Saturday, March 27, 2021

REWIND: Audition (Takashi Miike, 1999)

TSPDT Rank #674

Initial viewing: c. 2008

"Only pain and suffering will make you realize who you are. Only when you're in extreme pain, do you realize your own mind."

Takashi Miike is widely known for his outrageous shock tactics and lack of subtlety, but his most famous film, Audition, is notable for its surprising serenity. Make no mistake, Audition is definitely worthy of its classification as a horror film. There are moments that may send the viewer flying out of their seats - many involving a large bag positioned conspicuously in the middle of a tiny, sparsely-lit apartment. But most of the time, it's a quiet and subdued film - a symphony of loneliness and painful memories laced with a dark undercurrent of creeping dread.

The film’s unassuming first act focuses on lonely widower Aoyama’s attempts to find a woman to marry who can live up to the high standard set by his late wife. Despite some subtly unsettling moments, Audition doesn’t really begin to show its hand until Aoyama is already head-over-heels with the girl of his dreams. But this isn’t to say that the film relies completely on the element of surprise. It begins with the death of Aoyama’s wife, whose memory continues to haunt him right up to the moment when he meets his new love, Asami, a young girl fixated on death.

From the moment Asami first shuffles quietly into the audition room, something sets her apart from the women desperately trying to promote themselves in the awkwardly comic montage that precedes her entrance. Aoyama is blind to her oddness, but his producer friend is the voice of reason: there’s just something about Asami that doesn’t feel right to him. She’s too quiet, too polite, too hard to pin down. For Aoyama, however, these are positive attributes, and he soon starts seeing Asami in private. Surprisingly enough, she doesn’t see anything strange about his sleazy method of seduction. To the contrary, she’s grateful for it, and insistently pleads with him to continue taking her out. Intermittent shots of her staring motionless at the telephone in her apartment are the only signs that something is seriously wrong with this picture.

At this point, Miike steers the story into detective territory, as Aoyama begins looking for assurances that Asami is the normal girl that he desperately hopes she is. She mentions a family in Chiba, a part-time job in a Ginza dive bar, and a record company agent, but Aoyama finds none of these. Instead, he finds a perverted old man in a dilapidated ballet studio and tales about a grisly murder involving Asami’s agent and her supposed employer. But by this point, Aoyama is already deep in the girl’s clutches, having pledged his eternal faithfulness after sleeping with her on an ill-advised weekend trip.

The film’s final act is a sweeping tour de force, beginning with an extended dream sequence in which all of the women in Aoyama’s life combine and merge into one. In an audacious subversion of narrative logic, Miike shows us a second version of Aoyama and Asami’s first dates. The scenery is the same, but the conversation is different. Asami describes brutal abuse in her earlier childhood, revealing the lies beneath her calm facade. Again and again, Miike sows subtle seeds of doubt in the viewer’s mind. Exactly how much of what happens is in Aoyama’s head, and which version of the story is the “real” one, is never explicitly drawn out - at least not until the film reaches its horrifying denouement, a proto-torture porn set piece that is both weirder and more concise than anything Eli Roth ever dreamed up. But as infamous as that denouement may be, it’s only one part of the masterfully structured psychological puzzle that is Audition.

Friday, March 12, 2021

Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988, Terence Davies)

Quest Status: 736 / 1000

TSPDT Rank #271

Usually, a film opens by introducing us to some characters. Then, the characters become part of a story, which envelops them until they emerge at the end, changed by the events that they, and we, have just experienced. Well, Terence Davies' Distant Voices, Still Lives doesn't adhere to these rules. It does introduce us to some characters, a working class family in postwar Britain, only it eschews the narrative part of the bargain. There is no story, and no conventional beginning, middle and end. There is no exposition, no easily digestible conflict, no clear sense of place and time. We don't even know very much about the characters. They could be anyone from their place and time--which is Britain from the early 1940s to the mid-1950s.

Nevertheless, the film does have a vague structure. It opens with the wedding of the family's oldest child, one of two sisters. The younger sister was brutally abused by the family's late father, as were her mother and brother. However, the older sister misses her father on her wedding night. The father looms like a specter over the entire film, with happy memories sprinkled among the painful ones. It's a tale as old as time. The father is moody and abusive, the mother is quiet and resilient, defending her husband to the very end--even when her body is covered in bruises.

Images like these flow steadily throughout the film's brief running time. There is no chronological order to the scenes that we see, but the film is divided into two halves--with two separate weddings providing a thread on which the other episodes loosely hang. The title is also split between the two halves--the first entitled Distant Voices and the second Still Lives. The first half is more ethereal and deeply entrenched in memories. The second half revisits the characters at a slightly later date, as the family's son prepares to get married. The father is less present in this section, and there is more emphasis on episodes from the characters' daily lives with their spouses.

However, one element remains a constant throughout both sections. This is the communal singing at the celebration following each wedding, which we drift in and out of between episodes. There are similar moments of spontaneous group singing after the father's funeral, and in a bomb shelter during an WWII air raid (the only time that the war is explicitly referenced in the film). Characters might break into song at any moment, with no accompaniment other than the voices of their friends and family. Music is what gets them through the endless flow of time, the sorrows of their lives, and helps them feel the joy that they crave.

Another constant are shots of light shining through windows, or facades of buildings where the characters live. These buildings are the vessels in which memories are stored. The windows are the portals to seeing them, to accessing that lost era which only comes back in small flashes, like drops of water from a faucet. Occasionally, characters sit motionless and stare at the camera, bringing to mind the uncanny magic of old photographs. These are all stylistic elements which seem to be unique to Davies' deeply personal debut film, all of them geared towards the poetic and the transcendent rather than linear narrative storytelling. Davies' collection of memories is vivid and evocative, but also difficult to penetrate, as we are always on the outside looking in--as if through a window to someone else's mind.

---264 films remaining---

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Underground (1995, Emir Kusturica)

Quest Status: 735 / 1000

TSPDT Rank #294

Underground is a film full of history and chaos, combining the two liberally until they become virtually indistinguishable. It begins with a Felliniesque parade in the street, with two drunken gangsters riding on horseback in front of a brass band. The band will be one of the few constants throughout the story, following the characters through good times and bad. They don’t comment on the action, they just keep repeating the same song again and again--right up until the film’s fantastical Felliniesque ending. Much like the circus in Fellini’s films, the brass band here seems to provide a lifeline to a nostalgic idea of old Yugoslavia, a country that existed “once upon a time.”

While the band can always be relied on to get the characters up and dancing, the rest of the film is an ever-changing whirlwind of a ride that often jumps forward decades in time without a warning and never gives the viewer a chance to catch their breath. The two gangsters we see at the start of the film turn out to be early members of the Communist Party, which initially means robbing banks and stealing from rich people in the name of the poor. Later, it means resisting the German occupation, and later, it means being in a position of adulation and political power, but the characters always remain the same at heart. They’re drunkards, criminals, womanizers, liars and schemers. One friend, Marko, uses his brains to get ahead, eventually tricking the other, Blacky, into living in the cellar with a large group of fellow refugees for 20 years.

While the first part of the film is a frenetic World War II adventure with some off-kilter twists, it’s this central part of the film where the weird factor really comes into play. The underground band of refugees believes that the war is still going on, convinced by Marko into producing weapons for the resistance while he lives a lavish life above ground as a high-ranking Communist official and sells the weapons on the black market. His grandfather is in on the scheme too, manipulating time in the cellar so that everyone believes they’ve only been down there for 15 years--not 20. The twisted treachery of this set-up packs a serious allegorical punch (even before a peripheral character muses that “communism is a cellar”), accusing the Communist leaders on top of profiting off of the lowly common folk down below--who even learn to love them for it and never suspect that they’re being taken advantage of.

Of course, things don’t end in the cellar. A monkey behind the controls of a tank is enough to set a new revolution in motion. But to what end? Kusturica makes it clear that there is none. In the film’s apocalyptic final section, the characters reconvene in a hellish vision of the 1992 Yugoslav wars. There’s not a building left standing, no one left alive who’s not wearing a uniform and carrying a gun. A flaming wheelchair revolves endlessly around an upside-down crucifix, suggesting endless chaos and evil. But those who remain still have their memories, giving them a glimmer of hope that what was lost can someday be regained. Despite its nightmarish finale, Underground is never a preachy or depressing film. It blows up the trajectory of modern Yugoslavian history into a surreal fantasy vision that promises a look at the elusive truth lying beneath it all--even if, as Marko suggests, it all turns out to be nothing but lies in the end.


---265 films remaining---

Monday, March 1, 2021

REWIND: The Night of the Hunter (1955, Charles Laughton)

TSPDT Rank #43

Initial viewing: c. 2007

"Beware of false prophets which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves..."

The Night of the Hunter is one of the strangest and most unclassifiable films ever to come out of the classic Hollywood studio system. On the surface, it’s a film noir thriller about some hidden bank robbery loot and the ominous preacher who searches for it. But while its basic story may be pure film noir, it’s also a throwback to the broad strokes approach of the silent era--with elements of D.W. Griffith epics, German expressionism, and slapstick comedy all thrown into the mix. Together with its blatantly unrealistic set design, Capra-esque sentimentality, and a larger-than-life performance from Robert Mitchum, these elements all combine to create a beguiling and fantastic film that is as difficult to describe as it is to resist.

Adding to the film’s mystique is the fact that it’s the only film ever to be directed by the great Charles Laughton. A hulking British expat who achieved Hollywood success with his towering performances in films such as The Private Life of Henry VIII, Mutiny on the Bounty and The Hunchback of Notre Dame in the 1930s, he was certainly an odd choice to direct a Southern Gothic thriller set on the banks of the Ohio River. But by all accounts, he oversaw the film with a perfectionism and clarity of vision usually only seen from seasoned directors at the peak of their talents. His extensive acting experience also allowed him to develop an usually close bond with his actors, drawing out raw and otherworldly performances that are highly unusual for their era.

Although The Night of the Hunter failed to achieve success upon its initial release, it soon achieved an unusually early cult following--thanks to its regular presence on late night television in the 1960s and ‘70s. Moving with the deliberate logic and uncanny precision of a dream, The Night of the Hunter is perhaps most effective on the young and unsuspecting, like the best horror movies. For those expecting a suspenseful thriller, it will likely seem too strange and tonally inconsistent. At one moment, we see Mitchum’s preacher threaten his two adopted children with a knife--with a casual aura of evil so convincing that we really fear for the children’s lives. But at the next moment, we see him slip on a fruit jar, lumber up the stairs in a parody of F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, and howl like a wounded animal when the children narrowly escape into the river.

The film’s final act focuses on the children and their attempt to escape from the preacher, with the action taking on the aura of a fairy tale. The children float down the river across a background of twinkling stars and animals twice their size, as lullabies lull them to sleep. When the preacher does appear, he does so only as a silhouette in the distance--a symbol of evil beyond the children’s comprehension. The kindly old woman who comes to their rescue (played by silent era icon Lillian Gish) is just as inconceivably good as the preacher is inconceivably evil. And when the final showdown comes, it remains firmly in the realm of symbolism--with the old woman and the preacher singing competing versions of the same hymn just like they were drawing pistols in the street. Despite its disregard for realism and narrative conventions, The Night of the Hunter always retains its hypnotic pull and childlike urgency. Never before or since has the battle between good and evil felt so elemental.