Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Branded to Kill

The avant-garde lives next door to the B-movie ghettos, and Seijun Suzuki razes the fences with Branded to Kill. Theoretically, there’s a plot—assassins, butterflies, betrayal, something something, death—but its presence is more out of habit than choice. If nothing else, it provides a structure for Suzuki to dynamite, and images sprout like flowers from the ruins: a dead woman’s hair swirling in the toilet, a live woman’s face shellacked with rain, an apartment wall pinned full of dead butterflies. Whatever emotional coherence lacking in the story’s discombobulated gangster clich├ęs is found in these startling visions of annihilation. Not that the film is entirely abstract: Suzuki makes a concentrated effort to articulate this loopy system of ranked hire killers jockeying for position while engaging in slapstick assassinations or other inexplicable adventures. Yet the director’s inner anarchist will not be calmed, and if the film sometimes resembles a towering monument built upon a swamp, that’s probably the point. Suzuki is a cinematic saboteur par excellence, but his primary target is most often himself. Every character with more than one line may be a murderer, but this is still a film where the hero has a fetish for sniffing boiling rice, which does tend to somewhat deflate the tough-guy mystique that comes with being the third-ranked killer in the country, world, or whatever.

Over 30 years later, Suzuki would return to this same set-up for Pistol Opera, a vastly different yet equally powerful take on the material. Sporting the director’s trademark monochromatic colours, the later film emphasizes the unreality of the story, stylizing the settings into something theatrical, treating the characters as little more than lifelike dolls to be posed in elaborate playhouses. Freed from the shackles of his Nikkatsu studio contract, Suzuki would completely unleash his formalist tendencies in Pistol Opera as he stared down death with a steeliness that would make even the unflappable Joe Shishido tremble. Politely put, Branded to Kill is just slightly more unhinged (actually, it’s utterly bugfuck). Like its successor, the film is obsessed with mortality, but it offers the frenzy of youth in the place of the serenity of age. At once terrified and mischievous, Branded to Kill doesn’t gaze into the abyss so much as just throw a few firecrackers into the void and then run like hell. Perhaps there is some comfort to be gleaned from Suzuki’s conception of living with death as a hyper-violent buddy comedy. Perhaps it’s just more fun to laugh as you tumble into your grave. Or perhaps the real truth is found in how Hanada, No. 3 killer and No. 1 chump, faces a paralyzing despair like something out of Beckett: “I must kill, I can’t kill, I’ll kill.” What does it matter? The final outcome is the same.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Frances Ha

Many a soul has been swallowed up by the great gulf between post-adolescence and adulthood, and Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha is a knowing survey of the wreckage of 20-something ennui. Frances is a 27-year-old dancer that doesn’t dance, a dream girl without a dreamer, a whirling mess of a woman. She’s charmingly whimsical and infuriatingly impractical. The beauty of Greta Gerwig’s portrayal of Frances lies in how she can capture this clumsy vitality without becoming completely obnoxious. Good thing, too, because her buoyant presence serves as a counterbalance to the occasionally leaden touch of the director, who sometimes seems like he would be happier just stomping all over the dreams of these deluded art-school kids without all this pretence of comedy—and that is hardly the only way he creates trouble for himself. Drawing stylistic inspiration from the French New Wave (there’s also a Leos Carax homage thrown in for good measure), Baumbach invites unflattering comparisons to the most iconic cinematic representations of wayward 20-something dreamers. For all the film’s liveliness and wit, the director is too calculating to match the loose energy of early Truffaut, much too constrained to recreate the probing methods of a young Godard. But perhaps that is the point, as he treats his cinematic forebears with the same wry fondness he feels for Frances and her cohorts. The film’s black-and-white look, couched in New Wave mannerisms, is equal parts tribute to and critique of those lost in the romanticism of youthful freedom.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Savage Innocents

Nicholas Ray’s Hollywood career was well into the final curves of its flaming death-spiral by the time The Savage Innocents was released in 1960. He was fighting a losing battle with his addictions, and only two more troubled mainstream productions stood between him and a decade wandering the artistic wilderness, teasing out interest in dead-on-arrival projects while limping by on the largesse of friends and admirers. A short porn film and a couple of collaborations—the recently re-released We Can’t Go Home Again and Lightning Over Water, co-directed with Wim Wenders—would eventually surface, but The Savage Innocents can be seen as the last truly personal film Ray would make inside the studio system, his last complete attempt at injecting his hot-blooded artistry into the cold machinery of commercial filmmaking. The film ends with a tense farewell between two friends who must become enemies for their own survival, and I can think of no better epitaph for this stage of the director’s working life.

The Savage Innocents is a mess of good ideas executed badly, flashes of brilliance followed by scenes as flat as the Arctic plains where the action takes place. Much effort has been put into researching the life and customs of the Inuit, and the story charts a fascinating progression, beginning with the hunter Inuk (Anthony Quinn) squabbling with a rival over potential mates before moving on to first contact with western civilization. Unfortunately, the early scenes often resemble a backlot re-staging of Nanook of the North, and Ray’s sub-Flaherty impulses—pedantic narration, for one—rarely bear good results. Even worse, any attempts to recoup some authenticity are scuppered by the appalling Pidgin English that accounts for the bulk of the dialogue. Reportedly, Ray wanted to use a more poetic style of speech, but Quinn apparently preferred this crude jabber. (I’m sure it made it easier to memorize his lines, if nothing else.) At its worst, the film imagines the Inuit as cheery simpletons—Inuk is treated like an overbearing puppy in one particularly uncomfortable scene—and the ill-advised treatment of language scarcely helps on this front.

Fortunately, everything we understand about this story shifts radically midway through the film. Inuk readies to throw his spear at a polar bear, but as the animal rears up it is laid low by some unknown thunder. Not only is this the first appearance of a rifle in the film, but it is also the first indication that the story is taking place in the modern Arctic and not some immortal, snow-covered Eden. The horror of that realization would be meaningless were it not preceded by nearly 40 minutes of fumbling Inuit bedroom farce. The film’s flaws are tangled up in its greatest strengths, and Ray rarely flinches before the brutality of Arctic life. Indeed, he allies himself so closely to the Inuit perspective that viewers may scarcely recognize western society when it finally appears. Ray isn’t showing us an alien culture so much as alienating us from our own culture—a gambit that becomes clear only once Inuk has been captured by two troopers for his part in accidentally killing a man. Compliant but confused, the hunter wonders why he must be dragged across the wasteland just to be put on trial and hanged. Why not shoot him now and save the trouble? One of the troopers, clearly unaware of the absurdity of his own words, merely says it is what their laws require. At that moment, it is tempting to imagine a different film, where the Inuit speak beautiful, flowing English while the westerners communicate in harsh, incomprehensible gibberish.

Ray surely must have seen a mirror of himself in this story of an outsider brought into contact with an unyielding system far beyond his control or comprehension. Seduced by the baubles of the modern world, Inuk is drawn deeper and deeper into this culture until it becomes clear that he will be destroyed by it. Alcohol unsettles him; the jukebox blares at him like an air-raid siren. His wish to please the White Man overrides everything, even his need to care for his family. In his own land, where he thrives effortlessly while the troopers stupidly stumble into every threat, he is a prisoner. He cannot reason with the White Man because his reason is not their reason. His name is written down in a book, he is told, and it will remain there long after everyone else is dead. But one of the troopers, grateful to Inuk for saving his life, offers to report him dead and erase his name from the book in an implausible gesture of kindness. Inuk is granted the rare opportunity to return to his Arctic idyll, as if he had never encountered the trading post or its gaudy trinkets. He is allowed to remain free and untouched by civilization, but only if he no longer exists. With the wooden buildings of the fort slowly creeping closer along the horizon, oblivion is the only sanctuary for the innocent now.