Criterion Corner: The Samurai Trilogy (#14-16)

I’ve said it before: there’s an effect not unlike Stockholm Syndrome that can come with long-form storytelling. If you follow the fates of a set of characters over a longer time, if you watch or read about a community over many chapters, seasons or volumes, it’s very well possible that you begin by bouncing off of, or even disliking, the story and its characters – but we are likely to hold on to the things we enjoy, minimise those we dislike, and over time we justify the time we’ve put into a story by investing in it emotionally. A film is usually over after two hours, and unless we revisit it at a later stage, it never really has this opportunity to win us around – but a series? A game lasting 50+ hours? A graphic novel that tells its story over ten volumes? At least for me it’s like this: either I stop early, or I keep going, because there are some interesting elements or characters I like, or perhaps I’ve heard from so many people that the story becomes really engrossing – and after I’ve put a certain amount of time into this story, I’ll find that I’m invested, because otherwise I’d have to tell myself that this time was pretty much wasted. Is it something of a psychological self-protection mechanism? Or do some stories simply need more time to have the intended effect? I suspect it’s a combination of the two – but, honestly, how am I to tell?

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Criterion Corner: Raging Bull (#1134)

There are films that are a joy to watch because they’re so well crafted. The director knows what they’re doing, the cinematography is stunning, the editing is masterful, the acting and writing, the score – everything is spot on.

Then there are films that are deeply unpleasant because of the world and characters they depict. You don’t want to spend time in this place, with these people, and once you’ve been there for two hours, you just want to go and have a shower and clear your brain from the memory of them.

And sometimes, there’s a film that fits both of these descriptions. For me, Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull is one of those films.

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Criterion Corner: They Live by Night (#880)

Being a self-confessed Criterion junkie, I have once or twice bought a Criterion release by mistake. I managed to order Persona twice (which, to be fair, makes perfect sense, considering the film). I once bought a DVD version of Le Samoura├» from some Amazon reseller that turned out to be a Korean bootleg – and it didn’t even work. And I ordered They Live By Night (1948) after attending a lecture on Ida Lupino, where the lecturer showed a scene of the film that made it look intriguing and thrilling.

Turns out that film with Ida Lupino was They Drive by Night, of which there isn’t a Criterion release. As that great American philosopher said so memorably: D’oh. On the plus side, the Ida Lupino lecture was by Johannes Binotto, who joined us for our recent podcast on Lupino.

And while we’re talking about the pluses of me ordering the wrong film: They Live by Night is very good.

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Criterion Corner: For All Mankind (#54)

Earlier this year, we saw Summer of Soul, Questlove’s documentary/concert film hybrid about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival. In its last third, the film juxtaposes the festival, an event by and for the African America community that at the time (and not just then) was sorely disadvantaged and underserved, and the first moon landing, where NASA put Whitey on the Moon. Why are millions spent on space exploration when the planet we live on is severely lacking in so many respects?

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Criterion Corner: Irma Vep (#1074)

In 2021, we did a podcast episode titled “Second Chances” (which we’re hoping to turn into something of an annual thing). In it, we discussed films that, for one reason or another, didn’t work for us but that we’d been wanting to revisit because we thought it might’ve been a case of “It’s not you, it’s me”: that we watched these films with the wrong kind of expectation, or that we lacked the right lens through which to watch it.

Sometimes, though, there can be films (or books, plays, poems, TV series, albums, games etc. etc.) that simply work on a wavelength that we’re not receptive to. This doesn’t mean that they’re bad or that we’re wrong or stupid for not liking them. I’ve long believed that most art that is interesting won’t be for everyone. Ideally I can still get something out of culture that isn’t for me, but generally this is a matter more of appreciation than of enjoyment. Often these are works that I prefer to discuss or read or watch a good video essay about rather than to watch.

But these works still tend to leave me with lingering doubts, especially the ones that have elements or aspects that I genuinely do enjoy: a scene, a performance, or perhaps a shot that sticks in my mind. And the same can be true for certain directors: I don’t generally like their work, but there’s something about it that makes it difficult for me to just conclude that they’re not for me.

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Criterion Corner: The Piano (#1110)

I first saw The Piano at the cinema in 1993, when it originally came out. The film felt intense and erotic and physical. It felt adult – though, looking back, I’m surprised by how many films I’d seen as a child and teenager that I’d consider adult. Not because of nudity or sex, although they definitely featured those – I’m thinking of the likes of Milos Forman’s Amadeus or Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor -, but because of the characters and themes, and because they were more than happy to leave things unsaid. They were ambiguous. Certainly, I also spent the ’90s watching things like Aliens and Die Hard and Jurassic Park, and I enjoyed those (though I never loved Jurassic Park, which always felt like a more family-friendly Jaws to me, and Jaws should never be family-friendly) – but where these now feel familiar, like cinematic comfort food, The Piano still has that strange intimacy that is both thrilling and discomforting.

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Criterion Corner: Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (#761)

Surrealism is tricky. Some dislike it altogether, finding it too random. Myself, I respond to some of it (as the name of this blog may suggest, I’m not altogether averse to a nice slice of Lynch), but there must be an underlying form, a sense that there is some form or logic at play, even if it is the dream logic of, say, Eraserhead or Mulholland Drive. As soon as it veers into the formlessness of Dada, I tend to disengage.

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, by the Czechoslovak director Jaromil Jire┼í, leans more towards the former; its surrealism is definitely more dreamlike and Freudian than it is arbitrary, and most of its images aren’t all too difficult to interpret: blood falling on daisies signifies the onset of the protagonist’s first period, vampires hungering for Valerie’s blood and its power to keep them youthful represent sexual desire and the lust of the old for the young. Valerie and Her Week of Wonders isn’t hard to read – yet its tone, somewhere between uncanny and camp, is quite effective at times. It is the kind of film that works better the less it is interpreted, perhaps, because interpretation reduces it into shopworn tropes of Freudian analysis.

Also, sadly, it is very easily reduced to a sexual fantasy whose object of desire is a thirteen-year-old girl.

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Criterion Corner: The Parallax View (#1064)

There are a number of classic paranoia films made in Hollywood in the 1960s and 1970s. The Manchurian Candidate is one of these, as is Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation.

The Parallax View (1974) by Alan J. Pakula clearly belongs on the list as well. It’s a classic, it’s memorable, it’s iconic. It has its finger on the pulse of a country and a culture where politics and murder have been intertwined for more than a century.

And sadly, I like it a lot less than those films.

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Criterion Corner: Harakiri (#302)

In January 2022, my favourite cinema ran a series of films that they gave the title Mythos Samurai (“The Samurai Myth”). We ended up seeing seven (how fitting!) out of eleven films, from Akira Kurosawa’s Shakespeare adaptation Throne of Blood via the Tarantino favourite Lady Snowblood to Hirokazu Kore-eda’s gentle anti-revenge film Hana – and, yes, Seven Samurai was also among the films shown. It was interesting to watch the films as different perspectives on the same motif: the samurai, the officer caste that protected the daimyo from the late 12th century to 1876. What was perhaps most interesting, however: how many of the films subverted the image of a noble warrior caste. The protagonists of these films were often ronin, masterless samurai who had lost their status, or samurai who doubted the tenets of their caste, and none of them presented a cool, badass ideal for easy consumption. The system that created the samurai was always presented in an ambivalent or downright negative light, even when the films clearly share a fascination with the aesthetics and iconography of the culture.

And that ambivalence towards the samurai, the feudal system they were a part of and the values they were meant to embody is represented best perhaps in Masaki Kobayashi’s Harakiri, a film that is grim and exhilarating, exciting and scathingly critical in equal parts.

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Criterion Corner: Beau Travail (#1042)

Before watching Beau Travail, French director Claire Denis’ 1999 film, I’d seen two of Denis’ films: the 2009 (post-)colonial drama White Material and the 2018 sci-fi oddity High Life. My favourite cinema showed the latter last year as part of a series on women directors, so I went to see it – and came away nonplussed. Certainly, there were scenes that I found intriguing, and Denis’ strange science-fiction tone poem is often beautiful to look at, but I didn’t know what to do with it, and I still don’t. While I had some ideas about the overall themes of the film, it remained too fragmented and elliptic and I felt too much of a disconnect from the characters I was watching and the things they were doing. I could imagine someone else, and perhaps even me at a different time and in a different frame of mind, getting more from High Life, but I left the cinema with a vague sense of frustration – or possibly a frustrating sense of vagueness.

I may not immediately wish to revisit High Life after seeing Beau Travail, but Denis’ film, a loose adaptation of Herman Melville’s novella Billy Budd, definitely makes me think that I should keep looking out for other films by her. I could imagine that the one or the other would leave me similarly nonplussed as High Life, but I can’t think of any other director like Denis.

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