Thursday, November 25, 2010

Pistol Opera

In the world of Pistol Opera, there seem to be only two types of people: assassins, and their victims. And among the assassins, the greatest and most feared is Hundred Eyes, who sees everything. The calling card of this killer is a single shot through the back of the skull, piercing the brain in just the right spot to produce a smile on the corpse’s face. A fitting poetic touch for Seijun Suzuki’s immaculately shot and incoherently told film, which turns all violence into a kind of performance art. With death reduced to harmless prettiness, who wouldn't greet it with a grin?

The plot could have been stolen from some forgotten B-movie (in a sense it was, being loosely derived from Suzuki’s own 1967 Branded to Kill); the style would make the avant-garde blush. Good luck making sense out of any of this. We’ve got a female assassin named Stray Cat, ranked No. 3 by an unseen guild. She finds herself the target of No. 1 (Hundred Eyes), who is mowing through the rest of the top-ten assassins, wiping out the competition. For the sake of her own survival, Stray Cat must somehow lure Hundred Eyes out of hiding and defeat the great killer.

People die. Sometimes they reappear. Narrative cul-de-sacs are everywhere. The film periodically stops—not that it ever really builds up much momentum to begin with—for characters to tell us about their dreams. The final shoot-out occurs on a sound stage made up in pseudo-Grecian style, filled with savage slave-mutes wielding battle-axes. Do not ask why. Why does someone drop their pants and start pissing in the street? Why does someone wander the grocery store muttering, over and over, “I’m Blanche Dubois”? Sometimes there is no reason. They’re just fucking crazy.

Yet we should be careful to distinguish—this may be madness, but there is nothing manic about it. This assassination tango is violence devoid of viscera. Viewers expecting the usual kinetic kick of cinematic violence will likely be baffled by Suzuki’s languid style. When someone is shot in the back, they do not jolt or spasm. They merely pause, as if to contemplate the bullet breaking the skin, and then gracefully collapse. When a woman is shot while diving into a pool, the water turns deep red—except directly around her, where it remains a serene, untouched shade of blue. One of the assassins, No. 5 according to the latest quarterly report, is aptly named Painless Surgeon and never loses a drop of blood, even when repeatedly stabbed. For a film filled with so much death, there’s a surprising absence of red outside of the production design (where it abounds in poppy fields and flags).

You can appreciate the aesthetics of Suzuki’s violence, the purity of each gesture and pose. It’s a rare scene that isn’t at least worth a holy-shit-lookit-that double take. But the futility of this violence is also evident in every mannered moment. The position of No. 1 is a dubious prize—all it means is that everyone else is going to be taking shots at you (no wonder No. 1 decides to take out everyone else first). Between the images of mushroom clouds and talk of bloody flags, you can sense an underlying repulsion towards the pageantry of violence, although perhaps not a lucid argument. I’m not saying the film makes sense, but there’s at least a coherent nihilism in its final howling outburst of “Idiot!”

By that point, frustrated viewers may echo the sentiment, but the film is curiously affecting in its maddening way. I’m drawn to the old woman’s strange baroque-poetic description of her dream about a giant goldfish dying on a beach, its scales catching the light of the setting sun and turning decay into a beautiful sight. And then night falls, and the beauty disappears in the dark, and yet, the old woman says, still there is something comforting about living so close to death. Befitting a film made by a 78-year-old, Pistol Opera possesses a benign fascination with death, exploring its beauty and discovering comfort in the banality of its repetition. Suzuki does not tremble before it, possessing a calm mind and steady hand—a painless surgeon draining the blood from the greatest terror.

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