The '68 Comeback Special: Kuroneko

As it is all Hallow's Eve today and David Cairns and I thought there was no better way to celebrate than by choosing the spookiest film of the 1968 Cannes Film Festival, Kaneto Shindo's masterpiece of the uncanny Kuroneko. It's not the scariest film of the fest if we count Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush (Zing! Here all week...) but it's the film that after nearly 50 years has lost none of its power to haunt. As a huge, bordering on obsessive fan of Shindo and his first horrific masterwork Onibaba, I went looking for any and all of his work and found only this and Naked Island, which is as great as you've no doubt heard it is. Kuroneko, however, was better than merely excellent, it was bewitching. I fell head over heels in love. Later when Janus revived the print and sent it around the US, I took my then girlfriend with me to see it and she was so frightened I felt she might leave me on the spot for making her witness such a horrifying descent into the stuff of nightmares. It's the kind of film that taps into your childhood fears and anxieties; I felt like I'd seen it in a past-life. 

I can't imagine what it must have been like to have been in that first audience , if indeed it did actually play before the fest was cancelled. Horror films are a rarity on the croisette (how killer would it be if a straight-up fright film took home the Palme one of these days?) and to have something this frightening staring you down must have been a bolt from the blue. From the sun-dappled credit sequence to that bravura shot of the men wandering through tall grass picking up where Onibaba left us, it's clear to me that Kuroneko was always going to be the film that walked off with the top prize....but it didn't. Nothing did. Now we can only guess. Admittedly I have a history with the film and have loved it a long time, but even turning that off as best as possible, no other film that year was as interested in scraping the outer reaches of the medium to let new light in. No other film takes half the risks of form and style. The video below presents some of the film's opening act with no comment, sound effects or dialogue. Look how beautifully it communicates its story through style. Look at the way Shindo masters the environment, how effortlessly he talks to you, spinning narrative like a spider does its web. 

Kuroneko is a film told in several presentationally disparate acts. A horrific, silent opening gives way to an overly friendly dialogue enshrouded in mysterious scenery which leads to a grisly, abrupt end. This rhythm repeats itself until we're comfortable with it then suddenly we're miles away on a newly-dead but still angry battlefield. War has come down to two men fighting tooth and nail among piles of corpses. This shifts again soon. Shindo allows only time enough to think we know what happens next before yanking the rug out from under us with a plot device, sound effect, or unforgettably jarring image. Then he keeps going. Kuroneko is the film in the '68 lineup that breaks the most ground in its fusion of overt theatricality and cinematic possibility. The effects feel like paeans to silent cinema and certainly the state it leaves you in is much closer to the realm of Häxan or Nerves than Night of the Living Dead or The Haunting. Nothing here seems all that difficult to achieve, but who would think to reach in this direction. Nobuhiko Ôbayashi's Hausu would later pull off a similar trick, but had a little more help from modern editing advancements and it also doesn't ask you to suspend disbelief. Kuroneko is only able to get away with murder because of the immediacy of its direction, script and editing. It demands that you keep up, only to blindside you with invention or slowly envelope you in a miasma of impending terror. 

I believe this to be Shindo's answer to Mizoguchi's much loved (by myself among Many others) Ugetsu Monogotari. In that film, based on a couple of old folk tales, two men leave their spouses behind to go to war and come home as heroes only to find their wives haven't fared half as well. Ugetsu isn't what you'd call a horror film and indeed any of the reverence it's inspired among cineastes is because of its lyrical direction not because it snuck a ghost story into an Oscar-nominated period piece. Ugetsu is a great, great movie and as with all late-period Mizoguchi there is an invisible efficiency to its harsh storytelling, but Kuroneko, on the other side of the genre, works harder to earn your respect. Shindo was a lover of Mizoguchi's films, as evinced by his documentary about the director's life included on the special edition Ugetsu DVD from Criterion. Kuroneko, which like Ugetsu is based loosely on a folk tale, can be seen as both a rebuttal and tribute to the earlier work. The story elements are the same, indeed everything down to the make-up over the eyebrows of its female leads seems culled from Ugetsu. He takes the eerie beauty of that film and retrofits it as horror, with textures turning from ominous but gentle mist to brittle, spun glass. Sympathy and a second chance aren't out of the question for Mizoguchi's heroes; Shindo was much less romantic.

The genius of Onibaba is that its horror lay in manipulating the real world, in the things that people are capable of doing to each other (and of course that mask). It's quite a pleasant surprise to learn that Shindo was equally at home dealing with the supernatural and/or the totally unnatural. But of course the story's foundation is in the horror of human nature. Though it's only one of many, one of the more terrifying images in the movie is of that first scene of the marauding soldiers filing out of the woods, coming to take what isn't theirs. The men are noiseless (like so much in Shindo's cinema) and without so much as a warning shot end two lives and ruin another. The unstoppable randomness of violence is something we all fear in some way or another and nothing drives this home more than the opening of Kuroneko. Shindo proves himself a filmmaker with an incredible grip on human nature and proves himself a humanist and a realist, even as he spins a truly fantastic, unspeakably dreadful yarn.

The 68 Comeback Special, The 68 Comeback Special

Over at Shadowplay you'll find David Cairns on the rather good, always beguiling Je T'Aime Je T'aime, by Alain Resnais. Resnais' Modus Operandi always resembled a failed experiment in time travel (this is what made him so good), so it makes sense that he'd actually make a film about a time traveller. If it never reaches the highs of Marienbad, Providence, or Hiroshima Mon Amour I think it's because he imposed rules and a structure on himself, which hems him in just a hair too much. When the '68 Comeback Special draws to a close I might revisit this fascinating work just for fun. But go and enjoy David's take on the film which is typically fantastic! And participate in his erotic questionnaire while you're at it. 

The '68 Comeback Special: The Confrontation

If you're just tuning in, the inestimable David Cairns (who, it must said, is currently kicking ass on the festival circuit with his new film Natan) and I have been tagteaming everything that should have played the 1968 Cannes Film Festival. I realize I've lately made a bit of a blunder. When David posted his latest, on Frank Perry's Trilogy, I was so wrapped up in his description and so caught up in remembering its haunting details that I forgot to mention it here. Naturally I feel like a cad of the highest order, but I do hope he feels comforted by the fact that his words moved me into a place of deep thought and melancholic reflection and that he can forgive my slip-up! As he points out Trilogy's a very interesting film, if not always quite as successful as its best moments. If Breakfast at Tiffany's and In Cold Blood are the two poles, so to speak, of Truman Capote adaptations Trilogy sits square in the middle. Deeply uncomfortable and darkly funny, Capote seems to be getting out all his issues with middle aged women. Perry's direction is claustrophobic and nerve wracking; you expect it to become Night of the Living Dead any second. In terms of extreme humiliation and bad behavior it's almost the more upsetting film. 

There were many films at Cannes that year that share thematic and/or tonal similarities and it would probably smart if I chose one, but, heck, I'm in the mood to be contrary today. So I'm going to continue my Hungarian streak and look at the other Miklós Jancsó film that playd Cannes that year. The Red & The White is justly lauded and might be the most visible high of a quite brilliant director's career. The phenomenon of directors having minor works is fairly new, if I'm not mistaken. It's easy to look at the work of prolific directors like Joe Swanberg, Steven Soderbergh, Takashi Miike or Hong Sang-Soo and figure out which films have a little less to offer to anyone who isn't already a committed fan. Auteurists could look at the career of Roman Polanski or Orson Welles and figure out which does less for them (Speaking for myself Pirates and The Immortal Story) but at the time they must have struck the public as either huge embarrassments or imperative pieces of an ongoing narrative. Digital film has allowed many directors to work faster and endless availability of work has allowed us to much more quickly sum up a career because you could, if you knew how, find and watch everything by any director with a manageable filmography in 24 hours. Judgments about a work's impact and context become easier, in theory anyway, today than they were when any given New Wave was cresting. 

Which brings us to The Confrontation or Fényes Szelek, what could be called a minor work in Jancsó's canon. It's easier to call it minor in direct comparison to The Red & The White, which stages combat with the same rigorousness that Andrei Tarkovsky and Akira Kurosawa brought to their epics, but with a kind of discipline neither stuck to. The Red & The White has the same weight and depth as Seven Samurai or Andrei Rublev, but at half their running time. The key: his unbelievably choreographed long takes. That said, application makes a difference. A film about student debates is just not going to feel as sturdy or "important" as a film about the Russian Civil War. And I don't think that should matter but Jancsó was clearly not trying to change the world with The Confrontation, and it felt like he was with The Red & The White. First of all the characters don't make the individual impressions of the interchangeable soldiers of his war film and it would read like a flaw except he clearly designed it this way. The films are variations on a theme: ultimately we stop being individuals when we form a mob or an army. In The Red & The White that's a bad thing, in The Confrontation it's ok, if never quite good. Or rather because the point of the film is student revolutionaries trying to get the young members of a religious order to defect, it highlights the individual by showing the differences in the mobs and allowing them to advance and retreat when necessary but there are still no victors. It's a compassionate way to make sense of the kind of thing that filled TV screens throughout the 60s. It's a riot without violence, a march that turns into a celebration, an argument where everyone is heard and respected. In other words a fantasy. 

The film makes resplendent use of long takes, filled with many, many reveals and reversals and as always making complete use of the very edge of the frame. Jancsó turns every location into a broadway-sized stage for his characters to sing and dance upon when they aren't pursuing their somewhat oblique political agenda. When the young communists are met with resistance from the head of the school they've infiltrated, any of its students or the local police, they dance and sing protest songs to rouse them and distract. It's a lively and vital film. The subject matter and light tone suggest a diversion along the lines of Marco Bellocchio's playful, superior contribution to the omnibus film Love And Anger. There is the wonder of discovery about the piece. At points I found myself rubbing my eyes like a cartoon character witnessing a miracle, not simply because the film bursts with the indelible and ineffable, but because I'd never been told by anyone to watch it before! Those luscious, endless shots (the film unfolds more or less in real time) must have taken quite a lot of planning but still feel entirely off-the-cuff, making Jancsó the only company Theo Angelopoulos has in the realm of naturalist modernism (the students even do the same Greek dance that the newlyweds celebrate with in future Palme d'Or winner Eternity And A Day!). The use of colour (his first) is nearly as revelatory as Bertolucci's or Antonioni's virginal efforts. His camera stands a safe distance away from many of its characters for much of the film so their brightly coloured clothes become the way we tell them apart, which makes me think that somebody must have been a Nicholas Ray fan. A revisit to Johnny Guitar reveals a tense, real-time opening stretch filled with flamboyant colors where everyone is shouting to be heard in a stand-off with no clear winners. So not only is he a singular voice, he's a cinephile to boot. Why in heavens don't we talk about this fellow more often?
The images are so sharp and vibrant that they might have been shot yesterday, whereas The Red & The White, like Seven Samurai or Andrei Rublev, looks purposely ancient and timeless. They're supposed to look like wood carvings come to life, whereas The Confrontation feels like it's being painted before our eyes. Jancsó pushed into a new era in just a few months and for his trouble he remains the only director to have two films in competition in the same year. How was anyone supposed to compete with that? Maybe that's secretly the reason they closed the festival. Someone made a blunder on the selection committee and they needed to cover it up but quick. It's almost stupid enough to be true. Almost...

Don't Let Go: Thoughts on Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity

Every trailer that made its way to theaters to market Alfonso Cuarón's seven year passion project made it out to be an action packed disaster film where in place of weather or some topically chosen war machine out to destroy America's freedom the only threat the main characters have to face is in the title. Or more accurately the lack there of. What none of the trailers really seem to convey is that nearly every deadly situation will ultimately result in one of the characters drifting off into nothingness and dying a death that when you think about it couldn't be a more peaceful or beautiful way to leave No that's not right. How about existence. Yeah, let's say that. The premise is achingly simple which I think spares it from scrutiny it might otherwise attract. George Clooney and Sandra Bullock play astronauts stranded in zero-g after their shuttle (and ride home) is wrecked by the debris of a ruined satellite and so now must devise a way home while dealing with both limited oxygen and a communications blackout from Mission Control.

The film opens with a seventeen minute tracking shot beginning with a slow approach on the shuttle crew doing minor (although not routine) work on the Hubble telescope. We know this because that slow approach brings us right into their work space where we can see their hands, facial expressions, even the beads of sweat on Sandra Bullock's forehead as the unbroken shot moves in and out of the astronaut's helmets giving us both an incredible first person view of man-made technology that seems so large and important and a constant reminder that in terms of the universe humans might as well be specs of dust. Cuarón admitted that the reason he wanted to keep the script so short and sweet was so that he could spend the majority of his time working on the visuals. He certainly does this and most of Gravity comes off as a clear excuse for Cuarón and his incredible cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki to play. And play they do. Lubezki has been on my personal radar since The New World and Children of Men, two of the most beautiful films I've ever laid eyes on that couldn't have been crafted any more differently from each other. Terrence Malick's Tree of Life, also shot by Lubezki, sort of sealed the deal for me in terms of the beauty that cinema could achieve. Lubezki managed to recreate the way that a child moves and interacts with it's world in a way that I daresay will never be able to be recreated again even with his painstaking attention to detail. And the man isn't even done yet! Gravity achieves a whole new understanding of visuals in film. Namely, how objects move in space. In the same way that Lubezki captures a child's perspective in Tree of Life, he manages to have a camera move exactly like an object in zero gravity. We spin, twist and bounce like the two characters and the experience becomes incredibly immersive because of that.

I've heard several comparisons made between Gravity and James Cameron's Avatar because of the heavy use of CGI to create a world and fully immerse an audience in it. This is a ridiculous comparison. You know who else uses CGI worlds? George Lucas. Zack Snyder. Dreamworks and Pixar. As far as I'm concerned Avatar remains a glorified Pixar movie. Anyone with enough money to throw at an effects team can create a world that's pretty to look at. The reason I hate these comparisons to Gravity is that for less than a third of the budget of Avatar Alfonso Cuarón was able to create an environment and a situation that made me grab my seat for dear life. The only physical reaction I had to Avatar was trying to stifle my yawns. Sure, all of these people and studios have pushed the boundaries of F/X filmmaking but there has to be more. Gravity relies on effects because that was the best way to tell this story. The same argument could be made for Avatar but seeing as most of that movie doesn't use live action at the same time as its digital effects, I'm not going to make it. Gravity's CGI is so immersive that you quickly forget your seat and fully commit to the world of the film. Cuarón pushed to make sure his effects were up to snuff and watching how these digital human beings move with real weight and dimension, I have to say he succeeded.

What's nice about Gravity is that even amidst its 3D CGI madness, Cuarón, along with co-writer and son Jonás, still manage to tug at the heart strings in a way that never comes off as melodramatic. The most powerful shot in the film for me doesn't have exploding space stations or beautifully rendered shots of the Earth. It's the shot of George Clooney watching Sandra Bullock tell a story of her daughter in a small mirror he has attached to his wrist. It takes place in the quietest section  and held a lot of weight because of its tenderness. The sequence is compounded when you learn that Sandra Bullock's daughter died in a fluke accident while on a playground. No hard fought battle with a terminal disease. No murder to be avenged. Just a simple accident. This ends up doubling for Bullock's entire experience. For all the huge dangerous forces endangering her life, what she'll end up succumbing to is the silent emptiness of space. No one will know of her experience. She will die utterly and completely alone.

The only real issue I can find in Gravity is with the score. There's nothing particularly wrong with the music other than that in a movie that is so state of the art and unique in it's approach, Steven Price's score seems very run of the mill. Not to say that there aren't times where the music comes to a full crescendo and chills ripple up your neck while you watch a satellite tear itself apart and become a blizzard of metal. But many people have understandably compared Gravity to Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey and they're not wrong to do so. The quieter segments where we watch one or both of the film's characters silently floating through space are very reminiscent of Keir Dullea's silent, claustrophobic space walks especially when we get to actually ride the camera right inside Bullock's helmet and see the black from her perspective. Before  and even more so after seeing Gravity I think the more accurate comparison to make would be to Danny Boyle's Sunshine. That film also features high levels of astounding visuals provided by both CGI artists and Alwin H. Küchler's brilliantly off kilter, confined cinematography. But where Sunshine definitely wins out by comparison is in the music. Danny Boyle gave the band Underworld the rough cut and asked them to go to work. The band, heavily influenced by avant-garde composer Gyorgy Ligeti whose work was featured in 2001, generated a full-bodied, astounding score before sending it to John Murphy for finishing touches. The band and composer share credit for the music and their work takes Sunshine to a whole new level. The one place where Cuarón seems to drop the ball is in trying to decide whether he wanted his film to be Sunshine or 2001. That is, whether to be silent and methodically designed or to simply astound its audience with pulse pounding sound design and special effects. I think in terms of relative technical approach Gravity can be comfortably seated next to 2001. Both films broke amazing new ground in terms of special effect filmmaking, but narratively and thematically Gravity and Sunshine are almost companion pieces. They each utilize aggressively stellar visualizations of outerspace that overwhelm the viewer, pay careful attention to pseudo-scientific detail, and a villain in the form of a terrifyingly unstoppable force always lurks just outside the ship's hull. Both the film's titles embody what the characters want more than anything else and the sun and earth are both constantly utilized as both awe inspiring backdrop and endpoint of the narrative journey. Comparisons to both 2001 and Sunshine are warranted even as Cuarón ignores the subliminal close-ups and quick cuts of the latter for the slow patient editing of the former (when not shredding space stations, of course). As a result Gravity seems to fall somewhere in between the two movies. I can't harp on it though since this film is first and foremost a visual wonder. You could watch it on mute and I doubt the experience would change all that much. In fact, I think it would prove a very interesting experiment.

The '68 Comeback Special: The Upthrown Stone

David Cairns and I have discovered that in reviewing any year at Cannes, there are going to be films that slip through the cracks. David made an excellent point after I made one of my essays on the '68 festival that looking at years that didn't get cancelled and trying to gauge the fate of the films that never got their day in the sun, the results are inconclusive. As late as 2012 this phenomenon took the Egyptian film After The Battle, a competition entry that received pretty poor notices, into obscurity just as quick as it threatened to make it a global sensation. Just think, a few positive reviews and it might have found its way to the Internet with English subtitles for us to start questioning what it was doing there in the first place. Every Cannes has a runt or two, but the world's most important film festival also has a way of losing track of its kids every year. To this day I've never found working subtitles to the 2010 entry Chongqing Blues, from director Xiaoshuai Wang, who might not be Wong-Kar Wai but he's an Arthouse lightweight at least. It's just sort of scrawled in the bylines that some films have to fade into obscurity so we can appreciate the importance of the few that wind up with the awards and money. Take a look through the Wikipedia pages of every Cannes lineup and see what I mean. Hell, I'd put some money on many people having forgotten some of the winners. Just the name of the game, I guess. Which brings me to Feldobott Kő or The Upthrown Stone. If you count the two films by Miklós Jancsó, Hungary had three films at Cannes, which ties it for second most represented country with Czechoslovakia, losing by one to the UK. Not bad, all things considered. Jancsó's The Red and the White is the best remembered of the three, The Confrontation has a minor reputation but I'd never heard of The Upthrown Stone before last year.
When I went looking for it all I could find was a TV rip with no English subtitles. So, like Chongqing Blues before it, I watched it deaf, so to speak, with only a meager plot summary in front of me. Turns out it works even if I didn't always know what was happening. The movie revolves, indeed the plot seems to orbit its lead like a satellite, around a young student who isn't allowed into a state sponsored film school because his father was just arrested very publicly. Humiliation and anger leads him down a different path working for a land surveyor out in a rural area away from hypocrisy of the state...or so he thinks. It isn't long before he starts seeing that the peasants whose land he works are under the thumb of the government too. Everyone suffers, everybody gets ground down. Maybe picking up his camera again is the best thing he can do.

It'd be slightly dishonest of me to spend much time on the story or script, as I only really 'got' about half of it. But I don't need an illustrated guidebook and a flashlight to know good filmmaking when I see it. Director Sándor Sára has to be commended for making his images satisfying and wholesome and not in the Davey & Goliath sense. His stark, often purposely underexposed black and white compositions and the images he finds/creates do a number on your brain, then seem to slowly make their way to your stomach and start nourishing you. The material here is bleak, but the sense of outrage meeting love for human courage, animal beauty and the sanctity of the ground beneath our feet and the trees over our heads, could keep you alive during a hunger strike. The sequence towards the end of two horses tied together is the kind of thing you never forget; ditto the faces of the gypsies our hero photographs during a government mandated health inspection, none too subtly echoing the holocaust. The boy may be in disbelief but his camera and Sára have no choice. There is no faking the faraway look in the many eyes that stare through the lens and right into us. I do hold out hope that someone's going to track down the rights to this film, translate it and give it the resurrection it deserves but in the meantime, even in a butchered, pixely, untranslated, cropped .avi file, it's still a powerful experience. Outrage and the need to change things for the better is something one doesn't need language for. We all know the look in someone's eyes. The one that says "enough is enough."

An interesting footnote: the Czech films bear far more stylistic similarities to each other than the Hungarians. Firemen's Ball, Capricious Summer and A Report on the Party & The Guests all share a current of bitter, dark humour, all make heavy use of close-ups of the befuddled and/or menacing faces of their characters, use fairly classical editing and the staging makes use of the fore and background. There's a sense of both claustrophobia and agoraphobia, so to speak, allowing us to get lost in an abstract sea of people and conflicting ideas. Now, obviously the fact that 2/3 of the Hungarians were made by the same guy, but Sára and Jancsó have, beyond political conviction and a appreciation for big, open landscapes, nothing much in common. This could be because no one in the world made films like Jancsó at the time (Theo Angelopoulos could be called a stylistic contemporary, though obviously the men had vastly differing sensibilities), but Sára directs here like he's connecting beautiful tableau of suffering, mimicking his protagonist's interest and evolution as an artist. Both are valid approaches and as we'll see Jancsó was no slouch. I can't fight the feeling that something is being forgotten here...something important.