This being the second of two new reviews of 1926 films for the National Cinemas month on German Cinema (replacing a much longer essay I had planned to finish the month off with, but since it has been many months since September now I decided to formally use that essay for another purpose and not align it with the National Cinemas project, which I can now put to rest).
So yes, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves was not the first animated feature length release. That title is usually claimed a full eleven years earlier by a Lette Reiniger’s The Adventures of Prince Achmed, but even here we find ourselves in murky waters. At least two other full length animated features are known to have existed and since been lost to the briny depths of film history, so in truth, neither Snow White nor The Adventures of Prince Achmed deserve the “revolutionary” claim they are often afforded. None of this really matters though; they are both stellar, all-time releases important less for their singular status (although rest assured, Achmed is indeed a singular film for other reasons) than for how sterling they are as art and storytelling even today. They are stupendous films, great when they were released, yes, but they would be as great still if they were released just today. Continue reading
Edited June 2016
In the annals of action cinema, only a few directors regularly serve up meaningful main courses. Few really claim even one all-time classic, and if you increase the limit to two, you’re really counting on one hand. Thankfully, Hong Kong malevolence maestro John Woo has enough panache in his step and off-kilter edge in his frame to cover a full crash course on the genre. Perhaps the only action director whose demented fugue bathes his entire (pre-2000) canon in a gusto that marks his films as individual slices of a larger action opera, this only speaks with more fluency to Woo’s oddly existential, personalized take on a genre typically reserved for more corporate penthouses. He’s a full-on longitudinal case study in hyperbolizing and electro-shocking violence and elevating it to an oblong poetry of human flesh and human desire trapped in perpetual motion, always searching for the next potential soul to take, or, for his ennui-addled protagonists, the next soul to find.
House of Flying Daggers
I suppose that, at some level, Zhang Yimou’s House of Flying Daggers is a marital-arts action picture, and a pretty terrific one at that. The thing is, and this is no surprise for someone who knows a thing or two about Zhang Yimou’s history as a dramatist who uses color, framing, and motion to define mood and texture, it just doesn’t feel like an action film, and it functionally has almost no interest in being one. Yimou is a great director of action, but not necessarily an action director, if that makes sense; he takes what would be action in another film and transforms the excitement into a far different beast, much less about what is happening and who is defeating/ battling who than the motion of the filled-in spaces on screen and their battle with the empty spaces dancing around them. House of Flying Daggers is an exciting film, but its excitement is far too abstracted, too cognitive and distanced and reflective, to fit comfortably into the bounds of “action” as it is conventionally defined.
The first thing to note about Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and the most important: it is very proud of what it is, and makes no attempt to hide it. Lee’s film is a melodrama, unambiguously and unashamedly, and Lee directs with painterly flourish to match. He showcases the splendor and dignity of the work with magnificence and a sense of illustrious eminence, positioning it as part classical Hollywood epic (Lee is after all a highly Americanized director) and part Chinese mythmaking fable. Nothing about Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon is played at the level of naturalism, and all of it enhances the opulence of a production which wears its honest drama on its sleeves. Continue reading
Here, in its final month, is where the National Cinemas project functionally comes undone and reaching for something a little broader becomes preferable, if not essential. You see, it is notoriously difficult, for reasons that exist far outside the world of film, to determine the nationality of many films with partial funding from mainland China. The greatest difficulty comes into play when Hong Kong is involved, and at the risk of avoiding the issue, the debate over Hong Kong’s nationality is very much a topic I am not sufficiently informed in to make my own decision on what shall qualify here. For this reason, this month will include films where the primary language is within the broadly defined group of Chinese languages, including Cantonese, Mandarin etc, and where the funding comes from any combination of the nations of China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Not necessarily the best solution, I know, but for the time being It’ll have to do.
Edited for Clarity
If one is to search for designated auteurs in the modern era (and we have precious few in an increasingly arid well), there are a few names that routinely pop up, but chances are that Wong Kar-wai is right up there. Kar-wai’s films are classicist dramas, worldly and weary and aware of their universal status in their almost mythic exploration of sighing human loneliness and the passing moments of connection that counterpoint but only further contour that loneliness. His films reflect an old-school filmmaking mentality seldom seen today, but they are uniquely primed for modern-day China, works equally comfortable with their intimate world in a specific locale and the wide-reaching humanity they dance with and caress in their very specificity. He’s a maker of masterpieces, he is, and if you want to discuss Kar-wai’s intricate perfectionism and impressionist color-as-emotion collages that are at once judiciously composed and free-flowing, you really must begin with the man’s all-time masterpiece among masterpieces, and the best work of cinematic art produced in the still-young century to this day: 2000’s In the Mood for Love. Continue reading
The Wages ofFear, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s famed French-Italian white-knuckle thriller was and is almost incomparable as an exercise in hair-raising. It is so well edited, choreographed, acted, and composed that one almost wishes to reduce it to the level of thriller alone (not that, with this skill, it would be “reducing” per-se). Yet Clouzot was not, nor was he ever, simply content to thrill. His scabrous films simply used the conventions of thriller cinema to chill to the bone, to indict and valuate, to scare, to hope, and to leave nothing in their wake. His 1953 work is absolutely one of the most thrilling films ever released, yet this does the texture of the piece a disservice. If it is Hitchcockian, and Hitch is the director Clouzot is almost always compared to, then it evokes Hitch on all his levels, not simply thrilling but tacitly provoking and confronting society’s very base construction and the nastier aspects of the human condition under a thin membrane of sharply composed set pieces. Continue reading
There are precious few films about childhood. Many aim for an audience of children, but most look down upon them in their assumption that they will eat up any and all immature entertainment simply because it is handed to them. It is the rare film that tries to peel back the layers behind childhood and to give us a look at what growing up entails. Because it is difficult to focus on children in film without rendering them types, either immature simpletons who do not understand the world or wise-beyond-their-years precocious types who “know” better than the adults around them, it is rarer that a film succeeds at presenting childhood with a quiet sigh, knowing a certain maturity without ever losing itself in the adult desire to judge and moralize to children. There have been a number of great films about childhood, but none stand taller than Francois Truffaut’s debut film, the work that kicked off perhaps the most important movement in film history, the French New Wave: The 400 Blows. Continue reading
Eyes Without a Face (French: Les Yeux Sans Visage) is technically a French-Italian co-production, but it was made by a predominantly French crew, by a French director, and is told in French. Plus, if we want to talk the style and feel of French vs. Italian horror, Eyes Without a Face is about as far on the French side as humanly possible. So, you know, deal with it.
In the annals of time, 1960 might just go down as the greatest year ever for horror filmmaking. We have the obvious game-changing genre classics like Psycho and Peeping Tom from the English speaking world (poetic that those two harrowing critiques of the directorial gaze came to fruition in the same year) and the Italian film industry bursting forth from the womb with Mario Bava’s Black Sunday. The ’60s were also the greatest decade for Japanese horror, and Nobuo Nakagawa’s1960 release Jigoku saw that trend kick off in ultra-fine style. In the midst of this, a film had to be something special to hold its own, and perhaps one of the most special horror releases of all is Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face, a work of horror wholly at odds with the norms of the genre.
Franju’s classically-trained but down-to-earth style is intoxicating, intentionally treating the material with the soft delicate hand of a piano player prone to liberating fits of more chaotic frenzy. He proves able to switch on a dime, creating a film at once modern for 1960 and elegantly timeless. Moments of carnage ring out, but its the thoughtful finishing-school haze that evokes Lewtonesque minimalism and Victorian era dreaminess that sweeps over the film and sticks in the memory the longest. Other than Lewton’s I Walked with a Zombie, Eyes Without a Face may just be the most impressionistic horror film ever released.
Edited in April 2016
Jacques Tati’s Playtime is the sort of ambidextrous work that grants a reviewer the blessing and curse of confronting opening lines from all angles. One might look to the evolution of Tati’s carnivalesque visionary depiction of modern society over the course of twenty years of filmmaking. Or the fact that this 1967 feature, his magnum opus in more ways than one, almost bankrupt him and went six times over budget as the famously meticulous Tati spent months upon months refilming sequences with psychotic perfectionism. Then we find the brilliantly twitchy physical comedy in the film. And the warped classicisim of the imagery and sound design that distorts and reinvents not only modernity but our place as fleshy individuals in the world. Then there’s the commendable commitment to throwing narrative cinema by the wayside in favor of Tati’s vision of space and place as human savior and human assassin, depending, of course, upon how we interact with the world around us. Continue reading
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.