Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Adorno: Kulturkritik und Gesellschaft, S. 97-122, "Aldous Huxley und die Utopie"

Huxleys Dystopie einer gescheiterten gesellschaftlichen Befreiung bringt Adorno dazu, viel deutlicher und ausführlicher als er das sonst zumeist tut, seine eigene Vorstellung einer dieser entgegen gesetzten gelungenen Befreiung zu formulieren. Ausgangspunkt ist ein längeres Horkheimer-Zitat über die Befriedigung der materiellen Bedürfnisse als Voraussetzung einer befreiten Gesellschaft (111f). Daran anschließend führt Adorno aus, wie sich mit dem Schritt in die befreite, nicht mehr kapitalistische Gesellschaft auch die Bedürfnisse selbst verändern könnten. So ganz werde ich nicht schlau aus der Passage. Es geht wohl darum, Bedürfnisse nicht mehr zwingend aus der Perspektive ihrer eventuellen Befriedigung denken zu müssen. Wenn man seinen Bedürfnissen nicht mehr ausgeliefert ist, wenn der praktische Geist, der sich an die Bedürfnisse heftet und sie fesselt, verschwindet, dann sind diese Bedürfnisse nicht mehr statisch, sondern... was genau? Es tauchen Formulierungen auf wie ein plötzlich "völlig anders" aussehendes Bedürfnis (112), ein "lustvoller (...) Verzicht" auf Lametta (113), am Ende der Passage redet er gar dem "eigentlichen, nicht entstellten Sinn" der Bedürfnisse (114) das Wort. Die Flucht in die Eigentlichkeit - das ist doch eine kleine Enttäuschung. aber vielleicht verweist es auch nur auf den notwendig anti-utopischen Charakter der kritischen Theorie.

Außerdem wendet Adorno, und das ist vielleicht ergiebiger, einige Passagen des Romans direkt ins Utopische; insbesondere betrifft das solche, die sich mit Sexualität befassen. Die "Verfügung aller über alle" in den Orgien (107) wie auch den "überaus verlockenden" Effekt der "künstliche[n] Anmut und zellophanhafte[n] Schönheit" Leninas (107f) sind für ihn inkompatibel mit der dystopischen Ausrichtung. Denn: "Durch die totale gesellschaftliche Vermittlung [von Sexualität] stellte gleichsam von außen nach innen zweite Unmittelbarkeit, Humanität sich her." (108) Hier ist die Utopie nicht mehr auf Verzicht und Eigentlichkeit angewiesen.

Ansonsten kritisiert Adorno unnachgiebig und luzide die idealistische Schlagseite des Romans, wobei ich mich manchmal gefragt habe, ob die Kritik nicht im Kern auf die Romanform selbst zielen müsste, auf den Akt des Dramatisierens und Fabulierens, etwa wenn er moniert, Huxleys Roman übertrage "die Schuld der Gegenwart gleichsam auf die Ungeborenen" (121). Das lässt sich nun einmal nur schwer vermeiden im Science-Fiction-Genre. Adornos Kritik bleibt durchweg auf der Ebene der Ideologie, der Ideenroman wird reduziert auf die Ideen.

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Tokyo no koibito, Yasuki Chiba, 1952

There's Setsuko Hara hanging out with a bunch of benevolent street urchins; Mifune being eye candy, winning a drunken street brawl filmed in jidaigeki style and spotting an apron at one point; pachinko balls flip-flopping through the streets of Tokyo; jewelry both fake and real frequently changing hands and causing havoc; people turning into caricatures and caricatures turning into people; and, to cap things off, an underwater ballet at the bottom of Tokyo Bay.

Unfortunately there's also quite a bit of dead air and in the end the whole might be a bit less than the sum of its parts. Still, nice to get a glimpse of a part of Japanese 50s cinema normally completely invisible from Western eyes.

Stranger, Shunichi Nagasaki, 1991

V-cinema take on DUEL that somehow manages to be both economical and open-ended. Nagasaki also makes great use of the blank canvas that is Yuko Natori's face. Switching back and forth between tense genre scenes, moody roadtrips through nighttime Tokyo powered by an awesome, minimalist synth score, and deadpan scenes of female loneliness in a world of men. Pretty awesome stuff.

Trauma, Dario Argento, 1993

Not always clear if it's the chaotic Mise en scene or the obviously botched Bluray transfer that renders many scenes downright unintelligible. Of course, Argento always profits more than most from 35mm (someday, hopefully...), and he also more often than not strives on chaos. Here, too: A full-blown operatic, anorexia-themed wide-angle horror film about Asia-Aura, the child-woman ghost from old europe invading (mostly) suburban Minnesota. While the daughter never quite comes into view, the father loses himself in a swamp of gimmickry and trolling: A murder weapon from the more obscure sections of the DIY store, the nerdy boy next door in cahoots with the insect world, both a Donaggio score and several Hitchcock homages that seem to be primarily designed to piss off De Palma, while Laura Johnson obviously is only in the film for that one shot of her tits bathed in golden light. Gothic dreams of junk-food culture. Anyway, I'll take messy, unhinged stuff like this over late 70s art school Argento any day.

Orchids Under the Moon, Takashi Ishii, 1991

What is it with Japanese cinema and dismal loneliness? There's a certain kind of urban despair I only find in post 1970s Japanese films: people holed up in run-down apartments, at the same time too close to and totally disconnected from city life; paranoid when alone and irritable when with company (but often still clinging to each other, despite themselves, sex without seduction); stationary heating and instant ramen; exterior staircases and unstable safety chains; ugly carpets and thin walls.

It's a pretty specific look / feel, a strand of modernity that has run its course and now everything is stuck and outdated, it hurts but you can't get away from it. ORCHIDS UNDER THE MOON is a prime example, extra dreary because shot on video, doughy faces in close-up, people bleeding on each other, fruits turning into metal. Kimiko Yo introduces a sense of faux excitement for a while but it's obvious from the start she isn't built to last, either.

Jetzt und alles, Dieter Meier, 1981

Richy Müller: another cruelly underused asset, especially in his early years. How the hell could he not follow this up with a string of increasingly baroque gangster films?

Kekko Kamen, Hikari Hayakawa, 1991

Aggressively styleless Japanese shot in video camp that, I guess, delivers what it sets out to deliver, but overstays its welcome even with a 54 minutes running time.

The Mole Song: Hong Kong Capriccio, Takashi Miike, 2016

Like in the predecessor, there's pretty straight-forward, routine genre storytelling under the no holds barred surface, to the point of this sometimes coming off as faux anarchism (unlike in films that really let go, like YAKUZA APOCALYPSE or LIKE A DRAGON). Thanks to Ikuta's committed performance (basically: dick and brain constantly short-circuiting with the result being projected onto his extremely malleable face) I enjoyed the sex comedy parts much more than the Yakuza parts that feel like Miike just treading water. The Hong Kong setting is mostly wasted, too. Anyway, the tiger finale sure is worth the wait.

Lo spettro, Riccardo Freda, 1963

That scene of Barbara Steele looking out of the window: there is, indeed, a world out there, gleaming with light. When she steps outside a little bit later, for the only time in the film, she is completely lost, though. The rest of the time, this is about four people locked in a castle and their own obsessions.

More rounded and not quite as lurid as other Freda horror films, but just as dark. Gothic horror as a claustrophobic doomsday machine, a slow-burn of madness that no one will escape from. The imagery is very primal, a direct inscription of evil: the camera tracing shadows alongside walls, the lens flooded with blood.

The Thick-Walled Room, Masaki Kobayashi, 1956

On the one hand, this is the kind of film people sometimes wrongly accuse Kurosawa of making: self-serious, tortured humanism assisted by overblown, sometimes pompous imagery. On the other hand, the commitment is clearly real and the whole thing is interestingly messy. Not a well-ordered text, but a series of distinct outcries, some of them touching, some a bit obnoxious. Also a good eye for faces. In the end I guess I'm just not in the right mood for Kobayashi right now.

Death Laid an Egg, Giulio Questi, 1968

Reminds me a lot of Petri's A QUIET PLACE IN THE COUNTRY: Another arty sort-of-giallo enthusiastically replacing the more modest, but also more open-ended genre thrills with the director's ramblings on the state of modernity. In this case something about how the commodification of the body goes goes along with its compartmentalisation, until there's nothing left but the part-objects of fantasy play on the one side and pure, unfeeling biomass on the other.

Like with the Petri, this often looks fantastic (if not quite as spectacular; but a 35mm print might change that), but almost from the start it feels like a zero-sum game: freewheeling aesthetics in service of a closed-off intellectual system. The white room sequence for example is a great idea in theory, and reminded me a bit of THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL; but without any investment in the characters, it mostly falls flat.

In the end I still enjoyed this a bit more than A QUIET PLACE IN THE COUNTRY, because it really is funny at times, and also sexy.

Invisible Target, Benny Chan, 2007

Early in the film Nicholas Tse turns into his own ghost to bemoan his fiancee who was killed in the first of many perfectly executed action setpieces. With that out of the way, the rest is just male bodies at the edge, physically as well as emotionally. Violence as a bond, connecting friends, but also enemies. I killed your brother so that you'll always think of me. In the end we'll all be smeared with tears and blood and it will rain splintered glass, ashes, and money.

So sad there won't be many more (if any) films like this in the future now that one of the last masters is gone, but I guess every form has its time and place; INVISIBLE TARGET has to pay its dues to the new millennium, too, here and there, especially when it comes to the color grading, the only reason this isn't a five star film.

Don't skip the stunt reel in the end, they really earn it, especially Nicholas Tse.

Meow, Benny Chan, 2017

Actually quite sweet once it starts using Xi Xili as a melodramatic rather than comedic device: a spectator witnessing and sometimes healing the deformations of a Chinese middle class family. Unfortunately Chan takes quite a bit of time to get there, and the first half hour is pretty much unbearable, just one botched attempt at all-out silliness after the other.

Running on Empty, Sidney Lumet, 1988

Simply one of the all-time greats and a good example for why films sometimes are better off with scripts that aren't all that smart or nuanced. This hits so hard precisely because everything is rather clear-cut and idealized. No moral reckoning, no painful introspection, just bodies lost in affect.

In the end this is a special film because it finds the essence of not one, but two actors so perfectly that you just know that, whatever else will happen, they'll always have this, they were caught in their prime, unaware, and nothing can make this vanish. Every single scene with Plimpton and Phoenix... I actually think she's even greater than he is (maybe just because she has the easier role: all attitude in the beginning, and then gradually letting lose; he, on the other hand, has to work overtime to be an angel throughout). While he sometimes reverts to stage tricks, her performance is completely rounded. Her voice, the clarity of her pronunciation, the way she says words like "certifiable"...

The Possessed, Fraco Rossellini & Luigi Bazzoni, 1965

Trying to recreate the pureness of the voyeuristic gaze, but finding yourself trapped in a maze of sleazy rumors and unruly desires. The images used to be at your disposal, but now the tables have turned and you are at their mercy, haunted day and night by faces that read you more than you read them. The hotel, too, isn't a space of abstract desire anymore, but suddenly too close to home, a private ghost behind each corner.

Arty sixties thrillers (in this case very much Antonioni adjacent, Resnais is in there, too) often go on my nerves, and this one does too, sometimes, but more often than not it stays close enough to the pulpy energy at its core to keep the interest up.

Burden of Love, Yuzo Kawashima, 1955

Can one get impregnated by a drum solo over the phone? Kawashima's film makes a pretty good case for it. An extremely fertile comedy, editing as displacement activity, pheromones are everywhere, though seldom exactly where one wants them to be.

"Whenever you say something, the conversation gets derailed."

T-Wo-Men, Werner Nekes, 1972

Textile erotica for the tactile gaze, sex no longer a game of hide and reveal, but a constellation of different surfaces. Skin is just another texture and the body just another contingency, sometimes establishing itself, always like out of nowhere, in the realm of the eye.

Invisible Man Appears, Nobuo Adachi, 1949

Nothing new under the sun but very charming, an enthusiastic entry in a rather lovely tradition. Not quite as quirky / pulpy as Oda's 1954 version, a bit more basic, focusing strictly on the premise itself, meaning the invisible man gets a lot of invisible screen time, and also several pov shots. Some of those lingering, voyeuristic long takes, when it's no longer completely clear whether we are still seeing through invisible eyes or whether we are just a bit too curious, are quite interesting, though we're of course not yet in Verhoeven territory here. Also, once again, at some point perfectly visible people start dressing up as invisible men, an absurdist concept that might have never been quite properly exploited by cinema.

In the Folds of the Flesh, Sergio Bergonzelli, 1970

A gratuitous shower scene - set in Auschwitz! Say what you will, no one does exploitation quite like the Italians. Only my second Bergonzelli, and he really is something else, there's certainly a method to his madness, even if it's not always clear what method exactly. Here, the plot makes close to zero sense, especially the piled-up twists towards the end. Turns out that someone is or isn't someone else's mother and this changes either everything or nothing.

Before that, in a castle over the sea filled with lots of stylish stuff, people are killed here and there, with the bodies either dissolved into yellow (!) liquid or buried so shallow the vultures get (very) nervous. The mood is frenetic, unstrung and horny, but the film isn't really in a hurry - when Fernando Sancho reenters the scene, things virtually grind to halt, and gets what feels like a full half hour to sully and molest everything in his reach, climaxing in a bathtub scene for the ages.

Die Sieger, Dominik Graf, 1994

The wounds that heal and the ones that don't. Of its time (hard-edged Katja Flint erotica), some missed opportunities (soft-edged Meret Becker erotica), and sometimes not much more than a first draft for more concise small-screen work. But the highs are very high.

Hot Saturday, William A. Seiter, 1932

Could be interesting to chart some kind of "road to screwball" throughout the precode era. This one certainly would be on there, somewhere. At times it plays just like a remarriage comedy with a not yet fully-formed Cary Grant, Nancy Carroll as a more mischievous Carole Lombard and Randolph Scott in the Ralph Bellamy role. But the focus is still on questions of public morality (here with a surprisingly licentious twist) instead of self-image. Almost as if the change from precode to screwball isn't about disowning, but about internalizing sex.

Anyway, the dialogue isn't always good enough to make this really fly; that scene with Scott looking at Carroll waking up naked under a blanket makes up for a lot, though.

Crime Hinter, Soshimichi Ohkawa, 1989

Big Trouble in Little Tokyo! Supposedly the film that made V-cinema blow up, a delightful absurdity completely sealed off from any kind of social reality, and just 58 minutes long, which certainly is a big plus. Cannon/Orion style american 80s action is obviously the biggest influence (both male leads seem to have watched FIRST BLOOD a few times too often...), but this also evokes heroic bloodshed, Spaghetti western, Blaxploitation (!), Sonny Chiba films etc. All of this (plus an extra dose of sexism) bundled in a neat pulpy package of artificial lightning and creative gunplay. Like most pre 2000 japanese genre films, it is much more stylish than similar films made almost anywhere else.

Sixty Six, Lewis Klahr, 2015


Another great last film of the 20th century. Maybe the greatest, or at least the very last. An overwhelming sense of loss and finality, calendar sheets soaked with tears and injections that can't be undone.

Like Al Green sings, ain't it funny how time just slips away.

Going Wild, William A. Seiter, 1930

Rather basic even for a Joe E. Brown film, much less charming than the similar TOP SPEED. Easily out-mugging Brown, Laura Lee is pretty out there as the love interest, not necessarily always in a good way, but she kind of beats you down, and fits in with the general tone of heightened silliness of the last 20 minutes.

Bloody Spear at Mount Fuji, Tomu Uchida, 1955

Gentle comedy about fake spears, true lies and diarrhea, fueled more by philosophical despair (and sake and exquisite acting) than by a coherent plot. The dark turn in the end is astonishing. On the one hand it completely comes out of nowhere, on the other hand it completely makes sense because once your inner connection to a system of absolute loyalty you built your whole life around is gone, there probably really is nothing left to do but to fight some random bullies to the death.

Black Emanuelle, Bitto Albertini, 1975

Strangely enough I didn't realize I had seen this before until a random garden shot towards the end. Goes to show that this isn't exactly chock-full of highlights, although a naked Karin Schubert being turned into a zoopraxiscope study by an also naked Gemser certainly counts as one. The mood is colonial boredom and Albertini's direction is mostly dull, save for a few energy boosts like that piston-enforced gangbang train ride late in the film, that almost feels like a coda, coming along after Emanuelle already has decided to call it quits this time.

L'ultima neve di primavera, Raimondo Del Balzo, 1972

The art of dying young, cute, and blond.

100% cultural-industrial fluff, of course, but mostly holds up on second viewing. Just so maliciously wholesome, the way the touristic imagery is mobilized, again and again, to raise the stakes, to make the final downfall all the harder. Nature knew all along!

Also, that scene when the boy touches the image of his mother is touched, a bit later, by her image (and the image of her successor), through the light thrown by the film projector...

Sister Emanuelle, Giuseppe Vari, 1977

Well-made and funny, a nice surprise. Gemser was born to wear a white nun's habit, and she was even more born to take it off, elegantly and methodically, as she does several times over the course of the film.

Resolute blue-eyed Swiss girl Mónica Zanchi is wonderful, too. Gemser witnessed every atrocity d'Amato threw at her in his own 1977 Black Emanuelle films without batting an eye, but Zanchi, the brat, really got to her!

Till We Meet Again, Tadashi Imai, 1950

Like in THE BLUE MOUNTAIN, Imai's political fervor rather naturally translates into sensual intensity. The love story heightens the stakes of the anti-fascism (with class-difference lurking very much in the foreground as secondary theme) just as much as vice versa. In the end, what stays is the romantic stuff, though: Hand touching hand in an air-raid bunker (once again the WATERLOO BRIDGE influence), the first date of the lovers on the park bench, with Yoshiko Kuga giggling for joy, the first kiss through the glass plane and the second kiss (camera closing in) without the glass plane, later on a make-believe marriage like in a Borzage film shortly before he has to go off towards war...

The scenes with Okada and his buddies are interesting, too: remnants of a boheme lifestyle during wartime. For them, death on the battlefield is a very real prospect, but at the same time it still can be repurposed as an object of dilettante musings.

Emanuelle in Bangkok, Joe D'Amato, 1976

Emanuelle enters a hotel room. Let's see what happens next!

Breezy and often rather sweet compared to the later ones. D'Amato's unconditional love for style makes all the difference.

Thursday, September 03, 2020

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Goddess of Mercy, Ann Hui, 2003

Zhao Wei carrying a baby in her arms while high kicking the bad guys hired by the infant's father is a nice female reappropriation of the male heroic bloodshed tropes of HARD BOILED et al, I guess. Her first encounter with Nicholas Tse also is wonderful and the back and forth between character study and pulp melodrama makes for some surprising twists.

In the end, the script might be a bit too preposterous for Hui to really make it work, and the mainland setting also doesn't feel completely natural, this time (what about those huge, military-style anti-drug maneuvers in what looks like a sleepy provincial town? Might very well be an interesting setting, but it isn't fleshed out enough). Still, always enough energy in here, even if some might be misplaced.

Raigyo, Takahisa Zeze, 1997

The textures are so drab and unwelcoming I thought for a while this might be shot on video. It's probably just a case of particularly aggressive, and quite inventive (photo-chemical) color grading transforming Japan into a zombie-industrial wasteland, though. A whole country turning into a dead zone, like a sea devoid of oxygen. There is a rather cohesive storyline but it feels random - the kind of film that could last 10 minutes just as easily as it could last 10 hours. Rather surprisingly, the sex isn't cold but desperate, bodies clinging to each other, and it leads towards death quite naturally.

Our Time Will Come, Ann Hui, 2017

Well-made historical drama, eschewing the modernist touches of THE GOLDEN ERA in favor of a more straightforward approach. Almost a bit too plot-heavy at times, although Hui manages to include a broad range of responses to history: there's Eddie Peng elegantly killing a whole patrol of Japanese soldiers, but there's also two women and a child huddling together in an abandoned building listening to the howl of the wind.

Takes a while until it finds its emotional center, though: Zhou Xun blaming herself, in a long shot, for involving her mother in her own political struggle and thereby realizing that she never really understood her / used to take her for granted; while slowly turning away from Eddie Peng and towards the camera. History doesn't mean anything if there isn't a private reckoning, too.

In allen Stellungen, Frits Fronz, 1971

The second-to-last Fronz film and maybe the most beautiful of them all ("lifeless in a horny way" - Silvia Szymanski). In color but only barely so, with flaccid, gentle light flooding the ever-same rooms of the hotel almost the whole film is set in. A self-contained world but also a world that contains everything, and a protagonist, a girl, who is ready to take in everything. She takes her time dressing up in front of the mirror and then it begins: Gigolos and lesbians, bank-robbers and bdsm, flamboyant gays and drunk hookers, acid trips and suicide.

All of it presented in long shots and driven by straight-faced deadpan delivery of highly artificial scripted dialogue. In a way IN ALLEN STELLUNGEN enfolds like a series of miniature morality plays. No impressionistic shortcuts, everybody gets to have his or her say. The scene with the bank-robber (cultivating the phoniest but also most beautiful Berlin accent possible) and his moll might just be the missing link between Fassbinder and Jürgen Enz.

Unlike in his earlier work, Fronz isn't content with stripping and voyeurism, but approaches actual intercourse, without actually getting there, though: we get, again and again, bodies rubbing against each other, with the camera placed close to the skin, transfixed by what still doesn't really happen. At least all the relevant parts are there, and in the right place, too, we know that now. Art brut made in Austria.

Love in a Fallen City, Ann Hui, 1984

I remembered this being my favorite Ann Hui film while watching some of her films a few years back and I guess it still is. Incredibly precise melodramatic staging, like Wong Kar-Wai without the fetishistic overreach. A perfect trajectory from the enclosed spaces of tradition and patriarchy to the phony wonderland of colonial libertinage to the primal images of war: splintering glass raining down on Cora Miao, squatting at the bottom of the staircase.

Love's embrace might separate us, but history will tear us together.

Tiger, Löwe, Panther, Dominik Graf, 1989

Natja Brunckhorst is a force of nature, stubbornly asserting herself in the frame, enforcing her own temporality and energy level on every scene she's in. Everyone else is just a vessel, overeager to succumb to one of the worst scripts Graf has worked with (Sherry Hormann going for an overstuffed Sex in the City style romp). Graf himself seems to take his cues from french rather than italian and american cinema at this point in his career; in SPIELER this works quite well, here the whole thing just doesn't feel right, a clumsy attempt at mundane flippancy, like namedropping Proust, but then translating "madeleine" as "bread with sugar". Mostly, this is a one woman show, although some of Brunckhorst's scenes with the not-quite-Jean-Pierre-Leaud-but-nevertheless-charming Thomas Winkler work quite well, too.

It's still eminently watchable - even while most of the clutter really is clutter this time, Graf always finds ways to enrich his worlds, and given that this might be my least favorite among the 30+ Graf films I've seen, I guess I'm still very much in love with his work.

The Secret, Ann Hui, 1979

Watching this in the restored version is such a joy: this is indeed one of the great 70s thrillers, a slow-burn investigation grounded in social detail, while at the same time unfolding as a self-contained system of pure cinema. Sylvia Chang is frail and brave and rules the film.

Someone on here talks about the restoration being a hack job, but to my mind the new version looks wonderful (aside from the vhs-sourced title sequence). Sure, some detail is lost, as is completely normal when changing from one medium to another. The restoration has an excellent feel for the original material. So much better than all those glossy 4k restorations hell-bent on banishing history from film history.

Also watched: Bridge, Ann Hui, 1978

One of her contributions to BELOW THE LION ROCK. Very much in journalistic mode, with a good eye for the different social stata in Hong Kong, but also for quiet moments not strictly relevant for the narrative.

Sei donne per l'assassiono, Mario Bava, 1964

Beauty eating itself, turning style into style. Perfect film.

The Story of Woo Viet, Ann Hui, 1981

Emerging from a place of unspeakable violence, Chow Yun Fat navigates the world with a youthful innocence that only manages to sustain itself because in some ways he's already cut off from the world. The few anchors he's throwing out belong mostly to the realm of the imaginary: a future in America, Cora Miao as a platonic pen pal. A positively glowing Cherie Chung might be more tangible, but in the end she realizes that she, too, can't be his anchor (throwing herself on him, desperately kissing and clinging to him), and so she has to die.

This is, I believe, the paradox the film is founded on: The very fact that he is totally, irredeemably displaced grants him absolute agency - but only in a world that is already lost. So we're left with a melancholic travelogue through the spaces and textures of 70s exploitation films, punctured by short, rabid bursts of Ching Siu-Tung action.

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Also watched: Road, Ann Hui, 1978

A sad, female-centered tale of poverty and opium addiction. Probably the most accomplished among her three BELOW THE LION ROCK episodes I have seen so far.

The Blue Mountain, Tadashi Imai, 1948/49

Let Setsuko Hara teach sex ed and you never know what'll happen!

First film I've seen of Imai, Japan's leading leftist director of the post-war era. Not quite sold yet, but there's lots going on here, to be sure, ideologically as well as stylistically. Like most of the reeducation films of the time this is far from subtle but at least this time the democratic furor feels absolutely genuine, to the point of conceptual overreach: why not tear it all down and return to a state of nature? Some surprisingly poetic moments in there, too.

Part 2:

Not much plot in part 2, it's mostly about working through, both emotionally and discursively, the events of part one. More often than not, this brings out the film's strengths. For starters, Imai makes better use of Hara, her face is so radiant at times, he just has to cut directly to fireworks, afterwards. There's also an extremely sensual beach scene, like something out of a sun tribe film.

Somewhere in the middle the film grinds to a complete halt while everyone is summoned in school to discuss the state of juvenile morality. Almost half an hour of excessive, mugging social theater, and clearly the best part of BLUE MOUNTAINS.

Boat People, Ann Hui, 1982

In an interview after the film's release Hui talks about how in her view the communist horrors of BOAT PEOPLE and the capitalist horrors of THE STORY OF WOO VIET cancel each other out. I'm not sure if this is quite true; even if both films end with all options lost and an escape over water, BOAT PEOPLE is clearly the much darker film, a tale of arrested development ("she still has the body of a 14 year old") and annihilation and not much more. In the end the difference might have to do less with politics than with the bustling Philippine location shooting of WOO VIET vs the emptied out Chinese sets used as stand-in for Vietnam in BOAT PEOPLE; and also with a driven, manic Chow Yun-Fat vs an apathetic, emptied out George Lam, who really must be one of the flimsiest reporter heroes in film history. I almost suspect that Hui gave him two scenes with a "real" Japanese actor (or at least someone who actually speaks the language) just to make clear for everyone that even his Japaneseness is phony, without substance.

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Also watched: Where Are You Going, Ann Hui, 1992

A BELOW THE LION ROCK episode featuring Huo Dejian as himself restaging his treatment by Chinese authorities. Dense and clearheaded and a good supplement to the more paranoid takes on the imminent handover produced in Hong Kong.The Iron Rose, Jean Rollin, 1973


Love means disturbing the dead. Just wonderful how all those toppled crosses and gravestones feel completely natural after a while. This has nothing to do with blasphemy, either. It's a way of honoring the way of the world. The field of desire graves disorder. Again and again men with burning eyes in red and women without bras in yellow will enter, roam around a bit and finally get lost in it.

Sette note in nero, Lucio Fulci, 1977

The beauty of it is that at its heart, this really is a closed-off system: O'Neill isn't haunted, but cursed by images. They will come back, they will come for her, and it will be her own doing. She won't rest until they do. She's the beginning and the end of the image, their only audience, but also the camera and the darkroom (the tunnels right at the start, also somehow announcing the strange sexlessness of the film; this is a film about a face, not about a woman).

In a way it's like Hitchcock in psychotic overdrive, like Vertigo, only that not only Judy and Madeleine, but also Scottie turn out to always have been the same person. Suspense unhinged, cut off from logic and the outside world. When she steps into the murder room for the first time, she's already lost, because she has entered her brain. The rest is a game between optical nerve and cortex. The images keep coming back, every time triggering the same zoom in on her eyes, the same bonkers Frizzi music.

Sure, there's still another, more traditional film running in the background, a procedural filled with cues and policemen and telephone conversations. A backup, a leftover from Fulci's early 70s work, but it's rather obvious he doesn't care about stuff like that anymore. I mean, most of it comes down to returning again and again to the same random magazine cover, turning it into an endless readable and rereadable urtext. If one looks close enough, the World Formula is probably in there somewhere, too.

(I'm reading on here somewhere that this plays like a PROFONDO ROSSO rehash, only more conventional; I don't think so. To me, this feels much more radical and pure, much more primal than the Argento, a film I admire but don't love.)

Thursday, August 27, 2020

last week in letterboxd

Starry Is the Night, Ann Hui, 1988

Ambitious enough: Two unequal love affairs set about 20 years apart, both mirroring each other and mutually entangled... and also pitted against Hong Kong's pro democracy movement, ie the struggle against another kind of unequal relationship. The past is clear-cut and depressing (Brigitte Lin alone in the hay), the present messy and intense (Brigitte Lin getting tomboy hair and drinking from sneakers).

In the end Hui shies away from the final oedipal conclusion the romantic entanglements clearly imply - does this mean that all hope is not lost yet for an independent democratic Hong Kong? We have until 2047, someone says at one time. Felt like a long time, back then.

Same year as Varda's KUNG-FU MASTER. Strange coincidence.

Song of the Exile, Ann Hui, 1990

Ann Hui recreating her family's history, or at least a variation thereof, and especially her own relationship with her socially and culturally displaced mother. Good eye for affection clouded by pettiness. The curses and the blessings of time spent together and of time spent apart. Are we lonelier when we don't understand each other or when we do? Meaning nothing is simple, but when you get Maggie Cheung to play yourself in your own biopic you must have done something right in your life.

The true standout here is Lu Hsiao-Fen, though, the actress playing the mother: the way she lights up when returning to Japan, a child again when with her family, the prettiest (and, coincidentally, richest) girl of the village again when with her former peers.

Hong Kong, Hong Kong, Clifford Choi, 1983

A rather strange project, feels like Shaw Brothers trying for an arty Ann Hui / Allen Fong-style social drama but then deciding to both sexing it up and inserting a ROCKY rip-off-storyline. (In other words: turning it into a Hong Kong film.) Someone on here mentioned Lino Brocka and indeed those early scenes of Cherie Chung drifting through the gutter feel like INSIANG channeled through soft-core porn, although the result is both more artificial and even sleazier than that sounds. The later parts suffer from a miscast Alex Man and rather underdeveloped fighting scenes. In fact, nothing really fits, but Cherie Chung is very good, and there's always enough going on to keep the interest up.

The Way We Are, Ann Hui, 2008

How to condense the experience of the mundane? How many / few shots do you need to evoke the experience of a single day in which nothing of importance happens? How to represent everyday routine without taking recourse to cliché-ridden tropes like repetition, montage sequeces etc?

Ann Hui has good answers to all of these questions, but I'm still not completely sold on the film. This really is very low key, and probably either a bit too low key or not quite low key enough for my taste. I guess it might have helped to either boil things further down (maybe make all of it about the mother-son relationship: what does coming of age feel like when there's no conflict at all?), or to open things up a bit. The scenes with Cheung Ka-on's friends are mostly left hanging in the air, for example.

As it is, this seems to be a bit too much concerned with finding the right timing for all of those piano cues signaling all of those small epiphanies of lower middle-class urban life.

The Falcon Out West, William Clemens, 1944

I was looking forward to this since normally I'm very fond of Old Hollywood comedy western. There's really not much going on with this, though. A slow and convoluted story, no stand-out performances, and a serious lack of, well, horseplay. Seriously, that joke isn't much worse than most of the ones that made the cut, here.

Spieler, Dominik Graf, 1990

Strangely enough, while almost all of Graf's films display an offbeat sense of humor rare in German cinema, his comedies rather consistently turn out to be the least funny of all of his films. TREFFER is the exception that proves the rule, I guess, but it certainly holds true for DREI GEGEN DREI, for DOKTOR KNOCK, and, although not quite to the same degree, for SPIELER.

It's not that the jokes are bad in themselves (SPIELER, especially, is a well-written film), but rather that the films do not seem to be interested in letting them register. They're not ends in themselves, but part of the environment. "Comedy" is more related to a certain kind of deformation of the world than to the response this deformation might trigger in the viewer. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing. (The idea that comedies should be judged, first and foremost, for their "funniness" is extremely dubious anyway.)

Like in DREI GEGEN DREI and DOKTOR KNOCK, there's a certain mismatch, though, between anarchistic plotting and the insistence on total directorial control. In this case we basically get a slacker-comedy with an almost Klaus-Lemke-style hook, but broken up into a series of intricately derailing set-pieces, and accompanied by scripted dialogue. Extremely scripted, in fact, and it almost never stops, too.

We also get: Pans along wallpapers with faces draped in front of them, several beautiful iris shots, the crumbling, colorful textures of old Munich, posts and beams breaking up the frame at odd angels, a trip to France with Checkhovian hand grenades in the trunk. A foot chase across a busy highway that might be one of Graf's best action scenes. Several retreats into the bedroom where sex is only one of many possible (and not necessarily the most invigorating) outcomes.

My American Grandson, Ann Hui, 1991

Another low-key Ann Hui film, and certainly not one of her best. The plot about a bratty American teenager visiting his grandfather in a traditional Shanghai neighborhood isn't all that exciting and largely develops along the usual lines (it also has nothing to add to Mabel Cheung's pitch-perfect EIGHT TAELS OF GOLD). A benign Wu Ma is wonderful as the grandfather, though, and somewhere hidden in here is a thoughtful and quietly ironic film about growing old alone in a society that defines itself through dense social connectivity. So, a first draft for Hui's far superior THE POSTMODERN LIFE OF MY AUNT, maybe.

München - Geheimnisse einer Stadt, Dominik Graf, Michael Althen, 2000

Touched by a city. Call it psychogeography, but not as a Patrick Keiller style academic exercise, more like a Chris Marker take on a boulevard expose titled "Hot Nights in Munich".

The limitations of its (dual) perspective are obvious, but I always think it's much more interesting to fully embrace them than to make phony amends by way of inserting distancing devises. This is, pure and simple, Graf at his most inventive, and Althen at his most poetic. A rare stroke of luck.

Notre-Dame du Nil, Atiq Rahimi, 2019

Personal memory and historical allegory sometimes working hand in hand, sometimes not. Maybe the film is more interesting when they don't: how can nostalgic longing for a community of girls and for a rural landscape filled with enticing mysteries coexist with murderous ethnic violence? In theory, and especially after the fact, the violence itself might be perfectly explainable, but every single act of violence still comes out of nowhere.

Beautiful, painterly visuals, like in Rahimi's THE PATIENCE STONE. Those not all that slow slow-motion shots are a bit irritating, though, don't quite know what to make of them yet.

The Spooky Bunch, Ann Hui, 1980

A shame this still isn't available in a decent version, especially since there's a newly restored version out there (paid for by Josephine Siao herself, apparently). Also makes one wish Ann Hui would've indulged in her obvious love and knack for quirky b-movies a bit more often throughout her career.

Ordinary Heroes, Ann Hui, 1999

A messy and wonderful take on Hong Kong's leftist legacy that doesn't feel like a period film at all. The stocktaking of all of those ideological tribulations, factorial in-fights and very important names is outsourced to the performance of a manic street preacher who shows up a few times, mainly to announce a new chapter in the story. The bulk of the film is very immediate, just a bunch of people trying to connect to the world surrounding them while also fighting their inner loneliness. Then there's the cast: One of the best Anthony Wong performances, showing once again why he is so unique in HK cinema, Loletta Lee's quirky sadness and the sense of displacement surrounding Lee Kang-Sheng who'll probably always seem lost when not inside a Tsai frame.

Night and Fog, Ann Hui, 2009

The dark twin of THE WAY WE ARE, set in the same high rise settlement at the outskirts of Hong Kong. Only that this time, nothing is all right behind closed doors. Driven by a deep sense of despair, harrowing and surprisingly high-pitched, especially compared to the predecessor, but also to most other Hui films. Simon Yam's manic performance seems to take over the whole film, splintering the narrative, stretching it out over several povs and time frames. In the end nothing helps, there really is nowhere to hide.

Heartbreaking stuff, especially because of details like the sign language of the two sisters. Abuse encroaching on every single human interaction, even the benign ones.

Female Teacher Hunting, Junichi Suzuki, 1982

Gets over the rape-obsession often enough to arrive at some interesting moments, but all in all it's very plain, barely stylized. By this time a lot of these films long to be hardcore and no longer have many ideas about what to do with the restrictions. Yuki Kazamatsuri, who apparently was in the KILL BILL films, makes for a glamorous lead, though.

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

last week in letterboxd

Dragnet Girl, Yasujiro Ozu, 1933

Starts out playful, almost giddy, Ozu in movie brat mode, having fun not only with gangster film tropes but also with the "His Master's Voice" dog. Later on, though, the film mostly retreats into a single room, acting out a full-blown identity crisis that isn't limited to character psychology but takes over film form, like a hidden Ozu film revolting against the genre film surface. Still, in the end everything hinges on Tanaka's performance - at first she's the number one gangster movie cosplayer, but later on, she's the one denouncing the game, calling bullshit not only on Joji, but also on herself. In the end, the film switches gear once again and goes for a deliberately non-suspenseful chase scene featuring the world's two least agile cops. They must nevertheless catch us, says Tanaka, otherwise everything would be wrong. She's right, of course.

Call of Heroes, Benny Chan, 2016

Starts a bit slow and might've profited from not quite as straight-forward storytelling and maybe even, dare I say it, from less Louis Koo, but Chan, cleverly updating classic swordplay tropes for modern sensibilities, sure knows how to open up the canvas once the mayhem starts. The last half hour delivers on the wish-fulfillment aspect of blockbuster action cinema in full force. The "sea of jars" scene, while maybe not realized to its full potential, still is one of the more successful attempts toward the digital sublime (made me think of the sandman in SPIDER-MAN 3).

Dancing Girl of Izu, Heinosuke Gosho, 1933

Accumulating detail on the open road. The weight of the world is felt only at the end, when the body of least resistance is finally identified and being closed in on. Then, everything comes crashing down on you. "Happiness? What do you mean by happiness?"

Midnight Fairy, Noboru Tanaka, 1973

The world as seen through soot-smeared glasses. No one takes pinku as revolutionary cinema more serious than Tanaka. This is all about sticking it to the bourgeoisie by way of wild mood swings and direct action. Gutter sleaze making way for anarchist-romantic flights of fancy, and I guess the key is that Tanaka fully commits to both, to destruction, but also to utopia. A bride can be many things at once.

Yuri Yamashina's character is one of the most unusual protagonists of erotic cinema I can think of.

Girls of the Night, Kinuyo Tanaka, 1961

Even more unusual than I remembered. A film that completely refuses not only to condemn, but also to pin down sex work. Follow up on a lifeline without any prejudices and you never know where things might end.

To the Fore, Dante Lam, 2015

All clean and chaste, fully in line with mainland market aesthetics, but Lam manages to find his own form of craziness: hermetically sealing in his world and his protagonists. Cycling is everything and everything is cycling. Any emotion that can't be translated into aerodynamic, space-bending chase sequences isn't worth expressing.

Sehnsucht 202, Max Neufeld, 1932

The eternal story of love and / as capital, charming as hell, most of the checks aren't covered, but everyone's high on Luise Rainer's perfume anyway. One of those one last good time before the assholes take over films that are a true treasure of German-Austrian film history.

A Hen in the Wind, Yasujiro Ozu, 1948

This was my favorite Ozu at one time, and while by now I'd probably reserve that spot for something with Setsuko Hara in it, I still see what I particularly adored here: It's not so much about the downbeat setting or the unusually dramatic storyline, but about Ozu applying his formal rigor to moods, desires and states of minds he normally shies away from. Especially the claustrophobia, the feeling of being holed up, in one's own life, and also, more directly, in a dismal shack, next to someone you're not sure you know and love anymore. Neither Sano nor Tanaka can cope with this, and so the darkness closes in on both of them, wrapping itself around them. It's not only the people losing their serenity, but also space: the single lightbulb defining the borders of their prison, the cursed staircase...

Now You See Me 2, Jon M. Chu, 2016

Chu might not quite as out of his depth as Leterrier when it comes to quirky action mayhem - once in a long while, when he manages to boil a situation down to rhythm and choreography (as in the hiding the stick scene), he arrives at something halfway pleasant. Still, the first one was at least fueled by a - misplaced, but somewhat touching - sense of wonder. This time around, everyone involved seems to be in on the crushing dullness of the whole thing from the start.

General rule: a film that can't make good use of Harrelson ain't worth shit.

The Lady of Musashino, Kenji Mizoguchi, 1951

Early in the film (a scene that somehow didn't fully register with me at first viewing), Michiko brings home cynide capsules handed out by the army. Won't it be more practical, she asks, just to take them? A casual question that makes it clear that she's living on borrowed time from the start. Later on, this turns out to be the lesson she learns over and over again: The clean slate of death is more practical than life and its unruly, aching geometrics of desire.

Yakuza Apocalypse, Takashi Miike, 2015

Didn't expect it to be this thrilling. Miike just throwing at you every deranged impulse shooting through his mind is always a good way to spend two hours, and this time, the mayhem is dense with images of quiet loneliness, like water dripping only in your head. It also looks much better than most of his recent work, more texture, better eye for location, a dusty, grimy vision from a place beyond sanity and topography.

The White Storm 2: Drug Lords, Herman Yau, 2019

Heading for the Philippines to catch a serious case of tough on crime fascism and then letting it play out until the bitter end: two dead guys shooting each other, like something out of a Romero film.

In between Yau opens up the image, lots of moving parts, widescreen shots filled with tough guy, strippers, drugs and weapons, a car chase down the subway station, dead women's heads falling into men's laps, a grand, vulgar vision somewhere halfway between Benny Chan's uber-pulpy first film and Johnny To's much more analytical and detached DRUG WAR.

The Munekata Sisters, Yasujiro Ozu, 1950

A very alcoholic Ozu. Maybe Takamine never really sobered up, and the film is all the better for it. If you don't fall for her at least a little bit while watching this, I don't now you. Mimura must be one of the darkest characters in any of his films.

One of the great cat movies, too.

Tesla, Michael Almereyda, 2020

Pleasant enough on a pure sound+images level, but Hawke works overtime to suck as much life out of it as he possibly can. Favorite moment: Kyle MacLachlan's puzzled look at a light bulb.

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

last week in letterboxd

The Fencing Master, Shunkai Mizuho, 1962

"Danpei and realism. He doesn't understand what realism is, but is trying to capture what it is..." "With all of his life."

A sword fighting film in which the only cause worth fighting for is the correct depiction of sword fighting. The question of "graphical realism" in swordplay performances leads to a breakdown of self, and then to a sentimental confessional scene, and then to a street brawl.

Either the most macmahonist film ever or the best film about macmahonism (I don't think it can be both at the same time, because macmahonism is built on the rejection of modernist reflexivity): Here's someone who's really willing to die for mise-en-scene.

Actress, Kon Ichikawa, 1987

On becoming Oharu. The whole second half is devoted to Tanaka's relationship with Mizoguchi. Before that, we get a panoramic and multi-faceted, if not terribly original introduction not only into Tanaka's life, but also into the state of Japanese filmmaking in the late 20s and early 30s (with a fair amount of Shimizu-bashing); but once she meets Mizo, basically everything else doesn't matter anymore. Even the war hardly gets a mention, let alone Tanaka's roles in propaganda films. The script is co-written by Shindo Kaneto, who pressed Tanaka pretty hard on the same topic in his Mizoguchi documentary. So I guess it's not quite clear whether we're dealing with Mizo's fixation on Tanaka or with Kaneto's fixation on Mizo and Tanaka.

All in all not a complete success but interesting enough. A lot of it is set in rather mundane interiors, unobtrusively evoking Nicely classic Shochiku family films without ever turning into full-blown pastiche. The ending is effective on its own terms, but to not even mention Tanaka's own directorial work (a quite important aspect of life after Oharu) is just rude.

Männer in den besten Jahren erzählen Sexgeschichte, Frits Fronz, 1968

The most tender and in a way also the most optimistic Fronz film I've seen so far. Maybe this is because of the rather strict gender separation. A group of men and a group of women in the countryside, but the two groups never meet and while the men can see the women, the women somehow (movie magic!) can't see the men.

The genders only come together in the men's sex stories, and even then they treat each other like members of a friendly, but strange and ultimately unknowable alien race. Like in SEXKARUSSELL, it's important that the stories contain punchlines (if they don't, the audience will revolt). One of those punchlines leads to a girl stepping in front of a car and dancing topless, slow and trance-like, in the headlights. A moment of pure poetic bliss that seems to come out of nowhere, completely detached from both the film and the world around me.

The Scent of Incense, Keisuke Kinoshita, 1964

Shows again why Kinoshita is so underrated: he might be the only one of the Japanese classic masters interested in form first and in humanism if at all second, and therefore his films sometimes feel crass and heavy-handed, but he also gets to ask questions neither Mizoguchi nor Naruse (two obvious comparisons here) would even consider.

This one is a magnificent, dark epic at the tail end of his best period, the sprawling scope offset by the intimate framings: At its core, it's just a long series of mother-daughter conversations. More precisely, it's about a mother unilaterally rescinding the social contract, leading to the question of what's worse: corruption of family or corruption by family? What if both might mean one and the same thing?

A Song to Remember, Charles Vidor, 1945

Still not a particularly well-rounded movie, but I still like it. The Marischka script continually negotiates between Hollywood prestige picture impulses and the more sentimental sensitivities of German-style musician films (like the Schubert series). Strangely enough, Paul Muni is the most teutonic element with his Weimar era mugging. Once George Sand shows up, everything changes. She's the bearer of light, mise en scene personified, she opens up the image but breaks down the movie. Basically nothing makes sense from this point on. Both Wilde and Marischka are completely helpless when confronted with ice-cold female rationality.

The Falcon in Danger, William Clemens, 1943

Rather wacky, convoluted entry, a fever-dreamish plot that might technically make sense but plays out like a series of non sequiturs. Every single scene with the fiance is irritating.

11 x 14, James Benning, 1977

Those two Dylan shots alone would bring me through some of my darker days.

Sandakan No. 8, Kei Kumai, 1974

Undeniably powerful stuff, though for me, only the scenes with Tanaka and Kurihara really worked. The flow of energy between the two women, a smile for food and shelter, memories answered by tears. The old woman (beating things into shape with her feet) and her shack invigorated, the young woman reduced to stasis and affect.

The flashback, by contrast, are crass and blunt, shot through with expressionistic furor, all men are pigs, the sailors are coming, marching in step into the brothel. Fair enough, given the subject, and still, those are automatic images, closed-off from the start, ready-made for the ever-growing, open-ended archive of 20th century cruelties.

Le Franc, Djibril Diop Mambety, 1994

The promise of happiness becoming a burden and turning you into a clown: just another day in capitalism.

Laissons Lucie faire, Emmanuel Mouret, 2000

Giggling in your sleep until you wake up. Drop the uniform and "enjoy life", but that might be just a code word.

Female systematics and male flights of fancy. When both come together, a "sensual affair" might easily turn into slapstick. After nine years, every relationship's formula of love probably needs some refreshing, though. If nothing else helps, maybe drinking ourselves into a stupor will.

Mouret's first long film, still a bit clumsy at times, not every idea works, but that only emphasizes his marvelous eye for acting and especially for the small stage plays people constantly invent and perform for each other.

Plus, casting Chaplin's granddaughter in your feature debut is, of course, a king move.

Lullaby of the Earth, Yasuzo Masumura, 1976


The world used to be the outside while she was secure in the dark, womb-like inside, something remote like a glimpse she caught once in a while through the hatch of Grandmother's shack. Now Grandmother is gone, the world comes rushing in and she cannot help but take everything personally. Every desire, every insult aims for her body and she reciprocates in full, lashing out against both herself and everyone around her. She has no access to the safeguarding and distancing mechanisms all the others around her use almost constantly. She's only happy while rowing, turning herself into a machine, but this won't make the people go away. There's no other solution but to face them, to expose herself and to beat, claw and fuck her way into nirvana.

That soundtrack!

Army, Keinosuke Kinoshita, 1944

That long, silent close-up of Tanaka's silent breakdown really is amazing: basically every single scene preceding it is built on the absolute primacy of sacrifice for the emperor, and then, without a single word of dialogue, just through the power of one single face, everything is turned around and we are left registering the cost of this very sacrifice.

Of course, this doesn't turn ARMY into a full-blown anti-war movie, but it still feels like a deliberate intervention - purely on the level of form (I don't know much about the mechanisms of censorship in fascist Japan; was it mostly script-based?). Not only Tanaka's expressivity, but also the shift of focus from a family tale centered around Chishū Ryū to the plight of an isolated, helpless woman, while all the men around her keep drifting away...

Four Riders, Chang Cheh, 1972

Prime 70s pulp nihilism. Starts with leaves rustling in the wind, ends in the eternal snow. In between, men affirm each other's right to cry, and also some people die. Chang Cheh going for slow-burn acid rock instead of high-octane thrash-metal. Compared with his period films, there's hardly any plot at all, just a bunch of men who used to have a proper outlet for violence and now they don't. Dispensable bodies, drifting. It takes a full hour until the Four Riders finally meet, and afterwards there's nothing left to do but to prepare and execute a showdown so great I just had to watch it twice.

Woman of Tokyo, Yasujiro Ozu, 1933


Sad little film centered around a tea kettle. Beautiful tracking shots and kind of mysterious ending.

ABBA: The Movie, Lasse Hallström, 1978

I don't think I care for a single ABBA song (and I like lots of sing-along pop), but I can easily forget that for 95 strange, naive and obscene minutes. I am the tiger!

Woods Are Wet, Tatsumi Kumashiro, 1973

Entering through dark corridors, guided by candlelight, hell is promised and hell is gained. Sex is flesh on flesh slavery and everyone is slave to the ritual. Impressive in its commitment to the source, in its clear-cut, unrelenting A-B structure, and also in its matter-of-fact depiction of the husband who in the end is just a random fool (it's about doing evil, not about being evil), though I'm not sure whether Kumashiro's aestheticism really fits this project.

Thursday, August 06, 2020

last week in letterboxd

Love Under the Cruzifix, Kinuyo Tanaka, 1962

Not Tanaka's best film (the period picture parts feel once again a bit forced), but her most thorough and most controlled treatise on love as a spiritual, de facto antisocial force. A film that believes in the absolute and places it in a woman's heart. Looks astonishing throughout, too.

The Falcon's Brother, Stanley Logan, 1942

In theory an interesting wartime mystery. The script has a few nice ideas (the best one: secret messages delivered by silly fashion magazine covers) and the anti-fascist rhetorics introduce an urgency strangely at odds with the well-worn plot mechanics. The direction is dull, though, and the "double falcon" concept is completely wasted.

Burden of Life, Heinosuke Gosho, 1935

About looking at oneself as if from the outside: you always come up short that way. A surprisingly complex film, because it's not just about "coming to terms with fatherhood", but about family dynamics: a single, unjust and a bit arbitrary impulse ripples through different subjectivities until no one feels at home anymore. The resolution in the end is too abrupt and too complete.

Always marvelous how rich the worlds of these films are, even with a running time of just over an hour. Kinuyo Tanaka especially is extremely charming as the modern girl with the painter husband. Those two easily could've had their own film.

The Week of, Robert Smigel, 2018

Cramming it all in. Neorealismo rosa all'americana and sometimes no style at all is the best style.

Buscemi and Happy Madison are a match made in heaven.

The King of Staten Island, Judd Apatow, 2020

"What's that, a 'life event'?"

The boring cool kids won't like it, but this is Apatow's best film since FUNNY PEOPLE. By now, he's so relaxed, he might just join Happy Madison soon.

The New Road: Akermi, Heinosuke Gosho, 1936

Marriage shenanigans featuring wayward painters, obstinate modern girls (Kinuyo Tanaka!), grumpy fathers, dull safe-choice suitors etc. Plots like this seem to have been a dime a dozen in 30s Japan, though this seems to be willing to test the limits when it comes to licentiousness. The production design also looks marvelous at times, but in the current transfer it's mostly wasted. Gosho's direction is once again sensitive, focussing on gestures and gazes.

The magnificent last five minutes mainly consist of Tanaka running, for life and love.

The New Road: Ryota, Heinosuke Gosho, 1936

Almost exclusively deals with the fallout from the first part: love is lost, but there's a baby on the way! Youthful exuberance replaced by quite and introspective domesticity. The scenes with Tanaka and Uehara are beautiful.

The Tree of Love, Hiromasa Nomura, 1938

Abridged rerelease of a multi-hour blockbuster, supposed to be a founding work in the genre of romantic extremism (=romantic love unbound by space, time and sanity). The surviving version doesn't really point towards an epic of the scale of Oba's KIMI NO NA WA, though, everything is rather small-scale and also a bit clumsy. Uehara especially is extremely wooden. The community of nurses Tanaka is a part of is the only interesting element here.

The Reluctant Dragon, Alfred L. Werker, 1941


Finding prime STUC-material in (ok, not really all that) unexpected places. Benchley wouldn't be out of place in a particularly stale german 70s sex farce.

Chikamatsu's Love in Osaka, Tomu Uchida, 1959

The red-light district is all movement, the fluid camera tracing flows of energy, a constant exchange between inside and outside, lack and fulfillment. Our hero Chunmei, though, is the only static part. Totally reluctant, he's being bullied into a brothel by his pal and then pressured into sex by a prostitute. Afterwards he cannot, like everyone around him, reenter normalcy. He has been activated, set on a track towards theatrical self destruction. No one can stop him now - not even, as it turns out, the author of the story. He, Chikamatsu, is cursed, too: All he can do is provide aesthtic relief.

Actress, Kon Ichikawa, 1987

On becoming Oharu. The whole second half is devoted to Tanaka's relationship with Mizoguchi. Before that, we get a panoramic and multi-faceted, if not terribly original introduction not only into Tanaka's life, but also into the state of Japanese filmmaking in the late 20s and early 30s (with a fair amount of Shimizu-bashing); but once she meets Mizo, basically everything else doesn't matter anymore. Even the war hardly gets a mention, let alone Tanaka's roles in propaganda films. The script is co-written by Shindo Kaneto, who pressed Tanaka pretty hard on the same topic in his Mizoguchi documentary. So I guess it's not quite clear whether we're dealing with Mizo's fixation on Tanaka or with Kaneto's fixation on Mizo and Tanaka.

All in all not a complete success but interesting enough. A lot of it is set in rather mundane interiors, unobtrusively evoking Nicely classic Shochiku family films without ever turning into full-blown pastiche. The ending is effective on its own terms, but to not even mention Tanaka's own directorial work (a quite important aspect of life after Oharu) is just rude.

One Hundred and One Dalmatians, diverse, 1961

Queen Cruella, making every frame she walks in her own, the most glamourous of all Disney villains dwarfing the plainest of all Disney heroes. Why smoke at all if you can't smoke like Cruella smokes, enchanting the world with green veneer. The puppies must live, of course, if only to stumble over the frozen stream in one of the most beautiful scenes of animation history, but let's be honest: if anyone deserves a coat like that it's Cruella de Vil.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

last week in letterboxd

The Shiinomi School, Hiroshi Shimizu, 1955

Cinema can, in fact, ease the pain.

Stranger By Night, Gregory Dark, 1994

Gregory Dark simulating a 80s/90s hollywood run-of-the-mill programmer on a budget and doing a pretty good job at it. Normally he isn't a very smooth storyteller, but here, everything flows along nicely, at least before the somewhat rushed third act. Funny that this could very well be another of his softcore efforts, all the setups are right there, it's just that everyone decides to keep the clothes on for a change (at least most of the time). Good eye for location and at times almost Argento'esque use of music.

Pokkuveyil, Govindan Aravindan, 1982

The hypnotic score keeps rippling through my mind like the waves over the surface of the sea. Landscape is in cahoots with music and I'm not sure they always mean well. Anyway, resistance is completely impossible. A song, or a basketball game, or a woman's sobbing might break the spell for a few precious minutes, but soon after, we are back with the slow descent into insanity. The political furor leads nowhere, the father dies, the girl vanishes, nature takes back the basketball court. If anything remains, after the music stops it may be a mother's face.

Little Fish, Strange Pond, Gregory Dark, 2009


Starts with two not exactly sympathetic guys drifting through LA, reminiscing about the changing mediascape of their days (oh, the golden, silver and bronze ages of porn!) while barely registering the social decay around them. Their banter is not half as witty as Dark unfortunately seems to thinks it is. With a better cast - Modine is adequate, but Bloom is a non-entity throughout - the hangout movie part might still somehow have worked out. The completely unsurprising "dark turn" later on is an utter trainwreck, though - nothing to safe here.

All in all it's a terrible film, but terrible in a rather unique way, and if this really turns out to be G.D.'s swan song, he leaves on an unpleasant, jarring note not completely unfitting his strange career: his first shot at something similar to auteur filmmaking, he completely blew it and well, goodbye.

A Visage to Remember, Heinosuke Gosho, 1948


Open windows, open hearts. A house on the cliff, not at all a secure hiding place, but a stage for a theater of desire, doubled in a theater of light, wind and water constantly illuminating the the walls and floors. Exposed not really to the elements but rather to the forces of cinema itself. The walls between exterior and interior keep crumbling down, with unruly, ecstatic superimposition almost like in a Ferrara film, the screen taken over, again and again, by waves and close-ups of faces lost in affect. A constant longing for the sea, a piano triggering memories and memories triggering piano music, a staircase of pure expressivity...

I always liked Gosho, but this is something else, a post-war sturm und drang eruption equal only to Kinoshita's ONNA, but at the same time all gentle and forgiving. Hearts are beating, clocks are ticking, feelings get crushed, this is the way of the world, and still, some of us might love again.

Sylvie, Klaus Lemke, 1973

Still Lemke's finest hour. The Youtube transfer makes Sylvie's eyes shoot out green rays and turns her into the alien queen she always deserved to be.

In Search of… the Perfect ‘10’, Gregory Dark, 1986

After two masterpieces back to back an almost welcome reminder that sometimes films are just the worst.

The Moon Has Risen, Kinuyo Tanaka, 1953

Kinuyo Tanaka filming an Ozu script, even borrowing Chishu Ryu and staying rather close to most of his formal and emotional parameters throughout. Still, it's her film through and through - somehow the familiar surface makes her slight, tender interventions register all the stronger, especially the focus on Mie Kitahara, her gestures, her unruly gaze. The shomingeki equilibrium slightly decentered by a young woman's subjectivity.

Also, like in LOVE LETTERS, there's again a beautiful scene set in a public park. The green space inside of the city strips away the outer barriers between us, thereby rendering visible the inner ones.

Night of the Living Babes, Gregory Dark, 1987

Not quite as depressing as PERFECT 10, thanks mainly to somewhat committed performances by Bauer and Louie Bonanno. The combination of Dark's anti-humor and vhs-flatness nevertheless makes me want to move to a galaxy I don't have to share with films like this.

Girl Crazy, William A. Seiter, 1932

Another unassuming, laid back Seiter comedy. More a constellation of gags than a fully formed feature, and (mostly) all the better for it, as the screen is constantly filled with characters called Jimmy, Patsy, Danny, Tessie, Molly and Mary and everyone's clearly heaving a good time. Highlights include a musical number (Berkeley, I guess) illuminated by swirling spotlights rapidly escalating into full-blown surrealism; Mitzi Green's needy imitation scene that seems to go on forever until she's fobbed of with a helpless "You're sweet"; a scene with Wheeler and Woolsey as mock indians that makes fun of Wheeler and Woolsey instead of indians; Lita Chevret's dress; and a wonderful Mack-Sennett-style finale involving hypnotism. The romance side plot is just as annoying and tacked-on as in some of the MGM Marx Brothers films, but here it takes up less of the running time. My first Wheeler and Woolsey and certainly not my last.

Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig, 2017

Can't distance myself from this, just as the film can't, or won't differentiate between its confessional impulses and the pressures of narrative structure.

The Eternal Breasts, Kinuyo Tanaka, 1955


A life derailed, and thereby gradually becoming pure expression... a wonderful shapeshifter of a film, it takes only a single line in a newspaper article to turn a full-blown family melodrama into an intimate love story, that almost plays out like a particularly dark screwball comedy.

The Wandering Princess, Kinuyo Tanaka, 1960

It feels a bit strange that a film from 1960 about events which happened just 15-20 years earlier feels like a stuffy costume drama, but this might just be the price Tanaka had to pay in order to tackle a quite opelny revisionist project like this at all.

Starts promising, when the Manchurian prince Ryuko is supposed to marry turns out to be a sensitive, bespectacled dreamer instead of the rough barbarian her family expected. The scenes of the both of them making house in colonized China are quite nice. There's also a welcome touch of studio surrealism: Ryuko painting a picture of a particularly kitschy sunset - doubled in the background by the "original", an equally kitschy matte painting.

The rest (ie everything after "history happens") is well-meant and competent, but dull.

Lovers Are Wet, Tatsumi Kumashiro, 1973

Sex as a theater of love, hate and death.

A strip of celluloid film dragged over several meters of concrete: you might be able to superficially clean it, but something will stick.

Monday, July 27, 2020

Adorno: Kulturkritik der Gesellschaft, S. 72-96, "Veblens Angriff auf die Kultur"

Dass Veblen als Ökonom über das Feld des Kulturellen schreibt und zwar ohne dass er Kultur als ein eigenes, distinktes Feld markiert, irritiert Adorno. Anders als später Bourdieu fasst Veblen beide Sphären nicht zu einem Mischbegriff wie "kulturelles Kapital" zusammen. Er untersucht die ökonomischen Determinanten des Alltagslebens und sagt gleichzeitig: Es gibt noch andere Determinanten, zum Beispiel ästhetische, aber die interessieren mich nicht. Adorno kritisiert das, sicher zurecht, als ein "atheoretisches, pluralistisches Denkschema" (83), das sich den empirischen Kategorien des Wissenschaftsbetriebs andient, anstatt sich der wechselseitigen Durchdringung von Ökonomie und Ästhetik zu stellen.

Mir fällt an Veblens Buch zunächst ein Mißverhältnis im Begriff des Ökonomischen selbst auf. Veblen entfaltet sehr kleinteilig ein System von Inhibitoren, das die Anpassung der Gesellschaft an die ökonomischen Gegebenheiten verhindert, beziehungsweise verlangsamt. Von den antiquierten Geschlechterverhältnissen über den Sport bis hin zu den Haustieren scheint sich die Kultur der Moderne gegen den Fortschritt, der sie erst hervorgebracht hat, verschworen zu haben. Auf die Frage, wie eine solche Anpassung stattdessen zu leisten sei, fällt ihm hingegen lediglich der "ethos of workmanship" ein, eine explizit ahistorisch gedachte Gegenkraft, deren behauptete Erstheit in einem sonderbaren Mißverhältnis steht zu ihrer peripheren Stellung im Text. In der Tat ist Kultur in Veblens Modell die Negation der Ökonomie (das scheint der Kern von Adornos Kritik zu sein); das hat freilich zur Folge, dass das ganze Unternehmen auf eine negative Theorie der Ökonomie hinausläuft.

Dass Adorno diese Paradoxie (Veblen predigt Effizienz, verwendet jedoch seine gesamte rhetorische Energie, wie als Parodie auf seine eigenen Thesen, aufs Ineffiziente) nicht voll auffaltet, ist mir insbesondere in einer Passage bewusst geworden, in der er sich ausgerechnet über jene ziemlich wahnwitzige Passage in A Theory of the Leisure Class echauffiert (92f), die das Prinzip der "conspicuous consumption" ins Übersinnliche erweitert, indem den Engeln und Fabelwesen der religiösen Lehre ihre Prunk- und Verschwendungssucht vorgeworfen wird. Adorno scheint mir solche argumentative Volten etwas vorschnell unter den - freilich ihrerseits dialektisch gewendeten - Begriffen "spleen" (91) und "debunking" (92) zu subsumieren. Geht es in der Passage tatsächlich noch darum, religiöse Ideologie zu debunken? Es ließe sich ja auch fragen, ob sich so etwas wie ein im ökonomischen Sinne produktiver Engel überhaupt konzeptualisieren lässt. Mir scheint, dass sich Veblen gerade in solchen Passagen vom selbstgesetzten engen ökonomiekritischen Rahmen löst und fast schon zum strukturalistischen Ethnologen wird.

Freilich mag da auch nur meine eigene Vorliebe für den spleen mit mir durchgehen. Erst einmal bin ich eh begeistert von"Veblens Angriff auf die Kultur", einem der schönsten Texte in Kulturkritik und Gesellschaft. Adorno Lektüre ist angetrieben gleichzeitig von einem Widerstand gegen und einer Faszination für Veblens Text. Punkt für Punkt setzt er ihm seine eigenen Denkmuster entgegen, die ihrerseits wieder und wieder von Veblens Text irritiert werden. Sichtbar wird gleichzeitig etwas am Denken Veblens (eine untergründige, als Pragmatismus sich verkleidende Apokalyptik) und an dem Adornos (eine Spannung zwischen Pragmatismus und Apokalyptik, die nicht immer automatisch zugunsten Letzterer aufgelöst wird).

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Ein Grund dafür, dass ich mich etwas eingehender mit Kulturkritik und Gesellschaft beschäftigen möchte, ist mein seinerseits oft eher begriffsloses Ungenügen an einigen Kategorien, die den jüngeren Diskurs bestimmen. Dazu zählt auch der "Neoliberalismus", der, in seiner gebräuchlicheren, erweiterten Bedeutung ebenfalls als eine Bestimmung der Ökonomie auf dem Feld der Kultur beschrieben werden kann. Freilich nicht als eine negative, sondern als eine positive. Im Zeichen des Neoliberalismus ist die Anpassung immer schon gelungen, die Kultur inhibiert nicht, sondern wird zum Durchlauferhitzer der Verdinglichung. Soweit so adornitisch, nur dass "Neoliberalismus" die Tendenz hat, sich zu einem passe-partout-Begriff zu entgrenzen, der alle Phänomene mit Gleichheit schlägt, und der als sein Anderes nur noch abstrakte Utopien, oder, schlimmer und häufiger, begriffslose, regressive Sehnsüchte und damit letztlich Barbarei gelten lässt. In Veblens The Theory of the Leisure Class stößt Adorno dagegen auf ein Denken, für das "Bewußtseinsformen und die Anforderungen der konkreten Situation für ewig unversöhnbar" (93f) sind. Gegen die Evidenzen herrschender Ideologien nach Perspektiven zu suchen, aus denen es eine "Identität von Denken und Sein" (93) nicht gibt, im Falschen ebensowenig wie im Richtigen: Hier erst beginnt doch, denke ich mir, sicher naiv, Ideologiekritik.

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Impuls

Die Anspannung und die unbedingte Aufmerksamkeit, die mich erfasst, wenn ich eine Stechmücke entdecke, mit den Augen und machmal dem ganzen Körper verfolge und zwischen meinen bloßen Händen zu zerquetschen versuche - woher kommen die? Ich habe das Gefühl, dass ich nie in meinen Leben konzentrierter, aber auch nie mehr einem nicht ganz in mit selbst wohnenden Impuls ausgeliefert bin als in diesen Momenten (denn es sind immer nur Momente, die Anspannung ist viel zu hoch, als dass ich sie lange aufrecht erhalten könnte).

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

last week in letterboxd

Sayon's Bell, Hiroshi Shimizu, 1943

Starts out as a silent ethnographic expose. Even later on, when the sound sets in, there's hardly any plot, mostly it's about taking account of an environment filled with songs, animals, children, a girl and a sea monster. A film firmly rooted in an animistic connection with the world, and also in a particularly vile propaganda effort - there are moments of supreme beauty here (that last shot!), but I just can't get over stuff like Taiwanese indigenous children pledging their life to the emperor.

Dead Man Walking, Gregory Dark, 1988

Gregory Dark trying to enter mainstream filmmaking with dull postapocalyptic low budget sci-fi that manages to waste both Hauer and James. Painfully slow and everything feels underdefined, just a vague outline instead of a fully formed movie. The satirical, ROBOCOP-like interludes keep hanging in the air and never move beyond the obvious "the world is a trash heap" axiom this is built on. A few effective close-ups, including a very uneasy bloody kiss that points towards Dark's real cinematic interests.

Children of the Beehive, Hiroshi Shimizu, 1947

Orphans and repatriated soldiers drifting through a Japan in ruins, two kinds of superfluous bodies who find themselves on the outside looking in wherever they go. It's not necessarily all dark, though, as it also can be viewed as a summoning of all the children (like the summoning of the carps in FOUR SEASONS OF CHILDREN), a constant re-population of the frame.

If I understand the subtitles correctly, Shimizu sets this up as a quasi-sequel to INTROSPECTION TOWER, which makes quite a bit of sense: The centralizing authority of the fascist ideology is gone, so the children spread out, to the sea, into the fields, and now it's cinema's job to provide the means for another, better form of community.

Secret Games 2: The Escort, Gregory Dark, 1993

Minimalist, borderline abstract, a series of fetishistically deformed sex acts at the tail end of a broken marriage. Love is finished or probably wasn't there from the start, and now most of the furniture is gone, too, as almost the entire film is set in a soon to be vacated mansion.

Even more sex-centered than usually and the sex itself is even more spooning-centered than usually. Simulated spooning in Dark films looks kind of strange, very artificial, with the act turning into a stage for the woman's self-expression. The focus is on her face and tits, while everything else kind of shrinks away. Though in this case there are also interesting close-ups of Hewitt's face while he fucks, his mask-like mimic shot through with visceral impulses that don't quite register emotionally anymore.

This doesn't mean that the film itself is cold, though, even if the not very good script introduces a misplaced dose of cynicism here and there. It might be even Dark's most psychological take on sex, at least when it comes to a male pov. Hewitt longs for feelings, but in the end he knows that he can just repurpose any wounds he sustains or inflicts as conceptual art.

Mr. Shosuke Ohara, Hiroshi Shimizu, 1948

The privileges of the past, handed down from the feudal era, have become a burden. Everything has changed but the booze, so all that's left to is liquifying the assets, one drink at a time.

A lyrical, episodic take on downward mobility, and once again, like with CHILDREN OF THE BEEHIVE, not an altogether dark film. There's something of the holy fool in Ohara, a gentle, relaxed disposition shining through even in his darkest moments, and when all is said and done he just may go on off roaming the countryside, together with the children and the donkey.

Object of Obsession, Gregory Dark, 1994

I fully realize that almost no one will like these films as much as I do, but I can't help it: This one is marvelous, too! A surprising change of pace, focused on terror and confinement, while the usual glossy softcore stuff is almost completely absent. Erika Anderson is an unusual protagonist, too, a very private presence, like Whirry often is in Dark's films, but unlike her she's not oozing repressed sex with every step she takes. She just could go on like that, having a career while delegating her fantasies to "dirty" video tapes (she watches SECRET GAMES 2). The film stays closely with her and her quietly repressed life for a surprisingly long time. When the sex starts, it's mostly missionary, all about control and counter-control.

A Lietzensee, Renate Sami, 2013

A small marvel, on panning shots and the persistence of the world.

American Graffiti, George Lucas, 1973

A few darker moments and the mostly very good cast can't hide it: In 1973, Lucas already is in the habit of making streamlined popcultural artifacts rather than movies. I guess I still could fall in love with the textures, didn't quite work the first time around, though.

Street Asylum, Gregory Dark, 1990

So much better than DEAD MAN WALKING, a bonkers gutter epic, filled with manic energy and powered by excellent performances. Hauser is great, but the real standout is Sy Richardson who delivers the completely unhinged giggling Forest Whitaker performance Whitaker himself never dared / was allowed to. At times Dark struggles to transform all of his unruly impulses into a coherent narrative, but this still is a fascinating minor addition to the VICE SQUAD / C.H.U.D. / STREET TRASH etc tradition of inner city exploitation mayhem.

A Mother's Love, Hiroshi Shimizu, 1950

A sad film about a mother and a son who always has to take a leak. A magnificent central performance by Nijiko Kiyokawa. She plays a former prostitute walking along street after street while life keeps drifting away from her. She tries to farm out her kids, and to do so, she stubbornly installs herself in the living rooms of one relative after another until her obstinate presence wears them down. Only the one with the weak bladder is hard to get rid of. A sympathetic but ultimately uninvolved painter (Shimizu portraying himself?) develops an obsession with her, but nothing comes of it. When the woman finally gives in and becomes the loving, sacrificing mother everybody except maybe the painter wants her to be, nothing is solved, and the film (quietly) knows it. The son, once again, urinates. The End.

Animal Instincts III, Gregory Dark, 1996

The last of Dark's series of erotic thrillers and it's rather obvious that he had lost interest in the form. It plays less like a coherent narrative than like a watered down version of his hardcore stuff: a series of bizarre, slightly kinky skits barely held together by two equally obnoxious voice-overs (one female, one male) and manic over-acting (except for G. Larry Butler, almost all men in this have just one single imdb credit). After the first ten minutes I thought I'd absolutely hate it, but Keith's enthusiastic performance kind of grew on me.

Tokyo Profile, Hiroshi Shimizu, 1953

Almost a shock to suddenly find Shimizu's cinema engaging with a modern setting not that far removed from today's inner city life. All the more admirable how he manages to treat the bustling streets of Ginza basically in the same way as he used to treat a remote mountain road.

The fluid tracking shots acknowledge the main difference, too: here, contingency and anonymity reign, life on the street is no longer representable as a parade of distinct, easily recognizable types, as a linearly unfolding theater of life. So the main function of the camera is to pick up on those small markers of continuity and familiarity that let individuals stand out from the crowd (in fact, this is the whole point of the plot, too), and Shimizu again and again manages to do this in an elegant, unobtrusive manner.

It's all about accumulation of detail and towards the end it almost feels like as if the threat of contingency has been stripped away and we are once again in the presence of a world that is totally intelligible. But just when we're about to arrive at that point, Shimizu pulls out the rug from under us and confronts us with a highly personal, private pain not at all compatible with the meandering gaze and the skipping gait we have been accustomed to.

Secret Games 3, Gregory Dark, 1994

Mostly a copy of the first one, everything looks a bit cheaper but not necessarily worse. Rochelle Swanson might be the bitchiest, most passiv-aggressive of all Dark heroines ("What has gotten into you lately?" - "Nothing, that's the problem"), and Woody Brown from ANIMAL INSTINCTS II is once again a very effective klemmi psychopath.

No matter what happens, it always helps to reflect on it in the bathtub afterwards.

The Tale of Jiro, Hiroshi Shimizu, 1955

A son and two mothers. Another heartbreaking Shimizu film that makes every gesture count (and is in desperate need of a better transfer).

Undercover, Gregory Dark, 1995

I finally made it through Gregory Dark's softcore films; I miss them already. This plays like an entry in his SECRET GAMES series, but it's somehow a bit more soapy and down to earth than most of his stuff. The relaxed feel probably has a lot to do with Athena Massey who is just wonderful, the girl next door who just got a boob job and now wants to show them off. Rena Riffel is in there, too, and she's also very good, already a bit Lynchian.

The workplace dynamics at the police station are extremely weird and creepy - the brothel seems like a pleasant hangout spot, by comparison.

Monday, July 13, 2020

last 2 weeks in letterboxd

The World of Geisha, Tatsumi Kumashiro, 1973

"Destination: Erotic Hell", although this is, all things considered, a rather gentle film about making one's life with one's body (training all the muscles). Extremely beautiful, too.

A Date with the Falcon, Irving Reis, 1942

Well-made, and that shot of Allen Jenkins tiptoeing is worth an extra half star.

The Falcon Takes Over, Irving Reis, 1942

Routine mystery with a Chandler mean streak. Sanders and Jenkins strictly do their thing, but stuff like the opening with Ward Bond's blank-faces menace, Anne Revere's world-weary cynicism or Helen Gilbert's blonde poison normally doesn't make the cut in these films.

The Masseurs and a Woman, Hiroshi Shimizu, 1938

So modest, so beautiful. Just a few people passing each other on the street, a few lives slightly disturbing each other in passing. Some of those people might follow up on some of those disturbances, but sooner or later everyone will hit the road again. Blindness might sharpen one's sense of morality, but it's also a good setup for jokes. A film that consist of nothing but small movements, and still arrives at one of the most heartbreaking moments of rainy loneliness I can think of.

One thing that really hits me in all those Shimizu films is the omnipresence of prostitution, not as full-blown melodrama like in Mizoguchi, but as a mostly implicit threat, like an invisible sword of fate hanging over the head of every single woman on screen.

Berlin Alexanderplatz, RWF, 1980

I'm not always completely on board with late (ca post 1975) Fassbinder, and now I know why that might be: He just poured everything there is into this one. And then he made the epilogue.

Berlin Alexanderplatz, Phil Jutzi, 1931

Lively enough on its own terms, but it's just not possible to not be disappointed by the streamlining not just of the prose, but also of the main storyline, especially given that the author of the novel was involved in the production. Most of all it feels completely impersonal, less like sanitized Döblin than like a depoliticized version of Weimar working class cinema.

Jutzi makes surprisingly little use of the fact that his film is still contemporary to the Berlin Döblin wrote about. Even some of the location footage has a cardboard feel.

Berlin Alexanderplatz, Burhan Qurbani, 2020

Still mostly easy on the eyes, though it really doesn't hold up well against Fassbinder. Of course: what would? But still, some of the more obvious changes work against the film, especially when it comes to the women. Without the surrogate pregnancy plot Eva's role is completely pointless (Schygulla's complex presence reduced to a generic good fairy), and while Qurbani at least tries to invest in Mieze, her scenes mostly fall flat. In the end this is all about Francis, Reinhold and Pumm and by now I think it would've worked much better as the lurid, paranoid underworld epic it lucky also sometimes is.

Berlin Alexanderplatz - Beobachtungen bei Dreharbeiten, Hans-Dieter Hartl, 1980

Fassbinder and the machine. At one point he catches a cold.

Love Letter, Kinuyo Tanaka, 1953

After an ill-fated reunion with his lost love, Masayuki Mori stands in the park looking towards Yoshiko Kuga vanishing in the background. Or rather: she keeps on vanishing, but refuses to go away completely, the slender, black figure insists on its own presence, won't let itself be swallowed up by the white light.

The Kinoshita script strikes a few notes similar to some of his postwar films: nation building, moral extremism, self-denial... Tanaka's direction is lively and inventive, especially in the scenes not directly concerned with Mori and Kuga. Sometimes I got the feeling she would've preferred to make a film about the love letters to America themselves.

Esthappan, Govindan Aravindan, 1980

He makes images of the community, and then the community, guided and supported by a Melies-like notion of cinema as vernacular magic, makes images of him.

Kummatty, Govindan Aravindan, 1979

A simple stop trick and you're no longer part of a tight-knit community, but a dog roaming the fields. Like in ESTHAPPAN, we´re almost magnetically drawn towards the unruly outsider figure. Cinema always already is both magical and revolutionary, insisting on the possibility of difference.

Ornamental Hairpin, Hiroshi Shimizu, 1941

Another Shimizu miracle. A heartbreaking melodrama about wasted lives folded into an anecdotal account of "my funniest holiday experiences": The petty grievances of the professor next door and the various attempts of everyone else to accomodate him. And then there was the soldier who stepped on a hairpin while bathing. Of course, for a Japanese soldier in 1941, learning to walk again could easily mean learning to walk towards death. Kinuyo Tanaka, on the other hand, stays behind, forever retracing the steps that didn't lead Chishu Ryu to her.

Who else could get that much out of a (perceived) five minute long scene of people crossing a bridge? Who else would even try a scene like that?

Family Diary, Hiroshi Shimizu, 1938

One of those often rather convoluted melodramas Shimizu seems to have directed throughout the 30s in between his more free-wheeling, playful films. This time, the plot is just a bit too preposterous, although there are some very good scenes (especially interactions of several women trying to sort out their feelings). Also, Shimizu never misses a chance for a beautiful lateral tracking shot.

Now You See Me, Louis Leterrier, 2014

Completely unimaginative, ugly, stupid... but at least it's unimaginative, ugly and stupid in a cheerful, open-hearted way, so much so that at times this almost feels like a look into the souls of Harrelson, Franco et al at their most vulnerable and naive. Eisenberg was never klemmier. That's just how he is.

On the other hand, just the thought of what something like this would've looked like if made in Hong Kong 20 years earlier...

Four Seasons of Children, Hiroshi Shimizu, 1939

Or: Children, Running. A collective mode of being in the world, inhabitating nature, making sense of the not always all that sensible affairs of the grown-ups.

Like in CHILDREN IN THE WIND, the adult storyline is in itself rather basic, and this time there's also too much of it, so that at some point, things start to feel a bit mechanical: yet another cruel twist of fate solely introduced to keep the children running back and forth for a few minutes more. Luckily, Shimizu keeps things tongue in cheek with a villain who, as another character points out at some point, really looks like a villain, because he is literally blinded by greed.

On the other hand, the somewhat repetitive structure is an asset, too, because this way we really get to now every bridge, every alleyway, every house entrance in the village, and when, towards the end, Kinta is carried home piggyback by Sampei and his peers, Shimizu can easily make every step count. That repeated close-up of Sampei's scrawny legs is as pure an affect image as anything.

Cesare Pavese. Turin – Santo Stefano Belbo, Renate Sami, 1985

The return to the countryside and its implications: melancholy, death, taking account of one's dreams and their unsatisfying fulfillment. But also: the acknowledgement of another life, of the fundamental unknowability of every single person we think we know, no matter how well.

Nobuko, Hiroshi Shimizu, 1940

Rather straightforward, especially after Nobuko moves out of the geisha house and loses her accent. Still, the shift towards Eiko is interesting, I don't think there are many films that handle a bully's fall from grace with that much compassion. Her utter helplessnes when she loses control over the image, the increasingly erratic escape attempts until she finally breaks down, trapped behind her bed's headboard.

Animal Instincts II, Gregory Dark, 1994

It makes a lot of sense that the plots of many of those early 90s erotic thrillers involve home security video systems: gadgets meant to protect the suburban home against attacks from the outside being repurposed for exploring and heightening the inner, private turmoil of its inhabitants.

This might be my favorite so far. A perfect cast, every sex scene an answer to to a precise emotional need (that isn't quite filled afterwards, so we have to move on to the next), and a clever script constantly both exploring and exploiting the connection between seclusion and exhibitionism. "I felt so filthy" - cut to shower scene.

Introspection Tower, Hiroshi Shimizu, 1941

Once again one should insist that a film that registers the emotional toll of education under a fascist regime (and heartbreakingly so) nevertheless can very well be a fascist film itself. When Tamiko desperately runs after her father, who drives away without even laying eyes on her, the whole point is that her pain will be for her own good in the end. Same with the ending: when the free-form structure - most of the preceding film is just a bunch of girls and boys roaming a hillside area, trying to escape authority - gives way to forced labor, a rhythmic synchronizing of bodily effort, the mourning over the lost freedom of unruly childhood doesn't undercut, but enforce the authoritarian framework: this will all have to be worth it.

Mirror Images II, Gregory Dark, 1993

Gregory Dark softcore cinema entering the epistemological quicksands here: If two identical twin sisters not only look but also fuck exactly the same, how could one possibly keep them apart? Can they themselves? Definitively one of the crazier ones. Special flavor: Luca Bercovici growling before sex.

Notes of an Itinerant Performer, Hiroshi Shimizu, 1941

How to enter the world. At the beginning she is lost in the woods, on the move, in the dark. Exposed to nature, just as she is, later on, exposed on the stage. Unprotected, just a random body in space.

Then she finds a shelter. Here, she's part of a sensible social system, but she's the spare part but, continually shut out and ignored. How it feels to be the superfluous element in every shot you're in, the eternal leftover: "Why are you still here?" Where to sit if you don't want to sit in the way?

In order to not wither away she has to assert herself, and she does, she's conquering the space by obstinately staying put, and at some point, she's always dead center, the vanishing point of every cartesian framing, again and again summoning the world of men in the hope of at least receiving some kind of response.

In the long run, this won't work either. She doesn't want to rule, but to belong. To achieve this, she has to run away, to expose herself again, for the last and final time.

A heartbreaking film, close to Mizoguchi's prewar work on the surface, but Shimizu's genius is not revolutionary, like Mizoguchi's, but essentially conservative: The world doesn't have to change for her tragedy to end, all that's needed are some minor adjustment. A special kind of hell: to suffer and not to wish for the world to be different.

Body of Influence, Gregory Dark, 1993


"Sex is a very dark force".

Shannon Whirry is pretty much unhinged here. And she has any right to be, because her character's sexuality "has been so much repressed, it acquired a personality of its own." In other words: Whirry gets to embody her own sex drive! A role she's obviously very much comfortable with.

Whirry and a few nice props aside the film isn't all that pleasant. The script is a mess, like a rushed mash-up of two completely different projects, with a serial killer plot unfolding completely offscreen and derailing the actually quite promising psychoanalyst gone wild premise ("This is called transference, it is a good thing. And this is called countertransference, it is also a good thing."). Also it's sleazy and rapey in ways these films normally aren't.

The Circus Tent, Govindan Aravindan, 1978

A monkey is made-up to look like a man, so that he can enter, temporarily, the human systems of meaning, while an old man paints his own face in order to become animal-like, pure attraction, something to look at. The circus tent is the place where animals and humans are no longer / not yet strictly different, and this is why the circus is always an anachronism, but a necessary one. THAMPU may very well be one of the best circus films ever though I'll have to see it in a better version someday to find out.

Night Rhythms, Gregory Dark, 1992

Glowing faces, a microphone, cigarette smoke and orgasms delivered by broadcasting: The first twenty minutes or so are pure gold, especially for those of us who consider THE FOG to be the best Carpenter film.

After the Night Whisperer loses his job because of horniness, this mostly consists of a series of busty strippers throwing themselves at and riding Martin Hewitt. Nothing wrong with that, of course, and the decidedly seedy setting is a nice change of pace from the middle-to-upper-class erotica of SECRET GAMES, MIRROR IMAGES et al.

One nice moment in this one: When Deborah Driggs, who starts out as Hewitt's buddy, decides that yes, she wants to sleep with him, too. It's not at all a seduction scene, but rather a conscious, solitary choice on her part, a sudden air of determination taking over her face and body.