influenced by hardboiled fiction and passing that influence on to spaghetti westerns, kurosawa's study of this rootless samurai is one of my favorites of all time. i actually composed a piece about it for another assignment just a couple of weeks ago. so, for once, instead of just hastily jotting down a few impressions i can give at least one of these films something closer to the response that they all deserve. here is what i had to say:
when you spend your life chasing after cinematic thrills there are certain inevitable regrets. invariably, one of the biggest is that you are a prisoner of the particular era you inhabit. it automatically relegates certain experiences to the realm of scholarship, rather than just going to the movies. there are certain things i am only ever going to be able to see as filtered through the mists of time. much like many other contributors and readers here, i would give my eye teeth to be able to have certain experiences first hand - to experience the seismic shifts from silents to talkies and from academy ratio to widescreen, regular saturday afternoon matinees, complete with cartoons, newsreels and serials, ten cent movie tickets, being knocked from complacency by the french and czech new waves, and on and on - my list, probably much like yours, is endless. this is not to say that there aren’t rewards for making discoveries the way i have. i think i belong to the very last generation that had to really dig, do the work, read/make ‘zines and haunt libraries and repertory houses to find these things. we were the last generation that came of age before the internet made everything instantly available, taking away some of the thrill of the hunt. it fostered in me a true appreciation for the entire experience - the reading about, the tracking down, the viewing of milestone films - to borrow from warren oates, those satisfactions are permanent. still, it doesn’t quell all of the envy i feel for the people that got to stand in line and buy that ticket in september of 1961 when yojimbo came to town.
yojimbo was the first film by akira kurosawa that i ever saw and it was revelatory for me, even on television. my old man, the first movie enthusiast i knew, loves the leone/eastwood films and by the time i was nearing adolescence we had already watched those together numerous times. little did i know, that was paving the way for kurosawa to come along and kick my ass. the leone films were already pretty exciting stuff, what with their gunfights, gold and alien landscape (alien to a kid in small town oklahoma, anyway). discovering kurosawa, and specifically yojimbo, though, was something altogether different and it taught me many a valuable lesson. it was a coming of age. just about every kid, for a little while at least, is possessed of the silly and romantic notion that their thing (whatever that thing is) is the first thing, the best thing. yojimbo may have been the first time i was made aware that there is nothing new under the sun - not in a discouraging way, mind you, but more in the sense that there is a much larger continuum out there that all art is a part of and, if it wasn’t already, my chase was now most definitely on.
the film itself, you’re probably all acquainted with. toshiro mifune’s samurai-with-no-name plays both ends against the middle in a deft jidaigeki mixture of high noon sagebrush, film noir rough stuff and feudal japanese class issues and swordplay. the result is a thrilling and cohesive whole that people are still ripping off/paying homage to today. the one thing that none of the predecessors or imitators have, though, is mifune. i had never seen anything like him. i still haven’t. the human face has fifty-odd muscles in it. that’s approximately 3 X 1064 possible facial expressions. mifune is the only person on earth whom i believe is capable of making them all. the story is riveting but it is his fierceness and vitality that make this film still fresh and exciting fifty years down the road. for all the windswept streets, mulberry fields and lonely roads, the most important topography is that face. that’s where the whole story plays out. it is what i couldn’t take my eyes off of as a youngster and it is the thing that is going to make it a powerhouse fifty years from now. all that political shrewdness, earthy humor, cynicism and almost surreal violence bound up in one man, still so raw and intense, so entertaining. i thank the heavens every day for what technology affords us now, as cinephiles. i marvel at the fact that (if it were my only option) i can watch yojimbo on my telephone. we are alive in such an incredible time that we have access to film, and the ramblings of other film lovers, in ways never imagined half a century ago, but oh, what i would have given to be in the audience in 1961. it must have been like a bomb going off.next, we go from japan to senegal by way of france with the first movie this week that was completely new to me, ousmane sembène's black girl (1966).
it is the story of diouana, a young senegalese girl who moves to france to continue on as governess for the wealthy white couple she worked for in dakar. prior to going, she dreams of leaving senegal behind for french shops and luxury, imagining her friends and family to be green with envy. her reality is a far different story, though. she soon figures out that the family was only really wealthy relative to most of the senegalese and now that they are back in france she is the only servant they can afford. she is cook and maid, as well as governess. her reality is the four rooms she works and lives in. no luxury, no shops, only what is essentially indentured servitude. as her spirit breaks, her white employers can only think to repeatedly ask her if she is ill, having no inkling of the psychological damage their manipulation is doing. theirs is the luxury of not having to care. they belong to the dominant class in this post-colonial setting and, as such, she is little more than property to them. her alienation and distress grows and when she can stand it no longer she commits suicide in their bathtub. it's an impressive work, born of desperation. it brought to mind a number of favorites of mine, either through tone or little bits of technique. i thought of how james whale had gloria stuart change clothes (the only character that does so) in the old dark house (1932) so that she looks like a white flame running up and down shadowy staircases, the one object we cannot look away from. sembène does a similar thing with mbissine thérèse diop here. once she arrives in france, she is immersed in nothing but sterile, light environments. her beautiful skin stands out in stark contrast with her surroundings, underlining both her isolation and the feeling that she has been institutionalized. the other filmmakers it brought to mind were american indies like john cassavetes, spike lee and jim jarmusch, specifically all of their first films. there is a lack of polish that they have in common that speaks to their absolute need to tell their stories, all feature films but shot with a raw documentary urgency. it's difficult enough in the u.s. to get films made. imagine how lacking in both filmmaking resources and infrastructure that senegal was in the mid-sixties. to get something like this done it had to be vital to you to tell this story. in that regard alone, it is something of a minor miracle, technically raw and rudimentary but rich with complex themes of post-colonial racism/slavery and alienation. this first new experience for me this week did not disappoint. it is a scant 56 minutes long but manages to be complicated and devastating all the same, provocative in a social context, inspiring in a creative one. excellent choice.
to end our day we go from antibes to suburban paris for our first entry in living color, jacques tati's magnificent mon oncle (1958).
perhaps more than any other filmmaker's work, tati's movies, for me, are just pure pleasure. tati's comedy, by way of his alter-ego monsieur hulot, gently appeals to the better angels of our nature and is so meticulously crafted as to look effortless. in this instance he plays the doting uncle of a nine year-old boy who lives with his rigid, status-hungry parents in a house that is a nightmare of modernity. they are consumed with consuming, slaves to their labor-saving devices and state of the art conveniences. hulot, with his awkward, halting gait, carefree wandering and ability to inadvertently turn the mundane into the exciting is the polar opposite of the boy's parents and provides him with a much-needed escape from their uninspired world. for the longest time, m. hulot's holiday (1953) was my favorite film of his, but i think as of this viewing mon oncle has edged into the lead. that is most likely due to the target of his affable satire this time around. focusing on the consumerism and materialism that was rapidly changing postwar france afforded him more opportunities to skewer the pompous while simultaneously incorporating a much wider range of the everyday rhythms of life into his comic routines than was possible in some of his other, more specific settings. as is common with tati's work, it is mostly free of dialogue. it absolutely does not depend on it. in its place you will find brilliant sound design built out of laughter, birdsong, snippets of conversation, neighborhood noises and the music of machinery. perhaps most importantly, he is still one of the most generous comedians i have ever seen. not every laugh has to revolve around him. peripheral characters get some of the best gags and his nephew's happiness is much more important than the execution of any piece of slapstick. we are just fortunate that he can do all of it at once. ultimately, his movies simply make me feel good. they are gently uncompromising, able to deflate our silly self-importance and the absurd things we cling to without making us feel badly about ourselves or sacrificing their own sense of wonder - a rare feat indeed. if i could live in tati's universe i feel like i would always be happy and content.
what a great note to end the day on. i think i will put it on again before moving on to the next film, hopefully fall asleep to it and dream tati dreams. properly rested, i will come out tomorrow with both guns blazing.
see you then!