Skip’s Quips: ‘Tis the Season for ‘Kwaidan’

Blog Sketch 082813Those seeking atmosphere in their films this Halloween over the standard weapon-wielding-maniac-goes-amok choices would do well to consider watching Kwaidan, Masaki Kobayashi’s colorful, eerie anthology of Japanese ghost stories. Adapted from Lafcadio Hearn’s collection of supernatural tales, this 1964 masterpiece is one of a kind, with gorgeous painted backdrops, stylized performances and pointed commentary on human foibles.

No, it’s not your everyday Halloween fare. But Halloween doesn’t come every day, anyway, so why not try it?

Personally, I find the film one of the most beautiful ever made, with stunning cinematography, bizarre landscapes (check out the eyes looking out at humanity from the sky in the second story), a creepy, minimalist score by the great composer Toru Takemitsu, and one of the best battle scenes ever put on film, a brilliantly photographed sea contest fought by doomed samurai in the movie’s centerpiece, the tale of Hoichi the Earless.

I’m not gonna reveal the derivation of the latter story’s title, but you can rest assured it’s completely warranted.

Bear in mind this flick isn’t as traditionally scary as, say, John Carpenter’s original Halloween or Jacques Tourneur’s terrific evil-on-the-loose film Curse of the Demon. Kwaidan makes up for those issues, however, with a disturbing, ominous tone and an otherworldly feel only achieved by the greatest ghost stories. It’s also from first-rate source material; you may want to grab the book for more after viewing the film, in which case you’ll encounter tales of people without faces, priests who battle bodyless ghouls, and other subjects.

Check Kwaidan out. It’s not very well known, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t memorable. Halloween probably won’t be the same to you afterward.

Skip’s Quips: Mahlerpropisms and Other Music Miscues

Blog Sketch 082813Today—in response to his most recent post expressing concern that Hollywood would start using Mahler symphonies in its films—my colleague Setter was reminded by one of our many astute readers that director Luchino Visconti used the Adagietto from the composer’s Fifth Symphony in the movie Death in Venice. I also referred my colleague to Ken Russell’s little-known film about Mahler in an effort to outline the industry’s familiarity with his works.

Setter’s reaction was typically defensive: “Those aren’t Hollywood movies. I’m talking about domestic, commercial films using his music. Why are you all ganging up on me?”

This is why I try not to talk to him.

Setter’s ‘Spectives: I Sing the Movie Romantic!

Setter Drawing for Blog 082613Every so often, I start thinking about Odd Man Out and how romantic the film is.

Yes, I’m talking about Odd Man Out, Carol Reed’s elegiac 1947 masterpiece about the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland. The one where James Mason’s dying gunman staggers from alley to alley after killing a man in a robbery. The one where Robert Newton plays a crazed painter aching to create a portrait of the doomed fellow. The one where Robert Krasker’s cinematography captures all of the shadows and snow cloaking Belfast’s forgotten corners.

That doesn’t sound romantic, you say. But it is, it truly is.

When you get to the end and watch Kathleen, the woman who loves Mason’s Johnny McQueen, make the decision to go with him on his predetermined journey, you might agree with me. Because they’re both incredibly flawed, often unlikable, even criminals–yet they overlook their faults for love.

By the way, I’m not advocating this behavior at all. As Sibella says in Kind Hearts and Coronets: “Not at all.” Johnny and Kathleen are just characters and not to be emulated–especially in light of the fact that they use violence to achieve their ends.

But their actions oddly remind me of another pair of I-don’t-care-about-anyone-else lovers, Heathcliff and Catherine in the towering novel Wuthering Heights. The idea that the connection between two people can be so strong that everyone else is immaterial is, to my mind, one of the most romantic and completely untenable notions around. That it exists, presumably, just in art is a blessing; anyone who apes Heathcliff in real life would be the most insufferable person around. Still, it informs the screen, with Johnny and Kathleen providing perfect examples of all-forgiving, all-consuming adoration.

And it makes a spellbinding story. Emily Brontë, I’m sure, knew that well.

I think about Odd Man Out most often when I’m mulling life beyond our own–not that on other planets, but on ours, in a movie that superficially is about political divisions yet really concerns people. It’s about humans’ insularity, how selfish we can be … and how personal our goals are. Maybe that’s what I like most about the film, that it shows us in all our disarray, in characters who are lost everywhere they go except together.

It doesn’t mean they’re right. It does, however, mean romance.

Skip’s Quips: Top Little-Known Scores That Make Their Movies Sing

Sometimes I read my colleague Setter’s movie reviews and think: “This dude’s truly Mr. Overanalysis.”

But his last post on film scores made me wonder if I take movie music for granted. It’s so ingrained in our cinema lexicon that we almost start when watching a flick without it.

I look at a score as a flavor enhancer–like salt or pepper. A bit too much, and a movie’s unpalatable. Too little, and it feels like you’re missing something.

Just the right amount, however, and you’ve got a tasty meal. And it could be one you never thought you’d like.

The following is a short list of unsung films that are bolstered greatly by their sumptuous scores…and wouldn’t have been first choice for my cinema viewing otherwise. (Order not included.)

Far from the Madding Crowd

Cartouche

Odd Man Out

Watership Down

Kwaidan

The Devil and Daniel Webster

Time Bandits

I Know Where I’m Going!

A Matter of Life and Death/Stairway to Heaven