Thursday, 23 January 2014

Most Meaningful First Viewings and Re-Evaluations of 2013 Part 6: The "H"s, The One "I", and The "J"S

Hades Project Zeorymer (Toshihiro Hirano, 1988)
The obvious flaw with Zeorymer is that it's a big work - the original manga is borderline erotica from what I've researched on it, adding to its strange linage - that needed far more time to flesh out of the characters and plot. The result of this is that events happen at breakneck speed and characters leave with only a bit of screen time. But what is here is a central concept that has a jaw dropping amount of dramatic depth to it. Where the hero, a boy forced into becoming a pilot for an experimental war machine, ends up becoming far more sadistic and evil, the longer in the robot he is, than the terrorist group he's been forced to fight. The terrorist group, who want to take over the world, despite their slight screen times, are far more human and empathetic then the heroes, so that their deaths against a war machine, the Zeorymer, which is virtually unstoppable, is horrifying even for their enemies in its callousness. The concept of freewill is brought it, and even the lead heroine is a being whose physical existent, in animation, is a startling piece of body manipulation. For the flaws this is the sort of work that encapsulates the greatest virtues of anime beyond the legitimate masterpieces, that whether the final quality, ideas are seen that are rarely seen in motion picture sci-fi, and are stuck in your brain, in idea and appearance onscreen, the same way body horror is in the medium.
Half A Man aka Un uomo a metà (Vittorio De Seta, 1966)
De Seta, another director I've been getting into through MUBI.com, has been a divisive individual. I've been exceptionally cold to his work, but this one, so different from the realism of his short documentaries and Bandits of Orgosolo (1960), the one that might be dismissed as the empty experiment, has had the more impact. It's very stylish yes, which is something others could dismiss, but its take on a man's complete inability to speak aloud his true thoughts, in a mix of memories, flash forwards and the sense of depth and atmosphere of the locations he is in, has an effect that is compelling. A link to a review can be found here.
The Haunting (Robert Wise, 1963)
With this, a man I knew only as a journey man of films like Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) stakes a significant claim, with The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and The Curse of the Cat People (1944), alongside being the editor for Citizen Kane (1941), of being an incredibly underrated filmmaker. In front of me is a whole filmography of a man who was willing to do whatever work the studio wanted his to do, along with some well regard works particularly in the musical, but The Haunting by itself suggests an incredible technical director who knew how to juggle character dynamic with the sense of emersion in the world depicted. It's an unnerving film, where the house in the centre literally comes alive at points, but it's just as important for the contributions of the small set of actors and their characterisations. 
The Heisters (Tobe Hooper, 1964)
Eggshells (1969), which got a limited edition release alongside this thanks to Arrow Video and their set for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre II (1986), was worth the wait to see, but its messy, experimental tone is a bit difficult to judge on a single viewing. This short however was an utter joy, bringing up the amount of borderline slapstick humour that clearly exists in his films, especially the Chainsaw films.
Holy Flame of the Martial World (Chin-Ku Lu, 1983)
Next time I'll watch this with the original Chinese language track. But already it stakes a claim as one of the most peculiar martial arts films from Hong Kong without getting into the areas of body horror or gross out. It's a testament to basic areas of practical effects, and is the holy book on the art of  wire work, as you will have never seen it used in such elaborate and utterly insane ways where actors are flying around, for real, like paper kites. What makes its better is that such an insane film is still as obsessed with creating its own mythology, probably constructed from real legends, creates memorable characters just before they speak, and make sure that it's the notions of skill, focus, learning and teamwork, even if magic is involved, that wins the day instead of cheap scriptwriting. Western fantasy films have in many cases, except if they were Italian, lacked the sense of interest in them for me because they were never able to be this unpredictable, yet rich in mythology and skill of the people in front and behind the camera. Seeing a film like this, with the ridiculous English dub, it's no wonder people got enamoured with Asian pulp movies.

Horrors of Malformed Men (Teruo Ishii, 1969)/Singapore Sling (Nikos Nikolaidis, 1990)
Thank you Synapse, I only wish your DVDs were available to buy in the UK without having to import them. Unfortunately the BBFC, the British film classification board, has to take some blame for this alongside the state of cult cinema in this country. Singapore Sling may be too extreme still to pass, but the costs to have films classified, which has to be done, means that it limits the gamble on stuff like this. Thankfully labels like Arrow Video, and more arthouse ones like Second Run, have managed to sustain themselves and bring out obscure gems, but we have no way near the amount of material the Americans do on DVD and Blu-Ray. Two films that break transgressions in shocking ways, both based on pulpy sources with almost meta levels to them. Horrors of... compressing together the works of an author so legendary in Japan his work has bleed into their cinema so many times before, the other film noir as interpreted through a Greek filmmaker's world as an absurdist black comedy. Horrors of... was suppressed from being shown in Japan, one of only a few, and considering some of the shocking films allowed to be made from there, the other banned from being shown in the UK and being the only film (unfortunately) that has been made available of Nikolaidis in English speaking countries. Sexuality and violence are prevalent, family roles are undermined and both films show this in distinct, bold visual choices that cause them to exist between exploitation and arthouse cinema. Both of them are great works. Singapore Sling was reviewed here
Invasion Earth: The Aliens Are Here (Robert Skotak, 1988)
This is, and it's not meant to be an insult, a real C-movie. A limited budget, a small story of an alien invasion involving brainwashing people with their own films as they harvest them, and using countless clips from older American (and occasional Japanese) sci-fi films to pad out the thin running length. But the result has an unexpected result. The film itself is fun in a silly way. It's a shame its slightly ruined by an offensive and criminally unfunny running joke later on about Japanese tourists, but still manages to be fun despite this. The real interest of the film thought is the thing that it does to pad out the length. The barrage of edited images from other films, of buildings being destroyed by giant beasts, aliens and radioactive monstrosities has an effect of letting you see an entire decade's worth of subconscious fears, from the fifties and early sixties, that the USA felt. Even if the flying saucers were comically fake, the palpable sense of terror and paranoia of the destruction of the status quo, or just mankind, is striking in these countless and length montages of all the best parts. Fear of others, on the Earth and outside it, fear of inside one's body, fear of life itself. Plus seeing these clips, I was enticed by the potential wealth that fifties American sci-fi may have for me when I get around to it fully. It evoked, even before seeing them all, great areas of genre like nineties anime or Hong Kong martial arts films where ingenuity and imagination, even against low budgets or poor scripts, mixed perfectly with mythologies and obsessions of the time to create works that were memorable and at least showed something bottled up, fears or dreams, in the creators at the time. Not bad for a C-movie I got on a second disc from Hollywood DVD to evoke these thoughts.

Jackie Brown/Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 1997/2009)
This year was the start of a re-evaluation of Tarantino after a dissolution with him. Admittedly I've not included Pulp Fiction (1994) on this list, because despite my positive thoughts on the film, it's the weakest aspects of the director. These two films however usher in what is the best of him, that for all his fan boy enthusiasm, gorging on the collection in the video rental store he once worked in, he's used these genre reflections to actually tackle intelligent ideas. With Jackie Brown, an older couple falling in love. Inglorious Basterds, the nature of propaganda and communication as a weapon. The progression as he's gone on in his career shines out now. Maybe I'll actually like Death Proof (2007) on a second viewing.
Jacques Rivette
(Duelle (une quarantaine) (1976), Noroît (1976), Secret Defense (1998))

Also this year I went through a few Rivette films. It has been an erratic road with the director - highs, such as rewatching Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974), and a film like Le Pont du Nord (1981) frustrating me immensely. But he has always been of interest in all the films I've watched this year. Completely breaking up and remoulding what the structure of cinema should mean, it's been hard to gauge with some of the films, or parts of them, but when it leads to the ending of Noroît, a revenge tragedy reinterpreted by an all-female crew of pirates crossed with an abstract dramatic play presentation, it's absolutely worth it.
Jean-Luc Godard
(Contempt (1963), Alphaville (1965), Sympathy for the Devil (1968))

Another French New Wave director who broke down the structure of cinema and remoulded it into something truly unique to him. Two rewatches of films that have grown in quality, the third a key film that's growing in my mind. I'm happy. Alphaville is reviewed here.
Jean Renoir
(The Crime of Monsieur Lange (1936), Partie du Campagne (1936),
The River (1951), The Golden Coach (1953))

Another French director, but from another era whose type of humanity is sorely missed now. Black comedy (Monsieur Lange), a complex drama that has only a fragment finished but has more power than longer works (Parties du Campagne), and a full colour feature (The Golden Coach) full of life. The River stands out even above these, such a small movie growing in power the more I think of it, realising how good it was when I realised the depths within its smallest drama. I add Renoir to the growing list of directors I'm obsessing over now.
Jeff Keen
I was unfair to Keen. Between watching the boxset of all his experimental films from the BFI, I was still in the transition to appreciating the virtues of form and creation even over narrative or "understandable" meaning. Now I appreciate what the late British experimental director did, making what was effectively home movies that were yet a collage of films, toys being melted, pop culture and everything he had at hand melded together into fully visceral shorts. If I had started watching the films a little later, I'd appreciated his work much earlier than now as I write this
Jess Franco
(The Awful Dr. Orlof (1962), Succubus (1968), Venus in Furs (1969),
 Dracula: Prisoner Of Frankenstein (1972), The Curse of Frankenstein (1972),  Female Vampire (1973), Blue Rita (1977), Voodoo Passion (1977))

It says something when I had to cut down the amount of films I've seen this year to the key ones of interest for me. I had seen a few films before last year, but prompted by the unfortunate passing of Franco, I decided to fully dive into his work. I'll be within it for a long while, barely scraping it within 2013. Not every film is good, but my admiration for the late director is not only because he was legitimately talented, but the repetitions and similarities between the films adds to their interest, blurring them together into a fascinating mass of exploitation films fed by dream logic and jazz improvising. It's not that surprising that Orson Welles and Fritz Lang liked films of his; he was an exploitation director, he squeezed whatever resources he had, and could be completely bored with the work like with Bloody Moon (1981), but barely into the filmography, even the softcore films have moments where a distinct mood, a striking visual flourish or an abstraction of reality takes place, making them stand out from many hack works. Expect a few more Franco films to be on a list like this at the end of 2014. Reviews of Franco films can be found here.
Les Jeux des anges (Walerian Borowczyk, 1964)
And starting in 2014, I plan to look into the work of Walerian Borowczyk, starting early at Christmas 2013. These early animations already show that his reputation for just euro-softcore is very distorted, putting forward another European director who will stand up for me finally getting around to his career. It'll be interesting to see The Beast (1975) again.
Jigoku (Nobuo Nakagawa, 1960)
Hell is internal. Another film imported from the US. A film that's left a giant scar in my brain from its imagery. It's as much a film about the protagonists' own guilt, his friend an evil doppelganger, as a literal descent into hell. Its reputation is earned, not only in its final, lengthy chapter, but also in how nihilistic it is of humanity. A film to choke back bile with. 
Jim Jarmusch
(Down by Law (1986), Night on Earth (1991), Dead Man (1995))

Despite my returning love for Tarantino, and two legitimately important films against one, Jarmusch in hindsight should have been the American director to grow to his status instead. Maybe its because, alongside starting in the early eighties, he had already carved out a solid career trajectory already, and because his films were less obvious in presentation than Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction. But Night On Earth is certainly superior, if not Mystery Train (1989), than Pulp Fiction as a work surrounding small stories that connect together. Dead Man, re-seen, stands out as one of the boldest films made in the nineties, certainly the least expected place for the western to go, even with the likes of El Topo (1970) existing, and while made in the later eighties, Down By Law was utterly charming and soulful. Jarmusch is more subtle despite the clear reference points - the music choices more for context than impact, the dialogue behind tone in priority or to build up the characters before it - and while I'm in love with Tarantino again, its Jarmusch who'll probably be one of the my favourites to come from the American independent/indie generations of the eighties and nineties between the two.
Johnny Guitar (Nicholas Ray, 1954)
Johnny: How many men have you forgotten?
Vienna: As many women as you've remembered.
Johnny: Don't go away.
Vienna: I haven't moved.
Johnny: Tell me something nice.
Vienna: Sure, what do you want to hear?
Johnny: Lie to me. Tell me all these years you've waited. Tell me.
Vienna: [without feeling] All those years I've waited.
Johnny: Tell me you'd a-died if I hadn't come back.
Vienna: [without feeling] I woulda died if you hadn't come back.
Johnny: Tell me you still love me like I love you.
Vienna: [without feeling] I still love you like you love me.
Johnny: [bitterly] Thanks. Thanks a lot.

José Mojica Marins
(At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul (1964), This Night I Will Possess Your Corpse (1967),
Awakening of the Beast (1970), Strange World of Coffin Joe (1968))

A director I needed to evaluate. More so than Jess Franco, someone who was posed with restrictions, and someone still making exploitation films, but creating fascinating ones more interesting than mere titillation and violence. His work, in these four films I saw in 2013, has a unique, discordant tone to them, a material nature where, literally with opening credits in one film, they were literally scratched onto celluloid. Their tangents away from narrative make them even more compelling, and it's not hard to be taken aback by their jumps into complete nightmarish imagery, Jigoku as retold in a low budget Brazilian film in one case. In fact I prefer the films not in the Coffin Joe trilogy mentioned above, Awakening... and Strange World..., more than the official films, because this sense of tangents and his obsession with monologues about life's meaning, while drifting from point at times, where becoming even more pronounced and memorable than mere horror shocks. Knowing of films like this makes global cinema much more interesting than the tiring pursuit of "respectable art" from other countries.
Joseph H. Lewis
(The Big Combo (1955), The Halliday Brand (1957), Terror in a Texas Town (1958))

Much more interesting than "respectable art" from the US. Terror In A Texas Town, reviewed here, is a small, not very long western but its stuck with me immensely, for the performances, the quick but fully formed narrative, and being very well made. The Big Combo suffers from a protagonist who gets on the soapbox too often, but you cannot deny its virtues in the acting, grittiness and its sumptuous cinematography. I also feel I was unfair to The Halliday Brand, reviewed negatively a little here, as its grown too just in how incredible its visual aesthetics were too. These are b-movies that give the a-list ones a run for their artistic money while still being pulpy.
Jubilee (Derek Jarman, 1978)
We're still waiting to see if this future will take place in Britain, even more so considering where the social conditions are going. Hopefully Adam Ant will be there too to sprawl himself on a stage floor in passion of the song he sings in this too.
Justine’s Hot Nights (Jean-Claude Roy, 1976)
And to finish off this post, admitting that softcore is fun just for the sake of titillation. Although, for a film that was clearly cobbled together, low budget, as a series of scenarios randomly put together, there's a charm to this that is horribly missing from softcore today; whether the gender politics are up to question is for debate, but modern mainstream erotica and porn feels like a debasement of your own sexuality as well as women's. This, it's just as memorable for the opening ditty accompanied by comedic illustrations as it is for the nudity, so naive and wide eyed in its presentation rather than cynical. And admittedly as my first encounter with this sort of French softcore, I wonder if a lot of its distinct is just for the fact its French.
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Soaking images from the following sources:

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