Saturday, December 29, 2012

Black Narcissus (1947) Spine #93

In a post I made on September 5th of this year, I noted “I'm fairly certain that when Scorsese and Dickerson are talking about Powell and Pressburger films, they aren't talking about Powell and Pressburger.  They are talking about Jack Cardiff.”  I’m now able to expand on that a bit more with Black Narcissus (1947).

If you are a Netflix subscriber, as of today, Cameraman:  The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff (2010) is still streaming, so go watch it.  It not only explains how amazing a cinematographer he was (he died in 2009) but also gives some insight into the origins and development of Technicolor, which Cardiff was the first person to be trained on in England.  This page has a lot of good information on the history and development as well.  In my posts on Taxi Driver and Do the Right Thing, I noted that while Scorsese and Dickerson go off on how great Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger were, I wasn’t seeing anything great in the films I had seen from them, most of them being in black and white.

My problem with their movies is that they are boring.  Even the ones in color.  But when you throw Cardiff into the mix, things get infinitely more interesting from a visual perspective.  Cardiff gives you something to do, like admire how gorgeous the set is for Black Narcissus.  It is truly stunning, even though there are process shots involved.  And Cardiff’s blues in this film are jaw-droppingly striking.  I have yet to see The Red Shoes (1948), but I know the reds in the film are vibrant, from clips I have seen, and from what I have read and heard, warm colors (particularly reds) are more difficult to capture on film than cool colors.  But the overall plot and characters are so dismissible that I have to convince myself that I am watching the movie just for the visuals, which is not necessarily an altogether bad thing, but shouldn’t one enjoy the plot and characters and not all the pretty-pretty?  I can go to a museum for that.

The “plot” involves a group of nuns who are being sent to a remote complex in the Himalayas where they are to have a school and a hospital for all the poor, stupid natives who need ministering to.  These poor, stupid natives live in a sublime setting, but since they are poor and stupid, they can’t take care of themselves, so the British need to step in and save their poor, stupid bodies and souls.  This has been tried before, by a group of male, God-fearing British, but they didn’t succeed, so the female, God-fearing British are being given a good ole’ college try, pip pip.  In the opening scene, we are beat over the head with gloom and doom by the head mistress who is assigning the new outpost to Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr), presumably to give her some training on how to tame Burt Lancaster and Yule Brynner later in her career.  She’s so very young to be given this position and is certain to fail.  The overall portend of disaster, coupled with getting Sister Ruth (who should come with her own dun-dun-dun! music whenever we see her) assigned to the team, sends us smoke signals of tragedy.  Now we get to spend the next hour and a half watching nuns unravel.

And apparently, the reason why these nuns lose their minds so easily once they get to their destination is because the sky is so blue and the air is so pure.  It’s the perfect storm for gazing out over the beautiful mountain vistas to remember whatever horror brought each woman to becoming a nun, for, in Pressberger and Powell’s world, you only become a nun once your life’s in the shitter.  What kind of message does that send?  And being a nun in such a beautiful place, helping all these poor, stupid natives, really drives home for each of them (except for maybe Sister Briony, who seems to actually be the only effective nun there) just how much they no longer want to be nuns.  Sister Philippa shoots their chances of food in the ass by planting gardens full of flowers instead of vegetables.  Sister Honey does not follow policy and tries to save a dying baby (with one dose of Castor oil, way to go!), and when the baby dies, the poor, stupid natives want to kill the nuns.  Sister Ruth is suffering from persecution mania and a raging case of hormones for Mr. Dean, the only white man around for miles who, no matter how cold everyone else is, insists on wearing shorts and his shirt unbuttoned, ‘cause he is all man, baby.  And Sister Clodagh is mourning the loss of her fiancé to the wonders of Michigan to find his fortune sans her.  Does she love Mr. Dean?  Does he love her?  Do I care?  No.  So, the nuns fail and go home.  Poor, stupid natives go back to being poor and stupid.  The end.

This movie is problematic on several levels, but I’ll try to get the important ones in.  And perhaps I should start by saying that this is, by most accounts, a very faithful adaptation of the 1939 novel by Rumer Godden (same title), even though she hated the adaptation.  I’ve never read it and therefore cannot comment.  And there is historical context with India getting its independence from Britain a few months after the movie came out.  But anyhow…

  • There are four speaking roles for the natives – the Young General, the Old General, Kanchi and Angu Ayah.  The only one played by an ethnic Indian was the Young General (Sabu, who I guess was in pretty much every British movie made around this time that dealt with India).  The other three roles were played by white people in makeup.  That’s pretty racist.  I know you’re all thinking “hey, think of the time period,” and yeah, that was still going on in America, but wow…
  •  I pointed this out previously, but it appears that the nuns are only nuns because their lives got so miserable earlier on that the only choice for them was to become nuns.  I’m not a religious person, but that sounds like a really sacrilegious position to take.  Apparently, when the film was to be released in the United States, the Catholic League of Decency asked for the scenes in the film that deal with Clodagh before she becomes a nun (the ones with her fiancé) to be edited.  I don’t know how they were edited, but they at least picked up on how “being called” looked.
  •  “‘It is the most erotic film that I have ever made,’ wrote Michael Powell of Black Narcissus. ‘It is all done by suggestion, but eroticism is in every frame and image, from the beginning to the end.’” This is taken from Kent Jones’ “Black Narcissus:  Empire of the Senses” and leaves me quite agog.  I know different people find different things appealing, but I was so befuddled by Powell’s use of the word “erotic” that I went and looked it up, thinking I had perhaps been living with the wrong definition for years.  Turns out, my definition jibed with the dictionary (quite a relief), but then left me puzzled with how Powell could level it at this movie.  We have a girl, Kanchi, 17, who was giving Mr. Dean “problems,” and he hopes the sisters could “straighten her out.”  We have the Young General, about her age.  She bats her eyes at him.  He saves her from a beating.  They fall in love.  Whoever didn’t see this coming all the way from the Copacabana is a moron.  Does Powell mean that the batting eyelashes are erotic?  And gee, who’s the only other male in the movie?  Mr. Dean.  But he’s white, so he gets two nuns after him.  And the whole temple complex used to be a “place of women” (read whorehouse) where the General kept his concubines.  But Jones seems to say that “erotic” is the fact that the characters in the film cannot deny the reality around them.  Is denial erotic?  Perhaps.  Is watching two people who can’t get together realize this, in slow motion?  Maybe.  Is watching Sister Ruth’s transformation erotic?  No, it’s disturbing.  Watching nuns lose their minds isn’t my idea of hot (I know, I’m so weird.).
  • Ok, yeah this is a British movie made by two very British directors with a lot of British actors based on a British novel.  Yes, the novel was released at the beginning of WWII and this film comes out two years after WWII and what was known as “The British Empire” is no longer what it used to be.  I know it was painful for them.  But maintaining the natives are essentially poor and dumb and little lost children is grotesque.  At times, it looks like the directors are aware of this.  The lesson that the one little boy who does speak English gives is all about implements of war (“gun,” “bay-o-net”).  But the fact that any time the medicine, which is considered by the natives as “magic,” doesn’t heal, then the natives want to kill the white people and make them pay.  So, do they do the same to the shamans or whoever ministers traditional remedies?  And perhaps the fact that those two groups of holy workers could not keep a foothold in the area rings of the failure of a country to keep its empire afloat.  I’d much rather read the film as an indictment of the failure of faith and Western ideals to “help” a third world country.
  • It’s a beautiful film but an incredible lie, as everything about the set was constructed.  From Dave Kerr’s “Black Narcissus”:  “Despite its dazzling visual sweep, not one frame of Black Narcissus was filmed on location. Instead, the film was shot at the Pinewood studios in suburban London, with a few day trips to an Indian garden in Sussex. The mountains and the castle are the creations of production designer Alfred Junge, with matte paintings executed by Peter Ellenshaw; the special effects were coordinated by W. Percy Day, who had apprenticed with Melies, and the magnificent color photography, surely among the finest work ever produced for the medium, is the contribution of Jack Cardiff. (Both Junge and Cardiff won Oscars for their work.)”
  • Just how effective is Mr. Dean at his job?  What exactly is his job, anyway?  Ok, he’s a British agent, but what does he actually do besides drink and hang out in short shorts?

Ultimately, it is exotic (but a fake), sensual (thanks to an army of well-trained people) and, for me, far from erotic.

Friday, December 28, 2012

3 Women (1977) Spine #230

I love Robert Altman’s work.  When he’s on, when he’s good, to steal from Mae West, he was very, very good.  Films like Gosford Park (2001), Nashville (1975), The Player (1992), and Prêt-à-Porter (1994) are high watermarks in cinema (especially Nashville).  But Altman can borderline on pretension, as is a possibility with all the film school generation and their self-appointed superiority.  I recently watched a documentary called Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (2003), based on Peter Biskind’s book, that does an excellent job of explaining some of what happened in film in the 1960s and 70s.  Don’t mistake me – the auteur movement that resulted from the French New Wave and the Cahiers du Cinéma is vastly important to the progression of film as an art form.  But along the way, there was drug-induced, ego-inflated, goofy shit.  And I’m sorry, but I think 3 Women is one of them.

My opinion is not the same as most critics, so ok.  I don’t mind.  Roger Ebert has this in his third book of great movies (and he’s got Treasure of the Sierra Madre [1948] in his second book, and I just saw it, and I was pretty unimpressed).  When you watch Criterion’s Three Reasons, their first is “The Seventies.”  Oh, man.  How I so do not care about that entire decade.  Yeah, I was born in it, but it had to be one of the most aesthetically grotesque decades ever.  So ugly.

The second is “A Desert Nightmare.”  Ok, something else I don’t care about.  Yes, I know deserts are supposed to be so mystical and great.  I don’t see it.  Yes, that’s short-sighted of me, since I’ve never been to a desert.  I have been told that I really need to get out west sometime, that it’s so beautiful, peaceful and spiritual.  Arizona’s amazing.  New Mexico is amazing.  The Grand Canyon is amaaaazing.  Ok.  I like beaches, forests, mountains.  And there are so many places I want to see before I die that anything desert-related is truly on the back burner.  And the burner’s not even lit.

The third reason is “Surreal Spacek and Dreamy Duvall.”  Here are two actresses that I’m not thrilled about.  I’ve never understood the appeal of either, and they are both so creepy in this movie that I wanted to bail several times.  Does that make them effective?  Yes, because I think Altman was ratcheting up the creepy factor to 10 on this.  So are they good?  Yes.  Do I care?  No.  Just because something is accurate or effective doesn’t make it aesthetically pleasing.  And it does explain Duvall being cast as Olive in Altman’s Popeye (1980), although she was practically born to play that part.

As noted by Altman, this movie is derived from a dream he had.  He attempted to recreate the dream exactly as he remembered, and he noted that casting was included in his dream.  David Sterritt, in his article “3 Women:  Dream Project,” notes “He received a green light from Twentieth Century Fox not only without a finished screenplay but with an expressed desire to make the entire movie without one.”  What balls he had.  Can you imagine what his reputation was like that he could get money for a project with that approach?  And it does seem to progress like a dream (very haphazardly), with little in the way of plot moving things along.  The idea that it was being made up as they went along is not only plausible, it would be hard to imagine otherwise.

It’s about three characters, but two are barely defined.  The third woman, Willie, is pregnant and spends most of her time painting these interesting images on the bottoms of pools or other concrete.  They are a cross between Egyptian pictographs and Mayan mythology.  It is noted that she rarely talks, and other than helping pull Pinky out of a pool Pinky swan-dives into in order to commit suicide, the only other time we see her in action is giving birth at the end of the film.  The second woman is Pinky Rose (Spacek), who seems incredibly young in this film, but who is actually 27 (this is the year after she made Carrie [1976], where she plays a high school aged girl).  She supposedly has such little identity that the thrust of the film is her trying to become the first woman, Millie Lammoreaux (Duvall), who is a loser.  She is mostly ignored by everyone around her, even though she is constantly trying to engage people in conversation.  However, it seems like she’s been at this so long that she’s lost the capacity to converse, so she just talks at everyone.  Mrs. Cellophane, Mrs. Cellophane

I’m not at all sure why Altman felt such a burning desire to communicate this dream.  It makes me recall Yasmina Reza’s Art, where a character has paid an inordinate amount of money for what appears to be a blank canvas with nothing on it and has two other friends come over to check it out.  If someone says something is “art,” is “important,” does that make it so?  If enough critics “ooh” and “aah,” is that qualified?  Altman is an auteur; the film was nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes.  The film was “different” (it came out the same year as Star Wars), so it’s “better” than the same flotsam and jetsam.  No.  I don’t buy it.  Let’s compare and contrast this movie with, say, Barton Fink (1991).  That has quirky characters in it.  It’s different.  But it’s a far better movie.  Even the most offbeat character, Charlie Meadows, is captivating.  We want to know what happened to him, how he got that way, is the head in the box.  It is visually interesting (the match of the woman on the beach at the end to the painting in Fink’s room, the shot of the hallway as it bursts into flames, the curling wallpaper).  Fink’s an asshole (he doesn’t listen to Meadows and is self-important), but I care what happens to him next.  I don’t care about any of Altman’s characters here.  And it’s not like he doesn’t have the capacity to make me care – he did it in other films.  But here, everything’s so distant, and in a way that doesn’t compel me to squint to try to make it out.  And that’s weird, since Altman said the movie was all about emotion, not narrative or intellect.  So, at the risk of sounding like a dullard, no thanks.  And the same goes for McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), which I couldn’t even sit through and mercifully is not a Criterion film.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985) Spine #432

While Paul Schrader was a well-established screenwriter [The Yakuza (1974), Taxi Driver (1976), Obsession (1976), Rolling Thunder (1977), Raging Bull (1980)]  and director [Blue Collar (1978), Hardcore (1979), American Gigolo (1980), Cat People (1982)], he had a hard time getting funding together to make and then distribute Mishima:  A Life in Four Chapters (1985).  Toho, who had put up about 2 million dollars, was pressured by not only right wing groups that were furious that a gaijin was making a movie about Mishima, but also his widow, Yoko, who did not want two scenes showing Mishima’s homosexuality in the film.  I don’t know if he approached Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas or if it was the other way around, but Coppola and Lucas gave him the money to finish the film (or at least had enough clout to get Warner Brothers to give him the money), expressing that they never expected to make the money back.  They just felt that the work itself merited being finished.  Toho, having put up half of the money for this film, disavowed any involvement.  The film has never been shown in Japan.
This is one of the best films ever made (if you haven’t read my entry yet for Patriotism, go do so now).  I lean towards it not only for its focus on a favored author of mine, but on just how ambitious a project it was.  In my Film and Literature class, the goal is to explore all aspects of adapting a work into a film.  However, our last unit has a dual purpose.  One is to look at biopics of authors’ lives to see how faithful a film portrays the author (this requires biographical research of the author).  The other is to look at how authors involve themselves in adaptations of their own works, from screenwriting (like Bret Easton Ellis writing the screenplay adaptation to The Informers) to directing (like Tom Stoppard directing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead) to acting (Stan Lee’s multiple cameos in his superhero graphic novel adaptations) to producing (JK Rowling producing the last two installments of Harry Potter).  How does the authors’ involvement in the adaptations affect the adaptation (and to what degree)?  I feel I hold the ace in both cases.  When it came to adapting Patriotism, Mishima wrote the screenplay, was lead actor, chose the actress, storyboarded the shots, designed the set, chose the music (his own record copy of Tristan und Isolde), chose costumes, and directed.  The only thing he didn’t do was act the female lead, cinematography and post-production.  Who is more controlling than that?  No, really – if you can think of someone else, PLEASE POST A COMMENT.  I want to know.
But the most beautiful trump card to play for the unit is M:ALiFC.  Because it is not just a biopic.  It adapts FOUR OTHER WORKS FROM MISHIMA, along with the biographical information.  For an adaptation class, the work alone is mind-blowing, but then to be a biopic on top of that?  Now I will admit, since the film is only 120 minutes, we do not get a full-blown adaptation of any of the works, but Schrader pares down each work to its essence.  And we can relate that work back to Mishima’s life in a tangible way by the subheadings Schrader uses (“Beauty,” “Art,” “Action,” “Harmony of Pen and Sword”).
For “Beauty,” the adaptation is The Temple of the Golden Pavilion (my personal favorite).  Eiko Ishioka, the production designer, had a color scheme for each of the three adaptations.  This one is gold (an obvious choice) and green.  But what is so fascinating about the design is that, even though they did not have a lot of money to make this film, instead of trying to make elaborate sets, they enlisted stagecraft for sets.  Ishioka creates a small version of the Golden Pavilion, has a gold, wooden walkway, a bamboo forest off the path, constructs a sort of shouji box for the Superior’s room (him playing Go alone).  The adaptation focuses on a lot of the key points of the novel:  Mizoguchi being befriended by Kashiwagi, Kashiwagi setting Mizoguchi up for his first sexual experience (which fails as the temple looms large – the way they arrange this in the film is curious but I believe works well ultimately), Mizoguchi being chastised by the Superior for falling behind in his studies, Mizoguchi telling Kashiwagi that beauty is now his enemy and his wish to destroy the temple, Mizoguchi finding out that the war with America has ended, so the bombers won’t be coming, Mizoguchi’s visit to the whorehouse where he tells the prostitute, after finally performing, to remember him, as he will be famous, and the setting up and lighting the bundles of straw at the base of the pavilion.  This is all executed quite effectively, beautifully, in a rather short space.  Because Schrader intersperses parts about Mishima’s life inside the adaptations (or vice versa, if you prefer), “Beauty” also covers Mishima’s childhood (again, if you didn’t read my comments on Patriotism, go back and do so), adolescence, and being disqualified for military service.  That’s a lot of ground to cover on top of the adaptation.  And Schrader does so.  And it works.  And it’s gorgeous.
The second section, “Art,” goes into Mishima’s emergence as a writer.  It also has those two scenes of his homosexuality that Yoko would not allow.  The book that Schrader wanted to use for this section was Forbidden Colors, which was overtly homosexual.  That was the only book Yoko would not let Schrader use.  However, Schrader gets around this because he uses (throughout the film) parts of Mishima’s non-fiction work Sun and Steel, but more for its discussion of his travels and his awakening of the body.  The St. Sebastian stuff in “Beauty” is more from Confessions of a Mask (which is mostly autobiographical).  Schrader also uses information from the BBC documentary The Strange Case of Yukio Mishima to fill in the conversation Mishima had with Akihiro Maruyama (one of Mishima’s lovers) about his slight build.  What Schrader does use in place of Forbidden Colors is a curious work, Kyoko’s House, which was never translated into English (and I have therefore never read it).  It deals with four characters that are friends and meet occasionally.  One’s a boxer, one’s an artist, one’s an actor, one’s a businessman.  We get to see three of them (sans businessman) meet for noodles at a cart during an interestingly constructed scene where the cart (bright pink, one of the two colors in this adaptation, the other being gray), spins clockwise as the crowd encircles the cart counterclockwise, giving the impression of a busy street.  Again, this is so theatrical in its execution, but fresh and creative rather than looking cheap.  Who Schrader focuses on in this section of the film is the actor, Osamu.  Osamu is very much taken with himself and appears bored with the world.  His mother owns a dessert shop and is heavily in debt to Kiyomi Akita, a loan shark.  His mother is hassled by hoods, so Osamu goes to see Kiyomi on his mother’s bidding.  Kiyomi “buys” Osamu and cancels his mother’s loan.  Over a period of time, they have sex, and she beats him and cuts him.  Eventually, she kills him and drinks poison, committing suicide.  The noodle cart inclusion is interesting, as the friends discuss what art is.  They note the human body is high art, but the artist maintains that you have to capture it in some way (painting, sculpture, etc) in order to preserve its beauty, while the boxer feels it is all about building the body to its peak.  The actor takes up bodybuilding, but once Kiyomi starts to ruin his body with scars and bruises, he no longer goes to the gym, a combination of how ugly and scarified his body has become and that he sees no further use in self-preservation when his world seems to be headed towards destruction.  It is very reminiscent of Fight Club in that sense.  What is beauty?  What is art?  What does it mean to be a man?  All questions Mishima was interested in investigating.
Part 3 is “Action,” which follows Mishima into his last years where he forms his private army and advocates a very rightist agenda (he said at one time it was because the leftist movement was full).  This is paired quite effectively with Runaway Horses, which is the second book in his tetralogy, The Sea of Fertility, where he charts what he believed to be the descent of Japan as a nation from 1912 to 1975.  The day Mishima finished it and sent it off to his publisher was November 25, 1970, the day he and four members of the Tatenokai took a general hostage at a JSDF base, Mishima addressed the troops, then committed seppuku.  We see parts of this day throughout the film, and the film culminates, quite powerfully, in the resolution of all three of the adaptations:  the Golden Pavilion burns down as Mizoguchi escapes, Kiyomi and Osuma lie dead near each other, and Isao commits suicide in the light of the rising sun, which is the finishing image of the film.  Part 4, “Harmony of Pen and Sword,” finishes the story of the events leading up to Mishima and his group’s arrival at the JSDF base.  To go back to Runaway Horses, I feel that this is the most ambitious part of the movie visually for three specific scenes:  the meeting at the shrine where Isao tells everyone the plot is off, the secret meeting where the walls drop away and police pour in and the jail scene (I saw a production of the Washington Opera’s Fidelio with very similar staging that used television screens behind bars like the way the bars were set up in this film). Ishioka’s colors for this adaptation were black and orange (“shu, a particular hue of orange used in temples” notes Kevin Jackson in his article).  When the walls drop away, I always jump.
There are two things I do not like about this film, even though it’s damn near perfect.  One is Ogata’s acting when he addresses the assembled troops at the JSDF base.  He seems a raving thing, shaking, crying.  That was not the case when Mishima addressed the troops.  He looked calm and collected, not someone about ready to cause his own death.  It is unfaithful to portray Mishima like that, because it makes him look desperate and crazy.  The second thing is the music.  Ok, I get everyone loves Philip Glass, and the score he did for The Hours I felt was quite good (and that movie comes close to how ambitious this movie is with its different parts, emphasis on author and adaptation of literature).  But the score for this film beats you over the head relentlessly with the arpeggios and ding-dong bells.  I like the snares for the trip to the JSDF base, but the rest is too invasive.
Schrader himself says, “In many ways, I was out there directing a film that was financed by no one that was going to be seen by no one.”  He was drawn to Mishima because he was looking for another subject a la Travis Bickle who craved suicidal glory.  What results is one of the most gorgeous, sensitive, caring biopics and adaptations I’ve ever seen.  When Schrader and Ellis started their Kickstarter program for The Canyons and one of the levels was for a personal phone call from either one, I was torn about which one I would choose (and I don’t have the money for it anyways, so whatever), but it would be Schrader.  He’s already answered the question of why he chose to make this, but I still would like to hear it once more, because it seems so much like art for art’s sake.