Monday, November 22, 2010

The Ultimate Gin Martini: Bunuel Style

To provoke, or sustain, a reverie in a bar, you have to drink English gin, especially in the form of the dry martini. To be frank, given the primordial role played in my life by the dry martini, I think I really ought to give it at least a page. Like all cocktails, the martini, composed essentially of gin and a few drops of Noilly Prat, seems to have been an American invention. Connoisseurs who like their martinis very dry suggest simply allowing a ray of sunlight to shine through a bottle of Noilly Prat before it hits the bottle of gin. At a certain period in America it was said that the making of a dry martini should resemble the Immaculate Conception, for, as Saint Thomas Aquinas once noted, the generative power of the Holy Ghost pierced the Virgin’s hymen “like a ray of sunlight through a window-leaving it unbroken.”

Another crucial recommendation is that the ice be so cold and hard that it won’t melt, since nothing’s worse than a watery martini. For those who are still with me, let me give you my personal recipe, the fruit of long experimentation and guaranteed to produce perfect results. The day before your guests arrive, put all the ingredients-glasses, gin, and shaker-in the refrigerator. Use a thermometer to make sure the ice is about twenty degrees below zero (centigrade). Don’t take anything out until your friends arrive; then pour a few drops of Noilly Prat and half a demitasse spoon of Angostura bitters over the ice. Shake, then pour it out, keeping only the ice, which retains a faint taste of both. Then pour straight gin over the ice, shake it again, and serve.

(During the 1940s, the director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York taught me a curious variation. Instead of Angostura, he used a dash of Pernod. Frankly, it seemed heretical to me, but apparently it was only a fad.)

- Excerpted from My Last Sigh by Luis Bunuel, translated by Abigail Israel.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Wisdom Of Sam Fuller

On Filmmaking:
"Young writers and directors, seize your audience by the balls as soon as the credits hit the screen and hang on to them!"

"If the first scene doesn't give you a hard-on then throw the goddamn thing away."

"You wanna know how I make movies? I'll tell you. First I figure out what would be a good ending, and then I put it at the beginning. The rest comes after that."

On The Army:
"You wanna know what's so great about the infantry? I'll tell ya. The infantry's not stupid, that's what. Think how stupid the guy in the tank is - once he gets hit he's still gotta burn. And the guy in the boat - he's stupid 'cause once he gets hit he's still gotta drown. And the stupidest of all is the guy up in the plane - once he gets hit he's still gotta fall. But not the infantry! They get hit right on the ground. All the other guys have gotta die twice! TWICE!"

"Why do you think soldiers call themselves dogfaces? Easy! You wear a dog tag, you eat food out of a can, you live and sleep like a dog, you always die like a dog, forgotten and sprawled on the ground. Dogfaces called themselves what everybody thought of them anyway."

On America:
"Why do you suppose this country got so great? Was it the fact that we're separated by oceans from the older countries? And that's pretty goddamned unique, you know. But what about Mexico and Canada and South America? The oceans are right there, too.... This country's only 200 years old and what's the one thing we've got plenty of? LEGENDS! We're stuffed with'em. Bunyan! Pecos! Every goddamned kind of legend! And Europe - well, they don't have legends; they have myths. A myth is based on something that never existed. But a legend. that's different. A legend is based on a real person. And those real persons, what did they do? They reached for the sky! Grabbed at the clouds! Walked across water! Deserts! Mountains! It's the land, kid, the land that makes us great. Great! Get what I mean?"

"There's nothing wrong with the red, white and blue flavor. But those parades and the martial music and the speeches! They insult the dead. We should apologize to the dead! All that heroic stuff. How do you think that makes the guy who got his balls shot off, or his ear shot off, or his arm shot off or who's in the nut house feel? Like a freak, that's what!"

"Listen, we're living in a world where you have to belong to something, even if you're a loner. We can't go around being men without a country. That's no damned good. But we can't go around telling each other what to do either. That's what all that damned flag-waving is all about! You never see that up at the front. If you're there you don't need it. The more you go to the rear, the more the flags begin to fly. I don't like those goddamned flags waved in my face."

"Politicians have always been crooks. Throughout our history, believe me. But there's a certain kind of thief, like a Jimmy Walker when he was the mayor of New York, or a Boss Tweed in the Civil War, who says, "Why certainly I stole 22 million dollars. But I only kept six. Didn't I spend the rest for churches, goddamned bridges and schools and orphan asylums and good, healthy, clean, spacious whorehouses? Didn't I?" We like them. We don't like the group that's been in control the last few years. Our politicians now are cheap. Little men, little men! I hate petty people representing this great goddamned country!"

On Money:
"You gotta be drunk to enjoy it. I mean it. Buy the finest cognac, go out and spend it. That's the only way to live with it."

"Getting the money to make the picture - that's the top of the hill you gotta take. The rest is easy."

On Life:
"The joy of working for an idea - that's the joy of living."

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Houzhe (To Live) 1994

What makes a masterpiece? What moves us in a work to elicit almost a religious fervor in our very souls? Watching Zhang Yimou’s Houzhe (To Live) it never ceases to amaze me how much more I discover within the work. The film is neither wholly dramatic, comic, propaganda, nor documentary; it inhabits all these worlds and yet judging Houzhe (To Live) by old standards can’t get to the heart of why the work is so special. During my first viewing of the film, many years ago, I was drawn to the epic nature of the film. Yet after repeated viewings one comes to realize that although the movie covers the span of several decades it is a familiar story about simple down to earth people trying to live simple quiet lives. Important historical events pass by on the screen, but Zhang contextualizes them. He avoids expressing static truths of what the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution was about by populating Houzhe (To Live) with real characters not just mouthpieces to spout well-worn ideologies or simplistic hero/villain roles that reduces events into cliché plot contrivances.

The film tracks the lives of Xu Fugui (Ge You) and his wife Jiazhen (Gong Li) at the start of the 1940’s, just as the rumblings of Communism were about to spill over into Civil War, all the way through the upheaval of the Cultural Revolution. At the start of the film Xu Fugui is the son of a rich landowner, but his appetite for gambling soon leaves him homeless and without his wife and children. Left alone he must make a living selling wares like a common street vendor and this existence quickly humbles him. Jiazhen soon returns to him, mainly out of love but also pity for what has become of her once arrogant husband, and he makes a simple promise to her; never to gamble again and to offer her the simple quiet life she wants. With his family back to him though Fugui must now find a way to support all of them and he comes begging to Long’er, the man who won all of Fugui’s money and mansion, for a loan. Long’er, smug and relishing the power he holds over a man like Fugui, denies him the money he wants and instead loans him the puppets from the shadow puppet troupe he ran before becoming a wealthy landowner. Assembling his own troupe Fugui travels the countryside playing for whatever audience he can attract, but through sheer bad luck is captured and conscripted into the Kuomintang army. Throughout the film Fugui and Jiazhen are allowed brief moments of genuine happiness, but this happiness is always tempered with the sad facts of life. Those we love inevitably die, friends betray us, and the world is indifferent to the sorrows of common folk.

It is a well-worn fact that Houzhe (To Live) was banned in China during its initial release and the director, Zhang Yimou, was himself banned from filmmaking for 2 years. The film’s critical eye towards the policies of the Communist regime doesn’t make the film a typical run of the mill Anti-Communist propaganda. Communism is at the heart of the narrative structure. One can’t watch a single frame of the film without noticing Mao’s face, Communist Party propaganda and imagery, and even the color red is present in every shot of Houzhe (To Live). Yet instead of taking a hindsight approach to his characters; e.g. looking down upon them for being clueless as to the end results of their allegiance to the Communists, Zhang focuses on his characters; their lives, motivations; in short he allows us a peek into their souls. Fugui and Jiazhen initially follow the Communists not so much because of a diehard belief in their rhetoric and policies, but because they promised them a better life. Those caught up in the winds of important historical events are never aware of the great changes that will follow. No one thinks in such a grand scale; the common man is concerned with the simple necessities in life that will allow him to continue living on for another day. Zhang paints Communism’s attraction not as some holy crusade to wash away the dirt of Capitalism, but as a stepping-stone in China’s history towards better more promising times. Whether it be a Communist regime or Capitalist rule Fugui and Jiazhen will be faced with the same hardships. No ideology can offer anyone blanket security.

Gong Li, Zhang’s muse, embodies the pragmatism that many Chinese had once the Communists took power. Her character, Jiazhen, understands better even than her husband that blind allegiance to any party is a sign of hubris. Time and again she sees clearly while all the other people around her, mostly men, are too blind to see; ideology is spoiled through human practice. The price for China’s progress costs her the life of her only son and daughter. She weeps for them, but it is only after the fact that her husband finally loses his enthusiasm for all the empty promises Communism was supposed to bring. In the film we watch Gong’s face go from sweet and lovely to maturing into a grey-haired matronly grandmother; she has lost none of her beauty but wisdom from experience has taught her to not expect much from this life.

Ge You, who rightfully won the Best Actor prize for the 1994 Cannes Film festival, is not merely a cipher for the plot. Although he is supposed to embody the everyman who is living and witnessing the great upheavals in China’s past, the scenes he’s in have a freshness, a of-the-moment quality, and his understated performance lends the film a documentary feeling. Fugui’s humbling and reformation from a gambling louse to devoted family man is believable not because of melodramatic plot machinations but because Ge plays Fugui as a man who is a victim of mob mentality. His wife begs him to keep his promise to not gamble but instead of listening to her he continues playing, not wanting to lose face to the other players in the gambling den. He humiliates his young son, Youqing, at the community canteen and is directly responsible for his later death because he is afraid the town will ostracize and label them as reactionaries and enemies of the state. And finally his daughter, Fengxia, is a victim of Fugui’s passivity; she is fated to die because no one is willing to question the Red Guards extremist policies. As Fengxia bleeds to death, the color red that up to that point in the film represented Communism’s Great Leap Forward into the 21st century now comes to be a metaphor for what China’s lost as it pushes its people into the future.

With all this said though Houzhe (To Live) is not a completely dour dramatic exercise. Zhang peppers the film with subtle comic moments, like when the village chief recounts how his family home had been set ablaze and burned for several days because Fugui’s house was constructed from first-rate timber. Or when Long’er, Fugui’s opponent from his gambling days, is sentenced to death. We are not privy to the actual execution but are instead given a scene of Fugui scrambling around the back alleys looking for a place to pee; the sound of gun shots from the firing squad are juxtaposed with an image of Fugui, his back turned to us, literally pissing himself, as if the bullets were really piercing him. What could have been a moment of divine justice is played for laughs; the great irony being that if not for Fugui’s bad luck it would have been him facing the firing squad and not Long’er.

Besides the prevalence of Mao imagery and Communist paraphernalia the other visual motif used throughout the film are the shadow puppets. They represent different things at various times in the film but overall I believe that ultimately they represent vitality and hope. The shadow puppets allow Fugui a way to make a living and support his family. The puppet troupe plays to the steel workers and the town makes their quota for the month. There is a genuine look of satisfaction and enjoyment in Fugui’s face as he performs for people. Although the Communist party may look at the puppets as representative of the old guard, what they really mean to the townsfolk and Fugui’s family specifically is that they are vestigial reminders of a once happier time.

Houzhe (To Live) in my humble opinion is a masterpiece because although the film does offer audiences a positive message, to continue living and not let the many tragedies in your life cripple you, it does this honestly through its characters. Zhang Yimou never forgets that history is not something that is already dead and can be studied like a corpse; the past is alive and if we are to learn from it we must turn to the people who went through it and not just to textbooks which relay mostly just static truths and broad general perspectives. Ultimately what makes me return to Houzhe (To Live) is that it paints life as not something wholly wonderful or wholly tragic it merely just is; to survive we must take the bitter with the sweet.

Monday, October 4, 2010

The Social Network (2010)

It’s not easy coming up with the next big thing. To have one’s pulse on what will capture everyone’s attention is a Sisyphean task and most of the time those responsible for unleashing those generation defining moments or icons can never truly predict what they will unleash onto the world once they lift open the lid to Pandora’s box. David Fincher’s The Social Network isn’t just a film about how Facebook began, but really the fallout after its birth, not just for the people involved in its creation but also for those who depend on it to connect and define their lives.
Fincher’s film is not your average paint-by-numbers biopic though, it borrows liberally from the crime genre, utilizes the tropes of the courtroom drama, feels like a period picture, and, at times, plays like a comedy. Facebook maybe the subject of the story but the film plays more like a Greek tragedy, a retelling of the story of King Midas in a contemporary setting. As I watched this film unfold I couldn’t help making parallels with another tragic rise-and-fall narrative, Citizen Kane. Now I don’t mean to state that both films are on equal footing with one another; only time and cinematic history can pass final judgment on The Social Network, but both films are based on real people and real events. Citizen Kane being a thinly veiled examination of the life of William Randolph Hearst and The Social Network being a dissection into the psyche of Facebook’s brainchild, Mark Zuckerberg. Both Charles Foster Kane and Mark Zuckerberg are men who’ve made a name for themselves in the media industry, both suffer from massive egos, and both have an almost pathological disregard for the feelings of anyone who gets in the way of their progress. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Fincher structures the story not as one mega-narrative but as a series of mini-stories told from multiple conflicting perspectives. In Citizen Kane, Welles uses the narrative device of the inquisitive news reporter, played by William Alland, to frame all the discordant stories together, whereas Fincher frames his film as a series of depositions from a variety of characters during 2 concurrent lawsuits being filed against the main protagonist.
And Fincher even grants Zuckerberg his own Rosebud in the form of a woman, Erica Albright, who we first meet in the opening scene as she emotionally eviscerates Zuckerberg for his arrogance and complete lack of tact. Like the sled in Citizen Kane we don’t really get to know much about Erica Albright; in fact the total amount of screentime she has probably doesn’t amount to more than 10 minutes; but her presence in the film can be felt in every scene. The humiliation Mark feels after Erica dumps him at the start of the film sends him on a drunken stupor that propels him to develop “Face Mash”, a progenitor to Facebook. Her second appearance occurs right after Mark’s sexual encounter with a “groupie”. While waiting for his date to finish freshening up in the bathroom he spots Erica at a table with some friends. Mark approaches in an attempt to try to talk to her, she rebuffs him for obvious reasons, but instead of offering some sort of apology for what he’s done he asks her if she’s heard about Facebook. Erica could care less about his creation and Mark leaves dejected and determined to expand Facebook till he gets the acknowledgement that he so longs for from her. Erica’s acknowledgement plays such a large role in motivating Mark to expand into more and more territory that we feel a pang of sadness for him in the very last scene of the film, alone, waiting for Erica to respond to his friend request; hitting refresh every few seconds to mark the passage of time.
Zuckerberg’s non-relationship with Erica and his desire to be connected to her in some way is exactly why Facebook caught on so quickly with Generation Y. We all crave attention, love, and acknowledgement. Facebook offers all that join a quick fix to that gnawing sense of loneliness. It is a community to belong to, and it allows us to quantify a person’s worth through the number of friends they have, experiences they document, likes and interests, and in short it reduces the individual to a few static truths. We are allowed a window into someone else’s life without having to get involved in the messy details of a real friendship. The philosophical riddle is no longer “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” Now it has evolved into: “Are the experiences we don’t tweet, blog about, or put on our Facebook Wall any less important just because we don’t share them with an audience?”
Jesse Eisenberg’s portrayal of Zuckerberg echoes other borderline misanthropic geniuses found in TV shows like House and The Big Bang Theory, in fact just like those TV characters Zuckerberg also exhibits signs of Asperger’s syndrome. The main difference though is that whereas those characters rely primarily on simple motor tics to convey comedy or pathos Eisenberg’s performance is so nuanced that one can’t always tell what the character is thinking or feeling. This is not necessarily a bad thing. By allowing the viewer to transplant his or her own impressions of what could be going on in Zuckerberg’s brain the audience is forced to pay attention to all the other more emotionally expressive characters around him. In a way Zuckerberg is literally Facebook personified; we know only as much as what other people tell us about him, but we never get to know his true self. The only time we see a real crack in Zuckerberg’s façade is towards the end when he finally realizes that he’s irreparably damaged the one real friendship he does have in the non-virtual world. His friendship with Eduardo Saverin was fated to end badly as soon as they became business partners and I don’t think it’s such a leap to state that the relationship between Zuckerberg and Saverin was like a romance that soured after the introduction of success and power.
As brilliant as Jesse Eisenberg’s performance is a majority of the credit must be given to David Fincher’s direction; he builds on the films he’s directed previously and gives us a cinematic masterpiece that straddles a panoply of genres. The first half of the film seems almost like a crime picture, and one is reminded of an earlier Fincher film, Zodiac, in the meticulous and unobtrusive way that Fincher presents all the evidence in the case. Zuckerberg and his team of code programmers are elevated to the level of master criminals; thumbing there noses at the Elite of Harvard. In fact, Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay, adapted from Ben Mezrich’s book The Accidental Billionaires, paints Zuckerberg and co. as a much more benign version of “Project Mayhem”, the anti- corporate terrorist group in Fincher’s 1999 film Fight Club. Just like “Project Mayhem” Zuckerberg and his friends are out to topple the established social class system, but whereas “Project Mayhem” planned to accomplish this by destroying the facilities that housed everyone’s records; offering everyone a clean slate from which to build an entire new life from. Facebook attempts to accomplish the same thing by giving the user the ability to edit and control one’s own persona; in short “Project Mayhem” believed the destruction of information led to empowerment whereas in The Social Network it is all about having control of the information/image that you convey to the outside/virtual world that matters. The invention of Facebook was so revolutionary because it gave, practically overnight, every wallflower and milquetoast a platform to stand tall on; for once the cool kids didn’t hold all the power.
The second half of the film begins with the introduction of Sean Parker, played by Justin Timberlake. Parker stands as the complete antithesis of Zuckerberg. Parker revels in the bad-boy reputation that he’s cultivated and becomes Zuckerberg’s de-facto mentor; a Gordon Gekko to Zuckerberg’s Bud Fox. And it’s important to note that although Parker’s paranoia may seem like the ranting's of a mad man they are not completely unfounded. Although we are never a hundred percent sure if anyone is really out to get him, it is no stretch of the imagination for the audience to believe that Parker could be a target for surveillance or subterfuge with the way he so easily makes enemies. In fact, his fears are rather quite prescient. With the advent of Facebook came a flood of other sites and applications that make accounting for a person’s every movement as easy as clicking on a mouse pad.
The Social Network is ultimately a film about how mechanical communication has become. Generation Y has been categorized as a generation of spoiled, apathetic, and self-important kids who are still grasping for some meaning and cause to galvanize us as a group. Yet David Fincher’s film accurately shows that the collective does not exist anymore. Just as previous generations before us could not be judged by the standards of the older generation; Generation Y cannot be measured against the flaws and accomplishments of our parent’s generation. Facebook may have trivialized the concept of friendship but whose to say that the connections we make there aren’t any more valid then the ones we make through random encounters on the street or in a café. It is quite ironic that the last shot of the film is of Mark Zuckerberg, the man responsible for creating the most successful social networking site, alone and without a real friend to call his own preoccupied with getting a single friend confirmation. That is the great tragedy in the story; Facebook was supposed to help us feel loved and welcomed into a special group, but instead it created an even bigger gaping hole in our lives. Creating real friendships takes time and a lot of hard work but they can be demolished in an instant through neglect and petty jealousies. The Social Network is a parable for anyone who has ever spent a restless night online waiting and hoping to make some sort of contact, no matter how transitory, with somebody that we care about.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Suspicion (1941)

For aficionados of the mystery genre and, more specifically, fans of the Master of Suspense Suspicion has been written off as a compromised masterpiece. The film is brimming with several iconic shots and memorable scenes, but many complain that the story and characters have been watered down to please those with sensitive cinematic palettes. The film’s detractors cite how the adapted screenplay is drained of the menace and complex psychological dissection of victim mentality that was readily present in the source novel. Yet even if that were the case they have overlooked that the compromised final scene of the film offers a more ambiguous resolution to the plot, not to mention the fact that the entire film is a wonderful study in the use of suspense in narrative storytelling.

In 1932 the English author, Anthony Berkeley, writing under the pen name of Frances Iles published the novel Before The Fact. When released, the critics labeled the book as an experimental exercise. Unlike previous mystery novels that employed a whodunit plot structure Berkeley wasted no time in explicating who the villain is in the piece. And unlike many English mystery novels of that day, the murderer is never caught and the story ends on a somber note.

To adapt the novel into a workable screenplay Hitchcock looked to his personal assistant, Joan Harrison, his wife, Alma Reville, and the screenwriter Samson Raphaelson. And as for the two leads he cast Joan Fontaine, who had previously starred in Hitchcock’s Rebecca, and Cary Grant, his first role in a Hitchcock picture. Many people going in to see the film for the first time, with only the movie poster as a frame of reference, make the common mistake in thinking that Cary Grant is the main protagonist in the story, but as in the novel the film is a study of a sheltered and lonely woman preyed upon by a penniless playboy.

Hitchcock’s first great masterstroke in this film is the way he structures the story from the viewpoint of a woman, Lina McLaidlaw. The narrative never strays away from her, and so we only see what she sees and know no more than she does. With this technique Hitchcock is able to keep audiences actively involved in the story. The Master of Suspense was so fond of this technique that he returned to it more than a decade later during production of Rear Window.

Lina, played marvelously by Joan Fontaine, is a psychologically complex individual. She is a meek dowdy bookworm who has been written off for spinsterhood by her own parents, and yet she has a definite desire to break out of her comfortable cage. The way Hitchcock and his collaborators introduce us to her reveals the central contradiction in her character from which all the drama in the story hinges on. To put it simply, the comfort and security Lina feels from her mundane and ordinary life has robbed her of all emotional excitement.

It’s no coincidence that in the film Lina is inextricably linked to the sport of horseback riding. This seemingly inconsequential character detail goes a long way to explaining her attraction to Johnnie Aysgarth, played by Cary Grant. Horseback riding, an activity associated with the upper class, is a sport that depends on the rider’s ability to break and train a potentially dangerous animal to obey whatever commands they are given. Thus a major attraction Lina sees in being with Johnnie is the challenge of domesticating him. Hitchcock hints at this at the start of the film by having Johnnie and Lina first meet in a cramped train car, a makeshift womb, with Johnnie the playboy, hung over, trying to con Lina to pay for his train fare and Lina, her glasses wrapped tightly on her face, clutching a book on child psychology. In effect Lina’s motivation in engaging Johnnie in a relationship is not based predominantly on a sexual attraction to him but an unhealthy motherly attachment to him. Lina McLaidlaw belongs to the long line of emotionally dependent mother figures in Hitchcock’s repertory, alongside such notables as Madame Anna Sebastian in Notorious and Norma Bates in Psycho. The only main difference being that Lina is a tragic heroine while Madame Sebastian and Norma Bates belong to the castrating female archetype found in literature and film.

Evidence of Lina’s maternal attraction to Johnnie can be seen in how she never reprimands him for gambling away her money, selling her family heirlooms, and even embezzling money from his boss. She deals with Johnnie like a frustrated mother would treat her teenage child. She doesn’t scold him, but rather patiently waits for him to do the right thing, which in her heart of hearts she knows he is capable of doing. And when he is giving her more trouble than she can bear she comforts herself with the belief that he’ll grow out of it.

Whereas popular interpretation of the Johnnie and Lina relationship has most often been reduced to a victim/victimizer co-dependency. That overt simplification does not take into account Lina’s self-awareness from the start of the film to the type of man Johnnie really is. Her marriage to Johnnie, besides being motivated by a misplaced belief in her ability to reform him, is also her only means of rebellion against her parents and the stifling upper class community that she came from. An upper class community whose hypocrisy allows them to tolerate men like Johnnie Aysgarth primarily because they have the luxury of running back to their mansions and servants when the perceived danger and excitement that comes from associating with him becomes far too much to bear. Lina’s relationship with Johnnie may not be all that healthy, but it is far healthier than everyone else’s prurient fascination with him.

Cary Grant’s portrayal of Johnnie Aysgarth is reminiscent of Grant’s screwball comedy work in films like His Girl Friday, Bringing Up Baby, and The Philadelphia Story. In fact, if you remove all mention of murder in the plot then this could have passed for a very cutting and satirical comedy. The banter that Grant fires at Lina and practically everyone that dares engage him in conversation is laced with such acidic wit that if it came out of an actor that didn’t have the kind of charm and sophistication that Grant exudes then the film would crumble under the weight of all the melodrama. By subverting the audience’s expectations of what a “Cary Grant picture” means Hitchcock calls attention to the audiences Pavlovian response to specific actors within the star system, and also just how cookie cutter Hollywood’s Dream Factory really is.

Unlike the novel, the central question in the film is whether Johnnie is merely a harmless rogue or a cold-blooded murderer. One viewing of the film will leave no doubt for most viewers of Johnnie Aysgarth’s guilt, but by never saying outright that Johnnie is guilty or innocent creates an anxiety for the audience. As caustic as Johnnie may be we, the viewer, still love him and dare not think of him as a murderer. This is mainly due in part to the audience’s attachment to the Cary Grant persona. The evidence is freely available for us to review and as much as we care not to believe it our idols are susceptible to the same dark urges we all face.

So with all this said, does the film’s ending work or does it make Suspicion one of Alfred Hitchcock’s compromised masterpieces? Personally I find the ending appropriate. Lina, the audience surrogate, knows Johnnie is a murderer but so in love is she with him that she would rather die by his hands then live her life without him. Hitchcock was the Master of Suspense because he understood human psychology. What scares us to death are not werewolves, vampires, or ghosts. What arouses real panic within our hearts is the fear that those we love want to do great harm to us.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Gendai Yakuza: Hito-kiri Yota (Street Mobster) 1972

Ever since the advent of cinema filmmakers and the film going public have been complicit in elevating the gangster archetype to near mythic proportions. As far back as Edwin S. Porter’s 1903 classic American Western The Great Train Robbery all the way down to David Chase’s magnum opus The Sopranos, society has had a deep and almost parasitic relationship with gangsters and outlaws. Although we as a society value law and order above chaos and anarchy we all occasionally fantasize about letting it all go so that we can entertain our darker appetites. The American gangster film allows the movie going public to scratch an itch that would nonetheless end in either death or jail for anyone who dared attempt to challenge the status quo. We project ourselves onto the gangsters and outlaws we see on the screen and although we may sympathize with the protagonist, the audience does get a cheap thrill as they watch the outlaw hero meet there bloody demise. American audiences may love their rebels, but order must be kept and the status quo must not be irreparably damaged. In effect the gangster figure is worshipped more for the image it projects rather than the reality it inhabits.
Japanese filmmaker Kinji Fukasaku is a figure in cinema that could never be accused of valuing surface image above reality. In the 1960’s and 70’s he made a series of jitsuroku-eiga, documentary style yakuza stories, beginning in 1964 with Okami to buta to ningen (Wolves, Pigs and Men) and culminating with Hokuriku dairi senso (Hokuriku Proxy War) in 1977. During this 13 year stretch Fukasaku confronted, attacked, and demolished the image of the stalwart yakuza protagonist. His films were populated not with knight-errants on a mission to cleanse the streets; in fact his heroes were usually the villains you would find in earlier ninkyo-eiga. The Fukasaku protagonist was part of Japan’s forgotten class during the nation’s postwar economic boom. Suffering through Japan’s defeat in the Second World War and having to deal with the humiliation brought about through the Occupation the Fukasaku protagonist helped rebuild the nation’s economic infrastructure after the war but never got to share in its wealth.

Gendai Yakuza: Hito-kiri Yota (Street Mobster) was already part of a successful film franchise before Kinji Fukasaku had stepped into the director’s chair in 1972. The Gendai Yazuza (Modern Yakuza) series began in 1969 as an attempt by Toei Studios to reinvigorate the flailing yakuza genre by offering audiences gripping stories of postwar gang life. Each of the films in the series starred model turned actor Bunta Sugawara, a man who would become a major collaborator in Fukasaku’s films. For their first collaboration though Sugawara would step into the role of Isamu Okita, a low ranking thug in the city of Kawasaki. And as a way to distinguish his entry into the Gendai Yakuza (Modern Yakuza) series Fukasaku focused less on the dichotomy between giri and ninjo and more on the hypocrisy of everyday life in postwar Japan seen through the lens of a gritty crime drama. By devoting his film to telling the story of a chinpira, a petty street thug with no real power and no immediate affiliation to a specific clan, Fukasaku is indirectly declaring his allegiance not to the status quo but with the forgotten casualties during Japan’s race towards economic prosperity.
Bunta Sugawara’s portrayal of Okita, cinematically speaking, is a character that has one foot firmly planted in the past, harkening back to James Cagney’s bravura performance as Tom Powers in The Public Enemy, and the other foot pointed towards the future, specifically with contemporary gangster classics like Goodfellas and The Sopranos. Although the Japanese yakuza and American gangster exist in two separate worlds, with each group having their own distinct codes and rituals, both sub-cultures do require their members to sever their ties to legitimate society and pledge loyalty to their respective bosses. Okita overturns that tradition though by having no affiliation at all to anyone but himself. His personal philosophy can be summed up by a quote lifted directly from the film’s third act when, in an attempt to rally his gang together and continue fighting Okita bluntly points out that “Once a dog learns the taste of defeat, it never bites again.” This statement perfectly encapsulates the type of man Okita really is. In fact at the start of the film during one of Fukasaku’s signature photomontage sequences Okita, in voiceover narration, informs us that he was born on August 15, 1945, the day Japan lost the war. And anyone who’s seen a fair share of Fukasaku’s oeuvre can attest to just how important Japan’s defeat in the Second World War and the country’s subsequent Occupation figures into Fukasaku’s cinema. Films like the Jingi Naki Tatakai (Battles Without Honor and Humanity) series, Kimi ga Wakamono Nara (If You Were Young: Rage), Gunki Hatameku Motoni (Under the Flag of the Rising Sun) and Jingi no Hakaba (Graveyard of Honor) all deal, in varying capacity, with the atrocities perpetuated by the Japanese during the Second World War and the fallout after the country’s defeat.

In many ways Okita is the prototypical Fukasaku protagonist. Not just because the actor playing him, Bunta Sugawara, would become synonymous with the jitsuroku-eiga genre that Fukasaku had helped establish, but because like all Fukasaku protagonists Okita is an angry young man lashing out at a society that would rather sweep all of its social problems under the rug rather than deal with them. Just as Cagney’s Tom Powers clawed his way out of the immigrant ghetto slums through the use of brute violence Okita also sees no other way to get what he wants except through intimidation and force. The main difference though between Cagney’s Prohibition-era antihero and Sugawara’s postwar outlaw is that The Public Enemy was a social commentary film made to attack the American government’s ridiculous attempt to curb alcohol consumption within its borders. The film accomplished this task by having a charming and likable actor portraying a psychopathic criminal that represented all the violence, corruption, and death that Prohibition wrought on the entire country. Thus American audiences were in a constant state of flux, between attraction and revulsion, whenever Tom Powers appeared on the screen. Okita, on the other hand, is a character that from the beginning we have no empathy for. He is a rapist, murderer, and bully with no real definitive motive for his actions. Even when Okita gets the support of the Yato gang and is rewarded with some territory to control he grows uneasy with having to kowtow to another authority figure. This anxiety and listlessness within Okita’s personality seems only to subside when he’s fighting, and the root of all of this pent-up aggression can be seen as stemming from the moment of his birth; the day Japan lost the war.
The environment that Okita was born into was that of a defeated and starving country. And for many Japanese this traumatic event in their country’s history had not yet been fully dealt with; rather the issues of war crimes and the black-market days of the Occupation were things better left forgotten. Having been unable to fight in a war that would ultimately have a great influence on his own life; Okita’s belligerent attitude to any authority figure other than himself can be seen as a reaction to the new order in Japanese society which valued money over honor and survival over friendship. If Fukasaku’s later film, Jingi no Hakaba (Graveyard of Honor), was an attempt by the director to explore the psychopathology of the yakuza protagonist and the Jingi Naki Tatakai (Battles Without Honor and Humanity) series was an allegory for the geopolitical machinations going on not only in Japan but the entire world from the 1940’s all the way through the 1970’s then Gendai Yakuza: Hito-kiri Yota (Street Mobster) can be seen as an examination of the damaged Japanese psyche after the war as it dealt with the slow death of traditional values and the rise of Westernization.

The embodiment of this new Japan would have to be Boss Yato, played by reformed yakuza turned actor Noboru Ando. He is a man that, by his own admission, was just like Okita: angry, violent, and hungry for power. The main difference though between the both of them is that Yato has found a way to reconcile his personality with the new corporate sensibility brewing in Japan. Although Boss Yato does save Okita from the Takigawa clan on two separate occasions; the second time occurring after Okita suffers from an almost fatal gunshot wound; he is not really the stoic yakuza boss we believe him to be. The Yato clan’s alliance with Okita is predicated on the belief that the hotheaded Okita’s natural disposition towards trouble will result in the Takigawa clan’s dissolution. Thus, all of Yato’s altruism is really just a mask to hide his desire to take over the Kawasaki underworld. This is a recurring theme in many of Fukasaku’s jitsuroku-eiga; those at the top, in the case of Gendai Yakuza: Hito-kiri Yota (Street Mobster) that would be Boss Yato, use those at the bottom of the social ladder, specifically Okita and his punk gang of chinpira, to fight proxy wars for them. And when the battle is over and the dust finally clears there are no memorials for those who fought on either side; those who died will most likely be forgotten; the only evidence that they ever existed being a few charred photos, their names etched into a concrete wall, and a dark red stain on the ground.
Of course not everything in Fukasaku’s films is completely pessimistic. His treatment of male-female relationships is refreshing in that he doesn’t reduce the female “love interest” into the cliché role of girl-next-door or femme fatale. Instead, he creates female characters that are products of their environment not just their gender roles. Okita and Kimiyo are a fairly typical Fukasaku couple, their relationship hinging primarily on a victim-victimizer mentality. Kimiyo’s narrative arc begins with her as a victim of a brutal rape, coincidentally perpetrated by a gang of thugs that included Okita, after which her rapists sold her into prostitution. Her reunion with Okita finds her jaded and resigned to her lot in life and for the most part she has made the best of a very bad situation. It is only after she recognizes who Okita really is that her fire and spirit returns and she slashes at Okita with her pocket switchblade. Her hatred and indignation have finally boiled over, but when she finally confronts her attacker, in the abandoned building where she was dragged into and raped no less, she abandons her ideas for revenge. Kimiyo, confronted with the man who raped her and in the very place she was raped, has a quiet epiphany; anger and hatred just begets more anger and hatred. Instead of attacking, Kimiyo seduces Okita. And by having sex with Okita in the very spot where she was raped Kimiyo is reliving the trauma of her rape except this time she has the control; being both the initiator of the act and the object of Okita’s desire. Of course this doesn’t mean that Kimiyo and Okita live happily ever after. There is just too much stacked against Okita for him to ever have anything more than a few intimate moments with Kimiyo, but within those moments that he shares with her we are privy to the last dying embers of a man’s humanity.

Ultimately though what keeps cinephiles returning to Fukasaku’s films is his ability to marry avant-garde film techniques with tried and true genre conventions, and in the process creates, for the viewer, a visceral experience. When talking about Fukasaku’s work, especially his jitsuroku-eiga, it’s important to note how vital the documentary aesthetic plays in the visual style of his films. Gendai Yakuza: Hito-kiri Yota (Street Mobster) was shot on location in the city of Kawasaki and Fukasaku’s decision to not be studio bound allows audiences to get a sense of the world that Fukasaku is building within the film. In fact, there is a very newsreel like quality when watching many of his yakuza films, as if the viewer were tuning in to watch a broadcast news piece rather then a movie. Of course that’s not to say that Fukasaku’s style hinges on a detached objective viewpoint. You may not have any empathy for the people in his films but there is no shortage of pathos that an audience can feel for the disenfranchised masses that Fukasaku regularly sides with. Even though he castigates his yakuza characters for being cruel and cowardly he does imbue them with enough humanity to keep his protagonists from devolving completely into archetypical genre behavior. Just as Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets was a film about what that director saw on a day-to-day basis in his neighborhood in Little Italy, Gendai Yakuza: Hito-kiri Yota (Street Mobster) translated Fukasaku’s visual and aural experiences during the Postwar period into a bleak cinematic document of a time when innocent lives were blindly sacrificed to fuel an entire country’s economic growth. In Kinji Fukasaku’s films violence is not there just to titillate the audience; it exists because when you strip a person of love, compassion, and the everyday comforts we take for granted they will inevitably revert into something akin to a feral dog; vicious, territorial, and remorseless pack hunters. Sadly, as the have-nots grow to outnumber the haves Fukasaku’s films prove not just to be groundbreaking genre works but a prescient indictment of consumerism, capitalism, and political corruption.