Thursday, 28 August 2014

Based On: Rashomon

'Based On' will be posts about book to film adaptations. If I am not too lazy they will become a regular feature. Warning: sometimes the book's plot is slightly different from the film, and if you don't want it spoiled for you, do not read this post (I mean that in the nicest way). First up:

Ryunosuke Akutagawa's 'Rashomon' and 'In a Bamboo Grove'; and Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon

Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon (1950) is a cinema classic based on two short stories by Japanese author Ryunosuke Akutagawa: 'Rashomon' and 'In a Bamboo Grove.'

Rashomon is the gate of Kyoto, a city which has recently undergone a several severe calamities. A young servant with a festering pimple on his cheek is sitting under the gate taking refuge from the persistent rain. He decides to become a thief in order to survive. He has an encounter with an old woman who is plucking hair from corpses in order to make wigs to sell.

'In a Bamboo Grove' presents seven separate testimonies and confessions relating to circumstances surrounding the death of a man in a bamboo grove (what a surprise). Four of these are different versions of the events in the grove, and the reader learns very quickly that no one is telling the exact truth.

If you have seen Kurosawa's film you will have noticed that the screenwriters stuck very closely to 'In a Bamboo Grove.' So why call it Rashomon?

The film keeps the torrential rain from 'Rashomon' but has three disparate people, a woodcutter, a priest and a commoner, take shelter underneath the Rashomon. The commoner retains some of the servant's characteristics from the short story: near the end of the film he steals trinkets from a baby abandoned at gate. He also berates the woodcutter, who may have inadvertently killed the dead man, for being a hypocrite.

In the short story the servant is morally disgusted at the sight of the old woman plucking corpses' hair, but she attempts to justify it, explaining that she had known the dead person, and they had sold dodgy fish to survive when alive. The old woman says 'I think she'd understand what I'm doing to her.' (8) The servant responds by stealing the old woman's clothes, and before he runs off into the night replies 'That's what I have to do to keep from starving to death.'(9)

This world that Agutagawa presents is clearly an amoral one, and for the majority of Kurosawa's film the audience is presented with the same world. People will do anything to protect themselves: lie, cheat, steal.

Ryunosuke Agutagawa committed suicide at thirty-five, and spent much of his life fearing he would suffer from mental illness like his mother. This partially explains his pessimistic view of human behaviour, a view which leaves a reader without a morally upright character to lean on.

Kurosawa's film ends quite differently. The baby, as babies often do, stands as a symbol of hope for the future. It acts as a reprieve for the woodcutter, who tells the priest that he will look after it, as he has six other children at home; it is a place is will be cared for and loved. The film's final shot is the woodcutter walking home with the baby. He is able to go home because the rain has stopped; his way is now clear.

Kurosawa and the screenwriters could have chosen to tell only the story of 'In a Bamboo Grove.' It is a very clever story but it the audience leaves mistrusting the characters. The reason for the more uplifting ending is likely to lie with the historical context of the film.

It is five years after World War II, and we all know Japan had suffered and inflicted lots of pain in that war. People would have felt that society was in a decay similar to the decay represented by the flooding rain at the film's beginning. The positivity about the future at the end, with the passing of the rain and the return of sunshine reminded the viewer that just like climate with its changing seasons, the world goes through decay and re-growth.

If you haven't read Agutagawa's short stories I would highly recommend doing so. It is interesting to note that Kurosawa's Rashomon is not technically a 'faithful' adaptation of its source material, and a good argument against that approach to book-to-film adaptations.

Monday, 25 August 2014

A Few of My Favourite Things ... (Part Two)

Now for my favourite directors (and occasional screenwriters).

Woody Allen
In all of his films (bar Interiors) I have laughed out loud several times. The slightly surreal approach he has in his stories are great, adding an air of unpredictability to the plot. He also writes great parts for women. The scene in Hannah and Her Sisters where the three sisters meet up for lunch is beautifully choreographed, both in its dialogue and camera movements.

Pedro Almodovar
The bombastic humour in all of his films is charming and appealing. He also keeps their humanity in the foreground, letting us see their foibles as well as their strengths. Almodovar is also another male writer/ director who writes great roles for women.

Billy Wilder
This man was simply a genius. He crossed genres with great ease, and would often make a genre-defining film (comedy: Some Like It Hot; noir: Double Indemnity). Wilder also knew how to get the best from his actors. Though Marilyn Monroe was having breakdowns during Some Like It Hot her performance is wonderful. And the slow collapse of Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend is wonderfully paced.

Steve McQueen
I have been rendered mentally speechless watching all three of his films. They all deal with some aspect of imprisonment, making them often difficult viewing. But it is so hard to look away when they are shot, lit and acted so beautifully. For me Shame is his best.

Stanley Kubrick
Like Wilder Kubrick could cross into any genre and be exceptional. 2001: A Space Odyssey is the greatest science fiction film ever (and I do love a good science fiction film). Dr Strangelove is one of the funniest films ever made, and a brilliant satire.

Andrei Tarkovsky
For someone who only made a handful of films in his lifetime, Tarkovsky figured filmmaking out very quickly. Though I cannot pretend to understand what he is saying to me half the time, his films are so beautiful that I am happy to simply let them wash over me. He rarely uses special effects, instead taking natural elements, like fire, water, wind, and imbue them with a mythical or metaphorical quality.

I have noticed that all of these directors not only direct, but also have a hand in writing the films (if not being solely responsible for the script). Do I subconsciously subscribe to auteur theory? Probably yes.

These listed here are either directors who I have seen a lot of, and like but don't love, or have seen only one or two of their films, and don't feel I can say I love them yet.

A few others: Alfred Hitchcock, Ingmar Bergman, Preston Sturges, Roman Polanski, Hayao Miyazaki, Rob Reiner, Franco Zeffirelli, Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Fritz Lang, Nicholas Roeg

Friday, 22 August 2014

A Few of My Favourite Things … (Part One)

Here is a snapshot of my favourite films.

Some Like It Hot (1959) dir. Billy Wilder
The perfect ensemble film. It never fails to make me laugh, particularly the first shot of the Curtis and Lemmon's newly shaved legs scuttling along in heels. Jack Lemmon steals almost every scene he is in with his energetic performance. Tony Curtis is handsome as a man, and ridiculous as a woman. Marilyn Monroe is funny and lovely. My sister and I constantly quote this film to each other. ('Nobody talks like that!')

The Lady Eve (1941) dir. Preston Sturges
Barbara Stanwyck is highly underrated. She never stuck to one film genre, and in my opinion deserves to be as well-remembered as Bette Davis and Katherine Hepburn for her acting abilities. Here she is gorgeous as Jean Harrington who seduces and bamboozles Henry Fonda's Charles 'Hopsy' Pike. Their chemistry is perfect; and that scene on the couch (or at least one of them is on the couch) is one of the best scenes I have ever seen, and it is all done in one take! (Why Hopsy!)

I have realised that these two films have several things in common. They have great scripts full of quotable dialogue, and casts with natural chemistry. Both also explore (not too seriously) ideas around sex and deception. Joe fools Sugar into thinking that he is Shell Oil, Jr. Gerry as Daphne attracts Osgood Fielding, III (despite being a man in drag). Even Sugar pretends with Shell Oil, saying she is really a society girl, just doing the band gig as a laugh.

Hopsy engages himself to Jean thinking that she is the daughter of a wealthy oil man (hey I'm sensing a pattern). She then wins his hand as Lady Eve, and in a wonderful act or revenge teaches him that good girls aren't always as good as they appear (and the bad not nearly as bad as you think).

None of these people may be perfect, but darn me if these two films aren't! Expect me to come back to them often.

After these two my list of favourite films is a jumble. Most of them are funny and romantic, like When Harry Met Sally, The Thin Man. If I ever decide to write a list of my favourite films I would have two separate lists: one of feel-good movies that make me laugh and have happy endings; and other of more serious fare, like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stalker, Shame. I love these films, but in a different way to the other list. They are beautiful, thought-provoking but not for everyday consumption.

Neither list is superior to the other. Sometimes one needs a good comedy, others time I want to be challenged and inspired. Here are a few from both lists, in no order:

When Harry Met Sally, It Happened One Night, The Princess Bride, Annie Hall, La Belle et la Bete, Aladdin, Lady Chatterley, The Thin Man, Volver, The Apartment, Trois Coleurs: Bleu, Singin' in the Rain, Amelie, Stalker, Notorious, Rosemary's Baby

Are you similarly two-minded when it comes to films? What are some of your favourites?

Monday, 18 August 2014

Oh, look. Another film blog.

Films have always been a significant part of my life, but until this year they had uncomfortably played second fiddle to my love of reading. I was a casual viewer who fancied themselves pretty knowledgable about films: I was slowly working my way through Steven Jay Schneider's 1001 Movies You Should See Before You Die, crossing a new film off the list about once a month; I was not averse to subtitles, thought Black and White was (and is) beautiful, and thought myself pretty cool for having seen around 10 silent films (mostly Chaplin ones).

Then one day I stumbled upon a spreadsheet I had started when I was 16. It was a list of all the films I had seen, though I hadn't updated it for seven years. After adding the few hundred I had seen in the meantime I was suddenly struck by how small the number was: just over 600.

No, that couldn't be right. I mean, 600 is not a bad number, but I've spent hours watching films, there are several hundred DVDs in our house! Surely it's more than that!

That was the catalyst for a huge change in my life this year. I have how started pursuing films: I use my library card to borrow ten DVDs at a time (compared to two or three books), scour the TV guide for movies to record, and have joined the film club at my local art gallery. Unfortunately, due to lack of funds, I rarely go to the cinema (in Australia you don't get much change from $20!).

Not only have I started watching a large number of films, I have begun exploring film history. Though my knowledge is still rudimentary, I can at least place a film into a vague genre, and think about the historical influences on its production. I am now far more interested in who is behind the camera than who is in front of it, and how the camera is even positioned and why.

I have started this blog in order to connect and discuss these things with like-minded people, as well as to put forward my own thoughts about these films. I am not entirely sure what approach I will take on this blog (just reviews? Analyses? Comparisons? Rants?), but expect a lot of talk about lists (the longer the better!). Also, I have not entirely abandoned reading, and have been interested in book-to-film adaptations since high school; therefore expect many musings on what makes a good movie adaptation.

It has taken me ages to get around to starting this blog. It is largely due to laziness, but also an uncertainty about the credibility of my ideas. But if I don't share them, I will never know.

Oh, and the number of films I have seen? Up to 780 in three months.