Tuesday, April 27, 2021

last three weeks in letterboxd

His Motorbike, Her Island, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1986

A romantic film about a romantic illusion. In the end it turns out that the death wish was not in her gaze, but only in the camera eye.

(Besides being a part, if not the center, of a string of 80s neo-biker pop cinema masterpieces from RUMBLE FISH to A MOMENT OF ROMANCE, this might also be a secret companion piece to Romero's KNIGHTRIDERS, a film from another, more dysphoric and also more political era that still might lurk somewhere in the background here.)

Der Mann, der seinen Mörder sucht, Robert Siodmak, 1931

At times hilarious live-action cartoon centered around a quintessenial Rühmann-meatball performance. Also makes clear once again that Wilder, as much as I despise some of his most famous films, just can't be written off. His name pops up in way too many interesting places.

Four Sisters, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1985

Obayashi's heartbreaking "four preppy sisters" melodrama, filled with 80s style and existential despair both tied to and strangely detached from material conditions. As small children, the girls (at least three of the four) were, by pure chance, saved from bitter poverty. Now they're always perfectly styled while perkily flirting with tennis jocks.

But at the same time there's a gap between them and the world around them (maybe because they realize that their somewhat protected existence is based on pure luck and could collapse into pure nothingness in a moment's notice), which becomes palpable in some of Obayashi's most intricate back projection shots, but also through body language: Yasuko Tomita leaning against a tree, vaguely looking towards the camera, Atsuko Asano, the most fragile of the four, awkwardly sitting on a seesaw, no longer completely tied to the world of the living. Then there's the scene of the four of them taking a picture together, sharing the screen and still insisting, each of them in their own way, on their inability to truly transcend their inner loneliness.

Express 13, Alfred Zeisler, 1931

Another gimmicky Zeisler thriller, darker and tighter than DER SCHUSS IM TONFILMATELIER. The bland male lead is the biggest problem, Charlotte Susa, though, gets some great close-ups.

The Drifting Classroom, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1987

After directing one emotionally charged masterpiece after the other throughout 1985 and 1986 Obayashi deservedly changes gear with this one, a perfectly fine SFX children film. The matte painting and back projection work is, once again, on another level and the idea of playing Chopin to keep the giant bugs away is basically Obayashi in a nutshell.

I'm not quite so sure about the shaky cam stuff and some of the interior scenes, parts of this look really murky, to the point of suggesting a botched digital transfer. The "intercultural" aspects might be slightly cringy too at times but in the end this is once again warm and lively enough to easily triumph over these kinds of petty objections.

Bed of Roses, Gregory La Cava, 1933

Another pre-code marvel and a genuinely strange film. It's basically about Constance Bennett making her way through all the concepts of womanhood available at the time for someone without external resources: prostitute (a stage she has technically left behind when the film starts, but which is suggested constantly as the number one fallback option); female hustler; mistress; honest but poor working girl; and finally, subordinate half of a married couple.

This sequence is presented more like an argument than like a story, meaning that character development and also interpersonal pressure systems are conspicuously absent. To put it another way, what the film is interested in are objective power systems of society, not the contingent ones of traditional fallen women melodrama. Indeed, all kinds of transitional scenes are systematically cut out as if to present Bennett with a number of clear-cut choices in order to let her make up her own mind.

La Cava's both playful and upfront direction suggests a disdain for bourgeois morality and a matter-of-fact acceptance of sexuality equal only to Borzage in American cinema of the time; and to be honest I can't think of a lot non-American equivalents either.

The Discarnates, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1988

Family life can never be quite contained in a single, fixed space-time. It is also never complete, always too much and not enough at the same time, an uneasy cohabitation of future and former selves. That's why, like is said in LONELY HEART, in childhood everything feels nostalgic even when seen for the first time. And here, in the companion piece, set during adulthood, everything is remembered as if it never happened.

It's the darker film of the two, because adulthood is always darker, and also because of the dimmed lights of the big city, with faces only gradually, haltingly emerging from the black space of claustrophobic apartments. The woman on the other hand emerges out of nowhere, in the viewfinder, a peephole apparition, detached and exposed. The adult, sweaty, pumping sex that enters Obayashi's cinema with her, maybe for the first time, promises an immediacy, a synchoronicity, which will turn out to be an illusion, too.

Shinobi no mono, Satsuo Yamamoto, 1962

First of eight SHINOBI NO MONO films, more epic in scope and also more serious in tone than the other Daiei shomingeki serials (while still highly enjoyable as a gorgeously photographed ninja adventure yarn, to be sure). Raizo Ichikawa isn't as memorable as in the other films I've seen him in, but at its core, this is not about him anyway, but about Sandayu and Nobunaga and the two completely different visions of gnarly warrior masculinity they embody.

Sandayu's way of the ninja and its anarchistic scheming emerges as a hidden, and historically defeated alternative to the dominant power politics not only of the warlords era but also of the emerging Edo shogunate. A world of romantic adventures and fluid identities slowly steamrolled by hierarchical application of brute force.

Beijing Watermelon, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1989

One of the few actual feel-good movies I've seen so far in my life.

Zoom In: Rape Apartments, Naosuke Kurosawa, 1980

Is there an actual giallo in which the murderer turns out to be a piano tuner? If not: clearly a missed chance since both the tools of the profession and its old Europe roots fit the genre perfectly. Naosuke Kurosawa's pinku entry didn't quite work for me, unfortunately. It's rather ambitious, to be sure, but the obvious Argento influence remains a gimmick and never quite connects with the almost sci-fi-like apartment building as wasteland setting, which probably is the most interesting thing about this. Instead of really engaging with the desperation this kind of dehumanizing architecture seems to embody (as someone like Sato would've done), the proceedings are presented with a crass, satirical attitude I almost always dislike in pinkus.

Chizuko's Younger Sister, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1991

I'm still shell-shocked by the magnificent Obayashi 80s run (has anyone else, no matter where, had a similar run in that decade? Carpenter maybe? Sato? Tsui? Can't think of many), and well, the 90s start with yet another masterpiece.

Another one of Obayashi's expeditions into the imaginary of family relations. This time, it's all about learning to live with the presence of an unreachable because of deceased older sister = super ego. It's more high-strung and more synthetical than THE LONELY HEART or THE DISCARNATES, but it's also even more inventive, just one small miracle after the other. That relay scene with its Melies-like intervention of the fantastic, how does one even think of, let alone pull off something like this?

The Object of My Affection, Nicholas Hytner, 1998

A woke romcom from a time when those were still made with warmth and genuine curiosity rather than with self-righteous smugness. Still a bit boring, unfortunately, but a must for 90s sitcom enthusiasts. I mean, Paul Rudd has to decide between Rachel from Friends, Joe from Wings and someone who I thought for a while was Charlie from Caroline in the City. No wonder he's confused.

Haruka, Nostalgy, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1993

Nähere Untersuchungen in the dark alleyways of memory. To remember does not mean to unearth a hidden truth, but to enter a new world of shadows, echoes and co-presences. All those lurid "secrets" are a measure not of objective, but of subjective corruption and to untangle the threads only leads you deeper into a maze in which desire is always already tainted by roleplaying. There's no pureness to reclaim, only the soothing and surprisingly calm clarity of total corruption in the middle of the illuminated forest.

Obayashi's Marienbad, a memory conversation piece that suggests that German idealism might be just as important as a source for his imagemaking as romantic music.

And then you open letterboxd and suddenly this is just another "problematic" film. I mean, I'm just not at all attuned to this kind of thinking and have no interest in defending the film on these terms (by pointing out, for example, that Hikari Ishida is a "child-woman" only in the beginning and completely ceases to be one as soon as bodily desire is introduced). It's just that the final sex scene is indeed awkward and almost manages to derail the film; but to attribute the awkwardness to age difference seems to me the least intriguing of all available options. (Also interesting, btw, how the scandal of incest doesn't figure at all in these kinds of deliberations.)

I'd argue the scene feels so strange because sex can never be pure nostalgia, because the fantasies and projections of sex work on another level. Obayashi films sex as if it was a continuation of the memory conversation - still shot countershot, but now it's not only images and gazes, but bodies replacing each other. And bodies just come with way too much friction.

Alias Boston Blackie, Lew Landers, 1942

The script has its lazy moments this time, but the frenetic games of disguise and Landers' joyful, fast-paced direction (there's even a surprisingly physical car chase scene) more than make up for it. Morris is finally completely in tune with and in control of the material, with everyone else becoming pawns in his game.

Samurai Kids, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1993

Wonderful, inventive, making the most of both the narrative concept and the effect shots (including some pretty awesome early CGI intrusions). By now I'd expect nothing less of Obayashi, of course.

The one detail I love most is probably Satoru's sister's life-sized Munch The Scream doll.

Hot Water, Larry Rippenkroeger, 2021

Relaxed bro-cinema or I guess "cinema", switching back and forth between competent GoPro Mtv Sports jet ski action (with BEN HUR lurking somewhere in the filmhistorical background) and gross-out comedy skits that work not because of shock value (let alone wit) but by contributing to the unassuming and very pg-13 hangout vibes of the whole thing. Aside from the Jet Ski parts the filmmaking is as basic as it gets, and, like with many comedies of its kind, this is strictly a feature, not a bug.

Sada, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1998

I guess I just had to encounter, sooner or later, one Obayashi that doesn't work for me. Here, everything feels forced, all that stylization and picturesque minimalism just a tool to construct an overbearing and not very illuminating argument about the oppressive normative forces of myth-making. Or something in that vein, I lost interest in the intellectual mechanics rather early and just waited for her to finally grab the knife and get things over with.

Clearly one of those films, though, I might completely come around to under different circumstances. One day, maybe.

Russian Lullabies, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1993

Would love to see this in a better version someday. Clearly something of interest going on, here.

Switching, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 2007

The embodied memory of playing Schumann transcending gender and, ultimately, death.

Took me a while to get into it, probably because there's nothing in it as immediately captivating as the electrifying Satomi Kobayashi performance of the first version. Later on, though, when the this time rather subdued body switch mayhem slows down, this becomes incredibly affecting. A cinema of caresses, a fingertip cinema. Like any other difference, sex difference ultimately doesn't pull us apart, but draws us together.

Goodbye for Tomorrow, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1995

The decidedly mundane vision of death and mourning points towards Koreeda's AFTER LIFE, I guess, and in fact both films keep me a bit more at distance than I would wish and expect. Maybe I really am a still bit too much immersed in the monotheistic tradition to fully accept this kind of matter-of-fact anti-transcendentalist approach.

Anyway, lots of beautiful stuff in there about dark loneliness and about how not to get completely lost in it.

Casting Blossoms to the Sky, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 2012

Much more convincing when viewed as a poetic argument rather than as a political one. "Using the pain caused by war for peace" might sound nice, but in the end it's just another pretext for not talking about Japanese war crimes. Pitting Nagaoka against Pearl Harbour is a false equivalency, because it skips over Nanjing.
... Then again, Obayashi is a filmmaker and I truly do feel protected by his tender pyrotechnics. In fact I could spend hours sitting under his blooming skies.

Hanagatami, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 2017

Digital flatness, yes, but also digital death masks. By far Obayashi's most morbid vision, a decadent evocation of a collective death wish affecting each face differently.

Labyrinth of Cinema, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 2019

"Movies have always been unnatural and strange."

Mario Baba and Frantz Kapra. The farce to HANAGATAMI's tragedy, working through many of the same obsessions. Obayashi tries to go even further in his exploration of digital anarchism, but he just doesn't achieve the stylistic coherence of his best work this time. Anyway, this seems to be the first time that bona fide war scenes show up in his work. Like something deep and hidden, a constant subtext now finally breaking through.

And of course, best John Ford impersonation ever.

Hausu, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1977

It is indeed all there from the start: the cat, the piano, even the watermelon.

This might be the problem with Obayashi cinephilia: Despite the widely ignored depth of his filmography, he's not really in need of rediscovery, because even if he had directed only his one canonized masterpiece and nothing else, he still would've been one of the greatest.

Seven Weeks, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 2014

Obviously Obayashi is working through some issues close to his heart here, but this was another one of the very few which just didn't work for me. The insanely talky family stuff of the first half feels somewhat oppressive, which, of course, family stuff tends to do sometimes, but still, in his earlier films Obayashi always manages to find a special hook to ease the burden a bit, while here it's just non-stop blood relations echo chamber.

The second half harks back to HARUNKA, NOSTALGY only without the air of elevated romantic craziness which makes the latter so special. Indeed it feels a bit strange that this rather unspecific youthful melodrama is set up as the big family secret supposedly holding everything else together.

Of course there's still an abundance of striking imagery (the scene with the excavator in the background for example is quietly unsettling in a truly extraordinary way) and the discourse on lines and painting might just be a key to Obayashi's aesthetics. One never can be completely finished with any Obayashi film.

Dreams, Akira Kurosawa, 1990

The poignant short films format probably doesn't bring out the best in Kurosawa. On the other hand, the emblematic minimalism of the production design maybe does. In the end, only two of the episodes really stick with me (The Peach Orchard and, especially, The Tunnel - those also were pretty much the only ones I had any recollection of from the first time around), everything else kind of quietly fades away the moment it leaves the screen. Which, of course, most dreams do, too.

Making of Dreams, Nobuhiro Obayashi, 1990

Making images of images. Of course an Obayashi making of about, say, RAN or MADADAYO would've been even better, but this is pitch-perfect for what it is and it made me love Kurosawa even more - something I really didn't think was possible.

Michael Jordan's Playground, Zack Snyder, 1990

"Jordan put on his Superman suit..."

Quite lovely, even on its own terms and without all that MAN OF STEEL foreshadowing. Especially the musical ending.

(Interesting question, though, whether tv sports might be another source, besides Peckinpah, Woo etc, of Snyder's slow motion fetish.)

Adolf und Marlene, Ulli Lommel, 1977

I was rather curious about this one, although it's not really all that surprising that it turns out to be one of those low energy Lommel joints that don't necessarily go overboard in justifying their own existence. The script doesn't really go anywhere with the premise: There's Adolf (sans moustache) and there's Marlene (singing a song or two once in a while), and then there's all those Fassbinder regulars playacting nazis in a pleasantly lazy fashion. That's it. Ballhaus finds some interesting, claustrophobic compositions, and while the jokes, like in most Lommel films, are mostly lame, this doesn't really matter, because, also like in most Lommel films, the whole thing feels like a daydream set in another dimension that looks like our own on first sight, but in the end will never be fully transparent to us.


Another footnote to the Lommel saga: What's the deal with those three ten star reviews for ADOLF AND MARLENE on imdb? They read suspiciously alike, but, given that the film was never commercially available anywhere: why would someone go through the motions of setting up not one but three fake accounts (all three of them have only reviewed Lommel film, ten stars all the way)?

Dawn of the Dead, Zack Snyder, 2004

I remember passionately hating this when it came out and now I wonder why, especially about the passionately part. It's a mostly well-made but uninspired remake that comes somewhat alive when it dumbs down Romero to badass action bullshit but completely falters when it tries to recreate the desperate hangout scenes of the original.

Maybe it really is a realistic film about the mall in the 21st century in the way every single social interaction (except for the ones between the three security guards) feels completely random, but in the end there are just too many bad James Gunn oneliners for me to care.

300, Zack Snyder, 2006

This is clearly Snyder starting to find his style, but it's also clearly still something of a chore to sit through. For all the total control of imagery Snyder shoots for, there's a lot of awkward maneuvering to squeeze in all those desperately desired iconic moments. All style no elegance. A film that values self-identity over everything else will always come up short in the end, I guess, because it never will be able to live up to its own ideal self.

Watchmen, Zack Snyder, 2009

Ultimate cut.

Having no stakes in or even knowledge of Moore's graphic novel this feels in a way even more juvenile than 300, lots of agitation about all of those big themes, but in the end what's really important is sex, of course, and sex basically means dicks and the idea of women melting away in orgasm.

Of course it indeed is one of the best things about Snyder that he acknowledges horniness every step of the way, in all of his films. This one is better made than 300, too, much smoother and sometimes even with an eye for acting completely absent in his first two. The animated sequences are not completely successful, but I still think they are important, because, like the human wall in 300, they introduce an element of raw carnage that seems to be a necessary jumping-off point for superhero discourse.

Legend of the Guardians, Zack Snyder, 2010

Really very bad. A few youtube videos are enough to realize that they didn't understand at all why owls are awesome. Owls are deadpan, not whimsical! Basically the only part I liked was the beginning, when they're learning too fly. These rather plump creatures bumbling through the air...

I don't get at all why people give this a pass on technical grounds. To me it looks beyond ugly and they didn't even make the two owl brothers different enough to keep them easily apart. Also, no interest at all in exploring the world, rushing through way too much plot and all composition centering on those stupid owls.

Decidedly not the hidden gem in the Snyder canon I still secretly hoped it would turn out to be.

Sucker Punch, Zack Snyder, 2011

Strangely enough the first Snyder film with decent human interactions. Very basic ones, but still.

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