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.

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