It would be easy to point out Akira Kurosawa’s great films like Rashomon or Seven Samurai as examples of his work, but there’s something to be said about his lesser known films – films that speak volumes and contain moments that are difficult to find anywhere else. He makes as a director and storyteller and he has his actors make very bold decisions. More often than not these choices will make an otherwise mediocre or common melodramatic film quite remarkable and incredibly memorable.
Take for instance Kurosawa’s I Live in Fear starring Toshiro Mifune. Mifune plays Kiichi Nakajima the elderly owner of a foundry. Wanting to preserve his family’s lives he wishes to move them all, lovers and bastard children included, to South America so as to avoid a Nuclear holocaust in Japan. Needless to say this story takes place post World War II. But his children will have none of it and take him to court, so that they can prove their father incapable of handling the family’s fortune.
It’s an interesting enough idea for a film. Kurosawa introduces us to Nakajima’s family through one of the Domestic Court Counselor’s put on the case, Dr. Harada, a dentist played by another Kurosawa mainstay, Takashi Shimura. We follow Harada as he leaves his family dentist business and goes to the court. Next we’re introduced to the squabbling family members, who seem more concerned about how they’ll continue making money for themselves than they are about the wishes of their Father. They are quick to apologize for belittling Harada before knowing who he is. But you still don’t get a sense of who’s film this is. Harada is shot from behind, a silent observer…very meek, humble.
He’s allowed into the court room, and there, standing center camera is an older gentleman, with thick glasses, and a scowl on his face, and with a deliberate flap he pops open his folding fan and quickly airs himself off. We’re drawn immediately to that flap of the fan, and to Mifune’s Gorilla like performance. He spits the word “fools” out when speaking of his children. You now know who’s story this is. The boldness of a singular movement with the fan speaks volumes. And this gesture is taken advantage of whole heartedly and with great effect throughout the rest of the film.
In this first scene with Kiichi, the patriarch of this crumbling family, Kurosawa holds the wide shot, keeping Mifune dead center. But suddenly in a fit of rage Kichii’s hand swings down. The camera suddenly jumps to a close up of the hand hitting the desk, overturning a glass full of liquid. Emphasis. This boldness of visual directing and strong character choices signifies Kurosawa’s career as a director and Mifune’s collaboration with him as an actor.
The gasping and panting death scene Mifune has in Seven Samurai, the slow motion shot of a downed thief by Shimura’s samurai blade in the same film, pretty much every moment of Rashomon is filled with distinctly bold decisions (the structure itself breaks about every convention imaginabe), Ran is full of bold colors and violence, the final shot of Sanjuro holds on the two samurai as they stare each other down for an incredibly extended moment of time – then in one quick movement and spray of blood their fates are decided. Pick up any number of Kurosawa’s films and you’ll see this same boldness at work.
This type of boldness feels largely lacking in our modern era of cinema. It feels largely lacking in any form of storytelling from novels to live theatre. There’s a comfort that studios and publishers take in the same old thing. Or a pandering ensues that studios seem to lap up. Few directors or writers attempt to play with the reality of the world around us. Little is exaggerated for effect, instead everything is grounded to help keep the reality of the situation supposedly easy to relate to. I can name off a handful of directors that reach and claw for such moments of levity, sometimes to great effect – sometimes to cinematic floundering. The Coen Brothers, Paul Thomas Anderson, Alexander Payne, David Lynch, Takashi Miike, David Cronenberg and M. Knight Shyamalan spring to mind. (As does Chuck Palahniuk as far as novels go.)
The most recent of these that I’ve seen is Shyamalan’s The Happening. Shyamalan makes very bold decisions, but in a different way than Kurosawa. He tries to avoid all of the cliches of the modern disaster movie. For one, he holds shots for too long and at a distance so we feel helpless, where as other big budget disaster films throw you into the explosions and cut around quickly.
As Jim Emerson describes in his write up, certain coverage shots to help define spacial relationships are left out. I hardly think that this is a fault that the film holds, as Emerson feels. By leaving out shots that give us our bearings we’re left with several sequences that are almost surreal and dream-like in nature: the bodies dropping off of the roof of the construction site one after the next, floating to a ground we can’t see is a great example. It’s not horrifying, but strange. It’s the line from the construction worker that kills the moment.
This visual trickery is meant to put us into the shoes of the people witnessing these events. It’s not scary but so bewildering that a person shouldn’t know how to react. If the person next to you suddenly and without warning committed suicide, how would you feel? Then a few feet away another person, then another person. I don’t know if you’d feel scared for your life, but you’d probably feel down right left helpless. Leaving the audience with the feeling of bewilderment and helplessness times 10 as Shyamalan does is perhaps a bad goal to shoot for, because that’s what they leave the theatre feeling. Even though he pretty much hits us over the head with the message of the film.
So what constitutes a bold choice worth taking and one that’s not worth taking? Where is that line drawn? Watching Day Lewis’s performance as Daniel Plainview, at what point does it become too much. Bold for the sake of being bold. At what point does boldness become cheap shock? I think boldness becomes cheap when the filmmaker stops being honest and/or doesn’t treat his audience with emotional respect.
I agree with most other reviewers, including Emerson, that Shyamalan treats his audience like idiots at times during The Happening. I also felt that there were moments in which his bold decisions became almost exhibitionist in nature. As when the two kids are blown away by shotguns at point blank range. It was a cheap moment.
In Hostel I and II, a much lesser film in theory than The Happening, Eli Roth shows great skill as to when gratuitous violence is worth showing and when it isn’t. To not show something sometimes is a far more bold decision than to show something. For instance in Brian DePalma’s Mission Impossible he slowly fades out just as Tom Cruise takes his woman’s hand.
I digress, let’s look at the flap of the folding fan again, if Mifune hadn’t committed completely to that one swift movement at any one occasion it would have been silly. It would have been dishonest. And the believability of the film and the character would have suffered, because everything hinged on those singular beats of Mifune’s performance. You would have seen through the guise, that the movie was created to impart a message or a moral — Nuclear weaponry is bad!
Now look at The Happening. Where in the film do the performances, the script or the direction become dishonest? When are decisions made that break from the believability of the world Shyamalan is creating. A world that, like I Live in Fear, is there to present a message — treat our environment with care, Shyamalan screams at us, as Kurosawa did about the awful power of the H-Bomb. I’ve already named a few moments that for me distract from the reality of the film in their blatant disregard for, not logic, but emotional intelligence among the audience members.
Takashi Miike is another one of those directors who’s films sometimes blow me away with their bold choices and other times turn me off when things are done just to shock us into submission.
Consider these questions with any film that attempts to be bold. There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men. 12 Monkeys and L’Age D’or. Lust/Caution and Psycho. And hopefully more bold decisions like moments in many of these films will continue to be made. Remember, if movies like The Happening weren’t attempted, we also wouldn’t have movies like Unbreakable, which is bold in how it deals with the relationships of its characters and then how it concludes, and feels just right.
Tags: 12 Monkeys, Akira Kurosawa, Bold Cinema, David Cronenberg, David Lynch, Eli Roth, Emotional Intelligence in Art, I Live in Fear, Japanese cinema, Jim Emerson's Scanners, L'Age D'or, M. Knight Shyamalan, Meaning in The Happening, Rashomon, Seven Samurai, Takashi Shimura, The Happening, Toshiro Mifune