January 27, 2015

Duane Michals: The Man who Invented Himself

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Camille Guichard - 2013
Alive Mind Cinema Region 1 DVD

What I find interesting in the past few years is that what is categorized as a documentary has taken on various forms, all veering away from such traditional notions of chronology, revealing of facts, or any attempt at objectivity. A good part of Guichard's film takes its visual queues from Michal's photography, so what we are looking at are glimpses of dreams and imaginings.

Michals discusses photography as being a reflection. What are first seen are portraits of celebrities, most easily recognizable, and within the context of style and subject, relatively traditional. Most of Michals' photographs, the more personal work, plays with light, is often sexually charged, and often makes use of just a portion of a body, or bodies. Some of these photos are parts of dream-like narratives.

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Filmed not long after the photographer turned eighty, Michals comes off as a child in an octogenarian's body, giving voices to various props like a stuffed bird or a model head, playing with a bowler hat in tribute to his time meeting Rene Magritte in Brussels. The closest to anything biographical are references to his childhood in McKeesport, Pennsylvania. Michals does some discussion of his work as a photographer who originally was intending to be a painter, who finds his visual inspiration from other painters. In terms of becoming a photographer, Michals did invent himself, describing his transition from painter and graphic designer as being "self-taught".

I've not been able to find much about Camille Guichard. His other available work as a director was a documentary on sculptor Louise Bourgeois. In a description of what was intended while production was still in progress, Guichard's aim was to create a "kaleidoscope of photographic sequences". This posting by Shelley Rice discusses some of the making of the film, making it clear that what we see is the result of an active collaboration between the filmmakers and their subject.

The playfulness of Michals does get pushed when a photographic exhibit is created for the benefit of the wildlife that lives near Michals' Vermont home. For those with either a vague knowledge of Michals, or no knowledge at all, some of what is seen will be confusing, without context or any kind of explanation. While their relationships to Michals is usually assumed by their function, be it model or photographer's assistant, various people appear and disappear without any explanation, some just seeming to act as foils for Michals' story-telling. Again, neither Guichard nor Michals has any interest in the more traditional or expected demands of documentary. Hopefully, this will not dissuade those unfamiliar with Duane Michals from taking a look at his life and work.

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January 25, 2015

Coffee Break

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Elsebeth Steentoft and Ulrich Thomsen in In a Better World (Susanne Bier - 2010)

January 22, 2015

R100

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Hitoshi Matsumoto - 2013
Drafthouse Films

Not that Hitoshi Matsumoto's film is in anyways a more serious look at sadomasochism, but with the almost monochromatic look as well as the more transgressive activity depicted both visually and thematically go beyond the "Shades of Gray" some film viewers are anticipating. The basic setup has a salaryman, Takafumi, a furniture salesman at a large department store, who has contracted for a year of encounters with various dominatrixes who appear at random to inflict beatings, whippings and kicking in high heeled shoes. There are no "safe" words, and no rules other than that the contract is irrevocable.

Takafumi's pleasure is indicated by a ripple effect that is seen behind his head when the sessions are over. Takafumi's wife is in a coma, and there is no hope for her to regain consciousness. Matsumoto doesn't state anything outright, but with Takafumi's life outside of work limited to his father-in-law and his eight year old son, one might give this situation a Freudian interpretation of some kind of survivor's guilt mixed with relationships with women that sublimate sexual intimacy.

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Equally at random are scenes that take place at a screening, with R100 as a film in progress. Studio executives step out of the screening room between reels to discuss what is going on in the film, supposedly the work of a one-hundred year old director who looks suspiciously like Suzuki Seijun. These scenes are the funniest part of the film, especially when the director's spokesman explains that per the director, viewers have to be 100 years old to understand R100, hence the film's title. This, of course, infuriates one of the execs who notes that there aren't too many 100 year olds and how many would even go to a movie theater? (In case you're wondering, the real Suzuki Seijun is currently alive and well at age 91.)

There are a couple of moments when the characters think they are about to be caught in an earthquake. In one of the screening room scenes, it is explained that the director (never named) is using the hint of earthquakes as some kind of symbolism regarding contemporary Japan. I'm not sure what kind of point Matsumoto has in mind here, if he is really trying to make some kind of satiric statement about the Japanese male, or if he just had a comic premise that he tried to push as far as possible. Matsumoto even addresses some of the narrative inconsistencies and implausible moments that make up this odd narrative.

For some of us, there is the pleasure of seeing beautiful women who appear to be clothed by Agent Provocacteur. Among these is the "Queen of Violence" with her brutal roundhouse kicks as part of her date with Takafumi, and most hilariously, the "Destructive Queen" who flattens Takafumi's sushi with her palm, bewildering the chef and the two restaurant patrons who witness the silent Takafumi scooping up the remains, to eat with his hands. What may be more shocking for some viewers is to know that in its home turf of Japan, R100 is a Warner Brothers movie. Coincidentally, like a classic Warner Brothers movie that tested both the viewers' and the studio's limits regarding sex and violence, Takafumi has a love for the music by Beethoven.

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January 20, 2015

The Pirates

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Haejeok: Badaro Gan Sanjeok
Lee Seok-hoon - 2014
Well Go USA Entertainment Region 1 DVD

Without apology, I happen to like pirate movies, a once viable genre that eventually disappeared about fifty years ago. Even better are movies with female pirates, not that there are there are more than a handful, with one of my favorites being Jacques Tourneur's Anne of the Indies. While pirate captain Yeo-wo shares the narrative with other characters, Son Ye-jin's action set pieces set her apart from past actresses who at most swung from the ropes, and briefly waved swords.

Some of the finer historical points may be lost, but the film takes place in 1388 during the foundation of the Joseon dynasty. A royal seal from China is lost at sea, swallowed by a whale. Several rival groups are after the whale. Among those in search of the whale, are Yeo-wo's former captain, Soma, renouncing his piracy for amnesty with the new government, a mountain bandit names Crazy Tiger who is totally ignorant of sailing or sea life, as well as Yeo-wo, who has a past link with the whale. One of the better visual gags is of Crazy Tiger's boat speeding across the ocean, pulled by the unseen shark, observed by Soma who was assured that he had the fastest seafaring vessel.

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In ways both expected and unexpected, Lee Seok-hoon has been inspired by Steven Spielberg. The story, stripped down, of course recalls Moby Dick, but also there is a bit of that most famous redo, Jaws, especially when the mountain bandits encounter a shark for the first time, sailing in a very small boat. More elaborate is a scene that takes the runaway ferris wheel from 1941 and amplifies it, with a giant, runaway wheel destroying a village, while at the same time, Yeo-wo flees pursuing soldiers by hurtling down and elaborate course of water slides. While going down the slide Yeo-wo breaks apart portions behind her, contributing to the scene of massive, comic destruction. Lee also recalls other films, with Yeo-wo and Crazy Tiger shackled together and on the run as in The 39 Steps, and a scene with the two comparing scars was certainly inspired by Lethal Weapon 3.

Maybe it was because her role was the most physically demanding, but Son Ye-jin won as Best Actress for the most recent Grand Bell awards, South Korea's equivalent to the Oscars. Winning Best Supporting Actor was Yu He-jin in a mostly comic performance as a seasick pirate who takes off for land, joining Crazy Tiger's gang where he is constantly promoted or demoted, depending on the whims of his boss.

January 18, 2015

Coffee Break

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Elias Koteas and Kathryn Erbe in 3 Backyards (Eric Mendelsohn - 2010)

January 15, 2015

Screaming Mimi

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Gerd Oswald - 1958
Sony Pictures Choice Collection DVD

In most of her screen appearances, Anita Ekberg would be a character, sometimes of herself. To paraphrase Andrew Sarris on the similarly endowed Jayne Mansfield, if she hadn't already existed, she would have had to have been invented. More than any of the European "bombshells" of the Fifties and early Sixties that simultaneously exploited their sexuality and were exploited themselves, Ekberg always seemed a bit bigger than life. Her face was broader, her breasts appeared bigger, her thighs, meatier. How it came to pass that her two films that gave her roles of substance were both directed by Gerd Oswald is unknown to me, but Ekberg's recent death was motivation for me to see Screaming Mimi again.

There is some resemblance to Fredric Brown's novel, but much of it is tossed aside. In the novel, Yolanda is first seen in a state of undress. The series of murders is reduced to one unsolved case. Most significantly eliminated is the question of what was witnessed, who was the murderer, and who was the victim? One might argue that in relation to the themes presented by Brown, Dario Argento's unofficial remake, The Bird with Crystal Plumage is the more faithful filmic recreation.

Oswald plays with the idea of Anita Ekberg as a mostly unattainable sex object. In the first shot, Ekberg emerges from the ocean, maybe not Venus in the shell, but close enough. Her one piece bathing suit seems a size too small, revealing a little extra flesh both front and rear. Nudity could only be suggested, but for its time, imagining Anita Ekberg nude in the outdoor shower was probably good enough for male audience members.

The fantasy of sex, more specifically with Anita Ekberg as an object of fantasy, is played with when she performs her nightclub act. Ekberg's body is recognizable even in shadow, and there are several shots where she is only seen in shadow. The nightclub performance has Yolanda dancing with chains that she eventually breaks, suggesting that she is neither to be thought of as a slave or someone who could be kept. The film ends with the recognition that Yolanda is schizophrenic, and unaware of her own reality. One might interpret Screaming Mimi as being something of a parable about Hollywood, about a woman who invokes interest due to her strong sexual presence, of men fighting over her, confusing what they think is best for her with their own respective self-interest, and the confusion these men have between the image of Yolanda, whether it's the image they create, or the image Yolanda chooses to project.

Can a film be both a critique of the "male gaze" as C. Jerry Kutner has written, and at the same time an act of self knowledge? That first low angle shot of Anita Ekberg's posterior suggests that the film plays it both ways, which is OK with me.

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January 13, 2015

Once Upon a Time in Shanghai

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E Zhan
Wong Ching-po - 2014
Well Go USA Region 1 DVD

It's been a while since I've seen any films by Wong Ching-po. And even if Wong relies on style over substance, I don't mind if only because too many films seen recently lack anything resembling a visual style. I don't know who made the decision to have Once Upon a Time in Shanghai be presented in a digitally created monochrome, with bits of color tinting on a couple of details, but I liked it. And if the influence was more Sin City than, say, Lady from Shanghai, so be it. Call it "kung fu noir".

The film takes place in 1930. And similar to a couple more famous, and epic, films with the "Once Upon a Time" title, Shanghai is presented as a land of promise for some young men from a mainland Chinese village. Ma Yongzhen wears a turquoise bracelet given to him by his mother, a reminder to be careful about using his lethal right fist. Not that wearing the bracelet keeps Yongzhen from getting into any fights, but it does keep him from killing anyone until later in the film.

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Yongzhen learns how Shanghai is controlled by four gang leaders, with half of Shanghai controlled by the upstart Long Qi. There's also business dealings with the Japanese with opium shipped in the guise of tea leaves. After Qi and Yongzhen test each other's martial arts skills, Qi hires Yongzhen to work for him in his nightclub as a waiter. Even though Yongzhen is aware that he can easily follow Qi using his fighting skills, he chooses to live honestly, in modest circumstances. Even though he is a gangster, Qi even has his own code of honor, choosing not to go into business with the Japanese, aware as he is of their plans for eventual takeover.

Wong's film is a loose remake of Boxer from Shantung (1972), with the older film's star Chen Kuan-tai appearing here as one of the older gang leaders. Sammo Hung is the big name here, but his part is really a supporting role, as the chief of the various peasants and laborers who eke out marginal lives, away from the bright lights. As Yongzhen, Philip Ng does possess some resemblance to Bruce Lee, with his lithe body, hair combed over his forehead, and boyish grin that makes him look much younger than his 37 years. Andy On is equal to Ng in martial arts moves, though his forced laugh in his early scenes is grating.

The "Making of" supplement gives a hint of what Once Upon a Time in Shanghai might have looked like in color. Not so coincidentally, another variation on the story, with a bit more effort in recreating the era, is the John Woo produced Blood Brothers, with musical numbers also taking place in the Paradise Club. If past history is any indication, Wong Ching-po's film will hardly be the last version we will see of this story.

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