Wednesday, June 28, 2023

Early Summer (Yasujiro Ozu, 1951)


At least at the time of writing, the subtitling of Criterion’s version of Ozu’s Early Summer contains an intriguing error, taking a reference to its key character Noriko’s enthusiasm for “Hepburn” to refer to Audrey (who wasn’t even yet famous when the film was made) rather than the longer-established Katharine. Whereas the “Audrey” interpretation would have seemed to connote no more than “style icon” fandom, the corrected “Katharine” version carries more complex connotations, suggesting a reference point in an ongoing project of self-determination, and at least a flavour of greater sexual ambivalence. Accordingly, Noriko (Setsuo Hara) is a happily single 28-year-old woman, intrigued by marriage as a discussion point with her friends, but showing little personal desire to end her own status. When, despite all this, the pressure to marry becomes insurmountable, Noriko confounds everyone by choosing a man who hadn’t even asked her, without even discussing it with him, leaving it to his mother to tell him the news. He’s doesn’t appear again in the film, not even through numerous scenes where Noriko discusses her choice with family and friends and prepares for her departure; the other man who wants to marry her, her family’s preferred choice, is never seen at all. Ozu’s quiet radicalism in this respect doesn’t diminish over time; for example, it’s still a challenge to prevailing discourse when Noriko won’t even acknowledge to her best friend that what she feels for her future husband is love, preferring to use terms like “trust.” In so many physical and figurative respects, the film is defined by absences as much as presences (including a brother who never returned from the war and has never been officially pronounced dead), and at the end, so calmly that it’s almost shocking, the tight-knit family of the opening scenes has become dispersed, happy hubbub replaced by a quiet both soothing and deadly. Overall, it’s one of Ozu’s fullest works, formally and thematically inexhaustible throughout.

Wednesday, June 21, 2023

The Sinner (Willi Forst, 1951)


A moderate scandal in its day, Willi Forst’s The Sinner doesn’t leave much of an impact now, although one may enjoy registering the various points of bygone envelope-pushing: a brief nude scene; a wild party which manages to convey a passing sense of recklessness despite everyone having their clothes on; the fairly non-judgmental portrayal of a woman, Marina (Hildegard Knef), working a world of men for her own financial advantage. Marina’s life of sinning, which includes sleeping for profit with a besotted stepbrother whom she hates, and consorting indifferently with Nazi soldiers during the war and American ones thereafter, comes mostly to an end when she falls in love with a troubled painter, Alexander (not entirely though – for instance, during a phase when Alexander’s work isn’t selling, she helps things along by having sex with an art dealer). Alexander’s profession fuels a few expressionist highlights, such as the arty juxtapositions of his head against titillating extracts from his work, but Gustav Frohlich’s dull performance makes the character’s artistic identity, and the attraction between him and Marina, more mysterious than seems to be intended; the disappointing ending merely suggests that while Marina may at one time have been defined by her sinning, she now finds definition only in Alexander’s eyes and work, to the point of seeing no worthwhile existence without him. Among other weaknesses, the film has an overly busy structure, tiresomely navigating between past and present as it attempts to place Marina’s current actions in context, while its over-reliance on her voice-over (which accounts for well over half of all words spoken in the film) imposes a recurring tonal similarity. And while, as noted, the film doesn’t entirely deny Germany’s then-recent past (it also includes a brief appearance by some Gestapo agents), the absence of much perspective in this regard doesn't age too well either.

Thursday, June 15, 2023

Samurai Rebellion (Masaki Kobayashi, 1967)

Masaki Kobayashi’s Samurai Rebellion may sound in outline like a rather distanced and hermetic project: a family of soldiers in the 1770’s, dutifully occupying its designated place within the clan, is leaned on to betray its morality and instincts for the sake of a whim of the clan lord, insisting that the family’s oldest son should marry his discarded mistress; then later, after having accepted and even prospered from the consequences of that, is asked to bend again when the whims reverse themselves, and the clan lord wants her back. The film resonates now as a study of the distorting workings of privilege and self-entitlement; time and again, concepts of honour and propriety and simple human decency are shown to be hopelessly malleable, the infrastructure that supposedly supports their workings incapable of standing up to one man’s lust and ego (hello there, Republicans!). Toshiro Mifune is at his most resonantly moving as the family head Isaburo, long weighed down by an unhappy marriage but now energized by his oldest son’s happy one and by becoming a doting grandfather, finding liberation in looming disaster (even declaring, as things close in, that he’s never felt so alive). The film is finely sculptured throughout, with any number of stunning individual shots, wringing a high quotient of nuance and feeling from the genre’s non-naturalistic conventions. The satisfying ending culminates in a fatally wounded Isaburo lamenting that he’s failed in his one remaining goal, to ensure that the story of what happened would be told; the fact that it is being told by virtue of the film’s existence provides a stray note of hope among the absurd loss and desolation. Certainly there’s a rather lost in time quality to the film – a few shots aside, it might as easily have been made in 1947 as in 1967 – but overall, that enhances its searching grandeur.

Wednesday, June 7, 2023

On the Buses (Harry Booth, 1971)


This spin-off from a British TV sitcom of the time has to be seen to be believed, which isn’t the same as saying it has to be seen; when I saw the film it was preceded by a warning from the broadcaster citing its outdated cultural attitudes, and that's just for starters. Stan and Jack, driver and conductor on a double-decker bus, are primally threatened when their employer tackles a staff shortage by employing a group of women drivers; the threat is both financial (no more overtime), and sexual (as conductors, women are “available,” but as drivers they’re not). When the women thwart the initial predictions by being basically capable, Stan and Jack set out to undermine them through such devices as planting spiders under their seats and spiking their tea with diuretics. Like so many sex-crazed British movies of the period, the film’s visual unsubtlety hurts the eyes (no “painting with light” here!), and the subtext is drably miserable: at an unspecified advanced age (the actor Reg Varney was in his mid-50’s) Stan lives with his mother, his married sister and her miserable husband in cramped quarters, their finances so unstable that when the overtime gets cut back they have to let go of the washing machine; the devotion to getting a bit of “crumpet” can only sustain its mechanical single-mindedness because it’s basically all there is to keep these wretched people going. The movie lacks any shred of basic human decency and warmth, seeming particularly brutal in its treatment of Stan’s sister Olive, presented as being slow-witted to the point of near-dysfunction, although Stephen Lewis’ portrayal of the put-upon inspector Blake approaches something oddly touching in its pathos. Several of the actors barely found work again after the series (and two further spin-off films) went off the air, a fate which gives their unrestrained excesses a rather macabre undertone, the one respect in which the film might reflect the broader tradition of the originating Hammer Studios…