June 5, 2012

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Later this summer Sight & Sound magazine will unveil the results of their once-a-decade poll of the greatest films of all time. In 2002 they queried 145 critics, writers and academics, who placed Citizen Kane #1, the same place it’s been since 1962.  Re-affirming the greatness of Citizen Kane, and ranking in general, tends to inflame Manichean arguments taking the form of “this over that”. Is Citizen Kane “better” than Tokyo Storyor Vertigo? This attitude treats movies like sporting events, where one film is the clear “winner”.  These lists are intended to start conversations, but instead they end them (I find it’s far more fun to look at individual lists, where personal idiosyncracies shine through, as with James Tobacks’s selection of Jimmy Hollywood in the Director’s Poll). Part of the issue is seeing the same titles every time, embalming them in a canon of good taste, historical artifacts rather than living works of art. This ends up reducing the films the poll set out to glorify. So I am presenting an Alternate All Time Top Ten,  composed of films and directors that have never been represented on the Sight and Sound poll before. These aren’t better or worse than the films that will land on the S&S poll, just different, and hopefully will spark new conversations. I encourage you to post your own alternate lists in the comments.

The list is presented in alphabetical order.

Beau Travail (1999), directed by Claire Denis

When I saw this at the Market Arcade theater in Buffalo, probably in 2000, I was introduced to a new world of movie-making, one of sensuous power that proceeded by a logic of images rather words. An erotic reverie that transposes Herman Melville’s Billy Budd to the French Foreign Legion in Africa, it builds tension through the arch of bodies and the glint of hard sun on sand. A transformative moment for me, although my Dad didn’t like it.


The Clock (1945)directed by Vincente Minnelli

Minnelli’s first non-musical is still impeccably choreographed, as Judy Garland and Robert Walker meet-cute in NYC and fall into a whirlwind romance. Walker plays an earnest midwesterner on a two-day leave from the army, who falls instantly in love with Garland’s sophisticated urbanite. Compressing the entire wooing process into two nights, Minnelli heightens the tension of together-separate with big boom shots which pick the lovers out of the crowd, and then lose them in it.


Coeur Fidele(Faithful Heart, 1925), directed by Jean Epstein

The current Jean Epstein retrospective at Anthology Film Archives in New York City has been my first exposure to this feverish stylist, and my goodness are they sensual viewing experiences (as much as Beau Travail, say). This one, available on UK DVD/Blu, is about a foundling girl (Gina Manes) whose cheap adoptive parents marry her off to an evil bastard named Little Paul (Edmond Von Daele). She’s in love with sensitive guy Jean (Leon Mathot), who seems to spend most of his time staring at the sea (as do most Epstein characters). Filled with looming close-ups, dreamy super-impositions and sequences of fast-cutting that would make Tony Scott blush, it’s an experimental melodrama that floored me with its earnest audacity.


Duck Amuck (1953), directed by Chuck Jones

Where Daffy Duck meets his maker. This modernist masterpiece finds the titular mallard go ballistic when the animator keeps changing the backgrounds to his scenes. A Three Musketeers pastiche all of a sudden becomes a folksy farm routine and then a mountain skiing escapade. Eventually Daffy goes ballistic, yelling at the screen, until the hand of Jones comes in with his eraser… One of the funniest films ever made, which also just happens to be a wittily self-reflexive essay on the author as sadist (or as Bugs Bunny, which amounts to the same thing).


Four Nights of a Dreamer (1971), directed by Robert Bresson

The funniest Bresson is also now my new favorite. Jacques (Guillaume des Forets) is an ascetic young painter enraptured by Marthe (Isabelle Weingarten), who attempts suicide after her boyfriend cuts off contact. Jacques promises to act as a go-between between Marthe and her man, as a way to get closer to her. They start strolling along the Seine most nights, zombies in unrequited love, hypnotized by a glass pleasure boat that sails down its waters, trailing its bossa nova tune.


The Green Ray (Le Rayon Vert,1986), directed by Eric Rohmer

The perfect summer movie! The wispy Marie Riviere plays Delphine, a neurotic young professional whose friend backs out of a trip to the Greek isles two weeks before departure. Already bummed out by her sometime (mostly never) boyfriend, she wanders from beaches to the mountains in a depressive state, forcing relaxation upon herself, but only ending up in tears. Riviere is a bewitchingly annoying presence, her sulkiness matched by her hectoring lectures on vegetarianism. She is an open wound, cringing at every touch. The healing process begins through another meet-cute in a train station (Rohmer must be a Clockfan!), and the intervention of a Jules Verne short story. There magic in books and sky, so Delphine finally chokes down her pain begins emerging into the world outside her head.


Make Way For Tomorrow (1937), directed by Leo McCarey

Bark (Victor Moore) and Lucy (Beulah Bondi) Cooper have lost their house, and depend on the kindness of their children to take them in. It doesn’t work out that way in McCarey’s devastating drama of aging and loss, which was the model for S&S poll mainstay Tokyo Story. Orson Welles famously said it could make a stone cry. It is so affecting because it is so clear-eyed and unsentimental, with no last act redemptions. It is simply a story of two people in love whose lives fall apart.


Me and My Gal (1931), directed by Raoul Walsh

The first movie I wrote about here at Movie Morlocks, and one of the most energetic every made. Each frame pops with invention, whether it’s Spencer Tracy’s slangy NYC argot, trick shots or parodies of popular movies of the day, there’s something happening every frame. The whole production seems drunk, from Walsh on down to the gaffer, tossing around ideas and shooting the bull until the shooting day ended. The result is chaotic, messy and joyful – filled with the most life per square inch of film stock in history.


Mysteries of Lisbon (2010), directed by Raul Ruiz

A summation of Ruiz’s work, with its nested stories, unstable identities and swirling camera movements, and one that is endlessly pleasurable. I’m rather anxious to see the 6-hour TV version. Adapted from the 19th Century novel by Camilo Castelo Branco, it tells the circuitous story of an orphan and his parentage, one which spans lifetimes and consumes hundreds of identities. It is a a ballet where every step both reveals and conceals, Ruiz’s camera unveiling truth at one edge and a lie at the other.


When A Woman Ascends the Stairs(1960), directed by Mikio Naruse

Hideko Takamine’s face is one of the great monuments of cinema, and here she gives a performance of shuddering uncertainty. She plays Keiko, a fiercely independent bar hostess in Ginza forced intent on opening her own place. But the world of men keeps throwing up obstacles to her self-actualization, her impassive expressions intimating only hints of the roiling uncertainty inside.


January 4, 2011


Hideko Takamine, who passed away on Dec. 28th at the age of 86, had a face worth puzzling over. In her films with director Mikio Naruse, she engineered an impassive, barely perceptible sag to her delicate kewpie doll features,  embodying the spiritual toll post-WWII deprivations had inflicted on her indomitable Japanese women. She expresses the sag with supreme subtlety in Floating Clouds (1955), and later, When A Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960) (both available on this BFI box). But this reduces her accomplishments to my limited view of what I’ve seen of her work, as she had a long career before and after the masterpieces I associate her with.


She began her film career at the age of 5, with a part in 1929′s Haha (Mother)which is considered lost (sad, since it would make a stellar double bill with Hong Sang-soo’s recent Hahaha). She rapidly rose to become a child star, nicknamed Deko-chan, and garnered comparisons to Shirley Temple, although Hideko would often play both male and female roles (this according to Chris MaGee, whom I also gleaned the above photo from). From this period, she can be seen in Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Chorus (1931), available on DVD from Criterion in the Silent Ozu box set.

In 1937 she would leave the Toho studios for Shochiku, where her persona of stubborn independence would be developed over the next 40 years. During WWII she transitioned into a sex symbol, as Dave Kehr writes in the NY Times, becoming a “popular pin-up girl for Japanese troops” while also performing a nightclub act. It is during the U.S. occupation that she really digs into emblematic roles of iron-willed perseverance.  In 1955, and married at the age of 31, she told a newspaper that she wanted to “create a new style of wife who has a job.” (quoted in Catherine Russell’s must read article in CineAction). She followed this thought through her life and her art – her characters who don’t have this kind of freedom are marked by dissatisfaction with their subservient role in life, and the frequent tragedy is that it is impossible for them to transcend these roles. Takamine’s reflects on her subtle approach in a conversation with Yukio Mishima, again quoted in Russell’s piece:

In a 1954 interview with Yukio Mishima, Takamine discusses her favourite Hollywood actors, Ingrid Bergman and James Stewart. Mishima suggests that “someone with strong characteristics has to be a supporting actor,” and they agree that Takamine has “no characteristics,” which is why she is so well suited to leading roles.

“No characteristics” implies a kind of blankness from which Takemine pardoxically is able to wrench unutterable emotions. There are inflections to her stone-face, either holding a glance a beat too long or deflecting it downward at the decisive moment, that are of a delicacy far more expressive than a more aggressively emotional style. This was aided, perhaps, by Naruse’s maddeningly hands-off approach. Takemine:

“More than merely reticent”, his “refusal to talk was downright malicious. Even during the shooting of a picture, he would never say if something was good or bad, interesting or trite. He was a completely unresponsive director. I appeared in about twenty of his films, and yet there was never an instance in which he gave any acting instructions.”

In my reading of this quote, Naruse wanted Takemine to act even less. His studied distance from his actors encouraged a pared down, more instinctual style, and despite her complaints, returning for close to 20 films says something about her opinion of the man and their work together.

For Japanese audiences, she is best known for her spunky work with director Keisuke Kinoshita, like her exotic dancer in Carmen Comes Home (1951, Japan’s first color film), and her school-teacher in the smash hit Twenty Four Eyes (1954, available on DVD from Masters of Cinema), who tends to her students from the rise of fascism through the after-effects of WWII.

Takamine retired from performing in 1979, and maintained an apathetic attitude toward her time on film, focusing instead on her late career as a writer, publishing travel articles as well as her memoirs . She described her first twenty years on-screen as nothing more than a “money making machine”, and her complaints of Naruse’s working methods are well-documented. This spirited indifference toward her remarkable career is not dissimilar from her characters, who vainly try to dismiss the past in order to capture a quicksilver moment of happiness in the present. Fortunately for us, Takamine’s past artistry is preserved (for the most part) on screen, and will speak to us for decades to come.