Category Archives: Obituaries

Nagisa Oshima R.I.P. (1932 – 2013)

oshima

And the list of the world’s great living directors just got a little shorter. Japan’s Nagisa Oshima passed away of pneumonia today after a reportedly long bout of ill health. He was, along with Shohei Imamura, the most important figure of the Japanese Nuberu Bagu (“New Wave”) of the 1960s. I haven’t yet seen his short first feature, 1959’s A Town of Love and Hope, but his next two films, Cruel Story of Youth and The Sun’s Burial (both 1960), were groundbreaking portraits of post-war Japanese malaise whose sheer ferocity still has the power to shock and awe. Oshima was always the most transgressive of the Japanese New Wavers – he embraced radical leftist politics while simultaneously reacting against the “humanism” associated with the Japanese cinema of the 1950s. As the 1960s progressed, he increasingly experimented with form, introducing Brechtian distancing devices, a la Godard, in movies like Violence at Noon (on the short list of great films about serial murderers) and Death By Hanging (a powerful indictment of bigotry against Koreans in Japan). He is best known in the west for In the Realm of the Senses, a 1976 art movie featuring hardcore sex scenes that is still banned in its native country, and its less explicit follow-up, the 1978 ghost story Empire of Passion (an important influence on The Ring). In the 1980s he upped his international profile by making the WWII prison-camp drama Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (partially shot in English and co-starring David Bowie) as well as the French-set Max Mon Amour (a comedy about Charlotte Rampling having an affair with a chimpanzee, to which Leos Carax paid explicit homage in last year’s Holy Motors). Oshima had a debilitating stroke in 1996 but managed to direct one final masterpiece with 1999’s controversial gay-themed samurai film Taboo.

Nagisa Oshima was previously on my list of the 10 Best Living Directors (his place has since been taken by Clint Eastwood). Here is what I originally wrote about him there:

taboo

“With his wild, provocative, darkly humorous, misanthropic but highly personal brand of political cinema, Nagisa Oshima single-handedly dragged Japanese movies kicking and screaming into the modern age. No other director was willing or able to depict the pessimism of post-war Japanese society with the savage incisiveness of early Oshima classics like The Sun’s Burial and Cruel Story of Youth. As with most provocateurs, Oshima’s movies became increasingly extreme over time and while he’s occasionally run off the rails (I think it’s particularly regrettable that In the Realm of the Senses remains his best known work), he’s also made more than his share of trailblazing masterpieces; my personal favorites are Death By Hanging, an infernally funny examination of Japanese racism against Koreans, and his likely swan song, the mysterious and haunting ‘gay samurai’ film Taboo. Reportedly in ill-health, it is doubtful Oshima will direct again.

Essential work: Death By Hanging (1968), Boy (1969), Taboo (1999)”

I didn’t always “get” Oshima and he occasionally drove me up the wall but he also provided me with more magic moments than most other directors. I’ll never forget seeing a 35mm revival of Death By Hanging at Facets Multimedia in the 1990s and being blow away by the strangeness and audacity of it. I also caught Taboo on its initial theatrical run at the Music Box and was haunted for weeks by the mysterious finale where “Beat” Takeshi Kitano chops a cherry blossom tree in half with his samurai sword.

I would now say my favorite Oshima film is 1969’s Boy. It is based on the true story of a Japanese family who intentionally got into roadside accidents in order to shake down the “culprits.” It is number 18 on my list of the best films of the 1960s: https://whitecitycinema.com/category/all-best-of-lists/best-films-of-the-1960s/

Taboo is number 18 on my list of the best films of the 1990s: https://whitecitycinema.com/category/all-best-of-lists/best-films-of-the-1990s/

Needless to say, Nagisa Oshima will figure prominently on my Japanese New Wave cinema primer when I eventually get around to compiling it. In the meantime, I raise a metaphorical sake cup in his honor.

Listen to Ryuichi Sakamoto’s very beautiful and justifiably famous theme song to Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence below:


Chris Marker R.I.P. (1921 – 2012)

The great French director Chris Marker passed away on his 91st birthday last Sunday. I was saddened to learn this news upon returning to Chicago from a weekend vacation I had taken to Springfield, Illinois (a Marker-esque voyage in time of my own). Coincidentally, I had been thinking a lot about Marker as of late because I had recently bought and eagerly consumed the contents of what will surely go down as one of the most substantial home video releases of the year, the Criterion Collection’s magnificent La Jetee / Sans Soleil blu-ray package.

I thought about how the first Marker film I ever saw, way back in the 1990s, had been 1963’s Le Joli Mai on a dubiously legal, poor quality VHS tape featuring notoriously difficult-to-read “white on white” subtitles. (Boy, the things a cinephile had to put up with in those days!) As budding young movie freaks and aspiring filmmakers, my best friend Rollo and I were interested in tracking down films by all of the directors associated with the French New Wave. In spite of the substandard image and sound quality of this particular tape, Rollo and I were mesmerized by the movie contained therein; Chris Marker, as an off-screen presence (he was notoriously camera shy), had spent the Spring of 1962 interviewing a diverse cross-section of the French public about the concept of “happiness.” (Incredibly, it was the first Spring of peace in France since 1939.) The resulting film’s epic running time – two hours and 45 minutes – allowed the director to deeply penetrate the hopes and fears of an entire society. I had never seen anything like it. Here was an amazing documentary that was alternately playful, mysterious and probing, a movie as humane as it was intellectually rigorous. From that point on, I made sure to track down as many Marker films as I could. This included not only his celebrated masterpieces like La Jetee and Sans Soleil but brilliant lesser known essay films like The Last Bolshevik (a tribute to the Russian director Alexander Medvedkin), One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsinovich (ditto for Andrei Tarkovsky) and even digital shorts like Pictures at an Exhibition (a movie so obscure that it’s not even listed on the Internet Movie Database).

I thought about a conversation I once had with Chicago’s terrific film critic Ignatiy Vishnevetsky back when he was working at Bucktown’s Odd Obsession video store. Somehow, Ignatiy and I got onto the subject of favorite filmmakers and he told me that he considered Marker one of the five greatest of all time. I absolutely balked at this assertion, honing in on Marker as the obvious weak link in Ignatiy’s personal top five, especially since there were no American directors among the other four. (I remember thinking at the time, “One day this kid will learn . . .”) But after watching La Jetee and Sans Soleil again on blu-ray, I think that, even if I still don’t agree with Ignatiy (and who knows, he may have changed his own mind since then), I no longer think that’s a controversial opinion. La Jetee is, after all, arguably the greatest science-fiction movie ever made, a “photo roman” in which form (a short film consisting entirely of a series of still images – with one crucial exception) is perfectly married to content (a time travel story that serves as a philosophical inquiry into the themes of time and memory). While watching Sans Soleil again, I had to admit that it too might well be the greatest documentary I’ve ever seen: a brilliant travelogue of Marker’s journeys to various countries around the world over a span of many years, poetically held together by the voice-over narration of an Englishwoman describing how the images constitute a diary made by her friend, a fictional filmmaker named “Sandor Krasna.” Among the astonishing sights and sounds: an African street parade featuring elaborate animal costumes, visits to a Japanese cat shrine and “monkey porn” museum (yes, you read that right), the electronic sounds of video games as a hypnotic, non-diegetic score, a witty side-trip to the San Francisco locations of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, and many amazingly beautiful documentary images that have been treated with a video synthesizer and that give an idea of what might have happened had Tarkovsky taken up animation. Why not include Marker in one’s top five?

Other interesting facts about Marker:

– He was born Christian François Bouche-Villeneuve and took “Marker” as his pseudonym after the Magic Marker pen.

– He was a member of the underground resistance movement during the Nazi occupation of France.

– He studied philosophy under Jean-Paul Sartre.

– He sent his own personal documentary footage of Chile to director Patricio Guzman so that the latter could finish his landmark The Battle of Chile.

– He was an enthusiastic “inhabitant” of the virtual reality game Second Life, and granted one of his very few known interviews in 2008 under the condition that the interview occur on Second Life, complete with pseudonyms and avatars.

– He was a devoted cat lover (like all sensible people!) who responded to requests for photographs by sending pictures of his cat Guillaume-en-Egypt instead. In Agnes Varda’s film The Beaches of Agnes, Marker appears as an animated orange cat.

Chris Marker was one of the most important directors of the movement known as the French New Wave, which is one of the most important of all historical film movements. Now would be an appropriate time to visit or revisit the singular genius of his work. The cinema won’t see his like again.

Me looking through a fake camera at the real home of Abraham Lincoln on the day Chris Marker died. I feel Marker would have approved of this image.

Chris Marker’s death also marks the first time a director on my list of the “fifty best living film directors” has passed away. Rather than keep the list frozen in time the way it first appeared on February 21, 2011, I’ve decided to continually update it so that deceased filmmakers will be removed and replaced by other formidable living directors. (Abel Ferrara has now taken Marker’s place on the list.) Those who were once on the list but have since passed away will be moved to a special section at the bottom of the list. You can see the newly updated list here:

50 Best Living Directors


Claude Chabrol RIP

The great French film critic-turned-director Claude Chabrol, one of the seminal figures of the revolutionary Nouvelle Vague movement of the 1960s, passed away yesterday at the age of 80. With the death of Eric Rohmer earlier in the year and widespread speculation that the most recent films of Jacques Rivette (Around a Small Mountain) and Jean-Luc Godard (Film Socialisme) will be their last, it is beginning to feel more and more like the end of an era.

Chabrol was never the most respected of the major French New Wave directors; the quality of his amazingly prolific output probably varied more wildly from film to film than the work of any of his compatriots. But the man made more than his fair share of masterpieces, especially during an incredible six year run from 1968 – 1973, and he cultivated a style that was completely and unmistakably his own. Absorbing lessons in technical virtuosity from his heroes Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock, Chabrol made “classical” thrillers that were shot through with a vein of dark comedy, a scathing critique of the bourgeoisie (which, crucially, one always felt contained an element of self-criticism) and a legendary appreciation for fine cuisine.

Chabrol once wrote an amusing article honoring American genre master Robert Aldrich in which he named a “dirty dozen” of his favorite Aldrich films. Given Chabrol’s obsession with food and scenes involving eating, here is a “baker’s dozen” of my own favorite Claude Chabrol films.

In chronological order:

Les Cousins (1959)
Chabrol’s second feature, about a country bumpkin who moves to Paris to share an apartment with his decadent, city-bred cousin, is one of the most significant early French New Wave films and contains seeds of the director’s mature work; a darkly ironic tragedy contrasting two characters on opposite ends of the moral compass.

Les Bonnes Femmes (1960)
Chabrol’s first masterpiece follows a quartet of young women as they search for love in a modern, freewheeling Paris. What starts out as a charming and humorous document of a newly-swinging era gradually darkens until Chabrol delivers a shocking and unforgettable finale.

L’avarice (1962) / La Muette (1965)
One respect in which Chabrol absolutely schooled his fellow New Wavers was in the making of short films. The highlights of the omnibus films The Seven Deadly Sins and Six in Paris respectively, L’avarice and La Muette are like perfectly executed short stories, featuring droll, devilishly clever endings worthy of Poe, and guaranteed to stick with you for a very long time.

Les Biches (1968)
The beginning of Chabrol’s mature period is this elegant psycho-drama about a love triangle between Jean-Louis Trintignant’s architect and two bisexual women: the rich, beautiful Frederique (Chabrol’s then wife Stephane Audrane) and a street artist named Why (Jacqueline Sassard). Chabrol’s philosophy of “simple plots, complex characters” pays dividends in this mysterious but humanistic character study.

La Femme Infidele (1969)
One of Chabrol’s best loved films is this stylish and ingenious thriller about a man who discovers his wife’s infidelity and plots the murder of her lover. Chabrol expertly employs Hitchcock’s famous theme of the “transfer of guilt” so that the movie becomes a fascinating inquiry into the concept of moral relativism.

This Man Must Die (1969)
The story of a grieving father who hatches an elaborate scheme to find and get revenge on the hit and run driver who killed his only son, this is yet another beautifully crafted thriller that gains resonance through its examination of the weighty themes of solitude, grief, guilt and justice.

Le Boucher (1970)
My personal favorite Chabrol movie is this masterpiece about the relationship between a butcher and a schoolteacher in rural France. The plot involves a series of murders, which allows the film to function as a “whodunit,” but Chabrol deliberately and brilliantly leaves no doubt as to the killer’s identity, directing the viewer instead to contemplate the movie as a study of the collision between forces of primitivism and civilization.

La Rupture (1970)
As a pure genre piece, this may be Chabrol’s most entertaining film; in advance of an ugly divorce / child custody battle, a wealthy older couple hire a private investigator to “find dirt” on their daughter-in-law at all costs. Jean-Pierre Cassel is terrific as the slimy P.I. and the film’s psychedelic climax will blow your mind.

Wedding in Blood (1973)
The end of Chabrol’s golden age is marked by this brooding, sinister tale of marital infidelity and small town politics. Stephane Audrane plays the last in a series of cool, enigmatic Chabrol women named Helene, this time as a mayor’s wife engaged in an affair with her husband’s assistant, a perfectly cast Michel Piccoli.

Story of Women (1988)
Both atypical and a return to form, this Isabelle Huppert vehicle recounts the true story of a woman who performed illegal abortions during the second World War in Nazi-occupied France. A complex and riveting historical drama featuring one of Huppert’s very best performances.

La Ceremonie (1995)
The masterpiece of Chabrol’s late period, this pertinent study of contemporary class warfare centers on the relationship between Sophie (the great Sandrine Bonnaire), an illiterate maid, and Jeanne (Huppert again), the postal worker who spurs her on to stand up to her wealthy employers. In a career filled with memorable finales, Chabrol outdoes himself by ending La Ceremonie on a note of apocalyptic perfection.

The Bridesmaid (2003)
A lot of Chabrol’s post-La Ceremonie work was devoted to lightweight genre fare, agreeable but forgettable mysteries like The Swindle and Merci pour le chocolat, but he made a roaring comeback with The Bridesmaid. In this unofficial remake of Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, a salesman falls in love with the enigmatic title character and, unaware that she is mentally unstable, jokingly agrees to “exchange murders” with her. A deeply satisfying, multi-layered film, as fun to think about afterwards as it is to watch.


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