Friday, October 21, 2011

MOVIE REVIEW: MODERN TIMES (1936)

MODERN TIMES


Starring 
Charlie Chaplin
Paulette Goddard


Written, Directed, Produced, Original Music Composed by Charlie Chaplin
Cinematography by Ira H. Morgan and Roland Totheroh 
Editing by Charlie Chaplin and Willard Nico
Production Design by Charles D. Hall
Art Direction by J. Russell Spencer


The Chaplin is a Tramp! And this Tramp starts out with a pretty good job in the midst of the Great Depression: tightening bolts on incomprehensible bits of machine parts as they race by on a manic conveyor belt. Chaplin's boss dictates to the workers via an Orwellian telescreen, and his one dictate seems to be "Faster! Faster!" And so the workers on the line pick up the pace. Chaplin has to tighten two bolts at a time, so he's armed with a wrench in each fist. He takes to his work with crazed intensity, even if he does get a bit flaky and start applying the wrenches to the buttons on people's coats and dresses and even the occasional pair of nipples. Chaplin ends up losing his mind because he can't keep pace with the work, and the boss conducts a bizarre experiment on him involving a feeding machine that looks like it was designed by Survival Research Laboratories. Does Chaplin show up with a fully automatic assault rifle and start killing at will? Does he go on strike? No! He dances! He spurts people in the face with an oil can! He takes a ride through the gears of the grand industrial machinery! He makes all kinds of merry! He is happy as can be! And to be this kind of happy in the heart of the industrial beast one must clearly be insane. Later for that cushy factory job.

Chaplin finds himself out of work and on the streets. While strolling along with his inimitable walk he gets caught up between striking workers and strikebreaking pig cops. The cops drag Chaplin off to prison for being a communist agitator, and it looks like his spirits are sure to be crushed. But he ends up consuming large quantities of cocaine by accident and he becomes supercharged with energy. With this burst of energy he battles an armed gang trying to bust out of lock-up, and the Tramp becomes a savior of the prison warden. They even give him a pardon and, what's most important, a letter of reference so he can get a job.

Meanwhile, the lovely Paulette Goddard finds herself barefoot in the streets after her father is gunned down during a labor skirmish. Rather than become a ward of the state, she decides to strike out on her own, and try to skip and prance and charm her way into a job and a new life. She crosses paths with the Tramp when she nearly gets caught stealing a loaf of bread. Chaplin tries to take the rap, and thereby end up in jail again where he was actually having a grand old time, and penitentiary sure beat hell outta the madness of working the factory line . . .

What does it take to survive in a world of brutal, dehumanizing labor, state repression of labor strikes, and all pervasive poverty and starvation? You gotta get tough. You gotta get organized. You gotta have solidarity with your fellow workers. You gotta stand up to the pigs and the oppressors. Or you can just get goofy. Chaplin gets goofy.

But I'm not sure the Tramp ever made a choice, exactly. He's just that kind of guy, you know? All he wants is to cruise through life, not take on too many obligations, eat well, and maybe find a nice girl to spend time with. Make time to roller skate, sing, and dance. If he ends up as a labor agitator, a rebel, a thief, and a gangbuster those are just side effects of his good time, you know what I'm saying? What kind of victory would it be, anyways, to win some bogus concessions from management, and still be tied down to that goddamn factory line? Better to cut loose of such attachments, and cruise through reality as if it all was just one big Saturday afternoon stroll.

Modern Times is a delightful fantasy, a liberating blast of gentle anarchy. Yes, real life is a lot uglier, and much more insane. But the central idea, as I take it, is that a person can find freedom and dignity in the midst of grim circumstances through play, and through this play you can negate the systems of command and control, oppression and obedience, that the bogus, arbitrary, unthinking authorities of the world are obsessively trying to perpetrate upon humanity.

There's a nice little moment where the cops are trying to get Chaplin to heel, and he just keeps on walking, politely refusing their demands. No Molotov cocktails, no lawsuits, just as if to say, "No thank you. You may keep your authoritarian bullshit for yourself. I'll not be needing it." Of course, Chaplin does it without the superfluous words.

What more can I say? Chaplin was a brilliant physical comedian, filmmaker, musician, actor, he did it all. Paulette Goddard is quite beautiful, and cunning. Unlike Chaplin, she has seen death up close, and so she applies her willpower to the art of survival. She is a perfect compliment to Chaplin's unconscious agent of anarchy. There's a reason why people who draw up lists of the greatest movies ever put Modern Times on the list. It helps that it's imminently watchable and hilarious. The set designs are mind-boggling and fun. The comic timing is as hectic and athletic as a Jackie Chan martial arts comedy.

What a team-up that would've been! Chaplin and Chan!

Better that it remains an idle fantasy, and not some CG grotesquerie.


The Eating Machine:

Saturday, October 15, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: The Ruined Map by Kobo Abe (1969)

The Ruined Map
by Kobo Abe

Translated by E. Dale Saunders
Published by Alfred A. Knopf, 1969
Originally published in Japanese 1967

A nameless private investigator takes on the case of a missing husband, a Mr. Nemuro. He goes to a small town somewhere in Japan, and tries to figure out where Mr. Nemuro went. It doesn't help that the man disappeared six months ago, and that it's taken so long for the wife and the wife's brother to hire a detective. The P.I. narrates his tale in the first person, and the names of the town and several pertinent organizations have been purposely redacted from his first person narrative. His investigation takes on an abstract quality. One gets the sense that this mystery and the people involved could exist in any small town or city.

The P.I. has a kind of knack for seeing things in minute detail. At times, he seems to focus obsessively on details of rooms and streets and people's attire to the point that he misses the big picture. Early on, he narrowly avoids running down a child in the street. Later, he meets with his estranged wife and he seems to have a rather distorted sense of why they had to part ways. Like in many marital conflicts, each blames the other for the separation, and the P.I. is tinged with jealousy that borders on the absurd. One moment he's specualting about her cheating on him, and the next he idly fantasises about her having a lesbian tryst with her young female employee in her dressmaking shop. Every statement, each exchange, every last change of mood and odd utterance is analyzed for hidden meanings and secret threats. The P.I. was suited for his profession, and doomed to failure in marriage.

Or maybe the P.I.'s hyperawareness is his weakness as an investigator as well. Each person he interrogates, he takes on a slightly different persona the better to draw out pertinent information. His theory is he must be a kind of blank slate, an actor, willing to take on the persona which best gets his given subject talking about what he needs to know. Brilliant . . . but there's always the risk that these ideal personas merely push his subjects to tell him what he wants to hear, and not the truth. Also, his suspicious nature may prevent him from believeing the truth of statements which contain vital clues.

The Ruined Map plays with the tantalizing ambiguities inherent in human communications, especially when people are trying to hide their feelings and obscure the truth. The novel is set up like a hard-boiled mystery to give people plenty of reasons to equivocate and deceive one another about hidden motives and illicit schemes, but by the end of it I was left with the impression that Abe is suggesting that all human interactions are, on some level, profoundly uncertain. We can never really know what goes on in someone else's head. How do we know if someone is lying to us? And don't we all tell little white lies now and again? Deception, at some level, is absolutely necessary for normal human interactions to proceed apace. Radical honesty would tear us apart. But what happens if our lives are entirely made up of little white lies? Couldn't the case be made that one little white lie after another adds up to a big ol' pile of deception? That might very well be the case. And there might be absolutely nothing we can do about it.

And where does that leave the P.I. in terms of identity? If he has commited himself to being a kind of protean Everyman, altering his identity to suit whatever case and whoever he is dealing with at any given moment, then who is he? Is identity something essential and unchanging? In Abe's novel, this is not the case. Identity is something you can put on, take off, and fine tune in endless variations. At least, that's how the P.I. approaches things. That's another part of the guy's particular talent it would seem.

But what happens if you lose track of yourself? Sure, the P.I.'s a pro, that wouldn't happen . . . but what if?

The Ruined Map draws you in with a genre mystery set up, but then goes on, by gradual degrees, to take you into truly bizarre territory. I found it to be surprisingly unsettling, although it is hardly sensationlistic or gruesome in any extreme sense. But it wore on my psyche, screwing with my genre expecations, and then dragging me into a wholly unexpected fictional zone. I admired it, but it was also somewhat unpleasant, and a bit infuriating. I've read a number of other Abe novels in English, and have found most of them to be much too abstracted and absurdist for my taste, although I did enjoy The Box Man and Inter Ice Age 4. I think I was hoping, as I read it, that this book would be closer to Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler, but instead it was thorougly Kobo Abe. Well, the man's name was on the spine. I have only myself to blame.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

MOVIE REVIEW: PIGS AND BATTLESHIPS (1961)

Pigs and Battleships


Starring
Hiroyuki Nagato as Kinta
Jitsuko Yoshimura as Haruko
Sanae Nakahara as Hiromi
Tetsuro Tamba as Tetsu
Kin Sugai as Hiromi's Mother
Eijiro Tono as Kinta's Father


Directed by Shohei Imamura
Produced by Kano Otsuka
Written by Hisashi Yamanouchi
Cinematography by Shinsaku Himeda
Lighting by Yasuo Iwaki
Sound by Fumio Hashimoto
Music by Toshiro Mayuzumi
Art Direction by Kimihiko Nakamura


Pigs and Battleships is all about average people trying to survive and maybe even thrive in a port city in Japan sometime not long after the end of World War II. It's mostly about low end gangsters and their marginally more legit friends, lovers, and relations and how they navigate an economy heavily dependent on vice and the military presence of a foreign power. Everyone seems teetering on the edge of criminality, or maybe just insanity. Some dream big, and kid themselves that they'll have spacious homes like the foreign big spenders with their houses on hilltops, or maybe like the U.S. gangsters they see in newsreels.

Postwar Japan: the port city of Yokosuka. Big U.S. military presence. Lots of American sailors on the prowl, neon lights, prostitutes, and no air conditioning. Everybody is busting their ass to move up in the world, rebuild the nation, and, for the ladies, maybe even bag an American husband. But guys and gals alike all want some piece of that American dream. As one of the con men in this movie takes note, all the Japanese youth of the day are enamored with American gangsters and the Beat Generation, despite his best efforts to spread the gospel of Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson.

But if you can't be an American, you may as well profit off 'em. A young, wannabe yakuza named Kinta (Hiroyuki Nagato) touts for a cathouse run out of the back of a tiny restaurant. With playful zest, he backslaps and browbeats the horny sailors into the cramped, smoky, improvised brothel space filled with bunk beds and young women. Kinta's girlfriend Haruko (Jitsuko Yoshimura) works with her mother (Kin Sugai) and older sister, Hiromi (Sanae Nakahara), in the restaurant part of the operation, and occasionally gets a big pay day when she goes on dates with Americans. Haruko hasn't slept with any of these guys, yet, as she feels loyalty towards Kinta, but the pressure to do so is intense. Haruko's mom and Hiromi both want her to put out to increase the family's revenue. Haruko isn't necessarily put off by the idea of prostitution, but she's in love with Kinta, and she's beginning to grow tired of having other people tell her what to do. She sees herself as eventually saving up enough money to move herself and Kinta to Kawasaki, where the young couple could get jobs in one of the new factories being built there.

 But Kinta feels loyalty to his yakuza comrades. In particular, he is loyal to his direct boss, Tetsu (Tetsuro Tamba), who happens to be dating Haruko's sister, Hiromi. Tetsu is probably the most high strung yakuza in cinema history. He is constantly concerned for his health, and has a medievalist's approach to medicine. Tetsu monitors the color and volume of the bile he coughs up every morning. Tetsu and Kinta and other members of their gang decide to move away from narcotics trafficking, and to focus on a scheme to sell pork to the American military base. To that end they decide to focus their business on pig farming and prostitution, with supplementary forays into protection racketeering. But these dimwitted yakuza find their ambitions complicated by the machinations of other criminals and distrust and divisiveness within their own ranks.

Kinta is not the top dawg in his gang, and he is certainly not the brightest, but he is the most sincere. He throws himself into whatever the gang wants him to do with surpassing zeal. Other gang members take note of this, and see a way to exploit him. Kinta goes along with a scheme to take the rap for a murder charge for someone higher up in the criminal hierarchy on the promise that once he's done his stretch on the inside he will have greater status as a yakuza. Kinta is clearly a fool, and yet I found his sincerity believable. Kinta has a conception in his mind of what the gang is that has little to do with the stark reality. Kinta is loyal to this conception, this fantasy, and that makes him a dreamer. It's hard not to like a dreamer, you know? I found myself wondering what the gang would've been able to accomplish if Kinta had been put in charge instead of the depressive hypochondriac Tetsu.

The central conflict within the movie exists between the lovers Kinta and Haruko. It is not so much a moral conflict, as in virtue versus vice, as it is a kind of existential conflict between agency and dependency. Both Kinta and Haruko are pragmatists to some degree. They both believe in doing whatever is necessary to survive and get ahead in life, but they have conflicting visions of how to achieve these ends. Kinta believes in his gang, and their enterprises: pig farming, racketeering, pimping. Haruko believes in herself, and in her ability to make her own  way in the world. Haruko wants to escape being dependent on the presence of the American military, and the oppressive family which would deny her the chance to strike out on her own. They're both pragmatists, but they're both dreamers as well.

Visually, Kinta and Haruko are often shown within Imamura's glorious black and white widescreen compositions as being enveloped by the various gritty, lived-in environments of Yokosuka, and also being crowded by the other characters, family, yakuza, and sailors. Kinta, especially, is often marginalized within the framing, appearing in the background while foreground characters discuss plans and schemes which Kinta has no choice but to follow along with or help execute as a loyal flunky.

Now and again, Kinta and Haruko have scenes together, and the two seem to dominate the scenery, sometimes towering over the camera, almost as though their passion for each other and their crazy dreams of future prosperity threaten to elevate them out of the gritty, quirky realism of Imamura's movie and into the realm of Hollywood melodrama. But even these scenes are off kilter, and often have resolutions which undercut the romance. Haruko drags Kinta away from his yakuza buddies to a hilltop and exhorts him to ditch the gang and make a new, legitimate life, but Kinta resists. Passionate words are exchanged, and the young lovers are framed against beautiful landscapes. But at the end, Kinta goes running down the hill, stumbles, and falls on his ass. Kinta picks himself up, though, keeps on running, and you gotta admire the kid's moxie.

Imamura's movie is highly eclectic, mixing in elements of yakuza gangster movies, farce, romance, realism, and satire, but he manages to make it all hang together with a dynamic sense of editing and pacing. In another director's hands this same material would've been grim and plodding, but Imamura transforms it into a kind of adventure but without toning down the grit and grime.There are quite a few rapid turns of plot and motivation as well, and it may require a couple of viewings to keep track of what all happens. The tone is frequently comical, and yet many serious, disturbing things transpire. It all builds to a crazed, slightly surreal climax wherein the pent-up rage and frustration of various characters finds release. Indeed, the ending seems to be somewhat influenced by what all these characters picked up watching American gangster movies, almost as though conflicting inner visions of what they were all aspiring to become in life were unleashed and began to trample each other . . .

Pigs and Battleships Trailer:

INFINITE REPEAT AWARD: "When you hear the Boss, it's time to go to work" Edition




Runner-Up: