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May 30, 2011

Coffee Break

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Amy Brenneman and Jimmy Smits in NYPD Blue: The Reunion The Jane Austen Book Club (Robin Swicord - 2007)

Posted by peter at 08:19 AM

May 29, 2011

Coffee Break

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Yul Brynner in Catlow (Sam Wanamaker - 1971)

Posted by peter at 08:30 AM

May 26, 2011

High Steppin': An Evening with Cleo Parker Robinson

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Anybody who's been following this blog for a few years knows that I have some interest in dance in film. A while back, Marilyn Ferdinand had her which inspired me to contribute three entries. What I haven't mentioned is that sporadically during the Eighties, I did some videotaping for some Denver area choreographers. Back when the University of Colorado hosted some great dance workshops and performances in the Boulder campus, I took a class on dance and video under the direction of Lisa Nelson. It was my introduction to Contact Improvisation. A year or so later, I visited Berkeley to take a workshop in Contact Improvisation so that I could have some greater personal knowledge of what it means to be dancer. That experience is part of the reason why I have no tolerance for filming of dance that is composed of fragmented movements rather than those films that make greater effort to show the entire body or bodies in motion.

All of this is a somewhat wordy explanation regarding my seeing choreographer Cleo Parker Robinson at the Denver Film Center talk about dance in Hollywood films last night. I wasn't sure what to expect other than that there would be some film clips, and that the evening would be hosted by Robert Denerstein as part of his "Colorado Cinema Salon" series.

One might describe the presentation as a mix of autobiography and personal choices. The first clip was from Stormy Weather, and was the title dance number, choreographed by Katherine Dunham. For Robinson, it may have initially been seeing a large number of African-American dancers and actors on screen, but what evolved was Robinson's own learning from Dunham, as well as her own role in preserving Dunham's choreography. A more personal choice was from the prologue of West Side Story, with the rivalry of the Jets and the Sharks established through dance and stylized fighting on the streets of New York City. For Robinson, this was the film that made her decide on a life of dance. What she also liked about West Side Story was that it presented men dancing.

The Wiz was chosen primarily based on Robinson's association with some of the people involved with both the stage production and the film. What was significant was that the film had the most African-American dancers in a film at the time, and finding strength in numbers, the dancers successfully went on strike for better pay. What impressed Robinson about All That Jazz was primarily the open sexuality of Bob Fosse's film. The clip from White Nights, with Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gregory Hines' duet choreographed by Twyla Tharp, combining tap and ballet, served to to remind me that Taylor Hackford was at one time a pretty good filmmmaker. For Robinson, it was both the combination of these two different dancers performing together as well as a great showcase for showing men dancing.

The final clip, from Stomp the Yard brought out mixed feelings from Robinson. On the plus side is the popularity of stepping. On the downside is the competitiveness that has resulted in violence, as well as the lack of interest by many involved regarding the history of stepping. Robinson also talked about having classes where those who have been involved in stepping or related dancing were unable to do any kind of the more traditional forms of dance. There was also some discussion on how dance has been presented on film, both with the heavy editing which essentially destroys any coherent sense of the choreography, but also with the various films centered on "street" dancing emphasizing attitude over the skills and discipline involved with dance.

There were some personal anecdotes, including a strange, chance meeting with Twyla Tharp's brother at Chicago's O'Hare Airport, and working with Gordon Parks, and being with him when Parks found out through a Denver newspaper that his son had died in a plane crash in Africa. A one of a kind evening, with someone who is much more than a local legend.

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Posted by peter at 07:49 AM

May 24, 2011

Love Exposure

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Ai no mukidashi
Sion Sono - 2009
Third Window Film Region 2 DVD

I took off a past weekend based on the assumption that the Denver Film Society was going to present another four days of Japanese films, something they did in April of last year. As it turned out, that didn't happen. I took the time off from work anyways, and took advantage of seeing a couple of DVDs of Japanese films in my pile that I hadn't gotten around to watching yet. One of the films was The Incident by Yoshitaro Nomura. It didn't help that the Panorama DVD was an academy ratio version of a wide screen film. With a screenplay by Kaneto Shindo, and Nomura's usual go to guy, Tetsuro Tamba, as the star, I didn't think I would find this film difficult to watch. The Japanese Academy also loved this film, but with Nomura competing against himself, I prefer his other film, The Demon. Better still are Castle of Sand and Zero Focus. It literally took me hours, starting and stopping, to get through this courtroom mystery that has bits of Roshomon and 12 Angry Men.

On the other hand, I had no such problem watching all four hours of Love Exposure. What it's really about, I'm not sure of, though. The main themes are of Catholic guilt, the fetish for upskirt photos, and the mythology of Meiko Kaji. I've never been Catholic, or even Christian, and while I can understand the appeal, I've only seen a couple of DVDs just to get acquainted with a certain segment of current Japanese cinema. I am more comfortable talking about Meiko Kaji, having seen several films from the 70s that she starred in, and having a frame of reference when a couple of the characters pose as "Miss Scorpion".

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The film is about people looking to be rescued, whether by "Miss Scorpion" or Jesus. It is also about the lengths people will go to to find affirmation in their lives. As a young boy, Yu promises his dying mother that he will marry a women who is like the Virgin Mary. Yu's father takes his own devout faith further as a widower by becoming a priest. Yu wants a father rather than a Father. To get the attention of the man with the commingled roles, Yu devotes himself to sin. Petty acts of ignorance and insult escalate when Yu meets some high school friends mostly interested in shoplifting and getting into fights. Getting involved in upskirt photography, Yu becomes a master in combining ninja moves with a stealth camera.

Observed praying outside his father's church in the rain, Yu gets the attention of Koike, a recruiter from a questionable cult called the Zero Church. Through a combination of events, Yu goes out in public, dressed as Maiko Kaji's iconic character, and helps Yoko, whom he sees as the girl of his dreams, in a fight against a very large gang of thugs. Yoko falls in love with "Miss Scorpion", but would rather have nothing to do with Yu, who in a turn of events, is both a student at the same high school, and a brother through marriage.

What I think Sono is mainly interested in is systems of belief, especially those imposed institutionally, whether through religious organizations, schools, families or medical authorities. It is also quite possible that anyone viewing the film will have their own interpretation of events and Sono's message. The main characters teeter between behaving as they choose to behave, and in ways to fulfill the expectations of others. Where Sono is clearly critical is with the Zero Church, being more of a criminal enterprise rather than an organization based on any doctrine. Sono deliberately has it both ways, calling his young photographers perverts, and playing up the more voyeuristic aspects so that the audience sees lots of shots of lots of panties. Mostly, Love Exposure is about people finding themselves and each other, and learning to accept their strengths and follies.

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Posted by peter at 09:17 AM

May 22, 2011

Coffee Break

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Tallulah Bankhead in The Cheat (George Abbott - 1931)

Posted by peter at 07:17 AM

May 19, 2011

In the City of Sylvia

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En la ciudad de Sylvia/Dans la Ville de Sylvia
Jose Luis Guerin - 2007
Axiom Film Region 2 DVD

Without stating it directly, In the City of Sylvia is a movie about movies. More precisely, I think of it as the movies we create in our imaginations based on what is seen or heard, especially that which might not be clearly seen or partially heard. There is one scene where the unnamed young man is sitting by the tram stop in Strasbourg, watching the trains go by, looking both at the reflections on the windows and through the windows. If the title had not been so closely associated with Luis Bunuel, this movie could well have been called Illusion Travels by Streetcar.

One of the reviews compares Guerin's film to Hitchcock which is not inappropriate but is misleading. What Guerin does is strip the narrative almost naked. What we are watching is a young man following a young woman through the streets of Strasbourg. We eventually find out through the only scene of dialogue that the young man thinks that the young woman is someone he met six years ago named Sylvia. By jettisoning all but the most basic kind of set up, Guerin has literally cut to the chase.

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The film is also about movies in other ways. The opening shot is disorienting. At first I thought I was looking at a shot created by a camera panning in a dark room. I realized when the shot was repeated that the camera was fixed, and the illusion of motion was created by the movement of car lights traveling past the dark hotel room. There are shots of the young man's sketch book taken from his point of view. Whether he is rustling through the pages or they are being pushed by wind is not clear, but the movement of the pages creates a rough kind of animation. Again, without emphasis, Guerin reminds the viewer about the physical essence of celluloid based movies.

There are characters who wander in and out of the film, most notably a street vendor with cigarette lighters and belts, and a corpulent panhandler. Guerin makes use of the idea of certain people being fixtures as it were within specific environments. There's also something of a comic motif with three moments involving spilled drinks. The faces on advertisement billboards provide their own kind of commentary. One wonderful shot is of a light summer dress, hanging out of a window to dry, the wind creating the movement of a solo dance.

Most amazing for me was the first scene with the young man sitting in an outdoor cafe. The way people were positioned within the frame, it would appear that someone would be kissing someone else, or whispering to them, even though the two people would not be sitting together. When two people are sitting together, they are not talking to each other, and the background acts as a commentary on the foreground - the man in this shot is sitting in thought while behind him we can a similar looking man happily chatting with his girl friend. When the camera shows the point of view of the young man, there are a series of shots of various young women, mostly partially observed, seeming to mimic the mind's eye in determining who is or is not in focus.

I find it easier to describe what In the City of Sylvia is not, rather that what it is, because there is very little in the way of narrative. The film is constructed in such a way that the viewer can bring in individual interpretations of what they are watching. The young woman whom the young man pursues remains unnamed. In the final scene, the young man is gazing at the various women passing through the train stop. Maybe all of them are Sylvia.

Posted by peter at 06:36 AM

May 17, 2011

Revenge (1964)

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Adauchi
Tadashi Imai - 1964
AnimEigo Region 1 DVD

Even if his character was not declared insane by the ruling council, there would always be something about Kinnosuke Nakamura that appeared deranged. Definitely the eyes that appear ready to bulge out, darting about, ready to spy upon a real or imagined enemy. There is also something a bit off-kilter about Nakamura's mouth. When Nakamura really goes crazy at the end, there's really no surprise.

I had only come across the Japanese term "zankoku jidaigeki" which translates as "cruel historicals" in a discussion about the original 13 Assassins from 1963. The genre was associated with Toei Studios which also produced Revenge. as well as Imai's previous Bushido - The Cruel Code of the Samurai. There is a sense of continuity that the same studio that would produce films that questioned the samurai code would eventually become the studio most identified with the yakuza films of the 70s.

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Those assuming that there would be lots of action to savor based on the titles would be sorely disappointed. Imai, who liked to overturn audience expectations, is not only criticizing the samurai code but also the spectacle of violence. Taking place in 18th Century Japan, the film opens with workers building a temporary outdoor arena, based on very specific rules regarding size and positioning of the audience, to be used for a duel. Through a series of flashbacks, it is revealed that this duel is the result of the youngest brother of a high class family seeking officially sanctioned revenge against the lowly samurai who killed his two older brothers. What began as a fight over an insult escalates to a series of private and public duels that involves several clans.

If there was ever a screenplay writer who loves flashbacks, it was Shinobu Hashimoto. Best known for his work with Akira Kurosawa, Hashimoto makes the narrative a bit more difficult to follow than necessary. The humanistic impulses that are usually found in the films he's written are found here, especially at the end, but the jumps between past and present were a bit harder to follow than in such films as Ikiru or his work for Yoshitaro Nomura, Zero Focus and Castle of Sand.

Eschewing action for the most part, Imai is more interested in contemplating the arcane rules that governed the samurai classes. Everything is based on established rules, and the disruption of those rules create unexpected ripples. The moral quandary that the characters find themselves in would make this film similar to watching a game of chess, where every move needs to be thought out not only for its immediate outcome but in anticipation of countermoves.

Even though he's second billed, that seemingly ubiquitous star of Japanese films of the 60s and 70s, Tetsuro Tamba, appears in a glorified supporting role as one of the brothers looking to put Kinnosuke Nakamura in his place. The cinematography, lighting and framing, are unarguably beautiful, emphasizing through visual formality the life of formality of the film's characters.

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Posted by peter at 08:09 AM

May 15, 2011

Coffee Break

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Adolph Green and Linda Lavin in I Want to Go Home (Alain Resnais - 1989)

Posted by peter at 07:13 AM

May 13, 2011

These Amazing Shadows

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Paul Mariano & Kurt Norton - 2011
Sundance Selects Digital presentation

Oh, the irony of it all! A movie about film preservation was shown as a digital presentation.

I wasn't quite sure what to expect out of These Amazing Shadows even after seeing the trailer. Talk about film preservation, film as culture, etc., well, that's speaking to the choir. What was interesting was, first, the reminder of how the Library of Congress got into the act of naming twenty-five movies a year as being important. Ted Turner's decision to broadcast films made in black and white in colorized versions in 1986 brought out a truly bipartisan cast of Hollywood players to congress. Turner, who had used his ownership of MGM's film library as the basis for his cable network empire, defiantly proclaims that these are "his movies" and he can do what he wants with them. Unsaid in the film is that Turner saw the error in his ways, possibly due to some encouraging words from his wife at the time, Jane Fonda, who was known to have been in a few classic movies herself, and that the cable channel he launched a few years later, has become associated with film preservation as well.

There is also the revelation of how the films are chosen, with interviews with members of the National Film Preservation Board. Even though films are voted on by board members, it is ultimately James Billington, of the Library of Congress, who makes the final decision. There is a bit of humor provided by John Waters in discussing how The Rocky Horror Picture Show got added to a group of films with the usual suspects, like, well, Casablanca. For most film scholars, adding Birth of a Nation would seem obvious, but more surprising was seeing John Singleton discuss his part in arguing for that film's inclusion in the registry. Most poignant is Stephen Peck, son of Gregory Peck, talking about his own experience as a Viet-Nam war era veteran and watching The Deer Hunter.

These Amazing Shadows was made primarily for a general audience, so there isn't to much of the geekery that some of us love regarding the actual work involved in film preservation. Still, there is the tale of how a complete version of the pre-code Baby Face was discovered, and a demonstration of some of the procedures involved in saving nitrate film. Co-director Kurt Norton was on hand in the Denver show to explain why there were also only a few glimpses of the many "experimental" films that have been listed. I am hoping to see the companion film made, Lost Forever, about the films that either no longer exist or remain in a few small fragments.

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Posted by peter at 08:40 AM

May 11, 2011

Muay Thai Fighter

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Muay Thai Chaiya
Kongkiat Khomsiri - 2007
Lions Gate Films Region 1 DVD

Almost four years after its initial release in Thailand, comes another under the radar release of a Thai movie. Beyond the nearly generic English title is a film that was one one of the more critically acclaimed and award winning films in Thailand. The film could also be said to be Kongkiat Khomsiri's Raging Bull with a bit of On the Waterfront and Goodfellas tossed into the mix. Kongkiat's film is nowhere near as good. The film is more than a series of action set pieces, following how easily dreams get corrupted.

Taking place in the 1970s, three young men with goals of becoming professional fighters leave their small fishing village in southern Thailand to go to Bangkok. They find out that the purity and idealism of the sporting world that they use to know is replaced by gangsters who control the various aspects of the boxing profession, with fixed fights, and drugged fighters. One of the young men, Pao, manages to stay clean and eventually is one of the top fighters. Piak, the fighter who had shown the most potential in the beginning, finds himself fighting in underground cage matches, and with the third friend, Samaw, takes on work as a hit man for an overly ambitious hood.

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Kongkiat made his reputation with a couple of the Art of the Devil films. While this film is also unabashedly violent, the motivation is for a kind of hyper realism rather than just scaring the viewer. What Kongkiat is really interested in, aside from showing the different forms of fighting, is an exploration of the conflicts of loyalty, between the three men, their respective families, and their professional allegiances. Within a few shots of dancers and a puppet show, Kongkiat also is interested in the questions of how traditional Thai culture can be maintained within an increasingly urban, and Westernized society. While the bulk of the film takes place in the mean streets of Bangkok, Kongkiat has several moments of visual lyricism with scenes in the countryside and the seaside village. A commentary on some of the action is provided by some vintage Thai pop love songs.

One might also look at the inclusion of stuntman Don Ferguson, as a fighter named Diamond Sullivan, as something of a metaphor for western adoption of Asian culture. Sullivan is top fighter and the one Pao has to beat in the film's final match. Sullivan is presented as an arrogant man who takes steroids and isn't above fighting dirty. I don't think it's giving too much away to note that Pao emerges triumphant, but the two go through some very heavy beatings.

The two best action sequences belong to Piak, played by Akara Amarttayakul. In a part that won him the Best Actor award from the Thailand National Film Association, Akara shows his stuff in two fights, a cage match taking on all comers, and a finale against the bodyguards and hired thugs of the two gangsters who control boxing in Bangkok. Akara uses his fists, swords, almost anything he can get his hands on. There's more to Akira's performance than his fighting skills, as Piak's story is one of the two main narratives, as the fighter who lost everything to easy money and easier sex, redeeming himself at the very end.

A DVD extra that seems curiously truncated features an interview with Kongkiat explaining his interest in Chaiya fighting. Those familiar with The Art of the Devil films may be delighted to know that Kongkiat is currently working on a 3-D horror film. As for his last film, Slice the slasher tale written by Wisit Sasanatieng, there is no English language subtitled DVD at this time. Could it be possible that the company that released the Saw and Hostel movies could be scared of a violent horror film that scared up some glowing reviews?

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Posted by peter at 08:42 AM | Comments (1)

May 09, 2011

Dana Wynter: 1931 - 2011

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I saw Something of Value recently on DVD, having seen it once, in a pan and scan televised version. And again I was reminded of Dana Wynter's regal beauty. She wasn't in a lot of films but even the handful that I remember her by are worth viewing. My one time seeing Wynter on the big screen was John Huston's List of Adrian Messenger, and in retrospect, there seems to be no one more fitting to play a character named Lady Jocelyn Bruttenholm. Against a twinned Danny Kaye, she portrayed someone named Lady Margaret MacKenzie-Smith in the World War II farce, On the Double. Wynter also did her part in defeating the German navy in Sink the Bismarck!. And until I read up on her, I didn't realize that this seemingly most British lady was born in Berlin.

Wynter played the part of a German woman, in Fraulein, a film that I barely remember save for a scene where Theodore Bikel, boisterously drunk, smashes a guitar, in Henry Koster's film about post-war Germany.

And yes, there is also the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Dana Wynter, I would have no hesitation about running away with you.

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Posted by peter at 03:21 AM | Comments (2)

May 08, 2011

Coffee Break

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Claudette Colbert and Mildred Washington in Torch Singer (Alexander Hall and George Sommes - 1933)

Posted by peter at 07:11 AM

May 05, 2011

Sex and Zen

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Yu pu tuan zhi: Tou qing bao jian
Michael Mak - 1991
Eastern Star Region 0 DVD

One of the big 3-D hit movies that will probably not appear stateside is the recently released Sex and Zen 3-D. How big a hit? It broke the box office records in Hong Kong and Taiwan established by Avatar. In the U.S., audiences are more apt to embrace blue people rather than blue movies.

I had this film moseying up my Netflix queue. Even if I couldn't see the new film in the series, I decided the time was ripe to see the film that initiated the series. The original film was a relatively big budget production from Golden Harvest, the Hong Kong studio that was home to Bruce Lee. The film also set a record as being the most successful "Category III" release, the equivalent to NC-17. (The U.S. release was rated "R".) It is also an undeniably handsome film, with the kind of visual elegance found in the films of Radley Metzger.

The basis of the film is a 17th Century Chinese novel, The Carnal Prayer Mat. There's some very generic Zen, and lots of sex. What passes for Buddhism are the bookend scenes with the main character, a hedonistic scholar played by Lawrence Ng, visiting a priest with the argument that he can live his life without the effects of karma, only to return to the priest at the end with a tale of woe.

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For most everyone else watching this film, Sex and Zen is a tale of "Whoa!". This means admiring the obvious charms of Amy Yip, Isabella Chow and Rena Murakami. Various forms of coupling among different cast members takes place. Yip plays the virginal wife who at first is repulsed by the idea of having sex, while Chow and Murakami are sisters-in-law who are also lovers. There's also group sex, some whippings, nibbling of toes and ears, calligraphy brushes, and creative uses of a flute that anticipate a certain scene in Requiem for a Dream as well as the band camp references in American Pie.

In an, ahem, extended scene, Lawrence Ng, discouraged by his modest endowment, finds a doctor who specializes in limb surgery, and a dream of performing transplant surgery. Both hilarious, horrifying and just plain silly, Ng undergoes an operation that leaves him literally hung like a horse. The emphasis is on bawdy humor. Whatever Michael Mak's artistic intentions were, as declared in the DVD supplement, Sex and Zen is ultimately meant to be enjoyed for its virtues, or lack of them.

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Posted by peter at 08:30 AM

May 03, 2011

Silent Naruse - Disc 3

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Street without End/Kagirinaki hodo
Mikio Naruse - 1934
Eclipse Region 1 DVD

I wouldn't be surprised if someday, someone creates a Youtube montage of car accidents in Mikio Naruse's films. Consider that one of Naruse's last films was titled Hit and Run. Nothing fatal happens in Street without End but the plot hinges on the actions of the man behind the wheel.

The street is one in the Ginza section of Tokyo where two waitresses work in a cafe that apparently is famous for its pancakes. Sugiko and Kesako are coworkers and roommates. A couple of guys from a movie studio have their eyes on Sugiko to take the place of a recently retired movie star. Sugiko puts the idea on hold, also thinking about the future with her boyfriend. Distracted, Sugiko gets hit by a car, and wins the heart of the driver, Hiroshi, a man from a wealthy family. While Sugiko is on the mend, Kesako jumps at the chance to be a star, taking her street artist friend with her. The two women learn that wealth and glamour aren't all they seem to be.

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In his last silent film, Naruse pares down the stylistic flourishes of the earlier films. There is one emphatic dolly shot closing in on Setsuko Shinobu as Sugiko. While Naruse would continue to favor traveling shots, such as those with the camera moving in pace with his actors, there are fewer shots using obvious framing devices. The film begins with an extended montage of the Ginza, with its shops, restaurants and movie theaters.

Hiroshi talks Sugiko into going to the movies with him. On the screen is a scene from Ernst Lubitsch's The Smiling Lieutenant with Miriam Hopkins and Maurice Chevalier arguing over a chess board. One could make the case that both Naruse and Lubitsch were interested in some of the same themes regarding the crossings of love, class, and money, and the conflicts between tradition and personal integrity. I'm not certain how to interpret Naruse's intentions as the audience of watching Street without End is watching an except of a sound film within a silent film. Additionally, the audience watching The Smiling Lieutenant is solemn, even though Hopkins and Chevalier are engaged in a display of boisterous comedy. Almost certainly, Naruse was contemplating how best to make use of sound and dialogue in his own future work.

There is a brief scene within a movie studio featuring the street artist, Shinichi. Painting part of what appears to be a tenement room, Shinichi is revealed to be standing in a movie set. What first looked like a realistic setting turns out to be an illusion of reality. Without hammering his point, the illusion of cinema is likened to the illusion of dreams, or at least those dreams equating love and happiness with social position or public prominence. Naruse also takes a swipe at studio politics when Shinichi is caught sitting in a director's chair, and later told off by Kesako that the rumors about the two of them are hurting her chances at getting good roles. As it turned out, Street without End was Naruse's final film with Shochiku Studios as well as his final silent film. In 1935, Naruse took up with P.C.L. Studios, later to become Toho Studios, where he could both start making sound movies and enjoy greater freedom in his own filmmaking.

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Posted by peter at 08:06 AM

May 01, 2011

Coffee Break

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Laura Antonelli in L'Innocente (Luchino Visconti - 1976)

Posted by peter at 05:33 AM