Friday 30 April 2010

Humanity and Paper Balloons

I've had internet problems so therefore I haven't written anything in ten days. But now a technician has sorted it all out and hence I'm back.

Japanese cinema is of course acknowledged as being among the world's richest national cinemas, and yet so little of what it has to offer has been made available in the west. Now fortunately more and more of the films made by Mikio Naruse, one of my absolute favourite filmmakers, are being released on DVD, but of the classical era so little beside Yasujiro Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi and Akira Kurosawa is available.

A case in point are the films by director Sadao Yamanaka. He had a short career (he died in Manchuria in 1938, 29 years old, after being drafted to the Japanese army), and most of his films are apparently lost. And only one is available on DVD that I know of, a film with the most poetic of titles, Humanity and Paper Balloons (Ninjo kami fusen, 1937). But what a film that is!

It's a jidai-geki, the Japanese term for films in a historical setting, set around a few buildings and a few characters in Tokyo in the 18th century. Slowly and meticulously it builds up to its tragic ending, with a tight script and a closed set. A closed, but varied and detailed set, which Sadao Yamanaka and his DoP Akira Mimura has shot with a great depth of field and bold compositions. One example is when the main character, a ronin, sits and wait for Mr Moro, and we see him in the back of the frame, through an opening in the wall between him and us, and on our side of the wall other things are happening, and there's a conversation going on, so there are at least three fields of interest.

The script is written by Mimura Shintaro and its many themes of pride, humiliation and dignity takes many forms, and yet it's also occasionally witty, and the film is filled with small delicate scenes and symbolic gestures and actions. And the balloons, that signify the ronin and his position, are quite remarkably handled, up until the one single balloon drifting away in the ditch in that last, heartbreaking, shot.

For those wanting to know more, there's an essay by Tony Rayns here. For those that want to know more about Mikio Naruse, you just wait, eventually I will have to write a long, proper essay about him and his films. But the above is all for now. Finally though, I just want to mention another magnificent Japanese film of the 1930s, The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum or Zangiku Monogatari (1939), by Kenji Mizoguchi.

Monday 19 April 2010

More on Ray Harryhausen

As some might remember, I wrote a piece on Ray Harryhausen some months ago. Today the grand old man is interviewed in The Daily Telegraph. Here's a link.

Thursday 15 April 2010


Last year, after we had seen Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino (2008), my brother and I debated where it was set, until we came to the conclusion that it had to be Detroit. Why? Because it's the motor capital of the world. No, because it was. There was a time when General Motors was the biggest car company (if not even the biggest industrial company) in the world, and the Big Three (GM, Ford and Chrysler) ruled the auto-industry, around 80% of all the cars in the world were made in the Detroit area at one point, and the car workers union UAW wielded considerable influence. In the 195os Detroit was one of the riches cities in the US and it was a huge town, its area bigger than Boston, San Francisco and Manhattan combined. It was the Motor City (and home of the Motown record label, now own by Universal and with offices in New York). It could perhaps have been called Modernity City as well.

In Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954), the nurse Stella, played by Thelma Ritter, tells of a client, a boss at GM, she had had. He said he had problems with his kidneys, but she had a different diagnose. "Nerves I'd say" and then she adds "When General Motors has to go to the bathroom ten times a day, this whole country is going under." (or something like it). For the last decade, or even longer, GM has probably had plenty of days when they went to the bathroom even more often than that. This is not the place to elaborate on what went wrong, other than to say that there were a number of factors that has led to where it is now, recently on the verge of bankruptcy.

This process was already well under way when Michael Moore made his documentary Roger and Me (1989), which tells about how GM is letting staff go, and in effect killing the city of Flint, close by Detroit, despite the fact that they're making a lot of money. That at least is Moore's spin. But GM had also been in deep problem ever since the oil crises in the 1970s, so Moore's populist take doesn't really give full justice to the situation. But flawed as it is, it's still an entertaining film.

As is Gran Torino, which, in many ways, is deeply symbolic of how things have changed. The old white man, haunted by memories of the crimes he committed during the Korean War, is killed, and his car, the symbol of America and American traditions, is bequeathed to a young Asian immigrant. The future is now in his hands. The question is only what kind of life Detroit has to offer.

The fact that all of the Big Three, GM in particular, have been on life support for a couple of years has had an immense effects on the city of Detroit. It's getting poorer and poorer, and smaller and smaller, from a population of 1.9 millions in 1950 to half of that today, and some parts are turning into ghost towns. Naturally crime has been increasing for a long time. There's something very symbolic over the whole thing, the end of an era, the end of modernity? Is Detroit the flash point were modernity visibly changed in to postmodernity?

The destruction is something that you can see on YouTube. There are a number of films showing the decay of many areas in and around Detroit, especially the old Michigan Central Station, now an empty shell. Films such as this one:

There's also Julien Temple's nice, but over-edited, documentary Requiem for Detroit? (2010), which is also available on YouTube. To think Detroit was once even called "Paris of the West". (But, at least, now they have the creperie Good Girls Go to Paris.)

But perhaps Detroit is beginning to pull itself together. This recent article in The Economist sums things up. And this article in The New York Times talks about new entrepeneurs. Hopefully it won't end up is in RoboCop (1987)


Detroit was also the city of union leader Jimmy Hoffa, so Hoffa (1992) might be worth watching for those interested, and why not Paul Schrader's first film as a writer/director, Blue Collar (1978), also about the unions and the auto industry.

Tuesday 13 April 2010

More from Iran

This article in the latest issue of The Believer starts of very promising, but then it gets tangled up in some annoying musings on Abbas Kiarostami. Annoying because contrary to what is said, Kiarostami isn't only a filmmaker devoted to "mythical and contemplative places". Sometimes he's realistic and political, and besides, how can one not be a political filmmaker. The argument also goes that Kiarostami is "just an art-director" (how can that be a bad thing?). But Kiarostami has no moral obligations to be either the one thing or the other, his only obligations are to his own conscience.

The fact that some critics in the West exploit and "exotice" him should not be used as an argument against Kiarostami but only against those critics.

But the article is still a worthwhile read, especially the bit about Ali, the Henri Langlois of Iran.

Tuesday 6 April 2010

A selection of Swedish films

As already mentioned, there's a Swedish film festival at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York between April 16 and May 4. As more than 40 films are being shown I thought I give some suggestions on what to focus on for those who haven't got oodles of time.

The films can be divided in to a couple of sub-sections, like

Pre-talkies: Ingeborg Holm (1913) - The Girl in Tails (Flickan i frack 1926)

The classical era: One Night (En natt 1931) - Wild Strawberries (Smultronstället 1957)

Experiments and new waves: Raven's End (Kvarteret Korpen 1963) - A Swedish Love Story (En kärlekshistoria 1969)

Modes of realism: The Emigrants (Utvandrarna 1971) - Children's Island (Barnens ö 1980)

The present day: Four Shades of Brown (Fyra nyanser av brunt 2004) - Sebbe (2010)

Seeing at least one, anyone, from each sub-section would then be a quick crash course on Swedish cinema history.

But to get more depth, here are some suggestions and the reasons for seeing them (I have deliberately left out Bergman's films, not because I don't like them, but because Bergman is well-known as it is):

1) Ingeborg Holm is one of the greatest silent films ever made. It has restrained acting, vivid use of space and depth-of-field and a powerful moving story. It's also an angry film, about the treatment of the poor by the state, which led to a big debate and eventually to some laws being changed. It's also an early film by one of cinema's most important and influential filmmakers, Victor Sjöström.

2) Thomas Graal's Best Film (Thomas Graals bästa film 1917) is a cooperation between Sjöström, Mauritz Stiller and Henrik Jaenzon, three of the six creative forces that made early Swedish cinema such an impressive period (the other three are Henrik's more famous brother Julius Jaenzon, Georg af Klercker and Gustaf Molander), so that should be reason enough to watch it. But it's also a fun, modernist film about films, dreams and make-believe. It stands together with Buster Keaton's Sherlock Jr. (1924) as an early, playful, investigation into what cinema is and can do.

3) One Night is a formal experiment by Gustaf Molander and his constant cinematographer Åke Dahlqvist. It might be called the odd film out, both in Molander's career and Swedish cinema of the time, but as an experiment it's bold and interesting. The inspiration comes from the Russians, Eisenstein and Pudovkin.

4) Karl-Fredrik Reigns (Karl-Fredrik regerar 1934) is less interesting as a film than as a historic document about the Social Democratic mood in Sweden at the time, with the building of the welfare state and what the Prime minister Per-Albin Hansson called "folkhemmet" (literally "the people's home" but perhaps more accurately "the people's society"). A number of films were made to sell the story about the "folkhem", more often than not directed by Gustaf Edgren. But there's also good acting so it's enjoyable as a film too.

5) A Woman's Face (En kvinnas ansikte 1938) is more typical Molander than One Night, and one of many films he made with Ingrid Bergman. And Åke Dahlqvist is the cinematographer. The look of Molander/Dahlqvist's films is usually sombre, with expressive use of heavy shadows and pools of darkness, and En kvinnas ansikte is not an exception. It's also typical for Molander to be about a woman's face, a woman's psyche. Before Bergman Molander was the preeminent "women's director" (whatever that is) in Swedish cinema.

6) Changing Trains (Ombyte av tåg 1943) is the first Ekman film in this retrospective, and it's also the first of Ekman's great films, the first of his theatre films. It's also a deeply autobiographic film, with Ekman playing more or less a version of himself, and Sonja Wigert playing a character that's a thinly disguised portrait of Ekman's long lost love Tutta Rolf. It's also so happens that it's one of the most moving of Swedish films. That Ekman was influenced by French poetic realism can also be seen.

7) The Girl With Hyacinths (Flicka och hyacinter 1950) was Ekman's own favourite among his films, and it was Bergman's favourite too. In fact, it's probably most people's Ekman favourite. Ekman was an actor's director, but he was also very cinematic, perhaps the most naturally gifted visual storyteller Sweden had ever had, and these two qualities are both clearly visible in The Girl With Hyacinths. The opening sequence, from the scene at the party to the arrival of the boy on a tricycle, could be taught in film schools. Like Changing Trains, it's also biographical, but in a more complex way, and can be seen as a comment on Ekman's and Eva Henning's relationship, with Ekman letting the various men The Girl encounters represent different sides of him. It's also a landmark of sorts in Swedish queer cinema.

8) Miss Julie (Fröken Julie 1951) was one of the films that showed the world that Swedish cinema again was a force to be reckoned with, after winning the Palmé d'or in Cannes (together with Miracle in Milan (Miracolo a Milano 1951). Miss Julie is Alf Sjöberg's version of Strindberg's play, and it's a tour-de-force of both acting and mise-en-scène, where the past and the present are shown in the same frame but on different levels in depth. Like Bergman, Sjöberg moved back and forth between the screen and the stage and he was one of the most inventive and artistic of filmmakers, and this arguably is his masterpiece.

9) Kisses & Hugs (Puss och kram 1967) is a film about men, women, and their relationships. It's directed by Jonas Cornell (who has said he was inspired by Hawks's Hatari! (1962) so naturally I like it) and it's part of the new wave of Swedish cinema, together with the likes of Bo Widerberg, Vilgot Sjöman and Jan Troell. This is Cornell's first film, but after a few inventive films he shifted to TV and more commercial productions.

10) A Swedish Love Story (En kärlekshistoria 1969) is Roy Andersson's first feature and I believe it is his best. It's unmistakingly Andersson, but it isn't as stiff and hasn't the annoyingly stylised theatricality of his later work (and no white faces either). What it has though is both a tender love story between two teenagers and a sad portrait of their parents, or rather the adult world. Adulthood is here a different country, and it has so much agony and despair it's painful to watch.

11) Man on the Roof (Mannen på taket 1976) is a police thriller, a Swedish version of French Connection (1971) or Madigan (1967). It's deceptively slow, after an initial violent murder, but works its way methodically and with a great attention to detail to the sudden outburst of violence in the second half, when the usually so peaceful Stockholm becomes a city under siege, terrorized by a heavily armed sniper. It's worth remembering though that Sweden, and Stockholm in particular, in the 1970s had seen several terrorist attacks, hijackings and spectacular bank robberies which had somewhat shattered the illusion of being at peace. Since the location shooting and realism is so striking, it's to this day difficult to walk the streets around Odenplan without looking up towards the rooftops.

12) The Girl (Flickan 2009) was to my eyes last year's best Swedish film. A haunting and ethereal story about a little girl left alone in a house during a few summer weeks. It moves between dream and reality, and paints a not particularly flattering portrait of self-absorbed adults. But unlike A Swedish Love Story it also has the courage to show that children can be equally cruel and corrupted. But perhaps the best thing about it is its cinematography (by Hoyte van Hoytema, the most celebrated cinematographer in Sweden today), which is primarily what gives it its haunting and ethereal quality.

13) The King of Ping Pong (Ping-pongkingen 2008) was short-filmmaker Jens Jonsson's long anticipated first feature film. As was only to be expected it is beautifully shot, in several shades of white. But after a while that can become monotonous, and the story isn't particularly original or involving. So the main reason I included it here is that unlike any of the other films, it's set in the far north of Sweden, with endless vistas of frozen lakes, snow-covered mountains and wide white plains.

There are a number of important female directors in Sweden, but only two has made it to this retrospective, Karin Swanström and Mai Zetterling. I haven't mentioned their films here because I haven't seen Swanström's The Girl in Tails and I don't particularly like Mai Zetterling's films (mostly because I feel that Zetterling is spending too much time and effort on editing and fancy camera work in a way that doesn't enhance the films but rather gets in the way). But she's still an important (feminist) filmmaker and deserves to be seen and discussed.

Also, the films I've listed aren't the only good ones, many of the others are equally great, but I had to draw the line somewhere. But if you have the time, don't miss out the third of the Ekman films being shown, The Banquet (Banketten 1948). It's possibly Ekman's most cruel and shocking film, shot like a noir with spider webs of shadows engulfing the sadomasochist couple in the centre. But good as it is, it's not as important as Changing Trains and The Girl With Hyacinths.

Monday 5 April 2010

A.O. Scott on film criticism

Some day I might write down my own thoughts on the state of film criticism today, but until I do that, here's what A. O. Scott of the New York Times has to say. I rather liked the article.

Thursday 1 April 2010

Swedish films (and Hasse Ekman) in New York

Today the tickets are released for the big retrospective of Swedish cinema from 1913 to 2010 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York. A lot of good stuff will be screened, from the early, great film by Victor Sjöström, Ingeborg Holm (1913) to the equally great Flickan (The Girl 2009). And three films by Hasse Ekman will also be screened, Ombyte av tåg (Changing Trains 1943), Banketten (The Banquet 1948) and Flickan och hyacinter (The Girl With Hyacinths 1950). Not anyone of my two favourites, but they're still among his very best. I do feel partly responsible since I had lunch with Richard Peña, the Program Director of Lincoln Center, last year and then told him about Hasse Ekman (and other secrets of Swedish cinema). And now the good people of New York will get to see some of it in late April - early May.