Audition – Slow Boil Feminism

Audition (1999) dir. Takashi Miike

auditionI love horror films with a slow, patient build. Audition is the best at this I’ve ever seen. It follows the same basic pattern as Hitchcock’s The Birds. The first 90 minutes of a film with a 115-minute running time plays like an elegiac romance. Aoyama is a lonely widower. His son and best friend both urge him to remarry. Both the setup and the melancholy reminded me more than a bit of Ozu’s Late Spring. We don’t approve of Aoyama’s plan to hold an “audition” for a fake movie in order to find a bride. Or the way he falls for Asami so quickly. But he seems so lonely that we forgive him.

We also overlook the misogynist winks he gives his son when he brings home a pretty girl. These would be a tip off in any other film. But we like Aoyama, and director Takashi Miike has set such a dull mood that we allow these gestures to pass.

Audition Bag - The Birds - Tippi Hedren first attackBut we can’t overlook whatever is in the bag at the audition winner’s home. Miike leaves a few clues about what is to come — just as Hitchcock added in a few small bird attacks to whet our appetite while the main horror is still on slow boil.

Audition - Eihi ShiinaThese two paths — Aoyama’s quiet misogyny and the hints of Asami’s violence — converge for the final 20 minutes of the film. No spoilers here. But be warned that this is an awful date movie.

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Neo-Tokyo_AkiraAkira was one of the first major anime features to be widely distributed in the U.S., making it a cult classic that has influenced generations of filmmakers and nerds. In 2011, The Guardian summarized its importance to the genre:

“There are certain science-fiction films, such as Blade Runner and Kubrick’s 2001, that are so well realised that they can influence the genre for decades to come. Now Akira has been around for some 23 years (and is due for a Hollywood remake), we have seen how long a shadow it has cast not only over science fiction but also animation, it sits comfortably alongside those other lauded titles.”

Akira ScientistI admired the way Akira squarely targeted grown-ups, but I couldn’t help but feel like I would have enjoyed the film more if I had seen it first as a teenager. There are explosions and terrific set-pieces and random bits of philosophy thrown in, like a very good Christopher Nolan film. Thrown in, not woven in. Like even a very good Nolan film, Akira is very interesting, but lacks artistic consistency.

Akira KeiAkira‘s plot and characters leave a lot to be desired. Why are the clown bikers trying to kill the protagonists? Who are these children with super powers? What exactly happened to Tokyo? What is the resistance resisting? None of these questions are taken up, and none of the characters seem to have much of an internal life. They feel more like paper-thin tropes than actual people.

AkiraAll of these disappointments are more than made up for by Akira‘s stunning animation. It’s stunning to remember these frames were all hand-drawn. This level of detail in a full-length feature film was a direct contrast to the laziness of Disney’s “dark age” during the late 70’s and 80’s.

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The Cranes are Flying

the cranes are flyingThe Cranes are Flying is a Soviet film released a little more than a decade after the end of The Great Patriotic War, and four years after the death of Joseph Stalin. It was only well after Stalin’s death, under the protection of Khrushchev’s thaw, that director Mikhail Kalatozov was safe to make the film.

The Cranes are Flying would have bothered Stalin. It’s not unpatriotic — instead, it’s patriotic in the wrong way. Under Stalin, Soviet films portrayed the war as a glorious victory, with the common people and the nation’s strong leader working hand-in-hand to defeat the Nazis. (American and British films largely did the same during this decade.)

Cranes are FlyingBut The Cranes are Flying skips the victory. It exposes the war as a tragedy – one that killed about 1 in 10 Russians. The battle scenes show soldiers trudging along in misery, and being killed for no clear reason. It shows the people at home suffering through no fault of their own, denied even the halo war widows are given in the novels.

The Cranes are Flying - Tatyana SamojlovaThe Cranes are Flying coalesces this suffering into a single character. Veronica may have lost her only true love in the war. She has also lost her home, her family, her self-respect, her social standing and has undergone tremendous trauma. She moves through wartime Russia as almost a non-person. She keeps her pain inside of her.

Then the film climaxes, and Veronica lets it all out. Her pain is transformed into a pain of victory, and is identified with the greater Russian cause.

Some leftists saw the film as anti-war. I disagree. Much like Saving Private Ryan, it acknowledges the horror and pointlessness of war, but without denigrating the cause. The movie legitimizes the trauma of the Russian people, and encourages them to see their pain as an act of patriotism, rather than a cause for discontent against the ruling regime.

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Beau travail

Beau travail (1999) dir. Claire Denis

Beau travailBeau travail is (loosely) adapted from Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, and takes its score from the 1951 opera also based on the novel. Denis takes us away from the world of 19th Century seafaring, and stages the action in a late 20th Century North African outpost of the French Legion.

The sand dunes replace the sea waves, but the sense of isolation and the pack-like male hierarchy is the same. Most readers of Melville’s Budd focus on the conflict between the character Budd’s goodness and the abuses under martial law. Denis takes a cue from other critics, including Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, who pick up on the homosexual/homophobic currents of the work.

from the 1962 adaptation

from the 1962 adaptation

Sedgwick examines the novel, written in 1891, at its place in the development of the idea of homosexuality. It was present in Master-at-arms John Claggart, but not in a way he could consciously make part of his identity. He has what Melville calls a “natural depravity,” and an envy against Billy Budd that plays into the type (undeveloped in 1891) of the closeted homophobe. “To him [Claggart], the spirit lodged within Billy, and looking out from his welkin eyes as from windows, that ineffability it was which made the dimple in his dyed cheek, suppled his joints, and dancing in his yellow curls made him pre-eminently the Handsome Sailor.”

Denis develops this theme, casting Master Sergeant Galoup in the Claggart role. Galoup is jealous of the attention the attractive young Sentain gets from Galoup’s superior, but Galoup cannot articulate why. He contrives Sentain’s death.

Beau travailDenis twists Melville’s plot, in order to throw the focus entirely on Galoup. Galoup is the one who must face a court martial. His narration of the film was his self-examination leading up to his suicide. The ending suggests that Galoup, at the end, may have finally come to terms with part of who he is.

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Crash (1996)

Crash (1996) dir. David Cronenberg

Crash - Rosanna ArquetteCrash, in many ways, is the culmination of Cronenberg’s previous body horror work. In VideodromeThe Fly, and Dead Ringers, the eroticism for the grotesque destruction of the body and for medical apparatuses are always present, but not (usually) explicit. Crash, however, explores a world in which these fetishes are not only consciously acknowledged, but are acted upon.

How does this world differ from our own?

Cronenberg encourages us to look for the answer to this question. We watch the film from the perspective of a detached observer. The camera stays several feet away from the actors during sex scenes, instead of focusing on close-ups the way most romances do. The camera stays outside of the car for the most part.

CrashIn the car crash-fetishizing community, the men perform dangerous stunts to boost their adrenaline and to show off to women. The man most willing to take things the furthest without admitting fear is the man who consolidates the most power in the group. The women’s bodies are objectified, with their individual pieces lusted after for their own sake. Women are beaten and abused. The victims of all this violence are either unseen and ignored, or used and discarded.

It’s not too much different than the rest of the world at all.

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The Keaton Decade

Buster Keaton - Steamboat Bill Jr - HurricaneThe star of a film comedian rises and falls more rapidly than that of any other. Actors who seem like comic genius can – in the space of only 5-10 years – deplete their reserves of gags and jokes. Novelty matters in comedy, and when we grow too used to a style, it becomes not only unfunny, but downright annoying. (See Adam Sandler, Will Ferrell, Jim Carrey, et. al.) Comedy is also the hardest genre to universalize. It doesn’t sell overseas. I have trouble understanding the humor in most imports.

Comedies make up 17% of the movies on the critical aggregate They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They top 1,000 list. But when we isolate the list to only silent films, the number rises to 25%. More than half of those silent comedies were made by Buster Keaton. There’s something about his visual style transcends the limits of culture and context, enabling him to remain hilarious nearly a century later

Keaton was born into a vaudeville family, and performed as an infant. He left a stage audition to try out for a role in a film. He made several shorts with Fatty Arbuckle, and then struck out on his own. He was given control of his own production company, and immediately used it to establish his character. Film historian Walter Kerr wrote:

“As a star in his own right, Buster Keaton comes all at once and all of a piece. From the moment he began making short comedies independently in 1920, the whole repertoire – rich, bizarre, unindebted to others, and inimitable in itself – is there.”

Buster Keaton - One WeekOne Week, Keaton’s first-released film, also brings us his first iconic moment – shown in the GIF on the side. The plot also sets up the Keaton theme of a man vainly trying to accomplish a goal, failing so miserably that his entire world literally collapses around him. He cannot build an instant house in 1920’s One Week, and he cannot launch a boat in 1921’s The Boat. He fails as a stagehand in the surreal 1921 film The Playhouse, in which reality and identity itself seem to fall apart.

Buster Keaton - CopsIn 1922’s Cops, Keaton’s attempt to find success in business gets him arrested as a terrorist. Cops is also one of the best examples of the chase sequence later appropriated by Bugs Bunny.

Buster Keaton - Our HospitalityKeaton’s first feature film as director was really three short films. Three Ages, released in 1923, was made as a parody of D.W. Griffith’s 1916 epic Intolerance. It follows three boy-chases-girl stories, set in prehistoric, Roman and modern times. It’s funny enough, but lacks the true Keaton genius that goes on display in Our Hospitality, released that fall, or in The Navigator, and Sherlock Jr. in 1924.

In these films, Keaton first displays the formula he’d employ in most of his feature-length projects. He spends the first half of the film creating a believable (if slightly silly) world. Then, he runs rampant around the screen. His concrete world gives as absurd context to his actions that would otherwise seem simply anarchic, like the Marx Brothers.

Buster Keaton - Seven Chances - BridesThis is featured prominently in one of my personal favorites, Seven Chances. Keaton receives notice that he can inherit a large fortune if he marries before 7 p.m. on his 27th birthday — the same day he receives the notice. The first half-hour of the film explores various gags that have since become romantic comedy tropes. It’s very funny, and Keaton’s perfect comic timing is on full display.

Buster Keaton - Seven Chances - BouldersBut the film shifts gear into something more primitive; more dreamlike, in the Jungian sense. A chain of comic circumstances lands Keaton in a church, where he wakes to find hundreds of prospective brides sitting behind him in their wedding gowns. When they realize he does not wish to marry of them, they chase him out of the church, through the streets, and down a mountain with tumbling boulders. Keaton doesn’t flail or biff. He is in complete control of his movements, and elevates stunt work into a dance that no one had done before and no one will do again. We forget the plot, the characters and all else. We’re transported into a world of pure movement, and pure symbol.

Buster Keaton - The General - TrainKeaton’s next film is widely regarded as his greatest masterpiece. One of the secrets behind his humor was to increase the scale. If Keaton’s stone face and matter-of-fact behavior was funny when confronted with small problems (a furniture mishap, or no where to hang a hat), it became hilarious when contrasted against epic problems (a bomb on his lap, or a Civil War battle).

The General - TrainIn The General, Keaton increases the scale as much as he could. Keaton had spent most of his films running. Now, he was running on a train. And riding on the front of it. While being shot at. He went faster and larger and more dangerous than ever. Thanks to computers, we are certain to never see the likes of The General again. Even pre-cgi special effects couldn’t match Keaton. Yes, David Lean blew a train off a bridge, and did a good job doing so. But I’ll take Keaton’s shot better. It’s clearer, run at a normal speed, and doesn’t unnecessarily cut for reaction. Although The General‘s Confederate-sympathizing plot is dated (as is Lean’s imperialism, of course),  its reliance on pure, universal attractions will keep it playing.

Buster Keaton - Steamboat Bill JrAfter this, Keaton kept trying to up the ante. He’d taken on war; now he was ready to fight nature. 1928’s Steamboat Bill, Jr.‘s second act puts Keaton right in the middle of a hurricane. He maintains his trademark stoicism as the wind destroys a city around him. Steamboat Bill, Jr. features Keaton’s most famous stunt — a larger-scale version of the one seen in One Week. A house collapses on top of him, Keaton narrowly escapes, but doesn’t react.

Later that year, Keaton put himself in the middle of another battle; this one between two Chinatown gangs. In The Cameraman, shots ring out and villains crawl over each other to murder him, but Keaton keeps his classic cool.

Steamboat Bill, Jr. was Keaton’s last film with United Artists. Its poor box office performance sent him to MGM for The Cameraman. Keaton made one more film on his terms – Spite Marriage – but the studio never even gave him a real chance in the sound area. It took away creative control, and Keaton never made a great film again.

Buster KeatonBut what a run it was. From 1920 to 1928, Keaton produced about one all-time classic a year. He continually found new variations on a consistent theme that put his unimitable form of physical comedy on display. No director or actor has created more masterpieces in such a short period of time.

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Color Schemes in Paris, Texas

Paris, Texas (1984) dir. Wim Wenders

The color scheme introduced in the beginning of the film is magnificent. It uses the harsh browns and blues as Lawrence of Arabia, but adds a bold red to give it a surreal, almost pop look. The palette is bold enough to call our conscious attention to it. We are introduced to Travis as a drifter who is entirely inside himself, and has trouble even interacting with another human being.

The reds continue to dominate through the early stages of the film. Although Travis is in the city, he is still emotionally and morally alone in the desert. Travis selfishly takes his son away from his family in order to find the boy’s mother – Travis’s estranged wife.

The colors shift to cool blues and greens whenever Travis shows genuine concern or love for his son and his family. Here, he has the boy call home so they won’t worry.

But, Paris, Texas, soon turns back to the reds and browns of the desert. Travis uses the boy to stalk his wife and finds her working at a peep show. The colors reflect the isolation of both characters. Their fantasy worlds must be bold in order to cover up their real brokenness.

Travis’s moral epiphany turns the screen permanently to green and blue. He sets aside his jealousy and possessiveness, and does what’s best for those he loves. We end the film the way we began – with Travis alone – but in a very different world.

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