2000s, Drama, Foreign, New Zealand cinema

River Queen (2005)

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Director: Vincent Ward

By Roderick Heath

Vincent Ward came to prominence in the early 1990s between the pioneering generation of Kiwi directors that shook the world—Jane Campion with An Angel at My Table and The Piano, Lee Tamahori with Once Were Warriors, and Peter Jackson with Brain Dead and Heavenly Creatures. His The Navigator (1988) laid down a template Ward has followed ever since—an interest in culture clashes wedded to a vivid, hallucinogenic creativity fatally mixed with that muddled, breathless sense of form that too often in contemporary film culture, is mistaken for artistry. Ward’s the kind of director—his subsequent works include Map of the Human Heart (1993) and What Dreams May Come (1998)—who at his best is dazzling and original and at his worst is a total wanker; both extremes will be reached many times in the course of one film. River Queen is a movie of unusual ambition, a kind of antipodean mating of The Searchers with The Last of the Mohicans and dashes of Heart of Darkness, Greystoke, and A Man Called Horse. It’s also a showpiece for a lot of what is wrong with modern moviemaking. How to screw up telling a fairly simple story is a rare kind of art itself.

Sarah O’Brien (Samantha Morton) and her doctor father Francis (Stephen Rea) settle upriver in frontier New Zealand, as she informs us in the compulsory pseudo-poetic voiceover with Irish lilt. She has an affair with a Maori boy, the son of a chief, and has his son. Her father is predictably outraged, but helps her give birth to the child. The father later dies in…well, I’m not sure. The child, known only as Boy (I wonder how long it took to think that one up), grows into a playful tyke who accidentally slashes his knee open playing hide-and-seek with his mother. She stitches it up with the skills she’s learnt from her father, who is making himself busy clearing land with fellow Irish immigrant Doyle (Keifer Sutherland). The land includes a sacred site, which riles local chieftain Rangi (Wi Kuki Kaa), who is, by the by, Boy’s grandfather. Boy is snatched away by his tribe, and whilst Francis abandons all hope of making a home on the frontier, Sarah remains behind. Working as a medic, she spends years—well, it’s supposed to be years, but Sarah doesn’t seem to grow older, and the local political situation doesn’t seem to alter either—looking for Boy.

When she finally finds Rangi, the grizzled old chieftain is promptly shot by the brutal English military commander of the district, Baine (Anton Lesser). This sparks full-scale war, marshalled by Rangi’s chosen successor Te Kai Po (Temuera Morrison), a fiery, brilliant war chief who effortlessly runs rings around Baine, such a stock villain it’s a wonder he doesn’t have a moustache to twirl. In the war, Maori family members often battle each other because some are fighting for the British on the promise of keeping their land and independence or just because they know which way the future’s going. Wiremu (Cliff Curtis), the forgotten brother of Sarah’s long-dead lover, now works as a scout, but seems to be reconsidering his allegiances. He asks Sarah to come up river with him to treat Te Kai Po for an illness that’s killing him. She does, hoping to learn where Boy is.

In fact, Boy, now an adolescent (Rawiri Pene), is one of her escorts on the long trip; though Sarah is blindfolded on the journey, she identifies her son by feeling the scar on his leg. Boy is hardly unhappy; indeed he’s a proudly budding warrior. Sarah finds that Te Kai Po is ill with influenza, and coaxes him through his fever. She soon realises she’s accomplished little other than give Te Kai Po another shot at fomenting war. He provokes Baine into battle by sending him a letter in which he claims to have turned cannibal. Baine’s subsequent attack is batted off by clever tactics. In the battle, Doyle is shot after sparing the life of Boy, and Wiremu’s son is killed. Sarah takes Doyle back to British territory to tend to him, but he dies. Sarah and Wiremu get it on.

Films like River Queen amuse me in that they try to explore the past through contemporary mores: a wet liberal-feminist fantasy where the pretty wild child/nature girl/doctor, who likes the odd hot knee-trembler with whichever black stud’s close at hand, hangs out with knowing/wise/noble/canny/tough natives whilst the nasty limeys rape/burn/pillage/shoot/torture. I suppose Dances with Wolves is the paragon of this genre, which seeks to deliver the same charge we get out of the epic narratives of Westerns and pioneer sagas whilst provoking historical guilt and promoting racial brotherhood and reconciliation. It’s not a new idea—the idea of cultures meeting in individuals and forging a new one has been around in this genre since James Fenimore Cooper. Even Cimarron presents its hero Yancey Cravat as passionate for Native American rights (whilst still taking gleeful part in stealing their land).

Such reversals on the myths of colonialism and imperialism are cute and to a degree necessary, but perpetuate a different kind of falsity that obscures the tangled realities of ethnic identity, historical impetus, and social development. One may criticise the racism of The Searchers, but in many ways The Searchers is a more complex and difficult story to create than a film like River Queen, not in the least because it is flatly honest about the nature of racism and frontier conflict, and forces the viewer to identify with its jerk of a protagonist rather than giving us PC fantasies for heroes. It’s hard to take Ward’s historical conscientiousness seriously when he, like too many filmmakers, uses it as an excuse to indulge in visual pseudo-mysticism—Te Kai Po and Sarah share a prophetic dream about the future—he wouldn’t get away with if, say, he was making a film about insurance salesmen. He also presents us with a Maori village that looks like the Ewok city of Return of the Jedi or Galadriel’s home in The Lord of the Rings. This is the depth of Ward’s anthropology—aboriginals are cooler because they give him an excuse to film the acid trips he’s had. Whilst his style chases Terence Malick, the actual level of Ward’s screenplay is Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.

Ward further cops out by presenting us with such cleanly disparate characters as Sarah and Doyle, both of whom fit nicely into contemporary penchant for suffering Irish chic (the Irish now being a kind of all-purpose picked-on white tribe), contrasted with Baine, an English soldier you can easily imagine meeting up with Col. Tarlton from The Patriot, sitting about the manor drinking tea, whipping naked servant boys, and happily reminiscing about all those wogs they killed. Sarah will eventually commit to the Maori side by getting Boy to tattoo her face with a tribal mark—cool as! I can hear my hippie mates declaring—and a happy ending shows her shacked up with Boy and Wiremu, teaching yoga, and running her own organic produce outlet. Or something like that.

Where River Queen is at its most interesting and revealing is in the conflicts of emotion and loyalty in the Maori nations, especially Wiremu, who eventually rejoins his own tribe but later finds himself bargaining with his own cousins, who fight for the British. The core battle scene is well done, a thunderous encounter of blood, mood, forest, and confusion in which Boy mischievously fools the soldiers by crying out his own accented orders, and then runs to avoid a Maori scalping. Cliff Curtis imbues Wiremu with charm and intelligence (it’s also amusing, if you know Once Were Warriors, to see him and Morrison playing allies), but Ward’s so eager to present them as civilised and upright that Wiremu and Te Kai Po would be at home teaching at the University of Auckland, or maybe Sandhurst, considering how much better soldiers they are than Baine. Baine wins the war, but only because Te Kai Po obeys the dream and ruins his own alliance of tribes by screwing another chief’s wife, thus avoiding the prophesised river of blood.

Of contemporary films, River Queen consistently reminded me of Malick’s efforts with The New World (2005), but it possesses none of Malick’s poise or intellectual clarity about what he’s trying to describe. River Queen captures interest, chiefly through the almost surreal vividness of Ward’s sense of time and place. His art direction and production teams have laboured with effort and love to recreate a world of scraggly, hard-pressed civilisation clawing for existence in a virtual jungle world. In addition to his asinine sense of historical narrative, Ward’s filmmaking is of a variety all too common in today’s directors, in emphasising visual texture over intellectual and narrative clarity. The first 20 minutes of the film are almost a lesson in how not to put a film together, and though the film settles down, it still rushes its story points, garbles potential climaxes and epiphanies, and ends with a superfluous double-bluff. This carelessness over concept and form is endemic and pitiful. Possibly it’s not entirely Ward’s fault. The production was troubled, Ward and Morton battled constantly, and eventually he was taken off the project, the film finished by the cinematographer Alun Bollinger, whose photography is the film’s chief asset. With these awfully pretty pictures, Ward does weave a dynamic tapestry that doesn’t exactly achieve a cinematic tone poem, but does make it watchable through to the end.

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1970s, Drama, Foreign

1900 (1976)

Novecento

1900-01

Director: Bernardo Bertolucci

By Roderick Heath

In the mid 1970s, Bernardo Bertolucci was a figure with the financial clout and artistic eminence to produce a hugely ambitious flop. But that flop, 1900, is such a totemic work that it is impossible to dismiss, as it attempts to revive the mammoth dimensions of presound epic cinema, like Abel Gance’s Napoleon and Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen, and invest it with a kind of socialist epic mythology. It also illustrates the schism between the standout features of Bertolucci as a director—a great portrayer of sensuality and psychology, and a committed political artist who can never quite reconcile the two perspectives.

1900-02

The film begins a huge ellipse as the Allies are winning the war and partisans are mopping up the remnants of Italian fascism. Field-labouring women scooping hay in shots framed like classical landscape artists spy the escaping Atila (Donald Sutherland) and his wife Regina (Laura Betti), and chase after them with pitchforks. The sight of this middle-aged pair crying for each other, farm implements jutting from their bodies, is horrific and demands sympathy. One of the peasant boys decides to march into the house of the local padrone (landlord), Alfredo Berlinghieri (Robert De Niro) and take him prisoner. Alfredo, caught at breakfast, pleasantly agrees, “Long live Stalin!”?

1900-03

1900 contrasts Alfredo with Olmo Dalco (Gerard Depardieu). Both men were born on the night Giuseppi Verdi died (January 27, 1901), and are tied together by life on the Berlinghieri estate. Each grows up in the care of their grandfathers—Alfredo, with the grand old padrone (Burt Lancaster), and for Olmo, Leo (Sterling Hayden), patriarch of the peasants who are nightly locked in their barn. The two old bulls have a prickly friendship, united by their earthy sense of nature, sex, and socializing even as they are separated by class and resentment. Olmo never discovers who his father is. Alfredo knows his all too well—the cold, callow, money-grubbing younger son of the padrone, Giovanni (Romolo Valli). Elder son Ottavio (Werner Bruhns) has fled the estate to lead a bohemian, cosmopolitan life.

1900-04

Casting Lancaster as the padrone ties this film thematically and chronologically to Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard (1963), as that film’s aspiring liberal Italy is dying. The padrone gives Alfredo a buffer from his crass parents, but hangs himself when he can’t achieve an erection in the hand of a girl. Mechanization destroys the bonds of the landlord-peasant relationship; Giovanni’s entitled greed doesn’t help. The native wisdom of Leo—he won’t let any Dalco become a priest, the ultimate freeloader—agrees with the socialist ideals that excite the labourers to strikes and revolts. He lectures Olmo in his creed as the boy marches down the long dining table, stepping over the eating families’ plates of food, a vision of the gritty vitality of communal life. Olmo and Alfredo (played as youths by Roberto Maccanti and Paolo Pavesi, respectively) taunt and entertain each other with the dirty panoply of boyish obsessions and character tests. Olmo’s great feat of bravery is to lay between railroad tracks as a train (a recurring symbol of tidal history) rushes over him, which Alfredo cannot at first manage, and no one sees it when he does.

1900-05

World War I precipitates the great rupture in Italian society that has been building. Olmo fights and Alfredo is commissioned, but kept home by his father’s influence. Olmo returns to find the number of workers reduced, machines encroaching, and the estate now run by foreman Atila, who poses as a simpatico fellow veteran. With the prodding of his personal Lady Macbeth, Regina, Atila soon becomes a fascist bigwig. Giovanni and other landowners form a fascist chapter in response to their inability to evict peasantry, who successfully resist the cavalry with nonviolent tactics. Olmo and Alfredo resume their edgy friendship, Alfredo regarding them both as free spirits, though he is torn between temptations of power and the intentions of his liberality. Bertolucci tries to demonstrate how Alfredo is a decent man imprisoned by position, his ability to force his wishes on other people incidentally malevolent. Alfredo and Olmo go into the city to visit Ottavio, and get sidetracked with a prostitute, Neve (Stefania Casini). When the three of them are in bed together, Alfredo forces Neve to drink, which sets her off in a violent epileptic fit between the two men whose penises she’s grasping.

1900-06

Olmo has a crush on Anita (Anna Henkel), an educated girl who has come to work on the estate and act as the peasant’s schoolteacher. They marry and have children, and Anna starts a community school through the developing socialist infrastructure. Alfredo meets Ada Paulhan (Dominique Sanda, tres bon), a half-French orphan (her parents perished guiding rich tourists on a mountaineering expedition; “They died as they lived—beyond their means.”) who lives with Ottavio and whom he assumes is his mistress, not yet knowing his uncle is homosexual. Ada’s a loopy, capricious poseur and muse who occasionally fakes blindness and writes awful poetry. Alfredo finds her wonderful. Alfredo, Ada, and Ottavio live out a bohemian fantasy, snorting cocaine and gaily dancing. Ada and Alfredo and Olmo and Anita drink together in bar set up in a barn, Afredo begging that the four of them will always remain the same. Two deflowerings are instantly precipitated. Ada and Alfredo screw amidst the hay bales, Alfredo stunned that Ada is a virgin. The innocent solidarity of the socialists is killed when Atila and the fascists burn the school, killing three old peasant men Anita had been teaching to read. As the communists rally, Atila, being fitted for a black uniform, demonstrates to his awed fellows the attitude required of a fascist; he straps a cat to the wall and crushes it with a running head-butt.

1900-07

Atila and Regina are the film’s nexus of evil (Sutherland managed to freak himself out viewing his acutely perverse performance). Giovanni dies and Alfredo inherits the estate. Despite Olmo’s earnest, faintly menacing warning, Alfredo cannot rid himself of Atila, a deep-rooted cancer. Regina’s crush on Alfredo (they were briefly lovers; in one scene, Alfredo tries to orgasm Regina with the butt of his rifle, a moment as ribald as it is symbolic) makes her loathe Ada. Atila and Laura’s machinations extend to murdering a woman for her house, and, at Alfredo and Ada’s wedding, drunkenly raping and beating to death a young boy. When the body is found by searching wedding guests, Olmo is close by. Spurred by Atila, they mercilessly beat him, and Alfredo won’t stop it. Is he afraid of Atila? Or glad to see his judgmental pal receive a hiding? Either way, Olmo’s life is only saved when another peasant confesses. Anita dies, leaving Olmo to care for several small children. (Even at 300 minutes, 1900 is missing pieces. We see neither Anita and Olmo’s wedding nor her death, and supporting characters in the film often disappear.)

1900-08

Ada is distanced from Alfredo—Ottavio has vowed never to return at all—because of his poor response to fascist courtship. Ada relies on Olmo for emotional support even as he resents her trying to tutor his kids. Perhaps the film’s best scene comes when Alfredo and Ada row fiercely in a skid row tavern, Alfredo accusing Ada of having an affair with Olmo, then infuriated by her calling him a fascist. Alfredo recognizes Neve when she enters the tavern; her laughing acceptance of life’s caprices briefly reunites the troubled couple.

1900-09

As Italy enters World War II, Alfredo’s attempts to fire Atila prove impotent. Atila massacres “partisans”? in a miniature concentration camp set up in the centre of the villa. Olmo goes into hiding, and does not reappear until war’s end. Atila and Regina, after the pitchforking, are both duly shot by a kangaroo court, with Alfredo to be next for his collaboration. Bertolucci tries to celebrate the victory for the Italian workers in scenes staged to resemble a ’60s happening or Stalinist rally, with narrative becomes imagistic parade. Eventually, with Solomonian wisdom, Olmo talks the partisans out of executing Alfredo because all they have to do is declare that the padrone is dead—not the inhabitant of the role, but the role, the title, the idea. Alfredo, up till now accepting and life-weary, manages a stiff-necked response to Olmo’s rescue. Just as when they were kids, they begin wrestling in enraged love.

1900-10

1900 is a structural chimera, trying to fuse Shakespearean drama, Brechtian epic theater, socialist realism, and propagandist melodrama. Bertolucci tips his hat to Visconti not only via The Leopard, but also by borrowing thematic value from Visconti’s own rise-of-fascism parable, The Damned (1969), following its lead in quoting the plots of Macbeth and King Lear, and also its portrayal of fascism as indivisible from a psychologically rooted adoration of raw force, sexual degeneracy, and gross greed. This also echoes Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salo (1975). As in Pasolini’s oeuvre, 1900 contrasts free sexuality in his bohemians (Ottavio cavorting with his male models) and workers (Olmo gives Anita earth-shaking head) with the savagery of fascist sexuality, in Atila’s child rape and Regina’s voracity that conceals an incapacity for orgasm. Alfredo’s occasional displays of cruelty in bed reflect his temptation to the extreme ego-fulfillment of fascism.

1900-11

1900 is at its best when not concentrating on politics. The complexities that compile in Ada and Alfredo’s marriage, which breaks up because of her fear she will be held guilty with Alfredo at the war’s end, but already long poisoned by the spectacle of his weakness, successfully dovetails the themes. The multinational cast demanded by complex funding arrangements, but allowing a capricious pick-and-choose of international talent, meant that the soundtrack is never entirely comfortable. In the English dub (most of the smaller parts are Italian), things often go spaghetti western, yet watching the Italian version loses the original interpretations by De Niro, Lancaster, Hayden, et al. De Niro, in his career’s golden era, is at his youthful, supple best.

1900-12

The film has slow stretches, but always seems to have some virtuoso set-piece in store, from the sweeping early sequences that show off Bertolucci’s gift for camera movement (aided by the Velazquez-toned photography of Vittorio Storaro), to give a sensation of drifting through countryside and time, to that vivid final scene, both distressing and weirdly comic, a glimpse of a future where Alfredo and Olmo are old men, still fighting and sticking by each other. Olmo escorts Alfredo to his last act on earth, lying across the railroad, head about to be flattened by a train. Like his grandfather, Alfredo suicides—a tired, sympathetic remnant of a superfluous class clucked over with indulgent dismissal by Olmo.

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1950s, 1960s, Foreign, Japanese cinema

The Hidden Fortress (1958) / Red Beard (1965)

AK-01-RedBeard

Director: Akira Kurosawa

By Roderick Heath

There’s always a slight aesthetic shock in watching a Kurosawa film. His films, even entertainments like The Hidden Fortress, are so sensually alive, so hard, so unpretty but beautiful, that you practically smell the blossoms, the rancid flesh, the fresh blood, the horse dung. They look, feel, sound so modern compared with Hollywood films of the time. The Hidden Fortress, a comedy-action epic made as a favor to Toho Studios for taking so many risks for him, is in some ways the ultimate Kurosawa film if you think of him as a director of hugely entertaining samurai epics. It treats playfully themes that Kurosawa could turn into the grimmest of anatomizations of human nature.

AK-02-HiddenFortress

The world in The Hidden Fortress has fallen apart. Without preliminaries, we’re thrown in with Taihei (Minoru Chiaki) and Matakichi (Kanutari Fujiwara), a pair fit for Beckett, two peasants walking and bickering in a desolate plain. Having sold their farms to buy arms and make a fortune plundering as members of the army of the Akizuki clan, Taihei and Matakishi were captured following a great battle the Akizukis lost to the rival Yanama clan. They escape and reach the border to their own peaceful province of Hayakawa, only to find it guarded by Yanama troops.

AK-03-HiddenFortress

Taihei and Matakishi are swiftly recaptured and are put to work digging with thousands of filthy, starving prisoners, in the ruins of the Akizuki’s castle by Yanama troops to find a buried store of gold. There’s a revolt, a slaughter of rioters, and Taihei and Matakishi escape again. Wandering in the wilderness, they accidentally discover a piece of gold hidden in a dead tree branch. Frantically smashing every branch they find, Taihei and Matakishi encounter a mysterious, ferocious-looking man (Toshiro Mifune) who they take to be a bandit.

AK-04-HiddenFortress

The stranger claims to have the rest of the gold and offers them a share if they can find a way to get it to Hayakawa. Taihei and Matakishi already have a plan for that; they’ll go through Yanama province itself, thus skirting most of the enemy army. This idea tickles the stranger, who gives his name as Rokoruta Makabe. Taihei and Matakishi are incredulous, as Rokoruta is a great general.

AK-05-HiddenFortress

Mifune, of course, really is the general, charged with transporting the clan’s fortune and its surviving heir, Princess Yuki (Misa Uehara), from their hideaway in the mountains to the safety of Hayakawa. There’s a tragic tension between Rokurota and Yuki; Rokoruta’s sister surrendered herself, claiming to be Yuki, and was beheaded. The ferociously proud, tomboyish Yuki weeps angrily for this, as Rokoruta maintains calm for the dangerous mission ahead. Soon, Yuki and Rokoruta depart, accompanied by the peasant pair. On the road, they battle enemy soldiers, slip through checkpoints, and, at Yuki’s insistence, rescue a girl who has been taken from a former Akizuki farm and bought as a sex slave. The girl repays Yuki’s kindness by fending off Taihei’s and Matakishi’s attempts to ravish the sleeping princess, making these awesome losers cower as she threatens them with a log.

AK-06-HiddenFortress

The Hidden Fortress was cited by George Lucas as the basis of Star Wars—chiefly in the way the story unfolds through the eyes of two comic characters. But the whole narrative, from its in medias res opening on, shows Kurosawa’s strong influence. Rokoruta recalls both Han Solo and Luke Skywalker in his protective, dutiful, love-hate relationship with Yuki. There’s also the germ of everyone’s favorite bad guy when, on the road, Rokoruta encounters and duels with an old friend, Hyoe Tadokoro (Susumu Fujita), who commands troops for Yanama. Tadokoro is defeated in the duel, but Rokoruta does not kill him. When Tadokoro turns up later, he’s been scarred across the face as punishment by the Yanama lord for losing. In the end, Yuki, claiming to have had the only good time and true life experience she’s ever had, calls the Yanama lord idiotic for treating any loyal subject, even a loser, in such a way. This act convinces Tadokoro of her essential greatness, and he saves them in the finale. Right there are many aspects of Darth Vader’s character arc. Of course, things end happily, and even Taihei and Matakishi get a reward and a measure of self-respect.

AK-07-HiddenFortress

The gritty, grotesque detail that enlivens The Hidden Fortress’s texture and makes it more than a fairy tale, its pungent physicality, the opposition and intertwining of nobility and depravity, the belief in humans even when they act wretchedly, and the powerful effect displays of kindness, heroism, and decency from individuals can have on others, are also found in Kurosawa’s Red Beard. Red Beard was, unhappily, Kurosawa’s last film with Toshiro Mifune, who was succumbing around this time to the twin evils of alcohol and international movie-making. Mifune was the consummate star actor on whom Kurosawa could hang most any narrative because he was able to play such a wide variety of riveting variations even on the simplest heroic figure. Red Beard is one of Kurosawa’s masterpieces, but one of his least appreciated. As epic as Seven Samurai, as humanistic as Ikiru, as troubling as Rashomon, it displays all of Kurosawa’s disparate qualities working in harmony. Like many a great artist of an older breed–Shakespeare, Dickens, Tolstoy, Dostoievsky—Kurosawa maintains uncanny balance between an unflinching, almost despairing view of humanity as well as a warmly lucid trust.

AK-08-RedBeard

“Red Beard” is, properly, Dr. Kyujio Niide (Mifune); the nickname describes his face and excuses people from pronouncing his difficult name. He runs a state-funded clinic for the poor in late Tokugawa-era Japan, where small scraps of foreign knowledge, like Dutch medical texts, are prized. Dr. Noboru Yasumoto (Yuzo Kayama) has studied these at medical school in Nagasaki. He wants to put this knowledge to lucrative use by becoming the Shogun’s personal physician. He’s young, arrogant, angry over being jilted by the daughter of his mentor, who has sent him along to work at Niide’s clinic. Noboru is convinced Niide has sent him away to bury him professionally and to filch his medical knowledge. The clinic is a humming hive of activity, crammed with the dying and desperate, staffed by dedicated but unsentimental (and unsentimentalized) people—doctors who aren’t good enough to work elsewhere, overtaxed nursesm the worker women who keep the place going. Niide himself treats rich men for big fees to put toward the clinic, and is not above using the knowledge he fishes for to blackmail officials when necessary.

AK-09-RedBeard

Red Beard is, in structure, a series of vignettes displaying the human and spiritual growth of Yasumoto, who initially refuses to work or wear the clinic’s uniform. He is rudely introduced to the savage side of life by a mad woman (Kyoko Kagawa) who lives in a house separate to the clinic, cared for by a private nurse. The woman is a fascinating sexual mystery to the men in the clinic; young and beautiful, she has been placed there after seducing three of her merchant father’s clerks and then stabbing them to death with a hairpin. One night she escapes from her house and comes across Yasumoto lying indolently in his chamber. This discovery is accompanied by the sound of gusting wind that here, and in other Kurosawa films acts, as leitmotif evoking a plain of spiritual despair. She talks of how she was repeatedly sexually assaulted by her father’s clerks before she began turning the tables. Yasumoto is sympathetic, but suddenly she attempts to kill him in a scene horribly erotic and hypnotically violent. Niide rescues him, and when Yasumoto recovers, Niide asks him to watch over the slow, agonising death of , Rokosuke, a poverty-stricken man dying aloneof tuberculosis who was reputed to be an artisan. Yasumoto is called from this wretched scene to aid Niide in operating on an injured female agricultural worker. In a stunningly filmed and edited scene, Niide, Yasumotom and another assistant struggle to hold the woman’s sweating, bucking, bloody body still long enough to sew her gashed belly up.

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This would be an intimidating day’s work for most professionals. Two vignettes outline for Yasumoto that behind every one of their poor, anonymous patients, there is a story, quite often tragic. For example, Rokosuke’s daughter turns up with three starving children in tow, and explains her sad, warped life. Niide performs a judicious act of blackmail to get her government assistance. Another vignette involves Sahachi (Tsutomo Yamazaki), beloved of other patients because he performs their chores and gives away his food. “He’s my idea of Buddha!” one declares when Sahachi falls deathly ill. On his deathbed, Sahachi tells Yasumoto he ought to wear the uniform so people can tell he’s from the clinic. When a landslide reveals buried bones under Sahachi’s hut, Sahachi explains they belonged to his wife; many years before, she had married him though she considered herself beholden to a rich man who had helped her poor family. She took an opportunity when an earthquake struck their town to disappear, but eventually Sahachi met her on the street; she had married the rich man. Returning to Sahachi in the middle of the night, she committed guilty seppuku by holding a blade secretly to her belly; when he came to embrace her, the blade slid home. Sahachi dies in peace, and Yasumoto begins wearing the clinic uniform.

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Yasumoto and Niide go for a check-up visit to the local brothel, they find a girl, Otoyo (Terumi Niki), who was raised there by the vicious Madam and now finds the Madam is trying to sell her virginity. She’s so traumatised, all she can do is feverishly scrub the floor. When Niide announces his intention to take the girl to the clinic, the Madam calls the bouncers to stop him. Niide, in a cheer-along scene, uses his surgeon’s skill and knowledge of anatomy and judo expertise to snap wrists, arms, legs and knees, leaving a dozen tough guys in painfully hilarious contortions. Yasumoto takes on the job of rehabilitating Otoyo from a near-catatonic wreck, putting up with the provocations she provides is her expectation that his nice treatment will be supplanted by violent punishment. Yasumoto collapses exhausted and ill after many days of this rough treatment. The clinic’s serving women try to take Otoyo in hand, but find her so ungrateful and frustrating that they want nothing to do with her. However, Yasumoto finds when he recovers sufficiently to follow her around that Otoyo begs all day to get money to replace a vase she smashed, and later she tries to aid and adopt a boy, Chobo (Yoshitaka Zuki), whose own family is poverty-stricken.

AK-12-RedBeard

It’s hard to do justice to the richness of plot and character in Red Beard. Suffice to say Yasumoto is converted to the creed of Niide. This was a powerful theme of Kurosawa’s, the master-pupil relationship between the young and worldly and the elder, the wise, the hero, the visionary. This underpins Seven Samurai and is inverted in Sanjuro (1962), where Mifune’s title character angrily disdains his young cronies’ hero worship after he had committed an act of bloody slaughter. Sanjuro, though a funny entertainment, comments intriguingly on the problems of hero worship. “Red Beard” Niide also warns Yasumoto about following in his footsteps. Look, he says, I blackmail, I do favours for despicable men, I fight every day. But Niide is, in the end, a true hero, and Yasumoto knows it. The brothel Madam is one of the few outright villains to ever appear in Kurosawa. Usually his villains are either massed, undifferentiated—the bandits in Seven Samurai—or comic, like the corrupt officials in Sanjuro, or shaded opposites of the hero, like The Hidden Fortress’s Tadokoro or Sanjuro’s Hanbei Muroto (Tatsuyo Nakadai). The forces of entropy in Red Beard are undeniable. There are always illnesses that cannot be cured, deaths that cannot be avoided, tragedies that can’t be helped, people who are beyond redemption. Dedicating yourself to fighting against them means constantly communing with these ugly facts. Beneath the humanism of Red Beard is a conviction that humanity is doomed to darkness and savagery unless people like Niide lead and Yasumoto follow.

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1960s, British cinema, Commentary, Foreign

Look Back: The Evolution of British Film Realism and the Free Cinema

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LookBack-LookBackInAnger

Look Back In Anger

By Roderick Heath

You could argue—at least the pervert in me would—that the British New Wave kicked off with Terence Fisher’s The Curse of Frankenstein, in the same way Vadim’s trashy Et Dieu…crea la femme gave the French New Wave its start by proving commercial viability and reinvigorating a moribund industry. You can at least trace the beginning of Brit pop culture as an individual, powerful force from that point. Of course, the whole “angry young man” thing was a very large influence. Most of the “angry young men” were writers—John Osborne (with his plays Look Back In Anger and The Entertainer), Alan Sillitoe (the novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and long story Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner), David Storey (the novel This Sporting Life)—who were of the generation that had been drafted into the Second World War, gained status and experience in their temporary socialisation of British society as well as a college education, but found themselves deeply frustrated, as the whole country did, in the post-War malaise. But the “angry young man” phrase, whilst piquant, is unfocused. One could easily argue Doris Lessing was a member of the group—most of the same influences were on her; socialism, WW2, social misplacement, with the added details of being a colonial (Rhodesian) and female. Other Angry Young Women might include Shelagh Delaney, who wrote the play A Taste of Honey—later, a signal Free Cinema film—and Lynn Reid-Banks, who wrote The L-Shaped Room.

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Night Mail

Broadly, most of these writers stood under the long shadow of the social realist side of D. H. Lawrence, with his depiction of class and sexual struggle as fatally intertwined, which is why in, say, Look Back in Anger, Johnny Porter’s social frustration dovetails with his taste for taking upper-class girlfriends and treating them like rubbish. The chief difference between these British and the Beats is that where the Beats were spiritual in their highest form, the Brits were most deeply concerned with social relations. It’s important to remember that this creative output had strong roots in what had been bubbling away under the surface of British cinema and the culture, in general, for a while. Documentary-style realism had long been an aspect, due to the long shadow of the John Grierson-produced 1930s documentaries such as Night Mail; Robert Flaherty; and the war-time master Humphrey Jennings. These were huge influences on directors like Michael Powell, who with such pre-Pressburger films as Red Ensign and The 49th Parallel showed the indelible influence of documentary makers, and David Lean, whose sequences for In Which We Serve, like the opening ship-building montage, are entirely in the Griersonian style. The British war-time film industry learned many important lessons from the docudrama approach. Whilst the ’50s Ealing comedy style and the slick Sidney Box comedies at Rank eventually displaced this legacy, David Lean melded it with a good yarn-spinner’s instincts and an ability to utilize Hollywood gloss, and Powell and Pressburger abandoned it almost entirely.

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Victim

Brit-grit survived in the dry, hype-lacking style of many cheap thrillers and quota quickies, beginning with Carol Reed’s high-class thrillers Odd Man Out, The Fallen Idol and The Third Man; through films like Ronald Neame’s The Golden Salamander, Robert Hamer’s The Long Memory, Roy Ward Baker’s The October Man. Basil Dearden is an unfortunately neglected figure; with The Blue Lamp (1951), Pool of London (1951), Violent Playground (1958), Sapphire (1959), Victim (1960), and Life for Ruth (1962), he specialised in strong, entertaining, but stiff and sententious melodramas that dovetailed with “burning social issues” (racism, homosexuality, teenage hooliganism). Dearden’s best films are the gleefully cynical The League of Gentleman, which purposefully casts veterans of the war films such as Jack Hawkins, Richard Attenborough, and Roger Livesey and trashes their images, and the marvelously weird hipster version of “Othello”, All Night Long (1962), where the characters are all jazz musicians. There were also quite a few interesting working-class melodramas, closest in spirit to pre-War Warner Bros. works, including several Stanley Baker was involved in (Violent Playground) and Cy Endfield’s Sea Fury, and his rip-roaring Hell Drivers—all of which sported a gritty milieu, corny moralising, a reek of verisimilitude, and a smattering of sticky-magazine sexuality, perhaps best seen in Hell Drivers when Baker French kisses Peggy Cummins in a workshed as a truck motor throbs.

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The Guns of Batasi

John Guillermin, a talent eventually bound for Hollywood, directed interesting films in a similar style. The delirious Never Let Go (1960) is a thriller that pits Richard Todd’s anxious ex-war hero, now a loser salesman, against evil crime boss Peter Sellers, in his first and possibly last completely serious role, terrific as a peculiarly London sadist Bob Hoskins would be proud of. This film ends as a kind of contemporary High Noon, and as well as broadening Sellers’ resume also featured as a teddy boy car thief young pop star Adam Faith, thus possibly initiating what would be the future convergence of pop music and the movies in Britain. Guillermin later directed the interesting satire The Guns of Batasi (1964), with Richard Attenborough as a martinet sergeant who is finding his ethos of Army, Queen and Country outmoded in an African country undergoing revolution. This film bore strong relevance to the general end-of-Empire strain of the era’s cultural concerns. It would be fair to say, however, that dry visual realism matched to formula stories was part of what the Free Cinema was waging war against. They wanted realistic life stories, honest portrayal of sub-bourgeois lifestyles, and a visual rhetoric that had poetry and personality. The strong literary influence on the British Free Cinema was perhaps its most significant difference to the French New Wave, which was notable for being the first generation to take its styles, stories, and points of interest more from previous movies. The Free Cinema represented the British cinema being annexed by a larger cultural movement.

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Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner

There is in some quarters an impression that the Free Cinema was strongly bound to the theatrical moment in the UK. Perhaps because Osborne and others had found in the adventurous, government-funded stage an ideal testing ground for new ideas. This, and the fact that almost all the young actors began on the stage in a vanguard of talent including Albert Finney; Tom Courtenay; Susannah York; Corin, Vanessa, and Lynn Redgrave; Peter O’Toole; Michael Caine; Alan Bates; Richard Harris; and Robert Shaw. You could argue Richard Burton was one of this group, in his roots and generation clearly, though his Old Vic training and swift Hollywood triumph took him right out of their sphere; but he got to come back to them just once when he starred in the film of Look Back in Anger (1959), which was also the cinematic debut of director Tony Richardson, who had helmed the piece on the stage. Richardson had also made short films already and contributed to Sequence magazine, which had also seen contributions from Lindsay Anderson and others, in the same way the Nouvelle Vague crew had written for Cahiers du Cinema, and was tributed as helping change the entire discourse on cinema in Britain. Indeed, most of the Angry Young Men were swiftly embraced and celebrated by the mainstream after a short period of woozy disorientation (in Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass and the Pit, in 1957, there’s a line where a journalist discusses his new story with the priceless purpose of “tearing into Angry Young Men, or ‘Sex in the Coffee Bar'”). A few of their champions, like Laurence Olivier, were old-school figures.

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A Taste of Honey

Look Back in Anger was accompanied by another opening salvo, Room at the Top, directed by Jack Clayton, a product of the studio system who had risen up the ranks at Denham Studio and made an Oscar-winning short in 1956. He wasn’t really one of the visionary generation, and the film, though solid and featuring excellent performances from Laurence Harvey and Simone Signoret, lacked the pungent emotion and style that marked the best Free Cinema works. Clayton did go on to make what would become a standard refrain for a Free Cinema director after an early, contemporary, gritty work—the revisionary adaptation of a classic. In his case, Clayton brought an unimaginative literalism to versions of The Turn of the Screw (The Innocents, 1961) and The Great Gatsby (1974). In 1960, Tony Richardson directed the film of Osborne’s The Entertainer, which provided the film debuts of both Albert Finney and Alan Bates. Three years later, Richardson and Osborne collaborated on another signal project, their cheeky adaptation of Tom Jones that brought Oscar-crowned glory to this ragged mob. Richardson had, with Osborne and Harry Saltzman, formed Woodfall Films, and for a time Richardson was a powerful force. After The Entertainer he made, in swift succession, A Taste of Honey (1961), The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962), Tom Jones, and The Loved One (1965) before busting out with awkwardly received works like his ambitious hip epic The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968) and the odd but interesting Ned Kelly (1970).

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This Sporting Life

Other major figures included Karel Reisz, a Czech-born film writer and maker of short films and documentaries who made his debut with Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), which featured the formidable star-making performance of Albert Finney. Reisz then went on to make his weird version of Night Must Fall (1964) a not-very-good melding of old-school theatrics and modish new wave cinema tricks (whip-pans, handheld camera, overexposed sunlight scenes), the Swinging ’60s classic Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment (which also made stars of David Warner and Tony Richardson’s young wife Vanessa Redgrave), and Isadora (1968). Reisz also produced the core masterpiece of the “kitchen sink” genre, Lindsay Anderson’s This Sporting Life. Based on David Storey’s novel, it had similar themes to the previous films of the genre (and similarities with Robert Rossen’s The Hustler, 1961), but achieved a genuinely nightmarish intensity in its study of a macho man’s impotency in dealing with life; Anderson managed the best fusion of directorial stylisation that communicates deep personality linked with a feverish sense of time and place.

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Seance on a Wet Afternoon

Anderson was the most intellectually formidable, the most talented, the most British (and least happily so), the most rootless of his generation. It was largely his influence that had kicked off the Sequence scene; he was a multi-award-winning documentary maker throughout the ’50s, as which he was a profound influence on directors like Ken Loach and Stephen Frears; and his work in the theatre was vast (John Gielgud was eternally grateful to him for bringing him into the modern stage). He directed the surrealist, satirical Mick Travis trilogy, If… (1968), O Lucky Man! (1973), Britannia Hospital (1981), and a tremendous filmed-theatre version of Look Back in Anger (1980) (all with Malcolm McDowall). Ironically, Anderson is probably most recognisable playing, along with Gielgud, as one of the Oxford don snobs in Chariots of Fire (1981). Bryan Forbes had begun as what Michael Caine tried to avoid, a cleaned-up player of working class skivers. To earn extra dough, he started rewriting scripts (he told a story about how he had littered a rewrite of The Black Shield of Falworth with “forsooths” and “verilys”, expecting to be fired, but instead was rewarded with more work) and then scripting and finally broke into directing with Whistle Down The Wind (1961), and followed it up with two important New Wave works, The L-Shaped Room (1962), about a pregnant woman’s difficulties, and the intense thriller Seance on a Wet Afternoon (1964). Later, he adapted James Clavell’s prison camp drama King Rat (1965), which stirred much irritation from the Australian RSL for telling the truth about the POW camps, the black comedy The Wrong Box (1966), and, much later, the witty, very ’70s thriller The Stepford Wives (1975).

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Darling

John Schlesinger perhaps ended as the most accomplished and successful of the group, though he had some noisy clangers to his credit. Schlesinger, like many of the others, had a diverse background across radio, TV, film, acting (which he claimed to be not very good at) and directing BBC documentaries. He made a feature documentary, Terminus (1961), about Waterloo Station that won him attention, and his first feature was A Kind of Loving, about a young couple (Alan Bates and June Ritchie) in a small coal mining town who have to marry when she gets pregnant. It’s a classic kitchen sink drama with a clean, bold style, promising but much of a muchness. Schlesinger then adapted Keith Waterhouse’s novel Billy Liar (1963), and Darling (1965), which together made a star and Oscar winner of Julie Christie. Darling bore interesting thematic similarities to some other films before it, a kind of hip morality play not so far from a film like Val Guest’s tartly ironic, if plastic, The Beauty Jungle (1964), the tragedy of a young woman (Janette Scott) bent on a professional career who gets talked by Ian Hendry’s smooth publicist into becoming a model, and finds herself addicted to the attention but swiftly discarded. Schlesinger later made his majestic version of Far from the Madding Crowd (1967), an of course, Midnight Cowboy (1969) and Sunday, Bloody Sunday (1971), extend and deepen the Free Cinema’s concerns and stylistics.

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Poor Cow

Desmond Davis, a TV director and cameraman on several New Wave films, made a nice little stab in the Free Cinema mould with the fine but little noted I Was Happy Here, featuring Sarah Miles as a discontent housewife married to flashy, stiff-necked businessman Julian Glover, reminiscing about her idyllic teenaged romance in her seaside home town. Davis unfortunately made few films, though he did direct two flavourful entertainments in the early ’80s, the camp classic Clash of the Titans and the Sherlock Holmes TV movie The Sign of Four. Ken Loach, before making the accomplished Kes, also essayed embryonic films very much in the Free Cinema vernacular (for those with the mistaken impression Kes appeared without any trial runs) in Cathy Come Home for TV and his debut film Poor Cow (1967), based on Nell Dunn’s novel, in which Carol White’s Joy flirts with prositution after her husband (Terence Stamp) is imprisoned. A fair first film, it lacks the strong dramatic spine that Loach became more adept at, but established right away that his influences were chiefly Free Cinema, documentary, and determinedly individual. When did the Free Cinema end, and when did it transmute into the Swinging ’60s? One could point to films like Morgan and Georgy Girl as transitional works, films with a melding of humble realism and a more knockabout, humorous character. Maybe the most crucial is A Hard Day’s Night, a film, which, like the rock band it celebrates, is a melding of the old, the current, and the futuristic. It sits squarely in the free cinema mould with its handheld cameras, natural lighting, real settings, portraying with exactness the tawdry scenes of railways stations and naff TV studios its heroes romp through, and yet it also ruptures it, subverts it, by its mockumentary status; it’s faking its realism, it drops into pure fantasy and surrealism when it feels like it.

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Bloody Sunday

Around this time British cinema also was benefiting from the cross-pollination of directors from other countries coming there to work. Such temporary and permanent cultural exiles as Joseph Losey (with the freaky apocalyptic drama These Are the Damned, 1961), Stanley Kubrick, Roman Polanski, Richard Lester, John Huston, Michelangelo Antonioni, Jerzy Skolimowski, Fred Zinnemann, Silvio Narizzano, and Sidney Furie, were making their mark or about to. It’s interesting to note that where most of the above directors deliberately went all-out to prove their talents across a variety of styles and art forms—Richardson from The Entertainer to Tom Jones, Schlesinger from Darling to Far from the Madding Crowd—to take claim of the general cultural legacy as well as creating their own, their progeny began splitting firmly into separate camps. You had men like Ken Loach who moved relentlessly back towards dry, documentary, stringent realism in look and feel (often enforced by low budgets) and a plush stylist like Ken Russell, yet they both owed their beginnings to the same mentors, role models, and TV training. Only a few, like Stephen Frears, retained adeptness for playing every side of the fence. In the modern line-up of British talents, like Paul Greengrass (Bloody Sunday and The Bourne Supremacy), you still see their influence.

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