Sunday, March 30, 2008

Poor Little Animated Shorts: Postmodernism Edition

These shorts all concern the self-reflexive relationship between creator and creation.

Title: Duck Amuck (1953)
Director: Chuck Jones
Time: 7 minutes
Availability: On Looney Tunes Golden Collection Volume 1 DVD and The Bugs Bunny-Road Runner Movie or on YouTube here.
Daffy Duck tries to tell a rousing swashbuckler in which he battles musketeers, but the animator has forgotten to draw in the backdrop, the props and the swordsmen. Daffy complains, only to have his every plea intentionally misinterpreted by the artist, who changes the setting, character design and audio effects at will to the consternation of our protagonist. After a back-and-forth game that drives Daffy crazy, we learn that Bugs Bunny is the culprit at the canvas.

“Duck Amuck” is my personal favorite Looney Tune/Merry Melody, with its ahead-of-its-time postmodern themes about the connection between artist, character and the act of creating. Various critics have interpreted this short as a cartoon declaration that God is cruel or that fictional characters take on a life and personality of their own. You don’t have to furrow your brow in philosophical thought, though, to enjoy this short; I always smile at the spotted flower-creature version of Daffy for its whimsical gaucheness.

Title: Rejected (2000)
Director: Don Hertzfeldt
Time: 10 minutes
Availability: On the “Bitter Films Volume 1” DVD or on YouTube here
Situated as a sort of documentary retrospective on Don Hertzfeldt’s attempts to make animated shorts for commercial products, “Rejected” is a fictional parade of absurdist failures. In each of his supposed ventures into corporate salesmanship he refuses to retreat from his aggressively non-sequitur humor, often upsetting themes and total lack of marketing fervor. The result is deadpan hilarity for the audience and a downward spiral of bitterness for the artist. It ultimately culminates in an apocalypse within his animated universe, visualized through a series of crumples and tears in the paper itself.

Don Hertzfeldt had been making successful and critically acclaimed animations for five years before he hit cult pay-dirt with “Rejected.” His intentionally crude art style (featuring stickmen and almost no background detail) was matched with old-school camera techniques and new-school innovations that draw attention to the texture of paper, the act of sketching and the difficultly of finding paid work without sacrificing your artistic license. The anti-ad ethos and absurdist comedy struck a chord with young audiences, allowing the short to make the rounds of film festivals and college dorms like an outbreak. Many of the lines (“My spoon is too big.”) have made their way into popular culture and influenced a host of internet imitators that lack Hertzfeldt’s studied magic.

Title: Tim Tom (2003)
Director: Christel Pougeoise and Romain Segaud
Time: 5 minutes
Availability: On YouTube here.
Tim and Tom are a pair of 3D would-be pals who struggle to meet against the wishes of their godlike creator. The two guys have notepad heads and they flip the pages over to reveal their changing expressions, generally becoming more perturbed as the arms of an off-screen meddler manipulates their environment to prevent them from meeting. One moment the ground between them is being stretched out indefinitely and the next thing they know they are being dropped through the 35 mm frame onto the soundtrack. Unlike “Duck Amuck,” “Tim Tom” is less a meditation on genre, style and presentation than an interrogation of film as medium and technology, updating the relationship between creator and creation to the 21st century.

“Tim Tom” features a tasteful art style using B&W CG and a minimalist setting. The 3D character have expressive 2D faces, “penciled” in with simulated graphite streaks. The result is not quite cute and not quite serious, while the impulsive investigation of phenomena like the flicker effect and the shape of sound waves on the audio track raise the material to new ground not found in many artist/art showdowns. “Tim Tom” has the spirit of golden era cartoons: efficient story-telling, regular laughs, charisma and spontaneity.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Review of Funny Ha Ha

Pretty much the first film blog I ever read regularly was Like Anna Karina’s Sweater by New York hardcore film enthusiast Filmbrain. I shared his love of the Korean New Wave and independent film in general and though I often disagreed with him, I found him to be a reliable source for overlooked relics from the past and great Asian cinema just on the horizon. I also started following Cinephiliac, one of his friend’s blogs. A few years ago they both got excited about something called mumblecore.

The mumblecore movement is a loose net cast over the work of young directors like Andrew Bujalski, Joe Swanberg and Aaron Katz, who make low-budget, small-scope indie films characterized by naturalistic pseudo-improvised dialog, averagy twentyish protagonists and contemporary themes. Filmbrain and Cinephiliac, embroiled in the New York film scene, tended to assume that everyone knew what they were talking about and shared their enthusiasm, but except for some informative work at Greencine and Indiewire, I had little knowledge of or access to the films they discussed. A little while later it became obvious how serious these two were about proselytizing for mumblecore: they founded their own distribution label and have released three mumblecore DVDs.

I was probably wrong to hesitate, but my contrary nature towards hype made me skittish about investigating. By some accounts I’d already missed the boat, as various sources were claiming that mumblecore was already dead or, because some critics are miserly about whom they bestow labels on, that no “movement” had existed at all. Perhaps it’s an inevitable part of the internet era’s flash-in-the-pan mentality that backlash runs only a stride behind every breakout success, even if it occurs within a relatively unknown and self-contained community.

So, much more than a year passed between when I’d first heard the phrase and when I watched my first mumblecore pic. Even then, it was a fortuitous library encounter rather than the steady march of my Netflix queue that put the DVD in my possession. “Funny Ha Ha” (2005), one of the earliest specimens, had finally made it to the Mid-West.

And it’s great.

[Image: Marnie’s entrance – a fairly poor first impression in which she drunkenly tries to get a Celtic tattoo.]

I was actually a little shocked by “Funny Ha Ha.” I wasn’t expecting it to be nearly so piercing, so accurate and so relevant. On one hand it falls into the historical tradition of realism that includes Poetic Realism, Italian Neorealism (I’m in the midst of catching up on my Rossellini and I can’t resist the comparison), Cinema Verite and the American Indie movement (the most commonly cited influence is John Cassavetes). On the other hand, the realism of the past is the anthropological study of today and I’ve rarely before seen a film which strikes such a note of personal familiarity as “Funny Ha Ha.” I suddenly understood why previous generations have had such deep investments in films like “The Best Years of Our Lives,” “American Graffitti,” “The Return of the Secaucus 7” and “The Big Chill.” I still think of Richard Linklater, Kevin Smith and Noah Baumbach as “my generation,” so it’s a little disconcerting to see films coming out now by people who are actually close to my age.

“Funny Ha Ha” is about recent college graduates vaguely searching for firm ground (nothing new there), primarily focused on Marnie, a 24-year-old woman with no current prospects for career or romance. Working as a temp puts the financial question on the rear burner, but the search for a meaningful relationship is rougher going despite three candidates: recently-single long-time crush Alex, mildly creepy and frequently drunk friend Dave and insecure coworker Mitchell. In the hands of a seasoned television producer this material would induce vomiting, but Bujalski makes it a rambling ode to his generation, cutting straight to the bone. It doesn’t bother him if his depiction is unflattering or unexciting.

The rickety 16 mm cinematography melts away any potential pretentiousness, playing like a well-edited home video with little better sound or lighting. The costume and makeup are so casual that they hardly registered on my conscious mind, except to note how uncontrived (wrinkled clothing! unkempt hair!) they looked.

However, it’s the dialog that really sits the film down next to you on the living room couch, diner stool or passenger side. It just sounds so painfully like the way people talk today. Bujalski (who also wrote the script) claims that far less of the film is improvised than viewers would expect, an impressive feat if true. He manages to capture everything: the friendly ineloquence and uncertainty, the non-committal stance towards any decision, the self-awareness that fails to diffuse awkwardness, the silly charm of tangential topic-changes, the verbal tics and psychological defense mechanisms. I found the film to be something akin to hearing your voice played back on an answering machine: “Holy crap! I sound like that!”

This brings up some important meta-criticism questions: Do I only like this movie because I can relate to it (a debate that raged after the white middle-aged male film criticism establishment hailed “Sideways” back in 2004) and is it possible for non-demographic viewers to appreciate the film?

To the first question, I must admit that there is definitely bias present. It is rather pleasant, as a viewer, to be addressed in a reasonably intelligent manner and it is refreshing to see a film about college/post-college young adults that doesn’t rely on the usual clique clichés, recycled scenes, stereotypes and melodrama. Yet while “Funny Ha Ha” is not embarrassingly insulting like “Animal House,” “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” and “American Pie,” it also does not ingratiate itself with trendy pop culture references, adorable character quirks and wisecracking charm (which can’t be said of many of my guilty pleasure favorites). What makes the film likable is its adamant adherence to authenticity and unforced affection for everyday moments. The low production values are an asset for its modest goals.

The second question, whether people other than clones of Bujalski’s characters can enjoy the film, is a bit harder. There’s a shared cultural experience in the basic tenor of the film that, to some degree, translates across economic, regional, gender and racial bounds. Most mumblecore members are young white middle-class males, a fact that is often pointed out as an implicit criticism, but which overlooks the fundamental distinctions which occupy their interest: circumstance and personality. Today’s twentysomethings may come from any number of backgrounds divvied up into thousands of subcultures, but the internet, cell phones and a hundred years of accumulated cultural/cinematic baggage has put the developed world aboard the same boat. It makes it that much easier to decode the mumbles.

Still, a generation gap is built into “Funny Ha Ha;” a consequence of immersing up to the eyes in the zeitgeist. There is no way that someone two generations back (or, for that matter, two generations from now) will experience this film in the same way Katie or I experience it. That isn’t to say that they can’t appreciate it: they may find their incomprehension of the millennial kids confirmed or learn to understand them better than they thought. In the same way that I’ve warmed to Italian Neorealism and Cassavettes, critics of all backgrounds may find deeper truths or, at least, an interesting time-capsule.

There’s also a paradoxical rule that applies, often pointed out by my former professor Pier Marton: the more specific the characters, settings and situations, the more universal it ends up.

It may seem like I’m printing a lot of pixels for only having seen one film, but mumblecore now has my attention. You can bet Benten’s inventory thus far, “LOL,” “Dance Party USA” and “Quiet City,” is getting bumped up my queue. Better late than never.

Walrus Rating: 8.0

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Poor Little Animated Shorts: Surrealism Edition

Title: Heaven and Earth Magic, Number 12 (1962)
Director: Harry Everett Smith
Time: 66 minutes
Availability: The Anthology Film Archives in New York City owns and occasionally exhibits the original print. There is also a rare VHS copy, though this might be the hardest short to find of any I mention.
“The first part depicts the heroine's toothache consequent to the loss of a very valuable watermelon, her dentistry and transportation to heaven. Next follows an elaborate exposition of the heavenly land, in terms of Israel and Montreal. The second part depicts the return to Earth from being eaten by Max Müller on the day Edward VII dedicated the Great Sewer of London.” –Harry Everett Smith describing his film. This relatively tongue-in-cheek explanation helps communicate the type of free-association that propels this bizarre paper cutout animation. Skeleton horses, a magic hammer, spoon-people, unpredictable eggs, tarot cards and all manner of alchemical, satirical and occultist mayhem surge across the screen in this phantasmagorical nightmare.

Harry Everett Smith was the most well-known animator in the New York City experimental underground of the 1960’s and many consider this film to be his masterpiece. Its inscrutable plot and symbolic density make it hard going even for lovers of surrealism, but its boundless originality is undeniable. The “lengthy short” reflects the broad range of interests of its creator, who is also famous for anthologizing folk music, practicing modern alchemy and Occultism (including compiling a book on the angelic language of Enochian), collecting tens of thousands of Ukrainian Easter eggs and tripping on all manner of drugs.

Title: Quasi at the Quackadero (1975)
Director: Sally Cruikshank
Time: 10 minutes
Availability: Kindly uploaded on YouTube by Sally herself here. She also has a blog called FunOnMars.
The adventures of two reptilian ducks (Quasi and Anita) and their robot pet are chronicled through a handful of mind-bending animated adventures. In “Quasi at the Quackadero,” the trio visits a theme park with all manner of unnatural attractions like a hall of mirrors that reflects your image at different ages, an artist who will paint your thoughts and, fatefully, a zoo of holes through time and space. The art is rendered in Cruikshank’s signature psychedelic style, full of rich color clashes and everyday monsters. The circus-pop music and oddball voice-acting contributes to the air of otherworldly strangeness.

Sally Cruikshank made a mark on 1970’s animation with her creative series and her generosity with making many available on YouTube (where she frequently responds to comments) have given her work a second life. Though her best work deals with many adult themes, she later worked on animation for the children’s show Sesame Street.

Title: Destino (2003)
Director: Dominique Monfery and Salvador Dali
Time: 7 minutes
Availability: Available on DVD from Disney’s “Treasure” series on Nov 11, 2008.
“Destino” originated as an unlikely collaboration between Walt Disney and Salvador Dali back in 1945, but the project was never finished until Roy Edward Disney rediscovered the project in 2003 and cobbled it into a polished finished product. I saw it run before “Triplets of Bellville” several years ago and it outshone even that fine feature. After a bit of dawdling, Disney is finally preparing it for DVD.

The short follows a ballerina through a series of bleak Dali-esque landscapes of spindly ruins, melting objects and warped artifacts. It captures the unsettling charm and evocative vision of the great surrealist, complete with his irreverence, weirdness and, above all, imagination.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Poor Little Animated Shorts: Gothic Horror Edition

Title: Vincent (1982)
Director: Tim Burton
Time: 6 minutes
Availability: Bonus feature on the “Nightmare Before Christmas” special edition DVD or on YouTube here.
You can see elements of most of his later films in Tim Burton’s “Vincent,” a humorous story about a boy named Vincent Malloy who wishes he was Vincent Price. He fantasizes a macabre environment and tortured existence based around the plots of old Price horror movies, visually rendered in “Cabinet of Caligari”-esque expressionism full of high-contrast shadows and gloomy fatalism. Vincent Price himself provides the rhyming narration.

A perfect pairing for “The Nightmare Before Christmas” (you can even see the prototype for Jack Skellington if you look closely), Burton really displayed his budding talent for gothic charm. Despite the kid-friendly atmosphere and underlying silliness, Burton has the intelligence to fit his film with a tragic arc rather than deflate his miniature masterpiece with a punchline. The stop-motion effects and minute sets were way ahead of their time.

Title: The Tell-Tale Heart (1953)
Director: Ted Parmelee
Time: 8 minutes
Availability: Bonus feature on the “Hellboy” DVD or on YouTube here.
UPA’s adaptation of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” is narrated by James Mason. He does an excellent job delivering the inherit creepiness of an insane man who doesn’t consider himself insane, just a little nervous. Except that most people who are just high-strung don’t become obsesses with the bulging eye of an old man hey take care of. The deranged protagonist plots to savagely slay the elderly gent and bury the body under the floor. Now if only his heart would stop beating, beating, beating.

UPA (United Productions of America) teamed with Columbia Pictures to become a sort of edgy alternative to Disney realism and Warner Brothers wackiness. Though several of their animated shorts like “Gerald McBoing Boing” (available on the “5000 Fingers of Dr. T” DVD) have achieved cult status, few of their films ever matched story, image and audio so perfectly as this short. The odds transitions, bizarre angles, dark lighting and mature themes were the result of cheap animation techniques and a genuine desire to expand their audience. Adults took notice and hailed the film, but they kept their kids at home. In fact, British censors slapped it with a X-rating, a first in the animation industry.

Title: Street of Crocodiles (1986)
Director: The Brothers Quay
Time: 21 minutes
Availability: “The Brothers Quay Collection” DVD or pretty much any Quay anthology. You can also turn it up on YouTube though you’ll lose much of the textural detail that lends the film its unique atmosphere.
“Street of Crocodiles” is a stop-motion adaptation of brooding Polish writer Bruno Schulz’s (the same author who penned “The Hourglass Sanatorium”) short story. The Brothers Quay beckon it to life with their trademark tactile detail and haunting despair. The story, though vague, seems to be about the tentative adventures of a marionette who comes to life after his strings are severed by a man shutting down a theater during a live-action intro. The silent puppet wanders through a dreary rundown habitat covered in dust, grime and mechanical clockworks. He observes the tawdriness of his artificial world and eventually encounters a race of baby-faced dolls that conduct mysterious operations.

Probably the most acclaimed of the Quay’s work, the film is still not particularly accessible and moves with the slow, monotony of a funeral dirge. The pace fits the doom-laden locale which is meticulously sculpted from an assemblage of discarded newspapers, glass, lightbulbs, nails, rags and dolls. It is ultimately less of a story than texture/tone poem full of technical virtuosity. The brothers were early pioneers in the delicate craft of adding camera movement and focus pulls to stop-motion. The short would go on to influence Terry Gilliam (who called it one of the ten greatest animations of all time) and the brilliant Nine Inch Nails music video “Closer” amongst others.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Poor Little Animated Shorts: Nostalgia Edition

Title: Rikki-Tikki-Tavi (1975)
Director: Chuck Jones
Time: 25 minutes
Availability: On DVD from Family Home Entertainment
This was sort of a family favorite growing up, and I watched it many times. I was too young to understand how awesome it was that you got Chuck Jones adapting Rudyard Kipling with narration by Orson Welles, but I clearly had good taste even from an early age. The story follows the friendship between an English family in India and the titular mongoose. A pair of evil cobras resents the interlopers and plans to kill the family’s boy, forcing Rikki-Tikki-Tavi to summon all the courage he can muster. The animation is not particularly sophisticated, but it communicates a deep sense of place, often times shaping the personality of the characters through color, texture and mise-en-scene.

I always hated “The Jungle Book” (the movie) and vastly preferred this humbler Kipling adaptation. Seen today, the film has some awkward wisps of imperialism (where are all the Indian people anyway?) and an overly pointed agenda about the importance of duty and bravery, but in many ways it is surprisingly mature (not to mention scary) for a children’s movie. The depiction of the scheming cobra couple with their soon-to-hatch eggs presents a dark mirror version of the humans, both of whom are willing to murder for the sake of their offspring. Underneath it all is a complicated message about patriarchy, xenophobia and violence that is far subtler than a first glance would reveal.

Title: Rupert and the Frog Song (1984)
Director: Geoff Dunbar
Time: 13 minutes
Availability: On the DVD of same title, and an abbreviated version on “We All Stand Together,” or on continuous loop at the Museum of Canterbury. It can also be found in two parts on YouTube, although the truncated version is inferior.
As the son of a die-hard Beatles fan, it should not be surprising that my family owned a tape of Paul McCartney’s short-lived animation studio. The frog song is basically an animated music video set within the universe of the British serial comic and TV show “Rupert.” In the framing device, Rupert Bear goes into the hills to play and eventually finds his way into a cave where he witnesses a secret society of frogs that sing a grandly choreographed orchestration, “We All Stand Together,” once every 200 years. The animation is a delirious blend of anthropomorphized frogs croaking and dancing interspersed with several sequences of amphibious abstraction.

“Rupert and the Frog Song” was a major hit in 1984, hitting #3 on the UK charts, becoming a top-selling short and winning a BAFTA. Across the pond it was hardly noticed, but it left a definite effect on my childhood. The sense of mystery and conspiracy, combined with the vocal variety and dusk-time scenery still impress me today.

Title: Tummy Trouble (1989)
Director: Rob Minkoff
Time: 7 minutes
Availability: On the “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” special edition DVD.
After the success of “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” several Roger Rabbit shorts were made to play before other feature films, a practice which had died out twenty years earlier. “Tummy Trouble” played before “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids,” and featured the usual setup of incompetent babysitter Roger Rabbit getting left in charge of Baby Herman. When the infant swallows his rattle, Roger rushes him to the hospital, but ends up with the surgery being conducted on him (with dubious medical instruments that include a chainsaw and a “hare”-splitting laser). The resulting debacle wreaks havoc throughout the hospital, generally inverting the care-giving potential of everything nearby. Jessica Rabbit, sultry voice courtesy of Kathleen Turner, makes an appearance as a nurse.

Though not as funny as the feature-length “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” and its preliminary short “Somethin’s Cooking,” this was my favorite of the stand-alone Roger Rabbit cycle (others include “Roller Coaster Rabbit,” which was shown before “Dick Tracy,” and “Trail Mix-Up”). The hyperactive slapstick zaniness on display throughout may not be as appealing to me today, but it took the action of Looney Tunes and Merry Melodies up a notch. I’m still impressed by the breakneck, imaginative violence, which strings together sequences of manic hyperbolic brutality that still get a smile from me today.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Poor Little Animated Shorts: An Introduction

I have always been a fan of feature films over shorts, television and internet videos, though increasingly it has become clear that traditional theatrical screenings are only one facet of what used to be called motion pictures. It’s tough to keep up; there are many more shorts made every year than feature length films, and yet I watch far fewer. So admittedly, I’m no expert. However, I have taken a recent plunge deeper into the world of animated shorts, and I thought I might share my impressions, call out some favorites and draw attention to a few neglected items of interest.

It helps that shorts are more accessible than ever before. There is YouTube, anthology DVDs and many websites set up by the creators where you can watch the shorts free and in their entirety (this is far rarer for feature films, where higher costs and higher profits are at stake). DVDs cover ground from Looney Tunes Golden Collection of classic cartoons to oddball themed collections like “Cartoon Noir,” and from the Masters of Russian Animation set with its admirable historical survey of serious Soviet shorts to the postcyberpunk tie-in project "The Animatrix." In addition, many shorts show up in the special features of full-length film DVDs, a generous way of reviving and redistributing works that would not be marketable alone. As part of this series, I will try to provide links or DVD advice for how to find the animated shorts I discuss.

In catching myself somewhat up to speed, I have used several sources, including the Jerry Beck’s 1994 book “The 50 Greatest Cartoons: As Selected by 1,000 Animation Professionals,” the nominee lists for the short animation academy award which has been given out since 1931, “They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They?” and a many others. I haven’t had the time to even scratch the surface, but I’ve at least started to grasp the scope of what’s out there.

As I said, this is far from my specialty, so I’m going to do this series as more of an overview of shorts I find noteworthy for one reason or another. I simply haven’t seen enough to rank them or to offer a complete historical overview. There will be widely-recognized “obvious” shorts along with some obscure items. There will be classic cartoons, ambitious works of high-minded art and blatant concessions to nostalgia. I’m including CG, claymation, stop motion and several shorts that stretch the definition of animation, but which fit better here than in the “live-action” category.

I hope everyone will enjoy! Oh, and send suggestions: I’ll add new installments as I view more.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Review of Eden and After

This February, novelist and filmmaker Alain Robbe-Grillet died. The news was not nearly as publicized as last year’s passing of directors Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni, perhaps because virtually no Robbe-Grillet films are available on DVD. At the time of his death I hadn’t read any books or seen any movies by the French surrealist, though I was highly interested in his work. One reason was that he’d written the screenplay for “Last Year in Marienbad” (1961), a movie over which I constantly obsess.

Over the last month I made it a top priority to see two Robbe-Grillet films, “Trans-Europe-Express” (1966) and “Eden and After” (1970). The presence of Jean-Louis Trintignant and some misguided information that the film was linked with the Kraftwerk album of the same name focused my efforts towards “Trans-Europe-Express,” but ultimately it was the latter film (suggested by Cinebeats) that proved more rewarding.

“Eden and After” can be divided into three sections by location: Eden, a factory just outside Eden and a coastal Middle-Eastern region which dominates the film’s second half. Eden is a combination nightclub, playpen, Piet Mondrian installation, and house of mirrors. Those outside of Eden speculate about the hedonism and crime that goes on within, while the jaded sensualists that haunt the place act out the creative rumors from sheer boredom. They live a life free from responsibility, emotion and truth, occupying most of their time with word association, exotic role-playing games, hallucinogenic drugs and mock funerals. Franz, a waiter who “feigns to be bizarre and ominous” serves drinks.

This charmed, but meaningless existence is shattered by the arrival of “The Stranger” from the outside world. Violette (Catherine Jourdan), a short-haired girl from Eden, samples his “powder of fear” and experiences a powerful series of horrifying visions and sensations. She soon emerges as the main character during a terrifying night in the industrial landscape that surrounds Eden. When she returns to her living quarters she finds that a valuable abstract painting, her only possession, has been stolen. She journeys to the Middle-East to recover it, but finds that so-called reality is a nightmare wonderland far stranger and crueler than her sheltered fantasy-life in Eden.

It’s a testament to Robbe-Grillet’s skill as a provocative surrealist that at times I felt that his allegories were plainly spelled out, but moments later I would be utterly baffled as to the precise meanings. Certainly the title and plot have a death of innocence hue, and they work both as a metaphor for the personal transition from home/school to independence/work and for the sixties counter-culture watching its idealism turn trite or grow corrupt. Yet this hardly works as a skeleton key for unlocking the full meaning behind the story. Besides, much of the film’s magic comes from its mythic spirit-quest delivery that relies more on the emotional and psychological impact of individual images (whether they be upsetting, erotic or just aesthetically intriguing) than on overt metaphors or fables.

One thing I like about “Eden and After” is the way that it deals with the nature of reality and abstraction. Like many of my favorite directors, Robbe-Grillet does not draw a clear line between fantasy and reality. However, unlike Terry Gilliam or Jean-Pierre Jeunet, the audience’s sympathy is not stacked in favor of fantasy through a tacit value system that exalts imagination and novelty. In “Trans-Europe-Express” and “Eden and After” the excursions outside reality are loaded with dark intimations. The opportunity for new possibilities goes hand-in-hand with untold dangers.

The director’s ambivalence towards fantasy/reality is quite pronounced. It is not even clear exactly how the central dichotomy (“Eden” versus “After”) is situated. Does Eden represent a sheltered fantasy world while the outside chaos is reality? Maybe the passionless malaise of Eden is a metaphor for bourgeois life while the intense escapades that ensue outside are actually the exciting dream-adventures for which the Edenites yearn. (At one point a bored Russian roulette player wistfully wishes he were playing with real bullets.). Either way, Eden is no paradise and the external world bears little similarity to our own so it remains difficult to reliably anchor an interpretation.

Though their meaning is debatable, the relationship between “Eden” and “After” remains the main object of interest for me. Some thoughts on it:

Almost all of the role-playing and story-telling that are played out in the facility have analogues in Violette’s outside quest, implying that Eden is a training ground or shadow simulation. Then there is the hallucinations triggered by the powder of fear, later revealed to be largely accurate glimpses of the future. Are we then to suppose that everything “after” Eden is merely a continuation of this drug episode, no more real than the other antics, or is it an honest fulfillment of a predetermined destiny? What are we to make of Violette’s beloved abstract painting, which eventually turns out to be a landscape, albeit turned sideways? Its theft motivates Violette’s extended odyssey and yet she ultimately dismisses it as “that absurd little painting.”

“Eden and After’s” visual motifs vary throughout the three major settings, but the tone remains consistent. Robbe-Grillet indulges his fascinated with the formal properties of image-making, particularly the division of the frame with strong lines, the relationships between colors and the contrast of abstract geometry with the complexities (and often the sensuality) of the human form. His conception of interior design and architecture is uninviting and sparse whether he is dealing with the colored partitions and rectangle mirrors of Eden, the clanking metal struts and menacing cylinders of the factory or the white-walled domes and blue-trimmed apertures that populate the Middle-Eastern village. There is often a sexual quality to his work, most conspicuously in several scenes of bondage and captivity (a theme that runs through “Trans-Europe-Express” as well). Robbe-Grillet’s painterly eye for form and composition is all the more impressive given his background as a novelist.

There’s much more to be said about the film and many individual sequences that I’d like to single out, but it will have to wait until I’ve seen the film a second time. It does a wonderful job speaking for itself and I don’t want to spoil too many of the surprises. Yet, like many of art house films I mention on my blog, it’s hard for me to guess what type of viewer will appreciate the film enough to make it worthwhile for them to seek out. Here's one litmus test: “Eden and After” would likely appeal to anyone who liked two or more of the following directors: Terry Gilliam, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Alain Resnais, Luis Bunuel and Raoul Ruiz.

Walrus Rating: 9.0

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Hall of Strangeness Part XXVII

The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh – (Sergio Martino) Sergio Martino often gets unfairly designated as the fourth wheel on the Italian horror tricycle of Argento, Bava and Fulci. One of his best films, Strange Vice mixes excessive violence, copious nudity and plenty of last minute plot twists into a stylish giallo that fans of the subgenre should not miss. Edwige Fenech, in the title role, possesses a feral beauty that fits the perverse tone precisely.
Artistry: ** Fun: *** Strangeness: ***

Switchblade Sisters – (Jack Hill) Othello receives an unlikely adaptation as an exploitive B-movie about an all-girl gang called The Dagger Debs. The imperturbable Maggie quickly ascends to leader Lace’s right-hand position just in time to swap switchblades for automatic weaponry as gang wars and intrigue mount.
Artistry: * Fun: *** Strangeness: **

Suture – (Scott McGehee & David Siegel) With a murder investigation closing in, Vincent decides to kill his look-alike brother, Clay, (whom no one has ever met) in a car accident to convince the police that he, Vincent, is dead. There’s only one problem… and it isn’t the apparently obvious yet never mentioned fact that Vincent is white, Clay is black and the two look nothing alike. Post-modern to the core and bitterly cold in tone, Suture is a unsung, subtle masterpiece of the indie circuit, full of wit, grace and depth.
Artistry: **** Fun: ** Strangeness: **

Sweet Movie – (Dusan Makavejev) Yugoslavian auteur Makavejev transmutes shoestring budgets into brilliant set pieces including a checkerboard river barge with a 15-ft high Lenin-bust on its prow and a suspended sugar tub in the hold. And that’s just the lesser of two parallel stories. In the other, Miss World Virgin marries a thick-headed American billionaire, but flees in disgust from his hygiene fetish and golden phallus. She experiences a globe-trotting Dante-esque journey that terminates in a chocolate-coated porn commercial. Makavejev’s shocking, overflowing opus continues to be banned in the UK after more than 30 years and still holds the power to offend even jaded modern viewers. Nevertheless, the director manages to provoke awe as much as outrage, contemplation as often as contempt.
Artistry: *** Fun: * Strangeness: *****

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance – (Park Chan-wook) After being hoodwinked of 10 million won and a kidney by the black market, deaf-mute Ryu takes the law into his own hands. Conspiring with his politically dissident girlfriend, he kidnaps the daughter of a businessman loosely associated with his heartless boss. Soon the unpredictable spiral of revenge spins out of control and exquisite tragedy results. Followed by two thematic sequels that are worthwhile films in their own right: Oldboy and Lady Vengeance.
Artistry: **** Fun: **** Strangeness: ***

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Review of The Black Belly of the Tarantula

Quick trivia question. Are there more governors in “Predator” (1987) or bond girls in “The Black Belly of the Tarantula” (1971)? No fair using the title of this review as a hint. In the final count Black Belly wins by one, with Barbara Bouchet (“Casino Royale”), Claudine Auger (“Thunderball”) and Barbara Bach (“The Spy Who Loved Me”) compared to Arnold Schwarzeneggar (California) and Jesse Ventura (Minnesota) . If Sonny Landham had won his 2003 gubernatorial campaign in Kentucky, they would have tied.

[Image: Barbara Bouchet in “The Black Belly of the Tarantula.”]

The opening “full body” massage with Barbara Bouchet will quickly dispel any lingering concern that this movie might be a drab arachnid documentary. Bouchet, a Czech-born actress, also starred in “The Red Queen Kills Seven Times,” “Don’t Torture a Duckling” and several other gialli. This time around, she gets herself stabbed to death within the first ten minutes of this film. However, I’m not about to let her relatively insignificant role in the film stop me from referencing this incriminating picture:

[Image: Barbara Bouchet as Kalinda in the original Star Trek, a malicious alien who takes the form of a sexy go-go dancer. William Shatner defeats her by aggressively teaching her how to make out, an attack that is the show used more often and more effectively than phasers. ]

Given her appearances in a James Bond movie, Star Trek and half a dozen gialli, I think Bouchet might just out-kitsch Jane Fonda.

But like I said, she gets stabbed to death before the protagonist even shows up. When the real star does waltz in, it’s Giancarlo Giannini! I’d just seen him in “Swept Away,” but it was tough to recognize him with the clean-shaven chin, bland suit and calm, capitalist demeanor. Incidentally, Giannini also appeared in a bond movie. He played Mathis in “Casino Royale.” That’s the 2006 version, not the 1967 version where Bouchet plays Moneypenny.

Anyway, Giannini plays Inspector Tellini, a man on the hunt for a serial killer who injects a poisoned needle into the spine of his victims so that they are helplessly paralyzed while he carves them up. This is all rather explicitly explained through a later scene wherein an entomologist describes the way a wasp stings and lays eggs within a tarantula. I guess that makes the many female victims in the movie the spiders. Go figure.

[Image: Rawg Aarrrg… Zzzzz bzzz cha… Krrrr. I composed my own soundtrack to go with the stock footage.]

Tellini quickly deduces that the sand in the tarantula terrarium isn’t sand at all. The wily entomologist is smuggling cocaine into the country via containers that no customs officer would dare to inspect closely. Possibly the best part about the whole extended tarantula scene is that it has NOTHING to do with the rest of the movie. Even the cocaine bust is entirely tangential (tarantugential?) to the plot!

[Image: Tarantulas are on my rather long list of creatures never to get hopped up on coke. Others apparently disagree.]

This irrelevant side story is symptomatic of “The Black Belly of the Tarantula” and goes a long way towards exposing its chief problem: really jagged and uneven writing. The film goes out of its way to make you think at least seven different red herrings are the real killer. The audience spends so long being distracted with potential killers that come and go at random, it’s a little difficult to follow the trail of clues.

[Images: Some of the many suspects still being introduced with less than 20 minutes to go in the film.]

One particular instance of misdirection is a photograph that figures as the prime piece of evidence for the first half of the film. In the background, out a window, you can see a jet landing. The detective speculates about using the size and trajectory of the plane to calculate where the photo was taken. After postulating this interesting line of attack the issue is never mentioned again. The killer is tracked by an entirely different means.

[Image: A jet landing in the background of a portrait. One of several intriguing, but ultimately pointless clues.]

Aside from the meandering plot, the film is actually quite excellent. Blue Underground has done an amazing job with the transfer and even provided an Italian language option with English subtitles in addition to the usual dub. Director Paolo Cavara did not have a particularly prolific or noteworthy career, but his handing of “Black Belly” is quite interesting. He leans too heavily on a strict structure of introducing and then snuffing out a new (usually gorgeous and female) character about every 15 minutes. He also relies on too many stock horror devices (“I can’t talk over the phone. I’ll tell you the identity of the killer when you drive over in person.”), but his technique really elevates the material.

For example, an early scene shows a red-head combing her hair at a mirror in an empty department store. She hears a noise and soon realizes that there is a killer nearby. She panics and does what every good murder victim does: she flees into the nearest chamber of manikins. On paper, there is nothing very inspired in this scene.

What makes it interesting is the camerawork and editing (well, also Ennio Morricone’s brilliant soundtrack). Paolo shoots the first minute of rising tension in compositions where a large portion of the image is blocked off. We see fragments of the woman coming up stars or moving past clothes racks from odd angles (including the floor). These shots are easily distinguishable from the killer’s POV, but they make us nervous just the same. The unusual framings are much easier to appreciate than the overdone alternative for inducing audience disorientation: extreme darkness.

[Image: One of Paolo’s fragment shot is a focus pull between a manikin’s profile and the victim’s. The way it doubles up the eye-line match adds to the eerie sense of being watched.]

The cut-rate increases throughout the scene, becoming fast and erratic by the end. When the killer finally strikes, rapid intercutting between the villain, the victim and the manikins makes the isolated murder seem more like a riot. The shot just before the killer lunges (see below) matches the line of motion by having a manikin swing into the camera. It flashes so briefly (less than a second) that we hardly notice that it wasn’t even recorded on the same set. The creepiness registers, even if the precise details do not.

[Image: Do not embrace.]

Paolo uses similar tricks to enhance or complicate the visceral impact during several of the murders. In Barbara Bouchet’s case, he alternates between a close-up of the knife being drawn through the stomach and a close-up of Bouchet’s face. Because the killer has paralyzed her, an emotional response can not be shown with anguished expressions. Instead, the emphasis is focused on the knife wound, a particularly blood and drawn out slash. The shot lengths maintain a consistent cadence of about two second on the stomach, half a second on the face, over several cycles. This type of uneven rhythm is far rarer than the escalating tempo mentioned in the previous scene and helps to artistically mask the real reason for not using a master shot (the face is real, but the body is a blood-filled dummy) for the entire sequence.

[Image: Paolo finishes the murder scene by breaking his alternating pattern and cutting to a spilled bottle, a nice associative stand-in for the classical pool of blood.]

The type of clever manipulation that makes the bottle work also gets a delayed jump-scare at another point in the film. Several times we see the hands of the killer preparing his needles. In these shots, we come to associate the killer with his gloves (not unusual except that his gloves are brown rather than the tradition black), but also with the distinctive lamp whose light he works by. Much later in the film, a female character comes to spend a night at a friend’s apartment. The camera slowly pans right, eventually coming to rest on the lamp. The audience experiences a brief beat of recognition before the shock/horror can set in. It is a little more subtle and crafty of a reaction than simply showing us the weapon or a body or something else that is only a single degree of separation from the ensuing crime.

The examples I’ve given so far are fairly straight-forward in both their motivations and intended reactions, but other cases are more ambiguous. There are definitely moments throughout “Black Belly” that seem to have higher aspirations than the frequently trashy trapping.

[Images: Don’t get me wrong, the film is “trashy.”]

Again, the most compelling artistic flairs flare up during murder sequences. Consider the following series of three consecutive shots.

A frighten woman, who is being blackmailed, comes in off the street and up the stairs to her apartment. She immediately locks the door behind her.
The killer, not far behind, gently tries the handle from the other side.
The detective, at the outside threshold, rings the doorbell to meet with the woman.

The conspicuous similarities between the shots make for palpable tension, implying the proximity of the three actions. More obviously, it draws a common thread through the three characters, each theoretically playing out very different archetypes. This unexpected unity is disconcerting; especially on top of the uneasy confusion of roles that Paolo infuses throughout this section.

At first, the audience is led to believe that the woman is actually the killer. Note, also, that she wears black gloves while the killer dons a softer shade. Once it becomes obvious that she is not a suspect, Inspector Tellini adopts the part of blackmailer (the real one is actually dead) to make contact with the woman. When she finally does open the door, it is the detective waiting, standing in the place where the killer was moments before. Though I can’t say for sure what Paolo’s full purpose intentions were, I think he creates a certain sense of moral ambiguity and shared culpability within the conventional partitions of cop, killer and victim.

This theory is reinforced by the final confrontation between Tellini and the murderer. The enraged inspector slams the killer against the wall repeatedly. With each blow, Paolo cuts through a rapid montage of the villain’s crimes and corpses. Tellini’s brutality is rendered in markedly unflatteringly close-ups, intercut with rhyming shots of the killer’s bloodied mug. Is the implication that Tellini is equally capable of murder, and even sadism, when pushed to the right mental condition? Maybe it’s just justification so the audience will excuse his violent behavior? [SPOILER next line] The fact that Tellini ends the moving by retiring, saying something about not being able to take it, makes me think he saw something in himself that he likes a little as the traumatic case itself.

[Image: Tellini’s not-so-valiant defeat of the killer juxtaposed with the very violence that he is trying to avenge.]

Even beyond these little editing excursions “The Black Belly of the Tarantula” is a visual pleasure. Paolo seems to prefer nudity to fashion, but the art and décor are in high style.

[Image: I don’t know which is more tasteless: the phone, the glasses or the wall art.]
[Image: The sets abound with spherical lighting, pop art and blankets sewn from arctic foxes.]

Paolo may not be as bold with color as Bava and Miraglia or as eccentric with architecture as Argento, but he knows how to pick a location and stage a scene to work with the drama. One chase scene in particular chews through several memorable set pieces (including a needle/knife-like sculpture), really accentuated by the creative camera positioning. When the chase moves to the rooftop, one shot leans acrophobically over the edge to look down at a crimson car driving past. We then cut to a view from the moving vehicle, cruising by the building. The main action is still up above, but this cues us for later developments with the mysterious driver.

[Images: Can you find all the characters in each of these shots? Answers: (Top) 2 in the rear-ground through the glass, in the center. (Middle) 2 on the second twist of the spiral stairs. (Bottom) 2 in the foreground, 2 on the rooftop.]

A quieter example makes use of a white birch forest. Tellini and his wife go there after he views some uncomfortable evidence that the killer is targeting him. While ostensibly a typical retreat from the city into the comfort of nature, the tall, pale and sparse trees are hardly a reassuring sight. Several insert shots show close-ups of the sharp, sawn branches, once again reminding us of the needle/knife.

An attempt on Tellini’s life magnifies the needle/knife metaphor to an industrial level. The escalation is presumably required for dealing with the active male foe as opposed to the easy female prey.

[Image: An attack with pipe pikes, or as I like to call them, mecha-needles.]

Lastly, I want to applaud Morricone’s distinctive soundtrack. It ranges from prickly, plucking tension pieces to smooth 60’s pop with a little bit of vocals. One of the best tracks mixes in heavy breathing that, depending on the context, is either sultry or creepy. Trust Morricone to get just the right intonation so that it sounds like post-coital sighs one moment, and the ominous heavy breathing of a psychotic stalker the next. In the films melancholic conclusion it plays over Tellini as he fades into a crowd and it suddenly sounds like the exhausted exhalations of a beaten man.

[Image: Still caught in the web after all?]

“The Black Belly of the Tarantula” may not be on the core curriculum of gialli, but it is certainly fun. The play between reliable clichés and technical innovations makes can satisfy both fans of “classical” giallo-thrillers and the more eccentric experiments.

Walrus Rating: 8.0

Thursday, March 6, 2008

One Night in Chicago

It has been almost a year exactly since I went to Chicago to see “El Topo” at a midnight revival screening. I was excited about the trip, but nervous about how overtly obsessive it seemed to travel 5 hours “just” for a movie. Ultimately, I didn’t regret the experience one bit and Katie and I made excellent use of Chicago in the short span of our stay.

Partly as a consequence of writing about “El Topo” and Jodorowsky’s later film, “The Holy Mountain,” I came into contact with Joe D of Film Forno and quickly became an enthusiastic fan of his blog. So when I heard that his feature film directorial debut was playing up near Chicago, it seemed like fate for Katie and I to take the journey north once more. Once again, we were not to be disappointed.

Upon arriving in the city Saturday morning, we met up with my good friend Derek. Derek was my roommate for two years (including at the time of my first trip to Chicago) and currently studies law at the University of Chicago. He took us to a little local restaurant called Orly’s, which just happened to have the greatest French toast ever (brown sugar batter as thick as a funnel cake!). They also served a medley of regular, curly and waffle fries with every meal and dished up a scrumptious bbq sandwich that nearly compared to my youthful years in Kansas.

We visited the Museum of Science and Industry (which could more accurately have been called the Museum of Science and Industry and Fairy Castles) and did everything from turning exotic gears (A major highlight. This is not as lame to gush about as you would think.) to cooing over freshly-hatched chicks. Both science and industry held their own, but the Fairy Castle would have to be my dark horse winner. Afterwards, we drove by the Robie House, an residential architectural masterpiece by Frank Lloyd Wright that I had wanted to check out.

Derek, being an open-minded film fan himself, joined us on a short hop over to Lake County for the film festival. After some confusion with the venue, we found our way to the screening. A deadpan Jarmusch-esque short, “A Perfect Place,” preceded the film. It shared star Mark Boone Junior with the main showing, “One Night with You.” Joe’s feature is a mix of dark comedy and modern noir with a sharp eye for dialogue, timing and character. It got quite a few genuine laughs from the whole gang and we all roundly gave it our thumbs up. It should be in theaters or available on DVD soon.

After the film I introduced myself to Joe and his wife/producer Heather. I’d previously kept my coming a secret, implying that I wouldn’t be able to make the trip when he first announced the screening. Our first in-person encounter went quite well, and we all found ourselves sharing dinner and talking late into the evening. Evidence continued to abound that our tastes coincide and I look forward to seeing more of Joe’s work in the future. You can read Joe’s post about his stay in Chicago and see his photos of SuperDawg and of us (Heather is holding the camera) here.

Katie and I set out on our return at about midnight and made it in around 5:30 am Sunday. After some much-needed rest, it was time to go out to the theater and check out “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” further verification that we are in the midst of a Romanian New Wave.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Review of Giants & Toys

Yasuzo Masumura has been a revelation for me. I never came across his name during my association with Japanese film fans more hardcore than I nor in reading books like Chris Desjardins’ “Outlaw Masters of Japanese Cinema” where, by all rights, he should be featured. A little distribution company called Fantoma has been quietly releasing Masumura’s films and totally rocking my world.

Masumura combines the best of his post-occupation contemporaries: the political hysteria of New Wave directors like Nagisa Oshima* and the pop-art excesses of genre-innovators like Seijun Suzuki. Masumura has the rebellious attitudes of both, ruthlessly dishing out social criticism, controversial content and stylistic experimentation in a career of thoroughly interesting films. I’ve recently had the pleasure of watching his powerful medical war drama “Red Angel” (1966) and his indictment of corporate morality and capitalist society in “Giants & Toys” (1958). I look forward to watching everything by Masumura that Fantoma makes available.

“Giants & Toys” (1958) takes place during a ridiculously allegorical three-way market war between rival caramel companies World, Giant and Apollo. Each manufacturer is under intense pressure to step up sales and they all resort to the same gimmick: prizes. Nishi, our naïve protagonist, is a new hire in the marketing department of World. In the type of implausible touch that makes me so love Japanese cinema, his best friend from school is a new hire in Giant’s marketing department and his hard-edged girlfriend is the rising publicity chief for Apollo.

The three competing up-and-comers quickly stretch their friendships to the breaking point as they spy on and one-up each other’s prize campaigns. World chooses a timely space theme, Giant hires a caveman mascot and offers exotic pets and Apollo preys on the dreams of the masses by touting that they will subsidize a life “from the cradle to the wedding.” Central to the story is World’s coached and constructed spokesperson, Kyoko, a pretty taxi-driver whose teeth have been rotted by candy. Nishi, who she nurtures a crush for, witnesses her tailor-made rise to fame and ultimately becomes her unofficial manager.

[Images: The space campaign.]

As a satire of Japanese culture in the late 1950’s, you couldn’t ask for more. The depiction of pop star vanity and corporate greed is about as searing as they come. Morality and ethics fly out the window when profits are at stake, every insincere idea to exploit the public is given the green light and former pals race to backstab each other for the slightest gain. Masumura cuts a vicious swath through Japanese society and leaves any number of lesser themes bleeding to the wayside: marketing as mind-control, media saturation, the banality of tv/movie tie-ins, nepotism, the fabrication of fame, sexual undertones in children’s advertising, the apathy and amorality of youth culture, inter-Asian racism, obsessive fascination with technology and more. Masumura even hitches his satire to America, making an unmistakable accusation as to the origin of this runaway-train capitalism: when an executive is asked whether the trends of American children will apply to Japan, he dismisses the question as inept, “Japan is America.”

[Image: The pop-art intro credits are followed by a sequence of ad imagery multiplying exponentially, like a zygote… or a virus.]

Masumura isn’t one for subtlety, but his brand of literalism is creatively entertaining. The company being called World, for instance, is both hilariously generic and overtly symbolic. Another example is the acute stomach aches suffered by the corporate cut-throats. The cause is implied to be some combination of too much candy, unremitting stress and late-career conscience pangs. At one point the newly appointed director, mad with greed and ambition, coughs up blood on his hard-won promotion papers. Later, as he looks out over the headquarters and raves about the need for underhanded tactics, he glows a demonic red, lit by the neon logo outside.

[Image: Shameless, but effective.]

Masumura knows where to put the camera to maximize his meaning; one of his other throw-away symbolism shots has Kyoko visually buried alive under the bouquets of worshipful fans. Another interesting image that reoccurs throughout the first half of the film is a cigarette lighter that refuses to light. Though it could have been a meager metaphor for a “broken” society, Masumura uses it as a trigger for several montages. The super-imposed lighter throws impotent sparks as the camera lingers over the caramel production cycle or the launching of a publicity campaign. I’m not sure I entirely get it… but it’s memorable.
[Images: The sparks from a lighter appear over a tour of the caramel factory in the first of several lighter-related montages.]

Camerawork is key to Masumura’s distinct appeal. His haphazard cutting often violates basic principles of continuity and clarity and yet he never loses a sense of coherence. He establishes a sense of three-dimensional space by keeping the camera mobile, frequently partitioning each shot into a series of two or more movements along different lines. The combination of gentle glides, whip-pans (and whip-tilts), inward tracking and sudden motion (as when a character stands up or crosses the frame) keeps the action perpetually shifting at right angles. Though unexpected cuts keep changing our orientation, we eventually navigate the sets such that we know our way around.

The TohoScope cinematography is brightly lit, capturing the corporate underworld in the harsh glare of spot-lights, camera flashes and cheerful daylight. Yet under the shimmering veneer masks an economic cage-match where you must, “Eat or be eaten. Cheat or be cheated.” “Giants & Toys” is not a big-budget film and it doesn’t have a great deal of either polish or atmosphere, but the contradictory optimism and pessimism on display captures the mood of a society trading its traditions and morals for technology and luxury. A typical movie treatment of this transition period would close the curtains on some complacent compromise, but here equilibrium is never achieved. Masumura’s world remains steadfastly off balance.

[Image: The talented, but chauvinistic photographer that orchestrates Kyoko’s modeling career. Note the lighter once again visibly superimposed.]

Oddly, Nishi’s lead is one of these least compelling aspects of the film. His earnest naivety prevents him from developing as deeply as Oshima’s cruel youths and drags him through a predictable series of disillusionments. He is full of contradictions, like his blunt attempts at subterfuge while pleading for fairness or his rejection of Kyoko on principle while dating a far more malicious character. I’m not sure if I should interpret these as poor scripting or good characterization; I suppose most of us are riddled with inconsistencies. There are a couple moments that imply the soul-searching not quite realized elsewhere, as when he stares without comment at the former female promoter whose career was left in the wake. Kyoko, conversely, has no trouble capitalizing on her position. She jettisons her qualms as she rockets from B-grade astronaut actress to full-blown diva.

[Images: Shots from Kyoko’s meteoric career.]

If you like the subgenres which pool in the seams between 1950’s and 1960’s Japan, like the counter-culture youth films, sun-tribe pics, political diatribes, stylish low-budget yakuza flicks and the like, then “Giants & Toys” will be a safe bet. It’s not nearly as wild as modern voyages into Japanese weirdness, but it has an earthier satiric tone that makes the cultural criticism actually count.

I tip my hat to Fantoma for unearthing such rich treasure.

Walrus Rating: 8.0

* As a special bulletin for fans of Oshima or Japanese film in general, Criterion has confirmed that they will be putting out a special release of “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence,” a Japanese prison movie starring Beat Takashi Kitano and David Bowie. I’ve been hoping to catch the film for several years now. The film is not (yet?) listed on their coming releases page.