I’ve decided to post shorter reviews of various films I’m seeing for the first time via courses I’m enrolled in.
Yasujiro Ozu’s world is one of parsimoniously placed symmetries and laconic, ever-subtler shifts in human composition that form telltale signs of theme and character. Unlike most esteemed directors, he doesn’t rest on prodigal imagery or inflammatory dialogue, nor does he inundate us with restive tangents and dalliances with the absurd. His films are stingy with their carefully focused formalism, and as such are prone to claims that they are left wanting or overly enervated by their placid demeanor. Yet within Ozu’s ostensibly metronomic minimalism lies a gregarious, human vision of the world as a teetering, lightly fluctuating balancing act where the most hurtful of human tragedies is found in the most unadorned of images. In a world constructed out of pairings and balances, the disruptive elegance of a lone human face without a matching motion or figure is as tragic as the end of the world.
Equinox Flower, Ozu’s debut into the world of color, finds the restful director tapping the well of his new medium in the way he always took to new techniques: as quiet accompaniments and amenable inductions into his overall vision rather than uproarious upheavals of the centrality of his diligence and judiciousness. A calming green and sterile grey soothe the frame as pockets of red energy are embroiled in the mixture much like the slips of flaring emotion that hide underneath a composed society where ritual procession is the order of the day. One such order, that of prearranged marriage and its relationship to human affection, always fascinated Ozu most of all, and Equinox Flower is no different despite the infusion of color. This story of father Wataru Hirayama (Shin Saburi), who go-betweens for marriages-to-be and generally tells youths to act on their impulses rather than their parents’, and his daughter Setsuko (Ineko Arima), who wishes to be married against her father’s wishes, is not dissimilar to may of Ozu’s films at the broadest of levels. But as per usual, the devil is in the details.
In this case, although I seek no umbrage with the film, the details are slightly less world-encompassing than Ozu’s top-tier productions. Nothing in the film is a match for the Noh Theater scene in Late Spring, where the impeccable geometry of the stageshow is matched by a quieter, diametrically opposed series of hushed oppositions and matches between father and daughter in the audience. Admittedly, the indomitable canoeing sequence mid-way through Equinox Flower comes within a hair’s breadth; in this scene, parental collectivity and separation are calculated in micro-molecules of physical movements. But “not top-tier Ozu” is a spectacularly relative criticism anyway, and Equinox Flower is still far nearer to the acme of cinema in the grand scheme than to its nadir. Touching performances and invisibly artful framing intimating rather than demonstratively demanding is the Ozu way, and Equinox Flower is an impeccable treatise of the form. In disguising entrenched restlessness within torpor, Ozu divines all the world and then some.
Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean
Never the most decorous of men in his life or in his films, Robert Altman’s works, even at their most cogent, feel like aural and visual melees of contradictory, sometimes cryptic cues and acrimonious gestures of spitfire incisiveness. Even at his most generous and gregarious, he had a sly, errant streak that always managed to embroil himself in tension, most of all during the fallout of the beatifically dissident Popeye. A great film hiding in an oblong outer-shell, a movie bitterly and brutally at odds with itself, that 1980 work is no doubt culpable in the monstrous misunderstanding it received during the day, as is it culpable in intoxicatingly Frankensteinian energy.
Afterward Popeye, Altman was virtually given the boot by mainstream Hollywood (as were most directors of his clout, admittedly). Rather than allowing Popeye’s confused reputation engender defeat, however, the undeterred Altman used the opportunity to count his blessings and re-entrench himself in the world of more diminutive, less cocaine-addled productions.
Among the best of which was his direct follow-up to Popeye, a stunning, and stunningly underseen, theater adaptation about a handful of women returning to the sight of their twenty-years-gone James Dean fan club in small town Texas. Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean didn’t receive the castigation heaped onto Popeye and Altman’s previous Quintet, but this was only because no one saw it. To the amenable, I implore reconsideration, for Five and Dime is a work of scrupulous cinematic characterization and pointedly free-wheeling, unscrupulous cinematic energy that lies somewhere in the vicinity of, although definitely in the same building as, Altman’s all-time underrated masterpiece, the phantasmagorical 3 Women.
Without resorting to platitudes, Altman was unusually empathetic to women compared to directors of his era, even if the deferential treatment they received sometimes bordered the fringes of too-easy depictions of deranged-woman psychosis. The women in Come Back to the Five and Dime are all hodgepodges of social vacillation, with diffidence belying unkempt rage and joie de vivre butting heads with rustic ennui. The performers, from Cher (in a very early film role) to Karen Black to Sandy Dennis to Kathy Bates, all breathe luxuriant generosity and sincerity, even if the screenplay is never the easiest to wash down with its slightly over-wrought, cumbersome metaphors and occasionally didactic over-writing unbecoming for the screen. Admittedly, that’s part and parcel for adaptations from stage-to-screen, which is why we are lucky that Altman was among the most naturally cinematic directors of his day.
Yes, the real star of the film is Altman, reacting to the charge of adapting a play with both an awareness of the improvisational immediacy of theater and a clear understanding of that medium’s limits. Fittingly, he chose to retain the single-set nature of the play only to envision further tactile claustrophobia with a camera that prowls around the intentionally cluttered set-design in a way that a play never could. Ultimately, Altman weaves a collage of iconic imagery that self-reflectively speaks to the way these women treat the Americana iconography around them as a museum of the past as well as a theater upon which to discover or announce their true selves.
Necessarily, the material is more than a smidgen hyperbolic, but Altman tightly coils around it without making the mistake of stamping it down. This is romanticism at its most unabashed, and the only real way to treat the material is to be open about it, announcing the dialogue with a sort of deranged visual commitment that distorts contiguous space and relies on a bold mirror as a transfixing portal into the past. With Altman unapologetically blending past and present in visual depictions of the characters’ various lives superimposed over each other as they recite dialogue, you either attune to the film’s hyperactive ebullience or sicken from it. Much like a fellow vision of ’50s nostalgia from the 1980s from a recent auteur turned cinematic reprobate, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Outsiders, Altman’s film adopts the reclusive cinematic tone of sentimental melodrama to express the ways in which these women are surviving only by entrapping themselves in fictional visions of the decade in which they achieved adulthood.
It’s all galvanized in a mercurial spirit of sheer cinematic craftsmanship as inviting as it is incongruous and alienating. But as a bold, almost expressionistic work, the film throws caution to the wind and sidewinds right into the presentational life views of these women who worship celebrity in hopes of belonging to anything they can grasp onto. Maybe, just maybe, they’ll find a little celebrity in themselves.