Monday, October 8, 2007
10/8: Pale Flower; King Lear; In Harm's Way
Pale Flower is one of Masahiro Shinoda's best mid-60s genre deconstructions. Stylistically, it seems to have some connections to the French New Wave of the same time period, though it also bears the distinctive stamp of Shinoda's highly idiosyncratic style. The story follows the yakuza killer Muraki (Ryo Ikebe), who has just been released from prison following a stretch for murdering a rival gang member. Upon his release, he finds that not much has changed, except that his gang has formed a truce with their former rivals, and a new rival gang has risen instead. While gambling, he is attracted to the young girl Saeko (Mariko Kaga), who seems to be a rich socialite with a thirst for danger and risk; she throws down massive amounts of money gambling, but this is already getting boring for her and she wants more.
Shinoda's film is a stunning examination of the profound emptiness that leads these characters onto a path of self-destruction and thrills. The film opens with a rapidly edited montage of Tokyo's crowded streets and subways, as Muraki laments the sameness of his environment, the hollowness of his existence, and the worthlessness of human life in a place where it is so common. These characters are drawn in by darkness, perhaps because it's the only thing that provides them any glimmer of happiness. When Muraki and Saeko have had some close call or visceral thrill together, they throw their heads back and cackle joyfully, a momentary burst of laughter in the midst of their otherwise dull lives. They drag race, they gamble, they flee from the police, but none of it is able to forever postpone the feeling of emptiness that always returns to them when the thrill is over. Inevitably, then, Saeko begins seeking greater and greater thrills, first in drugs and the company of the cold killer Yoh (Takashi Fujiki), and then when Muraki offers her a look at the ultimate thrill: murder.
Shinoda presents this story in gorgeously moody noir visuals, with the characters almost always bathed in shadow and dim light. But despite the grimness of the story and its themes, he also allows plenty of black humor to creep in, especially in the form of the aging yakuza bosses. In one scene, Muraki visits his boss at the dentist's office, and the old man advises Muraki to fix his own teeth, while simultaneously instructing him with his new orders. In another scene, Muraki visits the old man at the hospital to congratulate him on his new son; the boss thanks him and talks lovingly of his wife and new baby, then gives Muraki an assassination order. This mingling of domesticity and hardness in these characters is just one of the film's subtle subversions of gangster conventions. At every turn, Shinoda turns the genre in on itself, making this perhaps the ultimate existential gangster film.
Jean-Luc Godard's radical re-interpretation and "study" of King Lear is one of his least-seen and least-loved films, outside of his even more obscure Maoist period with the Dziga Vertov Group. In fact, though, this much-maligned film appears to be a masterpiece in its own right, and the culmination of Godard's masterful run of films in the 80s, from his return to cinema with 1980's Sauve qui peut (la vie) to Lear in 1987. The film is not so much a retelling of the Lear story (especially since Godard reputedly read only the first few pages of the play), but an attempt to examine the nature and essence of a work of art and the place of the past's masterpieces in the modern world. Godard sets his film in the time after the Chernobyl reactor explosion, with the premise that the world's artworks have all been lost and must be reconstructed in the wake of this destruction. The idea that the meaning and role of art can be altered by traumatic world events has long been a key concern for Godard, and is in fact the thrust of his video essay Histoire(s) du cinema, where he explores the Holocaust's effect on Western art. In King Lear, the task of re-discovering Shakespeare's plays is given to one of his ancestors, William Shakespeare Junior the Fifth (Peter Sellars), who sets off to find King Lear in the modern world.
Within this absurdist framework, Godard engages in a complex rumination on art and its meanings, all the while taking stabs at getting to the heart of Lear. Is the essence of an artwork in its words? In its characters? In the names of specific people and places? Can Lear's meanings and ideas survive the transition to modernity intact? Can they survive the transplantation to new characters, new situations, new contexts? And what, anyway, is the relationship between words, which Sellars meticulously copies down, and the things they are meant to represent? Godard is continuously asking questions of this type, indirectly, in the way he explores the characters of King Lear and his faithful and brutally honest daughter Cordelia. He frames the contest between the two in terms of power versus virtue; he re-frames it in terms of incestual desire. He also speaks extensively about the role of the image in interpreting the world. The relationship between reality and the image is a central theme here, as in much of Godard's work, and ultimately he comes down to the idea that they are in fact one and the same. For Godard, the image is reality, or becomes, for all practical purposes, the reality of those who see it. The image replaces reality once the image is shown. In much the same way, Godard seems to be saying, the "image" of the play King Lear is a stand-in for the realities of power dynamics, both in political situations and in sexual relationships. Cordelia is the dissenter, who refuses to be cowed by power, who will say nothing (or "no thing" as the intertitles continually remind us) rather than be untrue to herself and her feelings.
In this way, Godard both politicizes and sexualizes Cordelia's silence, re-contextualizing the play's meanings to new realities realities which the film, as image, then replaces. This continual shifting of meanings and ideas is the beating heart of Godard's work, and it is at its apex here. The film is a complex, puzzle-like construction of possible interpretations and comments on Shakespeare's play, all arranged loosely around the documentarian figure played by Sellars. His efforts to rediscover the play in its literal rendering, word for word, are countered by Godard, in the role of the ludicrous Professor Pluggy, who believes that names and words are irrelevant, and the artwork must be rediscovered through images and ideas. The process of interpreting Lear thus becomes the process of making a film, assembling shreds into a whole through editing. Godard's film is ultimately about the incompleteness of art, an incompleteness that requires the artwork's audience to fill in its own meanings and interpretations. Throughout the film, Godard plays with flickering and momentary lights, illuminating only sections of images and obscuring the rest in darkness. A lighter flame flickers above a section of a painting; a sparkler hisses in the black; a bare light bulb swings back and forth; TV monitors glow with frozen images in a dark room. Always, only a part is seen, never the whole, and this, Godard seems to be saying, is the way we see both art and reality.
This is one of the most exciting and vibrant films in Godard's career, a high point of his already excellent 80s filmography, and unfortunately one of the last of his major works still unavailable anywhere on DVD. For those who are interested in seeing it anyway, for now you can download a BitTorrent VHS rip, which is of watchable quality but not much better. Even in this less-than-desirable format, it was very obvious that this film has the same careful attention to color and composition that is apparent in all of Godard's 80s works, and I greatly look forward to the day when I can see an optimal presentation of this visual brilliance. Until then, though, I'm just glad I've been able to see what is clearly a major and under-valued landmark in Godard's massive filmography.
In Harm's Way occupies something of an axis point in director Otto Preminger's career. All of his generally acknowledged masterpieces were behind him, and he was right on the precipice of a critical and commercial decline that would last pretty much until the end of his career. This well-made WW2 picture doesn't exactly fall neatly into either category. It's not as complex or as deep as Anatomy of a Murder or Bonjour Tristesse, which are among my top picks for A-grade Preminger, but it's by no means a bad film. It's a solidly crafted entertainment, enhanced by the strong characterizations, fluid camera, and subtle attention to detail that have always been among Preminger's hallmarks as a director. Preminger's sweeping film, weighing in at close to 3 hours, takes in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, its immediate aftermath, and a series of counterattacks in the Pacific by the American naval forces. It's a big field to play in, but Preminger wisely never allows the proceedings to become too epic or grandiose. He keeps the scale focused squarely on the human dramas at the story's heart.
The opening scenes set the tone right from the start. The film opens on an officers' dance taking place on the eve of Pearl Harbor, with one of the officers' wives, drunk and out of control, treating everyone to an extraordinarily sexy dance. It's an incongruous start to a war film, and it signals immediately that this is a Preminger war film. The woman turns out to be the wife of an officer (Kirk Douglas), who's at sea while she's out partying. She leaves the party with another officer, goes down to the beach and strips, and wakes up the next morning in time to see the Japanese planes flying over. Preminger gently sneaks into war through sex, suggesting from the very start that he's as interested in the people here as he is in the grand gestures of battle and strategy. He's blessed with a great cast in that regard, and the performances carry the film. In addition to Douglas, who's his usual volatile self, there's John Wayne, Patricia Neal, Tom Tryon (back for more after the harsh treatment Preminger gave him as the lead in The Cardinal), Burgess Meredith, and Henry Fonda in a cameo as a high-ranking admiral. Clearly, there's a lot of acting talent on tap here, and Preminger uses them to good effect in stories that verge on melodrama, but are nevertheless engaging and entertaining.
And Preminger's attention to detail keeps the film from ever seeming too superficial or bland. His characters are fleshed out to great effect, but he captures them best in small moments and visual touches which illuminate their characters. The scene when Patricia Neal and John Wayne discuss their love for each other without ever bringing up the word or anything like it is a perfect example of Preminger's ability for circumspection and nuance, and the scene ends with a perfect touch when Neal lets her shoes drop to the rug as an implied prelude to lovemaking. These kinds of witty small touches in the characterizations keep the film interesting, as does the camerawork, always a strong point of Preminger's films. His distinctive fluid panning is as effective as ever here, especially when he deploys it in the cramped quarters of the navy ships. Several shots follow Wayne from room to room, fluidly zipping through doorways and around corners, keeping close to the action and establishing a sense of motion that drives the scene. In this way, Preminger is able to carry over the action of battle into scenes of strategizing and preparation by commanders aboard the ships. The battle scenes themselves are economically achieved, with a minimum of smoke and gunfire and a lot of suggestion. In the opening scenes of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the film barely even shows a Japanese plane, but the effect is just as powerful and convincing.
This is undeniably a light and somewhat minor effort from Preminger, who at his best could transform such grand and melodramatic epics into something much deeper and more interesting. Here, he mostly stays on the surface, observing his characters with finesse and following the action plot with great energy, but never really taking the material to another plane as he so often did. Still, it's a solid blockbuster with some great scenes, and just a cursory comparison to the execrable Pearl Harbor should provide a hint of the difference a competent and original director can make to standard material.