Sunday, January 30, 2005

#14: Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto

Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto, 1954, directed by Hiroshi Inagaki, screenplay by Hiroshi Inagaki and Tokuhei Wakao, from a play by Hideji Hojo, from a novel by Eiji Yoshikawa. That's my best guess at the writing credits; the novel predates the play, and although Hideji Hojo isn't credited in any of the essays I read about this movie, he is listed on the IMDB. The title is also kind of a best guess; that's the title the Criterion Collection gives the movie. The main character's name is Miyamoto Musashi; Miyamoto is his first name and Musashi is his family name (actually, the name in its entirety is an adopted one; Musashi is the name of his hometown). Anyway, for the sake of clarity, I'm going to use first name followed by last name for actors and characters; that's what the IMDB does.

Miyamoto Musashi. He was a historical character, and is featured in a number of Japanese movies; see here and here. A little bit about two of those movies: first, the 1954 version was not the first time Hiroshi Inagaki directed this movie—he also made a movie called Miyamoto Musashi, based on the same Eiji Yoshikawa novel, in 1940. Furthermore, like the 1954 version, it was the first part of a trilogy, all based on the novel. Unfortunately, it no longer exists; for some reason, the Japanese didn't keep prints of too many of their movies from 1940–1945. I can understand remaking a single movie, especially if the original is lost. So the point is that Hiroshi Inagaki was well prepared to make the 1954 version of Musashi Miyamoto, as he'd already done it 14 years earlier.1 The second point is that it's a mistake to call it "the 1954 version," because a rival studio made another movie called Musashi Miyamoto in 1954; it wasn't based on the novel but it was about the same character. Even more confusing, Rentaro Mikuni plays Miyamoto's friend Matahachi in Hiroshi Inagaki's movie. In the other Musashi Miyamoto, he plays Miyamoto himself. So he had leading roles, in the same year, of two movies about the same character and historical events.

So about that character, and those historical events. Toshirô Mifune (from Seven Samurai, and about eight billion other movies) plays Takezo, a crazy mixed-up kid in a Japanese villiage in 1600. At the time, Japan was in the middle of a vicious civil war. Takezo convinces his friend Matahachi that they should seek their fortunes in war; Matahachi abandons Otsu, his fiancé, to do so. The two friends promptly end up on the losing side of the battle of Sekigahara, an abattoir in which 70,000 people were killed. But not our two heroes; they escape and are nursed back to health by a mother and her daughter. Their paths diverge when Oko, the mother, is rejected by Miyamoto and lies about it. The movie follows Takezo from here on; he tries to return home to tell Otsu that Matahachi is still alive, but after a run-in with some border guards, he is hunted down, captured, nearly executed, escapes, falls in love with Otsu, undergoes three years of spiritual training at the hands of Takuan, a Buddhist monk, adopts the name Miyamoto Musashi, abandons Otsu, and marches off into the sunset. As you can guess, there's a whole lot of plot in this movie; it packs a lot into 90 minutes. It's very clearly the first movie of a series; the end of the film is a setup for further adventures, and a lot of storylines have just begun. I haven't seen the second or third movie yet, so I don't know what's going to happen. But I want to find out, which is a good sign; I was kind of dreading watching the first one of these, because I have all three; if I didn't like the first one, having the next two staring at me accusingly from the shelf would be bad news.

The cinematography is beautiful some of the time; they shot on Eastmancolor and got these amazingly vivid greens. I've never been to Japan but that's my impression of it: green. On the other hand, they did a lot of day-for-night shooting and the blues turned out really muddy. So it's a mixed bag.

Two great lines of dialogue. Matahachi says to Otsu, apropos of nothing, "You are engaged to marry me, aren't you?" Worst. Expository dialogue. Ever. Again, Matahachi, when attacked by brigands, gives the courageous battle call: "Do not touch the women! We can talk!"

Two things that show up in this movie and Seven Samurai: country folk who make a living stripping armor and weapons from the corpses of dead samurai, and peasant armies with bamboo poles. You never see anyone sucessfully kill, wound, or even annoy anyone with a bamboo pole in these movies, but when a village is in trouble, they all load up on bamboo poles.

The movie's in Academy Standard format, so it fits neatly on a TV screen. One shot in the movie made me think about how few directors really use the space that format gives you: there is one shot of Takezo, hanging from a tree (he's been captured), talking to Takuan who is standing on the ground. Takezo is about 20 feet in the air, and the shot is composed so that both bodies are fully visible; it's a very vertical composition, which is something you almost never see. Obviously you couldn't do that on a 1.85:1 frame; and I guess most things are shot that way now; but you'd think I would have seen this kind of composition more often in older movies..

That's all about this one; I'm looking forward to seeing the next two.

1The Japanese make the same movies over and over again a lot: Takeshi Shimizu directed Ju-on as a made-for-TV-movie in 2000, then remade it as a feature called Ju-on: The Grudge in 2003, then remade it again, in English, as The Grudge, in 2004. He also made Ju-on 2 for TV in 2000, Ju-on: The Grudge 2 as a feature in 2003, and is in pre-production on both The Grudge 2 (in English) and Ju-on: The Grudge 3 (in Japanese). This guy must love those characters.

Friday, January 28, 2005

#11: The Seventh Seal

The Seventh Seal, 1957, written and directed by Ingmar Bergman. So, as the day fades into a long, suicide-filled Scandinavian night, Ingmar Bergman sits down to write another screenplay. This movie has its moments, but for the most part did very little for me. It's the story of a thirteenth-century Crusader who challenges Death to a game of chess. He does this for two reasons: first of all, he is questioning his faith and wants to try to find some definitive answers about God's existence before walking off into the dying of the light. Second, he hopes to be able to achieve one last significant action before dying. He succeeds in the second goal by saving the lives of a husband and wife team of actors and their baby son. The first, however, is hopeless.

The plot of the movie barely hangs together; the movie exists more as a philosophical exploration than any real narrative. The problem with this is that I don't think film is a very good medium for philosophical inquiry, except in very indirect ways. Peter Cowie, in his commentary track, talks a lot about what it meant for him to see this movie when it came out, after spending his childhood watching Tarzan movies. So I think again that this is a movie that you kind of had to see when it came out to get the full effect. There's something to be said for being the first person to just plunge right in to big philosophical questions, I guess, but a lot of the dialogue seemed very stilted, unnatural, and even trite. That's a little harsh; there are a few sections that transcend the rest of it (and here I'm speaking simply of the dialogue, not the images, which are great, and of which more later). One example would be shortly after the knight mistakenly reveals part of his strategy to Death; it's a low point for him, but as Death leaves him, he says:

This is my hand. I can move it. Feel the blood pulsing through it. The sun is still high in the sky and I, Antonius Block, am playing chess with Death.

Which is better when read by Max von Sydow, but even on the page, not a bad statement of our situation. A lot of the other writing is pretty turgid, though:

I want to confess as best I can, but my heart is void. The void is a mirror. I see my face and feel loathing and horror. My indifference to men has shut me out. I live now in a world of ghosts, a prisoner in my dreams.
That's the most vague quote I could find online but believe me, there are much worse in the movie itself. The movie also switches between very earnest philosophical exploarations and earthy humor. The knight has a squire who's a dreadful cynic, and most of his scenes are comic. I didn't find them all that funny; Death was really the only character who consistently made me laugh. His jokes are very dry and very malicious. Right up my alley.

The cinematography, lighting, and costume design in this movie are great, not because they're particularly technically amazing, but because taken together, they create a number of images that get burned into your skull. Death, as played by Bengt Ekerot, is the best of the lot; he's not on screen much (maybe fifteen minutes out of the movie) but he's what everyone remembers. Unfortunately, he's also what everyone rips off, so I'd seen twenty watered-down versions of this role before seeing the original. (Best derivative version: right here). Monty Python also rip this movie off a lot, both in Monty Python and the Holy Grail and The Meaning of Life. In fact, part of the fun of seeing this is watching for scenes and characters that have shown up elsewhere; it's pretty clear this movie had a huge impact on a lot of creative people.

One other thing about this movie. I think Ingmar Bergman would have been the greatest horror director ever if he'd gone in that direction. The last reveal shot of Death is a good example; it's a very long shot of six people sitting at a table. As the camera tracks back, slowly each one of them notices something out of camera range and looks toward it. After an agonizingly long time, he cuts to Death standing in the doorway. It's not really played that way, but it's the classic horror movie reaction shot.

My thoughts about this were confirmed when I watched the Illustrated Filmography that's included on the Criterion edition; it includes excerpts from Wild Strawberries and The Magician. There's a dream sequence in Wild Strawberries that is scarier than anything I've seen in a very long time; it has all the right creepy, memorable touches. Clocks without hands, a horse-drawn hearse, a man with his face swollen into something grotesque (the only similar thing I can think of is the torturer's masks in Brazil). Best of all, he nails the awful sense of wrongness you get in the worst nightmares. It's rare that a movie taps into that kind of dread (The Ring did that, for me). The five minutes or so of Wild Strawberries I saw did that better and more economically than any other movie I've seen. That small part of a DVD extra made the whole experience worthwhile for me.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

#10: Walkabout

Walkabout, 1971, dir. Nicholas Roeg, screenplay by Edward Bond from a novel by James Vance Marshall. Sometimes a writer or a director will think they're making one movie but will end up making something quite different. On first viewing, Walkabout is a simple enough story: a brother and sister are stranded in the middle of the Australian outback; they meet an Aborigine boy who helps them find their way back to civilization. In fact, the surface story is all right, but it's very much of its time: the Aborigine is preternaturally good and noble, the opening scenes of civilization (set in Adelaide, I think), are mind-bogglingly stultifying, &c. &c. Guess which Aborigine is forever scarred and destroyed through his contact with Western society? But, as Roger Ebert has noted, the surface story is not what sticks with you; there are deeper things going on here which are more subtle.

Jenny Agutter plays the sister; she was probably 16 at the time of the shoot. In the commentary track, she says of her character, "the things that she requires are the things that her society has set up for her." I think that's very true and pretty insightful; society works by setting up needs and desires and then fulfilling them. If you have lived long enough to have gotten the jones for things like a house, a job, a spouse, it's pretty much impossible to imagine leaving the confines of the society that can provide those things for you. So when Jenny Agutter meets David Gulpilil, the Aborigine, she isn't really interested in him except to the extent he can get her back to the things she needs. Her younger brother (about 6) is more flexible, and doesn't yet have expectations. Jenny Agutter's characther isn't bad, or callous, or "the corrupting influence of modern society" or whatever; in fact, she behaves heroically in saving her brother. She is just profoundly uninterested in Gulpilil's society, and that proves to be his undoing. Strangely enough, the Aborigine does seem interested in the brother and sister. You can check out Ebert's essay for a more eloquent explanation of the failures of communication in this movie; suffice it to say that I think he's right, and the more I think about Walkabout, the righter I think he is.

A few notes and random observations about the movie:

In the opening scenes, Jenny Agutter serves fruit from a mixing bowl that my mom had: it's a bright red plastic bowl with a handle and a very broad spout. I think she threw it away years ago; it must have been a pretty common model at the time. I only mention this to note that household items like that are not important at all until you see one of them years later; then the tiniest, stupidest thing can spark all sorts of memories.

This is not a film to watch if you're squeamish about blood or dead animals. There are lots and lots of hunting scenes, all of them graphic. The most heavyhanded intercutting in the whole movie takes place during a scene where the Aborigine spears, dresses, and cooks a kangaroo: the whole (extremely bloody) process is intercut with a butcher cutting chops. It's a connection everyone in the theater can make without having it pounded into their heads. And it's one of the things in the movie that has dated; my first reaction was "A butcher! I've been looking all over LA for years for a good butcher!"

When Jenny Agutter first became interested in appearing with the film, it was going to be financed by Apple Corp. (the Beatles' company). As it turns out, she saw appearing in the movie as a necessary stepping stone to meeting the Beatles.

The movie was shot over four months, and they didn't do any location scouting or rehearsal, just went out to the desert and started filming. Try finding someone to produce a movie today under those terms. Furthermore, a wombat chewed through the wires on a bunch of the film equipment, and Jenny Agutter buried her 6-year-old co-star to his neck in the sand while on lunch break one day. The impression I got from her commentary was that she should probably have been better supervised.

The score is by John Barry, who you might remember from such stuck-in-your-head-forever pieces of music as the James Bond theme.

The last thing is something I've been wondering about for a while. On the commentary track, Nicholas Roeg says something really interesting about the way he uses flashbacks. He says he hates the term flashback, and when he shows something out of sequence, he's trying to literally show what's happening in the character's mind at the moment. As he puts it, "We don't think in pages of the written word, we think in images." Well, I don't think in images, and neither does my writing partner; my thought process involves a pretty literal internal monologue; I think in words. But some people do think in images; I have to work at it. I am pretty sure that thinking in words is an advantage if you're a novelist, but I wonder what's easier if you're writing a screenplay. Lawrence Kasdan's thing about screenwriting is that you should think of it in terms of watching the movie and "write what you see"; that sounds to me like the way to do it if you think in images. It's junior high school stuff to wonder what someone else's subjective thought process is like, but from what I've figured out informally, it seems to me that thinking in words is less common. I'd be curious to know what other people's experiences with this are like.

Monday, January 10, 2005

# 6: Beauty and the Beast

I've decided to stop putting any kind of rating on these movies. Who knew that distilling the most complicated films ever made to a single word would seem reductive?

La Belle et la Bête, 1946, dir. Jean Cocteau, screenplay by Jean Cocteau from a story by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont. This is the first DVD in the series that has a real surfeit of information and extras on it. In addition to the film, this includes two commentary tracks and an alternate soundtrack, plus about an hour of other extras, interviews with the actors and crew, production stills, trailers, and on and on and on. So it took rather a while to see everything, and it's hard to know where to start writing about this movie; I've spent a lot of time with it recently.

Whether you know it or not, Cocteau's La Belle et la Bête has a lot to do with the way you know the story of Beauty and the Beast. For example, Cocteau came up with the details of the Beast's castle that we're familiar with: talking doors, food that serves itself, and so on. The Disney version ripped this off and added the voice of Angela Lansbury. Cocteau's castle is much creepier (although Angela Lansbury can be plenty creepy).

Christian Bérard and Lucien Carré, the production designers, used humans as part of the set decoration, and it's remarkably unnerving. For example, the main fireplace in the castle has two caryatids on either side; their faces are real (extras, heavily made up to look like statues, stood in extremely uncomfortable positions behind the mantel and stuck their faces through the set. One of the best sets in the movie is a hallway with chandeliers held by human arms coming out of the wall. The old "arm-through-the-wall" trick has been ripped off since then time and time again (the arm thing most notably shows up in Labyrinth, which maybe isn't a great movie but made a big impression on me when I was a kid). The sets aren't fantastically impressive by today's terms but they're better than I could have put together in France in 1946. Apparently the production was shut down several times when linens, curtains, and other props were stolen: they were in such short supply in France then.

The costumes are phenomenal, and also have been much ripped-off since then.

The astute viewer will notice some similarities between these two Beasts.

As well as their costumes.

The Beast's mask was made in three parts and took five hours to apply to actor Jean Marais's face. It's hard to see this from a still, but it is incredibly expressive. It was also, apparently, incredibly difficult to photograph; the fur absorbed light far better than skin and so Marais had to be lit very brightly while Josette Day was not. You can kind of see that in the still above, though the Beast seems overlit in this one. I don't know enough about cinematography or lighting to really appreciate the technical achievement here myself, though.

Here's the thing about La Belle et la Bête, though. The ending is unbelievably unsatisfying. I liked the movie a lot until it ended, and then was just pissed off. On seeing the movie, Greta Garbo is reported to have said "Give me back my Beast!" and there seems a general consensus about this. Most critics, e.g., the ones on the two commentary tracks, attribute the let-down of the ending to the lure of evil, the fact that the Beast is inherently more interesting than the perfect Prince Charming, and so on. After watching the movie four times, I think my disappointment was a little different and it has to do with the way Cocteau constructed the ending: he made promises in the narrative that didn't pay off. To elaborate:

In Cocteau's version, Beauty has two wicked sisters and a lout of a brother; she is being wooed by a young man named Avenant (also played by Jean Marais). He's the basis for the Gaston character in the Disney version, but he's not such a bad guy in this movie. You know the basic ending, the Beast is transformed into Prince Charming and he and Beauty live happily ever after. Here's exactly how it plays out:

  • Belle gets the Beast to agree to let her go home to visit her sick father. After some protest, he agrees.
  • To show her how much he trusts her, he tells her all his secrets. They stand on the balcony outside Beauty's room and he points out a pavillion in the distance. He says, "All I possess I possess by magic, but my true riches are in that pavilion. It is called Diana’s pavilion."
  • He further tells her the five secrets to his power. They are:
    • The rose (that Belle's father picked)
    • The glove (his glove can be used to teleport anywhere)
    • The horse (he has a horse that can be used to travel back to his castle)
    • The key (the key to Diana's Pavillion)
    • The mirror (a magical mirror in Belle's room which she can use to see things at a distance).
  • As a token of trust, the Beast gives Belle the key to Diana's Pavillion. She uses his glove and travels home to see her sick father.
  • Belle's sisters, her brother, and Avenant go to great lengths to steal the key to Diana's Pavillion from her while she is home.
  • Belle stays longer than promised, and the Beast begins to sicken. He straps the magic mirror to his horse and sends the horse to Beauty's house.
  • The sisters send Ludovic (Beauty's brother) and Avenant back on the horse (Beauty doesn't know the horse is there). Avenant and Ludovic plan to kill the Beast and steal everything in Diana's Pavillion.
  • The sisters deliver the magic mirror to Belle.
  • Belle gets the mirror, sees the Beast is sickening, decides to go back to the castle to save him. She transports herself back using the glove, but immediately remembers that she's forgotten the key at her house. So she uses the glove to transport herself back home and looks for the key. She can't find it anywhere. While she's at home, the magic mirror shatters.
  • Belle goes back to the castle, finds the Beast. She doesn't say anything about the key she's lost.
  • The boys find Diana's pavillion, start to put the key into the lock, then decide not to use the key, but instead climb on the roof of the pavillion and shatter a skylight.
  • Ludovic lowers Avenant through the skylight—a statue of Diana comes to life and shoots him in the back with an arrow. Simultaneously, the Beast dies in Belle's arms.
  • As soon as Avenant is hit with the arrow, he tranforms into the Beast. Ludovic drops him in horror, and his lifeless body lays on the floor in Diana's pavillion.
  • The Beast is transformed into Prince Charming, and he and Belle fly away.

Cocteau goes to great lengths to emphasise the importance of the five symbols of the Beast's power but it doesn't matter when he starts losing them. Then the brothers go to great lengths to get the key, which they don't use. Belle is distraught that the key is missing, but when she can't find it, she never mentions it again. Ludovic leaves the story after he drops Avenant, and Beauty never knows what's happened to her ex-boyfriend. Neither Belle or the Beast mentions the missing key or the broken mirror, and they don't seem to care what was in Diana's pavillion. There's all this narrative stuff that never pays off, and I think that's what makes the ending so disappointing. It's the old "gun from the first act goes off in the third" thing; if you're not going to make these devices pay off or do anything, they probably shouldn't be in your movie.

It's also true, of course, that Prince Charming's costume is pretty foppish.

Final notes on this. The extras on this DVD are incredible. The best: Philip Glass wrote an opera designed to be performed while this film is projected without sound. So the vocals in his opera sync with the lips of the actors onscreen. This edition has the opera as audio track 2, in Dolby 5.1, and it's pretty amazing. My favorite part is the music that plays when Belle's father explores the Beast's cast.

There's also a documentary about the movie in which they brought Jean Marais, Mila Parély (who played one of the sisters), and Henri Alekan (the cinematographer) back to some of the locations to walk around and do interviews. There's a brief shot of Parély and Marais watching an early scene from the movie; they're both in their sixties or seventies here. The scene they're watching is an early one in which Avenant slaps Félicie ( Parély's character). I don't think Marais was expecting his character to do this because he jumped a little and apologized to Parély for hitting her. She kind of smiled at him and said, "You said that after every take." Maybe my favorite thing on the whole disc.