Monday, May 25, 2015

A Straightforward Boy (1929)

Based on the thirteen minutes of surviving footage I was able to see, this film seems like quite the oddball.  It reminded me a little of On purge bebe in Renoir's work, a film that just does not really fit with what comes before or after. 

The only two elements that stood out for me were it seems that Ozu was beginning to experiment with longer takes, a component of his work that would become defining as his career evolved.

And this film really starts to show Ozu's remarkable gift for directing young kids, a talent we will see on very clear display numerous times in his later work. 

Sunday, May 24, 2015

I Graduated, But... (1929)

Ozu's next surviving film only had several minutes of footage left that I was able to find. 

Personally I had some difficulty in the version I saw completely following the plot and I even watched the "eight minute film" again to see if I could get a better handle on it.  Like Fighting Friends, only several minutes remain but even those few minutes gave me a handful of things I would like to quickly touch upon.

The first is the fact that so far, through the first three surviving works, none yet has any real sign of the long take style that would eventually become a trademark of Ozu's approach. 

This film again contains an American film poster, this time it is a Harold Lloyd movie, and also what appears to be the very same piece of college pennant decor that shows up in Days of Youth.  I believe it was Renoir that once said he was virtually making the same film each time out but simply trying to improve upon the result.  I have never read that Ozu was operating from the same goals and objectives.  But in seeing these first three works for the first time and combining them with the ten or so Ozu viewings I had prior to beginning this exercise I can say with some confidence that I know of no other filmmaker (and maybe artist period) whose work becomes hard to recollect in terms of individual works.  In other words, it becomes difficult to remember exact storylines from his films and to separate one film from another in his body of work.  Part of this has to do with the similarity of titles but now I am beginning to feel there is also an extraordinary similarity of plots and perhaps even similar locations and props to further complicate matters.  In this way he becomes a bit like Eric Rohmer in my mind, a filmmaker with a very narrow but focused filmmaking mission.

Lastly a shot that stood out was the main character tearing up a piece of paper as the camera remains on the shreds of paper falling into frame. i.e. a shot of off-screen action.  This restraint and choice not to record all traditionally considered narrative action seems to become more and more a part of the Ozu approach as his career deepens.  We will keep an eye out.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Fighting Friends (1929)

It is unclear watching how much of the finished film survives.  What I saw was a mere fourteen minutes long and almost worked as is but also could have been lacking more than an hour's worth of footage. 

It is so short only a couple of things jumped out at me.  The first was that Ozu once again included an American film poster in a couple of frames.  Not only did it reiterate what seems like one of his most personal themes - the threat of Westernization - but it also began to suggest that Ozu might have been a real cinephile.

The other small thing that struck me was Ozu's humainism.  The plot bears great similarity to the plot of his first surviving film, Days of Youth, and the way that Ozu resolves the conflict reminds yet again that Ozu must be considered among the greatest humanists ever to work within the medium of film.


Friday, May 22, 2015

2015

5/21/15 I watched Brett Morgen's Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck.  I always liked Cobain and a good bit of Nirvana and wanted to be enlightened by new footage and a deeper, new perspective on it all.  But I think for as much access as Morgen seemingly had, the doc comes off as too objective and too surface.  The style, particularly the animated sequences, also becomes tiring after a little while. 

7/14/15 I watched Alfonso Gomez-Rejon's Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.  It is charming if you do not think too much about it and heartfelt if you do not really question it.  Otherwise I think it is pretty manipulative, rooted deeply in artifice and arrives at most of its wins shamelessly with its toolkit of abundant music cues and twee hipness. 

8/4/15 I watched Alex Garland's Ex Machina.  Garland makes a grand entrance with his directorial debut proving a keen creator of mood, a stylist of noticable control and restraint, a more than competent hand with his actors and a director with an eye that at its best moments conjures up memories of Welles, Tarkovsky and Kubrick.  The film that I would have wanted Her to be and about as interesting of an exploration of where our reliance on technology might be leading us.

8/31/15 I watched F. Gary Gray's Straight Outta Compton.  Although it treads in many of the cliches of this type of Hollywood biopic, I mostly enjoyed it as a reflection of my adolescent years and a musical explosion that registered loudly at a very formative time for me. 

12/5/15 I watched Hou Hsiao-hsien's The Assassin.   It's always a struggle to see a film by a director you greatly admire that you are not sure you fully comprehended, particularly when you suspect you are watching some type of greatness even if you cannot seem to fully make sense of it.  What I do know for sure is that it is the most cinematic 2015 film I have seen, and by a longshot.  It is also one of the few films I would consider a part of that rarefied group of fully sustained hypnotic works, the group that includes McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Dead Man, The Mother and the Whore, Regular Lovers and Kings of the Road.  So if I had to step out and explain some of the themes or meanings that I might have caught I would first say that it almost seemed that Hou was saying about himself that he knows he is supremely talented (perhaps the most of anyone currently at work) but simply cannot allow himself like Yinniang to make the moves (or movies) that would make him more of a (commercial) success.  Or like the bluebird tale that is recounted two or three times during the film, is Hou saying that he is struggling with loneliness and feelings of isolation as one of the few remaining filmmakers still truly striving to make great art?  Or is he trying to tell us that he feels that if he were to allow himself to be less reserved, less ascetic, and less austere as a filmmaker and give in to what he knows would be easier commercial decisions that he would be concerned that a whole type of cinema would disappear?  Again I am not fully sure what Hou is up to in his latest but in an already incredibly impressive body of work, this is probably his most purely beautiful film to date.      

12/5/15 I watched Josh Mond's James White.  Even though I was not much of a fan of the other two BorderLine-produced films I had seen (Afterschool and Martha, Marcy, May and Marlene) I had read a couple of positive things from trusted people about this one and so wanted to see it.  I thought it was well done, extraordinarily well acted and a fine example of sustained "exclamation point cinema".  But this is not cinema I really care about and what is interesting is to have the experience I had today which to see it back-to-back with a supreme example of "parentheses cinema" like Hou Hsiao-hsien's The Assassin.  Whereas a close-up or exclamation point with rigorous, reserved cinema pays huge dividends and creates powerful, poignant effects, thinking of the end of Pickpocket or even Nights of Cabiria, the reverse is not true with exclamation cinema.  When this type of cinema tries to slow down and create contemplative space, it falls really flat.  So even if I never end up winning that battle, convincing people that there are real problems with exclamation cinema, this drawback alone proves to me I am right about its great inferiority next to other approaches.      

12/9/15 I watched Sam Mendes' Spectre.  I preferred Mendes' prior Bond outing, Skyfall, as I was not much of a fan of Seydoux (even thought I loved her in Blue is the Warmest Color) and Mendes just seemed lazy in a number of the shots.  But I continue to like Craig in the role and the opening helicopter action scene as well as the introduction of the new assassin (eye murder) and the probes of James at the end were all very effective.  

12/28/15 I watched Asif Kapadia's Amy.  Certainly gave me a better appreciation of the singer and detailed in doc-form someone's decline and ultimate demise as well as anything I may have ever seen.  Just did not have the shape or the power of his previous film, Senna.  

1/5/16 I watched Stevan Riley's Listen To Me Marlon.  The wall-to-wall music is off putting but the remarkable audio footage of Marlon overcomes the film's formal shortcomings and makes this one of the most immersive documentaries I have seen in a while in terms of putting one into the skin of its subject.  

1/12/16 I watched Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu's The Revenant.  Although I have never been much of a fan of the filmmaker, I still find many things to admire with his latest film.  The fact that this unimaginably difficult film was made by a 52 year old in itself is remarkable and that he has created two sequences of great cinematic interest, the opening battle and the bear attack.  Otherwise it is mostly restrained, which is unusual for Innaritu, but painfully predictable.  Di Caprio's character will exact his revenge.  

1/23/16 I watched Rick Bernstein and Michael Tollin's Kareem: Minority of One.  A moving and interesting tribute to Kareem, one of the more enigmatic and unusual athletes of recent times.  

1/24/16 I watched Todd Haynes' Carol.  Haynes' latest is very mature and sophisticated, more European in its textures and shape than American indy or mainstream.  It felt even more mysterious than its closest Haynes' counterpart Far from Heaven and it is poetic and delicate in ways I have never experienced his other work.  A great surprise and another chapter in the brilliant careers of Blanchett and Burwell.    

1/29/16 I watched Michael Mann's Blackhat.  Unmistakably a Mann film with whispers and chords from a number of his earlier works.  More than ever it was clear to me how interested Mann is in abstraction.  Unfortunately, in spite of a number of very positive reviews, I found it difficult to follow and I never fully fell in with the story being told.  

2/29/16 I watched Tom McCarthy's Spotlight.  Although an ugly film from a visual standpoint and a bit forced at times with Shore's music and where it aims to take us emotionally, the compelling storyline and well crafted script move us above its limitations.  Particularly of note for me was its casting, I thought the spotlight team were all very smart choices and it was as good of a performance as I have seen from both Keaton and Ruffalo.  

3/12/16 I watched Ryan Coogler's Creed.  I was in the minority when it came to Fruitvale Station, Coogler's calling card film.  But after seeing his entry into the Rocky franchise, I admit, "they were probably right, at least in seeing something.  And I was probably wrong, at least in seeing very little."Although an informal sequel of sorts, Creed also has certain moments that gain enormous weight from digging into the past, going behind and underneath the previous Rocky storylines that have embedded themselves so deeply into many of our lives.  I noticed this unique power of the prequel when I recently watched Mendes do it with Bond in Skyfall and I felt it again a number of times in Creed, most distinctly when Creed's trunks are passed on.   

5/12/16 I watched Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon's Best of Enemies.  Vidal's intelligence and eloquence as always are impressive to watch.  But I am not sure the film is any more substantial and less theatrical than all that the film is seeking to attack.  

5/21/16 I watched Adam McKay's The Big Short.  It is entertaining and has style to spare but it also is not always very easy to follow.  Fun but just don't try to think too much about it.  

7/4/16 I watched Terrence Malick's Knight of Cups.  Malick's tone poetry this time turns its attention to Malick's own wandering from the late seventies to the late nineties, early 2000s, to the movie industry, and to the city of Los Angeles.  The more I see of his late work, the more I see similarities with Godard's feel for classical music, nature and refusal to conform to audience expectation or even their ability to follow or understand.  I found this one, like his last with Affleck, more confounding than rewarding but I continue to seek out his work as he is as unique and gifted with cinema style as anyone currently at work. 

7/11/16 I watched Noah Baumbach's Mistress America.  I have never been a fan of Baumbach's hipster sensibility and felt no different with this outing.  Sure, his character speak can be humorous at times but no one feels deeply rooted or substantial enough to be real and after a while that only left me frustrated.

7/20/16 I watched Arnaud Desplechin's My Golden Days.  I came in with massive expectations having followed Les Inrocks' coverage of the film's debut at Cannes last year.  As with most of Desplechin's work, this one is ambitious, sprawling, novelistic and very modern in its construction and execution.  If Desplechin had only chosen a different actress, a different type of face for Esther, this one might rank at the very top of his films but as it stands it is entertaining, at times extraordinary, but only partially affecting.   

8/28/16 I watched Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Cemetery of Splendour.  Of all the filmmakers currently hailed as top shelf artists, I have probably struggled the most with Weerasethakul.  His cinema is slow and visually modest and to date I have never quite found my way in.  But I think I am finally starting to get it.  At a time when mainstream cinema (and life) seem infinitely far from introspective art, the true artists probably feel they need to be even more extreme in their approach.  In Weerasethakul's case, this means no non-diegetic music, very long takes, almost no camera movements and almost no close-ups.  Weerasethakul forces us to stop in hopes that we will actually spend some time contemplating within the long quiet spaces he has set up and created.  If the critical responsibility of art is to make us look at ourselves and our world, Weerasethakul is fully answering the call.  Joining the ranks of Ozu, Dreyer, Bresson, Kiarostami and Hou Hsiao-hsien, Weerasethakul is boldly continuing the legacy of transcendental filmmaking with each challenging film, each rigorous scene, and each extraordinarily disciplined frame he painstakingly takes the time to offer us. 

9/2/16 I watched Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow's DePalma.  One of my favorite filmmakers receives a nice documentary treatment and there are a couple of interesting revelations.  But the form of the documentary is very boring and I think the film is ultimately a lot less than what it could have been.   

11/10/16 I watched Kent Jones' Hitchcock/Truffaut.  I was a little disappointed given how much respect I have for Jones and how much I enjoyed his doc on Val Lewton.  This one did not bring near as much new information as I would have expected.  

11/27/16 I watched Hong Sang-soo's Right Now, Wrong Then.  Hong's latest outing once again treads familiar territory - a doppelganger narrative, a filmmaker as main character and plenty of scenes of eating and drinking.  This installment especially benefits from Hong's ability to capture so many of those awkward but charged emotions we have all experienced during the early stages of courting.  And the way the second narrative remixes the events that have come before has Hong working at the absolute height of his skill.

12/31/16 I watched Nanni Moretti's Mia Madre.  It has been years since I have seen a new Moretti film, the last being 2001's The Son's Room.  But his work such as Palombella rossa and Caro diario both rate among my favorite films of the eighties and nineties.  Moretti is in top form with his latest outing creating something that is fairly small-scaled and intimate that is appealing to look at and listen to and that will make you both think and feel deeply.   

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Days of Youth (1929)

Just a few expectations to set before I begin this exploration of Ozu.  My notes on each film will be more impressionistic, steering clear for the most part of plot summaries, and focusing instead on an overall effort to explain what exactly makes Ozu's work so powerful.  I will avoid reading any outside information on Ozu while completing this film by film viewing in an attempt to record only my pure reactions uninformed by any outside opinion or context.  The advantages of this approach I hope will ultimately outweigh the obvious limitations.  For his filmography, I am using what is listed on IMDb.  There are most certainly more definitive lists somewhere else but for this informal project I feel IMDb will be sufficient.  According to both IMDb and this article Ozu's first seven films are forever lost.  These films are:

Sword of Penitence/Zange no yaiba (1927)
The Dreams of Youth/Wakodo no yume (1928)
Wife Lost/Nyobo funshitsu (1928)
Pumpkin/Kabocha (1928)
A Couple on the Move/Hikkoshi fufu (1928)
Body Beautiful/Nikutaibi (1928)
Treasure Mountain/Takara no yama (1929)

And so I begin this project with Ozu's eighth film, Days of Youth, from 1929.

What I first noticed about the film is it lacked the typical Ozu contemplative and placid rhythm.  Instead, most of the shots seemed to last only a couple of seconds and the film was almost entirely devoid of the long static takes I often associate with Ozu's work. 

As early as this first surviving work, Ozu already has an interest in exploring the threat of Westernization on Asian culture.  During several moments he lingers over American products - characters eating "California" asparagus or American raisins, American university college pennants hanging on one of the main character's walls, and the most prevalent of all, a poster from Borzage's 1927 American film 7th Heaven

I would classify the work as Ozu still searching for his trademark style.  There are certain expressionistic camera angles and pans of the camera that Ozu would seem to entirely abandon later on his career (too flashy).  And there is an "action sequence", a scene of the characters dancing, that is perhaps the most memorable scene in the film but also far from the type of flourish Ozu would allow himself in his later work. 

A characteristic of Ozu's work that maybe does not get mentioned enough is his sense of playfulness.  There are a number of sight gags reminiscent of Chaplin or Keaton and a lightness Ozu attemps to infuse into the narrative that we will see again and again in his work. 

Lastly, more of a question than anything and something to look for as these viewings evolve is Ozu's Zen Buddhism.  The film often felt more cruel than the other Ozu work I had seen only to come around at the end to something that felt very much aligned to the Zen Buddhist perspective.  More on this theme and overall aspect of Ozu's work as the project continues.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Going Renoir on Ozu

I lived in France for about two years total.  About six weeks during the Summer of 1993, about a year from the Fall of 1994 to the end of Summer 1995 and then about a year from Summer 1996 to Summer 1997.  It is definitely what first hooked me on film and I still get quite the charge whenever I think about French cinephilia. 

During my early days of France and of really starting to get into film I would often hear about Jean Renoir.  People I came into contact with would tell me he was the most important French director ever, above all the rest of his peers including Bresson, Godard, and Rohmer. 

And so finally in early 1996 wanting to understand this Renoir fuss, I embarked on a two month endeavor to watch every single one of his films I could find, in chronological order, and write thoughts after each of them.  By the time I finished the exercise I felt like I had gotten a real handle on Renoir and that they were right.  Renoir did seem like the most important of all of the French filmmakers I had seen.

Fast forward to the last couple of years.  I have slowly begun to discover the cinema of Yasujiro Ozu, at this point having probably seen about ten or so of his films and having made the informal comment a number of times that I belive Ozu just might be the single greatest filmmaker of all time.  But I am a completist.  How can I make such a statement having seen less than 20% of his work?  And so I think it probably apt that I go Renoir on Ozu, charting his career, working to try to understand him, one film at a time in chronological order going deep and as complete as I possibly can. 

Coming soon.