Sometimes bemoaned for relegating himself to that most Japanese of genres – the samurai flick – and retreating into flavors of Americanization, director Akira Kurosawa performs something of an inside-out operation with High and Low. A fiendish film noir with fangs drawn at a vein spurting society’s maladies, High and Low casts the suspense picture out of its Americana corral by inducing a specifically Japanese flavor. Right from the get-go, Kurosawa’s film is hot on the trail of a molten morality play, teasing suggestions of violence that greasily spread like venom through the bones of Japanese society. Rather than mining his nation’s mythopoetic samurai memory and massaging it into an international sizzler primed for American audiences, this hyper-modern company-man thriller cuts a filmic diamond out of the suffocating coal of Japanese classism, squalor, and privilege. With its humid pangs of ethical disarray and pungent propositions of emotional upheaval, High and Low channels an ever-mutable dialogue between social codes and personal feelings, exploring an uncharted territory where each is informed by and negotiates the other. Continue reading
A dive-bar livid with unvarnished restlessness, Martin Scorsese’s first “big picture” breakthrough is no mere chopping block for his later, more famous regurgitations of his pet themes: Catholic guilt, boys being boys, male angst, un-placeable inner-city maladies. Instead, Mean Streets is all the more probing for its out-of-focus, improvisational gusto. It lacks the “perfect” formalist backbone of The Brow’s later Taxi Driver, Scorsese’s perverted poison-pen letter to classical Hollywood noirs as well as a codified conduit for writer Paul Schrader’s meditations of transcendence and Robert Bresson. But while more noncommittal and less precise on the surface, Mean Streets’ libertine energy and scruffy, scrappy, unfocused workaday energy actually bests its more confident younger sibling for sheer restlessness.
Ninety-two years on, it goes without saying that Battleship Potemkin is a sketch more than an aria, but Eisenstein stencils better than just about anyone. Disposing with the character-first politics of American cinema then expediently working overtime with enough charisma to turn film into the de facto bourgeois art form, Potemkin is politically flimsy. But that’s acceptable: it’s a polemic, a red-hot screed, the charred apex of a garbled wail of revolutionary fervor, and if it isn’t quite the feeding frenzy for inventive technique that Strike or some of Eisenstein’s future films were, it’s exciting enough to fulfill Pauline Kael’s declaration (on another film) of the proverbial “movie in heat”. Agitprop it is, which isn’t a problem. The issue, and it is exclusively relative (that of a lesser masterpiece vs. Strike, a greater masterpiece) is that this particular agitator isn’t as agitated as Eisenstein’s greatest films. Continue reading
At once a howling abyss and a succulent morsel of semi-absurdist humanistic comedy, Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North is a film of wonderfully unresolved, immanent contradictions and multivalent constellations of primordial beauty. The most obvious dormant tension that requires surfacing is that it isn’t a documentary, at least insofar as the conventional scripture would bequeath it. No, this slice-of-life tale of “Nanook” (actually Allakariallak), an Inuit in the arctic regions of Canada, as filmed by filmmaker-explorer Robert Flaherty, was largely an ahistorical concoction fabricated to feign allegiance to the Western ideology of the Inuit as a backward Other whose life was governed by genial amusement and befuddlement at any and all Western artifacts. Many of these technologies objects were well-known to Allakariallak, a genuine Inuit who was “in” on the production of the film, as Inuit culture by 1922 had advanced well beyond the spear-wielding icon curated by Flaherty for white America’s racial memory. Continue reading
I meant to get to this a bit ago, obviously, but this review is in memorium to the dearly departed demon of cinema Seijun Suzuki.
Ever the stylistic wanderer, director Seijun Suzuki nonetheless never strayed too far from home: a theater of abstraction that relishes expressionist ghosts and bedevilment, Tokyo Drifter nonetheless incorporates a little social probing, if not strict social scrutiny, into its madness. Beneath, or via, his ten-thousand-watt stylistic bravado, Suzuki harnesses genre experimentation as an avenue for social dissent, conjuring the filmic equivalent of a cognitive blast of free expression, an unchained consciousness adhering to no social rules about how cinema ought to function. Tokyo Drifter is disorienting avant-pop, an orgasm of otherworldly ambition, but the aesthetic heaven it conjures is always in mortal conflict with earthly society and the political and social restraints thereof. Within lies the kernel of an immanent critique of Japanese honor and no-questions-asked loyalty. Continue reading