You can not find a more breathlessly adventurous and rewarding a period of Japanese cinema than the golden years of 1950-1955. The number of era-defining international monsters of world cinema produced by Japan in this period is arguably unmatched in any national cinema over any five year period: Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai, Ikiru, and Rashomon, Yaujirō Ozu’s Tokyo Story and Early Summer, Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu and Sansho the Bailiff. In this treasure-trove of embarrassing riches, Gate of Hell is usually considered an also-ran. Certainly, it qualifies as a “deep cut”, but only unfairly. Yes, it is no Tokyo Story or Ugetsu, but Gate of Hell is a stunning achievement, and it is stunning in a way that no other Japanese masterpiece from the period is. Continue reading
Has the cinema ever known the pleasures of a greater humanist than Jacques Tati? Charlie Chaplin, who Tati is generally compared to, comes to mind, but Chaplin at his best could draw fangs. His post-silent productions are nasty-minded masterpieces, works of barely-hidden discontent more than whimsical discovery. Tati could poke fun with the best of them, but never ruefully, and anger may not have been a word he knew. Certainly, it wasn’t a word he wanted to room with, or even walk in the same neighborhood as. Chaplin could love his audience or laugh at them, and he sold both as well as any filmmaker ever did. Tati was never not laughing, but always with us, never at us, and his laughs were laughs of love.
His second full-length feature film, 1953’s Mr. Hulot’s Holiday, was the introduction of his most famous character, the divining rod for all of Tati’s interests, passions, needs, and impulses: Mr. Hulot, played by Tati himself in a titanic display of physical comedy matched in all of cinema only by Chaplin and Keaton (which is to say, it hasn’t been matched since this film’s release in 1953, except by Tati’s further experiments with the character). The film is virtually plotless: Hulot, a middle-aged, graying man, vacations in a lightly fantastical seaside cottage town, wanders around town, and causes mild havoc. And we smile. The story of Tati is the story of the smile. Continue reading
Othello should not exist. Not William Shakespeare’s venerable play, one of the great tone poems to dueling egos and wanton desire filtered not through hero and villain but split personalities tearing each other apart until neither can have what they want. But Orson Welles’ Othello, a work of ramshackle, stitched-together genius if ever humankind has produced one. It isn’t Welles’ greatest film, but it is likely the surest explanation of his unmatched gall, of his unending sweat, and of the limits, or lack thereof, of his genius.
Of course Welles the poster-boy wunderkind of Hollywood splendor, given full control over the powers that be to unleash his vision on the world, could release a masterpiece. Citizen Kane, Welles’ first film, and the first of many to serve as parables of his own brilliance and folly, was practically bred to be a work of unparalleled craft. It was almost an ordained masterpiece from its very inception; Welles had the hounds of Hollywood at his feet. An achievement, sure. But with Othello, he unfolded a masterpiece in piece-meal fashion, without anyone’s help, desperately working to clot the blood of a film barely stapled together with odds and ends over years of stilted, stuttery production. Nothing more could showcase the singular auteurism, the singular genius, and the singular madness of Orson Welles. This film is his ultimate statement of “my way or the highway” determination. Continue reading
I have not been cagey or guarded, although I may be a tad evasive from time to time, about my feelings on the neo-realist movement. Its importance to cinematic history needs no defense from me, but whatever role they served in the late ’40s and early ’50s, the limits of their technique should not be avoided. Realism in cinema can be bracing, and it was devoutly essential in the late 1940s, but a completely tethered commitment to the style is a limit to say the least. Of all the things cinema is capable of, realism is not the only worthwhile tempo for a film to play by. The freedom of realism can and often becomes its own prison. Continue reading
You couldn’t find a more idiosyncratic director in classic Hollywood than Robert Wise. Sweaty potboilers, abstracted populist science fiction, howling horror, atomic age message pictures, and gilded, gloriously melodramatic maxi-packed musicals. All bubbled under his domain. Plus, he contributed the insurmountably essential, firecracker editing for no less a picture than Citizen Kane back when he was still in his pre-directing days. He was something of the ultimate Hollywood jack of all trades, and it is true that he wasn’t the greatest master of any single genre. But he was more than a shadow passing through genres as a director-for-hire. He put his personal stamp on every film he ever touched, and he never gave a picture less than 100% of his charisma. Continue reading
The two principles of David Lean’s Brief Encounter never consummate their love, or even acknowledge it, but of all the movie characters to have fallen in love over the past century, no two may mean more than Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson) and Dr. Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard). When they meet at a railway station cafe, they fall for one another, but they are denied their romance by social convention; they are both married, and, although the film doesn’t state it, the then-knowledgeable sense that divorce was frowned on in their world becomes palpable almost from the first instant. Which is the essence of Brief Encounter: not ashamed of itself and totally sincere, but minimalist and hauntedly hinting when other movies would openly declare. More than realism, Brief Encounter is the ultimate study in unfulfilled love and the quiet doom of knowing the end is near, only to have it forced upon you against your own terms. Continue reading