We get another great Japanese ghost story and another loose Guy de Maupassant adaptation this week with Kenji Mizoguchi's Ugetsu. Like a lot of films made in the years after World War II in Japan it is decidedly anti-war. That already gives it a lot of points in our book, but it's also brilliant, beautiful, melancholy, and just downright among the greatest films ever made period.
This week Pat puts his Anthropology degree to use to take issue with Jean-Luc Godard's sociology practices. Masculin Feminin is a sprawling look at the young people of Paris just before the 1965 re-election of Charles de Gaulle, a re-election that would lead to the events of May 1968 we've discussed previously with Godard's (superior) Tout va Bien. Unfortunately, Godard doesn't give the respect to his female stars that he wants to say the entire generation deserve.
Mike Leigh's Naked is a bit of a Thatcher-era take on Boudu Saved from Drowning and a bit of an end times prophecy. It's also a pretty off-putting movie, what with all the rapes.
Partway into the episode I present a reading of it as an adaptation of the Odyssey, with David Thewlis's Johnny as Odysseus. While I think that's a fair reading even though there's no cyclops, I only later realized that it's Claire Skinner's Sandra who returns from overseas to kick a bunch of interlopers out of her home, so maybe she's a background Odysseus instead. In any case the films got a lot to say about transience and the lives of people in the bottom rungs of capitalism. I love it, I'm just not sure I could stand to watch it again.
It was only a matter of time before we found a Jean-Pierre Melville film I actually like. We do make one big mistake in this weeks episode though. Despite being a film with Samourai literally in the title we did not invite Donovan Hill back to join us for this French gangster classic. I publicly apologize to him and you listeners for that oversight. He'd have hated it, and those are some of the best episodes.
Le Samourai starts with a fake quote about bushido and is philosophically inconsistent with everything we've learned about bushido from the Japanese films Melville certainly watched and doesn't seem to quite grasp. Still brilliant, though.
We get one of our earliest Jean Renoir films this week, and it's a treat. Noted for it's encapsulation of Paris between the wars, Boudu Saved from Drowning is a critique of Bourgeois values via rejection. It's also noted for essentially allowing star Michel Simon to play his no-holds-barred libertarian and libertine self. Pat and I have problems with rejecting Bourgeois sensibilities for right wing individualism, but maybe we just have problems with spitting in books.
The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) may be our favorite Nicholas Roeg film, though the bar has been set pretty dang low. Even without David Bowie's performance -- and is he playing any more of a character than "David Bowie" ever was? -- this film deserves its cult status. Still as science fiction it fails for us on two major points:
1) The inventions don't seem that mind-blowing/paradigm shifting for 1976.
2) The departures from the source material eliminate the main anti-American militarism and anti-Nuclear weapons themes and replace them with...we're not entirely sure what this movie wants to say. Something about the alienation of pure genius?
Of course those are themes that show up a lot in science fiction, so I'll allow that Roeg may have been avoiding a cliche. But that doesn't forgive point one, which is a failure of imagination in production design (though it is probably the only aspect of this film that fails to be imaginative enough).
There's a lot about Nicholas Roeg's 1980 psychological thriller Bad Timing that is just bad: Art Garfunkel's staring turn, Harvey Keitel's inconsistent accent, the fact that the film spends 122 minutes suggesting that having sex with an unconscious (and dying) woman isn't rape, etc.
Still the story format itself is interesting -- even if, as one reviewer suggests, there would barely be a story if it were actually told chronologically -- the ambiguity of the nature of the flashbacks is mostly interesting, and Theresa Russell is brilliant, even if she spends most of the film convulsing.
We'll be exploring a string of samurai deconstruction films in just a few months as we tackle the Rebel Samurai boxset. Though virtually every Jidaigeki samurai film we've seen so far is a deconstruction of the genre, the deconstructionists hit hard in the 60s as young men disillusioned by the war became the nation's primary voices in film.
This week we have Harakiri, Masaki Kobayashi's hard-hitting 1962 entry in the genre (and we'll see more from him in the coming boxset). While the title is more properly Seppuku in Japanese, the "vulgar" term harakiri better sums up the films attitude toward the traditional practice. Donovan Hill joins us, as he often does for these sorts of films, and we're better off for it, though as is often the case he leads us on a longer than normal conversation.
Based on Janet Frame's trio of autobiographies (and taking its name from the middle one), Jane Campion's An Angel at My Table from 1990 is a lovingly crafted look at the life of the Kiwi author. Frame was lucky to escape the hand she'd been dealt as a woman who did not fit the mold many men in her life expected her to, particularly the moment she was scheduled for a lobotomy by winning a national book prize. Horrific. And utterly normal, it turns out.
For all the jokes about doing this until either we or the Criterion Collection itself dies I don't know that we ever realistically thought we'd be Lost in Criterion for this long. I suppose we may as well stick it out.
Wes Anderson is a favorite of the Collection and we will eventually see all of his films as part of it. He's also a favorite (or decidedly not) of many of our friends who we've invited on this week's episode to discuss his 2004 film The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Long time friends Donovan Hill and Stephen Goldmeier return, as well as normally only Christmastime guests Andrew Tobias and Ben Jones-White. Our dear friend and musician Jonathan Hape sits in as well, and helps us run a slightly better set up for multi-guests in one room, though the recording does have some issues, principally an echo on multiple tracks that I wasn't able to track down. Let's pretend I added it on purpose to make the episode more whimsical.
We had a good run with Seijun Suzuki, but like most heroes, eventually you find something you have to step back from.
While much of the message of Story of the Prostitute is similar to and on par with the anti-militarism, anti-toxic masculinity themes of his great Fighting Elegy, the framing element here leaves quite a bit to be desired about the true nature of Japan's history with so called "Comfort Women". Historically these women were (mostly) kidnapped and forced into prostitution for the army, but in focusing his themes against militarism Seijun allows for the cultural myth that the Comfort Women were all willing, even patriotic, volunteers to settle in. Still by no means does he present their lives as pleasant or good, so...what do we do with a very progressive message that is not as progressive as it could, and should, be.
In any case this is the most ideologically complex of Seijun's films that we've seen, and it's the last in the collection at this time, which means we've got at least 646 episodes before we see him again.
We love Seijun Suzuki here at Lost in Criterion, and sadly we only have two more of his films to watch before we're all out of them. Well, unless the Criterion adds more before we're done. There's certainly an incredibly good chance of that.
We finish with two of the earliest of his that we've seen (though Youth of the Beast was earlier than either). This week it's Gates of Flesh a story of post-war desperation.
We get to watch a movie about a donkey!
But the donkey doesn't talk. It's not animated. It's depressing.
I'd call au hasard Balthazar peak Bresson, but I'm betting Robert Bresson will keep surprising me. In any case this is the third and final in a string of films that claims inspiration from Fyodor Dostoevsky, and it certainly fits with the Russians' tone (though perhaps not his religiosity).
We're in the middle of a trilogy of films that claim influence from Dostoevsky with the most straightforward adaptation of the lot in being the only one not loosely inspired by a half-remembered scene from The Idiot. Instead Luchino Visconti, who we last saw with the phenomenal film The Leopard last year, does a fairly faithful take on Dostoevsky's 1948 short story White Nights which turns out to be better representative of my psyche than The Idiot ever really was. My relationship to Dostoevsky's work gets meta this week and I learn some things. Hurray!
Imagine if a 20 year old Donald Trump had written a book about how bad the kids are. Or Marine Le Pen. Or Nigel Farage, etc. etc. you get the idea.
Crazed Fruit is based on a book by Shintaro Ishihara, a right wing populist politician with some pretty terrible opinions as well as delusions -- he once said that if he'd continued directing films (and he's only directed one full length) he'd be at least better than Kurosawa. He didn't even direct this movie -- though from certain set stories it seems he wished he had -- an honor that instead fell to Ko Nakahira. Nakahira, with great help from cinematographer Shigeyoshi Mine and first time composer Toru Takemitsu, produces a visually and aurally great film and I regret that we won't see more from him, but it's pretty hard to get beyond the politics of the film, the author behind it, and the cultural movement it kicked off.
As of this writing 1951's The Browning Version is our final Anthony Asquith film in the Criterion Collection, and while it is also an adaptation of a play it is a very different film to the others we've watched over the years. The Browning Version is certainly bleaker than Pygmalion and The Importance of Being Earnest, but also perhaps more inspiring, in that it actually hopes to be inspiring.
Pat and I both come from protestant Christian backgrounds in the Midwest US, though certainly different expressions of even that niche, and more certainly we've landed in very different spots (to where we came from and one another) later in life. Still our divergent ideologies are ever more deeply rooted in humanism, and the Christian-themed films we've watched while Lost in Criterion that we've most loved are those with a humanist touch: Ordet, Winter Light, The Last Temptation of Christ.
Listen to any of those episodes and you'll find that I try to embrace a rather humanist interpretation of Jesus and the Gospels, one focused on the realities of the poor and oppressed in the world today. That is to say, I consider Jesus Christ to be an early humanist hero. But even setting aside Jesus himself, historical expressions of humanism are deeply tied to Christianity and we discuss the life of one of the earlier seeds of that this week with Roberto Rossellini's The Flowers of St. Francis from 1950. Along the way we talk about some of the problems with Francis, or at least his portrayal by Rossellini, and the larger Church, and for some reason discuss Pat's hatred of medieval paintings.
Preston Sturges's most intellectual film, Sullivan's Travels, was an argument that non-intellectual films are ok. People love them! Not everything needs a deeper point! Still, as we mentioned last week with Lubitsch's Heaven Can Wait, Criterion has a tendency to serve us intellectual films, and that makes talking about a movie that doesn't want to say anything an ever unique experience for us.
Of course 1948's Unfaithfully Yours is still a very smart film. It's pitch-perfectly crafted and intensely funny even while maintaining a certain level of suspense.
It's been over two years since we've heard from Ernst Lubistch, despite his being one of the most influential directors in Hollywood. Back then we had the pre-Code Trouble in Paradise and its ridiculously risque writing, but 1942's Heaven Can Wait isn't quite so overtly sexual, in fact despite the plot stemming from the main character's insistence to Satan himself that he is an evil philanderer, we never really see him even approaching cheating on his wife.
It's almost relaxing to have a mid-century Hollywood comedy after a long, long run of films that want to say something, but maybe we're wrong about Lubitsch and Heaven Can Wait. What if this really is a political film? What if we can read a political message into anything?
With The Phantom of Liberty (1974) we have now watched Luis Bunuel's final three films, and there's a very good chance that is the not so distant future I'll find it hard to say which memorable scene belongs to which movie. Phantom is no Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie -- nothing could be -- but it still has some brilliance in it, though it's buried a bit more under some not so great ideas. We've seen other directs throw vignettes at the wall and hope they stick, and thankfully Phantom is more Slacker than Schizopolis, though I'd probably rather watch either of those over doing this again.