Sunday, July 27, 2014

Director Spotlight #16.6: Akira Kurosawa's "Rashomon"

Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is the incalculably influential Akira Kurosawa.

NOTE: There’s likely to be spoilers in this thing. If it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

Grade: 98/A

It’s hyperbolic to suggest that a film “changed everything,” but it’s hard not to be hyperbolic about 1950’s Rashomon. Akira Kurosawa’s first masterpiece took the formal and thematic sophistication he’d built in his first decade as a director and found a new way to tell a story, a structural gambit that was both radical for its time and directly connected to the central questions of the film. In a way, it serves not only as an introduction of a master director to the West (the film’s triumph at the Venice Film Festival and the Academy Awards shot him to the top of the list of great foreign filmmakers of the 1950s), but as Kurosawa’s thesis statement on humanity, moral failure, and the capacity for acts of great evil and good.

A woodcutter (Takashi Shimura), a priest (Minoru Chiaki) and a commoner (Kichijiro Ueda) gather under the Rashomon city gate to stay dry in a severe rainstorm. The priest is shaken by a story regaled to him by the woodcutter, about the murder of a samurai (Masayuki Mori) and the rape of his wife (Machiko Kyō) by the notorious bandit Tajōmaru (Toshiro Mifune).

The woodcutter then repeats the story for the commoner, first telling it from the testimonial of Tajōmaru, who claims the wife consented and he killed the husband honorably in a duel (after which the wife ran, frightened). But the wife’s story is varies greatly, as she claims that the bandit left her after the rape and the husband loathed her for being dishonored. And the samurai’s story (as told through a medium) is different still, claiming that his wife begged the samurai to kill him and he committed suicide after the incident. All three have twisted the story to their advantage, and while pieces of each might have some veracity, the plain and simple truth becomes hazier with each tale.

Kurosawa opens the film in the middle of a rainstorm, one of his many uses of weather to suggest a world bearing down on its inhabitants, and the sound of a drum and strings to suggest that something is not right with the world. Shimura and Chiaki are introduced slouching with bone-deep spiritual exhaustion; Shimura in particular is our moral center to the film, so his drooping, pained expression and grave intonations of the world’s disorder brings us into the inquisitive, mournful mood that Kurosawa wants us to be in. Why can’t we treat each other better?

Still, Ueda is essential beyond the need to hear exactly what it is that has Shimura and Chiaki so upset. Kurosawa often used the lower-class to contrast with the high-minded pursuits of the samurai, and that hits its stride here. The commoner is the healthy dose of skepticism in the film’s moral inquiries, the one who sees horror of the story but can’t help but point out that the idea man lying and killing for his own purposes isn’t exactly a new concept, and that our solemn moral voices of reason are hardly perfect themselves. It’s his presence that keeps the film’s morality from falling into naïveté. Plus, he gives Kurosawa a chance to use deep focus to contrast the ease and comfort in his body language with the way Shimura and Chiaki seem to fold into themselves.

When Kurosawa comes to the testimonials, he wisely chooses not to let the voices of the inquisitors be heard – he puts us in their perspective, lets us imagine that we are asking the questions, and puts us on their level, so as to hear their stories and take them at face value until we can’t anymore. Kurosawa and cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa also get a lot of mileage out of slight contrasts in camera placement for each witness:  while the woodcutter and the priest are shot from roughly the same objective angle, there’s a greater distance when the arrested Tajōmaru and his captor are brought in. This has nothing to do with need for greater space – Kurosawa could comfortably fit both in the same shot from the same distance – and everything to do with making us more frightened of Tajōmaru. When the cop reaches the end of his testimony, the camera is closer to him, until it dollies out to show Tajōmaru lauging like a maniac. We’re then brought onto the same level for him that we were for the woodcutter and priest, then even closer…and we don’t want to be there.

A number of Western critics have found Mifune’s performance to be a bit too over-the-top; it is one of his Cagney-esque big performances, a lot of ranting and raving, but with purpose. Everything Tajōmaru does is exaggerated with an almost superhuman level of bravado. He’s playing up his fearsomeness, with occasional moments of relative calm in order to assert that he’s also a noble, dignified warrior who gave the samurai a chance rather than a cold-blooded murderer. It’s also a purposeful contrast to what we learn might be his true nature later in the film.

He’s not the only one performing. It’s more than understandable that Machiko Kyō’s character is distraught, but there’s something overly considered about her performance, with reason. She’s trying to represent herself as an innocent victim of both her attacker’s brutality and her husband’s indifference, omitting any sense of moral grey that might suggest she was a guilty party in the murder. Here, Kurosawa dances on a dangerous line, but it’s less about blame and more about suggesting her limited faculties in defending herself in this case. In that era, questions of her virtue overshadow any harm that might have been done to her (hell, just hear how lowly her husband considers her following the assault), so any slim hope for justice would be dashed if those suggestions came about. Perhaps without even intending to, Kurosawa exposes the inherent misogyny of the system and of the men of the era, and her omissions actually humanize her more than a standard grim victimization storyline would have.

With the samurai, Kurosawa goes one step further in exaggerated performance by bringing out a female medium (Noriko Honma), whose kabuki-influenced performance turns his anguish into a form of performance art. By necessity, Kurosawa uses a wider shot to showcase the performative aspect of the medium’s role, but he also turns up the fans to bring an even greater level of cosmic disorder, as if the earth screamed right along with the samurai. Sure, he might be tortured anyway, being dead and all, but combination of the writhing of Honma, the gasping voice of Mori and his perspective of victimization and being dishonored lend themselves to the idea that everyone performs when trying to represent themselves, so as to best convince the listener that their perspective is the correct one.

When Kurosawa takes us into their takes on the incident, then, we’re not just seeing what they see, but we’re seeing what they’re thinking about, what the environment was like, where people were in relation to each other. My fellow freelancer Kyle Turner wrote something on Letterboxd about how he felt certain POV shots in these sequences didn’t make sense, given that these sequences are about putting ourselves in their perspectives and these shots imply another person’s presence. With all due respect, I feel a closer comparison would be how David Cronenberg places Christopher Walken in the midst of the murder when he flashes back to them in The Dead Zone. We’re now seeing everything about their perspective and the incident as they describe it.

With that in mind, a shot that pivots from showing Tajōmaru by a tree, watching the samurai and his wife pass by to showing them in the distance after they’ve passed is there to suggest the bandit’s single-minded focus on and awareness of his objective (the wife) and his obstacle (the samurai). A low shot of the wife fighting off Tajōmaru with a knife places her on his level even though she’s actually lower than him as a way to suggest his admiration for her for being able to fend for herself; a higher shot afterwards shows how lowly he thinks of her once she’s driven to beg for the death of her husband. The camera’s dolly towards him as he stabs the samurai (after a thrilling swordfight) blocks out the man’s death, so as to honor the man after a valiant fight and, in turn, make Tajōmaru an honorable warrior rather than a murderer.

In the wife’s story, meanwhile, Kurosawa places greater emphasis on wide shots to show her distance, her abandonment by both Tajōmaru and her husband. A shot placed behind the husband, still bound, as she pleads for him to stop looking at him lets us imagine the look of judgment and anger on his face that she dare be violated. Fumio Hayasaka’s score takes on the driving rhythms of Ravel’s “Bolero” (something I had no idea was intentional until about a minute ago) in order to drum away at the wife’s remaining defenses. The camera shifts, still only showing the wife but suggesting that she can’t escape her husband’s terrible gaze no matter how she tries. We’re brought closer to her perspective and in his hateful expression as she begs for death, anything to escape her fate and judgment by the society; her pleas will not be answered.

The score takes on a more exaggerated tragic element in the dead man’s story, so as to change from a story about a defenseless woman being demolished by men to a story about a poor man who was unlucky enough to have his wife’s rape happen to him. We have a more limited perspective, both to put us in the man’s shoes (he’s still bound) and to suggest just how trapped he is by this incident, to grow more claustrophobic, to make suicide seem like the only out. Kurosawa gets a thrilling effect in a match cut between the man’s fall from his suicide and the medium falling in a final bit of performance, which only hammers away the samurai’s own sense of victimization.

All of these stories are shot so as to best support the given perspectives, but there’s a constant through all of them: the contrast between shadows from the trees and light from the sun. The mixture of shadows and light are there to suggest the moral ambiguity of the situation, the lies that all of the storytellers are telling to support their respective versions. Miyagawa is either the first or one of the first cinematographers to point a camera directly into the sun, and it’s a striking effect, but it’s also an important one to the storyline. One debated scene is whether, when the wife stares into the sun, the sun goes out or stays shining, and whether or not both could support the idea that evil is borne in that moment. To me, it’s as much about the doubt of what happened in that moment and in the aftermath, and the difficult need to search for the truth.

Perhaps we get closer to that truth in the fourth version of the story, where the woodcutter, finally revealing that he was a witness to the crime and not just a man who stumbled upon the aftermath, tells a version of the story that makes all three parties look bad. The bandit is not a valiant warrior, but a pitiful man who begged for the wife to be with him rather than the husband. The husband becomes a worm of a man who’s self-important and unforgiving of his wife. The wife becomes a new judgmental figure, one who recognizes the weakness in both of them and can’t help but laugh at her situation. Even the swordfight has changed: no longer the dynamic, highly choreographed battle of Tajōmaru’s story, it’s now a pathetic battle between two cowards; yet she’s also a coward in her own right, one who calls for blood but can’t watch the fight. It’s all shot in a more objective way that doesn’t psychologically support any of them, but rather undercuts them.

The woodcutter’s version is likely closest to the truth, yet he omits that he stole the woman’s priceless dagger, which went missing after the crime. This comes out after he, the commoner, and the priest find an abandoned infant and the commoner chooses to steal the kimono protecting the child; the commoner sees through he woodcutter’s moral superiority and calls him out on his own misdeeds. That's also the real reason the woodcutter is so shaken by the story: it's not just the lies and selfishness of these people, but that they bring to light his own lies and selfishness – he's no better than them. It’s in this moment that the film’s focus shifts from the subjectivity of truth to the question of whether morality is futile. The commoner might be doing a low thing in stealing an abandoned child’s only protection, but he has no illusions as to who he is. He does selfish things because, as the film has illustrated in the earlier stories, that’s what needs to be done to survive. The acts of goodness might not be worth a damn at all, and moral failure might be inevitable.

Yet Kurosawa maintains hope as Shimura’s woodcutter chooses to take the child in, to take on another burden even though he has six children to feed already (“one more wouldn’t make a difference.”) The child might not have a great chance in the world, but it has a chance, and the smallest of kind acts has the capacity to mitigate moral failure (Kurosawa and Shimura would revisit this two films later with Ikiru). The film isn’t naïve enough to think that all is right in the world (Kurosawa wanted the skies to look overcast rather than clear but couldn’t wait to shoot any longer), but for the time being, order is restored.

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Sunday, July 13, 2014

Wes Anderson Roundtable #5: The Darjeeling Limited

 Individual Reviews are useful, but criticism is a dialogue, not a monologue. I’m Max O’Connell of The Film Temple, he’s Loren Greenblatt of Screen Vistas, and we’ve got some things to say in our Wes Anderson Roundtable.

LG: Wes Anderson’s fifth film is a bit of an odd duck. It’s actually two films, a short film and then the main feature he made, about a year later. The short, Hotel Chevalier finds Jason Schwartzman, for the first time in an Anderson film since Rushmore, pulling a geographic. He’s a perturbed man who’s run away from his problems in a French hotel. He learns that an old flame played by Natalie Portman has tracked him down and is coming to see him. There’s a nice little stretch where he sets about making the room up, sprucing himself up, finding exactly which song he’s going to play (“Where to You Go To My Lovely by Peter Sarstedt) in anticipation of what he hopes will be a romantic event.

MO: Yeah. It’s pretty extraordinary that we don’t know the full details of their relationship, but we can tell by the intonation in Schwartzman’s voice and in his body language that this is someone very important to him who’s hurt him. He’s trying to do whatever he can to get things in order and keep his life together, but when we see him for the first time, he’s retreated from the world. He’s in this nice warm place where everything is bright yellow, and he’s wearing a bright yellow robe. He’s watching Stalag 17 on TV. And when she calls, that shield from the rest of the world comes tumbling down. It becomes the kind of melancholy we’ve seen from Anderson before, but much older and deeper.

LG: There’s this really nice moment where they open the door, and they come into an embrace. Schwartzman goes in for the kiss, but Portman goes for his shoulder, immediately drawing of the lines of how they feel. They don’t really dwell on this moment, so it’s one of those quick little things. It is an older melancholy, and less whimsical film than we’ve seen from Anderson. The film is sort of about that song. A lot of the film takes place with the song playing seemingly in its entirety under the dialogue. The song is about this man who’s pining for a lost woman, and he knows all these great details about her but can’t quite get inside her head. The film is almost a music video, or as close as Wes Anderson has ever gotten.

MO: In part because it is so much shorter, and it does feature the song very heavily. So much of it is so wonderfully choreographed to that song, particularly near the end after they’ve decided to have sex, and you can tell they have a lot of feelings for each other, but it’s leftover affection for something that’s clearly not working and has not worked out. We don’t know the full details of her character – she has bruises, but he’s surprised to see them, and they haven’t been together for a while – so it’s a kind of thing that she’s equally damaged if more enigmatic. The way Anderson frames them, for the most part, it’s in a long shot to imply the emotional distance between the two or a tight close up. I love the intimacy when they finally embrace, start kissing, and he starts undressing her. They’re so close together, but so far apart because they know this is the end of it, because he doesn’t want to see her again after this.

LG: Yeah, and he’ll double back on this in the feature film, but it’s not looking great. She tries to repair their friendship, but he’s not going for it. He flat-out says that he doesn’t care she didn’t mean to hurt him, that he never wants to be her friend, and that he’s OK with her feeling like shit if they fuck. There’s a sense of finality at this point.

MO: And of bitterness. It’s not self-pity, necessarily, but it’s something we could understand. It’s a wallop of a short, and it ends beautifully. It’s so confident that a lot of people felt that the feature paled a bit in comparison.

LG: To some degree, I think that. We should talk about how this connects to The Darjeeling Limited. Wes Anderson at the time was wishy-washy on whether or not he wanted this to be a part of the film or not. He shot it earlier, didn’t have a script for Darjeeling so much as an outline. Initially it was not attached to the film theatrically. On limited release, it was left out and released on iTunes. On wide release, it was attached.

MO: Which is how I saw it.

LG: So there’s a question of whether or not it’s part of the film. It’s billed as “Part I of The Darjeeling Limited” in the credits, but how should it be consumed? It’s still not definitively answered. For this rewatch, I saw Darjeeling first to try to take them as separate films. I could definitely understand seeing them together, but they’re also separated by style. Hotel is very much a summation of the Wes Anderson style to this point, where Darjeeling departs from it in very important ways.

MO: Yes it does!

LG: The opening of Darjeeling is done in media res, which is unusual for Anderson, who’s given to gentler, storybook introductions. We open on an unnamed businessman played by Bill Murray trying to make a train in India. The cab is rushing, there a lot of chaotic whip pans and handheld shots. Murray makes it to the station as the train is pulling out, and he chases after it. We get this gorgeous slow motion tracking shot set to The Kinks’ “This Time Tomorrow.” And there’s a much younger man, Peter (Adrien Brody), who overtakes him and makes the train as he’s left behind. I don’t see the film as one of his best, but the opening is so masterful and full of subtext and symbolism that I wonder why the rest falls so short for me and a lot of people.

MO: It’s an interesting question, though I’d like to double back a bit. You said it’s not totally resolved on how that short connects to the film. We’re split on this. You’re torn, I think as soon as he did end up continuing the story (the short’s events are mentioned in the film, and Schwartzman’s character is one of the film’s protagonists alongside Brody and Owen Wilson). For me it’s a definitive part of the film. The difference in style is important because Darjeeling was at a point where people started knocking Anderson not stepping outside of his aesthetic (which is a stupid criticism, but whatever). Hotel Chevalier sees him doubling down on that style for a character who’s receding into it. The feature is still recognizably Anderson, but it is a bit of a departure (ironically, people still complained that it was too Wes-y), because it’s about trying to get into something new. The in media res opening, which I see as a whimsical homage to The French Connection, is about trying to break away from that. It’s very purposeful.

LG: It’s not that Anderson has completely left whimsy and storybook trappings aside. That opening is very storybook but in a different way, but it’s not as booklike. This is the first film he’s done since Bottle Rocket without some sort of chapter heading or curtain raise at the start of every new section. His bright color pallet is still there, but he utilizes shallow focus and long lenses to much greater extent and he moves the camera in new ways. He’s very much taking for a new set of influences. He acknowledges Satyajit Ray and Jean Renoir’s film The River. There is a sense of stylistic exploration. I just wish it happened to more interesting characters.

MO: We’re going to disagree about how interesting they are, but let’s get into the style. It’s interesting how he’s sort of trying to have a lighter touch and mix the poetic realism of Renoir and Ray with his usual aesthetic. It’s still very colorful, and he does something with music that he had only hinted at before. Michael Powell had a theory of the “composed film,” where every element, from the designs to the actors to the music moving together and going together in a sort of synchronicity. Anderson played with that in the past, but it’s a lot more obvious here, particularly whenever he choreographs characters to music in slow motion to the Kinks with “Strangers” or “This Time Tomorrow” or “Powerman,” and I also think of the use of an underrated Stones song, “Play with Fire.” He’s choreographing to music pretty much the entire time, even if it’s just background music of Satyajit Ray’s films.

LG: His use of music has always been strong, but he does use it a little differently here. He let’s a lot of the pieces, particularly the non-English ones, play more atmospherically than in the past.

MO: Like the use of the Debussy piece when they’re around the fire.

LG: Or the stuff on the trains. It’s a huge stylistic choice, but it’s allowed to be more in the background than in the past. There’s a confidence to that.

MO: Something else that’s interesting: on the train, he’s using anamorphic framing for much tighter spaces. No matter how they try, these characters can’t really get away from each other. It’s a nice metaphor for how the family binds them together.

LG: We should actually talk about the plot. Jack (Schwartzman), Peter (Brody), and Francis (Wilson) are brothers, with Francis as a bit of an older, more damaged version of Wilson’s Bottle Rocket character, Dignan. These guys have been estranged for some time, and Francis has made a plan to get them back together in India, and they’re going on a spiritual journey because that’s what White people think you do in India. Francis has this very planned out with lists and itineraries, which are all laminated, and has a secret plan to bring his brothers to this place where their estranged mother (Anjelica Huston) is working as a missionary. But I don’t think these characters are as interesting. They have nice moments: I like that immediately as they arrive on the train, they bond by comparing the various illegal painkillers they’re on. But I thought a lot about The Royal Tenenbaums, which also has an estranged family trying to figure out if they want to be a family again. That film showed us what forced this fissure. Here, Anderson and his co-screenwriters Jason Schwartzman and Roman Coppola skip over that for the sake of narrative efficiency, but they end up doubling back, and a lot of the first half of the film feels like exposition to me in a very irritating way.

MO: You’re going to have to elaborate on that, because I don’t understand that criticism at all.

LG: There are all these running gags that inform us how they related to each other over the years. There’s a scene where one brother confesses a secret to a brother and asks for secrecy, and he’s immediately ratted out to the third brother. They do this seemingly endlessly and it got old for me pretty quick. Their bickering becomes more trying than interesting. These characters become more poignant by the end with the help of some really good filmmaking, but I think it’s the thinnest script he’s ever done and don’t find any of them compelling in the first half.

MO: They are to me. Part of it is me seeing them as all being connected to previous Wes Anderson characters with the wind knocked out of them by life: you mentioned Francis as being connected to Dignan, I see Jack as a sadder, more mature Max Fischer who’s retreated from the world –

LG: But Max Fischer has passions and interests. I don’t think Jack is that into being a writer. I think Owen Wilson has some sort of an education job, but it’s not explicitly mentioned…I don’t know who these people are outside of bickering.

MO: Huh. You don’t think Schwartzman is into writing? I don’t get that.

LG: He’s a writer who’s fallen back to just transcribing his life. That’s actually one of the gags I like. Every time he shares a story with his brothers, they’ll comment on how they like how they like that their characters did this or that, and Schwartzman will insist that the characters are all fictional.

MO: It’s not about falling back. It’s about how our art, however much we insist it doesn’t, reflects what we’re going through and who we are. Wes Anderson is a very private person, so we don’t know all the details, but so much of it is his addressing that his work reflects the struggles he’s gone through. And I do see him as being his into his writing. It’s his way of processing his grief, his melancholy, his problems, which is how many of us channel and understand our problems. He’s not admitting what he’s doing, though, so it doesn’t allow him to heal until later in the film.

LG: Part of it is that he’s such a depressed character in the short. The first image we get of him is him sitting in a bed, not moving much. All of these guys are on intense sedatives, so maybe that’s where I got that he isn’t into his work as much. And there’s also a sense in all of Anderson’s films after Rushmore that these characters wonder if they’re past their prime.

MO: Yeah. And I do see a bit of that in here, but that still connects him to Max Fischer to me in a really interesting way. Brody, meanwhile, hadn’t worked with Anderson before, but I see a lot of Margot and Chas Tenenbaum here, both in his secrecy and his prickliness. Where Schwartzman is mopey and Wilson’s trying to force the whimsy and spirituality (I love his insisting that everything around him is beautiful or incredible as a way to convince everyone, which will never work), Brody is the one who will lash out.

LG: But the thing is that you can describe the interplay between his characters in other films, but it also feels like a new thing. In Life Aquatic, the character relationships are among the most well thought out in the Anderson canon. I’ve always kind of felt that this was written more on the fly, a bit scrappier and ramshackle. He didn’t know what he wanted, but he wanted it in India, on a train and with these people. I think these are his flattest set of characters since Bottle Rocket.

MO: Hmm. I’d agree that they’re a bit more sketched out, and that is why this is probably his weakest film, but I view them more collectively than individually. Their relationship is the main character. It’s less about one of them and more about how they’re essentially symbiotic, whether they want to be or not. I also find the bickering funnier, and admittedly connect more to the characters than you do.

LG: You actually have siblings, I don’t.

MO: That could be part of it. And because it’s about a real family, it’s going to be at least partially in Tenenbaums’s shadow, and I think that’s why so many people are down on Darjeeling. I appreciate that we don’t get the full backstory, we just have to pick up from the way they act around each other what happened to them in the past. We get a bit about their mother’s distance, or about their father possibly having a favorite, without seeing it in a flashback or something. They’re so affected by how their parents have raised them, as with his previous film, but I appreciate that this film trusts us to pick up the cues.

LG: In theory, I agree with you. On paper, I understand that in terms of efficiency. But I don’t think it works with these particular characters. There are moments of life as the film goes on, though. There’s a wonderful reminder for how Anderson works with dialogue. Francis describes their mother, “She’s been disappearing all our lives.” That’s a wonderful line. When we meet her at the end of the film, that’s a fantastic moment. But there’s this shift midway after they leave the train where they suddenly change modes, and we’re meant to empathize with them more. They try to save three kids who fall into a river, and one of them dies. I don’t know if that shift works 100% for me. There’s this thing that works as a literary metaphor where the funeral for the Indian boy stands in for their father’s funeral, which they missed. But it also raises some questions. There’s a few people who point to Anderson’s treatment of race and point to this film as crossing a line to use Indian people as props.

MO: See, I actually do think that criticism is more merited here than in the past. Part of it is about these guys being ugly Americans abroad and not appreciating what’s around them, not being respectful of or interested in the culture except as a form of exoticism (which is something a lot of people knocked without realizing that the film is being autocritical). And they are more than props. I like the two major Indian characters on the train: The Chief Steward (Waris Ahluwalia), who’s furious with the brothers for their reckless behavior, and Rita (Amara Karan), who’s treated similarly to Inez in Bottle Rocket but more successfully.

LG: Because they can understand each other. Schwartzman goes after her because she’s hot and Indian, but back in reality, she’s very clearly got some shit going on, and she’s in a complicated relationship with the train’s head steward that may or may not be on the rocks. That’s a very humanizing moment, but I wish we saw more of that character. She’s the one who reminds me of Margot Tenenbaum, not Adrien Brody. It almost infuriated me that she didn’t show up near the end. I could have seen a movie about her.

MO: But that’s not what the movie is about. It’s about these guys getting perspective. By the time they part, he realizes that she’s just as filled with life (and just as messed up) as he is, and that she’s not just some exotic object to be obtained.

LG: This is his most location based film he’s worked on. There are still artificial sets, but less than in his previous few films, I do get the sense that he’s trying to portray India as a place that exists in reality rather than his normal fantasy thing. But at the same time, I think he’s trying to have it both ways with how he portrays this foreign culture.

MO: That’s fair. I think she’s handled well, as is the head steward. His reactions are funny, he’s the straight man to these out-of-control characters, but he’s also the most reasonable person in the film. The only point where the film does have some problems for me is the death of the Indian boy, which is used as a way to bring them together and realize the importance of family. It ties into the film’s tendency to rely on big, literary symbols, like their fathers’ baggage that they cart around standing in for the baggage they carried over from their parents, or the physical scars Francis bears on his head from a motorcycle crash standing in for his emotional scars. It’s a bit much, and the boy’s funeral is an extension on that with the added problem of accidentally trivializing his death to bring them together and call back to their father’s funeral. It’s trying to be humane, it’s just a bit off in execution.

LG: The thing I wondered about probably around halfway through the film is, considering that this film is much more somber than most of Anderson’s work, is whether this film is meant to be a comedy or Anderson’s first drama that just happens to have some comedic moments?

MO: That’s a good question. It’s certainly more somber than his previous work, it’s tipping towards drama, but there’s too much of Anderson who’s a comedic stylist to cancel that out. It’s closer to a pure drama than anything he’s ever made.

LG: I do feel that even though the film is indulgent in a lot of ways, he is trying to break out of his Wes Andersonisms, even though in doing so a lot of people think this is the most Andersonian thing.

MO: People who made the criticism that it was schtick rather than an aesthetic, which, no. It has different drawbacks, though I don’t think they’re as problematic as you do. Now, do you think it does gain cumulative power by the end? It might be a more personal thing for me, since I do have siblings and I do view them collectively rather than separately.

LG: Absolutely I do. There’s a lot of stuff that works, but I also found myself wondering whether it would be more powerful if it happened to the Tenenbaums or the Belafonte crew. Their dimensionality gets added in, but it doesn't totally make up for how much I was twiddling my thumbs in the first twenty minutes. But it does have some of his most masterful moments of filmmaking. We mentioned the opening, but there’s also a great flashback to them almost missing their father’s funeral (set within one of Schwartzman’s “fictional” stories). And when they finally meet their mother, Huston shows up in another wonderful role. I love these two together almost as much as I love him with Bill Murray. There’s a line where she suggests that they can have a connection better without words, if they say everything with glances. It’s a little cloying, but then it goes into one of Anderson’s most interesting sequences, set to “Play With Fire,” where there’s a tracking shot through all of these little vignettes between these different characters they’ve encountered, and it’s all shot as if they’re connected on a train, but it’s looking into their houses, their airplanes, their bedrooms. It pans off of it to this tiger in the jungle, a bit of an overt symbol, but very powerful when combined with the music. That got me. That always gets me.

MO: Here’s the interesting thing about Huston’s character: it’s a smaller role than we’ve seen from her in past collaborations with Anderson, and it’s a different role. In the past, she was a warm and giving mother figure or at very least the person who maintained a sense of order amidst the chaos. Here, she’s removed from them. She’s had the same effect on them that Royal had on his kids. She was absent at their funeral, but when we first meet her, her behavior echoes that of her sons. She’s very controlling about what they’re going to eat and do, like Wilson, but she also insults the flower pot that Brody’s wife made, which is interesting because it’s the kind of behavior that Brody does. And she’s retreated from the world, much like Schwartzman. That’s how much he’s reacted, he’s tried to get away from them just like she did.

LG: And up to this point, the questionable parent in Anderson’s films has usually been the father. Here, they lionize their father and have an issue with their mother.

MO: There’s a bit of an elephant in the room when it comes to this film regarding Owen Wilson. The same year this was released, Wilson attempted suicide after a relationship broke up. In the film, he claims to not remember the details regarding his motorcycle accident that smashed up his face and body, but we later learn it was intentional.

LG: I think it might have had a tougher overtone had he co-written the film, but it’s hard to watch without that extratextual knowledge. Obviously it wasn’t intentional.

MO: Which is also why the blatant symbol of Wilson removing his bandages and seeing that, in their words, he still has “some more healing to do,” is groan-worthy on one end but still very moving. I’m still shaken by how affected he is by everything he’s been through.

LG: Anderson and Coppola have worked together since, but Coppola also directed a little movie called CQ, which has an amazing score by Mellow but the film is just okay and clearly a Wes Anderson wannabe. It features a prickly artsy-fartsy guy editing a sci-fi movie who has daddy issues and want’s to assert his creativity in a meaningful way. They have the same cinematographer, Robert Yeoman. It’s interesting to see Anderson take in an imitator. Anderson wrote Darjeeling with Schwartzman and Coppola, which is interesting because both Schwartzman and Coppola are part of the Coppola family, with one as the son of Francis and brother of Sofia, the other as the son of Francis’s sister Talia Shire. It’s almost like Anderson is a lost Coppola cousin, considering the subjects he takes on.

MO: I hadn’t considered that, but it’s an interesting thought, considering that two members of a big, famous family are writing about family. It’s also worth considering that so much of this is about the possibility of losing a sibling, and Roman Coppola’s brother Giancarlo died in a boating accident in the late 80s.

LG: When there’s three screenwriters, we don’t know who’s responsible for what, and I don’t want to theorize too much.

MO: Me neither, but it’s an interesting parallel, and as I said, your art inevitably reflects your life to some degree. And that Schwartzman’s character acknowledges that by the end, that’s interesting to me. And I love the final gesture: Wilson, the controlling brother, tries to give back the passports he took from his siblings, and they trust him to keep them.

LG: That got me. That’s one part that got me that made me feel that it had to be those characters, and I wish they were just more interesting before that point. Also, there’s a very powerful snapshot as they let their baggage fall away.

MO: A shot that’s so well handled and set beautifully to “Powerman,” but it still kind of bugs me for the over-the-top symbolism.

LG: Maybe. But that final moment does tie back to their bickering well, yeah. I do think this is his weakest film, but there’s a lot of interesting stuff even if it’s minor. Hotel Chevalier gets an A-, The Darjeeling Limited gets a B-.

MO: See, if we’re going to separate them, then Hotel Chevalier is an A-, and The Darjeeling Limited is somewhere between a B and a B+. But I did watch them back to back, and I don’t separate them. They work better together, so I go 79/B+ for the whole thing.

Did you know that you can like The Film Temple on Facebook and follow @thefilmtemple on Twitter? Well you do now!

Here’s a collection of writing I’ve done for other sites, including Indiewire, The Airspace and The Post and Courier.

Does that number by the grade confuse you? Go over to this link, where I explain my idiotically specific 100-point system and how it corresponds to the grades.

Check out my account on
Letterboxd, where you can see my lists of favorite films from any given year or decade, or just brief capsule reviews of whatever I’m watching in my spare time.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Director Spotlight #16.5: Akira Kurosawa's The Quiet Duel/Scandal

Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is the incalculably influential Akira Kurosawa.

NOTE: There’s likely to be spoilers in this thing. If it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

Though Akira Kurosawa didn’t get a breakthrough in the Western world until 1951, when Rashomon played at the Venice Film Festival, he’d been making strong films for nearly a decade. From the promising debut of Sanshiro Sugata to the early great films Drunken Angel and Stray Dog, Kurosawa was primed for legendary status. But most directors have a few films that fall through the cracks, and two of the films made right before Rashmon have been overshadowed by the classics around them.

The Quiet Duel: 48/C+

The first, 1949’s The Quiet Duel, might be the least-seen of Kurosawa’s films. The film was made between Drunken Angel and Stray Dog, but it wasn’t released in the U.S. until 1979 (as opposed to the late 50s and early 60s for Drunken Angel, Stray Dog and Scandal), and it’s one of the few of his films that isn’t part of the Criterion Collection (BCI Eclipse has a DVD). The medical melodrama has a few traces of what made Kurosawa one of the best up-and-coming filmmakers of his generation, but it’s also one of his least satisfying films.

Toshiro Mifune stars as Dr. Kyoji Fujisaki, a surgeon working at his father’s (Takashi Shimura) practice in a small, seedy district. Fujisaki cuts himself during an operation and contracts syphilis, virtually incurable in Japan at the time, from the patient. Wracked with fear and feeling too guilty to keep his fiancée (Miki Sanjō) waiting for him, he breaks off their engagement without explanation and suffers in silence.

The Quiet Duel’s first scene, the operation on the syphilitic patient, is its best. Kurosawa opens on a heavy rainstorm and the beat of the drum, the world bearing down on the clinic. His use of deep focus in the scene is brilliant, capturing the exhaustion of the doctors, the cramped conditions and hectic nature of the workplace. Mifune’s intense focus and the pinging of buckets catching rain from the leaks in the roof add to the tension. The scene grows more complicated as they start to lose the patient and Mifune can’t replace his glove or sanitize his wound. As Kurosawa cuts to a shot between the assistants’ bodies at the feet of the patient, it’s as if we’re witnessing an autopsy.

Kurosawa has a handful of other strong touches throughout the film, such as the sound a car races by with a blaring horn as Fujisaki realizes that he’s contracted the disease from his patient. He’s aided by a good performance from Shimura, whose shame when he first learns that his son has syphilis is so intense that he initially won’t listen to his explanation. He also gains an interesting contrast between the doctor and the patient (Kenjiro Uemura), a peasant who’s too proud and irresponsible to take Fujisaki advice and refrain from sleeping with his wife, leading to a son who dies in childbirth. The best performance in the film, though, comes from Noriko Sengoku, a character actress in a number of Kurosawa films who shines here as a suicide-patient turned nurse for Fujisaki, and whose accidental eavesdropping on him talking to his father about his disease complicates matters.

The trouble is that the subplots are far more dynamic than the central story, in which Fujisaki stews over his condition without much variation in mood. His performance isn’t really the problem – he’s not given too much to do other than act like a noble victim. The main conflict, that Dr. Fujisaki feels he can’t tell his fiancée of his infection because she’ll decide to spend years waiting for him, lacks any complication, as he has no complicity in his infection – this is disease borne of an accident, not by him cheating on her. Kurosawa’s playing somewhat with his themes of honor, sacrifice, and pride, but in a fairly superficial way, and after a certain point it’s hard to maintain sympathy for a character whose dilemma is one of being too noble to just stop being a dope and tell his fiancée what the deal is. It’s not a bad movie, but it’s rarely as immediate or as moving as it wants to be.

Scandal: 66/B

Kurosawa’s last pre-Rashomon film (released in April 1950, four months before his that masterwork) isn’t a major achievement either, but it’s far more successful than The Quiet Duel. Inspired by the infringement of the press on the privacy of others in postwar Japan, it begins as a fairly straightforward moral tale, but as it shifts focus from the plaintiffs to their lawyer, it gets a bit closer to the level of grace and beauty that Rashomon and Ikiru would achieve.

Mifune stars again as artist Ichiro Aoye, who meets young classical singer Miyako Saijo (Shirley Yamaguchi) while working on his paintings and, upon learning that they’re staying at the same hotel, offers her a ride. A group of paparazzi for the tabloid Amour spot them and, when Aoye doesn’t grant them an interview, take their picture and make up a story about the two being lovers. Furious, the two meet and hire lawyer Hiruta (Shimura), who shares their anger over the libel. But Hiruta’s young daughter suffers from terminal tuberculosis, and when the editor of the magazine offers him a bribe to throw the trial, he obliges.

Kurosawa’s dealing with the invasion of privacy here, and the form of the film often feels voyeuristic: the editors of Amour are photographed through a chicken-wire window, and Hiruta is introduced spying on Aoye through a hole in his window. Later, as Hiruta is wracked with guilt over his betrayal of Aoye, we’re frequently made to feel like unwilling witnesses to his most embarrassing moments, following him in a tracking shot on Christmas Eve as he’s too filled with shame to join his friends for the celebration, “Silent Night” playing to heighten the emotion of the scene. Later that night, Hiruta gets drunk at a bar, and when another drunk yells loudly about getting a new chance in the upcoming new year, Hiruta joins him, crying that he’ll be a new man in the new year instead of a worm; he’s hunched, sloppy, and looks as if he’ll burst into tears. It’s almost too embarrassing to witness.

The film takes time to reveal Hiruta as its stealth protagonist, however, and seems a bit too polarized in absolute good vs. absolute evil before its morally grey hero enters. The reporters are all venal, while Mifune (perfectly solid) isn’t given much more to do than act noble. Kurosawa reacted to the rise of tabloids as if the libelous material was attacking him, so when he made the victim a painter (Kurosawa wanted to be a painter before he was a filmmaker), he made him a bit too much of a cardboard victim. Aoye hasn’t actually had an affair, so he’s not much more than an object of sympathy in the narrative. This might be the only Akira Kurosawa film that might have been better had it been directed by Billy Wilder, with a victim who’s guilty (even unlikable) but whose privacy nonetheless should be respected.

As soon as Shimura enters the film, however, the film grows far more interesting. Beginning as a cheerful eccentric who believes the press has gone too far all over the world (“HENRY FORD WAS CALLED RETARDED!”) and who has a very clear sense of right and wrong, his character deepens as he’s forced to do wrong in order to save his daughter. Immediately after he accept the bride, Kurosawa brings him to his daughter’s bedside, where he confesses to her that he’s not the good man she thinks he is.

Kurosawa uses a medium close-up as Hiruta looks down, hiding his eyes from us, too ashamed to look at either his daughter or the ever-watchful viewer. The use of his daughter as a device – she’s not much more than a generic suffering child, and her death spurs his confession – irks a bit, but Shimura’s performance saves it. Whether he’s in boozy self-pity on Christmas (bonus: hearing Shimura drunkenly yell “Merry Christmas” in English, as if it’ll get rid of his pain) or he’s unable to muster up any energy to convincingly fake failing as a lawyer, he’s relentlessly fascinating. Shimura would get another chance in an even greater moral tale later than year in Rashomon, but Scandal serves as a welcome appetizer to that grand feast.

Did you know that you can like The Film Temple on Facebook and follow @thefilmtemple on Twitter? Well you do now!

Here’s a collection of writing I’ve done for other sites, including Indiewire, The Airspace and The Post and Courier.

Does that number by the grade confuse you? Go over to this link, where I explain my idiotically specific 100-point system and how it corresponds to the grades.

Check out my account on
Letterboxd, where you can see my lists of favorite films from any given year or decade, or just brief capsule reviews of whatever I’m watching in my spare time.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Life Itself

Grade: 87/A-

For most people who grew up watching or reading Roger Ebert’s work, it’s difficult to approach Steve James’s documentary Life Itself without emotional baggage. It’s even harder for people who developed an active interest in film and film criticism because of Ebert. An adaptation of Ebert’s memoir of the same name, Life Itself chronicles Ebert’s life and career, his passion for the movies, his populist approach to criticism and his battle with cancer. It’s a moving portrait of the critic, but it’s also a thoughtful one. It doesn’t excuse or overlook his shortcomings, but instead uses them to show him as an imperfect yet extraordinary man.

The film begins with Ebert’s famous quote that the a movie is “a machine that generates empathy.” After a brief overview of his youth and his beginnings as a newspaperman, Life Itself carefully balances his professional highs – writing Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, becoming the first film critic to win the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism, the run of Siskel & Ebert – and his more complicated personal life, including his battles with alcoholism and his combatative relationship with his S&E partner Gene Siskel.

James, the director of Hoop Dreams and The Interrupters, is a master at taking years of footage and shaping it into a coherent and steady narrative. While he can’t quite match his source material, which is more exhaustive, has more room for tangents and anecdotes about his early years, and features Ebert’s indispensible voice, he can preserve the work’s pulse, its essential power. And while he retains some of Ebert’s voice, he also includes the voices of those who knew him best: his colleagues at the Chicago Sun-Times, the wife of the late Siskel, his drinking buddies, the filmmakers whose careers he helped (Werner Herzog) or outright made (Martin Scorsese, Ramin Bahrani), and his family, all of which brings new perspective and keeps the film from being just a highlight reel of Ebert’s book.

They speak warmly about Ebert, about his rise to become America’s most beloved critic. Scorsese’s interview segments are particularly effective, as he admits that Siskel and Ebert’s support of his work helped him get through a number of personal and professional setbacks in the 80s. Lest the film come across merely as a fawning tribute, though, the subjects never hide that for his apparent jollity on television, he could be a petty man. The narrative of the Siskel and Ebert relationship is that for all of their arguments, they loved each other. The truth is more complicated, with their arguments sometimes veering towards outright meanness; Ebert himself is described as sometimes egotistical and petulant.

The film doesn’t totally dispense with Ebert skeptics, either. Both Richard Corliss (formerly of Film Comment) and Jonathan Rosenbaum (formerly of The Chicago Reader) show up to speak about their criticism of the duo. Corliss has softened on Ebert, but at the time he felt that the Thumbs Up/Thumbs Down system on Siskel & Ebert reduced criticism to Good/Bad questions. Rosenbaum, a friend of Ebert but a frequent contrarian, holds that Siskel & Ebert fed into the Hollywood machine. Neither are able to fully flesh out their arguments, but they’re not entirely dismissed, either. Ebert’s response to Corliss in Film Comment best shows where the film’s head is at: yes, there were limits to how in-depth the show could get for the average consumer in two-minute bursts, but it made people interested in seeking out films they might not otherwise, and damn it, that mattered.

The film is at its best, however, when tying Ebert’s past experiences with his illness during the making of the film. James – whose Hoop Dreams was championed by Siskel and Ebert, effectively making his career – is granted unfettered access to Ebert’s time in the hospital. He ties interviews and archival material with footage of Ebert, robbed by cancer of his jaw, his ability to eat or speak, still smiling, still relentlessly enthusiastic about life and eager to write (the film shows him ready to review 56 Up, for example). There’s something unspeakably moving about watching Ebert refuse to have to get his throat drained of liquid until he can play Steely Dan’s “Reelin’ in the Years” as it’s done, as if to underline that for all of the pain he’s going through, it’s worth being able to write, to watch movies, and to have a few extra days with his family.

Rather than softening the impact of those scenes, Ebert’s zest for life and forthcoming nature makes it all the more difficult to watch him in pain – by this point, James has turned him into the viewer’s avuncular, movie-loving friend. It’s even more powerful when Ebert’s wife, Chaz is involved. As James tells the story of their marriage, their comfort with and support for each other, their openness, he prepares us to watch the deepest point of their love, as Chaz patiently works with Ebert through his excruciating ordeal through medical rehabilitation and pushes him to go on. It’s in these scenes where Life Itself plays as a gentler but no less aching companion piece to Michael Haneke’s Amour, where the truest form of love is standing by someone’s side as they slip away.

Life Itself is not a comprehensive movie. It can’t do justice to his youth or his formative relationships with his parents. It doesn’t cover the days of Ebert & Roeper or Ebert’s abortive attempt to keep Ebert Presents At the Movies with Christy Lemire and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky going. And while it does feature a few critics who followed in his footsteps, most notably the always wonderful A.O. Scott, it might have benefited from a few more critics he influences (Matt Singer would have been especially welcome).

It doesn’t matter. It’s simultaneously a movie for those who loved Ebert and, for those who didn’t, one of those “empathy machines” he most valued. What made Ebert’s death so moving wasn’t just his connection to movie lovers around the world, but his refusal to let his sickness silence him or keep him from his movie love, and, when the time came, his choice to go with grace. Life Itself is a tribute, a eulogy, and, like most of Ebert’s work, a guide. His reviews were a guide for people to see good movies. His movie, and his story, is a guide on how to live a good life.

Did you know that you can like The Film Temple on Facebook and follow @thefilmtemple on Twitter? Well you do now!

Here’s a collection of writing I’ve done for other sites, including Indiewire, The Airspace and The Post and Courier.

Does that number by the grade confuse you? Go over to this link, where I explain my idiotically specific 100-point system and how it corresponds to the grades.

Check out my account on
Letterboxd, where you can see my lists of favorite films from any given year or decade, or just brief capsule reviews of whatever I’m watching in my spare time.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

They Came Together

Grade: 33/C-

Early in They Came Together, a bartender tells Paul Rudd, in so many words, that he looks like shit. Rudd responds, “You can say that again.” The bartender repeats the exact same phrase. Rudd says, “Tell me about it.” The bartender repeats himself again. This exchange goes back and forth between the two for a few minutes, starting out funny, then becoming exhausting, then ending at hilarious. In this scene, director David Wain and his co-writer Michael Showalter perfectly replicate a rom-com cliché, then stretch it to the point of absurdity, with neither actor acknowledging the ridiculousness of the situation. It’s a great scene. It’s also one of the only gags in They Came Together that made me laugh.

It’s not from lack of trying. Wain and company’s romantic-comedy parody always seems like it should be funny. In a hoary framing device, Joel (Rudd) and Molly (Amy Poehler) recount the story of how they fell in love to another couple (Bill Hader and Ellie Kemper). She ran a quirky indie candy shop; he worked for a Big Candy corporation that threatened to shut her down. They hated each other before they fell in love, only to find that love was harder than it looks.

That’s a perfect setup to skewer the genre, much like Wain spoofed oversexed 80s teen comedies like Meatballs and SpaceCamp in his cult film Wet Hot American Summer. Wain populates They Came Togther with a number of alums from the earlier film, from stars (Rudd and Poehler) to supporting players (Christopher Meloni, Michael Ian Black, Ken Marino), all of whom are fiercely committed to taking the inanity of their archetypical characters one step further. He also nails the high-key lighting and upper-class New York apartment set decoration that typifies the genre, so at first glance it might easily pass for the real thing.

But there’s something off in the execution of They Came Together. Wain’s earlier film had its actors play their teen stereotypes with the right mixture of comic exaggeration and straight-faced dedication. By contrast, They Came Together constantly acknowledges that the characters are behaving like they’re in a movie. Instead of turning Rudd’s fear of commitment into a outsized version of the real thing, the characters talk openly and self-consciously about his fear of commitment. Even when the film is ostensibly playing it straight-faced, as in a scene where the two bond because of a shared love for fiction (“no one else loves fiction!”), the tone is off, feeling smarmy and self-congratulatory rather than farcical.

But even if Wain’s film hadn’t come off as so pleased with itself, its aim would still be too broadly-focused to really hit. The strength of Wet Hot American Summer was its send-up of such a minor yet specific subgenre, which made it bizarrely affectionate and personal amidst the lampooning and out-and-out strangeness. They Came Together rarely feels half as free or inspired, and it deals with such a well-known and frequently mocked genre that it can’t help but feel redundant. It’s at once recognizably a film from the creator of a beloved cult film and a movie that misses the appeal of its predecessor entirely.

Did you know that you can like The Film Temple on Facebook and follow @thefilmtemple on Twitter? Well you do now!

Here’s a collection of writing I’ve done for other sites, including Indiewire, The Airspace and The Post and Courier.

Does that number by the grade confuse you? Go over to this link, where I explain my idiotically specific 100-point system and how it corresponds to the grades.

Check out my account on
Letterboxd, where you can see my lists of favorite films from any given year or decade, or just brief capsule reviews of whatever I’m watching in my spare time.