Monday, April 05, 2021

last two weeks on letterboxd

Le roi des aulnes, Marie-Louise Iribe, 1931

Starts as a rather dull narrative visualization of Goethe's Erlkönig, but takes flight once the central visual idea is introduced: The boy's hallucinations manifesting itself as a series of overlays, half-transparent figures representing the Erlkönig itself as well as a number of nymph-like dancers and other vaguely mythological creatures. Projected over trees, leaves and, especially beautiful, water, they are transformed into a direct portal into another realm of pure visuality.

That's basically it, the film isn't interested in doing much more than opening up the portal and spending some time on the other side. A one-trick pony, but sometimes that's enough.

Hinugot sa langit, Ishmael Bernal, 1985

Family melodrama, the eternal master-genre of Philippine Cinema. Here, Maricel Soriano gets sweet-talked into first watching SPLASH and then a pregnancy. Later on, she is surrounded not so much by oppressive individuals as by blunt ideological forces. The "bad" guy who knocked her up is pure irresponsibility, and advises her to toss a coin to decide the fate of her unborn child; the "good" guy who wants to marry her is pure patriarchal dullness, unable to think of her as anything else than as part of his prearranged life-plan; the aunt (?) is pure religious hypocrisy, aggressively demanding, in the name of the lord, a sacrifice she herself was never asked to make; the cousin (Amy Austria, biggest joy of the film!) is pure girl-power libertarianism and advocates for take every orgasm you can get and don't worry about the consequences. In the end, the choice Maricel has to make might not be all that hard...

There's a side-plot about a family of day laborers being evicted from their dilapidated home. Might feel like poverty porn at times, but might also be read as the dark, ironic core of the film: another kind of body politics, mirroring the possible "eviction" of the fetus, but one that does not have access to the mode of melodrama.

The Visitor in the Eye, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1977

A horror film setup swept away by picturesque matte paintings, Tschaikovsky style piano romanticism and affect-trenched colorscapes. What's not to love?

Border Wolves, Joseph H. Lewis, 1938

Joseph H. Lewis cheapie from his Wagon Wheel Joe days. And indeed, his favorite framing device makes quite a few appearances. Aside from that, there are lots of songs, quite a bit of Joe-Baker-hollering, a few inventive camera movements, some of the most racist attempts at comic relief attempts I've come across recently and a vague outline of something similar to a plot. Not without merits as a sign of things to come, but a bit too random on its own terms.

Take Me Away!, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1978

For 20 minutes, this is as beautiful as filmmaking can get: Two uprooted souls falling in love while floating on top of San Francisco street scenes, remnants of the not yet completely commodified counterculture, a musical euphoria not too much removed from a plunge into death and nothingness. It all culminates first in a magical club scene and then a night of glowing close-up passion, framings of intimacy that also seem to be playing with our desire to watch.

Obayashi comes back to all of this in the end, to the club and the street romance at least. Not much has changed but that fact in itself might be telling enough. There's just nothing solid that sticks to those two. Everything in between is a bit frustrating, because it feels like this almost could've been a masterpiece, if Obayashi had just made the material a bit more his own, instead of falling back on tired family drama tropes.

There's beautiful stuff throughout to be sure, the music, the toy plane, a wonderfully giddy 70s brawl... still, the otherworldly beauty of the first 20 minutes dissipates pretty quickly, and when Obayashi tries to reclaim it in the end it feels a bit like too little to late.

Lovemobil, Elke Margarete Lehrenkrauss, 2019

Watching this after the "scandal" broke is a rewarding, if not completely satisfying experience. If one knows about the background, the signs of "scripted reality" are indeed impossible to overlook, even in the most "observational" hangout / waiting for the johns scenes. Interestingly, the only "real" protagonist, Uschi, feels even more scripted, maybe because technically she's an amateur actress while the other two women are not.

Still, turning this into "correctly labeled" fiction might have resulted in a much less interesting film, because this probably would've weakened what is strongest about it: the way these two sex workers are transformed, by way of accumulation of well-researched detail, into universally valid signifiers of what Germany and especially provincial Germany is and feels like in the 21st century. And in the end I would argue that this very quality doesn't at all depend on whether Rita and Milena are "authentic" or not.

LOVEMOBIL isn't quite strong enough to build a full-scale defense of the lying documentary on. Still, watching this with an open mind is at the very least much more enlightening than keeping up with the never-ending stream of self-righteous think pieces which come across much more embarrassing than anything the director might or might not have done wrong. Everything else the parties involved should work out among themselves.

School in the Crosshairs, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1981

When nazis take over the schoolyard, it pays off to go for the big guns. Pure joy from beginning to end.

Meet Boston Blacki, Robert Florey, 1941

Boston Blackie, king of the lame one-liners, in a well-made mystery. Rochelle Hudson, Costance Worth and Richard Lane easily make up for what Chester Morris lacks in charms (it's not him, I guess, but those damn one-liners) and Robert Florey once again directs with style, wit and an eye for the bizarre.

Facundo Alitaftaf, Luciano B. Carlos, 1978

Brain-melt material of the occasionally funky kind. Theres' a scene in which Dolphy's head gets, again and again, stuck between two sumo wrestler's bellies. Hard to not see this as the film declaring, quite openly, its own aesthetic strategy.

The Adventures of Kosuke Kindaichi, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1979

ADHD: The Movie. There's more inventiveness in any five-minute stretch of this than in your average yearly Academy Awards Best Picture crop, but in the end I can only rate my own enjoyment and I was low-key annoyed by this pretty much the whole time.

Lovely Devils, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1982

Two witches battling each other and the one who loves harder wins.

The narrow television frame completely and immediately feels like the perfect container for at at least this special flavor of Obayashi's madness. No room to stretch, so the only way to go is forward, rushing through melodies and set-pieces, straight into a manic Dario-Argento-children's-book-operatic-fairytale.

Now that the frame is smaller it's all the more obvious that the core of his cinema is not visual but musical. Not a single melody or a constant beat, though, but a commitment to the musical spectacular. Pop cinema driven by a discontent with the limitations of pop. The neat two and a half minutes packaging, the emotional purity, the levelling of tone and affect: all of this has to go. Pop must aspire to something different, and one way to achieve this is an opening up towards older forms, especially European romanticism. In a way, films like this one or VISITOR IN THE EYE unfold like Bohemian Rhapsody, only without the pomp and the grand gestures. It's not about "synthesizing influences" but about speaking the cinema of hybrid musicality as if it were a natural language.

Tinimbang ang langit, Danny L. Zialcita, 1982

So there's another 1980s Filipino showbiz melodrama about a nightclub singer getting discovered and making it to the big league before having to make a choice between the loneliness of the stage and conjugal confinement as the wife of Christopher De Leon. (Or rather, between De Leon and - a diamond-plastered microphone! There's a wonderful, quiet perversity to all of this.)

This one lacks the clear-cut from rags to riches dramaturgy of the later BITUING WALANG NINGNING, and in fact mostly does away with the socioeconomic context altogether. Instead, this is about a number of high-strung individuals trying to find happiness in rather erratic ways. Most of the plot developments come out of nowhere, and sometimes even the Mise-en-scene seems on the verge of collapsing. A fragile film, but then again, good love songs are always complicated.

Zatoichi's Flashing Sword, Kazuo Ikehiro, 1964

"In the dark, the advantage is mine."

On the other hand, Zatoichi's whole mission in this one is to make sure fireworks will light up the sky in the end. So it's not about banning light categorically, but about exchanging one type of light for another. The blunt, narrow daylight of pure visibility must make room for the spectacular, expressive, artificial light of nighttime ghost vision (and while Ikeda's direction lacks the blunt force of his ...CHEST OF GOLD, this transformation is rendered beautifully). Light must stop being a mere tool for petty power schemes and become an aesthetic force in its own right.

Zatoichi cannot see, but he can be touched by light.

Sentinelle, Julien Leclercq, 2021

The somber tone on tone beginning leading up to a nice, impressionistic club scene kind of intrigued me, but once the destination became clear, I had a hard time keeping my interest up. As basic as this is, there's still too much stupid plot and while Leclercq makes good use of Kurylenko's sad eyes, she just isn't the right kind of actress for those brutal, down to earth fight scenes.

I Are You, You Am Me, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1982

Sweet and tender body switch comedy, with Obayashi keeping his more ornamental impulses in check while mostly handing over the film to his actors, especially to Satomi Kobayashi, joyfully lashing out against the restrictions of the world surrounding it; a great, intuitive performance, that at times threatens to sideline Toshinori Omi, whose equally important contribution takes longer to register. It mostly manifests itself in close-ups - with the girl, the switch mostly activates the body / exteriority, with the boy the face / interiority.

Maybe the best thing about it is that the social context, while never absent, mostly retreats into the background, so that the film mostly consists of the world the two of them build for themselves, without external interference. This is especially true for the extremely touching last part, a turn towards juvenile transcendence I really didn't see coming. Introduced, of course, by Bach's Air of Suite No. 3, the most beautiful piece of music ever conceived. Only special films can truly sustain Bach and this one can.

Crime Doctor, Michael Gordon, 1943

Warner Baxter suffers from amnesia and is haunted by an unknown, murky past while climbing the ranks of decent society. Plots like that, encompassing years if not decades while trying to do justice to a man's whole biography, are not exactly ideal programmer material. Indeed, the script takes quite a few shortcuts and never even tries to account for its psychological implications, resulting in a strangely non-commitant self-investigation: Baxter investigates his past self as he would another person. And the film isn't smart enough to make use of this "objective" schizophrenia either.

Anyway, the most interesting parts in here are probably the prison scenes and the plea for prosocial reform they imply.

The Little Girl Who Conquered Time, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1983

More plot-heavy than most other early Obayashis and while the small frictions in the fabrics of the everyday slowly leading to a big, romantic opening up of everything is a lovely vision of coming of age, I guess in the end I prefer the anarchism of LOVELY DEVILS and the relaxedness of I ARE YOU. Of course, one does not have to decide, Obayashi's image factory will provide for everyone in the end.

Haven't seen the Hosoda version yet, although while watching it I more often thought about Makoto Shinkai who just must have watched this at least a few times before taking on YOUR NAME.

Confessions of Boston Blackie, Edward Dmytryk, 1941


"You've got a little Gestapo in you!"

It's always interesting to see how the reality of geopolitics seeps into those wartime noirs. Not by way of stilted speechifying, but in much more casual ways. Being in war against fascism is just another part of the fabrics of daily life. (Don't know, of course, if the line was already in the script or if this is an early example of Dmytryk's antifascism.)

The film itself is quite nice, some original ideas and I've already made my peace with Chester Morris's swag.

The Deserted City, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1984

A town touched by death, embalmed in green, handed over to water (while waiting for fire), having lost contact with the present, every act already a proleptic memory. When being is being with death from the start, only a concrete act of sorrow, a direct contact with death can break the spell once in a while. The wake after the non-lovers's love suicide is the most lucid scene of the film, faces sculpted in light, finally in tune with their own helplessness.

So beautiful it hurts (the cats, the dogs!) and I really wonder why, to me, it's still not a complete success. Maybe it's the voice-over in combination with Eguchi's blank face, though in the end it might've more to do with the way Obayashi looks at his characters. He respects them, and knows there surrounding, carefully placing them in space-time, securing them from hostile gazes (ours, too) when necessary, but sometimes I feel like he's not curious enough about them, or at least not as curious as I am. For example Ikuyo: She's old-fashioned, we learn, and Obayashi decides that's enough, that's all we need to know about her. But is it?

Kenya Boy, Nobuhiko Obayashi & Tetsuo Imazawa, 1984

Would love to know more about this, productionwise. Is this really an unfinished work, as some are suggesting here? Or might this just be one of Obayashi's more radical attempts at a liquified pop cinema? I mean it totally makes sense for him, when for once leaving behind live-action altogether, to not settle down on a single, stable style of animation, but instead to interrogate this new toolset, especially regarding the presence, absence and saturation of color. At the same time, the stylistic ruptures do feel more jarring and random this time around.

And it's not just the style, there's also a decidedly dubious script (like a stitched-together mashup of several "exotic", colonialist 30s serials filtered through a Japanese nationalist framework) and the total and, given the rest of his work, really surprising lack of insight into how young people behave, talk or even just move around. Wataru really is more a miniature adult than any kind of adolescent here, except maybe when enthralled by the equally awkward blonde jungle goddess Kate. His horniness might've been his saving grace, but the film isn't interested in exploring it, either.

In the end the only thing this has really going for it is its weirdness, and, like with KINDAICHI KOSUKE, this isn't quite enough to keep me engaged.

La canzone dell'amore, Gennaro Righelli, 1930

Trying, with some success, to take in the wholeness of sound, chaotic street noise mixed with intimate confessions mixed with the streamlining of auditive affect by the cultural industry. A few good visual ideas, too, like the closing in on the couple sitting high up there in the tree. Most of the times, though, the window stays closed and all sensations stay confined within the limits of a particularly tired set of melodramatic conventions.

The Island Closest to Heaven, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1984

Away with my petty objections, they always remain strangely external to Obayashi's image-making anyway. Even if they're true they're wrong, because with Obayashi, it's not about truth value or fitting into pre-arranged forms, but about following the images, wherever they might lead.

Just like Keiko here, who travels to the end of the world, to a world of pure beauty, a world as special effect, in search of an image she can't describe until she sees it. More precisely: The driving force behind her trip is her conviction that she will recognize the image once she sees it. We already suspect she won't, and we already suspect that this failure will, in the end, not matter all that much to her.

The true cypher is not the world, though, but Keiko. This is epitomized in her glasses. That women (much less often: men) are suddenly transformed when they take off their glasses is a well-worn trope (and I have to admit that I'm rather fond of it. Here, Keiko takes her glasses, and she, too, changes. It's just that we don't know what exactly this change consists in. She continues to be a cypher, but has demonstrated the possibility of change.

Maybe the most important thing is that Keiko remains a tourist, even after leaving the tour party behind. She enters a few lives, a few stories, but stays on the sidelines, detached. And learning how to do this, to be content with this, to except ones own apartness is all that matters in the end. The boat is steady, it's the world that's swaying.

Prosti, Erik Matti, 2002

The hilarious poster is strangely fitting, since this is an exploitation film first and foremost, but in a playful and, yes, honest way. Just like madame's damaged eye works both as a grindhouse signifier and as a trace of her own damaged past, Matti somehow manages to pull of directing a sensual film about prostitution. An unillusioned tale of power structures and the possibilities / limits of solidarity (female-administered sex work is still exploitation, but also a way to keep the men in check) - with glossy, at times kinky softcore sex and lots of stylish low angles of narrow bordello hallways. And it's not that the latter somehow devalues the former. It's all of one piece, without the allure of bodies in heat the microeconomy of power and pleasure the film is built on would simply collapse.

Feels a bit like a much less cynical version of early 90s Hong Kong Cat III cinema. Need to finally see more Matti...

Miss Lonely, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1985

Nostalgia is one of the key modes of cinema, a medium that always, necessarily navigates the relationship between imaginary immediacy and objective distance. To do this successfully, Obayashi teaches, one cannot play off one aspect against the other, but has to fully commit do both. So on the one hand we're drowning in desire for a particular time and place and melody and face (also for completely random things, like that slightly ridiculous white sweater we always wore in our teens), while on the other hand we're working through this very desire, analytically and without any safety net. And the perfect way to do this, this most beautiful of Obayashi's films (ok, so far, who knows what'll happen next...) suggests, is by way of comedy, by way of exploring, Chaplin-style, the connection between silliness and sentiment.

In the end it's about finding and defining objects which can bind and symbolize our affect, while at the same time making it manageable. A small piano on top of a real one.

Der Schuss im Tonfilmatelier, Alfred Zeisler, 1930

Cinema as a closed-off system centered around death. Smart and inventive, though one might've wished that Zeisler would've focused a bit less on the satirical and a bit more on the depraved implications of the plot. But well, not everyone can be a De Palma, I guess.

Bound for the Fields, the Mountains, the Seacoast, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1986

The war is absent but only just so. All that's missing is one cut, sometimes maybe just a tilt. The nearness of the war affects everyone, transforming games into war games and society into a keystone cop comedy. Everyone's sliding and rafting towards it, talking about it, singing about it ... and still, war's not here. Being on the brink of war without getting there means being on the brink of madness without the possibility of a release, however gruesome. The world has already been invaded by violence, but without the accompanying structure provided by war. For now, violence is pure rupture, impulse without form.

Films like this often tend do get on my nerves. Farcical, vitalist mayhem intent on selling me on the primal richness of life in the face of devastation... That's why I have a hard time with a lot of Imamura, and BOUND FOR THE FIELDS clearly takes some of its cues from this tradition. At the same time, though, Obayashi never ceases to be a pop-filmmaker first and foremost, which is especially evident in his loving recreation of (1910s more than 1920s) slapstick aesthetics. Also, once again he kind of inserts himself into the narrative, as a young boy who, like in LONELY HEART, explores the world with the help of a pair of binoculars. What he offers is, in the end, not a treatise on man's eternal nature, but a perspective on a world.

(bw version)

Karma, Danny L. Zialcita, 1981


Patriarchy gone wild. In an early scene a woman temporarily staying in a hotel room is raped by a man who thinks she is in on it because an acquaintance usually provides him with a paid "victim" in the very same room every week. Things don't get much saner afterwards.

Once again, Zialcita's Mise en scene (and especially his editing) isn't the most solid in the world, but also once again the bonkers melodrama worldview seems to come natural to him. Plus he has a great eye for decor and what it does to people.