Thursday, July 18, 2013

Departures, The Yakuza, Celine and Julie Go Boating

I would expect an even slower rate of posting in the future. They seem to have finally around to jamming up my ability to access this site at work, and it is virtually impossible for me to get anything done at home, since I have to share one computer with 4 and a half other people now, all of whom have work to do on it that rates a higher priority than my blog. I would just shut it down, but I find it useful for recording and dating some of my scattershot hobbies. My attempts at more expository pieces have never really worked here anyway.

I am getting behind on movies again, with six to comment on, so I will do two sets of three in this and a following post, one modern trio and one ancient, if we draw an artificial line demarking (demarcating--I checked my dictionary and they are variations on the same word) the modern period as beginning around 1970, though really I would put it more around 1980, with the 1965-1980 years serving as a kind of cinematic middle age.

Departures (2009) 

This was another Roger Ebert selection, though it did win the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in its year, which in this era indicates that at least it probably won't be egregiously offensive to middlebrow taste. It's Japanese, and like almost all modern Japanese movies that achieve arthouse distribution in this country, it is about death. Indeed, the main character is a failed and disillusioned cellist who becomes an undertaker, which, like so many professions in Japan, is conscious of and honors its artist aspects. The popular impression, aided by films like this, is that the Japanese nation, symbolized by its ongoing anemic birthrate, declining population, workers who collapse and die on the factory floor of convulsions brought on by extreme stress, and growing numbers of adult men who refuse to come out of their childhood bedrooms, has largely lost its will to live in the modern world. An exorbitant number of the corpses represented in this movie were of attractive young people, women in particular. The protagonist is married, and cutely, as it were--being cute, if you're a woman, is I think trendier is Asia, particularly in the advanced economies, than it is among us--but his wife is not really sold on his new career and their new life out in the provinces, the husband decamping back to his mother's house (she is dead) from one of the big cities, probably Tokyo, after the collapse of his music career. I had the sense at the end that she was supposed to have gotten pregnant, but I don't really remember now. It was not that explicit, unless I nodded off for a moment. It is a quiet, low energy sort of movie. It is probably worth seeing if you are young, have a lot of time, and need to get a general sense of what Japan looks like and the kinds of things is expending its creative energies on. If you are older, and time is more precious, I think it can be safely skipped.

There was a setup in the plot for a cathartic emotional payoff, but this was relied on too much, considering that nowhere near enough had been invested in the setup. It did not come through.

The Yakuza (1975)

I didn't know what a yakuza was until a month ago, and now I feel like I see a news story on them every other day. They're Japanese gangsters, but they have a deep and complex code of honor that among other things requires you to cut your little finger off and offer it to someone if you have profound obligations to them that you cannot otherwise adequately repay. The movie is a Hollywood picture, directed by Sydney Pollack and starring Robert Mitchum. It was an ambitious undertaking, but it did not really work for me. It is, as even Sydney Pollack admitted in the commentary, very much an artifact of its time, and, I would add, not in the best sense. Its predominant atmosphere was similar to that of the TV show Hawaii Five-O, and overall it very much plays up the whole 1970s idea of the Pacific Rim as a kind of futuristic vision, in which the ancient cultures of the Orient take on a remarkably Hawaiian and Southern Californian influenced character. The action scenes seem to me mostly ludicrous. Robert Mitchum is believable as a certain kind of tough guy in a conventional social or business situation, but coming into Japan as essentially a solo foreigner and taking out dozens of thoroughly trained and hardened native gangsters, particularly as a 50-something, is asking too much of one's credulity.

I posted this on Facebook already, but it amused me, so I will put it up again here. My wife's capsule review of this film was "Let's have some tea and cut our fingers off." That really about sums it up.

Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974)

1974. What a year! My memories of it are naturally scant, and either elusive or melancholy. However, it is the first year I have any memory of at all, and I like to imagine that it was in this year that my intelligence peaked, at least comparative to other people my age, mainly because it appears to have have declined by this measurement almost every year since. In any case, my personal future looked more rosy and brilliant in 1974 than it ever managed to afterwards. So, after a fashion, so poignantly illustrated in this film, did modern France's. This is the backdrop against which I am going to attempt this review.

Celine and Julie Vont en Bateau, which, while interesting in some ways, is also three plus hours of the kind of artsy self-indulgence that only the French have truly mastered, and probably only truly appreciate, is regarded as the most accessible film, certainly from the earlier part of his career, of the director Jacques Rivette, who is usually identified as part of the Nouvelle Vague, but in many ways remained always too new to ever get pinned down enough and made a symbol of anything intelligible by some mass of cinemagoers, as occurred with Truffaut and even Godard, to a certain extent. His masterpiece, according to many, is the 1971 epic Out 1, which has only been screened one time in its original cut, ostensibly because it 12 hours and 40 minutes long (there is a 4 and a half hour version that is also rare, though it has been seen by a few more people than its parent, and is said to have a cult following). The plot of Celine and Julie is supposedly based on a couple of Henry James short stories. I don't know whether "The Turn of the Screw" is one of them or not, or whether it is even considered a short story; I suppose the movie had some elements that were reminiscent of that tale. It also would not surprise me if there were 20 Henry James short stories that were superficially alike. There are also acknowledged references to Alice in Wonderland, Proust, and Jean Cocteau. The Alice ones are not too obscure, and the influence of or obvious similarity to aspects of Proust did flicker through my mind, though I did not think much of it. The affinities with Cocteau I tended to see more as generic obscure French artist poses that are stock in trade in that country, without making a specific connection to Cocteau.

This is the 3rd highly acclaimed French movie in the 1974-1983 period I have seen in the last year that is not available on DVD in America (joining Madame Rosa and Entre Nous). Apparently from the commercial standpoint we have given up on this epoch of film history. Usually when this happens I will buy an old VHS tape on the internet but the tapes for Celine and Julie started at $45 so I had to watch it on Youtube, where somebody had fortunately uploaded a watchable version of whole movie, and with English subtitles too.

As I noted in the Madame Rosa note, people in 1970s French movies look fantastically healthy and almost absurdly natural, despite all of their seeming pretension and affectation in the realm of the intellect. The actresses who play Celine and Julie (Juliet Berto and Dominique Labourier) do not seem like any spectacular beauties at first glance, especially with their ludicrous 1970s clothes and untamed hairstyles, but the effect of bodily health combined with mental engagement with the physical, living world around them creates a sense of vitality that is striking and impossible to ignore, especially Celine/Berto, who seems to me to have a glorious and almost perfectly realized beauty. There was another woman in the Henry James/Proust-like country house that they are transported to when they eat the candies that was quite extraordinarily beautiful as well--the blonde one. Of course you have a lot of leisure to examine the skin and figures and facial expressions of the actresses and actors in this movie because your attention is not diverted by an overabundance of action or plot, and there is a lot of repetition.

While the film itself is antagonistic to any emotion of sentimentality or even meaningful specificity of time and place apart from the realm of pure art and mind, its presentation, almost matter-of-fact for our purposes, of the Paris of 1974, its streets ruled by clanking Citroens and Peugeots, its sleepy little shops and languid afternoons in leafy parks and the library with its open windows on a hot day and wooden shelves and wooden files and wooden tables and rubber stamps and its garish and sweaty bohemian apartment with a panoramic view of the city and its (compared to today) scant evidence of oppressive Anglo-American and international capitalist infiltration of the culture, is among the main charms of the movie for me, especially as so much of the background impressionism in it hits at the exact points that have most strikingly been lost or are fading rapidly, but were especially central to a certain life and myth of Paris, particularly that I bought into. The whole '65-'75 period, which I tended to think of as fairly recent up until the last five years or so, when finally the accumulation of change made it suddenly appear to be quite long ago; and 1974 has never seemed as long ago as it does in this.  

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