Some Brief Questions About the Movies

One of the best things about films–both good and bad–is that they inspire us to inquire. We ask while watching them: Did it really have to happen that way? Or maybe: What’s with the lighting in that scene? How does so-and-so get out of that scrape? We’re always exploring this universe. There always are questions that come up during the course of a picture.

Recently, I began to wonder if the ones I’m asking while watching certain flicks are the same as those being posed by other viewers. Perhaps we’re all thinking similarly … or perhaps not. In that interrogative light, here are my latest musings, as unattached to each other as they may be:

Does anybody really like the character George Berger in Milos Forman’s film version of Hair?

Which is more disturbing: The discovery in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia that Gasim, the man T.E. Lawrence saved from death in the desert, has murdered another man, or Michael Corleone’s lie to his wife Kay in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather about killing his sister’s husband?

Would Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus be a heckuva lot better without Alex North’s excruciatingly bombastic score?

What would have happened in Kenji Mizoguchi’s The Life of Oharu if the eponymous character had rejected the advances of her suitor at the beginning of the film?

Where did Antoine Doinel go at the end of Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows? How about Kevin at the end of Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits?

Couldn’t Louis Mazzini just have gone back into the prison to retrieve his memoirs at the conclusion of Robert Hamer’s Kind Hearts and Coronets?

I’m just wondering. How about you?

 

 

Setter’s ‘Spectives: Thinking About ‘Ugetsu’ and Other Flicks

Setter Drawing for Blog 082613I like Kenji Mizoguchi’s films. I think he’s a top-class director.

Is he greater than Akira Kurosawa, though? I’m not sure. I will admit, I’ve been thinking about Ugetsu more than The Seven Samurai recently, and I don’t know why.

There’s a haunting moment in the former flick that has stuck in my mind. After the potter Genjuro escapes from the clutches of the ghost of Lady Wakasa, he finds himself in a field bestrewn with the ruins of her mansion. A song she once sang for him is played as he wanders, stunned, among the skeleton of the house.

What a sad, wonderful, evocative moment. So eerie. It’s part of what makes Ugetsu the best ghost story put on film … next to Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan. But where the latter movie was daring in its use of color and sound, Ugetsu is relatively conservative, using stately, composed shots and wistful music to move the action, as well as provide tangible atmosphere.

I’ll be debating for a long time whether Mizoguchi is better than Kurosawa. With pictures such as Ugetsu, however, I wonder if there really is any debate.

Skip’s Quips: In the Wake of Sacred Samurai

Blog Sketch 082813The last thing we need is another movie based on the story of the 47 ronin.

But now we have one … starring Keanu Reeves, no less. And seemingly reimagined, with all sorts of supernatural goings-on.

I think we should reimagine the Declaration of Independence, while we’re at it. And maybe the signing of the Magna Carta.

Yes, it’s a famous story, and famous stories deserve to be retold. But we’ve already had perfectly good movies made of this tale, helmed by directors ranging from Kenji Mizoguchi to Hiroshi Inagaki. Do we really need another version—especially one that appears to meld the stylized grotesquerie of 300 with the tiresome posturing of The Matrix?

Someone please give me a nice Zeami Noh play to immerse my brain in.

Hollywood has always tweaked history to make it more cinematically palatable. Movies have to be entertainment, and that sometimes means the events transpiring onscreen don’t quite match those in real life. Yet there’s a distressing trend nowadays to completely overhaul venerated stories from our past while adding extraneous details—such as over-the-top violence—to get the desired audience.

The point is being missed. And as that’s happening, the films lose their value.

A strong director can help make this bitter medicine go down. Quentin Tarantino certainly worked wonders with Inglourious Basterds, as flawed as that movie was. But these films are cinematic fantasies, merely “inspired by” rather than “informed by,” and any attention to historical detail, I feel, is irrelevant. They’re to authenticity as reality TV shows are to life.

Hopefully, one day, we’ll have a based-on-true-events film come out without the trappings of revisionism. Perhaps we need a story so hallowed that any adjustments would be taboo.

I can’t think of any, however. I already know nothing’s sacred.

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.