Archive for the ‘1960s’ Category
No wonder X wants to escape this torturous present and focus on his past affair with A. Or maybe it’s a fantasy of an affair with A. Or maybe the present we’re seeing is fantasy. Damned if I know. Hell, this isn’t a luxurious vacation place of a hotel so much as Madame Tussaud’s wax museum. As the creepy organ music blares and the rich snobs stiffly trudge along like Molly Shannon in that Seinfeld episode, it’s all like a funeral procession for androids. The dialogue irritated me, even as X intriguingly describes this supposed past affair that A has no memory of; but then again, the formal, flowery words are perhaps the most robotic aspect of all, which may serve to further the dehumanizing atmosphere of this place. Amongst the statue-like robotic rich people standing still in that garden or slowly trudging through those hallways towards nowhere, one image that really stuck with me was everyone watching a concert, a small group of string players; we watch it too, but we don’t hear it. As we watch the bows eagerly and furiously moving back and forth on the violins and cellos, we don’t hear the music those instruments give birth to; we hear the same funeralistic organ music that’s pervaded this hotel and this film from the opening moments. Under the visual facade of decadence and nobility, these so-called people aren’t living at all, they’re not-so-living proof of Macbeth’s soliloquy, of life being “but a walking shadow, a poor player / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, / And then is heard no more. It is a tale / told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing” (had to do it after my shitty Macbeth write-up). I didn’t give a shit about A’s supposed husband or lover or controller or whatever he is M, other than the really cool card game he beats everyone at, or about the supposed affair between X and A, or the semi-poetic language that pervades it all. Hell, this could’ve been a silent film for all I care, the atmosphere alone is what stuck with me, one that for the sake of humanity I hope is just one part of X’s grand and elaborate fantasy.
For much of this, Cliff Robertson’s Tolly is a lot like Lee Marvin’s Walker in “Point Blank,” never actually killing anyone, yet still causing the deaths of many men who’ve wronged him, the men who beat up and killed his father years before and have now risen to the top of the criminal underworld, making Tolly’s job of seeking revenge that much more difficult. Walker just wanted his 93 grand back, while Tolly wants to avenge his beloved father, so while Walker has this kind of ultra-cool aloofness as he stumbles his way through that criminal organization to avenge himself, Tolly tastes blood, and puts in a specific plan, not to kill these men himself, but to ingratiate himself with both the underworld and the law and then turn all sides against each other Red Harvest/Yojimbo-style, defying his outward appearance of a determined yet dumb hood with a rather ingenious plan where everything has to go right. As a result, Fuller’s film comes damn close to full-on glorifying the concept of revenge, as Tolly truly seems to live a charmed life as he implements his plan, as nothing goes wrong, and the girl/witness he rescues even falls for him despite his treating her like trash, and to this I objected while nevertheless having fun with what I was watching. But then, by the end, Tolly crosses the point of no return, learns that crime never pays, and all is right again with the world. But this is Samuel Fuller’s world, of tough-talking criminals, cigarette smoke, a fashionably scarred anti-protagonist, over-the-top jazzy musical scores, little girls getting run over to send a message to a potential witness, a corrupt police chief eating his gun in his own office in the middle of the day, and the drunk love interest looking right into the camera as she rants and rambles, so who the hell knows what’s right and what’s wrong in this world.
Would’ve been so great if it was just those incredible shots of Fonda and Hopper cycling through the best landscapes America has to offer, with the occasional scene of the two of them waxing poor man’s philosophical around a campfire (of which this movie actually does have some – the one where Nicholson theorizes about aliens and UFOs is a particular highlight). But then the plot, and Hopper’s downright shockingly bleak worldview (seriously, this is the second of his directorial efforts I’ve seen after Out of the Blue, and both of them **MAJOR SPOILERS** end with the main character dying a horrific, violent, insanely over-the-top death due to the world and its grandmother being against that protagonist **END MAJOR SPOILERS**. What the fuck? ) had to come along
Overall, it’s a somewhat effective meditation on culture clash and the youthful generation’s feeling of isolation, desire for absolute freedom, and paranoia of being watched and judged by those who just don’t understand. Unfortunately, it just goes too far in trying to drive that point of generational differences home, with everything from a more-than-obvious symbolic comparison shot of Captain America and Bill fixing the bike while the old farmers hammer a shoe on a horse, to an abundance of shots of scary-looking rednecks looking at our heroes with either confusion or disgust or designs of evildoing, to the ending. Later road movies like “Two-Lane Blacktop” and “The Loveless” would perfect those ideas of youthful waywardness and isolation, and the allure of life on the road and its limitless freedom and lack of inhibition, and the differences between the rebellious youth and the more stand pat-ish older generation, but at least “Easy Rider” got the ball rolling with a new, adventurous and risk-taking form of cinema depicting a new, adventurous and risk-taking generation of human beings.
It’s crap. Which is a shame, because it definitely has the feel of being one of Hitchcock’s more personal films, simply because it oozes his well-publicized misgivings towards women, particularly a kind of deep-seeded desire or need to downright control women and put them in his back pocket, just by how vulnerable and susceptible to her psychoses Marnie is. So with all that, there’re definitely some interesting ideas here (and an interesting performance by Sean Connery, as a character who you want to like by how obviously intelligent he is, but can’t bring yourself to do so by how obviously sleazy he is by basically forcing Marnie to marry him and seeing her as his own personal science experiment or something – perhaps he’s a stand-in for Hitchcock himself), but that all becomes lost in a mess of boring backstory, too many visual cues (the flashes of red meant to hearken to Marnie’s psychoses and repressed memories are particularly offensive as an overly-easy storytelling method), an unacceptably and irritatingly bombastic score by Herrmann, and a shrill-as-fuck Tippi Hedren, particularly when she goes into wide-eyed Southern Belle hypnosis mode. I think this would’ve been a lot better if there had been no easy explanation for Marnie’s klepto/man-fearing behavior (as in no color red and no ‘she does this because THAT happened, and she does that because THIS happened’ revelatory finale) and we were simply left to speculate what the hell happened to this girl to make her so painfully vulnerable as an adult, or more specifically, a girl in an adult’s body. Rather than having Hitchcock’s directorial stamp, “Marnie” has Hitchcock’s personal, psychological stamp, making it a kind of “Vertigo”-lite. But with all the egregious directorial and storytelling shortcuts, it’s “Vertigo”-REALLYlite.
I liked this a lot more than I thought I would, probably because for once I was watching a Bergman movie that didn’t feature some of the most unrealistic dialogue ever conceived as beautiful Swedes endlessly wax theological. Rather, impossibly wordy dialogue gave way to the title of the film: silence. As the dying translator, her voluptuous sister, and the sister’s inquisitive young son waste away (literally, in the case of Ingrid Thulin’s Ester) in that fancy but creepily empty hotel, the silence becomes deafening after a while, punctuated by the boy’s running footsteps as he explores the hotel’s hallways, Ester’s nauseating gags and guttural noises as her body fails her, and Anna washing her naked body. There’s an unspoken disdain between the two sisters, one whose seed you can tell was planted a long, long time ago – a disdain that is quite obviously, despite the long passages of silence and apparent lack of anything happening, coming to a head as you can tell that Anna now downright loathes the sickly attention-seeker she perceives her sister to now be. We’re basically presented with the entire psychological history of this family, within the physical and chronological confines of a posh hotel in an unnamed city within the backdrop of war (an unexplained scene involving a tank rumbling through the streets as young Johan observes from his window is a nice metaphor for the unsaid war between the sisters) in the span of a day or two, and with barely a line said between the three at that. It’s all presented in a surprisingly believable way – we believe that Ester, bored and unable to leave the hotel room due to her illness, would masturbate, or that little Johan the explorer would wander the halls of the hotel, fool around with the troupe of midget actors staying in another room, and cautiously observe the ancient porter who sneaks sips from a flask, reads the paper, and talks funny, or that Anna, unable to take the sheer monotony of staying in a room to care for the sister that she loathes, would alleviate that boredom by going out to a bar and a show in a skimpy dress, practically begging to get picked up. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say it’s one of the more convincing day-in-the-life movies I’ve seen, to the point that the eventual showdown between the sisters, where their long-pent up emotions are finally released, feels like it couldn’t go down any other way. I could go on about the philosophical implications of sister vs. sister and how the boy is our own eyes and ears, not quite understanding what’s going on and gliding between the two, but what I got most out of this was a surprisingly convincing, surprisingly real portrait of an unconventional family on the verge of tatters, in both a physical and emotional waystation not knowing what to do. The performances are universally great, particularly in those moments of silence, and particularly in the case of that strange old porter who plays hide and seek with the boy, only to frighten him, and dotes on the increasingly frail Ester, feeding her, doing her laundry, and merely sitting with her and reading the paper – and all this despite not speaking a word of each other’s language. There’s a special kind of bond between Ester and that porter (much more so than between her and her vindictively scorned and scornful sister), as well as between she and her young nephew, particularly in the case of a note she leaves for the boy, whose meaning need not be spoken. When you consider how deep these relationships, and these performances, are, despite Bergman employing basically a fraction of the dialogue he’d normally use, he probably should’ve made more films like this.
**SPOILERS throughout, I guess, but I’m not really giving away the plot per sé, more like the nature of the film…**
…which I thankfully knew very little about when I started watching, instead diving in knowing only that it was about a couple who picks up a hitchhiker, and the three go on a sailing trip. That, coupled with an ominous title like “Knife in the Water,” naturally made me assume that it’d be a thriller, incorporating at least some of the now-familiar crazed hitchhiker, damsel in distress, in-danger-in-the-middle-of-nowhere tropes, but with Polanski’s massive directorial skill there to nevertheless make those clichés rise above familiar dullness. Yes, it turned out to be a thriller, but not nearly of the type I was expecting. For most of the 90+ minute run-time, we see little more than the cocky man, his beautiful wife, and the young and brash hitchhiker at sea, eating or discussing mundane things or the man teaching the hitchhiker how to steer the boat.
And yet, there’s an undeniable tension. A knot was slowly but surely developing in the pit of my stomach as the goings-on of this little sailing expedition grew more and more…mundane. Could it be that something as simple as an ominous film title was enough to plant that knot in my stomach and train me to feel that tension that possibly wasn’t even there? If the film was called, I dunno, “Sailing” or something, instead of “Knife in the Water,” would I not have felt that tension? I probably would have, Polanski knows exactly what he’s doing, but it was certainly at least something of a factor. As we watch the beautiful Jolanta Umecka walk around the tiny boat in her very revealing bikini (and Jolanta Umecka is unbelievably beautiful, by the way ), how odd that the boy rarely even so much as shoots a glance that that tempting-as-hell body, even with her husband in eyeshot. And yet, it’s as if Polanski is tempting we the viewers to ogle this beautiful woman, as the boy should be doing but seemingly isn’t. And that’s one of the most commendable things about “Knife in the Water,” that it never takes the easy way out of signifying sexual tension, through some obvious-as-hell moments of the men drooling over the woman or something like that, and yet, the sexual tension eventually becomes nearly unbearable, just by these three people being there. After a while of watching the shirtless, good-looking kid climbing the phallic mast and using his just-as-phallic knife to play knife games with his and the man Andrzej’s hand, it becomes pretty apparent where things are headed.
When a lazy, windless day where lethargy begets sexual tautness gives way to a rain storm and a move to the boat’s cabin, we’re treated to what has to be the tensest game of pickup sticks ever committed to film, as Andrzej (feigns?) apathy by listening to a soccer match on his radio while Krystyna and the boy play for stakes (even though the stakes amount to nothing more than singing a song and reciting a poem, the sexual possibilities abound in the back of one’s head). Yes, the tension is eventually relieved in a shocking way, as you’d expect in a thriller with this basic plot structure, but even that isn’t that shocking, and certainly not a violent, knife-involved bloodbath or anything. As Andrzej’s cruel mocking and treatment of the boy builds to its crescendo, there’s really no basis for that cruelty as the boy and Krystyna’s relationship to that point never gets past the boy looking away, embarrassed, as she changes out of her bikini. And yet, they may as well have been eyefucking each other while downright taunting Andrzej, as his behavior builds towards a jealous rage and a massive superiority complex over both his wife and the boy, both of whom seem like little more than his property by the end. With no false notes of tension or outright sexuality – Krystyna’s merely enjoying the trip while she happens to be wearing a revealing bikini, after all, leaving the viewer to fill in the blanks with his or her own level of attraction – and little by way of plot cliché as the dialogue and plot developments are both banal and what you’d expect in a real-life situation, the tension feels completely and utterly natural, and for that reason, so does its release. When Krystyna and the boy finally have a moment alone together, when talk leads to a sudden moment of action, it feels like the most natural thing in the world – completely predictable, but for all the right reasons. After all, they’ve been through a lot the past day or two, lounging on a boat in a dead-calm sea, playing pickup sticks, eating dinner – hell, the climax and the jealousy that builds up to it may’ve been the result of nothing more than these three people beingso bored that that boredom naturally instills in their heads a possibly nonexistent sexual conspiracy, and when you’ve got an arrogant man, his smart and incredibly sexy wife, and a good-looking, impulsive, and mysterious stranger stranger (SO mysterious that he’s never even given a name. See what Polanski and writers Jakub Goldberg and Jerzy Skolimowski did there? Do ya?😛 ) stuck on a tiny boat in the middle of nowhere, can you really blame them?
I’m sure there’s lots of hidden meanings and symbolism strewn throughout “Knife in the Water,” like the aforementioned phallic symbols whose purposes and implications I don’t even need to spell out, and the story of the seaman’s bleeding feet that Andrzej keeps returning to at times, and it’ll take a while for me still to wrap my head around all that and what it all means, but for now I look at this movie as a massively surprising and even more massively unconventional thriller -unconventional in, of all things, its relative verisimilitude. Thank goodness I knew so little about what to expect going in…which I’ve just ruined for the poor soul who reads this, so my bad😦 . Just know, though, that Roman Polanski’s first feature may very well have been his best.
This is supposed to be Truffaut’s homage to Hitchcock, and it’s certainly that when you consider the little Hitchcockian touches that abound in this revenge tale: the near-fetishistic camera draw-ins and close-ups on vital clues or items that’re gonna be important in the immediate or distant future of the plot (an early shot of money being laid out on the bed is pretty much directly lifted from Psycho), the sweeping Bernard Herrmann score (and boy is this one sweeping…), the long stretches of nothing happening before the instant of something happening (a poisoned liquor bottle, a game of hide and seek amidst a thunderstorm, and the anti-heroine posing for a portrait with a bow and arrow are particularly great standouts of drawn-out, suspenseful teases – you know something bad’s gonna happen, just not when), the sudden ending (although this one was actually really cool and unexpected, unlike some of Hitch’s copout endings), etc. I liked how Julie’s motivation for seeking out and killing these five seemingly nice, unassuming men is revealed gradually, but not too gradually (it’s right around the middle of the film when a flashback shows you that it’s all Michael Chiklis’ fault) – first you sympathize with the men, as they’re victims of a bizarre series of deaths at the hands of the deranged Julie, then you sympathize with Julie when you learn that she’s avenging her husband’s death, while still unaware of how it happened, then you’re back on the mens’ side when you learn the circumstances of that fateful wedding day (and when one of her potential victims, an artist, innocently begins to fall for her, and it seems that even she begins to have a pang of conscience). It’s all a completely shallow revenge tale, not to mention utterly implausible (how on earth did Julie learn the identities of the five men, let alone track them down?😕 ), and Julie’s motivations could’ve been tweaked (although a stock moral qualm scene here and there probably would’ve done more harm than good with this type of material), but with this kind of simple story, I don’t even see that shallowness as a problem. Truffaut does a great job in shifting the audience’s allegiance between the stone-cold master of disguise Julie (seeing her put on her nice-girl game face to deceive the little kid and his father is quite creepy), who nevertheless has a hint of morality despite her dead-set quest for vengeance (props for getting that teacher off the hook), and the men she’s out to kill, and the long, drawn out sequences of the huntress going after her kill are truly worthy of the filmmaker Truffaut was trying to emulate. This was really awesome.
Wow, has Brando’s acting always been this affected and, well, acting-y, and before this I was just blinded and wowed by AFI-esque, undisputable-lest-you-face-the-penalty-of-death all-time great performances? Really for the first time, a Brando performance just sat wrong with me – too affected, too standout-ish, like he’s going for absolute broke to deliver an incredible performance, when if he just held back a little, settled into his character instead of trying to be the greatest actor on the face of the earth, if you catch what I’m saying, the disconcerting subject matter of “Reflections in a Golden Eye” might just be conducive to a great performance. I won’t say that the problem with his performance is a lack of realism, ‘cuz this story of repressed sexual desire and the strange goings-on related to that repressed sexual desire on an Army base, and the fact that John Huston, the king of the just-subtly strange, is at the helm, isn’t exactly conducive to realism. But still, Brando’s performance as the latently homosexual Major Penderton in a miserable marriage, as well as just about everything else in this film from both a technical and a narrative standpoint, just goes a little too over the top in getting its aura of repressed sexuality and the emotional discomfort related to such, and its overall point, across – and frankly I’m not even sure what that point’s supposed to be.
Yeah, I realize this film was made in ’67, just about right at the end of the era where you dare not mention something as taboo as homosexuality overtly in a film, so I give Huston, et al credit for at least trying to be coy about the Major’s attraction to the strange Private Williams (Robert Forster in his first film role) and the subject of repressing one’s latent sexual desires in about as heterosexual a setting you can find in an Army base, but even then Huston and Brando’s strange way of being coy turns into something over the top. Even more than over the top, the vibe I got from “Reflections in a Golden Eye” was that it was just trying to be oddball for the sake of being oddball, from the silent and creepy private’s hobby of naked horseback riding Equus-style to the decision to envelop the entire film with a gold tint so that you’d think it was a Jerry Bruckheimer production to the subplot involving the neighboring Lt. Colonel’s crazy wife and her beloved effeminate Filipino houseboy that goes nowhere other than making things even more bizarre.
It’s odd how none of these things really gel together, to the point that the film’s a disjointed mess with the loosely connecting thread of sexual repression, and yet there comes a point where the formula becomes agonizingly predictable and boring: Brando stares longingly at Forster, then takes an earful from his shrill wife Leonora (Elizabeth Taylor), then Leonora flirts with the Lt. Colonel right out in the open (their affair isn’t exactly clandestine), then they all go horseback riding, then Leonora yells at the Major for mistreating her beloved Firebird, then the crazy Alison, sans nipples, complains about the state of the world while her lackey Anacleto waxes philosophical, and repeat. This all makes for some interesting images and interesting situations involving feelings of base sexuality that through necessity remain unsaid, but otherwise it all just goes in circles of insignificance. Why should I care when Brando unwisely rides Firebird and that leads to disaster, or when Private Williams night after night stands outside the Penderton house with that frozen face as he watches and obsesses over Leonora, or when Alison and Anacleto plan to go into business together through their crazed ravings? What’s the significance of Brando breaking down into tears and then beating his horse, other than having a stock scene of unmitigated emotion from the star of the film? They’re just odd goings-on, weird for the sake of weird, while the actors and John Huston try their hardest to coax us into connecting the dots and finding some grand revelation that I just barely discerned.
I mean, the music score is just laughably overdone and incredibly distracting when every moment of Private Williams sneaking around and in the Penderton house, and Brando’s wild ride on Firebird, and Brando longingly following Private Williams throughout the base has those overly-ominous or overly-thrilling music cues butting in. The aforementioned gold tint is also more distracting than anything, even though I suppose Huston was trying to show how the world’s a subjective reflection; what results instead is overly-obvious visual symbolism. And for the most part, the performances grab your attention, sure, but are just too…obvious. Brando’s Southern accent is a little too overdone, and his long looks of inquisitiveness and desire at Private Williams are over-emphasized, which I suppose is just as much Huston’s fault, overcompensating to really drive home the point that Brando secretly harbors that forbidden desire. Yeah, we get it, move on. And Forster…if you’re trying to make an emotionally unsettling film that ponders the relevance of sexual desire, at least try to make a character like Private Williams a little more, umm, real? I know he’s supposed to be shrouded in mystery and everything, thus the relatively inexplicable yet palpable desire that Brando’s character has for him, but to this extent? He barely speaks two words in the entire film, instead simply tending to the horses in the stable as if he were painting a Rembrandt, and then riding the horses naked, and then sneaking around the Major’s house and then daring to go in and sit before a sleeping Leonora and sniff her undergarments. Sure it’s bizarre and contributes to the rather shocking ending that’s more of an exhale of relief than you’d expect (although I found the extreme and quick camera pans that close the film to be really, really funny…), but for god’s sake, he’s a cartoon character! He’s Private Pyle from “Full Metal Jacket” but with a few more IQ points and a fetish for horses and ladies’ undergarments. In fact, everyone’s pretty much a cartoon character within this strange, strange army base.
However, against all odds, despite the presence of the great Brando and the young Robert Forster in quiet and allegedly suppressed performances, my favorite performance by far was actually that of the shrill and irritating Elizabeth Taylor as Leonora. She runs her mouth a mile a minute with that piercing Southern accent and gossips about the dumbest things imaginable, so you can feel why the Major is as unhappy and unfulfilled as he is, and yet I found her character to be more than the one-dimensional ditz she comes off to be. The way those famous eyes of Elizabeth Taylor stare with disappointment and disgust and malice at Brando as she undresses before him out of spite, this is a woman who I think is far wiser than she lets on and knows exactly what’s going on within the head her unloving husband and knows exactly how to get under his skin. All at once, she’s the most loathsome and annoying person you can imagine, and at the same time the most sympathetic and empowered, for having to put up with that kind of unenviable living situation and actually having the stones to do something about it. Either way, I definitely felt like there was more than one side to Leonora, which is more than I can say about Brando and his overdone accent and glances and effeminate disposition and Robert Forster’s Private Williams, who’s more silent and stone-faced and creepy than the Tall Man from “Phantasm.” There’s some good stuff here, no doubt, but the problem is that Huston and Brando and company try to make it all too good.
In a way, “Titicut Follies” might just be the most perfect film ever made. If you consider perfection or lack thereof in terms of whether or not a filmmaker succeeds in saying what he/she wants to say, and the film gets the filmmaker’s point or message across, how could this film not be considered perfect? Frederick Wiseman’s trying to show the deplorable conditions of the Bridgewater State Hospital for the criminally insane, and let’s face it, when your film is wall-to-wall, grainy black and white images of grown men being taunted and ridiculed and treated like cattle in a facility that looks more like Auschwitz than a mental hospital, yeah, I’d say I got the point. In that regard, yes, “Titicut Follies” is perfect – from start to finish I was completely convinced that a place like Bridgewater only exacerbates, rather than rehabilitates, these men’s illnesses, and my stomach churned and knotted to see men so clearly mentally ill being treated like playthings by the guards. Even the seemingly harmless and carefree images of the men singing and dancing for the talent show interspersed throughout the film serve as a cruel façade for what really goes on, as the curtain is lifted once those smiling, singing men become emaciated, naked men being shepherded to barren cells and poked and prodded and mocked. So in terms of getting a point across and coaxing an emotional response out of the viewer, “Titicut Follies” is perfect – almost too perfect, as you’re quite simply barraged by images of the deplorable conditions of Bridgewater, so that when the credits roll, you’re seething with anger – I know I was.
It’s perfect in that regard, but in terms of film structure, it really isn’t. I mean, obviously there’re a million things I’d rather watch to pass the time than men skinnier than concentration camp prisoners ranting and raving about Kennedy and Christ, or feeding tubes nonchalantly being shoved up their noses, or an apathetic, cigarette-smoking doctor listening as a man talks about his sexually abusing an 11-year-old girl and childhood homosexual experiences, or guards teasing them simply to irritate and to aggravate their illnesses (and penis. Lots and lots of crazy old man penis… ). And even at a mere hour and 20 minutes, “Titicut Follies” felt like one of the longest films I’ve ever seen, dragging on and on and on in its monotony of upsetting images – but what better way to place you into Bridgewater and turn you into one of those men than by making you feel the passage of time come to an absolute crawl, as must’ve been the case day after day for these mentally ill men? The argument can be made that the film plays up the deplorable conditions of the place too much, making the film’s thesis too obvious, to the point that after a while the sheer monotony of those brutal images takes away some of their power. But even then, you keep telling yourself that this shit is real, and boy is that an eye-opener.
I almost feel obligated to criticize some of the scenes in this film for feeling too stagey, as if it was a little too convenient that the camera just ‘happened’ to show up right when a man began his long, half-gibberish rant or when a man, naked and cowering in his barren cell, cursed his guards and his fate, and Wiseman just ran with it. That such bizarre moments are captured fully and uncut raises some doubt as to the true reality of all this, that maybe Wiseman’s being disingenuous, that having such an abundance of images that so clearly show how awful Bridgewater is, is almost too good to be true, that at least some of it had to be staged…right? But c’mon, these men are so clearly mentally ill, how could they possibly be anything but authentic? And even if the guards, so cruel in stripping these men bare and herding them into cells and dogging them with whatt’d-ya-say’s and taunting and teasing and beatings, are playing themselves up for the camera, what does that tell you about a place like Bridgewater when its guards feel completely comfortable portraying themselves as such pitiless bullies before the camera? Are they exaggerating their treating the patients/prisoners like meat to appear more manly and authoritative, effectively mugging for the camera out of pride of being stronger and more imposing than men who’re mentally ill? Do they behave worse when the camera’s not on them, trying to save face, as unbelievable as that sounds? Neither option instills a whole lot of confidence about a place like Bridgewater, that’s supposed to help these men but instead tucks them away from the rest of society so they don’t have to be dealt with or thought about, at least until someone like Frederick Wiseman comes along.
…but hold on folks, before we get to THAT point, an image you’d expect to see in just about any samurai film, we’ve gotta sit through long stretches of family members and shoguns and their lackeys sitting around and talking or plotting of conniving or confiding. Yeah, before Toshiro Mifune can take off his waterwings and commence rape time on fools who don’t deserve to hold a sword, “Samurai Rebellion” is a very dialogue-driven, very formal little film. For much of the first half or so, I was quite bored, but some aspects were very touching, like how Mifune, the bored, aging swordsman (peacetime ain’t good for the job prospects of samurai), suddenly finds himself identifying with his son’s wife, previously unwanted by the family after their lord thrust her upon them when he was finished with her, but now wanted again by that same lord, a greedy and disgusting man who abuses his power at any and every opportunity. Could be because of his ruined relationship with his emasculating terror of a wife, or could simply be because he’s touched to see his son unexpectedly fall for his arranged bride who’s now in danger, but Mifune’s transformation and breakthrough from tradition and emotional purgatory is a welcome sight. That tradition, by the way, is expressed in some absolutely stunning visuals where individuals are arranged within the shot with Ozu-like care, very much like perfectly-planned paintings:
Perfectly-planned, but soulless, which of course is the point. It’s poignant, then, to see Mifune’s Isaburo become bold and stray from those traditions in which his lord and his wife keep him down – shots of his son’s wife’s sad, sad face and then his face analyzing hers and taking on a look of both pained realization and deep empathy are wonderful. THAT’s how I want to be made aware of these characters defying tradition, not through flowery dialogue that a) I couldn’t follow, and b) damn near put me to sleep. Unfortunately, though, much of “Samurai Rebellion” relies on that dull dialogue, even though its images speak loudly in their own right. Also, there’s WAY too much exposition and expository dialogue, where things are literally brought to a grinding halt so that characters can bring us up to speed about who’s related to who, how this person got here and why, and so on and so forth. Sure, some of this is accompanied by a cool flashback structure that’s directly edited into the present-day scenes so that past and present become indistinguishable and seamlessly mixed together (which could get confusing to some viewers, but I liked it. Something new.), but even then, so many scenes are devoted to telling us – not showing, telling – about the past through exposition, and that’s what bored me to tears.
So disregarding the dialogue portion of the screenplay, when this movie relies on its visuals, it’s damn near excellent. From start to finish, the one word I’d use to describe it is ‘elegant’, both in scenes of conversation where characters are staged in a very specific way as well as in lead-ins to swordfights and in duels themselves, rarely more obvious than in that opening scene, in which Isaburo concentrates cutting down a scarecrow in a field, the camera’s blur effects creating an impressively subjective point of view, so that you’re in the deeply intent mind of the noble swordsman. Everything’s elegant, as if everything in this world moves just a little bit slower than in our world. I only wish that that reduced speed would let wayward glances, and body language, and one swordsman eyeing another as to who’s gonna make the first move, do most of the talking instead of, you know, the actual TALKING.
Yeah, this movie’s very elegant, but it’s right around this moment…
“Bring me the heads of the villains who took my son’s wife!”
that Mifune actually becomes Mifune instead of Mr. Mom and the movie gets injected with a heavy dose of awesome-juice. But even then, the violence is elegant, because the focus isn’t on the violence itself, which is quick and non-glorified, but on the lead-in, as in images like that first one and…
that almost make you think that this is a Sergio Leone film with swords instead of guns, samurai robes instead of ponchos, Toshiro Mifunes instead of Clint Eastwoods (as if Kobayashi borrowed from Leone for this, after Leone borrowed from Akira Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo” for the inferior “A Fistful of Dollars.” Cyclical…). “Samurai Rebellion” starts off too slowly, albeit while trying to give us a crash course on the backstory and current situation far too quickly instead of letting us settle into it, while at the same time muddling itself with lame dialogue. But, it redeems itself in short order once father and son develop a gallant sense of camaraderie in the face of danger and injustice despite putting their family’s reputation and safety at risk, and once shit starts happening, which is the exact case with Isaburo and his son and daughter-in-law: like this film in general, once they break away from monotony and tradition, they feel alive for the first time. Isaburo even says as much.