Classic Movies – Ran

 

At a castle set in the mountains, an aged Lord and his small retinue of soldiers and advisers are viciously attacked by armies led by two of his three sons. As the Lord’s retinue is gradually annihilated, the violence is observed in detached fashion, through a series of distant wide shots. Arrows and bullets fly in quick succession, horses trample on scores of bodies, blood seeps into the earth. The Lord, trapped in a burning tower, looks steadfastly down at the ground, visibly descending into madness. What is more, for most of this scene, there is no diegetic sound. We hear no shouts of aggression or pain, no gunshots, no songs of steel. The shocked viewer is left only with Toru Takemitsu’s brilliant score, elaborating this terrifying visual distillation of chaos, in which its actors appear to be almost ghostly.

Ran 3
“this terrifying visual distillation of chaos”

It was not all so long ago that the same Lord sat on the side of a mountain, amicably addressing each of his three sons. Akira Kurosawa’s fearsome epic Ran begins with a political problem. Lord Hidetora is reminded through a dream of his looming mortality, and decides to give up most of his power to each of his three sons, Taro, Jiro and Saburo – though Hidetora expects to maintain the title of ‘Great Lord’. While Taro and Jiro accept graciously, Saburo attacks these plans, asking why he thinks his sons will be loyal to  him, given that Hidetora has previously used violent means to maintain his own power. Enraged by this, Hidetora banishes Saburo, but in doing so loses his greatest advocate; it is not long before his other sons begin to violently contest his authority, while both are in turn held in thrall by the Machiavellian siren, Lady Kaede.

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“Akira Kurosawa’s fearsome epic Ran begins with a political problem”

Those familiar with Shakespeare’s King Lear will immediately notice some parallels within the narrative. Shakespeare’s Lear also decides to relinquish most of his power to his (female) progeny, with disastrous consequences. King Lear inspires Ran with much of its story, but also with much of its visual landscape. There was a precedent to this. Back in 1957 Kurosawa had made Throne of Blood, based on Macbeth, which used almost no dialogue from the original text. Instead, the miasmic horror inherent in Shakespeare’s language was evoked through the cinematography. The ‘blasted heath’ was translated into copious amounts of rain and the thickest of fog, all filmed and controlled with precision by the director. In the case of Ran, the totalising language of chaos and disorder in King Lear is embedded within the initially wordless scene of violence already described, a masterpiece of visual scale and emotion.

Of course, that’s not to say that there aren’t many quieter moments in Ran; the overall pace is at times quite slow. In particular, the opening scenes of Hidetora with his sons are marked by leisurely formality, something accentuated by Kurosawa’s decision to use mostly wide shots rather than incorporating close-ups of faces and objects. This achieves a distancing effect – we observe the characters, safe in our seats, later to be horrified at the carnage of stormy ambition. But this apparently ‘slow’ style is consistent with his method at this point in time. Kurosawa made Ran late in his life, in his mid-70s, by which time he had lost almost all of his sight. He had spent a staggering ten years preparing every single shot in the film as a painting, from which those who worked on the film operated. While I wasn’t aware of this fact while watching the film, the painterly aesthetics of its wide shots were readily apparent. In one stunning sequence, Lord Hidetora emerges from the flaming building described above, walking slowly down a long flight of stone steps. He knows his soldiers and followers are all dead. He is flanked by the yellow-clad supporters of Jiro on the left, and the red-clad of Taro on the right. The placement of the soldiers forms a remarkable piece of symmetry which intentionally clashes with the unruly fire in the background; the lone Hidetora, his mind raging like the fire, meets the cold violent fact of military organisation. Framing is everything to Kurosawa, but also detail; 1,400 costumes and suits of armour were made for the film in a process spanning two years. It is difficult to imagine such effort being put into a film today.

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“the painterly aesthetics of its wide shots are readily apparent”

That said, it’s also commendable that Kurosawa achieves some exhilarating performances from his cast. Especially commendable are Tatsuya Nakadai as Lord Hidetora and Mieko Harada as the scheming, murderous Lady Kaede. Nakadai, partly with the help of prosthetics, achieves the transition from venerable septuagenarian Lord to tortured, damaged vagrant with the greatest of passion. Passion also marks out Harada, although of a different kind; as she coaxes Taro and then Jiro into following her commands, you are never quite sure whether she will continue to speak quietly or snap into high-pitched, knife-wielding threats.

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Mieko Harada as the “scheming, murderous Lady Kaede”

There are some films that are recognisably great, but which fail to stick long in the memory. Ran is so utterly unforgettable in its depiction of a world in turmoil (Kurosawa thought it was a metaphor for nuclear warfare), that it has compelled me to try and verbalise my experiences watching it, and in doing so to revive a film blog that I haven’t written on for nearly two years. Ran is for showing for a short while in a number of cinemas across the UK. If you get the chance to see it, you simply cannot miss it. It is a masterpiece from a director at the very top of his form, an epic driven not by copious CGI or contrivance, but by the patience of those who made it and the strength of its nihilistic convictions.

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“utterly unforgettable in its depiction of a world in turmoil”

 

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Thoughts on my cinematic journey

Not so long ago I came to the intriguing realisation that, this year at the cinema, I have seen more classic films than new ones. To be exact, 13 classics and 10 contemporary films. Such a feat is easily accomplished in London, where the herculean BFI and the Prince Charles Cinema show thousands of classics year upon year, often in original, well-scratched 35mm prints. Yet it still seems a remarkably unusual thing to have discovered; one which suggests certain truths about my personal relationship with cinema and of the films I cherish in particular.

The BFI Southbank, a place of pilgrimage for lovers of cinema
The BFI Southbank, a place of pilgrimage for lovers of cinema

What is a “classic”? The US Library of Congress, which selects up to twenty-five American films each year for preservation, claims that ‘culturally, aesthetically or historically significant” values are most important. American Graffiti (1973), Ben-Hur (1959), Groundhog Day (1993) and hundreds of others are thus granted an auspicious status that in many circles commands the use of the word “classic”. Or is a classic a far more subjective thing? To most who have seen it, the Russian film Andrei Rublev (1966) is an inevitable classic because of its masterful cinematography and compelling performances; a film that evokes Medieval spiritual life with astonishing panache. To a few dissenters, however, it is an episodic and loose monster in which not a lot happens at all, and so the honour of being a “classic” is disputed.

Andrei Rublev - classic or tragic?
Andrei Rublev – classic or tragic?

Shallow postmodern arguments aside, what does strike me is the fact that most of the films I’ve been seeing in cinemas this year are significantly old. The last screening I attended was The Wild Bunch, released in 1969. The film I’m most looking forward to this September is not something new; it’s Fritz Lang’s M, first shown in 1931 and about to be re-released. As my interest in cinema deepens, the further back my enquiries take me – back even to the early stages of the medium itself, with my recent discovery of George Méliès’ La Voyage Dans La Lune, a beautifully detailed science-fiction short released in 1902.

Many of my friends and peers who love cinema share this interest in “old” films, yet not many venture to the BFI or Prince Charles, preferring the ease of a DVD. This was evidenced frequently in my mid-teens, when I once found myself sitting in a screening of Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante (1934) as the youngest audience member by some thirty years. Perhaps that was just a bad day for youthful representation. But sometimes I do wonder if my friends could gain something from taking their interest in “old” films right into the heart of the very places they were first shown: in a hushed screening room, pitch dark, the screen the only light source – a place where cinematic sorcery is experienced at its most thrilling and palpable. If you try hard enough, you can really imagine what those first audience members must have thought and felt. Seeing old films in the cinema emphatically makes a difference, and broadens your view of the medium’s possibilities.

La Voyage Dans La Lune - recognise this?
La Voyage Dans La Lune – recognise this?

There’s also the question of the character of contemporary cinema. It’s singularly useless to argue that filmmakers like Michael Bay and the endless train of sequels and remakes have rendered cinema dead, although it’s easy to think so. In fact, nationwide festivals, especially the London Film Festival, continue to grow year upon year in exhibiting serious-minded, artistically precise films. The Curzon and Picturehouse chains are great places to find the latest arthouse dramas and comedies from all over the world; both are opening new cinemas across the UK. Yet my status as a soon-to-be History student has influenced my thinking; I’m convinced that in order to better understand contemporary cinema, I have to journey back into the past to see exactly where it has been. The roots of most modern science-fiction films with pretensions to artistic merit can be traced back to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Black Swan (2010) seems all the less significant when compared to The Red Shoes, which accomplished much of what Aronofsky’s film did, only sixty-two years prior. Every film has a precursor, and I’m fascinated by trying to find such films and assessing their formidable influence over time.

Looking at it this way, the surprise at having seen more classics than contemporary films really shouldn’t really exist. What’s more, it could be said that the “old” films I’m growingly obsessed with, with all their vibrant and diverse cinematic qualities, are in fact profoundly new.

The Wild Bunch - a savage revisionist western. The opening and closing sequences are virtually indistinguishable from action scenes in modern blockbuster cinema.
The Wild Bunch – a savage revisionist western. The opening and closing sequences are virtually indistinguishable from action scenes in modern blockbuster cinema.

Classic Movies – Lawrence of Arabia

It has been over six months since I last wrote about my thoughts on what I see as a ‘Classic Movie’; I promised then that there would be more like that post, and then… there weren’t. Yeah. Sorry about that. My excuse (which you shouldn’t believe) was that I simply couldn’t choose a particular film to write about. There are so many films of incredible significance, cultural or historical, that I just couldn’t make a decision. Seeing the digital re-release of Lawrence of Arabia a few days ago, however, ultimately made that decision for me.

Directed by widescreen legend (and fellow south-Londoner) David Lean, Lawrence of Arabia depicts in truly epic fashion the exploits of the controversial British Army Officer T.E. Lawrence, who had a key role in the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire from 1916-18. While showing some of the events of that revolt as they unfold, the film is mostly a meditation on Lawrence’s character: his conflicted loyalties, his issues with violence and inflicting pain, and so on. Peter O’Toole, in his first major role and the one which he is continually defined by, plays Lawrence, and the supporting cast includes Alec Guinness, Omar Sharif and Anthony Quinn.

Peter O’Toole as Lawrence of Arabia

I will be totally frank: the only place to really see this film is in a cinema. I was incredibly lucky to see it the first time round a few days ago at the BFI Southbank, featuring a moving curtain covering the screen, an actual interval splitting up the near four-hour length and a musical overture. Were it not for the mobile phone usage and chatter during the latter, I would have felt utterly immersed in a vintage cinematic environment. And that’s exactly what the film needs. As long as cinema continues, as long as directors keep directing and budgets keep escalating, there will never be anything like Lawrence of Arabia ever again.

Maybe it is the length. Maybe it’s the exquisite cinematography. Maybe it’s the intense portrayal of character. Perhaps it’s just the 1950s and 60s epic sensibility, of using thousands of extras as opposed to CGI, and the booming, rousing score. But there was something about the film that just struck me when I left the cinema, and not a day has passed when it has not entered my mind.

Mostly, it was to do with the visuals; the images from the film profoundly affected me from beginning to end. David Lean, with his cinematographer Freddie Young, introduce the flaming desert by instantly cutting from a scene where Lawrence blows out a match to a striking, orange-tinted landscape, where the blazing sun slowly rises in the distance. Another very memorable scene is shot in an expansive desert, where Lawrence witnesses a figure on a camel emerging from a distant mirage. Lean doesn’t quicken the pace but holds the audience in anticipation as this tiny, distant dot trots closer to the scene. That figure will turn out to be Sherif Ali, a key character, but the ambiguity and scope of his arrival is truly unique and marks the film’s incredible visual look. (That scene was filmed with a special 482mm lens from Panavision, which has not been used since.)

Sherif Ali rides out of a mirage to join T.E. Lawrence

And what of the acting? Peter O’Toole was Oscar-nominated for his starring role although he didn’t win – he would go on to be nominated a further seven times, still without success. Despite Noël Coward’s comment after seeing the film that, were O’Toole any prettier, it would have to be ‘renamed Florence of Arabia‘, Lawrence’s conflicted, tormented self is brutally and psychologically portrayed, adding a very dark and menacing edge.

Indeed, the story and the intense ideas about Lawrence’s psyche are as epic as the film’s production values. The script, principally written by Michael Wilson but perfected by Robert Bolt, explores Lawrence’s egoism and his mental decline in detail while never seeming sentimental or clunky. It also, interestingly, includes some very topical discussion about the Suez Canal in terms of British interest; the film came out in 1962, five years following the Suez Crisis.

The supporting cast are no less excellently chosen than O’Toole. Omar Sharif as Sherif Ali portrays a character that moves from a purveyor of violence into much more restrained territory; his exit scene is the finest in the film. Anthony Quinn absorbs himself in the role of Audu abu Tayi, the leader of an Arab tribe; before filming, Quinn meticulously added his own make-up with a picture of the real man sitting beside him so he could achieve a near-perfect likeness. And who could forget José Ferrer as the Turkish Bey, a man that appears for little more than five minutes and yet gives a truly unsettling performance as he torments and tortures the eponymous Lawrence?

While I can’t comment on how far the digital restoration improves the film in general, I will say that the landscapes really stood out and were beautiful to look at. Crew illness and increasing costs preventing shooting entirely in the Arabian desert, but rural Spain does just as well: the sweeping, empty deserts, the colossal rock formations that tower over the characters, the densely populated tribal camps and the vastness and colour of the Suez Canal are all part of a vast and overpowering technicolour British film that was, no doubt, unlike any before it.

A beautifully framed shot from the film.

I also loved the soundtrack. Maurice Jarre was given just six weeks to write and record the orchestral score for a near four-hour film, and he did an astonishingly good job. The overture begins with a round of thumping drums and a complex trumpet arrangement, before slowly transitioning into the rich, atmospheric theme on the violin, a theme that will repeat itself throughout the film (memorably, at one point, on a harp), giving a true sense of place. Just having the experience of sitting in a cinema while the overture blares out was exhilarating, and I found its depth remarkable considering the short scale of time in which it was conceived.

Everything I’ve talked about confirms my assertion that the film could not be made today. There are practical considerations, of the reluctance of modern audiences to give up half of their day for a film, and of budgetary concerns – Steven Spielberg, who calls the film his all-time favourite, estimates it would take nearly $300 million to make today. But there is also a sense of its scale, of its complexity, at which modern studios would likely balk. What Lean did in 1962 was release a film that topped his previous The Bridge on the River Kwai both in terms of spectacle and in terms of the depth of its characters, and came to define not only his career but those of many who worked on the film. I was utterly, utterly astonished by Lawrence of Arabia, and its uniqueness both as an epic and as a film give me no reluctance to refer to this not only as a Classic Movie, but also as a masterpiece.

Lawrence of Arabia – 50 years old

Hitchcock Season: The Lodger

I surprised even myself when it took me ten days to finally get over to the BFI Southbank for their Hitchcock retrospective. The reason for this unprecedented delay? Why, the Olympics! The excitement of a sporting event that won’t be repeated in the host city for many years to come kept me away from even the most inviting of cinema screenings. Yet I gave in eventually; The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog was my choice of film, a 1927 silent Hitchcock with a new score by British-Indian composer Nitin Sawhney.

I was keen on seeing one of Hitchcock’s early works as he often remarked that the visual aspect of a motion picture was by far the most important; he didn’t immediately embrace the arrival of talking pictures. Of course, many of his later films would come to be regarded as masterpieces, but it was very interesting to trace many of Hitchcock’s motifs – the ‘wrong man’, and a strange fascination with blondes – back to The Lodger, which features both a man (innocent?) suspected of a murder and a fair-haired female as a protagonist.

The film opens with a dead body – well, no surprise there. We learn that a tall, mysterious man with a scarf covering the lower half of his face has been murdering blondes, one every week. This is where Hitchcock’s delicious black humour first comes into play, and an old female witness is terrified by the sight of a member of the crowd imitating the villain. Later on, a stranger with an ominous shadow emerges from the fog into the doorway of a London house, and points at a sign saying ‘Room to Let’. He conceals half of his face. He makes an effort to remove the pictures of blonde women that adorn the walls of his living space, and through his elusive behaviour suspicions begin to rise among the occupants of the house. Could this man be the feared murderer, and if so, could he strike next at the young lady who lives downstairs?

Ivor Novello as the mysterious Lodger.

As with all silent films, The Lodger is a very visual experience. The unsettling, sepia-toned sight of the stranger waiting at the door cannot be forgotten. The influence of German Expressionism is also witnessed in Hitchcock’s lighting and camera tricks, particularly in the shot when the lower ceiling of the house becomes transparent, and we glimpse the feet of the lodger pacing up and down the room above. It is clear from viewing the film that Hitchcock established his visual mastery early on, although it would be another 30 years before Vertigo, perhaps his boldest cinematic move, would be released.

The new score is decidedly hit-and-miss. While in most places it succeeds in propelling the story along with a nice modern twist, there are a few moments of weird incongruity. One part of the soundtrack includes some slightly cheesy lyrics being sung that accompany the images onscreen. I’m not a seasoned soundtrack listener, but it was definitely a distracting moment, and my friend and I shared a look of disbelief upon hearing the first lyric. I would have also liked more of a musical crescendo when we first meet the lodger, although that may be seen as clichéd. It’s a flawed score, but one that, for the most part, encourages you to stay with the film.

The Lodger isn’t a ‘great’ Hitchcock film. It’s inspiring, and should definitely be seen in comparison with his famed Hollywood productions, although it doesn’t quite reach the suspenseful heights that those productions achieve. It undoubtedly has some standalone moments, though; the night walk of our murderer-or-not is supremely tense, as is his onscreen introduction. As a silent film, it’s easy to look at the expressionistic faces of the actors as dated, but the creepiness of Ivor Novello’s performance as the titular character helps The Lodger to succeed as an early example of Hitchcock’s fixation with crime and morality.

 

News – Alfred Hitchcock Retrospective

This is the first time I’ve done anything on this blog in the way of film news, not just because I don’t quite have enough time, but also because there are several dozen other places where you can read about every upcoming production, every cinematic hint, every update on directors with relative ease. However, the most recent development by the BFI in terms of film programming filled me with indescribable excitement, and I just had to write something brief about it.

This summer, to perhaps tie in with the Olympics season and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, the BFI Southbank (or, National Film Theatre) will show all of Alfred Hitchcock’s surviving films in a retrospective the scale of which has never yet before been seen at the repertory cinema. That’s right, all 58 films that are available, from the newly restored The Pleasure Garden to his final feature, Family Plot, will be shown over a period between August and October, while some of his earlier silent films will also be shown across the country with live scores.

The Pleasure Garden - Hitchcock's first film, newly restored.

The BFI will be ‘celebrating the genius of a man who, it said, was as important to modern cinema as Picasso to modern art or Le Corbusier to modern architecture. Heather Stewart, the BFI’s creative director, said: “The idea of popular cinema somehow being capable of being great art at the same time as being entertaining is still a problem for some people. Shakespeare is on the national curriculum, Hitchcock is not.“‘

Psycho - a compelling cinematic experience.

For me, this is an astonishing move. I was brought up on Hitchcock movies and they were among my first introduction to what might be called ‘classic cinema’. My mother showed me all his most iconic features and even took me to see North by Northwest at the NFT, my first trip to that brilliant cinema which continues to shape my film choices to this day. As I’ll (hopefully) be a BFI member by August, I will go and see as many Hitchcock movies as I can. That’s right, morning, afternoon and evening, I’ll be there, sitting in one of the three screens, helping to celebrate one of the greatest and most influential filmmakers that ever lived. And this blog will be home to my excited self, reviewing every film I see and complaining about my subsequent lack of bank balance. I hope you’ll look forward to it.

'Drama is life with the dull bits cut out.' - Alfred Hitchcock