Thursday, January 22, 2009

Film Space schedule

At Film Space: on Saturdays at 7 pm

Film Space in January is presenting a series of films by some directors they like, who also star in these films.

Film Space is to the right and in the back of the CMU Art Museum, in the Media Arts and Design building across from the ballet school. Now that the weather is cool, they are resuming their rooftop showings, weather permitting. You might want to bring something to sit on or lie on. A contribution is requested in the donation box at the entrance. Well worth supporting.

Saturday, January 24: Hana-bi / Fireworks (1997) by Takeshi Kitano – 103 mins – Japan Crime/ Drama/ Thriller. In Japanese, English subtitles. Reviews: Universal acclaim: 81 out of 100.

A simultaneously tender and violent masterwork from Takeshi, one of Japan's most popular entertainers. My friend Donald Richie describes it this way in his book A Hundred Years of Japanese Film: A Concise History:

Over-the-hill cop (Kitano) feels dreadful at having let down a police buddy and at the same time neglected a dying wife. He robs a bank to get some money to make amends and scrubs out a gang in the process . . . Kitano's aesthetic take on trendy anarchy has here been turned into something like an art form.

Richie says that it is common in Kitano’s films to have “minimal acting by the director and over-the-top melodramatics by everyone else.” That surely is the case here!

Roger Ebert: The pattern of the movie is: Ordinary casual life, punctuated by sharp, clinical episodes of violence. Nishi hardly speaks (there is little dialogue in the film), and his face shows almost no expression (reportedly because of injuries to Kitano in a motorcycle crash). He is like a blank slate that absorbs the events in the film without giving any sign that he has registered them. When he attacks, he gives no warning; the wrong trigger word releases his rage.

The film is an odd viewing experience. It lacks all of the narrative cushions and hand-holding that we have come to expect. It doesn't explain, because an explanation, after all, is simply something arbitrary the story has invented.

About Film, Carlo Cavagna: If we accept that Japanese art favors minimalism and understatement, then Fireworks must surely be one of the most Japanese films ever. Writer/director/star Takeshi Kitano makes movies that marry poetic beauty with vicious, unglamorous violence — static, understated movies about existences wasted, and rediscovering the joy of being, for a brief time, alive. Rather than a constant presence (overt or implied), violence comes in sudden bursts, as a shocking interruption.

Fireworks concerns Nishi (Kitano), an oft-decorated detective who leaves his partner Horibe (Ren Osugi) alone on a stakeout to visit his terminally ill wife (Kayoko Kishimoto), during which time Horibe is shot and paralyzed. Nishi's subsequent vendetta inadvertently results in the killing of another detective, Tanaka and the wounding of a third, Nakamura. Wracked by guilt and disgusted by the police force's failure to nurture its own, Nishi quits to provide for his colleagues and ease his wife's last days — by any means necessary.

The second half of the film takes an odd Kitano turn, as Nishi and his wife rediscover the simple delights of relaxing at the beach or fooling around with a deck of cards. They play. They set off simple fireworks in a field, whose sudden bursts in the tranquil countryside are like Nishi himself, calm, easily contented, yet explosively violent when set off. Yet even in quiet moments, an aching melancholy lingers between Nishi and his wife, attributable both to her terminal illness and to the recent death of their young child. Death for Nishi, in the form of the yakuza loan sharks hunting him, is also never far away.

As he has in other movies, Kitano the director puts Kitano the actor at the center of Fireworks, where he performs with a disconcerting impassivity. His favorite reaction shot is an expressionless close-up of himself. He never seems to say anything. Rather, other people say things to him. He waits, he considers, and when the moment is right, he acts, with forceful, bloody determination.

Hideo Yamamoto's camera is equally impassive. It rarely pans and almost never zooms. Often Yamamoto and Kitano establish a shot for a second before the action moves into it, and allow the shot to continue running for a moment after the action has left, much as Kurosawa does. This technique serves to emphasize the permanence of the surroundings and the impermanence of the people who pass through them, suggesting life is short. Find ways to enjoy it, Kitano is saying, even if the enjoyment cannot last.

This is where Kitano is a social critic. In Japan, the conformist pressure to dedicate your life to an employer, and to always do your duty, is [very strong]. Nishi and his colleagues spill their blood for the police and the public good, and what do they get in return? Whatever disability payments Horibe might be receiving are insufficient even to buy painting supplies, not that he has any idea how to enjoy his new hobby, which he regards only as a way of passing the time. Work is all Horibe has ever known. Nakamura echoes this sentiment when he observes a girl running with a kite on a beach, and remarks, "I could never live like that." Evidently pensions and medical benefits also leave a lot to be desired, because Tanaka's widow is reduced to working at a fast food counter, and Nishi has borrowed millions of yen to pay for his wife's treatments.

Kitano never expresses any of his opinions straightforwardly — or the plot, for that matter. Like his impassive protagonist, Kitano says little, and he feeds us the story piecemeal, sometimes via flashbacks spliced into the film with no commentary. It takes a good half hour to forty-five minutes before even the basic premise is discernible. The film is like the dots on Horibe's pointillist painting — Kitano fills in a bit here and a bit there, in no particular order but with painstaking attention to detail, and the big picture gradually emerges. Horibe's artwork in the movie is actually Kitano's own work, much of it serenely whimsical, from the primitive paintings at the hospital to Horibe's figures of animals with flower buds in the place of their heads or eyes. Kitano often juxtaposes a thing — raindrops, cherry blossoms, and, of course, fireworks — with a painting of the thing. Life and art are the same, indistinguishable, like the shot of a blue Mount Fuji set against a blue sky, looking exactly like a two-dimensional Japanese print. The most arresting artwork in the film, though, is a large painting of a snowy landscape at night that, similar to a pointillist work, is actually composed of a multitude of tiny kanji (Japanese) characters that spell out each element of the painting (e.g., the snow is made up of tiny characters that mean "snow"). In the middle, splashed in red, a much larger character violently mars the painting's tranquility. If you haven't yet seen the film, it is best that you find out what the character represents for yourself. The tone of the painting, however, corresponds to the tone of the film. For Kitano, human life is like one of Nishi's fireworks in the countryside — it begins as a spark, then explodes as a momentary, ferociously intense flash in an otherwise serene world.

Saturday, January 31: Annie Hall (1977) by Woody Allen – 93 mins – US Comedy/ Romance. In English. Reviews: Universal acclaim: 88 out of 100.

Filled with poignant performances and devastating humor, Annie Hall represented a quantum leap for Woody Allen and remains an American classic.

Rotten Tomatoes: Often considered the crown jewel in a highly acclaimed and prolific film career, Annie Hall is Woody Allen's only film to have won the Academy Award for Best Picture. This recognition, however, is not what makes the film significant. Annie Hall marks the beginning of the second phase of Allen's career as a filmmaker, abandoning the slapstick of Sleeper and Bananas for more thoughtful comedies (and eventually dramas) that explored human relationships and psychology. Allen's capacity as a creative filmmaker had also grown with the film, as he utilized creative subtitles, split screens, and animation, as well as evincing a sophisticated understanding of the potential of editing and camera movement for comic effect--consider the cutaway to Allen's character Alvy Singer, as seen through the eyes of "Grammy Hall" during the dinner sequence, or shortly afterward the slow pan to Alvy in the passenger seat of a car driven by Annie's unhinged brother Duane. The film is a brutally honest assessment of the prospects of a relationship between two very different people. Allen's Alvy is (like the filmmaker himself) an introverted, neurotic intellectual and a complete mismatch for Diane Keaton's vivacious, flaky Annie Hall. Although the romance is undoubtedly the center of the film, it affords Allen the opportunity to contrast his beloved New York culture with that of the Midwest, where Annie comes from, and Los Angeles, which tempts Annie with the possibility of fame and success as a singer. The city of New York itself plays an important part for the first time in an Allen film, with a great deal of location shooting that serves to highlight the city's character and atmosphere. Finally, the many comedic cameos peppered through the film--from Truman Capote to Paul Simon to media theorist Marshall McLuhan--pay tribute to the deserved reputation that Allen had gained for himself.

February is designated “The Month of Iron Hoofter” by the Film Space curators! What is Iron Hoofter? Well it’s a rhyming allusion – Cockney rhyming slang. Hoofter rhymes with Poofter. Does that help?

Saturday, February 7: Spider Lilies / Ci qing (2007) by Zero Chou – 94 mins – Taiwan Drama/ Romance.

First off in the series: lesbian love and tattoos in Taipei.

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