Tag Archives: haunted beauty

National Cinemas: Black Sunday

If Italian cinema went high-brow with fine style, so too did it go low with head-first zest and no less rigor. If an argument is to be made for the 1960s as a golden age of European cinema, the undernourished portion of the claim is genre cinema. Not that genre cinema was at a low during the ’60s. Why in France alone we had Clouzot doing an all-time Hitchcock impersonation even as he ushered action cinema to the next level, Franju giving us grisly, poetically classy horror, Melville abstracting crime thrillers to their icy, cosmic cores, and even Godard and Truffaut dipping their toes in the water with their playful noir pastiches Bande a Part and Shoot the Piano Player, respectively.

But the crown jewel of ’60s European genre cinema cannot but be Italian cinema. The elephant in the room is Sergio Leone, elevating the Western by drawing out its cartoon core and emphasizing tactile feel over all else. Deeper still, however, we have a treasure trove of that most unholy of film genres: horror. Giallo would come in full force with the arrival of the glistening crimson reds and sickly yellows of the ’70s, but the ’60s saw no shortage of pristine, pitch-black Italian horrors, most of them admittedly directed by the master of the form: Mario Bava. Most famous for his color-first lurid later cinema that re-propositioned horror as a ballet of human motion and painted-on color, Bava got his start much earlier than we usually assume. In fact, his first film, and arguably his greatest, is a chiaroscuro masterwork fresh from the grave, a Hammer Horror pastiche that beat Hammer at its own game. I speak of course of the fiery death-drive of Bava’s Black Sunday.
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Review: Ida

It is not a new claim to compare Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida to the works of Ingmar Bergman. The inner psychosis, washed out black-and-white cinematography, quiet, haunted feel of the air around the film, and the contemplative characters are all Bergman down pat. Even better, the film’s clinical, dry exterior, carefully modulated framing, and highly static camera meant to box off characters at a distance for observation are all patented art-house techniques used piercingly well in Ida.

The shot selection is textured, operating form a well thought-out place of “show, not tell” and “show only what is necessary”. The cinematography is frequently gorgeous in a non-insistent,  chilly sort of way that just sneaks up on you and envelops the story, as opposed to insisting on the visuals for their own sake as many art films do. It’s a calm film that hides deep internal dissonance and fractured soul, and that is what just about any Bergman film was in its refutation of narrative cinema for elliptical beauty. The sense that we never quite know what perspective the camera takes is very much present here. When it comes to pure craftsmanship, it’s a hard film to knock down. Continue reading

National Cinemas: My Neighbor Totoro and Grave of the Fireflies

When today’s youth approaches the world of Japanese filmmaking, the most ubiquitous name is not Kurosawa, nor Ozu, nor Mizoguchi, but Miyazaki, the marvelous maestro guiding his Stuido Ghibli toward the clouds lifting up human imagination, and particularly childhood emotion, rendered sublime. It’s perhaps fitting that Miyazaki has taken up the mantel, for he combines the best of the past into a whole equal parts grandiose and sweeping (Kurosawa), spiritually elegiac (Ozu), and mournfully mythic (Mizoguchi).  It seems inappropriate to discuss Japanese cinema without him, and it seemed inappropriate to not take the opportunity to review his two most achingly personal, most emotionally pure movies. That the two were released simultaneously in a theatrical double-bill, and that they are linked by so many diegetic features only to be as tonally opposite as any two films ever were, is an all the more fascinating testament to Miyazaki’s exploration of humanity at its most unrestrained and least affected.

My Neighbor Totoro

Jake and DefneMy Neighbor Totoro is at its best when it is at its simplest, which thankfully is every single frame of every single scene in the whole film. It is a deeply streamlined work, lacking superfluous event to the point where it is almost non-narrative in its impression of childhood amazement. The narrative mostly boils down to eight year old Satsuki (Hidaka Noriko) and her, for lack of a better term, adventures in the forest next to her new rural home. Continue reading

National Cinemas: Gojira (1954)

Update late 2018:

With all the claims about the 2014 American update inaugurating the “post-human” blockbuster, I was reminded on a re-watch of the original how salient Ishiro Honda’s crisis-ridden cinematic creature is. Charged with atomic energy, Honda conjures not only a hundred-foot paleolithic behemoth but a reckoning with a past come to haunt us, a vision of pre-modernity wreaking havoc with our pretensions toward teleological progress into the future.  In its vastly more noirish, pugnacious way, Gojira plays like the B-side to the prior year’s Tokyo Story, Yasujiro Ozu’s take on the crisis of modernity and the dialectics of the private-public divide. Although punchier and not as meditative, Gojira, perhaps no less than Ozu’s film itself, is fully aware of its own paradoxes, and, especially in its final anti-cathartic gesture – science immolating itself to correct its own mistakes – fully aware of the paradoxes which construct modernity itself.

Original review:

Watching the original 1954 Japanese version of Gojira (or Godzilla, its American title) brings haunting, caustic visual poetry to the collective suffering of a post-war nation still reeling from World War II and the H-Bomb Drop. The film is an exposed wound, a lesion on a collective consciousness. It has the big man, of course, in the titular character, but it has much more: humans fending for their lives, running around in total chaos not only from an attack but the impression of an attack leftover from a previous life. Godzilla bestows its titular figure with a looming presence – he towers over the film even when he’s not on screen that often, going beyond the physical object and into the doom lying down on the hearts and souls of Japan. He is an idea more than a physical presence. The film is draped in a malaise of human inactivity on the eve of assured destruction, and a realization, after all, that there is little to be done against a force so impenetrably inhuman. And yet so penetratingly human he is.  Continue reading

American New Wave: Badlands

Terrence Malick didn’t crash into the film-world – he stumbled into it, but the impression he left wouldn’t convey the truth of it. A philosophy student at Harvard who studied Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein, and Heidegger, he went on to teach at MIT after a petty disagreement with his advisor while studying as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford (although in the world of philosophy, everything and nothing is petty). At some point along the way, he decided he felt like making a movie, and the world was never the same. That film, 1973’s Badlands, is so stunningly like every other kids-on-the-run crime film from the American New Wave from a distance, it’s almost comical. But from up-close (or even medium distance), it’s so glaringly apparent that Badlands is the antithesis of the films it’s often compared to (ahem, Bonnie and Clyde) that the initial comparison seems so superficial as to not even be worth noting. Badlands is unlike any film from the period, and American cinema more genuinely. It is a singular experience, and a towering, titanic one.
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Double Screamings: Stake Land and We Are What We Are

With the summer release of Jeff Mickle’s new film, Cold in July, set to prove him as a director of considerable skill who’s in it for the long haul, it seems appropriate to look back on his two previous, relatively unknown and under-appreciated films, truly strong efforts both and films any discerning horror fan can appreciate. 2010’s Stake Land and 2013’s We Are What We Are are scary films, but their horror comes not from shocks but slowly building dread (don’t worry, though, Mickle knows how to underline his composed filmmaking in blood-red strokes when necessary) . He doesn’t give us choppy quick cuts. He lingers, letting his characters define his horror and giving us a blood-curdling melancholy.

Stake Land is a post-apocalyptic vampire road-Western about a family of loners who come together to survive, while We Are What We Are is something of a psychological thriller about a cultish family that maintains religious practices long out of time, including a propensity for cannibalism. But they both share a crucial feeling, a sense of hopeless malaise that seeps out of the screen and permeates the environment. Above all, they’re weary films about the struggle to survive in a situation where survival may not be the best option. Continue reading

National Cinemas: Don’t Look Now

Edited  – March 2016

A phantom haunts Nicolas Roeg’s 1973 phantasmagoria Don’t Look Now, but the ghost is not so much situationally incorporeal as intrinsically incomplete, a lingering devastation wrought by the remnants of the past latching onto the psyche of the present. The psyche tellingly belongs not only to main characters John and Laura Baxter, who lose a child to a lagoon in the opening scene and trip to Venice to let off some steam, but to the film itself. This is because theme is sublimated into the higher realm of form in Roeg’s post-Bava sensory saboteur, a work that lithely reorients our conception of cinematic editing as it construes a complete and utter subjectivity out of discordant, hostile cutting mechanics. Horror is found not in the presence of a wraith from beyond the grave, but in the lasting haunt of the past’s icy grip on the canvas of the human mind. Ghouls and zombies do not need to rise from the Earth when they persist in the heart. Ultimately, Don’t Look Now is a master-class in “psychic entropy”, dismantling the very ligatures of cinema and blinkered assumptions of a rational, fully-knowable world order. Its vision of new knowledge is radically self-splintering, suggesting that a path to truth compromises our very foundational assumptions about time, space, and rational order. Don’t Look Now offers a form of sensory and mental awakening that is ultimately emotionally and physically catastrophic.

Don’t Look Now is a truly unnerving, dissociative film, not only taking its time waiting and watching while the horror latches on but disassembling raw notions of cinematic time altogether. It’s a masterpiece, an indelible marriage of content and form: a shattered, disordered formalist work of abject horror matched to an empathetic study of two humans wracked with nervous discomposure. The extraordinary friction of the editing, sound, and visuals radiates a toxic gloom that tethers the throes of the characters’ mental disarray to a filmic style that tears and frays itself into a shambles. In other words, it’s an internally divided film that explores two characters who exist as fragmented parts of an impossible-to-reconstitute whole. Continue reading