Sunday, March 28, 2010

Movie of the Day: A Bit of Throat Clearing

One of the many questions that have arisen because of modern technology is; how the hell have I lasted so long without a DVR?! We got our DVR around Christmastime, and within a week it was over 50% full. For the past few months it hasn't once dropped below 80%, as I frantically try to keep up with the ever increasing amount of movies I need to see. The television shows are easy; I have a handful that I watch weekly, but Amber also watches them with me so they're easy to knock out in the few hours between our daughter's bedtime and when we finally pass out. The hours and hours of movies are a bit more problematic, because most of these films don't particularly interest Amber, and I have to find time for them; watching some in bits and pieces while on my lunch break. The majority of the films are from TCM, and run the gamut from stone classics(Sunset Boulevard) to minor affairs featuring a star or director who's work I enjoyed in other films(A Libeled Lady, featuring another pairing between Myrna Loy and William Powell). It's a fantastic opportunity which, along with Netflix, is allowing me to increase my knowledge of film history in leaps and bounds.

The minor problem here is that I find myself relating to the movies I see in a slightly different way, or at least the way I process them is different. I find that they don't stick with me quite as well as they used to, and in part I think that's because I've stopped writing about them regularly. For me, writing about something has always been a way to explore certain ideas and opinions and help fix the topic in my mind. I can talk much more knowledgeably on a subject if I've written a few paragraphs about it than if I'd read a book or two and then gone on with my life. So here we come to Movie of the Day. I can't guarantee that this(possibly endless) project will actually be daily, but I can guarantee I'm going to try and stick to it. The posts will also probably not be very long; some of them, like today's, may be two-or-three paragraph 'pellet' reviews, only slightly longer than the short rundown I post on facebook about said movie. But then again, some of them may be multi-page monsters(although if I want to keep this close to daily, I doubt they'll get very long). The point isn't to break new critical ground, but to keep my writing muscles in shape, and try to appreciate the movies I watch in a more well rounded way.

This last month saw what would have been the 100th birthday of Akira Kurosawa, one of the most famous and influential of Japanese directors, and a personal favorite of mine since I stumbled upon Yojimbo in my freshman year at UAA. In honor of his birthday, TCM has been airing weekly marathons of Kurosawa's work, and not just the famous ones like Seven Samurai and Rashomon, but a lot of his lesser known early works as well. Right now a large chunk of my DVR is devoted to every Kurosawa movie TCM aired that I hadn't already watched multiple times. This is wonderful news for me, because despite the fact that I frequently cite Kurosawa as one of the best director's to ever live, I'd previously only seen 9 of his 32 surviving films(several of his early films are forever lost to shoddy archiving and the ravages of time). I watched a few of them over the last week, and look forward to possibly spending an upcoming weekend on the couch catching up with the rest.

One of the movies I've watched so far is Sanshiro Sugata, Kurosawa's first film as director. The title character is a man who goes to town hoping to learn Jujitsu but trains instead in Judo after being impressed by the teacher's skill and attitude. Although it doesn't quite rival the majority of Kurosawa's films I've seen so far, it is surprising in how good it is, particularly for a first-time director. The film is assured and competent in a way that never quite becomes showy, and showcases an early form of the style that would influence so many. While a pretty scratchy print mars some scenes(more on this below), it's still easy to see Kurosawa's skill at framing a shot. During an early scene Yano-sensei, the Judo master, is ambushed by a rival school. Before the fight begins, there is a tracking shot where his attackers pace, and the camera follows one walking towards the right of the frame, and then another walking towards the left. Through this shot we see the various attitudes and poses of the assailants, and we see an example of Kurosawa's defining trait as a director; conciseness. Even when his movies tip the 3 hour mark, there isn't a wasted frame. Every shot conveys multiple pieces of information.

The tale is never more than mere popcorn entertainment, owing to the government censorship of postwar Japan that strictly regulated the film industry and allowed mainly for innocuous melodramas and discouraged political or social relevance. In fact, 17 minutes were excised from this film by the Japanese government, which may account for a couple of oddly chosen title cards that give information about events that logically should have been shown to us(including a hilariously cavalier mention of the title character's crippling depression and long struggle back into the world of the living).

The picture quality for this film(which comes from the Criterion print, meaning it's the best one in existence that they know about so far) is at times lacking, though rarely distractingly so. In fact it only really becomes a problem during an early fight scene that takes place at night. The scene loses a lot of it's power due to the fact that you can't really see what's happening half the time. Overall the movie may be best for Kurosawa devotees, but I'd still recommend it to anyone with an interest in Japanese cinema, particularly from a historical standpoint.

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