Saturday, September 18, 2010

Two Directors: Akira Kurosawa Festival (Sept. 15 - 30, CCP and UP Film Center) and Claude Chabrol, 1930 - 2010



Starting this week at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) Dream Theater and continuing from September 22 onwards in the University of the Philippines (UP) Film Institute is a massive retrospective on the Emperor of Japanese Cinema, Akira Kurosawa--twenty-one of his thirty feature films, on the occasion of his 100th birth anniversary, the only such festival to be held in Southeast Asia.

Not many of us non-Japanese realize that the nickname "The Emperor" was not meant as a compliment. Kurosawa was criticized for being a perfectionist, for always trying to gethis own way all the time on the tiniest of details. He reportedly had an entire medieval set rebuilt for Throne of Blood (1957) because a nail head was partially visible in one shot; he had expert archers shoot real arrows at Toshiro Mifune for the same film's climax, a scene re-created with bullets instead of arrows in Brian De Palma's Scarface (1983); he is famous for making his cast and crew wait weeks to capture on film the perfect cloud formation.

Kurosawa was also criticized for his extravagant budgets and old-fashioned sensibility--by the '60s Japanese cinema had seen the arrival of young mavericks like Nagisa Oshima, Shohei Imamura, Hiroshi Teshigahara, and Seijun Suzuki among others, and while his Red Beard (1965) was a big hit, its overt moralism was already seen as dated, its director out-of-touch with the distinctly younger, more radical, less ethically obsessed moviegoers.

That would be the last money-maker Kurosawa would direct for decades. He made a recovery of sorts with Kagemusha (1980) and Ran (1985) but it's really with his films of the late '40s and '50s that his reputation rests--and what films! Kurosawa is possibly the easiest of great directors to love--his action films are filled with breathtaking movement and whirling violence, his dramas are intensely felt collisions of outrage, grief, despair. His camera is rarely static, and he will often cut only at the last minute, to capture as much of the motion as possible. When he does cut, it's often to expressive effect: to punctuate a moment, fragment a movement (doing the opposite of his long tracking shots), or piece together a giddy concatenation of images--in Seven Samurai (1954) when the alarm is sounded, the warriors run out to defend the village, and Kurosawa gives us seven brief shots of each warrior in quick succession. The gesture does little to advance the narrative, but the moment--a sort of salute to each as he rushes out to possibly die in battle--never fails to quicken one's pulse.

If I wanted to be facetious, I'd say Kurosawa was the precursor to Hollywood's James Cameron--both made big-budgeted productions, both had a dictatorial directing style, both liked to create elaborately shot and edited action sequences. Unlike Cameron Kurosawa knows how to cut coherently, to maintain spatial clarity--in Seven Samurai you always knew where you were in the village (thanks to Kurosawa's use of maps, spatially consistent shots, elaborate tours of the locations prior to battle). Unlike Cameron, when the cutting got hot and heavy Kurosawa always knew how to time the duration of a shot: short enough to eliminate fat and create urgency, long enough to inform the eye what's going on.

Moreover, Kurosawa's films were always about something--in Ikiru (1952) the meaning of a man's life in the world; in Rashomon (1950) the terrifying relativity of truth; in Yojimbo (1961) the bitter embrace of nihilism as the only valid response in a world gone mad. Cameron dabbles in relevance--Avatar is reportedly about the survival of indigenous natives and the preservation of the environment--but Cameron's message feels more like window dressing draped on expensive action sequences to give them dignity. With Kurosawa the action--and every other element in the picture including the acting, the intricate photography, the often massive production design, the at times magnificent weather--swirl and shudder and gather about to bow in total submission to his overarching theme. Said this before and I'll say it again: Cameron is basically Kurosawa after a Jarvik 7 implantation and prefrontal lobotomy.

I'd recommend watching every one of the films but if you can't I recommend watching the more difficult-to-find works--Sanshiro Sugata (1943) for one, his first directorial feature, which at first glance is Japanese propaganda thinly disguised as a judo sports film, on second glance reveals Kurosawa already exercising his muscular visual style (jump cuts, radical angles, expressive use of light, shadow, weather) to tell the story of a man's conquest not just of an external foe (staged in a raging windstorm) but of his inner self (staged in a still lotus pond at night). The Most Beautiful (1944) is Kurosawa doing his best with an imposed assignment--a patriotic propaganda piece about women working hard in an optics factory (Kurosawa turns it into an acting triumph for the workers, particularly Yoko Yaguchi, who eventually became his wife). Sanshiro Sugata 2 (1945) is the first of only two sequels in Kurosawa's career; here he pits Sanshiro against an American boxer, then against an opponent in heavy snow. They Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail (1945) is fascinating for its poverty-row production values (it was made at the end of the war, when Japan was short on every resource), its single set, and its director's use of that one set, shot mostly in long takes with Noh music and distinctive Noh acting style.

No Regrets for Our Youth (1947) should be seen for two reasons: to disprove the notion that Kurosawa is exclusively an action director, interested only in matters male and macho; and to view a Setsuko Hara you've never seen before--not the unfailingly cheerful daughter of Ozu films, but a passionate young woman determined to express her idealism and love for her politically active husband no matter what the cost. One Wonderful Sunday (1947)--well, not a big fan, but if you insist, sit and watch out for the uninhibited Peter Pan ending (Kurosawa is almost always intense and this can sometimes be a mixed blessing).

Of the better-known works--what more can one add to what has already been said, except to say Seven Samurai is war in a single massive volume, from inception to preparation to actual execution; Rashomon is the enigma of human existence wrapped in a mystery thriller; Yojimbo is the apocalypse achieved through fire and samurai blade, and Ikiru is the single clearest expression of Kurosawa's personal philosophy--Dostoevsky neat, no chaser (though if you want Dostoevsky done literally, as a straight adaptation, you should seek out his much underrated The Idiot (1951), with a jaw-dropping performance (again) from Setsuko Hara).
I won't even bother to tell you to enjoy yourself; that's a given. This is a feast beyond anything you're likely to see this year, a festival of pleasures that can only end in disappointment once the last screening is done and gone, and you're left with a lost weekend of a hangover. So what are you waiting for?

Claude Chabrol, 1930 - 2010 

A little something I wrote about one of his late films:

Claude Chabrol's La fille coupee en deux (A Girl Cut in Two, 2007) invites, as usual, comparisons to Hitchcock, but from where I'm sitting the most distinctive quality the two share, at least at this stage in Chabrol's career, is elegance in storytelling, elegance in all elements of storytelling, from characterization to dialogue to mis-en-scene to soundtrack (the opening credits roll to the strains of Puccini's Turandot, the plot of which suggests interesting sidelights to the plot of Chabrol's film). Even the title works overtime to raise questions in the viewer's mind--just why is the eponymous girl (local TV weather girl Gabrielle, played by Ludivine Sagnier) cut in two? Because she's of two minds? Because she's desired by two men? Because a whirling blade literally cuts her in half?

One often thinks when thinking of Hitchcock of visual challenges solved with brilliantly, sometimes breathtakingly elegant solutions (the problems of confined space in Lifeboat or Rope or Rear Window; of a shower-stall murder in Psycho; of wide-open spaces and sustaining tension through a cross-country odyssey in North by Northwest). Chabrol in this case solves one kind of challenge: the suggestion of perverse sexual appetites with the least amount of fuss (a head sinks below a table; a girl crawls on all fours in shadow; a private club is visited, and one member asks another a pointed question: "does she know what goes on here?").The story is loosely based on the killing of architect Stanford White by Harry K. Thaw, for a long-ago affair White had with Thaw's wife Evelyn Nesbit, updated with a bit of class rivalry.

Central to the film is the mystery of Gabrielle: is she corrupted innocent or cruel sadist? Middle-class victim or social-climbing instigator? In Turandot, the two main female characters are the eponymous princess and the slave girl, Liu, and Gabrielle seems to embody qualities of both women--she is by turns loyal and loving to her elderly lover, cruel and distant to her young husband. By combining the two in one woman, does Chabrol make his heroine more or less convincing, more or less complex--both, maybe? Sagnier plays her as a cool blonde in the best Hitchcockian tradition (I have to take back I suppose what I said earlier about Chabrol's resemblance or lack of to Hitchcock). Towards the end she's revealed as more innocent and less guileful than she seems--or is she instead completely at the mercy of her own inner demons? She's the lure, the McGuffin, the enigma that draws both men--and herself--to their irrevocably entangled dooms.


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