For many a day now, I sit empty and afraid at my laptop. I've been tortured by the crucifixions of Ingmar Bergman's Persona, the endless despair of the Hungarian landscapes in Bela Tarr's Satantango, and the horrific rape in David Fincher's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo remake. So I'm scared for good reason when faced with so many movies depicting a universe which seems completely pointless. Hell, even Step Up is bleak compared to the dopey CGI animal fare I tackle when I'm not doing one of these projects.
So I pondered for a good long time about my options going into the next project. I eyeballed my collection of Stan Brakhage shorts, lustily wondering what two to ten minute delights of pure filmic expression could await me each week. On further reflection I admired the idea, but not willing to face down the avant garde as of yet, I shirked back down onto the drawing board. Danny and I talked about going through all of Spike Lee's films, but he is still tied up with Almodovar and I will not deprive anyone the sensuous pleasure of watching his films.
As satisfying as these directorial analysis have been, I realized I've been ignoring a direct link to my burgeoning interest in film. I wasn't always enamored with Bela Tarr, Atom Egoyan or even Ingmar Bergman, and it took a damn strong gateway film to really get me looking at foreign movies. The movie was Seven Samurai, and a film that my mom had beat me to a long time ago. Not wanting to be outdone by my mother (of all people) I went far into the deep end of cinema until I was watching seven and a half hour movies featuring cat torture and twenty-minute dance scenes.
Mayhap it's best to start revisiting my roots, and though I might have tipped my hand too early by pointing toward the films of Akira Kurosawa, the surprise is in finally getting the help of the best writer I've had the pleasure to be friends with (with much love and respect to Danny). We've been looking for a project to collaborate on for years, jumping through screenplay ideas and poetic wandering until finally arriving to this - a modestly viewed cinema blog on this lovely stretch of the internet. Kyle Miner, step on up and tell these folks what you're all about.I’m Andrew’s buddy Kyle (HI KYLE). I’m an editor for a digital marketing company. I haven’t written on anything movie related in quite some time, so I will likely be rusty at this at first.
My taste in movies now, while rooted in many things, probably has a sort of roundabout link to Japanese film, and that couldn’t be possible without Kurosawa. My top three movies of last year were We Need to Talk About Kevin, A Separation, and Shame. Taken all together, considering those movies is kind of like standing around at a bus stop with three horsemen of the apocalypse, and we’re all just silently waiting for the fourth to arrive. (Then Jean Dujardin screeches up driving the bus with his billboard-sized smile and everybody chills out? The metaphor is getting out of control.)
My point is, I’m typically drawn to films that deal with extremes, whether they be emotional extremes—as with these three from last year—or those that deal with extreme subjects and content. Many contemporary South Korean films deal with the latter, which may be part of why I’m so fascinated with them lately. Movies like Oldboy—one of my all-time favorites—and I Saw the Devil deal with violence in a way that is so extreme, elevated, and calculated as to make it almost mythological. It highlights, then overshadows, then ultimately engulfs the emotional conflicts of these films in such a way that they’re playing out by the end on a stage defined purely by base instincts and all the horror that goes along with that.
In this way, my current film interests have a tenuous but important link to Kurosawa, and an obvious but kind of irrelevant link to how I was first exposed to contemporary Japanese film. Some of the first Japanese films I saw came from exposure to controversial titles like In the Realm of the Senses and directors like Miike and Imamura. I was intrigued by some of these attempts to push boundaries, and I was particularly impressed by Miike’s horrifying cross-genre trek from cutesy romantic comedy to nightmarescape that had to cause a recession in the acupuncture industry for at least a few years in Audition. (HAD TO).
But other than this initial blast of shock-cinema, I was never particularly impressed with these directors—I was drawn much more to films by Takeshi Kitano and Akira Kurosawa. While Kitano uses violence in an interesting way in some of his movies, Kurosawa’s link to and possible influence on my current interests in film comes from how he also engages with often larger-than-life, sometimes mythical archetypes and themes, but roots them firmly in characters that bring them down to earth. Yojimbo is a great example of this, with a classic conflict, a character that plays on and redefines a kind of nearly immortal hero, and a third act that knocks him firmly down to ground-level. The man knew how to embed near operatic grandeur in the average and mundane. That said, I’ve never actually gone through his entire filmography before, so all of this is subject to change.
Sorry buddy, that got a bit out of control.
Already we’re off to a tumultuous start. There was certainly an overabundance of films saying “Armageddon is now” last year, but Shame? Maybe you and Michael Fassbender share a big secret in common that I’m missing out on.
For those of you playing the home game, I’m talkin’ about penises here. Sorry Kyle, I don’t deal in metaphors very well.
But I’m glad that you brought up Kurosawa’s influence in comparison and necessary contrast to some of the other well-known Japanese directors. Miike, in particular, has always been a conundrum for me to figure out the exact appeal of. It would be an exercise in extreme futility to try and do a director series on him considering he comes out with a movie a week and I’m pretty sure just opened two pictures at once by wiggling his eyebrows.
That said, I’m still wondering if it reflects some kind of inherent bias I may have when it comes to foreign movies. Kurosawa’s approach always seemed more studied and composed, even when things are action packed I understand what is going on thanks to his rigorous use of shapes and colors in photographing every scene. But no Miike film has been like the last, or only seems tangentially related. I’m still shocked the same Miike who directed the wonderfully creepy feminist take on the romantic comedy in Audition, is the same one who makes grotesqueries like Ichi the Killer (still not my bag), or films that build on a clear tradition established by Kurosawa like Thirteen Assassins.
It’s funny you mention Kitano as well, because it seems he’s abandoned his own sense of formalism for more outlandish behavior. The beautiful depiction of insanity in Fireworks and acceptance of death in Sonatine have given way to the garishly cartoonish in Outrage. Now he’s taken a maneuver from Miike’s playbook and is directing a sequel to that unfortunate film. At least with Miike it felt like part of the joke on Japan’s modern product lifespan, with Kitano it feels like a sad play to stay relevant.
But still they go back to Kurosawa. As much as I love the films I’ve seen from Yasujiro Ozu (Tokyo Story) and Hiroshi Teshigahara (The Woman in the Dunes), it seems their influence is minimal to nonexistent. But the sadness in Sonatine owes a lot to the weariness of Kurosawa’s films, especially the way Toshiro Mifune carries himself in Red Beard. I wonder if I react more to the formalism of Kurosawa because I respond more to the traditions he was speaking to of his time, instead of the rapid spin cycle of Japanese culture now?
Heavy questions aside, I’m happy to finally be partaking in a project with you, but we have to lay some ground rules. The biggest one I’m going to say right now is we are not now nor ever going to make mention of George Lucas. Cinema is a giant orgy of movies borrowing ideas and images from one another and the frequent stories and sometimes well-meaning arguments stemming from Lucas’ obvious debt to him have grown stale.
Before we start off with his first film, Sanshiro Sugata, do you have any more unreasonable terms I must agree to proceed forward?I agree to The Lucas Rule. There aren't any other necessary additions I can think to make. I will probably at some point talk about Westerns (why wouldn't you?), so hopefully that is agreeable.
I've actually seen shamefully few of Kurosawa's movies now that I look at the entire list, so while I'm interested in revisiting some of his more well-known ones that I've seen (Ikiru especially), I'm more anxious to get into the rest of his catalogue. I'm particularly interested to see how his approach to action (as you already mentioned) changed as film capabilities advanced — I'm thinking about the big-budget, large-scale and eerie battle scenes in Ran versus the large-scale battles carried out on a smaller individual level in some of his earlier films.