The Lazy Man’s Odyssey: 300 Films in Lockdown (11-15) - whynow

This week’s films are: Rashomon (1950); L’Argent (1983); Grey Gardens (1975); Ugetsu Monogatari (1953); and Swingers (1996).

In this time of self-imposed ostracism for the good of the realm, having ‘projects’ becomes less of an afterthought, and more of a requirement. My granddad has now polished each of his window panes, my brother is ending his own Hitchcock Odyssey, my nan – like half of Britain – is trying to grow cabbage. I’m still hoping to watch the more than three hundred films on Roger Ebert’s ​Great Movies​ list.


Rashomon,​ Akira Kurosawa, 1950

It’s difficult to write about a film that is widely considered one of the most important in cinema – because there is so little original to say about it. It’s a movie Kurosawa made before he became the globally famous bad boy of Japanese cinema, one that was made with a small budget, even smaller sets, and a tiny cast.

With the properly good films, even though it’s the opposite of what I’m supposed to do, less is better than more in trying to describe it.

It is, essentially, four testimonies about a rape and murder that do not match. However, it’s hard to think any of the four are lying – since they all claim to be the killer.

True, in that they present an accurate portrait of what each witness thinks happened. False, because as Kurosawa observed, ‘Human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves. They cannot talk about themselves without embellishing.’

Since its release, the device of ​Rashomon h​ as been borrowed over and over again. ​The Usual Suspects showed us flashbacks that do not agree with objective reality. ​The ‘Rashomon effect’ is a term related to the notorious unreliability of eyewitnesses.

It is human nature to listen to witnesses and decide who is telling the truth, but the first words of the screenplay, spoken by the woodcutter, are “I just don’t understand.”


L’Argent, Robert Bresson, 1983

Continuing in Ebert’s obsession with French cinema – this Hard Film Tuesday is courtesy of Robert Bresson. Known for his minimalist, distant cinema – Godard ​once wrote of him, “He is the French cinema, as Dostoevsky is the Russian novel and Mozart is German music.”

Bresson’s early artistic focus was to separate the language of cinema from that of the theater, which often relies heavily upon the actor’s performance to drive the work.

His actors were required to repeat multiple takes of each scene until all semblances of ‘performances’ were stripped away, leaving an unsettlingly wooden effect that registers as subtle, raw, and – unfortunately – sometimes just badly acted (though this is my first time watching his films). This, as well as Bresson’s restraint in musical scoring (I think there is only one piece in the film – during the credits) results in an altogether tense two hours.

Ebert wrote of Bresson that ​directorial style resulted in films ‘of great passion: Because the actors didn’t act out the emotions, the audience could internalize them.’

This is a bleak film, but I found some strange parallel with our previous study of ​Leon Morin, Priest​. I said of that film that it was a black comedy in sheep’s clothing and I feel similar about this one. The premise of the film is essentially a joke that goes horrifically wrong – a false 500 franc note that passes hands enough times and eventually comes to rest on one character’s life who it decides to destroy. The film is dark, the ending hard to watch – but Bresson seems funny, and seems aware of the humour of it all.


Grey Gardens, David and Albert Maysles, 1975

This is a documentary on a mother and daughter – both named Edith – who live like recluses in a once grand mansion in the wealthy Hamptons of New York. They are only occasionally visited by others, a gardener who finds them more than a little odd, a young suitor clearly in love with the younger daughter but who the older woman enjoys the company of, two guests who are a little shocked by how far removed these women have become from their former upper class selves… To continue on this train of thought – the issue of class is important.

Are people who still speak in a largely posh American accent, talk of soirees and debutante balls, and aristocrats they could (or should) have married – but live in filth, eat crackers daily for dinner, and leave to the raccoons the upper half of the house – still ‘upper class’? Is class where we come from or the reality that we live?

The estate, ‘Grey Gardens’, has been taken over by the surrounding nature. Shot on glorious 16mm, the image is extraordinary. Surrounded by seas of green of the plants they cannot afford to cut down, they live a beautiful, weird, joint existence. We realise by the end of the film that these are not two women in opposition, but rather, two faces of the same mind – co-existing, and co-dependent.

Some cracking shots:

  • Edie feeding the raccoons a carton of cornflakes
  • The sea of green trees outside their terrace
  • Edie standing on scales reading her weight with binoculars as she is short sighted
  • Edith placidly observing one of her cats defecating behind a clearly valuable portrait of a younger her (‘at least someone around here is doing what they want’).

Ugetsu Monogatari, Kenji Mizoguchu, 1953

The story of two peasants and their wives, ​Ugetsu i​s a dramatisation of dualisms.

The peasants and their wives are opposite only in their realism, where one peasant falls completely under the curse of an enchanting ghost and the other lies and steals his way to fame, only both of them are eventually knocked down from their own hubris and forced to finally awaken to what their wives have said all along. Whilst they have thrived, their wives have been forced into lives of prostitution and crime.

It’s exquisite, this movie, with its long takes and its lack of the usual constructs that make up messages of obsession and greed. Once it gets beyond the small, uncomfortable, claustrophobic world of the peasant’s home, it becomes challenging and mysterious, so that the same small home becomes comforting.

In the able hands of cinematographer, Kuzo Miyagawa, the mystic atmosphere, the trembling music, the ghostly voice of men grudging, the film has a tense atmosphere. The use of top view camera techniques gives scenes much more mystery, and a kind of secluded, ghostly, euphoric aspect of the fantasy world.

Friday (non-Great)

Swingers, Doug Liman, 1996

Swingers is the film that projected Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau stratospheric. It is the semi-autobiographical story of two struggling actors and their lives over two days. One (Jon Favreau) is still coming to terms with a breakup that’s over four months old, and the other, (Vince Vaughn) is the suave, sharp suited guy who came up with the now legendary line ‘You’re so money and you don’t even know it!’

The film is written by Jon Favreau, who later moved on to the slightly less philosophical Iron Man franchise, and beautifully shot by Doug Liman.

In many respects it draws comparison to Bret Easton Ellis’ Less Than Zero (albeit the PG version). Favreau and Vaughn are two lost souls who drive around going from one ‘dead’ party to the next – always looking for something – but never knowing what they are looking for. It’s a film that is a crash course in conversational screenwriting – pretty simple stuff, but with an impressive honesty. It has some of the most realistic depictions of male friendship I’ve ever seen. Some might simply pawn this movie off as a buddy flick, but Mikey (Favreau), and the movie, deals with insecurity, rejection, depression, an overwhelming feeling of inadequacy. Not many films do.

Next week, we’ll take a look at ​Man With A Movie Camera​ (Dziga Vertov), and ​Time Bandits (Terry Gilliam).

Rampa  They Will Be