December 24, 2013

Humanity and Paper Balloons (1937)

Physical media is aging gracefully. If it dies, it will leave a beautiful corpse. Sales continue to crater, but DVDs and Blu-Rays have never looked so ravishing. And while the vast majority of film history is still absent on video, it dwarfs the spotty selections available on streaming services to date, although that may change in the distant future. For right now, though, those round shiny discs remain essential to the education of any curious film lover. This year they’ve introduced me to hidden gems of the classical Hollywood era as well as the tragically short career of a subversive Japanese master. Below the fold I’ve listed ten discs that expanded and deepened my understanding of the movies in 2013.

A note on my arbitrary selection process: it’s impossible to view even a fraction of a given year’s releases, so it’s likely you could compose a far superior list from what I haven’t seen. Each title passes a basic level of technical competence, but are not necessarily reference quality discs. For the most part I’m grateful to have them available at all. I’ve never had much use for bonus features (I could be watching another movie instead!), so many of those listed below are bare bones releases.

Annex - Baxter, Warner (Road to Glory, The)_NRFPT_03

1. The Dawn Patrol (1930, Warner Archive DVD)/The Road to Glory (1936, Fox Cinema Archives DVD)

These two Howard Hawks WWI dramas depict the war machine as a circular assembly of death, its soldiers staying sane by focusing obsessively at the mission at hand. Never before available on DVD, these are Hawks’ most despairing titles, with Richard Barthelmess and Warner Baxter, respectively, carrying the weight of a world’s dead flyboys on their shoulders. Hawks lost many friends in WWI, and his brother died in a plane crash before filming began on The Dawn Patrol. These are his personal documents of mourning, before he detaches his art from the real world and enters into his communal Hawkisan fantasy lands,  like the fictional Barranca of Only Angels Have Wings (1939) made only a few years later. I went longer on these two films in Moving Image Source if you’d like to read more.


a Sadao Yamanaka Ninjo kami fusen Humanity and Paper Balloons DVD Review PDVD_005

2. The Complete (Existing) Films of Sadao Yamanaka (Eureka/Masters of Cinema DVD)

Sadao Yamanaka was a galvanizing force in Japanese cinema during the 1930s. He used his prickly sense of humor to modernize the jidai-geki, or period drama. He sought to dirty up distinguished drama and capture the dead-end reality of working class life. He wrote, “If what drinkers say is lively when utilised in a film, I may insist that drinking is part of my profession.” He directed 22 films before being conscripted into the Japanese army, when he died of an intestinal disease at the age of 28 in Manchuria. Only three of his features survive, collected in this astonishing set from the heroic UK outfit Masters of Cinema (you must have an all region DVD player to view). Tange Sazen: The Million Ryo Pot, Kochiyama Soshun, and Humanity and Paper Balloons raise hanging out and doing nothing into an art form. My Movie Morlocks review is here.


3. Shoah (1985, Criterion Collection, DVD and Blu-Ray)

A film that exceeds language, given the Criterion treatment. This space gives me the opportunity to quote my favorite piece of writing this year, by J. Hoberman in Film Comment: “Sure, Shoah is a great movie. It’s also a terrible fate, an absolute isolation, the stones in your passway, the abyss beneath your feet, the cop at your door, the iceberg that sank the Titanic, the sign Dante placed at the Gate of Hell, the being of nothingness, the dream you can never recall. You can see Shoah and even if you forget it you’ll never stop thinking about it because Shoah is.”


4. Lost and Found: American Treasures from the New Zealand Film Archive (National Film Preservation Foundation/Image Entertainment, DVD Box Set)

A miracle. In 2010 film preservationists Leslie Lewis and Brian Meacham were sent to investigate the American nitrate film holdings in the New Zealand Film Archive. They discovered an astonishing cache of titles long thought lost. That includes the nearly intact John Ford feature Upstream (1927)and the first three reels of The White Shadow (1924) – the earliest surviving feature that Alfred Hitchcock worked on (as assistant director, scenarist, jack-of-all-trades). The Ford is a delightful backstage comedy gorgeously restored by Park Road Post Production in Wellington, New Zealand, overseen by 20th Century Fox and the Academy Film Archive. Those two titles alone make this an essential set, but it also includes a madcap Mabel Normand slapstick short and a cache of old newsreels that contain, in my most treasured treasure, footage of an ostrich drawn carriage.


5. Tristana (1970, Cohen Media Group, Blu-Ray)

One of Luis Bunuel’s most intractable, lingering mysteries. Catherine Deneuve stars as an orphan girl raised with imperious lechery by Fernando Rey. Their power struggle shifts as Deneuve begins to harness the malleability of Rey’s desire, shaping it to her own needs. But they both remain irreducible ciphers. Rey is politcally progressive (he won’t set foot in church) and resolutely classist (he clings to his bourgeois entitlements), while Deneuve is an angelic, innocent victim who is also a cunning manipulator Bunuel creates calm, lucid surfaces under which he masks the unknowability of his inflexible characters. The film is also the subject of one of my favorite Bunuel quotes: “Catherine Deneuve is not precisely my type of woman, but when she is crippled and made-up, I find her very attractive.” Cohen Media Group made a striking debut this year with this gorgeous transfer. Their release of Intolerance on Blu-Ray was also wel received, although I have not yet viewed it.


6. Experiment in Terror (1962, Twilight Time, Blu-Ray)

You could pull any frame from this B&W Blake Edwards thriller and nab an arresting image. Edwards followed up Breakfast at Tiffany’s with this downbeat procedural, in which a bank teller is blackmailed into robbing her employer. Pigeonholed as a director of light comedy, Edwards wanted to stretch stylistically, and this contains everything baroquely expressionist interiors, where every piece of set design reflects Lee Remick’s emotional state, to the docudrama realism of the exteriors, in which cop Glenn Ford tracks down the case. For sheer visual bravura, this is my disc of the year. My Movie Morlocks review is here.


7. Sokurov: Early Masterworks (Cinema Guild, DVD and Blu-Ray)

I’ve never been able to get a good read on the work of Aleksandr Sokurov, the splenetic spiritualist who dregs up the ghosts of Russia in front of image-distorting lenses. This is why I continue to explore his work with pleasure, in the search for transcendental understanding, or at least an inkling of what the hell is going on. He’s the one director, pace Manny Farber on Godard, that makes me feel like a stupid ass on a consistent basis. This is a frustrating and beautiful set on the way towards enlightenment. For the record, I found To Save and Protect to be gratingly impenetrable, Stone productively mysterious, and Whispering Pages to edge into greatness.


8. Olive Films Noir (DVD and Blu-Ray)

The small Olive Films label has continued to release obscure and wonderful Paramount titles in bare bones editions. This past year saw them put out a passel of phenomenally downbeat and obscure films noir, with all of the following being highly recommended:  Failed-actor-turned-director Mark Stevens’ self-lacerating Cry Vengeance; Hubert Cornfield’s ode to Los Angeles freeway gridlock Plunder Road ; John H. Auer’s seedy survey of one Chicago night in City That Never Sleeps; the prison-break character actor death march of Crashout; and the red scare laffs of Shack Out on 101.


9. Assault on Precinct 13 (1976, Shout! Factory, Blu-Ray)

The horror imprint of the Shout! Factory label, Scream Factory, has done fine work this year in upgrading many of John Carpenter’s greatest films to Blu-Ray. None come greater, though, than Assault on Precinct 13his terse condensation of Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo. My Movie Morlocks review is over here.


10. The Quiet Man (1952, Olive Films, Blu-Ray)

What was once only available in smeary editions on DVD is now available closer to its Technicolor glory on Blu-Ray. For those who can’t stand John Ford’s penchant for knockabout comedy and sentimentality, this is your Waterloo. For everyone else (and me), its pure pleasure.

I wrote essays included in the Olive Films Blu-Ray of The Bells of St. Mary’s and the TCM/Sony DVD of John Ford: The Columbia Films Collection, so I did not include them in my top ten. So, full disclosure and all that, but I think both are essential releases. 

Discs I wish I had seen: Me and My Gal, The Big Parade, The Best Years of Our Lives, How Green Was My Valley, the rest of the Criterion Collection


June 4, 2013

The history of Japanese cinema can never completely be told. It is estimated that 90 percent of its pre-1945 film output was lost or destroyed, the silent era razed in the 1923 Kanto earthquake, and Allied firebombing in WWII incinerating the rest. One of the most tragic casualties of this cultural obliteration are the films of Sadao Yamanaka, of whose 27 features only 3 survive. A galvanizing figure in the 1930s, he was a passionate cinephile and member of the Narutaki Group of Kyoto that sought to modernize the jidai-geki, or period drama. His films bring the heroes of pulp novels and kabuki theater down to earth, into sake bottle level views of the everyday lives of the working poor. They speak in modern Japanese, in dialogues modeled after his drunken late night conversations with the Narutaki Group. He wrote, “If what drinkers say is lively when utilised in a film, I may insist that drinking is part of my profession.”

He took flak for turning the popular nihilistic samurai Tange Sazen into an irritable layabout, but he gained fans and friends from peers like Yasujiro Ozu. He died at the age of 28 as a military conscript in Manchuria, from an intestinal disease.  The  Masters of Cinema label has released his surviving works in a two-DVD set : Tange Sazen: The Million Ryo Pot (1935), Kochiyama Soshun (1936) and Humanity and Paper Balloons (1937).

Yamanaka was born on November 7, 1909 in Kyoto. As written in the informative Masters of Cinema booklet by Kimitoshi Sato, Yamanaka was the last of seven children. His father was a “master fan craftsman” who passed away from a brain hemorrhage when Sadao was 16. He was hired by the Makino film company two years later, on the strength of an essay he wrote in high-school, “Kyoto and the cinema industry”. He worked as an assistant, although lazily. He was nicknamed “lamp in the daylight”, a boy with a lantern jaw who according to an actor on set, “did nothing, he just stood around.”

The young Yamanaka took this standing around as an artistic credo when he moved into features at Nikkatsu. The three films that survive are group portraits of hanging out and doing nothing. Tange Sazen: The Million Ryo Pot is the third film in a series originated by director Daisuke Ito. Ito left the studio, who gave the assignment to Yamanaka. Originally a serial novel following the vengeful exploits of a one-eyed ronin (masterless samurai), in One Million Ryo Pot Yamanaka and screenwriter Shintaro Mimura (a Narutaki Group member) turns the wandering warrior into a splenetic loafer who hangs out at an amusement parlor. The writer of the novel, Fubo Hayashi, asked to have his name taken off the credits.

Sazen (reprised by Denjiro Okochi) spends his time listening to his girlfriend sing while laughing at the suckers who pay to lose at an archery game. His life of lassitude is interrupted when one of the parlor’s patrons shows up stabbed, and asks Sazen to care for his child Yasu.  Yasu happens to be dragging around a dirty old pot which another passive aggressor is looking for. The black sheep of the Yagyu clan, Genzaburo (Kunitaro Sawamuro), believes the pot contains a map to an ancient fortune, and the search will give him an excuse to get away from his wife for awhile.

It’s a setup for madcap farce, but Yamanaka delivers it in an unexpected manner. The pot plot is a red herring, as neither Sazen nor Genzaburo have any intention of searching for treasure – they use the search as a way to create havoc outside, allowing them to lie down languidly inside.  His long-take long-shots group his performers in various states of repose, and while he does not focus in depth, he composes that way, with (in) action occurring in the far reaches of the frame. Even if he didn’t have the technology yet, Yamanaka was moving towards a deep focus aesthetic, which he would fully explore in Humanity and Paper Balloons.

But first there was Kochiyama Soshun (Priest of Darkness, 1936), based on the famous kabuki drama Kochiyama and Naojiro, first staged in 1881. Also scripted by Shintaro Mimura, it again scales down the heroic figures to human size, its Soshun not a dashing con man but a small-time shyster at a town fair who dresses like a monk, while the charming young heartbreaker Naojiro is turned into a petty thief named Hirotaro, whose theft of a knife sets the plot in motion. To fit his more naturalistic style, he didn’t use kabuki actors, but instead a few from the Zenshin-za theatre troupe, a left wing outfit that, as Tony Rayns writes in the booklet,  “developed a style of historical naturalism far removed from kabuki stylisation.”

The setting here is an expansion of Tange Sazen’s amusement parlor – here it is an entire street fair filled with hustlers. Hirotaro is drawn into Soshun’s gambling den, and raises cash by stealing a samurai’s knife. While the characters’ rejection of the pot’s treasures in Tenge Sazen guaranteed them a provisional stress-free happiness, it is Hirotaro’s obsession with material gain that tips Kochiyama Soshun into tragedy, causing a series of downfalls, including his sister’s (played by a young Setsuko Hara).

It is with Humanity and Paper Balloons that Yamanaka makes his masterpiece, in which he further elaborates his deep focus style as a trap for his feckless dead enders. Increasingly independent, Yamanaka got his favored acting troupe Zenshin-za to co-produce the film, and the performances are filled with aggrieved restraint. Again adadpted from a kabuki play, Shinza the Barber (1873), it follows the trials of one stretch of street in the tenement district. DP Akira Mimura shoots the alley head-on, the makeshift street in low light, with a flood of brightness at the end of the block. Mimura is a fascinating figure – he went to high school in Chicago (receiving the nickname “Harry”) and worked as a cameraman in Hollywood in the 1920s, including on Howard Hughes’ Hell’s Angels (1930). After the war, he would be the first to film the aftermath of the atomic bomb attack, traveling with Lt. Daniel A. McGovern to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He worked as a DP until 1975.

In Yamanka’s world there is no more “way of the samurai”. It opens with a hanging suicide in which a samurai couldn’t commit ritual seppuku because he sold his sword for cash.  Sensing an opportunity for sanctioned debauchery, the neighbors decide to have a party – as the flyboys do in Howard Hawks’ Dawn Patrol and Only Angels Have Wings. Yamanaka’s professionals are lower on the social strata – they  sell bamboo pipe replacements and host underground gambling rings – but the response is the same, to deny death through celebration.

Unno (Chojuro Kawarasaki) is a poor ronin who spends his days dutifully pestering a friend of his dead father’s, who once promised help. His nights are spent lying to his wife and battling his alcoholism, and he slides into depression. He’s a walking corpse, the ghost of the suicide hanging over him. Shinza (Kan’emon Nakamura) is an ex-barber who hosts illegal gambling parties against the local gang’s wishes. He’s routinely beaten, but he doesn’t seem to care, coasting through life with a wry smile on his face, his life turned into a cruel joke. Shinza impulsively concocts the self-destructive plan to kidnap the adopted daughter of a merchant, which Unno aids him in through sheer inertia, their parallel paths to annihilation joining in this one ill-fated maneuver. Unno’s wife is gifted the final silhouette, her blacked out figure disappearing into brightness along the road.  Yamanaka rhymes this with the image of a paper balloon floating down a roadside river, a fragile beauty that will soon be lost.