Monthly Archives: March 2019

  • Branded to Kill – Seijun Suzuki – Japan 1966; Nanbura Koji, Jo Shishido

    Branded to Kill – Seijun Suzuki – Japan 1966; Nanbura Koji, Jo Shishido

    Re-viewed 23 March 2019; Star and Shadow Cinema Newcastle; ticket £7

    How to cook the rice 

    What to make of this film: except to say that it is the product of a totally schizoid society, a society ripped open by a cultural hurricane called the USA; and it’s scenario and imagery mediated by a nouvelle vague film making sensibility.

    Played out to a very cool jazz score by Naozumi Yamamoto, Suzuki’s episodic story line, links a series of increasingly violent confrontations set in the world of the Yakuza.   Branded to Kill reflects Japan as a broken society seen through the multiplexed reflections of smashed shards of a zen mirror. The here and now as a nightmare. A document produced by a defeated society, but made with the extraordinary lucidity about this state of affairs: a twisted Samurai gangster culture shaped by an ethos of sadism played out in deterritorialised spaces with guns and American cars.

    At the centre of the film is the image of the pot of rice. Rice, the constant symbol of the real Japan and of its national religion, Shintoism. This image of a pot full of cooked rice is returned to regularly. The pot belonging to the protagonist exists as if in fairytale. The pot is always a full and nourishes Goro Hanada the number 3 killer less physically but more psychically: a super food that is the source of his self belief.   Rice is his favorite food, the food he craves. Yet the pot is not a traditional pot: it is an electric rice cooker. The white rice fluffs up perfectly when cooked in this gadget. The rice cooker is an automatic device that is a double sign: a sign of the quintessential world of the American can-do – slick electric efficient non traditional and – also the food that is the core of Japanese culture, symbolizing genesis and purity. The rice pot, at the centre of the Branded to Kill is a cursive elegant statement about Japan in the 1960’s: a traditional culture cooked up in the encompassing embrace of a alien society.

    For the most part, Suzuki uses the film as a full blown suicidal assault on traditional Japanese values and sensibilities.   Using a language form similar to New Wave, Suzuki plays with cinematic possibility rather than the formulaic Hollywood production narratives. Under Suzuki’s direction the actors play their roles in a cool mode disengaged from emotional embrace. The action digresses, stops, rewinds as violence and sex intertwine and twist in a pastiche of American iconic imagery: the moll, the gun, the gangster are taken to extremes in sequences that are exercises in a parody of controlled ironic Japanese detachment. In Branded to Kill the various sequences comprising: chase fight torture or sex are defined by stylistic detachment and frequently use the sound track as a deintensifier of the extreme action. For example when the sexy gangster’s moll is being tortured with a blow torch, her face retains an amused insouciant playful demeanor as she hums to herself. An attitude of amused exteriority audio and visual effectively deintensifies the horror of the blow torch sequence transforming it into something like an amusing game, a childish conceit.

    In Branded to Kill, Suzuki has treated his script in such a way that the acting and the fractured plot make the movie an assemblage of the world of the child. Perhaps this is endemic in the gangster movie genre: because certainly both Edward G Robinson and James Cagney both had baby faces, and there is in the violence of the gangster something of the fury of the wronged and angered child; or of the defeated nation.

    Kurosawa’s series of Samurai themed movies look like a conscious project to restore to Japan the memory of the noble tradition of the warrior within Japanese society. Suzuki with his Yakuza movies is pointing to the Japan as he saw it. Japan as a traumatized society overwhelmed by the experience of defeat and the invasion of American commercial culture. A Japan that was struggling to iconically re-define itself. A society that yearned for rice, but was having to come to terms with coca-cola and hamburgers.

    Adrin Neatrour


  • Hale County This Morning, This Evening       RaMell Ross (USA: 2018;)

    Hale County This Morning, This Evening       RaMell Ross (USA: 2018;) Doc

    Viewed: Metrograph NYC,  3rd March 2019; ticket $15

    I woke up this morning…

    The material of RaMell Ross’s film takes as its content the lives of the black community in Hale County, Alabama. As a documentary film maker he’s not an outsider to Hale County but lives and works there as a college teacher, giving courses on photography and training young Basketball players.

    The title of Ross’s film, linking his location Hale County, with the phrase, ‘This Morning’ seems to point to the intention behind his decision to make this film.   ‘This Morning’ is a phrase which reverberates with the mordant irony of ‘the Blues’ and the capacity of Blues music to locate the black American experience. “I woke up this morning, feeling round for my shoes…’ A music that locates the condition of black life in instability and insecurity. The blues are a psycho-somatic wail of defiance at the nature of black experience. A physical and an emotional expression of the unsayable as the voices and guitars of all blues performers insist on telling it how it is in the here and now, in music that transcends the here and now.

    Time was when black people sang the blues. Not so much these days. Now, in terms of music, black expression is voiced by the attitude of Hip-Hop. Hip-Hop and its various developed modes, incessant urban beat overscored by lyrics of assertion and self proclamation, declaring opposition in the face to the face of the white man. But perhaps there are limits to the extent that identity can be based on opposition, however necessary opposition may be. But the blues were always a sentient state, not self pitying, which expressed an actual black dilemma of being. The place that you were in. Where you were at.  I woke up this morning…

    Ross appears to be saying that he’s making his film in Hale County in the Evening of the black people in America. Perhaps for some there is opposition, but the blacks in Hale County Alabama come across more as a disoriented people. A people increasingly not just cut off from any hope of renewal but increasingly cut off from themselves, both in body and in mind. In this evening of the ‘blues’ they have mutated into a life style that alienates them from themselves. A people destroyed by the twisted commercialised individualistic social culture onto which they have been grafted.

    The form Ross chooses for his film is intercut strips of action. Strips of action comprising, mostly single long durational shots, both discrete and sequenced chronologically, descriptive openings into the lives of the Hale people. The clips stand for themselves, without commentary, accompanied only by their own discrete sound.

    The diachronic filming documents episodes in the lives of Ross’ subjects which include a young married couple having twins, and a young guy at college on a basket ball scholarship. Both these subjects have an intermittent narrative, but it is not story that impresses but the scenes, the moments which the dynamic of Ross’ camera work folds into his sequences. The scenes Ross captures point in different ways to the idea of the dislocation of his subjects.

    Item one: captured in one clip, in which we see the young black woman giving birth to her twins. As the shot opens we see that a capacious tent like structure has been erected over the woman’s loins as she gives birth. As the hospital technicians aid the birth, they are shielded off from presence of the woman by this tent like structure. From the point of view of the birth technicians, she is absent from the birth. Perhaps this is normal American practice. Immediately after the delivery of the first of her twins, Ross’ camera pans to the other side of the tent, to film the mother. At this point we see that not only is the woman heavily sedated, but that where her neck meets her chest, another huge screen has been hung, so she is completely disconnected, in body in mind, from the act of giving birth. This mother has been totally disembodied, delivered into a state of disengagement with life.

    Item two: the young basket ball player with the college basketball scholarship. We hear him talk about his hopes for the future, his yearning for success. We see the psychic fixation that drives his endless practice, the unending repetitions of the same moves. And through these strips of action Ross conveys the idea of a youth who has given his body over, sold his body to a sports dream. It feels like containment; the whole of the youth’s life queezed into a little box called sport (basketball). An impoverishment of a being who for want of anything else has embraced the chimera of athletic success. And when this chimera reveals itself for what it is, there will be nothing to take its place. No social matrix, not community, only a vacuum of being, a disenfranchised soul, ever more detached from life.

    The woman, the boy, both seem trapped in a psycho-social machine that drains them of life and vitality, leaves them few resources to cope with the demands of survival in a society in which they are the underclass.

    This detachment is what Moss films. Detachment from the being, the detachment of children from parents. Some of Moss’ most disturbing strips are shots of manically disoriented children desperately seeking attention from parents who are not there for them. In the evening of their enslavement, they are an abandoned and abandoning people.

    It might be said that Ross depicts a distorted picture of the black community in Hale County. But he is not an outsider, just the opposite. As a teacher and basketball coach to young black kids, he is up close to what he has filmed and in a position to witness and come to a judgement about what he witnesses. I think we have to allow that Moss has seen something in the world about him and has made a report about what he has seen.   What he has seen is that there are no blues now for Mr Charlie, no blues, no waking up in the morning, only slow descent into the twilight of being.

    adrin neatrour


  • 3 Women      Robert Altman (1977; USA)

    3 Women      Robert Altman (1977; USA)   Shelley Duvalle; Sissy Spacek; Janice Rule

    Viewed on dvd 2nd March 2019

    Malice in Wonderland

    In Robert Altman’s opening shot we see in big close up the wrinkled skin of the thigh of an elderly women pass slowly down through frame. The camera tracks back to reveal that the woman, in a bathing suit, is descending into a remedial exercise pool in which other elderly clients are being helped to move slowly through the knee high water by young female assistants.   This bizarre setting immediately locates Altman’s focus on the existence of parallel worlds that operate at least one remove from the humdrum logic of everyday life. The camera pans from the pool to an overlooking observation booth where Pinkie sits staring out in blank incomprehension at the aqueous therapy taking place in front of her. Both she and the pool alien modes of existence.

    With her long blond hair and girlish innocent looks Sissy Spacek is a shoe-in for Alice of Wonderland fame. Her performance as Pinkie has much of Alice’s wide eyed engagement with the successive situations after the pool, in which she finds herself: the Dodge City Bar and Millie’s Spanish style courtyard apartment built round a swimming pool. This in not to say that Pinkie represents in any way re-telling of the Wonderland story, but only that there are critical elements in the movie suggesting that within its scripting there are transposed elements of Carroll’s perception about disparate logics abroad in the world.

    Like Alice, Pinkie finds herself in a series of worlds whose logical constructs confound her. She struggles to make sense of what is happening around her, most of the time responding reactively rather than actively. Whereas Alice’s momentary discomfiture is assuaged by her being able to reference the comforting dictum’s of a stolid middle class upbringing, Pinkie has none such to fall back on. She is a sort of repository of emptiness, a product of an impoverished social environment, the desolation of America, where life is drowned out in the jingle of a commercialised culture. Unlike Alice, Spacek can’t oppose her situation with the resources of a culture. She has to survive and to survive she has to make full use of attributes she possesses: a certain native cunning and an amoral compass of desires. And Pinkie’s desire latches onto Millie as an object of emulation.

    In relation to the second Alice book ‘Through the Looking Glass’, Carroll’s characters were almost all playing cards, that is to say beings comprised wholly of ‘surfaces’. And Duvalle’s Millie is all surface. As if on a roll of wallpaper all the slogans shibboleths and beliefs of vacuous Americana have been pasted over her being.   As much in persona, appearance look and dress as in her speech Millie presents herself as a sort of replicant, a product of a society based on mass production. She is an assemblage of the American Beauty Production line compleat with belief system that has stamped upon the female form the attributes of charm poise and decorum. With the which accomplishments Millie broadcasts an incessant daisy chain monologue directed at some one and no one but which signals both her self armour and her vulnerability. Like one of Carroll’s playing cards Duvalle looks out at a world which she sees only in terms of one dimension into which she wants to fit almost sequentially as part of the pack.   She fails to see that nobody is playing cards any longer.

    Pinkie follows Millie through the worlds Altman portrays: the geriatric remedial centre, the Dodge City complex of bar, shooting range and dirt track and her residential gated community.   As Millie navigates through these portals, Pinkie understands that to survive in settings where no one talks and no one listens, she herself has to become like Millie, a replicant. Becoming a replicant is perhaps the only answer to her question, who am I? In the land that invented mass replication in infinite sets, Ford motor cars, coke bottles and baby doll faces, this is the natural course of reaction for Pinkie.   But whereas it seems that Millie has absorbed the ethos of replication through magazines, through movies, through adverts etc., Pinkie’s survival plan to replicate Millie, is a conscious decision, and undertaken as a stratagem. In the USA replication is to survival what the dream is to success: the means to conform to life’s expectations.   Unashamedly with cunning and within her own limitations she tries to become Millie, a replication attempt that is foredoomed even before Pinkie starts to understand that Millie’s life is based on self delusion.

    Underlying Altman’s psychic probing of the surfaces of the feminine anima in 3 Women, is the presence of the third woman (Janice Rule). The 3rd woman is the artist. The woman who responds to the primal urges of pregnancy not by replication of form, but by instinct. The 3rd woman paints surfaces, covering the swimming pool walls with paintings of figurative monsters that leer out threaten and disturb the waters of the conscious mind. She transforms surfaces so that they suggest a sort of depth psychology. Surfaces that unconsciously depict motifs of archaic memories, repressed desire and carnal fears. As Altman’s camera glides over the painted images it calls up a symbolic matrix of experience before the time of replication. It is Altman’s counterbalancing force, set in play to oppose the worlds where the young lead the old through the water of life, where the men dress as cowboys, and time is idled away in display mode sitting round condo pool drinking.

    With a script that has all the marks of improvisation (Shelley Duvall fills out her character with consummate knowledge and skill) 3 Women stumbles into obfuscation as it moves towards its finale. Nevertheless the ending of the movie is comparatively insignificant when considered in relation to the what Altman and his actors carry through in the body of the film. As in Nashville, so in 3 Women Altman opens up America in the manner of few other directors. A culture of isolated souls abroad in worlds where there is little depth but plenty of surface. America as a series of disconnections. America as a land of defined by mass production of experience. What Duvalle and Spacek do is to locate these traits in their performances as women. As women their beings are warped and twisted by cultural imperative that turns them into commodities. But their responses are located in the female key. Unlike most of today’s movies they do not switch to the masculine key in order to come to some sort of reckoning.

    adrin neatrour