Monday, December 28, 2015

First Time Viewings / 2015

Twenty five, in vaguely preferential order:

Les Fantomes du Chapelier (Claude Chabrol, 1982)
Alice, or the Last Escapade (Claude Chabrol, 1977)
Abigail's Party (Mike Leigh, 1977)
The Last Hunt (Richard Brooks, 1956)
A Geisha (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1953)

Greed (Erich von Stroheim, 1924)
La tempestaire (Jean Epstein, 1947)
The Tin Star (Anthony Mann, 1957)
Sabotage (Alfred Hitchcock, 1936)
La signora di tutti (Max Opuhls, 1934)

The Ceremony (Nagisa Oshima, 1971)
Warm Water Under a Red Bridge (Shohei Imamura, 2001)
La signora senza camelie (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1953)
Jour de fete (Jacques Tati, 1948)
Phoenix (Christian Petzold, 2014)

Five Came Back (John Farrow, 1939)
Spontaneous Combustion (Tobe Hooper, 1990)
The Outfit (John Flynn, 1973)
Tomorrow (Joseph Anthony, 1972)
Bay of Angels (Jacques Demy, 1963)

Toni (Jean Renoir, 1935)
The Kindergarten Teacher (Nadav Lapid, 2014)
Schachnovelle aka Brainwashed (Gerd Oswald, 1961)
The Visitors (Elia Kazan, 1972)
Danger: Diabolik (Mario Bava, 1968)

Thursday, January 1, 2015


Illness has pretty much sapped any desire I may have had for putting together an end-of-year post more comprehensive than the humble sketch below, which doesn't feel "representative" of very much to me. But it would have felt weird to not post anything in this spot at all, and so the bare minimum amount of thought to justify its existence was put forth. Pivotal first time home viewings were plucked freely from the jumbled memory cloud and may easily have included many more.

5 pivotal first time viewings (16mm/35mm)

Grand Illusion (Renoir '37)
The Loves of Pharaoh (Lubitsch '22)
A Report on the Party and the Guests (J. Nemec '66)
Shutter Interface (Sharits '75)
Third Eye Butterfly (De Hirsch '68)


5 pivotal first time viewings (home viewing)

Cry Danger (Parrish '51)
Secret Sunshine (Lee Chang-dong '07)
The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (Lang '33)
Travelling Players / Hideko the Bus Conductress (Naruse '40/'41)
Un soir, un train (Delvaux '68)

...and five more:

Im Schatten (Thomas Arslan '10)
Intimidation (Kurahara '60)
Le garcu (Maurice Pialat '95)
Mr. Thank You (Shimizu '36)
Neighbouring Sounds (Filho '12)


5 favorite new movies seen 2014:

1) The Strange Little Cat (Zurcher)
2) Seventh Code (K. Kurosawa)
3) Night Moves (Reichardt)
4) The Homesman (T.L. Jones)
5) Oculus (Flanagan)

also liked/worth mentioning: Under the Skin (Glazer); Norte, the End of History (Diaz); Maps to the Stars (Cronenberg); The Immigrant (Gray); Snowpiercer (Bong); Coherence (Byrkit); Jauja (Alonso); Proxy (Parker); Black Coal, Thin Ice (Yinan); Particle Fever (Levinson)


5 film books that I always kept near in '14:

Japanese Film Directors (Audie Bock)
The Material Ghost: Films and Their Medium (Gilberto Perez)
Rio Bravo (Robin Wood)
Films and Feelings (Raymond Durgnat)
A Man With A Camera (Nestor Almendros)


DVD/Blu-Ray personal highlights:

Bakumatsu Taiyo-Den (Masters of Cinema)
Classe Tous Risques (BFI)
The Complete (Existing) Films of Sadao Yamanaka (Masters of Cinema)
Eric Rohmer l'integrale (Potemkine)
Don Siegel's The Killers (Arrow Academy)
Frank Capra: The Early Collection (TCM)
Ghost Hound: Complete Collection (Sentai Filmworks)
Les Blank: Always for Pleasure (Criterion)
Twin Peaks: The Entire Mystery (CBS)
Western Union (Koch Media Western Legenden)

Monday, December 8, 2014

Last Sunset

This post is:

1) A contribution to The Late Show Blogathon being hosted by David Cairns at his essential blog Shadowplay

 2) Dedicated to James Millican the actor (1910 - 1955) and James Millican the "material ghost" (1932 - 1956)

Born in New Jersey in early 1910, actor James Millican would first live onscreen in DeMille's The Sign of the Cross (1932), an uncredited job that would be followed by 15 years of such anonymous background work primarily for Paramount, MGM and Columbia. His breakthrough would seem to come in the late 40s with a series of credited performances that lean heavily towards authority figure-types, as well as a slew of westerns. The western was the ideal fit for Millican, with his stiffened gait and easygoing nature, and though not much seems to exist in the way of biographical data about the actor, a consistent tidbit to be found is his friendship with cowboy star Wild Bill Elliott, along with his claim to have appeared in upwards of over 400 B oaters.

Indeed if Millican is remembered at all today, it is for his late career character actor work in various 1950s westerns for directors such as Anthony Mann and Andre De Toth who each cast him numerous times in some of their best films during that richest decade of the genre. Millican's tracks stop at Jack Arnold's Red Sundown (1956), a Universal-International production and Arnold's second of three westerns for the company. Millican would die of cancer in November of '55 shortly after the filming of Sundown ended and a solid few months before its release in March '56. This timeline tells us then that it's somewhat reasonable to assume Millican was aware of his dire health during the shoot, and his regretful, doomed character of Bud Purvis, consigned to and obliterated within the remarkable first act of this film, becomes heavily, even uneasily, tinged with the mournful flavor of a cinematic epitaph.

But first, a few unavoidable words devoted to Arnold's spare bone poetry, which provides the canvas. History and our eyes tell us that Universal-International was not always the most auteur-friendly studio. The snappy, punchy, Technicolor-driven house style could often seem resistant to ideas of personal expression (though certainly Sirk had something to say about that) and while many of their westerns are excellent or at least notable, and while many of those were helmed by excellent or at least notable directors, few directors in the genre actually did their best work for the studio (unheralded figures such as George Sherman and Richard Bartlett stand as the possible exceptions, while Boetticher is the clearest example of a unique voice hemmed in, only to burst forth fully formed instantaneously upon leaving.)  Jack Arnold, genre hopper, metteur en scene extraordinaire and longtime Universal hand, often found striking ways of nudging his assignments and the studio apparatus towards a slightly more contemplative, philosophical and even metaphysical space, traces of which can be found at least as early as the 1953 twosome of It Came from Outer Space and the slightly Langian The Glass Web (the latter utilizing its 3-D to paint some startling existential quandaries) and which culminate in the supreme achievements of 1957's The Incredible Shrinking Man, with its famously desolate ending that Arnold fought the studio tooth & nail for, and 1959's No Name on the Bullet, with its Audie Murphy-as-chess-playing-death-incarnate Bergman premonitions.

Two of the westerns that Arnold made for Universal-International, Red Sundown and The Man from Bitter Ridge (1955) - both shot in Conejo Valley, CA - display examples of his adaptability and temperamental leanings by using the expanse of the locations to play with various notions of perspective and space, snapping back and forth and up and down between extreme longshots and more intimate viewpoints with cosmic zeal as characters observe, ponder, and spy on one another across bare landscapes. The post-credits opening of Sundown is a haunting illustration of the idea in clear, somber, Wyeth-esque compositions  :

Gunslinger on-the-move Rory Calhoun spots what appears to be a bug skittering out in the distance which is quickly, thanks to one of these ice-shock Arnold cuts, whipped up into a desperate, stumbling, thirsty James Millican, having just escaped lockup and hanging on by a thread, announcing an eerie variety of dead-man-walking motions before Calhoun rides in for the rescue. And as so often happens when a classical western opens up with such a scenario, with two strangers crossing paths fortuitously on the edge of nothing, they are never really strangers and already know of each other through reputation: Millican, elder life gun hawk, has heard things about Calhoun's kickaroo draw and recently watched a former partner of Calhoun's older brother bite the big one. That older generation is hinted at as collapsing in on itself with death and capture, and Millican's purpose in the narrative swiftly comes into focus through his initial interactions with Calhoun: he will not so much preach but rather express, through a small series of laments prefiguring a sacrifice, the regrettable lot of the wasted life of a gun for hire, the very life Calhoun is on pace for.

I have to say here that the point of this post is not simply to excavate some lost, poignant death/art convergence from the mass tombs of the studio system; Millican was a fine actor who by this point had reached a kind of rarefied air of character actor pliability, and his performance here is striking in and of itself, rippled with organic melancholy and subtle, meaningful gesture, and deserves to be appreciated as such and discussed on those terms.  I wouldn't want to speculate on the wider knowledge base regarding Millican's health during the production because we simply can't know, nor would I want to harp too much on certain quotes from his character one might be tempted to call 'eerie' (they are not insignificant in number); all we have is the movie and the bare, chilling fact of the parallels.

The first time I watched Red Sundown, Millican was but a vaguely familiar face to me - I certainly had no idea this was his last role, or the reasons why, but I was startled by the immediacy and impact of his presence. Finding out the details later after another viewing, well, did click things into place a bit, is perhaps the best way of framing it. Millican's character Bud Purvis ultimately functions within the overall structure as little more than a transient, corrective influence on Calhoun, the embodiment of a second chance and a prologued tool for the plot proper to be set in motion, but the potent, grave integrity and force of emotion that Millican imbues Purvis with alongside the endgame air of apocalypse that Purvis saturates his surroundings with is almost unaccountably powerful within the context of the material, to the extent of rendering the "real meat" of the movie to follow as mere fallout from the true epoch. Which is to say that the opening act, while setting up and informing everything to come, also seems to swallow it all, and for the many possible reasons that a movie is occasionally unable to shake its earliest moments, this one seems to conform to none that aren't cast in the shade of Millican's shadow.

Purvis, forever composed in the key of regret, processes the bleakness he's been surrounded by of late with a moving, mannered wipe of the face that visually introduces the key symbol of his ring ("all I got left from being a big man" he'll claim later) but also inevitably brings Hawks to mind, whom Millican worked for on no less than three occasions that each resulted in a major masterpiece (Only Angels Have Wings, His Girl Friday, Air Force.)

The pair ride on to a near town. The blood-tinted sun-setting theme of the first act - which applies not only literally to a movement from day to night and from life to death but also from past to present and future in the form of experience ingested and applied - finds stirring ripples in what at times seems like an index of life's small pleasures: Millican and Calhoun splashing their faces with cool water from a spigot after a long ride ("AH there's nothin' like it!") and later breaking bread and smearing it with jam in a last supper ("nothin' like strawberry!").

And now a few unavoidable words devoted to Calhoun, whose generous performance is a pivotal piece of the puzzle. In westerns at least, he was an interesting screen presence, with a minor in charisma and a major in low key, bug-eyed, sweat-glazed, loose canon potentials (Edward Luwig's 1963 The Gun Hawk being the key text.) In 1956 Calhoun was nothing close to a supporting player, but this is Millican's movie, for a time at least, and Calhoun seems more than game to oblige, patiently ceding the floor and developing a sensitive rhythm with Millican as the web of their brief relationship is weaved and the emotional batons are passed down, and striking art is made because of it. It's one of Calhoun's best roles, and it's hard to imagine any of Universal's other leading western men of the time doing it as much justice.

A fight breaks out in a saloon with a rowdy gang. Calhoun, in an act of rotten efficiency, spontaneous but written in stone, puts a bullet in one of the wild men and the pair beat it back to Calhoun's small shack a lengthy ride away. There, in the final daylight moments found in this section, Millican/Purvis delivers the first of two twilight mini-monologues expressing his regrets in a life that the film senses, and probably the character does too (let's still resist temptations to presume thoughts for the actor) is soon to end, one that's barely left him with "the makins' to show for it." At nightfall the rowdy gang catch up and hold siege; a gunfight leads to a quick slug in the belly for Purvis. Lying in bed, the romance of longing stripped away and urgency setting in, Purvis has an idea: Calhoun should dig himself a "grave" with a hidden pipe for a breathing hole, and after Purvis's distraction (aka immolation) they will think Calhoun has evaded them. But is it simply an idea? Purvis wants Calhoun's character to give up the gun if he survives: "A guy warned me once, like I'm trying to warn you..."; the propulsion of the drama seizes up and the prior ritualistic nips finally coalesce - this is a chain, a cycle, it is about to be broken, and Purvis is its last victim.

Fire is set to the shack, Purvis transfers his ring to Calhoun (like similar rings to be found in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me and Lang's Moonfleet, it has the power to both affirm and negate identity and existence) and Calhoun crawls into his "grave" to wait out the game. Purvis makes a charge outside, giving himself to a spray of bullets against the backdrop of fiery hell, and the rebirth/Phoenix-intimations of Calhoun's predicament are brought to full visual fruition as he emerges unscathed from his ashy ground womb the following morning, taking stock a final time of Millican's body playing Purvis's corpse before a fade to black shifts the story events along their "proper" Calhoun-centric course. There is approximately an hour left of movie at this point; it's quite a good movie, and worth talking about. Maybe there's another post for that. This one ends when Purvis leaves the film, and when Millican leaves the cinema.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

When It Rains #3 - Harikomi (Yoshitaro Nomura, 1958)

Also known in English as The Chase or Stakeout. It earns both titles. Stray Dog would have been a good one as well, and in fact the similarities with Kurosawa's masterwork pile up quickly: procedural structure, young male killer on the lam, old detective/young detective dynamic, devastating summer heat, emphasis on the physicality of an investigation. There's even heavy use of the all-purpose wipes that Kurosawa loved so much and was still employing regularly at this time. But for every apparent parallel, Harikomi frequently takes things down its own path, with a naturalist performance style that often extends to the dramaturgy (modest personal quandaries are prized over weighty philosophical stakes and any exaggerated sense of wisdom transmission between generations) and a thrilling approach to form that blends fluid camerawork/stamps of unity with a rhythmic, clipped editing style, sometimes to vaguely surreal effect - one late sequence with Minoru Oki's undercover protagonist trailing Hideko Takamine's secretive housewife for the nth time (among other things, the movie is a play in variations on the most basic of genre requirements) quickly escalates into a city-to-country down the rabbit hole scenario that reminded me somewhat of the more extreme and absurdist no man's land spinout that comes late in Naruse's Morning's Tree-Lined Street (1936).

The scene that provides the screens above are nothing of that sort, though. One of the shorter and more subtle of the aforementioned numerous trailings, Takamine simply breaks a shoe during a storm and hobbles over under some shelter, as her pursuer is put in the awkward position of unsuspiciously maintaining a pace. As a moment of vulnerability for Takamine, up to that point only little more than a cipher, it represents a bit of an eye opener for Oki, one that takes on significant thematic import (among other things, the movie is a string of male meditations on female unhappiness) - a beautifully wrought exercise in using simple elements to inscribe quiet dramatic value to a wispy relationship.

Monday, October 13, 2014

When It Rains #2 - Plunder Road (Hubert Cornfield, 1957)

Melville must have swooned. Nearly as much as in This Gun for Hire or The Asphalt Jungle, one can sense a wellspring for the great French director in the first 15 minutes of Hubert Cornfield's Plunder Road. A nearly wordless, sartorially attentive and process oriented train heist taking place entirely in the rain and snipped at from a variety of viewpoints, this opening sequence (gobbling up roughly a quarter of the total running time) not only looks forward to the later abstract Melville's, but glances back a year as well; it's almost impossible to not be struck by protagonist Gene Raymond's Bob le Flambeur-like aura during his introduction: pensive, middle-aged, pale haired, a perfect gentleman with a "real hood's face". Actually, we can't ever know if Melville saw Road or not, but I'm not sure that it matters; this was 1957, and noir iconography at this point had already started to empty itself out and take a half step towards the kind of ghost imagery that Melville would shape to his own extreme and eccentric end. The spiritual union is there if nothing else.

Not that this opening is without its own eccentricity; indeed, part of its brilliance (and I would without any intended hyperbole deem it one of the great marvels of the 50s American B cinema) is the indefinable rhythm that it creates through a fundamental motional clash: fleet, exemplary action editing applied to images and movements of great physical weight. Cuts slam back and forth continuously between careful men, cumbersome machines and sensitive mechanisms; the object of the heist is a cache of gold bricks that can only be moved by crane and many guiding hands. And lording over all in this sequence is the rain, which sharpens the contrast in both directions: as a dynamic visual presence that adds an instant vivid force to the decoupage while simultaneously acting as yet another factor responsible for further weighing down of the bodies in frame.  Almost certainly a matter of budgetary restraint, the film's approach to depicting its rain actually doubles down on this central clash, very clearly using a rain machine at times, and clearly using some scratch or pencil technique committed directly to the emulsion at others. The difference between these two methods is the difference between a biting realism and a frenzied Brakhagian rush, or the difference between muddy bootstraps and the electric consciousness that carries them.