Wednesday, March 24, 2021

last week in letterboxd

La tavola dei poveri, Alessandro Blasetti, 1932

A comedy about the sphere of circulation as an integrating force, at the same time transcending and redrawing class barriers. It ends with a banquet given for the poor... that is also financed by the rich marry on borrowed money. Blasetti's direction is always inventive and Viviani is amazing.

New Tale of Zatoichi, Tozuko Tanaka, 1963

Katsu looks about 10 years younger in color than in black and white, at least on first sight, and this threw me off for a while, but in the end this turns out to be a very emotional, quietly melodramatic entry. That long scene of Zatoichi and Yayoi alone in a room, each one in a different corner, not approaching and not really looking at each other and still they're ready to completely change their lives around just because of the intensity of the moment...

Forbidden Trail, Lambert Hillyer, 1932

Love the uneasy Buck Jones swagger (he is much wackier than his wacky sidekick in this one, especially when "flirting"), and I liked that at one point the fact that he can't get what he ordered for breakfast is used as a plot point. Aside from that very routine, mostly in a good way.

Zatoichi the Fugitive, Tokuzo Tanaka, 1963

There's once again a blast from the past storyline but at the same time the series starts to transition to Zatoichi the journeyman mode, starting with the random sumo match in the beginning. Like with Tanaka's previous entry, this is best when things get more private and intimate, especially in the scenes with Masamo Banri. Doesn't quite reach the same emotional intensity this time, though the last scene, with Zato's farewell dance turning from playful to desperate to gloomy in a single close-up is truly amazing.

Zatoichi on the Road, Kimiyoshi Yasuda, 1963

The first one I didn't really care for. Looks still amazing, of course, but the plot is uninvolving and also surprisingly slow, there are no standout set pieces and winy Mitsu is the worst character in the series so far, a damsel in distress tailor-made for Zatoichi to spring through all the required hoops and nothing more. Zato himself is unpleasantly cocky, too. Hopefully not a sign of things to come.

The Mistake, Bruno Sukrow, 2020

Still nothing even remotely like it out there, and this time the insertion of quite a bit of live-action footage - mostly nature imagery, often shots lasting for quite a long time - makes everything feel even more sui generis. Not just the pulpy fever-dreams of the code left to its own devices, but a gift from a twilight zone beyond the separation of digital and analog. We are blessed.

Sleepy Eyes of Death 4: Sword of Seduction, Kazuo Ikehiro, 1964

Ditches most of the classic chambara roots of the series in favor of a more serious commitment to its exploitation underpinnings. Here we get junkie sex slaves, sadistic nuns, out of the blue beheadings, defloration rituals etc., and while Nemuri Kyoshiro thankfully refrains from raping anyone this time around, the fact that he basically only acts out of spite, no matter what he does, is even more pronounced.

First Ikehiro I've seen, and judging solely from this he might be one of the more distinctive stylists among the Daiei jidaigeki specialists. Most striking is his use of long takes, sometimes whole scenes are done in single shots, which are often dynamized by gorge-like areas of deep focus. On the other hand, he sometimes goes for quite disruptive close-ups of pure movement. There's a weightlessness to the best scenes here that is quite a bit removed from the usually rather set-heavy Daiei-style.

Ikehiro is also the first director who tries to find an SFX equivalent to Nemuri Kyoshiro's Full Moon Sword Technique. Like quite a few of his more out there ideas this isn't completely successfull, but still, this is anything but by the numbers filmmaking.

Justice League, Jack Snyder, 2017

Watching the corporate capitalism cut before the fascist theocracy one. Just kidding, I'm mostly / moderately pro Snyder and what works here probably works because of him. (I'm not sure, on the other hand, that Whedon is the bad guy; some of the comic relief is terrible, yes, especially the Aquaman parts, but this more than anything feels unfinished, rushed, almost like a first draft.)

For Snyder, a superhero first and foremost is a scandal, an entity outside of traditional systems of cinematic epistemology, and the films can only be ways of accommodating this scandal one way or another. Introspection for example is not an end in itself, but must be experimental too, like it is here in some of the scenes with The Flash.

With the possible exception of Aquaman, who really is extremely annoying this time, every superhero arc in here has at least some kind of weird specificity and the stitched-together feel of the whole thing almost adds to its charm: different kinds of scandals, of disruptions folding into each other.

At least up to a point, because after the team is assembled (and the different worlds have been blended into each other), this does not have many interesting places to go. Still, the reddish, morphing CGI-scape of the finale is quite strong and hosts an action-adventure-set-piece more inventive than anything I've seen in any Marvel film, including SPIDER-VERSE.

Zack Snyder's Justice League, Zack Snyder, 2021

Funny that Snyder of all people is now being celebrated as a master of classical filmmaking. But in many ways it's true, this really is a much more well-rounded aesthetic object than just about anything on a similar budget level in the last 10 years. Still a bit disappointing that most of the raves center on "grief", "emotional depth" and similar qualities, thereby once again enshrining the vocabulary "real" cinema is supposed to be judged by.

The characters might be more rounded too, yes, and the dedication in the end is incredibly touching, but that's not what sets this apart from the previous version. In the Snyder cut, the superheroes do not get much more backstory or motivation. What they do get is a better stage for the expression of their powers. This expression might also be a self-expression, but first and foremost it is an expression of something the self is not.

To put it another way, Snyder is more interested in the super than in the hero. That's why Cavill's Superman is still his finest creation (and MEN OF STEEL his best film): With him, it's not about a human body discovering superpowers (a phenomenology), but about superpowers discovering and transforming a human body (an epistemology).

(That's also the reason, btw, why Affleck's Batman is so weird. In the absence of a superpower he loses all intrinsic value for Snyder, who has no eye for the specific melancholia / romanticism of basically all the earlier Batman solo films. When he tries to recreate it he falls back on tired stereotypes out of touch with the rest of his film, like Batman sitting high up there, overlooking the city. For Snyder, Batman makes only sense as a figuration of himself: an engineer of the spectacular always in danger of getting lost in his own schemes.)

This difference is not just one of narrative perspective, but constitutive for Snyder's image-making: Just like Superman's body is a medium for the exploration of superhuman strength, Snyder's films are vessels for the superpowers of high-budget digital imagery - that is, the films are not the powers themselves but experimental efforts to embody them, to translate them.

The biggest difference to the theatrical version is not the expanded Cyborg storyline, which is nice enough but maybe a bit too directly an expression of the digital sublime; but, once again, the way Snyder manages to make his cut much more about Superman (even the open matte framing only really clicked with me after the first true Superman closeups), to the point that a lot of this, especially the many scenes foreshadowing the resurrection, plays out like a religious parable.

The eruptive and obviously sexual release (the biggest flaw of the film might be that Cavill is not completely naked when being reactivated) delivers the other heroes not so much from trauma, but from interiority itself. Now their abilities can no longer be misread (by themselves as well as others) as coping mechanism and they, too, have access to the spectacular.

The question of how fascist all of this really is never completely fades away. Still, it's quite interesting that the first thing that happens after the resurrection is a fight among heroes. Even in the end, they cannot even begin to conceive of their abilities in terms of a greater good. The more discursive side of the film (all those strange voice-overs: who do they address?) stays completely fixated on self-determination the whole time, and maybe that is the political stake of the film: that the Justice League, the necessary transgression of individualism, can only be though of in terms of the otherworldly fantastical, unbound by any empiricism, be it psychological or sociological.

(On a side note, while I'm not all that curious about a post-apocalyptic Joker movie, what I really would love to see is a Snyder-directed WONDER WOMAN prequel set completely in Themyscira.)

Grand Piano, Eugenio Mira, 2013

Wonderfully bonkers hook and as long as this is just sub-Hitchcockian suspense mechanics, it runs along nicely (plus I was amused for quite a while about the thought of Elijah Wood as piano genius, not that it's completely unbelievable, I can see him obsessing just about anything, but it feels a bit like a fantasy life gone wrong); it becomes pretty clear pretty soon, though, that Mira isn't interesting in opening things up. The sole attempt at de Palma / Argento nastiness (the cello bow / knife match cut) is disappointingly tame and every outside event has to be matched, one for one, by character exploration. So in the end it's just another self-contained system, like so many recent genre exercises.

The Locket, John Brahm, 1946

In a key scene, Brian Aherne rushes back to a bombed out house he thinks Laraine Day, his wife, might be buried under. When he arrives, though, his eyes get stuck at a piece of jewelry stuck in the rubble, a bracelet that might be proof of her guilt, and this, her guilt, is his top priority, even in the face of her possible death. Throughout the film Day's evilness gains cinematic evidence almost exclusively in the actions and words of the men surrounding her.

This does not mean, of course, that she isn't evil, or that this is a film about the male "construction" of an evil woman. It's more about a cinematic investigation which is completely and hopelessly compromised from the start, contaminated by a primal evil that is itself outside of the scope of the film.

A top-tier psychopathology noir, in any case, and extremely good looking, too. The visuals build both on Musuraca's work with Lewton and Brahm's own gothic horror exercises - which were, however, probably really just this: exercises. This one is the real deal.

Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold, Kazuo Ikehira, 1964

Now this is something else. Zatoichi is truly a free agent by now, and he stumbles into adventure just by sitting down while trying to take a rest. Ikehiro's direction is once more top notch, although he does not take as many risks as in SLEEPY EYES OF DEATH 4. Here, it's mostly about finding a new, more direct approach to cinematic violence.

The action is varied and brutal and the forest setting lends this a visually distinctiveness most of the predecessors lack. Nature's protection isn't here to stay, though: while Zatoichi slashes his way through his opponents, the dark green glow of the trees slowly makes way for a barren wasteland.

Kisapmata, Mike de Leon, 1981

There's barbed wire on top of the door, and if it even opens up (most of the time, the blunt, helpless noise of the bell stays unanswered), the entryway is barely big enough for a small car. If you've made it inside, the maid will lock the door behind you immediately, eager to perform a duty no one appreciates. The house is greenish from the outside and even greener inside. It's never quite clear, at least in the restored version, if (or how much of) the green is a matter of lighting, of paint, or of decomposition.

If you make it inside (you'd better not, anyway), on the left side a small living room opens up, a small area of relative security and civility. The dominating sight, though, is a staircase leading to the first floor. A diagonal slicing the screen, and a passageway between utter despair and the illusion of safety. Below the staircase there's also a phone. Its ringing, like that of the doorbell, mostly stays unanswered, and once you're inside, you already suspect why: This is a self-contained system, and every channel of communication with the outside world will, sooner or later, prove to be an illusion.

Upstairs, to the left, Dadong lives. Better not even look at the door. Crossing over to the right, you reach another room. The room of the daughter of the house, a child's room that might feel bright and friendly at first, but that turns out to be, in fact, the worst room of all, a chamber of unspeakable horrors, a kernel of pure negativity that, slowly but surely, will take over the whole world.

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