Setter’s ‘Spective: The Slo-Mo and the Furious

Setter Drawing for Blog 082613I blame you, Akira Kurosawa.

Remember: You started it. Or rather, you helped popularize the use of slow-motion photography in fight scenes–specifically via two different shots of villains dying in The Seven Samurai.

I adore your films, Akira. But I’m not happy with the seeds you’ve sown.

Ok, so you’re not responsible for all that ludicrous pseudo-Spartan posturing in 300. Or the (prolific) guts and glory in The Wild Bunch. But without those scenes in Samurai, we wouldn’t be so deluged with half-speed onscreen violence.

Granted, you used slow motion judiciously–and I think that’s what separates you from the rest. Peckinpah’s technique can hardly be called subtle, but his Bunch certainly packs a punch. Not so much all that silliness in 300, where the idea seemed to be showing how cool it is to kill ancient Persians with as much CGI blood as possible.

And I think that’s where all this slo-mo falls rather quickly on its face.

We’ve diluted its purpose, the whole point of its effectiveness. See it once in a while, and it’s as startling as a flower in snow. Yet watch it over and over again, and it loses its potential impact. Today, it seems to be de rigueur in “action” scenes, as if directors have forgotten how to film normally. So it has become showy instead of telling, obvious instead of shocking.

Frankly, I’d rather see My Dinner with Andre. That’s got more action than any Matrix pose-a-rama.

So Kurosawa, I’m going to take time out from praising you to gripe a bit, though with a heavy heart. Because I know as much as I loathe what slo-mo has become, without it we wouldn’t be what we are today.

Old man Sykes says in Peckinpah’s Bunch: “It ain’t like it used to be, but it’ll do.”

I don’t think it should.

Skip’s Quips: Why Not Remake ‘Citizen Kane’ While We’re at It?

This isn’t something a critic freely admits, but I have to say it anyway: I didn’t see Takashi Miike’s remake of Masaki Kobayashi’s classic 1962 film Harakiri.

I did watch the original, however. That’s the reason right there.

I’m always puzzled as to why directors feel they have to recreate cinematic masterpieces. The 1983 American iteration of Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless comes to mind first, but it’s only one point in a long line of reinterpretations. Remakes are about as traditional as apple pie, yet they’re rarely warranted. Miike’s version of Harakiri is an example. A brilliant, harrowing attack on feudal convention and injustice, Kobayashi’s iteration–the story of a samurai who, after telling a damning tale recounting his history, revenges himself on a clan that has destroyed his impoverished family–is as indignant as a film can get…and mesmerizing through and through.

I can’t think of any way it can be improved upon, and so I feel Miike’s version is irrelevant.

True, even great films aren’t perfect. I don’t think any work of art is without flaws. But you don’t care when viewing the best ones. You only want to be in their world.

So I’m not going to watch Miike’s remake of Harakiri. In this case, ignorance is bliss. But I may put on Kobayashi’s iteration sometime soon. And absorb it to the fullest–as such originality deserves.

Setter’s ‘Spective: ‘Oharu’ Conveys a Life Not Worth Living

I can’t remember any movie as dismaying as The Life of Oharu.

Not because it’s bad. Oh, no. Director Kenji Mizoguchi, whose 1953 morality tale Ugetsu has to be one of the greatest ghost stories put to film, outdid himself with Oharu, the grueling 1952 tale of a 17th-century Japanese noblewoman whose affair with a lower-ranking retainer incites an existential freefall. It’s typically stunning to look at, with Mizoguchi’s superb sense of composition and eye for detail transporting you back more than 300 years to a world of elegant palanquins and seedy “entertainment” districts. Yet what really grabs you is the story, a harrowing envelope that engulfs the title character as she slips from degradation to degradation. It’s a terrible thing to watch: Most male characters take advantage of her “fallen” status, grinding her down into prostitution and beggary. Even a devout pilgrim humiliates her in front of his comrades, suggesting she’s an example of the need to relinquish this floating world.

Heroes are absent. Happiness doesn’t exist. And I’m still trying to determine why Mizoguchi wanted us to see this.

It’s definitely an indictment: of the hideous treatment of women and the bonds that have historically constrained them in a male-dominated world. Is it an allegory, too–perhaps of post-war Japan?

I don’t really know. I do know I never want to watch it again…though I have to reiterate: not because I didn’t like it. Oharu‘s an important film and a must for cinephiles everywhere. But it’s so tough to watch, and as the miserable, eponymous lady-in-waiting, Kinuyo Tanaka gives a tremendous, sensitive performance that’s so real it’s frustrating. We want her to survive and persist, but for what? For us, the viewers?

Maybe we’re all she has.