16.6.19

13 Assassins

Miike is only partly teasing when he says he wants 13 Assassins – best known for an exceedingly bloody 45 minute final faceoff between the titular thirteen and an army of 200 – to be viewed as a family film. The spectacle is great, but Miike and the writer (Audition and The Eel's Daisuke Tengan) are more concerned about the character drama that precedes it. There's a big emphasis on staying true to the original film, and the period detail – particularly the more ornate language spoken by the samurai.


The film begins with a slow scene of a lord committing hara-kiri, and its prevailing interest is in the sacrifices these men go through in order to remain true to their sense of self-worth and protect the values of their class. Miike wants to honour the rigours of doing your duty, but he also undercuts this with his decision of who survives the final massacre – the wastrel gambling nephew and a freewheeling Jack Sparrow-esque hunter who finds all these lords and their retainers ridiculous. Before he dies, the hero of the film describes being a samurai as a burden. The two survivors choose to lift it from their shoulders – pursuing women and the good life abroad or in the margins of society. It's an individualistic attitude totally at odds with the grim loyalty to lord and country of the older generation.


The film ends with a grin from the gambler looking forward to future pleasures, before the titles inform us that 23 years later the Shogunate fell and the modern Meiji era began. Miike is careful to leave the ending open to multiple interpretations, but I suspect his overriding attitude is to pay tribute to but to also break down the psychological fetters of Japanese feudalism, and remind the audience to be grateful that they live in more liberal times.

The Warriors

"There really isn't a lot to think about so keep it moving, keep it moving" was the instruction the director Walter Hill gave to his editor when cutting the film. That's slightly unfair on Hill's part. The story, taken from a pulp novel the producer found without a cover in a second-hand bookstore, is a retelling of Xenophon's Anabasis using New York gangs. Inadvertently it illustrates quite well the recent (and persuasive) theory of state-creation as a glorified form of protection racket – the earliest politicians extorting tribute in exchange for defending you from rival chiefs. The film begins with the biggest gang-leader Cyrus attempting to unite the other gangs to take over the city – showcasing the next stage of state-development where one emerges to rule them all and win the game of thrones.


The film got into trouble when it was released. Violence broke out in some screenings, leading the producers to pull advertising. Hill suggests that the subject matter may have attracted rival gangs into cinemas, which sparked scuffles. The film certainly doesn't try to moralise about the activities the characters get up to – the young men (and it is mostly men) are products of an environment that doesn't provide alternative avenues for respectability and success.

This is illustrated most effectively by the major female character in the film, who is attracted to the war chief of the Warriors gang to the point of abandoning her previous gang affiliation. Mercy isn't treated particularly well by any of the men around her – sexually harassed, insulted and dragged around against her will. But she is the only one who articulates the hopelessness of the neighbourhood she grew up in, and the attraction of escaping to somewhere, anywhere, else – even if that involves the risk of violence and death.


So there are things to think about, but Walter Hill isn't wrong in emphasising the propulsive nature of the film. The director's cut makes the comic book-inspired style of the story explicit – where the violence of the city is displaced by flamboyant gang colour costumes, outrageous personalities and a slipstream science fiction aesthetic. The director of photography does some amazing work around the underground train stations to make them look like scuzzy nightclubs, and the synth-embellished rock music was a novelty at the time. To an extent the film prefigures the neon-lit cyberpunk look and feel of Blade Runner three years later, although it owes a lot to Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange as well. It is certainly more enjoyable than either of those landmark pictures.

15.6.19

The Piano

Jane Campion originally wanted a bleaker ending for the film – where Ada follows her piano into the sea and drowns. The echo of that ending remains, with Ada's thoughts continuing to dwell on the buried piano, and the silence that comes with death. Campion may have been aiming to round off a life as well as a film in this way. The first shot is quite an abstract one of light piercing through the flesh of fingers – a not very subtle evocation of being born. In between the silence that surrounds our lives, the main character Ada is impelled for reasons she doesn't quite understand not to speak.


Campion at the time of making the film didn't quite know why she wanted to pursue this idea of a woman insisting on silence. She was attracted to the rebelliousness and willpower just an act demonstrated. In hindsight, she puts an explicitly feminist spin on it – as a commentary on a society that doesn't value women's voices. This was very overtly the case in the Victorian era the film depicts, although Campion's point is that those prejudices endure. So why should Ada speak if she's just going to be ignored? She'll speak in her own way.

That's the piano, of course, but she also speaks directly to us in voiceover at the beginning and end of the film. We learn that her first husband, and father to her daughter, could hear her thoughts in his mind. This terrified him and he "stopped listening". Towards the end of the film, Ada performs this miracle again – through sheer force of will she instructs her new husband to let her go. The fact that we can hear her voiceover clearly suggests that film is a kind of telepathy as well – an oblique form of communication for Campion, like Ada and her piano.

8.6.19

"'Praise You' spoke to the sense, both frivolous and zen, that prevailed in the late 1990s: nothing 'mattered'. There was no need to agonise the way we used to. We were free. We could just be. Rock music was just about dead and nobody believed it had the capacity to transform the world. The counter-culture had long disappeared; the motorways were here to stay. The Great Battles had either been won or lost but, whatever, they had been fought. The time for fighting, the time for protest was over. What was left was a vast, democratised mass of people in the same large cultural (and physical) peacetime space who wanted nothing more than to live really happily for as long as possible, preferably for ever." – David Stubbs, Mars by 1980: The Story of Electronic Music

29.5.19

Enter the Void

I saw this as part of the Kubrick season at the BFI – 2001 being a big influence on Gaspar Noé and this film in particular. I’m not sure whether Kubrick intended the stargate sequence to be used to enhance drug trips, but for Noé the link is natural. Enter the Void could be interpreted as one long drug trip, or a way to simulate such trips using the power of cinema.


It’s a mixed bag. The film is divided into three unequal (in every sense of the word) parts. The first is shot in disorientating POV – camera in first person, introducing us to the main characters and action of the story. The second has the camera hover over the shoulder of the protagonist (in third person, as it were) as we find out the backstory. The third section has the camera floating freely above the heads of the characters – becoming an omniscient narrator exploring the aftershocks of the story rippling out.

The first two parts are quite tightly controlled, with revelations coming thick and fast. However the third gets rather distended and tedious, and towards the end I just wanted Noé to get the film over with. The characters have given up their mysteries. Continuing to meander around them feels a bit surplus to requirements.



Noé says this isn’t a film about getting high, but I’m not sure his preferred interpretation (“the sentimentality of mammals and the shimmering vacuity of the human experience”) offers much to chew over. It may be his most successful film because while Oscar and Linda are both on screen their story is intriguing, and the way a tragic incident in their youth leads them to the dangerous cocktail of sex and drugs in the mean streets of Tokyo is all too relatable. The existential fears driving the film are ultimately less interesting than the impact of the loss of a family, and the desperate desire to find or create one again.

26.5.19

Foxy Brown

Originally planned as a sequel to Coffy, and like most sequels a less successful imitation of the original. The previous film's insinuations towards the rape-revenge genre are here made literal in a pretty gruesome way, although that episode is apparently less traumatic than the murder of a lover. At least in this film it's the man who gets fridged in order to provide the motivation for a female protagonist to seek vengeance, rather than the other way around. And although Foxy Brown is leered at, groped, harassed, slapped, punched and raped – the exploitative portrayal of which is a lot more problematic than in Coffy – she still gets to wreak her ruin upon the criminal underworld in a way that has inspired black and female audiences since. 


The film is fastidious on the distinction between justice and revenge, but ultimately allows that in the context of a corrupt judiciary sometimes you have to allow the two to (literally) bleed together. The best scene is when Foxy Brown teams up with a hooker to seduce a judge on the take, and proceeds to utterly humiliate him and destroy his career. It's very funny, and is one of the few times that Foxy relies on exposing the hypocrisy of the elite rather than just wantonly killing people. The former is just as satisfying as the latter. 

18.5.19

Coffy

A 1973 blacksploitation classic starring Pam Grier as a nurse who exacts bloody revenge on the pimps, pushers, police and politicians who ruined her sister's life. The film is almost puritanical about the forces of corruption that are destroying the fabric of society, with Coffy advocating righteous violent justice as the only solution. Her aspiring politician boyfriend takes a more liberal attitude – arguing than addiction and crime are the products of hopelessness and oppression. The way out is to win power for "our people", i.e. the black community, which would be persuasive apart from the fact that by the moment he makes this pitch he is revealed to be a soulless shyster who's only loyal to the almighty dollar.


Coffy isn't quite a rape-revenge film, but it gets close. The character's modus operandi is to pretend to be a strung-out prostitute and infiltrate the inner circles of the crime bosses. Sex is a male weakness, and Coffy wields it as a weapon as much as the pistols, shotguns and razors she becomes proficient with. She is teased for being a 'liberated woman' but is happy to adopt the guise of docility in order to achieve her ends or get out of sticky situations. Given that this is an exploitation movie, the audience is implicated in the lechery of the gullible gangsters. But they, and perhaps we, get punished for it – Coffy's final execution in her killing spree is achieved through a shotgun blast to the privates.

6.5.19

Viva

A pointed send-up of 1970s sexploitation films, but with the script so clunky and the acting so stilted it becomes uncanny. Biller uses the same effect for The Love Witch, and after seeing this earlier film I wonder whether she can direct in any other mode. The film is purposefully bad, so what would a good Anna Biller film look like? Or is she incapable of moving beyond pastiche?


Because actually not all of Viva is purposefully bad. Biller works so slowly because she approaches her films as an artist might – designing the sets, artwork and costumes, as well as writing, acting, editing and directing. The texture of the film is therefore spectacular, and the clothes are amazing. There is also a very well-executed climactic (and unsettling) sex scene which uses psychedelic animation and outrageous focus pulls to great effect. At its best Viva is like no other film.

Biller sets her sights on unpeeling the complexities of the sexual revolution, with a plot lifted from Buñuel's Belle De Jour but with the consequences of female sexual liberation a tad more equivocal. At one point one of the male characters looks straight at the camera and confesses that men have never and will never have it so good – able to take advantage of the permissive society without taking responsibility for it. During the film, Biller's character is frequently sexually harassed, and at one point violently raped, by the free spirits around her. One of her prospective paramours fulminates against "women's lib" for the fact that Biller hasn't slept with him yet. Eventually, he tires of waiting, drugs her at a party and sleeps with her – hardly enlightened behaviour.


The only partners that treat Biller decently are her husband and a female lover. She eventually tires of the predators around her, but when she decides to go back to her marriage she doesn't refer back to the awful sexual violence she experienced. Instead, she says she became frightened of her own desires, and how she'd taken them too far. It's a strange inversion of where the guilt should actually lie. But maybe the film is being ambiguous on this point, and we should take her explanation at face value. Perhaps these sexual experiences were part of the fabric of her fantasies.

Biller's project, after all, is to reinsert the female gaze back into the history of cinema. The violent rape is transparently horrific, but her portrayal of the second rape at the party is the film at it's most erotic, which is a disturbing tone to strike. The starting point for the character, however, is a marriage where the husband isn't around – that's why she strays. The film ends with the tables turned – Biller's character feels truly free once the husband's liberty is curtailed. But even then that freedom is equivocal, found in the theatre production of the man who raped her. Throughout the film, female desire is circumscribed or channelled by men who don't have women's bests interests at heart. It's a fantasy barred on all sides by a culture that remains overwhelmingly sexist.

5.5.19

Nowhere

Towards the end of the film the main character Dark muses about how his generation is doomed. The Doom Generation was Araki's previous film, but it serves as an appropriate title for Nowhere as well – there is this same nihilistic sense of a culture in decadent decline, where life is so devoid of meaning that death (whether through active suicide or the rush of dangerous sex and drugs) is accepted as an impending inevitability. It's a vibe – Araki is a stylist rather than a philosopher. The title Nowhere is a badge pinned at the start by a voiceover that's as bathetic as it is profound – Los Angeles is a nowhere place where everyone is lost.


The film's plot is therefore appropriately a void around which the fleeting lives of the characters swirl. The only structure provided is that it's a day-in-the-life of a bunch of teens that all want to go to a bacchanalian party in the evening – most of whom make it. But that's just an excuse to indulge Araki's unique visual sense, where the camera's perspective is warped by an (often comically outrageous) impressionism and surrealism. The final moment pushes this to an extreme – turning the AIDS metaphor in the Alien film very literal. The horror of the moment is turned into a big absurd joke. Araki may be suggesting that perhaps that's the only way to deal with the truly awful nature of life in contemporary America.