All posts by Jake Fredel

CAPSULE: THE BIG SHAVE (1967) (FROM “SCORSESE SHORTS”)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Peter Bernuth

PLOT: What starts out as a pleasant morning shave soon goes horribly wrong, turning into a bloody spectacle of self-mutilation as a man finds himself unable to stop shaving.

COMMENTS: I first saw The Big Shave on YouTube a few years ago, after hearing about American Boy (another film included on Criterion’s new “Scorsese Shorts” collection) via , who used a story from that film as inspiration for the adrenaline injection scene in Pulp Fiction. American Boy, a monologue film featuring Stephen Prince (a friend of Scorsese’s who had played a bit part in his feature film Taxi Driver), showed me that there was a side to Martin Scorsese that I never seen before, and encouraged me to dig deeper into Marty’s back catalog. The Big Shave, a gory allegory about the Vietnam War, is unlike anything else in Scorsese’s filmography, and left a mark on my memory that I’ve never been able to shake. Thanks to the Criterion Collection, The Big Shave, along with American Boy and three other early Scorsese short films, is now available to revisit in gloriously bloody HD.

To most cinephiles these days, Scorsese might seem like an untouchable symbol of classic Hollywood, one of the last quintessential “great” filmmakers, whose new films are treated with solemn reverence and his old films spoken of in hushed tones as some of the greatest of all times. But Mean Streets wasn’t his first foray into filmmaking, not by a long shot. The real story started 10 years earlier, when Scorsese was a film student at NYU. There he made two award-winning student films: What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This? and It’s Not Just You, Murray. In a way, these two films reflect a spirit similar to what a lot of young film students were doing at the time. They’re blatantly irreverent and intentionally bizarre, with a gleeful determination to create a new way of making films inspired by the French New Wave.

However, unlike these fairly innocent student short films, The Big Shave doesn’t just set out to toy with the viewer’s mind, it aims to get under their skin, peeling it back to reveal what lies beneath. Had it been made in a different era, any number of meanings might be extracted from it, but seeing that it was a product of the late 1960s, it’s difficult to see it as anything other than a commentary on the self-destructive nature of the US military’s involvement in Vietnam. It even has an alternate title, Viet ‘67—but that might have made it too obvious.

It starts by establishing its setting: a sparkling white bathroom filled with sparkling silver fixtures. The bath faucets, the toilet paper holder, the sink—all are shown in pristine close-ups that establish Continue reading CAPSULE: THE BIG SHAVE (1967) (FROM “SCORSESE SHORTS”)

CAPSULE: UNTIL THE END OF THE WORLD (1991)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , , Rüdiger Vogler, ,

PLOT: A disillusioned young woman follows a mysterious stranger across the globe, only to become transfixed by a device which allows the user to record and replay their own dreams.

COMMENTS: Usually the term “Director’s Cut” suggests that a film was extended by 10 minutes, or even an hour, from its initial form by restoring footage left on the cutting floor due to studio pressure. But in the case of Until the End of the World, it meant doubling the film’s original running time from two and a half hours to almost five. With this film, German auteur Wim Wenders intended to make “the ultimate road movie,” building on a career of road movies such as Kings of the Road and Paris, Texas. In other words, he set out to make his magnum opus. Now, thanks to the Criterion Collection, his vision can finally be seen as originally intended.

So how does it hold up? Well, it’s an improvement on the original truncated version, which felt rushed and confusing, but it might not be the masterpiece that Wenders intended. Where the original version was two incomplete films haphazardly cobbled together, the five-hour version is essentially two films in one. The film no longer feels incomplete, but it remains uneven. The first half is a breakneck journey through eight countries. This is the ostensible “road movie” portion of the film, although it feels a bit rushed even stretched out to two hours instead of one.

In this section, we follow a beautiful woman named Claire (Solveig Dommartin) who becomes obsessed with an elusive man (William Hurt) and chases him from one country to another. There are a lot of side characters, most notably Claire’s writer husband Eugene (Sam Neill) and Mr. Winter (Rüdiger Vogler), an inept but poetically inclined private detective who Claire meets in Berlin. In the five-hour version, we get to know the characters a lot better. Eugene’s pensive narration gives the viewer considerable insight into Claire’s psychological state, illuminating the reasons behind her tireless search for a man that she doesn’t know anything about.

But while the character development may be improved in the long version, Until the End of the World still doesn’t feel like much of a road movie. The characters seem to beam from one place to another. There are brief scenes on airplanes, trains and boats, but very little driving—the thing that defined Wenders’ classic road movies from earlier in his career. Very little seems to happen between destinations; almost all of the characters’ crucial conversations and revelations happen when their paths align for a brief moment in a fixed location.

However, the characters’ journeys do lead to a particular final destination which brings them all together: Central Australia. Just like Continue reading CAPSULE: UNTIL THE END OF THE WORLD (1991)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: YUMEJI (1991)

Weirdest!

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Tomoko Mariya, , Masumi Miyazaki, Reona Hirota

PLOT: A bohemian poet and painter travels to Kanagawa to wait for his ailing girlfriend, only to fall for an alluring widow while he’s there.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Seijun Suzuki, a defiantly unconventional filmmaker with a career’s worth of bizarre films already under his belt, threw himself into Yumeji like he was making his magnum opus of weirdness. There’s blood painted on to the screen, life coming alive as art, and opaque references to slaughterhouses and blood—the last of which would seem to have little to do with the film’s subject. For an artfully bizarre take on an era filled with strange contradictions and perversions, who better than Seijun Suzuki to take you there?

COMMENTS: Takehisa Yumeji was a real-life painter, whose individualist lifestyle and era-defining paintings made him an icon of Japan’s Taisho era (1914-26). The name Yumeji contains the Japanese word for “dream,” so it’s fitting that Yumeji begins with a dream sequence in tribute to its namesake. But if you were expecting Seijun Suzuki to make a conventional biopic, think again. Suzuki used the names of some of the real women in Yumeji’s life, including Hikono (Masumi Miyazaki) and Oyo (Reona Hirota), who seem to have been portrayed in keeping with their real-life counterparts. Apart from these details, Suzuki paid more attention to Yumeji’s artistic side, imagining his romantic escapades and artistic concepts manifested as life.

As in Kagero-za, Suzuki centers the film on an adulterous love triangle, with a mysteriously powerful husband constantly plotting the protagonist’s murder, even though he never gets around to actually carrying it out. However, not one to repeat himself, Suzuki upped the ante here by adding a second adulterous love triangle, wherein the cuckolded husband is said to have killed his rival by throwing him down the drainage pipe at the local slaughterhouse. The killer then hides out in the mountains, evading a relentless police search and creeping around with a scythe in a none too subtle evocation of the Grim Reaper. 

Always one to dabble in surrealism, Suzuki gave in to his urges completely in Yumeji, throwing in enough hallucinatory imagery to eclipse any other film in his storied career. Paintings appear on wooden posts when tapped, a woman is cooked in a huge soup kettle by a group of singing women, and a blond madman proposes a duel while standing next to a hedge made of bloody animal carcasses, later emerging from a lake covered in blood himself. Yumeji (Kenji Sawada) also suffers from a clash of personalities which eventually lead to an identity crisis reminiscent of The Blood of a Poet: he is confronted by multiple versions of himself, all of whom accuse him of being a fraud. His morbid paranoia, his womanizing lust, his poetic thought process—all come together to inform the mood of the film and create something which feels much more like a waking dream than a biographical story.

The two previous films in Suzuki’s Taisho Trilogy (Zigeunerweisen and Kagero-za) each have their fair share of beautiful imagery, but Yumeji is overflowing with countless compositions that are framed to mimic Japanese paintings of the past. At numerous points throughout, paint is even overlaid onto the frame, including a notable scene in which a bright yellow boat nearly capsizes in a torrent of cow’s blood that is dabbed in red blobs along the bottom of the frame. Yumeji is also more erotically-charged than its predecessors, with an earthy sense of sexuality and framings that look like they could have been pin-ups from1920s Tokyo, together with levels of nudity and lewd behavior that contradict the popular image of historical films as stuffy and mannered visions of the past.

It’s fitting that as Seijun Suzuki’s career progressed, his work became more artistically-focused and surreal. His early films, with their painterly attention to color and visual design, bear the marks of an unconventional artist who just happened to be tasked with making B-movies about thugs and prostitutes. In the Taisho Trilogy, Suzuki finally had free reign to make movies that eschewed storytelling and audience expectations in favor of surreal imagery, irreverent reflections on Japanese culture and history, and fractured narratives that often featured elements of the supernatural. Curiously, Yumeji is the least supernatural of the three films, yet the weirdest overall. Like the pornographic kimono that features in its nightmarish finale, it’s a period piece that represents the culture of its era while also adding surrealism, eroticism and mystery into its historical framework. Thanks to Arrow Films, these three little known films by one of the great Japanese surrealist masters are now ripe to be rediscovered in all of their bizarre, experimental glory.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“By the time the film was completed, the gonzo filmmaker had so thoroughly dispensed with narrative sanity and even basic filmic grammar that whether or not the subtitles are on becomes irrelevant.” – Fernando F. Croce, Slant Magazine

CAPSULE: KAGERO-ZA (1981)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Yusaku Matsuda, , Katsuo Nakamura, , Eriko Kusuda

PLOT: A playwright gets caught up with a rich industrialist’s two wives, putting both his life and soul in mortal danger.

COMMENTS: After the success of Zigeunerweisen, Seijun Suzuki returned to the Taisho era for another morbid tale with supernatural undertones. Zigeunerweisen was often unfocused and difficult to follow, but Kagero-za is even more loosely structured, borderline incomprehensible at times. Its title refers to a haze seen on particularly hot days, which can play tricks on the eyes and create illusions. In keeping with this title, the film moves with the slow, languid pace of a dream. It’s never certain if what’s being seen is real or illusion.

The film begins, fittingly, with an illusion seen in a heat haze. Or was it an illusion? A young man (Yusaku Matsuda) meets a mysterious married woman, Shinako (Michiyo Okusu), who asks him to escort her to a nearby hospital, for fear of an old woman she saw selling bladder cherries at high prices—and also advertising them as women’s souls. When they investigate, the old woman seems to have vanished into the vapors that she came from, and the married woman ends up giving the man her soul instead. From this point onward, the man is repeatedly drawn to her, seduced by circumstance and seemingly doomed to commit double suicide with her when her rich husband (Katsuo Nakamura) finds out about the affair.

But all is not what it seems. The woman’s husband has another wife, Ine (Eriko Kusuda), who may or may not be dead. In the film’s most explicit commentary on the effects of Westernization in the Taisho era, the husband is said to have met Ine while studying abroad in Germany, captivated by her blond hair but also determined to make a Japanese woman out of her. The fact he studied abroad in Europe suggests that he is either an industrialist or a member of the new class of elites which led the charge of modernization in Japan at this time. Shinako, the other wife, is relegated to the shadows, barely noticed by her husband. However, she serves as a reminder of Japanese tradition in its purest form, repeatedly coming back to haunt her husband and her lover in an unending cycle which torments all involved.

Halfway through the film, Shinako portentously muses that “If dreams didn’t end, they wouldn’t be dreams anymore.” With this in mind, it might be best to take the world of Kagero-za as a dream which becomes its own reality. What begins as a fairly simple love triangle with Gothic undertones becomes progressively stranger in its second half, going off on feverish tangents which range from freemasons exchanging dolls with intricately carved sex organs hidden inside to a children’s kabuki theater which ominously reenacts the film’s central love triangles, while an unseen playwright gives directions from on high and the real-life characters look on with expressions of frozen alarm.

Of course, none of this makes much sense, but it wouldn’t be a Seijun Suzuki film if it did. It’s a dream journey not unlike ’s Eyes Wide Shut, except that it involves a man’s affair with a married woman and his subsequent internal and external crises, rather than a man struggling to come to terms with his wife’s real or imagined infidelities. Still, the pacing is interminably slow and the particulars of the central affair (which is more imagined than real to begin with) are rehashed to the point that they lose all sense of meaning or tension. It’s worth watching for its stunning cinematography and surreal depiction of cultural corruption in pre-WW2 Japan, but it’s a pretentious and muddled step down from the chilling and subtly supernatural Zigeunerweisen.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the wantonly eccentric narrative is set in 1926 Tokyo, though, given Suzuki’s contempt for coherence, it might as well take place in another planet… [T]here’s no denying Suzuki’s knack for ravishing disorientation even if you take one character’s description of ‘a too complicated game to enjoy’ to apply for the film.” – Fernando F. Croce, Slant Magazine (DVD)

CAPSULE: ZIGEUNERWEISEN (1980)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Toshiya Fujita, , Naoko Otani, , Kisako Makishi 

PLOT: Two professors and a mysterious geisha form a bond that transcends life and death.

COMMENTS: In the West, Seijun Suzuki is primarily known for his hallucinatory 1960s thrillers for the Nikkatsu studio, especially Tokyo Drifter and Branded to Kill. Over a decade later, however, Suzuki made a series of three period films set in Japan’s Taisho era (1912-1925). Filled with hallucinatory imagery, intoxicating period atmosphere, and ghostly ambience, in Japan these three films, known collectively as the Taisho Trilogy, are held in equal esteem with Suzuki’s early films; but they have been difficult to find in the U.S. until recently. Arrow Films gave them a limited release in 2017 in a lavish 6-disc DVD/Blu-ray box set, but now Arrow has streamlined both the size and cost of the set, finally putting these three hidden gems back into circulation as part of an affordable 3-disc Blu-ray box set. The extras from the previous set (which include introductions from critic Tony Rayn, a making-of featurette and a vintage interview with the late Seijun Suzuki) have all been carried over to the new release.

The Taisho era was a time of rapid modernization in Japan, but only in certain sectors of society, particularly the upper classes. Traditional ways of life and long-held superstitions about ghosts and spirits remained prevalent even as Western music, clothing, and technology began to seep into society. This is the world in which Zigeunerweisen (1980), Kagero-za (1981), and Yumeji (1991) take place. Zigeunerweisen opens with two men listening to a 10-inch gramophone recording of the titular “Zigeunerweisen,” a contemporary composition by Spanish violinist Pablo de Sarasate, in which a voice is heard saying something unintelligible. They note that hearing this almost inaudible voice is more interesting than the music itself—it’s the voice of someone they’ve never met, the unintentional preservation of an everyday moment which occurred halfway around the world.

The recording will appear again, but it’s not the only case in which characters will be haunted by disembodied voices. Ghosts are very present in the lives of Aochi (Toshiya Fujita), a German professor at a military academy, and Nakasago (Yoshio Harada), Aochi’s former colleague and vagabond friend. After parting ways when Nakasogo quit the academy to become a drifter, the two meet in a seaside town where Nakasogo seems to have been involved in the death of a local woman. Suzuki introduces Nakagoso with a feverish montage of close-ups, emphasizing his unkempt good looks and wild man charisma. We then see the a woman lying dead on the ground; a red crab appears from between her legs and fills the screen.

After Aochi helps Nakasago escape from the police and local mob, the two retreat to a local inn, where they entice a mourning geisha (Naoko Otani) to entertain them. Nakasogo is fascinated with her story of her brother’s suicide by poison, and how his white bones turned to pink ashes after being cremated. Nakasogo’s subsequent obsession with bones becomes a central theme throughout the film. He even coerces Aochi into making a pact that whoever dies first will donate their bones to the other.

There are many subplots and suggestions of supernatural intrigue throughout Zigeunerweisen, but it remains mostly submerged beneath the surface, more subtly felt than explicitly expressed. Nakasogo is often insinuated to be a demon in human form, and his secret encounters with Aochi’s wife (Michiyo Okusu) seem to take place in a parallel dream reality. One exception is an early sequence in which Aochi meets Nakasogo’s new wife (also played by Otani) and is enticed into coming back to her house, where a red light ominously flashes and time seems to stand still; Nakasogo’s wife slyly admits that she might be a fox (a common deceiver of humans in Japanese traditional mythology). The film’s chilling climax echoes this scene, bringing the story full circle and finally allowing its supernatural undertones to emerge fully formed.

Even earlier in his career, Suzuki was never a very effective storyteller. As lurid and visually stunning as his 1960s gangster films might be, they’re often unevenly paced and confusing, especially in the case of his hallucinatory tour-de-force Branded to Kill, which was considered so incomprehensible that he was effectively blacklisted from making films in Japan for over 10 years. Zigeunerweisen isn’t quite as difficult to parse out, but even though the running time is longer and the pace is slower, this is still classic Suzuki. The lack of tight storytelling and conventional horror techniques is made up for with imaginative visuals, feverish hallucinations, and a sophisticated sense of the supernatural, which is consistent with Japanese culture and the era in which the film takes place. A fascinating ghost story from the master of surreal Japanese crime thrillers.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“[W]ith Zigeunerweisen—shot in 1980, after Suzuki took a 10-year break from directing—Suzuki retires the cumbersome plots and predictable settings of his genre films, and lends his bizarre, outrageous, and completely visual language to a bona fide art film.” – John Behling, Slant Magazine