Thursday, 2 September 2010

Around The World At A Cinema Near You

Through A Glass Darkly (Ingmar Bergman, 1961) (Left)

Cinema has the power of bringing people together. No matter where you were born or the language you speak, it is an art form that transcends location. It's international. So it comes as a surprise to learn that most moviegoers, the world over, almost exclusively attach themselves to the 'major' cinema of the USA and UK (and, of course, their own country). Of course they have the ability to reach beyond what is playing at their local theater - they have the ability to peruse the DVD shelves of their local store and stumble across 'World Cinema'. Of course, they may not want to. But why not? Cinema, I say again, is international. Subtitling and (worst case scenario) dubbing allow you to watch whatever film you want, should it peak your interest. I'm sure that in most cases its not so much ignorance (although there are cases of such behavior it would be cynical to pretend this was the majority view) as just prejudice. "I don't want to read a film, I want to watch it!" a typical response may declare. "Too much hard work!" may another. I can't complain - it's not like they're getting any incentive either. It's not like the names Kenji Mizoguchi (Sanshô Dayû, 1954) and Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Uzak, 2002) jump out like Steven Spielberg (Jurassic Park, 1993) and Alfred Hitchcock (Vertigo, 1958) do. It should also go without saying that the content and styles of these films are dramatically different.
So rather than preach about how we should broaden our horizons and modern cinema is going to hell (it's not, but the flames are rising) I'll instead offer something of a starters guide, by way of a story. At this point, I should declaim ownership of this idea, as it was given to me by Seth Saith, who writes an excellent blog. So, onto my story. By the way, the picture to the right is of Sanshô Dayû (Kanji Mizoguchi, 1954).
My story begins in a Film Studies class, 2008 . The topic? World Cinema. My favorite film is Magnolia (P.T. Anderson, 1999) - and for the record, it still is. Foreign films aren't alien to me, nor are they familiar. As a regular reader of EMPIRE and Total Film (and occasionally, should I feel up to it, Sight&Sound) my awareness of world cinema is apparent. I have tipped my toe into the beautiful waters, with Godard's A Bout De Souffle (1959) and Haneke's Caché (2005) but not yet have I become a global film fanatic. This topic perhaps, may change all of that. I should say for the benefit of those who do not attend Film School, a lot of information can be found in books such as The Story Of Film, Cinema Now, The Cinema Book, Foreign Film Guide, Time Out Film Guide, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, 501 Movie Directors and the upcoming The Foreign Film Renaissance On American Screens 1946 - 1973 (yep, that about brings you up to date). For those of you who do, you'll likely enjoy a module like mine. The module where I discovered Wong Kar Wai.

Chungking Express (Wong Kar Wai, 1994) (Below)
Chungking Express, in many ways, is the film that changed my life. The handheld camerawork, dreamy cinematography (Christopher Doyle, Lau Wai-keung), multiple narratives, metaphors and soundtrack combined for a tour de force of cinematic intrigue. To this day it's one of my favorite films and it still holds the honour of featuring my all-time favorite ending. Magical, isn't it? Nobody captures the concerns and atmosphere of Hong Kong like Wong Kar Wai, with his central themes of time and food also deepening the sensual and cerebral viewing experience. The buzzing, poppy energy of Chungking Express is just one string in the auteurs bow however and the films boundless euphoria proves the perfect juxtaposition to In The Mood For Love's (2000) melancholy regret. This was another film I studied in class and its a much more stylish and intimate affair, focusing on a relationship between two married people. Instead of embarking upon a typically sexual affair however, they eat food and role play their spouses. It's another fascinating film with a political agenda that never overpowers characterization and cinematic invention. Together, they provide a perfect ying and yang, and Kar Wai's other work (such as Ashes Of Time: Redux, 1994) only makes his oeuvre more interesting and admirable.
Volver (Pedro Almodóvar, 2006) (Right)
I next embarked (with my class) into Spanish cinema, especially that of vibrant auteur Pedro Almodóvar. The film we viewed was All About My Mother (1999), recipient of the 2000 OSCAR for Best Foreign Film and an odyssey of womanhood, sexuality and mourning. The way Almodóvar shoots his capital city is amazing - one minute a corrupt cesspool, the next a gorgeous architectural landscape. The story concerns all of his central themes - religion, performance, sexuality - but it's also a wonderful mystery, powerful melodrama and its cinematic referencing is joyous. In many ways its a perfect first film for anyone wanting to reach into world cinema - its funny, heartbreaking and exciting, with wonderful photography and direction. Like a lot of foreign cinema (I apply this especially to Germany, Russia and Turkey, in my experience) it is not a 'slow' film. It's incredibly well paced, in many ways matching the work of Alfred Hitchcock or Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver, 1976). It also marks the first pairing of Almodóvar with now OSCAR winning (Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Woody Allen 2008) actress Penélope Cruz. Their crowning achievement together would be the pictured Volver, a multi-generational tale of love and murder, suitably brimming with simmering reds and voluptuous women - Cruz (magnificent as ever) especially. His work ranges from the angrily grimy (Pepi, Luci, Bom, 1980) to the playfully sleek (Bad Education, 2004) and he remains Spain's greatest contemporary filmmaker. From here, I was on my own...

Judex (Georges Franju, 1963)
I completed my exam, passed and moved on - into my own academic study. Many of you would have gone on to Uni at this point, and I wish you well. It's just as satisfying however, to explore cinema on your own - at your own pace, choosing your own topics. Knowing where to begin is the hardest part but the aforementioned books and filmmakers like Wong Kar Wai and Pedro Almodóvar will help show you the way. But allow me to provide a further helping hand, with some recommended filmmakers - and the best way to see them. I shall start with French cinema.

Many will speak to you of the nouvelle vague (New Wave), which takes in filmmakers like Éric Rohmer (Chloe In The Afternoon, 1972), François Truffaut (The 400 Blows, 1959) and the king of them all Jean-Luc Godard. The link will take you to a Box Set of his work that includes A Bout De Souffle, Une Femme Est Une Femme (1961), Le mépris (1963) and Alphaville (1965), however misses out major works such as Bande A Part (1964) and Week End (1967), best distributed through the BFI and Artificial Eye respectively. The likes of Robert Bresson (Pickpocket, 1959), Jacques Rivette (Jeanne La Pucelle, 1994) and Henri-Georges Clouzot (The Wages Of Fear, 1953) will now be obvious to you, so I'll highlight a few filmmakers that have got lost along the way, and helpful links to the best editions of their work. Surreal animation legend René Laloux's Fantastic Planet (1973), Georges Franju's beautifully haunting Eyes Without A Face (1960), Jacques Becker's fantastic escape drama Le Trou (1960) and Philippe Garrel's latest masterpiece Regular Lovers (2005).

To Asia now, and the cinema of Akira Kurosawa. Many will know him for samurai epics such as Seven Samurai (1954), Ran (1985), Throne Of Blood (1957) and Kagemusha (1980), all of which are worthy of their acclaim. Kurosawa's epic scope and sense of space within a frame are second to none and the epic climax of Seven Samurai (probably the finest battle sequence ever filmed) is breathtaking in its assured handling. The famed director is, however, more interesting on a smaller scale, dealing with intimate dramas - the best of which is based on a novel by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. The film is The Idiot (1951) and along with Drunken Angel (1948), remains his least appreciated work. A contemporary master to rival Kurosawa is Hayao Miyazaki, co-founder of Studio Ghibli and director of the 2001 masterpiece Spirited Away. It's not often that a contemporary film can be called "totally original" or "unique" but that is the commendation that this magical masterpiece deserves. The story alone is enrapturing, the animation perfect - but its the epic, individual landscapes, colourful characters and general oddness that make Spirited Away stand alone. Miyazaki had done fine work before (Princess Mononoke, 1997) but it was in the last decade that I found him at his most refined and imaginative, with Howl's Moving Castle (2004) and Ponyo (2008) proving suitably mind blowing and adventurous. A forgotten director of Japan is Nagisa Ôshima whose In The Realm Of The Senses (1976, pictured above), a sexually explicit tale of obsession and desire, was cut and banned in several countries. It marks an interesting depiction of sex in Japanese cinema, a topic which is not the usual address for filmmakers of the country - a more typical, if obscure, example would be Hausu (Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1977) - but Toshio Matsumoto's Funeral Parade Of Roses (1969), a tale of transvestites, is another notable entry into Japans sexual canon. The most obvious mode of discussion for Asian cinema would be action - I therefore point you, without further ado, to Ichi The Killer (Takashi Miike, 2001), Police Story (Jackie Chan, 1985), Police Story 2 (Jackie Chan, 1988), The Good The Bad The Weird (Kim Ji-woon, 2008) and Oldboy (Park Chan-wook, 2003).

The Blue Angel (Josef von Sternberg, 1930)
Germany has always been one of my favorite cinematic countries and I have given space to its Expressionism/Weimar period before. The likes of Der Golem (Carl Boese, Paul Wegener, 1920), Das Cabinets Des Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1920) and Asphalt (Joe May, 1929) should also be mentioned however, and they can all be bought in this excellent Box Set. Rainer Werner Fassbender (In The Year Of Thirteen Moons, 1978) and Werner Herzog (Fitzcarraldo, 1982) brought about something of a New Wave with their stylish, artistic cinema - Fassbender's small and intimate and Herzog's epic and strange. Both of their works can be bought in complete volumes through Artificial Eye and Anchor Bay respectively. Perhaps the best contemporary German films (not counting the amazing The Lives Of Others, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006) were those made by Michael Haneke in the 1990's - The Seventh Continent (1989), Benny's Video (1992), 71 Fragments Of A Chronology Of Chance (1994), Funny Games (1997) and the made-for-TV Kafka adaptation The Castle (1997). This work demonstrates a stunning mastery of the camera, Haneke's dark and slow paced films showing only what is necessary - his strict directorial style forces viewers to look behind what is really happening and make their own conclusions. He made films in France and America throughout the 00s, returning to Germany for the incredible The White Ribbon (2009).

These, along with Italian cinema (Fellini and Fulci are covered here, branching out should be easy) are the principle countries that should be focused on. Italy is relatively new to myself also - Vittorio De Sica (The Bicycle Thieves, 1948) and Dario Argento (Suspiria, 1977), along with the obvious Sergio Leone (Once Upon A Time In The West, 1968 - a stunning masterpiece) are about as far as I can take you. There is also, of course, the emergence of Luca Guadagnino, whose I Am Love (2009) was my favorite film of the last decade. But from there you still have a whole world to explore. Denmark, and the amazing Lars von Trier, Russia and the innovators Sergei Eisenstein (Strike, 1925) and Vsevolod Pudovkin (Storm Over Asia, 1928), Sweden and the dramatic master Ingmar Bergman (Wild Strawberries, 1967) and the emergence of Romania (4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days, Cristian Mungiu, 2007) and Israel (The Band's Visit, Eran Kolirin, 2007) in the past decade. It is these films and filmmakers that will hopefully widen your gaze to the point of no return, where cinema of a foreign land no longer feels alien or uncomfortable but beautiful and essential. After all, it's international....

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