Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Favorite (four), part twenty-nine

Just like in my other twenty-eight posts in this series, I want to take a second to single out the highlights of my recent film viewing.  Most of the films I have been glad to see but only very few have stayed with me.  This series is my filter for those and my hope is one or two will be good to you as well.

Martin Scorsese's George Harrison: Living in the Material World
One of the cinephiles I respect the most recently commented to me that Scorsese seems more of a master in his contemporary documentary work than in his recent narrative output and after seeing his Dylan and now his Harrison I would not argue.  What is most impressive is how vital he is able to make moments where his only footage is that of still photos.  Studying his technique during these moments and the unique way he is able to juice the medium through music, editing and camera movement is deeply instructive and a marvel to see and experience. 

Abbas Kiarostami's Like Someone in Love
What Kiarostami is hoping to convey I cannot say for sure. But as a long time fan of his work I took it in as a very personal statement. Here Kiarostami, one of the cinema's warmest practitioners, the lovely wise soul of Iranian cinema,  is working in the middle of the Japanese metropolis. Far removed are we (and he) from the wide open expanses of his classic earlier work and we can only guess how fearful he is of our world and what it seems to be quickly becoming. Through the Olive Trees this is not. Kiarostami has entered a far darker phase and in the process might be one of the few still holding up a mirror and trying to find a way to be hopeful.       

Hong Sang-soo's In Another Country
I used to think of Hong as a Korean Rohmer and there are strong similarities - a penchant for naturalism, conversation as the main action and activity, and a recurring interest in the potential disruption of relationships due to the arrival of a third person. But Hong also goes for real whimsy and seems lighter than Rohmer. In fact the more I think about it he seems like this odd blend of Rohmer and Rivette, structurally adventourous but grounded primarily in reality. And I have long had a thing for Huppert. Hong uses her well, brings out her appeal, and ends up delivering one of his smoothest, most likable films yet.

Robert Mann's Altman
A fairly straightforward doc at least when compared to the cinematic complexity in Scorsese's documentary on George Harrison. What I found most enlightening was that even though Altman has become someone I consider among my favorite filmmakers I  realized how very little I knew about his life.  Mann does Altman justice and I think this would be enjoyed by anyone who thinks they are a fan.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

I Flunked, But... (1930)

The first Ozu film I was unable to find with English subtitles so I was forced to watch it the Langlois way and focus almost entirely on its form.

Again I was surprised to see the flagrant American references - pennants bearing the names Michigan, Ohio State and Yale and yet another American film poster, this one from 1929 for the film Charming Sinners.  It has been shocking so far to see so many allusions to American culture since Ozu is considered one of the most Japanese of all Japanese filmmakers.  I am still not entirely clear if the references are homages or warnings to the threat of Westernization.  Either way they show up in very flagrant ways in almost every single one of Ozu's early works. 

It is also surpising yet again to see Ozu utilize tracking shots.  It seems later on that Ozu will move away almost entirely from using any movements at all of the camera. In these early works however Ozu at least seems curious about the potential information such moves can convey and utilizes them with little but some frequency.

There is also Ozu's playfulness again on display.  Like in Walk Cheerfully, the close friends have little dances and secret moves they like to occasionally break into.  These tiny little flourishes suggest a certain lightness in Ozu's sensibility but also underline what I am starting to feel is one of his key themes, solidarity.

As the main character's friends go off to celebrate their graduation success and we remain with the character who did not pass his exit exam, Ozu gives us one of the first glimpses at a hallmark piece of his style, the extreme low-angle shot.  This moment is the perfect utilization for the shot as it creates deep empathy with our main character at an extreme low point for him.  It will be interesting to see if the "tatami shot" will start to show up in every Ozu film moving forward.   

Lastly I want to mention the first lengthy cheating scene in the classroom as the most sustained and accomplished scene at this point in Ozu's cinema.  He creates great tension and sustains what is almost comparable to a Chaplin or Keaton gag.  Ozu's rhythm and storytelling shine and the scene is wonderfully entertaining.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Walk Cheerfully (1930)

I had to order this film which is part of the reason there has been a gap in time since I last posted in this series.

I would classify Walk Cheerfully as an Ozu gangster film or an Ozu noir.  Before this viewing I never even knew the director dabbled in the genre.  It is a little like seeing Dylan do electronica, a bit shocking and not fully satisfying.  It is actually a place where Ozu's later, famous style of slowness and emotional heft could have been quite comfortably worked in.  Other extraordinary cinema stylists have certainly flourished in similar worlds, Leone with Once Upon a Time in America, Coppola's Godfather films and the list goes on and on.  But I do not think Ozu had found his exact voice yet and for the most part this work comes off as a pretty by the numbers entry in the genre.

However a couple of stylistic elements I would like to mention.  Including the opening shot, Ozu surprises with a few pretty complex camera movements, particularly crane and tracking shots, neither of which will show up very much in his later work.  There is also a shot framed with substantial foreground and background action, something I will be curious to see if Ozu returns to in later films.  When done in a subtle manner like Ozu does here, it certainly feels at home in the naturalistic spaces Ozu likes to exist in.   

Is it merely a genre film?  Is there not anything that makes it recognizable as the genre work of one of the greatest filmmakers the medium has ever known?  Perhaps.  There is both a playfulness and a deep emotionality Ozu is able to create in the final few frames that is trenchant and leaves us feeling this work is perhaps at least a little more personal than we had been led to believe.