Gate of Flesh

August 12, 2011

This B-movie from 1964 is discombobulating.  Trashy pulp?  Arty, subverting cinema?  Retrograde trash?  All of them??  Well, it’s in The Criterion Collection, so it must be good, right?

Four prostitutes in post-war Tokyo, a bombed out, rickety metropolis of crowds and slums, set up house together with some strict rules.  One rule is supreme:  no man gets sex for free.  That would undermine their business, and that means their survival in the violent dog-eat-dog world they inhabit.  Into this world falls Shin (Joe Shishido) a macho returned soldier who navigates the criminal underworld.  They give him shelter while he recovers from a wound, and, of course, they all start to fall for him.   Who will break the cardinal rule first, and suffer the consequences?

Family Scene

She broke the rules

Watching the girls administer a whipping to a rule-breaker, Shin only says, “Nice body!”  He has learned a lot in the war:  now he lives for two things – sex and food!

An interesting interview on the DVD concentrates on the director (Seijun Suzuki) and his production designer:  both are serious artists, the designer with a background in theater design.  Refusing the directorial assignment was not an option in the studio system, and, he remarks, it was not his role to comment on the nature of the film.  Two creative guys trying to make something good out of pretty low-class material.  The studio wanted something “erotic,” something similar to “Romano-porn,” and the censors had to be placated.  Studio actresses, except one, would not take the roles because of the story and the nudity.

Nude, but not quite exposed

The colors and sets are weird, sometimes surrealistic.  There is no attempt at ‘realism,’ it’s all very theatrical in appearance.  The decrepit Tokyo was built on a backlot with hijacked plywood and whatever came to hand – verisimilitude would have blown their B-movie budget out of the water!  A couple kisses and rotates in front of the camera; a prostitute seduces a missionary in Gothic churchyard (the designer comments that such a church would have never survived intact in reality); and the girls administer punishment in a half-destroyed warehouse that sets the mode for innumerable cheapo-porno-S&M imitations.  Even the girls’ dresses, each a bright solid color, were selected because anything else was too expensive.  (The director comments wryly that later critics insisted on finding significance in their costume colors.)

Two kissing on a revolving platform

Self-degradation by seducing her former benefactor

Keeping the rules

There are things going on in this film that are hard to process as an American viewer in 2011.  Why does Shishido look like what one critic called, the world’s most badass chipmunk?  Turns out, he had cheek augmentation surgery.  Yes!  Before that, he was a typecast as a standard romantic lead – he looked the part, all slick hair, matinée idol good looks.  And there’s the portrayal of Americans and the use of the American flag – not at all positive.  Why should it be?  The director notes that he served in the army when all he did was flee; Japan was reeling and on the defensive.  In this movie, his “grudge” was apparent he remarks years later.

The film has many split scenes in which the thoughts of one character are present as a fuzzy image over the main scene, as well as a lot of short takes representing the fantasies of the individuals.  In one striking sequence, the girl who seduced the missionary is determined to have Shin.  She follows him and throws herself down, shouting, “Take me!”  Never mind the rules!  He looks at her, and there is a sequence of black and white newsreel images from the war with nothing but an infernal racket and images of tracer bullets flying.  Shin lunges for her.

All the women in the house want Shin, but he tells them they are children, playing at being tough chicks.  Only the one who still maintains elements of Japanese culture is a ‘real woman’ to him.  He respects and longs for that – a counter to the humiliation he feels at being part of a defeated army in a destroyed and occupied land.

He resists her advances

With her, he finds love for a while

Shin’s ‘real woman’ is whipped into a pulp for breaking the rules, and he decides to get away after making a deal.  He’s double-crossed and shot at the bridge in the center of the neighborhood.  The last thing he sees is a mother playing with her baby on the edge of the ruins.  Japan and life itself carrying on, reborn, perhaps?

Last thing he sees

The End


Ladies in Distress – Chabrol & Pakula

February 22, 2010

 

The film world is not one that features lots of strong women characters, unless their strength is heavily overlaid with softness, and unless they are in distress.  Two females here:  the first is Catherine from Claude Chabrol’s Masques; the second, of course, is Bree from Klute - both are victimized by predatory males and need saving by a handsome young man.  At least they show a lot of spunk in the process!

These two go together well in their sort-of minimalist approach to the thriller, and the creation of a stifling atmosphere of “paranoia.”  In Masques, we find a young man staying at a plush country estate with a fabulously popular host from a French TV game show – a gong show for old people, without the gong.  The young fellow is writing his biography, so he says, but he is obviously searching for clues about a missing woman.  The host’s young female ward, Catherine, is a wilted flower of a young woman, under continual medication, sensitive to the sunlight, tall, slim, and pretty in that emaciated pale way that some French women bring off on-screen.  We learn that the older man is a monster behind his mask, willing to kill his mother for a good picture by Monet, and probably killing with poison the young woman whom he is also fleecing of her inherited wealth.  The cat and mouse game between the young and the old man ends with the priest of TV good feeling de-frocked on-screen, and the two young people happily betrothed.

This film is very clever and witty.  Small bits of dialog are so revealing.  The host is horribly allergic to feathers – they will be his death!  When his thug-chauffeur is carrying the drugged body of the young girl to her nasty end, he comments, “Oh, she’s light as a feather.”  Little touches like that abound in this film, and all the characters are wonderful, but especially Phillipe Noiret, as the devil with a beaming face.

Chabrol visits again the theme he treated in Ten Days of Wonder:  the evil, controlling God-the-Father, but with a lighter touch.  The only problem I have with the film is that Catherine’s impetuous infatuation with the young houseguest – she brings him some hangers and then embraces him passionately and without preamble! – seemed very odd to me.  Was she spending her time there waiting for a new guest to fall in love with..?

The woman who needs saving in Alan Pakula’s Klute, is not a pretty young thing – she’s a hard-as-nails independent prostitute.  The man stalking her is unseen by her, ever watchful, powerful, rich, and psychotic.  Anyone who has watched a lot of movies won’t be surprised by anything that happens in this film – do we need to be surprised to feel suspense? – all the tension comes from the characters.  We know that Klute will save Bree, but will they stay together?  Will Klute ever open up and … smile?  Will Bree ever allow herself to not be in control of her life and feelings?  That’s the real suspense story. 

The film is eerie and sinister.  In this age of cell phones, pocket digital equipment and cameras, the tiny reel-to-reel tape recorder at the center of the psychotic vortex is a devilishly scary prop.  The dispatching of the villain, wonderfully played by Charles Cioffi, is simple, clean, and abstract,  in keeping with the look and feel of the movie.  A real pleasure, this one.


La Torpille

April 2, 2009

raie_electriquewestern_torpedoes

La Torpille is the nickname of Esther Gobseck, the principal whore of  A Harlot High & Low (Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes) by Balzac.  Translated, it’s The Torpedo, an example of which – it’s a fish – you can see at the left above.  Touch it, and you get an electric shock.

Later, naval mines were called torpedoes – touch them, and you are blown up!  (Now torpedoes are self-propelled.)  In the case of Esther, any man who saw her, let alone touched her! was stunned, knocked out, and totally in thrall to her.  The elderly, ultra-rich, super-cynical banker, Nucingen, sees her by chance out for a walk alone in a Paris wood and is totally felled by love.  He who loves only bank accounts!

What might these women have looked like?  These images of fashionable, but respectable women from the 1820s give us a hint.

marchesa_marianna_florenzi_by_heinrich_maria_von_hess_1824 1823-ball-gown-diaphanous-overskirt


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 172 other followers