rough time they're having and Kikuchiyo says something along the lines of "Don't worry. Your suffering will soon be over." They have a whole conversation like that, and finally the bandit realizes what's up just in time to be gutted. It doesn't sound as funny as it actually is. Also, throughout the whole movie he torments Yohei, one of the most feckless of the feckless villagers, and his imitation of him is priceless. I'd like to see Mifune in other movies; I'm not sure if any of his other films are part of the collection.. Looking at his credits, I see he was cast as Admiral Yamamoto no fewer than four times; did he resemble him physically or was he just the go-to guy for Yamamoto impersonations?

The DVD includes the intermission, which has an overture. It's a nice touch. It reminded me of a question I've had for a while that isn't related to Seven Samurai. In Italy, movies are always shown with an intermission. Even if there's no break, they have a slight pause in the middle, and sometimes they break for as long as ten minutes. This is true when movies are broadcast on television as well; there's a break (and that's where they run commercials, about five minutes worth, but the rest of the movie is uninterrupted, which is much nicer than every fifteen minutes). Anyway, when I asked about it, I was told that the break in the middle was for a reel change. But reels of film are much shorter than 45 minutes to an hour, on any projector I've seen, and if they're using platters, they shouldn't need to change reels at all. So what gives? Are Italian movies projected on platters or with five or six reels like American ones? I thought projector designs were pretty standard internationally. Is the intermission just a tradition there? The break is actually on the films, it's not like they stop it arbitrarily; there's a title that comes up announcing the first part of the film is over. If anyone knows the answer to this, please let me know, cause I've wondered about it for years.

Back to Seven Samurai, random notes and observations.

  • Seeing the word "Sheeyit" in a subtitle (spelled like that) is an interesting experience.
  • Kurosawa does this thing where he cuts onn an action, e.g., you see Kambei draw his sword in a shot from behind and halfway through drawing it, you cut to a shot facing him and he charges toward the camera. I'm mostly interested in screenplays right now but if I ever start editing film that's a trick I'm going to remember, cause it makes the action seem very fast.
  • I've never seen a movie with more detailed tactical information about the critical battle. You're walked through every step of defending the village and really know all the weak points. I could draw a map of the village. The sequence where Kambei plans the defenses and simultaneously shows you each part of the village is really genius: it gets an incredible amount of information across but every scene in that sequence advances the plot; it's not exposition.
  • That said, the longer the battle for the village goes on, the more the tactics fall apart, and the end is just this giant mess of a battle. In pouring rain, which just makes it messier.
  • Kambei knows how many bandits there are, and he has a drawing with a circle for each one. Every time they kill one, he crosses out a circle. It's a really nice visual, and it also lets the audience know exactly where we are in the battle. The DVD menu mimics this: there's a circle for each menu item and you move a cross from circle to circle to select things. It's a very nice design job.

That's all for this one. The 400 Blows is going to have to wait until I can borrow the Criterion Collection edition from my friend Chad Shonk. So next will probably be A Night To Remember. Non-Criterion Collection recommendations: The Incredibles, Maria Full of Grace, and Final Destination 2. The last one less than the first two.

*N.B.: I don't actually like Hard Ball.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

#4: Amarcord

Amarcord (1974, dir. Federico Fellini, written by Federico Fellini & Tonino Guerra). This is a movie I've had the opportunity to see in the past and I didn't do it, pretty much strictly because of the graphic design on the poster—the seventies were not kind, as far as fonts go. Anyway, I guess I figured Fellini was right on the edge of being completely self-indulgent in , and I couldn't imagine he got more restrained in his old age. I was wrong, though; this is worth seeing.

Or at least it was worth seeing for me. I'm a sucker for Italian movies; I lived in L'Aquila from 1994–1995, and I miss the country and the language something fierce. So seeing anything shot there is nice for me; I always see something I'd forgotten about. In this movie, it was the obituary posters that people put up on city walls when someone dies. It took me a long time when I got over there to figure out what those were about; being American I figured they were ads, until I read enough Italian to put it together. I also really enjoy hearing the language again. It takes me about twenty minutes to reacclimate myself to it, and then I can understand it again. But back on point:

"Amarcord" is a dialect contraction of "mi ricordo," which means "I remember." Actually, looking at it, the dialect is probably from "a me, mi ricordo," which is the same thing, only even more reflexive. Gotta love Italian. The movie is pretty formless; it covers a year, from spring to spring; towards the end, there's a scene with a banner reading "VII Mille Miglia," which would be April 1933 (thanks, Google!). So let's say it's spring to spring, 1932–1933. Anyway, it's basically a year in the life of an Italian town at that time; there's a teenage protagonist who is in many of the scenes, but not all by a long shot, and although the plot mostly revolves around his family, it's pretty much just one damn thing after another; there's not much progression. I guess that is part of the point with a memory piece like that, though. This would be about ten years into Mussolini's rule, and the war that's on its way kind of hangs over the movie; it's never really mentioned explicitly, but you're always very aware that you're looking at a world that is now gone. The closest thing to it I can think of in terms of tone is In the Mood for Love, although that has a little more of a story (but is also more boring; go figure). Anyway. Fellini being Fellini, there are a lot of abrupt fantasy sequences, some of which are hilarious (e.g., there's a wedding between a fat kid and a cute girl his age, presided over by a gigantic (and really frightening) billboard of Mussolini's disembodied head). Scene for scene, it's pretty entertaining, which is often all I ask of a movie. But I wouldn't want to read the screenplay.

So why give a recommend to a movie with no plot? Cinematography, cinematography, cinematography. Giuseppe Rotunno shot this movie, and it's beautiful. He's worked on just about everything, although his most recent American work is, well, I don't know; maybe it's beautifully shot too, but I'm not going to watch the movies and find out: he did Regarding Henry, Wolf, and the 1995 version of Sabrina. But Amarcord is one of those very painterly 70s films. My roommate says it was probably done with Technicolor's "imbibition" process, a dye transfer that produced really rich colors. The Godfather, Part II was developed with that process, so if you think of the visual tone of that, you've got what Amarcord looks like: very rich yellows, and the whole screen kind of glows; it looks like everything was shot right as the sun went down.. Grab just about any still from this movie and it will look good. I'm not usually a nut for cinematography, and I'm much less of one now than I used to be, but man did Giuseppe Rotunno nail this.

Last thing: Fellini: not a fan of the Twiggy-style woman. And very much into the ass. I knew that from , but he really goes overboard in this one.

Monday, November 08, 2004

#3: The Lady Vanishes


Seven Samurai will unfortunately have to wait: Netflix sent me a different, non-Criterion edition (a real Japanese edition, from the looks of it). Oddly, the sleeve still said "The Criterion Collection," so I think that someone has been taking the Criterion editions and replacing them with cheaper editions of the same movies. So:

The Lady Vanishes (1938, dir. Alfred Hitchcock, screenplay by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder from a novel by Ethel Lina White). This is a weird one: it starts as a comedy, turns into a thriller and ends up an action movie, albeit an early, pre special-effects and choreography action movie. The beginning is genuinely funny and the suspense part is genuinely creepy, but the end is kind of a drag. Margaret Lockwood stars as Iris, a young woman returning from a central European country to England to get married. Michael Redgrave is a music theorist; they're taking the same train back. Dame May Witty plays Mrs. Froy, the Lady in the title. As you might have guessed, at a certain point in the movie, she vanishes.

You could never get away with the structure of this movie if you were writing it today: the first twenty-three minutes are straight comedy, with a crazy ethnic hotelier, a pair of cricket-obsessed Englishmen, a hotel room full of scantily clad (well, for 1938) women, and lots of slapstick. Nothing even vaguely ominous or suspenseful happens until this long comedy section is finished: I can't imagine a script reader making it far enough to realize that this wasn't a comedy. And what McKee would call the "inciting incident" doesn't happen until later, at least thirty-five minutes in. Not to say that the beginning isn't funny: it is. Margaret Lockwood and Mrs. Froy hear odd banging noises from the room above them and send the hotel manager up to get the guest up there to shut up: he enters to find Michael Redgrave lying in bed loudly playing a clarinet while four elderly natives of the country perform a peasant dance with lots of stomping and clapping. He keeps stopping them to take notes (he's working on a book about native dances or something). Anyway, the scene is exactly what you expect is going on when people a floor up are making weird noises.

Once Mrs. Froy disappears, the movie really takes off. Iris takes a nap on a train; when she goes to sleep, Mrs. Froy is in the seat facing her. When she awakens, Froy is gone, and everyone on the train denies ever having seen her. It's creepy, and the other people on the train are all really grotesque. There's an Italian magician named Doppo who has this very threatening grin all the time, a bride-of-frankenstein looking Baroness who's always looking disapprovingly, a brain surgeon from Prague who has kind of a Dracula look about him; none of them are travelling companions you'd want. After Margaret Lockwood has been searching for Mrs. Froy a while, she reappears in the same sleeper car. Only it's not her, it's a woman who looks nothing like her. You see her first from behind annd she looks like the missing woman. The shot of her turning toward the camera is really striking; it's Freud's uncanny in action. There's also a really bizarre sequence where Mrs. F's face is superimposed on the face of the other people in the sleeper car.

Once the mystery is solved, there's a long, pretty much unnecessary sequence with a shoot-out and a train / automobile chase. It goes on too long and it doesn't really add anything. As train chases go, it's much worse than The General. All the major plot stuff has been resolved by this point. There are a lot of surprises and reversals until this sequence but this part is just straightforward. According to the commentary, this section was added by the screenwriters at Hitchcock's request. Maybe he really, really wanted to shoot something with trains and the production had some money left over; along with the comic opening, this part is really strange structurally.

The last weird thing about this movie from a plot perspective: nothing bad happens to the villians, which is really a shame; they're not exactly complicated characters, so they don't need a big realization of what they've done. But you would expect at least Paul Lukas's brain surgeon to meet some terrible fate: he really is a great villian and the story just kind of drops him. Everyone escapes, but that's it. Also, the bad guys are really terrible shots.

Despite the slow opening and unnecessary action ending, the movie's worth seeing for the middle part, which is ace suspense. I'd recommend steering clear of the DVD extras, though. There's a terrible demonstration of the restoration work, which (a) they didn't do a very good job on; there are a lot of visible hairs and scratches on this version and (b) the demo itself is terrible; it's just four sequences played in gradual faster motion, with no explanation of how the work is done, what print they were working from, or anything. The commentary is all right, but focuses more on the careers of the various people involved in the project than on the actual movie that's showing. Which is really all I'm interested in.

Final note: Margaret Lockwood and Linden Travers: stone cold foxes.