Monday, 19 June 2017

Yojimbo (1961)



Off-List: Yojimbo
I am a big Kurosawa fan. Or turning into one. Apparently Kurosawa churned out so many great movies that even with the extensive selection showing up on the List, there are a lot more that should have been there. “Yojimbo” from 1961 is one of those, hence it gets an off-list entry here on my blog.

“Yojimbo” is one of Kurosawa’s westerns and like “Seven Samurai” it was later remade as a “real” western by Sergio Leone (“A Fistful of Dollars”). Instead of cowboys and Monument Valley Kurosawa used samurai and period Japanese settings, yet beneath this façade this is at heart a western. And what a western! If westerns were normally as awesome as this I would be a big fan of the genre.

A stranger walks into a dusty town. Without saying much he is quietly assessing the situation and decides that he needs to take action. This could have been Clint Eastwood, but it is Toshiro Mifune as the ronin Sanjuro. The town is in the grip of two rivaling gangs headed by Ushitora and Seibei. Each gangster boss has hired a small army of scum including a few super-scum, among them the gun-wielding Unosoke. Sanjuro, awesome samurai though he is, knows that he cannot singlehandedly take on the two clans. Instead his plan is to pit them against each other in the hope that they will kill each other off.

Sanjuro lets himself be hired by first one side then the other and keep changing allegiance all the while provoking the parties. Of course their greed and hatred for each other helps and his plan is almost succeeding when the fighting is called to a halt because of a visiting inspector (read: marshall). When he is finally gone Seibei and Ushitora have started peace talks and Sanjuro has his work cut out for him to start the fight again.

The civilians see him as another addition to their troubles until he saves a villager’s wife kept as prostitute by Ushitori and sends her away with husband and child and his money. Now Sanjuro’s soft heart is revealed and he is celebrated as a hero, which come in handy when his meddling finally gets him in serious trouble.

One man against two armies of bad guys. Showdown at high noon. This just does not get more American, yet everything here is also totally Japanese. Samurai are cool and composed, think before they act and morally superior. Peasants are stupid cattle, hunched and bowlegged and cowards at heart. Gangsters may have been samurai, but without moral integrity they are nothing. Turning to guns instead of the honorable sword is a certain sign of the fallen samurai. And merchants… well they are only interested in money. In this environment, the samurai is a super hero with just authority.     

While the setting here is awesome I was struck by how great the pacing is. At 110 minutes this movie never turns boring. After 30 minutes I actually though the movie was coming to a conclusion, but it was only just beginning. In the act where Sanjuro is caught and beaten to pieces the story is turned on itself as Sanjuro is turned from the superior samurai to a sorry piece of junk and must rely on help from the villagers. The story evolves and never stands still. Of course all its themes are now commonplace, especially in westerns, but also in any sort of action drama, whether it is Bruce Willis, Clint Eastwood or Vin Diesel. Kurosawa was there first.

I thoroughly enjoyed myself watching Yojimbo. There is no big message here, it is simply entertainment and maybe that is why it did not meet the approval of the List editors. But that seems too silly. I think they just thought there was enough Kurosawa as it is. I do not agree. There is always room for more Kurosawa.

 

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Through a Glass Darkly (Sasom i en Spegel) (1961)



Som i et spejl
Time for another Bergman movie. As anyone doing the List will know, there are these directors that the editors just love and Ingmar Bergman is one of those. Not that I entirely disagree with them, his movies have so far proven far more watchable than I had thought, and “Såsom i en spegel” (Through a Glass Darkly) is no exception, though it is one of those movies you have to be in the right mood for.

Bergman has here narrowed in on a style which, as I understand it, made him famous: The existential drama involving very few people, very limited space and spanning a short period of time. A film version of Strindberg. It is a style that allows for examining the themes of the story with as little distraction as possible and is all down to the few actors involved.

In this case there are four characters. Central of these is Karin (Harriet Andersson), a young woman married to the doctor Martin (Max von Sydow). She has a younger brother with the awesome, though negatively loaded, name Minus (Lars Passgård) while the fourth character is her father David (Gunnar Björnstrand). The four of them have met up at their summerhouse on an island and seem to have a swell time. Though as we will soon find out all is not well.

Karin is suffering from a mental illness. It is not specified what this illness is but it makes her disappear into a dream world that is tormenting her and she has difficulty keeping the two apart. This is actually dramatic enough as it is, but surprisingly the story is more about how this affects the three men.

Martin is both a doctor and a caring husband. He wants to help and throws everything into helping her, but is frustrated by how futile it is. Her illness cannot be cured, merely held in check, and his caring only makes her push him away. Yet he forms a protective shell around her.

Minus is a teenage boy with all the confusion and frustration that implies. His sister is a sexual being to him, but also a sister with troubles he does not understand and both things fascinates and frightens him.

Yet it is the father, David, who is the saddest character. David is all about himself. Everybody else are relevant only in how they impinge on his life. Clearly, he ran away years ago instead of taking care of Karin, but his entire defense is about himself. When he finally talks to Minus in a way that actually involves Minus he is stunned and surprised. That makes David an unsympathetic character, but also a very lonely and sad one. He really has only himself. Karin is a reminder of his guilt, but his response is not to help, but to escape.

Movies on mental illness are scary, far more than a gory monster movie, and this feels very real. I cannot help feeling the shivers when thinking of the prison Karin finds herself in. This is just not funny, and that is exactly how the three men around her feels and probably we, the audience, would feel something similar, a combination maybe, of how Martin, Minus and David are experiencing it.

So, it is not an uplifting movie, quite the contrary, but it also avoids going into sappy, handkerchief mode and that is a strength of the movie. I read somewhere that “Såsom i en spegel” was accused of being too cold, but that is not the case at all. It is very Scandinavian, this is exactly how we react. It is very intense in its quiet way.    

Despite the uneasiness of the topic and the intense despair conveyed I did enjoy the style of the movie. The limited room allows the characters to stand out and do their thing. We get very close to them for better or worse.

I am curious where Bergman is going next, but also worried. I cannot take this sort of movie every day.

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

The Night (La Notte) (1961)


Natten


”La Notte” is the second installment in Michelangelo Antonioni trilogy, the first being L'Avventura, which I reviewed a few months ago. 

Antonioni here continues in a similar vein with a movie with very little in terms of apparent plot. Like in L’Avventura we are simply following some people over a very short time span who are doing… something. That sounds frustrating and that was how I felt with the first movie. However I think I am slowly getting tuned in to the kind of movies Antonioni makes and this time I found it much easier to cope with movie. I would even go so far as to say that I liked it.

I think the clue is to see the movie as a tableau or simply a portrait, in this case of two adult people and their marriage. In the span of the two hours the movie lasts or the approximately 24 hours covered by the movie we get a very close, yet incredibly subtle, peek at Lidia Pontano (Jeanne Moreau) and Giovanni Pontano (Marcello Mastroianni). I would estimate their age to around 40 and it is clear that both of them has reached the panic age, where they are reconsidering their lives. Giovanni is an intellectual author who is successful with a book and apparently a social A-lister. He cares for and admires his wife, but there is no spark of passion and he feels an emptiness in his life. Lidia was born into money and she does… nothing really. They have no children and her life assignment seems to be to trail along with her husband. She feels the emptiness even more that Giovanni, both in terms of her function in life and in terms of the lack of apparent love in their relationship.  

It is this search for content and meaning that is at the heart of “La Notte”. 

In the opening scenes Lidia and Giovanni are visiting a friend Tommaso (Bernhard Wicki) at the hospital. Tommaso is a close friend of Giovanni and an even closer friend of Lidia as we learn in the end. Tommaso is dying and it seems to trigger something in both of them. Giovanni is letting himself get seduced by another patient and Lidia leaves the hospital entirely and later wanders off in an old neighborhood they used to live in, clearly looking for something she lost.

There is something very aimless and confused about both of them, as if they have lost direction. What they really have lost seems to be something from each other. This becomes very clear at the big and sumptuous party at the rich Gherardini villa. Among all these happy revelers Lidia and Giovanni look entirely out of place, both literally and metaphorically. None of them are content with a superficial life, but they are trapped in it and cannot get out.

Reading this synopsis, it sounds like a dull and depressing movie, but it is surprisingly interesting and it only really becomes depressing when we realize how lonely these two people are. 

The movie seems to hint that their lack of direction has something to do with the superficial life with the rich and famous, but to me it is as if they are sharing too little. A few children would change everything, but that never enters their lives. Instead they are full of their own needs with little concern for those of the other one.

Monica Vitti is back as Gherardini’s daughter, an apparently younger version of Lidia.

This is not exactly a Sunday afternoon flick, but a surprisingly interesting movie full of insight. I wonder if I should take another look at L'Avventura.