Monday, June 22, 2020

Orpheus (1950, Jean Cocteau)

Quest Status: 706 / 1000

TSPDT Rank #339

If the work of filmmakers like Marcel Carne and Jean Renoir can be described as "poetic realism," then the work of Jean Cocteau should be described as "poetic fantasy." In his first film, Blood of a Poet, Cocteau attempted to crystallize the poetic experience in film form, creating one of the most bizarre and uncanny surrealist films ever made in the process. If it weren't for the brief image of a lyre at the end of that film, it's likely that no one would have connected it with the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eunycide. But as the case may be, it turned out that Blood of a Poet laid a lot of the stylistic and thematic groundwork for Cocteau's modern adaptation of the Orpheus myth over 15 years later.

Cocteau's Orpheus transfers the ancient Greek myth to contemporary Paris, recasting the golden-voiced Orpheus as a legendary poet as famous for his dashing good looks as his poetry. When a belligerent up-and-coming rival poet is killed in a roadside accident, he is called to accompany the young firebrand's princess benefactor to a country village where he witnesses the dead man being brought back to life and whisked into a mirror by the princess and her cohorts. The next day, he wakes up by the side of the road as if waking from a dream. Upon returning home, he becomes obsessed with intercepting strange messages from the princess' car radio that he hopes will lead him back to her, neglecting his pregnant wife Eunycide in the process. The princess' concierge, Heurtebise, stays behind and attempts to help the couple, until the revelation that the princess is a manifestation of Death sends Orpheus and Eunycide to the underworld and sets into motion a doomed romance that promises tragedy for all involved.

The parallels between this film and Blood of a Poet are unmistakable in retrospect. The idea of mirrors as a portal to an "unreality" that hides man's darkest secrets, is carried over and expanded upon here, as are the special effects which portray characters crossing into this parallel world. No longer does the poet splash into the mirror like a swimming pool, instead being absorbed like a mirage, smoothly and silently. One need only don a special pair of gloves to pass through the mirror's earthly exterior. Then there's the recurring visual motif of statues, the princess of Death watching Orpheus with eyes painted on her eyelids, and the idea of poetry as an art which requires unimaginable pain and self-sacrifice in order for only minuscule returns of success. But while Orpheus shares many surrealist visual ideas with its predecessor, Cocteau presents them here in the context of a coherent, if fantastical, story with a sense of magical fairy-tale wonder that's far removed from the obscure stream-of-consciousness style of Blood of a Poet.

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Saturday, June 13, 2020

REWIND: Vampyr (1932, Carl Theodor Dreyer)

TSPDT Rank #207

Initial viewing: c. 2006-2008

Vampyr is an early talkie with a ghostly atmosphere, aided by its disjointed production style and a main character described in the opening intertitles as “a dreamer for whom the line between the real and the supernatural became blurred.” Coming on the heels of director Carl Theodor Dreyer’s iconoclastic masterpiece of silent cinema, The Passion of Joan of Arc, Vampyr saw Dreyer pair up with the European aristocrat Nicholas de Gunzberg (aka “Julian West”) to try his hand at the horror film genre. The result has less in common with the Hollywood horror films of the day than it does with other privately-produced experimental films of the time period, such as Blood of a Poet and L’age d’or.

As in many famous surrealist films, Vampyr features a cipher-like protagonist who wanders through a series of strange events with little apparent motivation or narrative consistency. When Allan Gray first enters his room at the village inn, he is carrying what looks like a fishing net and rods - although since he never uses them, it’s difficult to know what they are. He passes a leering deformed man on the stairs and sees another man carrying a large scythe preparing to take a ferry across the river. Could he be the Grim Reaper? He is traveling away from our hero, but already it’s clear that there is danger afoot. This initial sighting is only the first of many instances in which Gray crosses paths with sinister characters but escapes unscathed himself. The reason for this is unclear, but whatever it is, Gray is usually painted as an observer rather than an active participant.

Nevertheless, what exactly Gray is witnessing is rarely clear. For viewers in the early 1930s, for whom the Universal horror classics like Frankenstein and Dracula were breaking new ground in mainstream horror cinema, an experimental horror film like Vampyr would have most likely sent most viewers into a state of disorientation and confusion. Even today, it has the potential to confound, especially upon first viewing. Knowing that Gray is obsessed with the supernatural and subject to dreaming, whether awake or not, the viewer must always bear in mind that he might be subconsciously filling in gaps in the story. As the film progresses, it becomes clear, with the help of frequent intertitles from a book about the supernatural, that a vampire is behind all of the strange happenings in the village. But strangely enough, by the time this revelation comes, it’s already too late for Gray to be an active participant in the fight against the foul creature. Instead, this role is assumed by a peripheral character, an anonymous servant who happens upon Gray’s book about vampires and decides to take matters into his own hands.

If Vampyr has a weakness, it’s that it relies too heavily on intertitles to explain the vampire phenomenon, with little visual evidence to confirm this information to the viewer. However, the lack of visual clarity creates a truly dreamlike atmosphere which de-emphasizes story in favor of making the viewer feel as uneasy and disorientated as its main character. This is a technique that would come to be a key component of the horror genre in later decades, albeit in much more regulated doses. Vampyr also displays a style which is markedly different from the theatrical style which defined Dreyer's later work, experimenting with visual rhythm and special effects that tested the boundaries of the horror genre at a time when filmmakers were only just starting to scratch the surface of the genre’s cinematic potential.

Sunday, June 7, 2020

DOUBLE FEATURE: Sansho the Bailiff / The Life of Oharu

One of the things that's kept me from exploring Kenji Mizoguchi's filmography before is the sheer number of acclaimed films in it, together with an obsession for chronological order which I have recently thrown to the wind. It turns out that all you need to do is just choose a movie and watch it. Who knew?

Sansho the Baliff (1954, Kenji Mizoguchi)

Quest Status: 704 / 1000

TSPDT Rank #93


Sansho the Bailiff depicts a world which is outwardly beautiful but inwardly cruel. Presented with a chance to get ahead, most people will do so at the expense of others. Presented with a chance to help others, most people will choose only to help themselves. Even traditional power structures can't be trusted. Children of government leaders can be sold into slavery and treated like animals, while those who benefit from slavery are rewarded by the system for their troubles. The corruption and moral bankruptcy depicted in this period piece, which takes place during Japan's medieval Heian era, are so timeless that it might as well take place today.

The Film Sufi: “Sansho the Bailiff” - Kenji Mizoguchi (1954)

As the opening titles point out, Sansho the Bailiff was based on an old folk tale, and it moves with a deliberate mesmerizing power befitting of its source material. It's a story that takes one crushing narrative turn after another, bombarding the viewer with cruelty but amazing them with unexpected developments that keep them guessing right to the end. This is masterful storytelling - a story with deep moral value and timeless entertainment value. Except that it might be too cynical and depressing to satisfy repeat viewings. As the son of the titular imperial tax collector and slave owner says after leaving his father's house to become a Buddhist monk, "I found that people have little sympathy for things that don't directly concern them. They're ruthless. Unless those hearts can be changed, the world you dream of can not come true." Sansho the Bailiff puts forward a dream in which one person can change the world they live in - a fantastic riches to rags and back again story. But while the world may change for the better or for the worse, the ultimate realization is that human suffering remains no matter what. And as the story reaches its pitiful conclusion, there's not much to do but break down in tears at the promise of happiness blown away like dust on the wind.

The Life of Oharu (1952, Kenji Mizoguchi)

Quest Status: 705 / 1000

TSPDT Rank #255

While the films he made after, such as Ugetsu and Sansho the Bailiff, might be more famous, The Life of Oharu is one of Kenji Mizoguchi's most potent personal statements. He had made numerous films about women's suffering over the course of his career, but Oharu distills this concern into a simple series of episodes chronicling a stately court maiden's descent into disgrace and prostitution over a series of decades. Beginning at one of the lowest points in the life of the titular Oharu (Kinuyo Tanaka), as a broken-down prostitute wandering the back streets of feudal-era Kyoto, the film then tracks back to her fleeting romance with a lowly retainer (in a brief and almost unrecognizable appearance by Toshiro Mifune) in her youth, reviewing the series of misfortunes that befell her as a result. Reflecting the Buddhist perspective that shows up frequently in Mizoguchi's later films, the film eventually returns to where it started, creating a structure in which the end leads to the beginning and the beginning leads back to the end in an endless cycle of suffering.

The various ordeals that Oharu is made to endure over the course of the film serve to illustrate a point about the status of women as objects in society. In Oharu's dizzying descent from the imperial court to the gutter, she endures prostitution in various forms - each of which she passively performs a function for men at her own expense, only to suffer the full weight of responsibility for her actions in the eye of public opinion. Although it takes place in 17th-century Tokugawa-era Japan, The Life of Oharu plays out like a damning feminist statement about the lowly status of women in 20th-century modern Japan. Each time Oharu attempts to act for herself, she is punished by being forced progressively lower on the social ladder. Each subsequent level on this ladder, from manorial concubine to high-class courtesan to house servant to broken-down prostitute, represents yet another form of objectification allowing Oharu to be consumed and disposed of by the men around her. Mizoguchi's unwavering concentration on his actors, particularly his fearless lead actress Kinuyo Tanaka, creates a relentless narrative that plummets downward in a dizzying spiral which sucks the viewer in and involves them fully in the doomed heroine's plight. Even more so than the other Mizoguchi films I've seen so far, The Life of Oharu makes a uniquely personal impression that couldn't have been made by any other filmmaker.

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