WHO SAW HER DIE? (Aldo Lado, 1972)

whosawherdie“The early 1970s brought us two thrillers with all of the following elements: an estranged couple mourning the tragic death of a daughter; a grief-stricken sex scene crosscut with glimpses of its doleful aftermath; a series of murders occurring against the backdrop of Venice in the offseason; and a canal-bound funeral in a black-draped barge. The more famous, of course, is Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. The other is Aldo Lado’s less acknowledged giallo film Who Saw Her Die? But the real surprise here, given the Italian film industry’s not entirely undeserved reputation for the quick cash-in and cheapjack rip-off, is that Who Saw Her Die? actually came out first.”

Read the rest of my review of Aldo Lado’s surprisingly elegiac giallo at Slant Magazine.

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Slant Magazine’s The 100 Best Sci-Fi Movies of All Time List

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““The [sci-fi] film has never really been more than an offshoot of its literary precursor, which to date has provided all the ideas, themes and inventiveness. [Sci-fi] cinema has been notoriously prone to cycles of exploitation and neglect, unsatisfactory mergings with horror films, thrillers, environmental and disaster movies.” So wrote J.G. Ballard about George Lucas’s Star Wars in a 1977 piece for Time Out. If Ballard’s view of science-fiction cinema was highly uncharitable and, as demonstrated by the 100 boldly imaginative and mind-expanding films below, essentially off-base, he nevertheless touched on a significant point: that literary and cinematic sci-fi are two fundamentally different art forms.”

I have six capsule reviews in Slant Magazine’s new list of the 100 Best SF Films of All Time.

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In Memoriam Rutger Hauer: FLESH AND BLOOD (Paul Verhoeven, 1985)

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Flesh and Blood is styled on screen as Flesh + Blood, as though writer-director Paul Verhoeven were consciously working out an algorithm to account for his filmmaking sensibilities. By all accounts, this should have been the filmmaker’s Vera Cruz: a down-and-dirty medieval romp that adumbrates the fallout when former partners in carnage part ways and turn on each other. But the burdens of helming a logistically convoluted international co-production, wrangling a diverse and opinionated cast, and running the gauntlet of studio interference in the central storyline inevitably took their toll. What resulted is a solid actioner with flashes of brilliance. Outrageous in its unabashed blend of ultraviolence and profanation, Flesh and Blood stands as another testament to its director’s determination not to push the envelope, but rather to fail to recognize the envelope’s very existence in the first place.

In other words, Flesh and Blood is the anti-Ladyhawke, the other presumptive epic of the Middle Ages starring Rutger Hauer to come out that same year. In place of the latter’s lush romanticism, complete with tortured shape-shifting lovers separated by a churchman’s curse, and a helpful little burglar played by Ferris Bueller, viewers are treated over the course of the film to the more dubious spectacle of a socialistic gang rape and a catapult flinging plague-ridden dog carcass into a besieged stronghold. “Pretty strong meat there,” as the sniffling film critic in “Sam Peckinpah’s ’Salad Days,’” one of Monty Python’s funniest sketches, would have observed. However compromised the film’s central conceit, moments of brazen effrontery help Flesh and Blood effectively shatter the staid sheen of chivalry studiously cultivated by many a medieval opus.

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Then, too, there’s Verhoeven’s cheeky appropriation of religious iconography for more sanguinary martial purposes. Early on, the sword-for-hire Martin (Hauer) unearths a statue of St. Martin of Tours, a saint with a sword, which the mercenary band of brothers’ resident cardinal (Ronald Lacey) promptly declares a sign from God above. Throughout the film, they will use this relic as a tool for divination to guide their way (with questionable results). Late in the film, Verhoeven brilliantly frames a shot with the saint in the background and Martin, a veritable double in the flesh, whetting his sword in the foreground. Needless to say, Martin’s proclivities are far from sanctified (witness the aforementioned sexual assault).

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Beyond the rather portentous irony contained in these saintly invocations, Verhoeven doubtless has a larger point: Throughout history, relics and iconography have been used as armaments in battles between cultures and religions. They have a double meaning. They seem to proclaim: “Not only is your god my devil, but my god has sanctioned, through martial figures like Martin of Tours, the deployment of all-too-earthly means by which to prove it.” In the end, Verhoeven’s greatest irony, and the often pedestrian narrative’s most brilliant stroke, isn’t to decide in favor or against Martin. He’s of a piece with his nature, and he leaves the story as he entered it: unchanged and unbowed by the carnage he’s both witness to and agent of.

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Godzilla (Ishirō Honda, 1954)

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“History shows again and again,” writes that unsung modern philosopher Buck Dharma, “how nature points up the folly of men.” Meaning, for those unfamiliar with Blue Öyster Cult’s 1979 monster hit, one Godzilla, 20-story-tall king of the monsters, and the most fearsome city-stomper in the history of cinema. Fifty years of sequels, tag-team monster mash-ups, and shitty Hollywood remakes have not blunted the sheer cinematographic force, let alone metaphorical heft, of Ishirô Honda’s Godzilla. Rarely has the open wound of widespread devastation been transposed to celluloid with greater visceral impact. Put another way, Godzilla is the Germany Year Zero of monster movies.

The impetus for Godzilla was a series of undeclared H-bomb tests conducted by the U.S. military at Bikini Atoll in March of 1954, into which maelstrom a lone Japanese fishing boat, christened with terrible irony Lucky Dragon 5, sailed unawares. Exposure to clouds of irradiated fallout, dubbed “death ash” by the sailors, led to the swift demise of at least one crewmember. The still-fresh notoriety of that incident, restaged as the opening sequence of Godzilla, would have alerted Japanese audiences from the get-go that they were in for more than just another creature feature. Add to that frequent mention of matters of wartime survival, whether the firebombing of Tokyo, or the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and it becomes something of an open secret that Godzilla represents American military might in all its blind destructiveness.

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Stylistically, Godzilla fluctuates between noir-refracted stylization (early scenes, for instance, are heavy on window blind-filtered lighting) and documentary verisimilitude (radio and television broadcasts abound). Honda bides his time, building up a free-floating atmosphere of atomic age anxiety by withholding any glimpse of the Big Bad until 20 minutes in, emphasizing instead the aftermath of Godzilla’s destructive path from maritime menace to the scourge of Odo Island, where it promptly takes out the sole survivor of its second ship-sinking, before wading its way into Tokyo Bay. The other narrative strand concerns an eminently conventional love triangle centered on Emiko (Momoko Kôchi), the daughter of renowned archeologist Dr. Yamane (Kurosawa regular Takashi Shimura). In the interests of narrative expediency, Emiko’s torn between her newfound crush on Ogata (Akira Takarada), a salvage ship captain, and an arranged marriage with ugly duckling Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata), who just happens to have invented the doomsday weapon that can put an end to Godzilla’s reign of terror.

It would be wrong to conclude that Godzilla heaps all of its eggs in one effects-driven basket, caring little for its human-sized drama: Honda infuses Serizawa’s conscientious desire not to unveil his prototype weapon, knowing full well doing so will inevitably lead to an escalating Oxygen Destroyer race, with sufficient emotional charge. In fact, considering how the nominal lead, Ogata, is presented as a sidelined and acutely feckless observer, Serizawa ought to be seen as the film’s secret hero, especially given his film-concluding act of self-sacrifice. Interestingly, this ultimate state of affairs flies smack in the face of the character’s initial presentation: His dark glasses, eye-patch, and facial scars (owing to injuries, we’re matter-of-factly told, suffered during the war) might lead viewers to put him down as a sort of Japanese Dr. Strangelove, which his mad scientist laboratory and unexplained-until-the-11th-hour death-dealing device seem to confirm. It’s a nifty little subversion of expectations, then, that Serizawa ends up the locus of viewer identification.

Furthermore, the artistry of Eiji Tsuburaya’s special-effects work encompasses far more than the sheer spectacle of a man in a rubber suit laying waste to those scale-model cityscapes. Tsuburaya and his team seamlessly integrate composites and matte paintings into the mise-en-scène; for every obvious—and potentially risible—miniature, there are a handful of effects-laden shots that still pack an affective wallop. In particular, Godzilla’s nighttime incursion into Tokyo proper, and the resultant swath of destruction, possesses a psychotronic potency, an air of abreacted absurdity, reminiscent of the Do Lung bridge sequence in Apocalypse Now. As though implacable death from above were somehow intrinsic to the human condition. Then again, taking the long view of 20th-century history, perhaps it is.

This review originally appeared in Slant Magazine.

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SCREEM #37

Thrilled to announce I’ll have a handful of home video reviews in the upcoming edition of SCREEM Magazine. Available online at the link provided, and coming soon to a newsstand near you!

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Golden Year: BOY (Nagisha Oshima, 1969)

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Nagisa Oshima’s Boy has the “ripped from the headlines” appeal of a timely social-problem film, recounting three months in the life of a struggling family (disabled veteran father, young stepmother, two children) that looks to get ahead by faking car accidents and blackmailing motorists into a hasty payoff, as seen through the eyes of the titular 10-year-old, complete with occasional voiceover narration. After the machine-gun montage of Violence at Noon and the Brechtian alienation effects that structured Death by HangingBoy may initially seem like a stylistic step backward for the filmmaker, a straightforward, if decidedly dispassionate, docudrama. But Oshima steadily introduces little quirks into the ostensibly simple narrative: abrupt shifts in film stock, the use of distorting fisheye lenses, sudden disjunctions between sound and image. These cinematic tics serve to remind viewers that the screen is a canvas and not a window.

Boy introduces the solitary figure of young Toshio (Tetsuo Abe), whose name we won’t even learn until near the film’s end, clambering over a war memorial as night falls (which won’t be the film’s last indication of the shadow cast on Japanese society by WWII). In the gathering darkness, Toshio falls and injures himself, matter-of-factly informing his absent parents that the wound’s bleeding. (Later, when a doctor threatens to amputate limbs injured by the staged auto accidents, he bluffs, “Go ahead, cut ’em off!”) The boy is on his own in the world and knows it. Oshima often composes his shots so that the boy is relegated to the edges of the frames, an objective correlative to his social alienation and marginalization. The knowledge of his isolation taints the boy’s daydreams, the little fables he recounts to his toddler brother, Peewee, about being an extraterrestrial avenger of cosmic injustice.

A chance encounter neatly illustrates the film’s icy view of the social order, while at the same time slyly satirizing the actions of the boy’s family. Two students drag a compatriot into an alleyway, demanding reparations for having been jostled on the sidewalk. They fleece the fellow of his pocket money, then throw him down into the mud. When the boy rushes in to help him, victim soon turns victimizer, knocking off the boy’s prized cap and stomping it into the muck. Oshima’s camera impassively gazes on from a distance, as if to say, “Such is the way of the world.”

Oshima and screenwriter Tsutomu Tamura encourage empathy without requiring emotionalism. Toshio may shed a single tear in the final close-up, but the film as a whole keeps its distance from such histrionics. Even when it plays up the almost casual brutality that can erupt within Toshio’s family, the film takes pains to allow for the complexity of human motivation. It’s as though Oshima were invoking Jean Renoir’s often misunderstood axiom (voiced by his character in The Rules of the Game), “Everyone has their reasons.” Far from a blanket alibi for human folly, Renoir’s statement is in fact an acerbic recognition that people act out of reasons they hold to be fully valid, even well-intentioned. Recognizing this, the film waits to unload the character’s backstories until after their apprehension, as though they were facts being entered into evidence in the ensuing trial. Questions of guilt or innocence are no longer germane, however. The matter here is the inevitable introduction of guilt into the midst of innocence. Coming of age, in Oshima’s view, means coming to grief.

This review first appeared in Slant Magazine.

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Golden Year: EROS + MASSACRE (Kiju Yoshida, 1969)

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Widely considered Yoshida’s masterpiece, Eros + Massacre brings an epic scale to its intimate portrayal of Sakae Osugi (Toshiyuki Hosokawa), a free-love-espousing anarchist who, along with his lover, Noe Ito (Mariko Okada), was murdered by a right-wing militarist faction within the Japanese government in 1923. Over the course of the film, Yoshida gives us a firm grounding in Osugi and Ito’s shibboleths concerning personal freedom and emancipated feminism. But this is just about the complete antithesis of a conventional biopic: Rather than offering a stable, seemingly authoritative narrative, the film keeps alternating unpredictably between episodes from Osugi’s life and modern-day events involving two students, Eiko (Toshiko Ii) and Wada (Daijiro Harada), who are researching Osugi’s philosophical tenets.

At first these timelines remain discreetly separate, delineated by two very different editing rhythms and styles of acting. The Taisho-era storyline is deliberately paced and at times features overtly theatrical performances. The present-day material, on the other hand, embraces the avant-garde abstractions of a Godard film, full of deliberate spatiotemporal discontinuities and fourth-wall-shattering “roleplaying,” with Eiko and Wada periodically amusing themselves by stepping into the shoes of various revolutionary heroes and other martyrs to the cause.

As Eros + Massacre unfolds, the time periods begin to bleed together. Characters from the 1910s suddenly show up in 1969. Eiko has the opportunity to interview Noe Ito in person, but she remains elusive and enigmatic. If, as David Desser points out in his commentary, the film is about constructing a “usable past,” it remains unclear at the end what use preceding events can possibly be to Eiko and Wada. The film’s centerpiece—a Rashomon-style restaging in triplicate of the 1916 attempt on Osugi’s life by jealous lover Itsuko Masaoka (Yuko Kusunoki)—seems intended to demonstrate the unreliable pliability of the past. With each repetition, the motivation for, and even the perpetrator of, Osugi’s stabbing changes.

Eros + Massacre foregrounds the idea that history remains a battlefield open to the countervailing forces of interpretation with a surreal early scene depicting a rugby scrimmage where Osugi’s burial urn takes the place of the football. His legacy is, quite literally, up for grabs. And, as far as the instrumentality of the past goes, the film ends on a suitably ironic note: Eiko and Wada gather the entire dramatis personae of the Taisho-era storyline for a group photo. “This will make a marvelous monument for the future,” Wada predicts. The past as scrupulous recreation, fantasia of possibilities, picture-postcard souvenir—Eros + Massacre operates on all these registers. In the film’s final image, a soundstage door in the bottom right of the frame clangs shut on one of Wada’s bad jokes. Maybe, after all, that’s what history is.

A version of this review first appeared in Slant Magazine.

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