The backstory to Mr. Arkadin/Confidential Report is Orson Welles just Wellesing it up everywhere. The initial release happened because he was too much of a perfectionist (or maybe just too distracted with a new relationship) to finish his cut on time. Then before he got a chance to put his out, the producer went ahead and just kept recutting it and releasing it. A lot. That’s counting the original radio scripts it’s based on and the novel. But then on top of that, the Criterion boxset includes another version, this one made specifically for this release and containing all footage available from any other version. It’s Comprehensive, yes, “but is it art?” It’s something.
Apparently, the Swedish public complained about historical inaccuracies in The Seventh Seal. While that’s patently silly, it got under Ingmar Bergman’s skin, so for his next historical film — an adaptation of a medieval ballad and Rashomon — he asked screenwriter and novelist Ulla Isaksson to help out. The two of them certainly had different views of what the film should be, but that didn’t stop them from making a fascinating piece of art.
In real life Abraham Lincoln was nothing if not pragmatic. He was the political disciple of Henry Clay, architect of the Missouri Compromise and the devil’s bargain that was The Compromise of 1850 which led to a few small gains on the Abolitionist front and a massive loss in the form of the Fugitive Slave Act. Lincoln himself was anti-slavery in as much as he was pro-white working class. One thing Young Mr. Lincoln gets very right is that Lincoln thought slavery undermined Free Labor. But like many white abolitionists of his time, while Lincoln was anti-slavery he was not pro-Black, and he argued as much in his famous debates with Stephen A. Douglas. Lincoln’s just didn’t know what to do with non-enslaved Black people — probably send them to Africa, — but he did know that slavery was hurting white people, and so he was against it. Anyway, John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln is hardly historically accurate to actual events or the man’s character, but it’s still a good movie about an American hero.
In this week’s conversation I digress to talk about what I have recently learned about Karl Marx’s relationship to the early Republican Party in the US. While my research did not involve this Jacobin article, the piece is a good synopsis for those wanting to more beyond my rant.
We round out Akira Kurosawa’s Shakespearean adaptations with the loosest of the bunch, so loose in fact that we posit that the “adaptation” is a construction of Western critics grasping at straws instead of a purposeful, or even unpurposeful, decision by Kurosawa. In any case, as Kaori Ashizu argued in the journal of the Shakespeare Society of Japan, going into The Bad Sleep Well understanding it to be a Shakespeare adaptation actually undermines a lot of the excellent storytelling Kurosawa is doing.
Donovan Hill joins us, and along the way we also talk about public office corruption in Japan and Ohio. Good times!
Rene Clement’s Forbidden Games gives us a lot to talk about this week as Pat and I run through various consonant interpretations of the film — though none of ours include the idea that our two young protagonists are in a proto-sexual relationship, an interpretation that seems far too widespread to not say something deeper about the mental state of film reviewers.
This week the Criterion Collection brings us the spiritual successor to Powell and Pressburger’s phenomenal The Red Shoes, The Tales of Hoffmann (1951). An English translation of a French opera, based on the self-mythologizing of a German writer (E.T.A. Hoffmann), Tales combines the beauty of The Red Shoes ballet, with a frankly insane anthology of stories. Pat probably forgets that he didn’t really like The Red Shoes when we watched it, but still manages to think this is a bit flat compared to it. I think he’s just scared of Spalanzani’s eyebrows.
The Criterion Collection sure loves Shakespeare. Turns out so does Akira Kurosawa, though sometimes by accident? Throne of Blood is rather objectively the best adaptation of MacBeth that exists. Soon we’ll watch The Bad Sleep Well which could be Hamlet but it might be better to not think of it as Hamlet — we’ll get into that in a few weeks.
This week in the middle is Ran, which Kurosawa wrote, then someone pointed out that it sounded a lot like King Lear, so Kurosawa rewrote it to lean into the comparison.
If The 400 Blows was “very French”, and it is considered to be, Francois Truffaut’s follow up was meant to be “very American” and really it’s the most American of things: the mashup. It’s a New Wave crime comedy based on a Noir novel and the tonal shifts! Oh boy, the tonal shifts! That is to say it is not “American” in the same way that The 400 Blows is “French”. It’s a bunch of American stereotypical elements rolled into one silly film — a “grab bag” as Truffaut himself describes it.
On this week’s Lost in Criterion I present a nascent Marxist reading of Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket -- if only as a counter to Pat’s sexual deviancy reading -- and come so close as I talk it out but still so far. I realized after the recording that if there is a valid Marxist interpretation of Pickpocket I had it a bit backwards: Michel steals excess value from people who (presumably) produce it, but sits on it, not using it to better society nor even to better himself. He’s the embodiment of the thieving Boss. Anyway, the film serves as a pickpocketing procedural which is fun, and is also “inspired” by Crime and Punishment in such a way that it almost feels like a parody of Dostoevsky. It’s pretty great.
Our final film in the Rebel Samurai boxset is also the craziest, a parody of samurai films from the preceding twenty years or more, 1968’s Kill! directed by Kihachi Okamoto. Donovan H. finishes us out as well, though he’ll be back soon enough I’m sure.
Movie three in the Rebel Samurai boxset is Masahiro Shinoda’s Samurai Spy, the 1965 Le Carre-ian Cold War espionage film that happens to take place in the political turmoil of the early part of the 17th century in Japan. Also the main character is a traditional Japanese folk hero who the audience should know about but that’s not at all important until it is very, very, incredibly very important to understand the plot in the last ten minutes of the movie. We talk cold war politics, historical analogues, and secret knowledge on this week’s Lost in Criterion.
Number two in the Rebel Samurai boxset is Hideo Gosha’s 1965 Sword of the Beast, also known as — as Pat delightfully points out — Samurai Gold Seekers. Donovan H. joins us again as we talk more about Samurai mythos deconstruction and economic systems of the past! Hurray!
We kick off the Rebel Samurai boxset this week with Masaki Kobayashi's aptly named Samurai Rebellion. Toshiro Mifune stars in a film that plays as a companion piece to Kobayashi's great Harakiri that we talked about back in July. Donovan Hill joins us this episode and for the rest of the boxset, and it's always a joy to have him.
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.