#90 Kwaidan. Dir. Masaki Kobayashi

Kwaidan is comprised of four Japanese ghost stories, each inspired by one of the stories in Lafcadio Hearn’s 1904 anthology, Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things. At the time of filming, Kobayashi’s Kwaidan was the most expensive Japanese film ever produced. Its high cost of production is up on the screen. As the film plays you see in vibrant technicolor the massive sets that were built in an airplane hanger. Kobayashi also does not let the large scale of his design substitute for attention to small details. A camera will never capture every small detail of its object, and in the case of Kwaidan, no better capture of the mise-en-scène would have made the audience believe they were watching anything other than something artificial–impossible because the horizon is always an unnatural color or matte painting. But Kobayashi surely spent money to assure that even the little pieces of his cinematic imagination felt like our most vivid dreams.

Take, for example, the second story, “The Woman of the Snow”. Much of the story takes place in a forest in wintertime. Access to an airplane hanger allowed for long shots to frame hills, a small lake, and two characters wandering in a snow storm. Unblinking eyes float on the painted horizon, and for this fantasy to seem real, the reeds around the lake and the snow that blew in the (indoor) wind were as realistic as they could be. (I would guess that in some corners of the set the fake snow must have accumulated to become snow drifts several feet deep.)

Kwaidan is often presented as Kobayashi’s respite from moral issues. Compared to the subject-matter of The Human Condition (which I have yet to see) and in terms of plot, Kwaidan is hardly asking moral questions. Yet at least two of the four stories–the first two–show individuals with the freedom to decide on outcome, but while also believing they will not suffer negative consequences from selfish decisions. The samurai in the “The Black Hair” leaves his first wife to marry another woman for higher social status. After attaining wealth and social privilege, he grows unhappy and fantasizes about walking through the gate and hallway of his old home, to see his first wife contentedly weaving with her spinning wheel. His arrogance is that he dreams his abandonment did no damage whatsoever.

“The Woman of the Snow” is a pure example of someone ignoring a clear truth. In the setting of a character actually experiencing a ghost sparing him and killing his friend, the truth of the ghost’s demand to never speak of this event is real as a law of nature. Thus, when years pass and the man tells his wife about the woman of the snow, who is played by the same actress that plays the wife, the return of the ghost feels almost deserved justice. She did say should would kill him if he said anything, so what did he expect?

The third story is called “Hoichi the Earless”. Hoichi plays the biwa and one night his playing attracts the attention of a spirit. This spirit is a samurai and brings Hoichi to a square to sing for a dead Emperor and his retinue. The spirits request Hoichi to sing about a 12th-century battle, named the Battle of Dan-no-ura. This recounting of the ancient battle is beautifully composed with a rotation of three shots: the Emperor and other ghosts sitting absolutely still as they listen to Hoichi; a slow pan over a Japanese drawing of the battle; and, warriors in dozens of boats that rock in the waves of red-colored water (the blood of those who died and fell overboard?). While the title of the story describes the injury Hoichi suffers from a mistake the priests make in trying to protect Hoichi from further visits from the biwa-loving spirit, the story is just as much about the tragedy of fading memory in history. The frozen faces in the audience of ghosts shows how distant everyone is from understanding the reasons for the ancient clans to kill each other in battle.

“In a Cup of Tea” is the last story in a film that is over three hours long. Sitting through to the very end takes a little patience. The fourth story is not of lesser quality than the other three, but the experience of it could feel unnecessary. By the end of the third story, Kobayashi has fed the viewer dozens of stunning visuals by having actors slow or stop their movement in long or medium shot. We get more artistic beauty from “In a Cup of Tea”–in this case from faces floating in water and from a swordsman fighting a ghost in his lord’s compound–but the anthology style of Kwaidan can let one feel little guilt for stopping early.

#61 Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Dir. Terry Jones

An expanding DVD market and digital streaming made the Criterion Collection edition of Life of Brian superfluous. I purchased the CC copy of Life of Brian before a cheaper copy was available; and, even if there was one somewhere out there, I could not imagine how, as I held a sixty dollar DVD in my hands, a non-Criterion release would have had the same extra features.

I’m not complaining. Life of Brian is one my favourite comedies. However, its reasons to be included in the Criterion Collection were challenged almost immediately after its release. For context, here is the mission of the Criterion Collection (as of 2021):

Since 1984, the Criterion Collection has been dedicated to publishing important classic and contemporary films from around the world in editions that offer the highest technical quality and award-winning, original supplements. No matter the medium—from laserdisc to DVD and Blu-ray to streaming—Criterion has maintained its pioneering commitment to presenting each film as its maker would want it seen, in state-of-the-art restorations with special features designed to encourage repeated watching and deepen the viewer’s appreciation of the art of film.

https://www.criterion.com/about

My CC copy does not look better than what I can find elsewhere. The commentaries are nice, but they have since been included in copies that cost far less. A fan of Monty Python might also learn little from the commentaries. The living cast of Monty Python rank high on any list of artists that are repeatedly interviewed about career highlights older than twenty years. Therefore, a dedicated fan is likely to already know some of the Life of Brian stories–George Harrison’s investment; filming in Tunisia; Graham Chapman’s sobriety.

But the film deserves its inclusion. In the event that the film did not look better than it did before, or if there could not be many special features, Criterion selected Life of Brian in order to perform what the Library of Congress does in the American public sphere: declare that a cultural object is important.

“… and I should know because I’ve followed a few!”

A good comedy knows how to follow each funny thread to its best end point. If you can’t stop at the right time, things start to crumble. An imaginative premise is shortchanged if one stops a joke too quickly. When a joke needed to end seconds or even minutes ago, the gag feels cheap and in creeps tiredness.

Monty Python jokes are rarely short punches, so the risk of audience fatigue is high. Thankfully most of Life of Brian finds the right tempo for its silliness. In the stoning scene (Jehovah! Jehovah!) the violence grows exponentially rather than in linear increments, because the disguised women are impatient to perform a forbidden act of execution. The two scenes with Pontius Pilate (played by Michael Palin) are some of the longest in the film. Palin’s Pilate is also a drawling character. Nevertheless, the pace is just right because slow and long makes the game of lisps, accents and dirty names frustrate Pilate, who, like the soft-speaking administrator of the crucifixion line, believes there is nothing funny about Imperial Rome.

“… in an extremely cheap and tenth-rate way.”

On the timeline of taboo filmmaking in mainstream cinema, Life of Brian is a mark after the death of the Production Code Administration, but well before Western societies, including their conservative pockets, grew to tolerate levels of vulgarity that would be culturally lethal in an earlier time. Almost two decades before crowds grew comfortable to see Jason Biggs fuck a pie on the big screen, and without precedent to combine the era of Jesus with comedy, Life of Brian was a lone target for religious groups in Britain and America.

How the controversy played out for Life of Brian should be familiar to those who follow the news cycles of most film and television controversies: tension is high for a brief period, everybody is either offended or defensive, but then the item in question is forgotten, because down the road attackers and defenders will reunite on the battlefields of The Last Temptation of Christ, The Satanic Verses, The Simpsons, Dogma, South Park, Family Guy and so on. The anxiety about Life of Brian was highest on a BBC2 talk show, Friday Night, Saturday Morning. An episode of the show allowed John Cleese and Michael Palin to debate Malcolm Muggeridge and Mervyn Stockwood, the Bishop of Southwark. Muggeridge and Stockwood viewed the film before the show, but supposedly they missed the first fifteen minutes of the film, which is when the story establishes that Brian is not Jesus.

A full viewing of Life of Brian would have changed little. Bishop Stockwood spends the first minute of his “review” reflecting on the inability of communist countries (Romania, China) to eradicate Christianity. Holding a silver crucifix around this neck, which is big enough to make Flavor Flav jealous, he then performs the typical headmaster maneuver: stating that he considered the ideas of the youth, but the ideas are too naive and fail to show respect for the big structure the headmaster occupies a position within. As Stockwood makes clear, he hardly had the energy to find Life of Brian funny because he spent the morning delivering communion: “I didn’t roar around with laughter at the alter in my chapel this morning, I just fell down, genuflected and worshiped”.

#53 Sanjuro. Dir. Akira Kurosawa

A DVD copy of Sanjuro was gifted to me. If I had purchased a hard copy myself, I definitely would never have skipped buying Yojimbo, the first in the pair of films about Sanjuro, the ronin who names himself “30 years old”. Sanjuro is a film for the those–investors and samurai fans alike–who wanted more from Kurosawa’s creation. The success of Yojimbo created the desire for a sequel, and Kurosawa repurposed an old script to have Toshiro Mifune and other players, like Tatsuya Nakadai, continue the adventure.

Much like how I feel when watching a Mizoguchi film, a Kurosawa film is comforting because it is so well crafted. One does not watch Sanjuro to see what can happen if continuity is thrown out the window. Rather, one seeks a film like this because it demonstrates how, in the hands of an expert, a so-called “straightforward” style of story-telling is not an impediment to radical creation. In the realm of fiction, James Clavell’s Shōgun is the first cousin of a Kurosawa film; the former is dedicated to observing the action of characters from third person, but the precision of its description allows for different layers of a feudal system to be folded into one complex picture.

The funny thing about praising the style of Sanjuro is that one can, with a small push from Stephen Prince’s audio commentary, read the film as Kurosawa telling the next generation of Japanese filmmakers they made a mistake to reject the Japanese cinema Kurosawa helped create. Not for lack of enthusiasm, the young samurai in the film fail to read almost every political maneuver that is taking place. Consequently, Mifune’s exposition is not just for the audience–Sajnuro has to tell his own allies that, if he was a less capable swordsman, his head would be cut off by their hands and from their blind stupidity.

#45, Taste of Cherry. Dir., Abbas Kiarostami

“Change your outlook …” . This prescription is given to Badii by the Azeri taxidermist. Of the three passengers Badii picks up to solicit help in his plan for suicide, the taxidermist is the most vocal in his disagreement of Badii’s intentions. In sharp contrast to the young soldier, whose nervousness from Badii’s appeals made him tight-lipped and skittish, the taxidermist, an older, more reflective character, offers example after example of why life is worth living. But the taxidermist is also the one who agrees to go to the hillside with the hole under the tree and check to see if Badii is alive or dead. He also gets one additional chance to cancel his promise, because Badii returns to the taxidermist’s workplace to make a revision to the plan: the taxidermist is to throw stones and shake Badii, just in case he is not dead but asleep.

Contained in this partial summary of Taste of Cherry is the frustration you will feel watching this film. Badii’s reasons for suicide are never given, and the behavior of a life-affirming character like the taxidermist compounds the mystery of what is going on. Over an hour into the film, the viewer is not surprised that Badii does not change his mind to execute the plan to go to the place where he will decide his fate, but the taxidermist has just met Badii. What does the taxidermist see in Badii? Does he think it is necessary for Badii to go as close as he can to attempting suicide?

When I say Taste of Cherry is frustrating to watch, I sincerely mean “frustrating”, yet I am using the word for the purpose of recognizing Kiarostami’s genius. In other words, Roger Ebert’s infamous review of Taste of Cherry is right, but for the wrong reasons. When Ebert grew impatient with what Kiarostami withholds from the viewer–character background and the causes of suicidal ideation–he was right to want more from the film; but he was surprisingly reluctant to think through his feelings of frustration, to find the connection between the aesthetics of Taste of Cherry and this angry desire to know if the life of Badii is worth living or not.

Taste of Cherry puts the audience in a state that is intimately familiar to those who have experienced suicidal thoughts (which I have). In order to continue to live, you have to change your outlook (to put it very mildly), but the whole process of affirming life cannot function like the balance sheet of an accountant. There is no utilitarian sum or product to indicate the exact point when you have accumulated enough reasons to live. Is the taste of mulberries enough of a reason? Mulberries and cherries?

Then comes the controversial ending of Taste of Cherry. With one more parry, Kiarostami has you stumbling from your interest to know what will happen to Badii lying in the hole under the tree. Badii enters the hole at night and in a slow zoom towards the hole’s pitch-black opening, we anticipate we will see what comes after. CUT TO: camcorder footage of the same hill in daytime, which suddenly looks greener than how it was filmed hitherto. This footage is documentary-like. It takes place on the central hillside of the film, but we watch Kiarostami talking with the actor who plays Badii. We are on the film’s set and not in the story itself.

I am repeatedly shocked by this ending. I now know that it is coming, but my brain can never time the cut to the camcorder sequence–much like how Geoff Dyer speaks about the transition from monochrome to color in Tarkovksy’s Stalker. Producing one more bout of shock in this film is incredible because it reminds you that you can’t help it: even after three open-ended conversations about Badii’s desire to die, you are searching for a logical cause-effect substratum. The taxidermist gave lots of reasons to live, and you desperately want to know if they were effective in reversing Badii’s plan. Incredible.

#34, Andrei Rublev. Dir., Andrei Tarkovsky

Andrei Rublev is a beautiful study of an artist’s relationship with his/her social circumstances. With patient camera movement and long takes, Tarkovsky presents Rublev, the 15th-century Russian icon painter, as someone who is internally split between a desire to paint in ignorance of social turmoil and a curiosity to get as close as he can to feudal power, non-Christian beliefs, or the lives of the Russian peasantry.

There is no shortage of memorable scenes in Tarkovsky’s body of work, but the scene of the pagan feast in Andrei Rublev might be one his most masterful feats. In the beginning of this scene Rublev is in his curious mode. He is gravitating, almost floating, towards the bacchanal of naked men and women shouting, dancing and running between trees. For part of the scene it is easy to believe that none of the pagans see Rublev or care about his presence. When his trespass is finally noticed, the viewer snaps out of the dream at the same time as Rublev.

My most recent viewing of Andrei Rublev coincided with my reading of Arthur Koestler’s The Sleepwalkers: A History of Man’s Changing Vision of the Universe. As the latter looks at the scientific ideas of Johannes Kepler and Galileo, the book finds in the history of astronomy points when religion and science were complimentary to creativity and when they were in conflict. Religion and art are the two tectonic plates of Andrei Rublev; Rublev is the historical needle that is sensitive to their shifts and collisions.

Long films are scrutinized before they are watched. The prospective moviegoer wants to know if the long runtime is “worth” it, whatever that means. A typical Tarkovsky film is slow and long, and the unsympathetic audience hates the style that makes one of his films beautifully contemplative, often dream-like. Andrei Rublev is structured in eight parts and book-ended with a prologue and an epilogue. The film’s pay-off is that Tarkovsky is able use a long runtime to show the extent to which Rublev’s suffering is cumulative. The accumulation of suffering is revealed in the eighth part, when Rublev is a marginal observer of a young bell-maker tirelessly working to cast a bronze bell for a church. Everything Rublev has seen and done–including the killing of a soldier who attempted to rape Durochka–surfaces in his sympathy for the young bell-maker, who ends his successful bell casting alone in a field sobbing, thinking that he failed because he never knew his father’s secret to casting.

#1, Seven Samurai. Dir., Akira Kurosawa

Seven Samurai was not the first criterion in my collection, but it probably should have been. When I first watched this film–a loan from my library–I started to see my ignorance of cinema history clearly, without bias or defensiveness. If it had taken me this long to see Seven Samurai, there must be so many other films I was slow to discover.

A dear friend gifted me the criterion edition of the film. I watched the copy almost immediately, but then Seven Samurai remained on my bookshelf for years. If I had to guess why it took me so long to re-watch the film, I would say the simplicity of its plot is able to trick the person who has forgotten the details. Simplicity is not a bad thing, but when you forget particular images and only remember the story of samurai defending peasants against bandits, the reasons to return to Seven Samurai are hidden from your mind.

Being a samurai is hard work

The samurai film is forever linked with the western. Seven Samurai shows us that the American genre might not be able to translate everything. The easy part is substituting seven samurai with seven gunslingers; the harder part is compensating for the loss of Kurosawa’s curiosity about the physicality of being a samurai. They swing swords as cowboys draw pistols, but Kurosawa emphasizes how much a samurai needs to work, run, climb, build, run and run even more. Seiji Miyaguchi’s character, Kyūzō, is seemingly indefatigable, which is visually contrasted by the stillness of his face.

John Ford’s Stagecoach demonstrates that in the universe of the western, the cowboy is limited in physicality because he is the center that action revolves around. Even as the stagecoach barrels across the plains, the target of the camera is a crouching John Wayne; it is his attackers, indigenous warriors on horseback, that come in and out of frame by the acceleration of their horses. Parts of Seven Samurai show us what happens when bodies move in a universe with no fixity. Even with repeated shots of Kambei Shimada (played by Takashi Shimura) strategizing with a map of the village, the audience cannot assemble shots of huts, rivers and pathways into something logical. The samurai organize the space for themselves, but with a lot of hard work. In fact, Kurosawa gives a lot of the film’s running time to show us all of the human energy behind the plan to have bandits attack from just one direction.

Laughter in melodrama

Plenty of comedies are funny because nobody in the film laugh. It is good that nobody laughs because we need flawed characters to accept the ridiculous premises of a situation with absolute seriousness. This is Spinal Tap, for example, is funny because you are watching an unbelievably bad band dedicate itself to producing great rock ‘n roll. No member of band can see that it is their fate to always fail in embarrassing ways.

Parts of Seven Samurai are humorous and I would even guess some viewers would audibly chuckle at some of its bits. Interestingly, people in the world of Seven Samurai frequently laugh, particularly at the oddball behavior of Kikuchiyo, the ronin jester. This decision of Kurosawa–to let characters laugh when failure, trickery or buffoonery would be funny in the film’s internal world–is important to have the film carry emotional force. The decision works because it balances the darker sides of the melodrama.

I do not know if there is a definite point where Kurosawa’s use of humor would have gone too far and become cheap comic relief; but there might be a way to intuitively know Kurosawa achieved something masterful. Melodrama in film is a tricky balancing act, where so many little things can cheapen or kill the rousing of emotional feeling. Kurosawa shows that moments of sorrow or despair can actually be amplified when characters prefer the emotional states of joy and laughter to anger and sadness. The other samurai laugh at Kikuchiyo because they need an antidote to the cold structure of feudalism. In fact, laughter is a democratic wrecking-ball that breaks the social barriers between samurai and peasant.

This is not our victory

Kurosawa puts an exclamation point on his story by giving the cruelty of medieval Japan the last word in Seven Samurai. When the remaining samurai can only watch the celebration song of the peasants, the audience shares their feelings of exlcusion. In the last remaining minutes of a 207-minute epic, Kurosawa carefully lets the barriers of feudalism return to their repressive heights. Earlier in the film, villagers were rebuked for shamelessly begging for help at the feet of passing samurai; now, during the finale, nobody can imagine that samurai and peasant are equal.