StopSmiling

Buy + Browse Back Issues

ONLINE EXCLUSIVES

eMailing List

  • Name
  • Email
EMAIL STORY PRINT STORY

July DVD Roundup: Serge Gainsbourg
+ Barbara Stanwyck + Paul Schrader: The Stop Smiling Film Review

The Stop Smiling Film Review

EMAIL STORY PRINT STORY

Monday, July 14, 2008


Slogan (1969)
Directed by Pierre Grimblat
(Cult Epics)

The Furies (1950)
Directed by Anthony Mann
(Criterion)

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters
(1984)
Directed by Paul Schrader
(Criterion)

Reviewed by Sarah Silver, Brynn White and Mark Asch

***

Slogan (1969)
Directed by Pierre Grimblat

Reviewed by Sarah Silver

“At last, the cult film where they first met!” boasts the cover of the new Cult Epics release of Pierre Grimblat’s 1969 Mod explosion, Slogan. The couple referred to is none other than the seemingly born-old Frenchman Serge Gainsbourg (checking two bags per eye on this flight) and the apparently ageless British model Jane Birkin, whose real-life romance together inspired many a song and film, as well as captivating international celebrity gawkers for 12 torrid years.

A movie essentially about artifice, Slogan is heavy on style and light on substance in an almost subversive way. Gainsbourg plays Serge Fabergé, an award-winning ad man and photographer whose name rings like a slogan, and whose head is turned by every insubstantial slip of a girl who passes in front of his camera. Whilst on a Venetian escapade with his latest paramour, (his gorgeous and very understanding pregnant wife is at home), Serge’s gaze meets that of Evelyne (Birkin), and Cupid casts a mysterious spell prompting the two to strike up a Lolita-esque love affair.

As 18-year-old Evelyne, Birkin’s mere presence, poses, and posturing visibly rejuvenate the 40-year-old Serge’s tired features, easing his permanently blasé frown into a bemused and slightly patronizing frown-smile. Through a series of voyeuristic vignettes we become privy to the inner workings of their relationship, and, although full of manipulation on her part and condescension on his part, there is something sweet about the way, when leaning in for a kiss, Evelyne’s slightly turned up nose allows the camel hump of Serge’s schnoz to fit in place, forming a flesh-and-bones yin-yang symbol.

Their story moves along through jarring cuts, disorienting zooms and whip pans, and quick dolly-outs, all of which harbor some sort of visual punch line at the end of their trajectory, lending the film a Laugh-In quality which sight gags like Serge’s enormous see-through phone do nothing to discourage. Like a Monkees episode paying homage to Antonioni, Slogan uses its wacky style in attempt to link media and pop culture to an increasingly alienated society. Despondent and disgusted by the end of the affair, the final nail in the coffin is Serge’s appalled, and terribly French, observation: “[With you] I was watching TV while eating!”

While Slogan does pack a few pleasurable punches, the main intrigue here is the dynamic between its lead actors, without whom the film may have drifted into relative obscurity.

***

The Furies (1950)
Directed by Anthony Mann

Reviewed by Brynn White

The Criterion Collection commences its first-ever foray into the Wild West with the ingenious release of The Furies. Director Anthony Mann has always been a dark-horse candidate for textbook canonization, and The Furies has furthermore remained an underestimated masterwork. His 1950 debut western has been lost amidst an oeuvre bursting at the seams with piercing B-noirs and a five-prong foray into Jimmy Stewart’s obsessive dark side (Winchester ’73 through The Man from Laramie).

Mann hailed the Western milieu as one in which “any story can be told,” with the added benefit of location shooting. What could result was a dual power punch of hyperreality: larger-than-life tales spun with an edge of authenticity. With The Furies he flexes his famed 1.33:1 muscles, condensing his mythical panorama with riotous glee.

Composer Franz Waxman’s choreographed strings, heralding catastrophe, introduce the eponymous ranch, ruled by one T.C. Jeffords, Walter Huston’s “old rogue bull” patriarch. The aging live wire stamps his IOU’s by the light of his Napoleonic idol, fancying himself a parallel architect of an empire “built from scratch.” Alas, the Furies is haunted by hovering stormclouds: bankers with unmet demands and Mexican squatters with deep native roots. These intrusions leave ole T.C. with a “sixth-lumbar” itch that needs scratching. Up to the task is his daughter and heiress apparent Vance (Barbara Stanwyck).

But Vance is betwixt and between her bread-breaking affair with Mexican resident Gilbert Roland, who’s shown lifelong adoration, and her slap-happy dalliance with Wendell Corey, a gambler-banker of reptilian suavity. Both men hail from families who have given their lives to justified claims of the Furies. This is no expansive universe of open turf for the taking, but a war in miniature over the same plot. Turmoil arises from the characters’ shattered illusions of their own entitlements — be it to land, to people or their right to violent action.

Vance’s Pop, smugly convinced he’d spoiled any man for her, retaliates with a substitute backscratcher in the wily form of dame Judith Anderson, and their bruised egos revolt with maiming and murder. The centerpiece scenes bred from this familial scorn — a “cutting” exchange of superlative vitriol, and a vengeful hells’ bells hillside hanging—are too singularly visceral to spoil.

The source novel for The Furies, packed with Criterion’s disc, provides a comparative study in how Mann carves psychological nuance into the frame, reflecting his sense of cinema as a primarily visual medium. His duel in the shadows makes uncanny use of wavering mirrors, Gregg Toland-esque staircase ascents, rack-focus specters, and character-versus-cactus compositions of prickly ominousness.

There is nary a respite to contemplate or react in The Furies; every move is begotten of sheer primitive instinct. And it is the women who prove to be the projectile-like force behind the narrative. Stanwyck perpetually perches, arms on hips, insolently challenging the prologue’s pronouncement that this is T.C.’s “flaming page in history.” Her ability to breezily flirt with extremity, but always keep her feet firmly planted outside camp, provides a gripping philosophical match to Mann’s predilection for operatic gravitas. The Furies proves a captivating cosmic tango around the slippery axis of love and hate, revenge and redemption, death and survival — led by the hand of cackling fate, ever-present in the echoing manic laughter of the film’s hard-faced players.

***

Mishima (1984)
Directed by Paul Schrader

Reviewed by Mark Asch

“We set out to change the world… ended up just changing ourselves,” goes Todd Haynes’s glam eulogy in Velvet Goldmine. “I see myself as a boy…” voice-overs Yukio Mishima (Ken Ogata) in Paul Schrader’s “life in four chapters” of the Japanese author, in a narration adapted from his autobiographical Sun and Steel, “forever watching a world I was unable to change, forever hoping it would change by itself…” Mishima can only change the world to the extent that he can shape his own body; or perhaps shape the manicured estate in which he awakes (after an opening-credits sunrise) on November 25th, 1970, the day of his death by seppuku; or perhaps shape the private military with which he invades an army base later that morning, only to be jeered down by the soldiers he hopes to spur to rebellion.

Mishima, as Kevin Jackson notes in the essay accompanying Criterion’s new edition, belongs in Schrader’s canon of self-made men. Much is made of the writer’s fitness regimen — for Schrader, the body is literally a temple (usually Calvinist, here Zen), a zone of rigorous inward focus and transcendental self-improvement. (“We burn the fat off our souls” is probably the most Schraderesque line Schrader never wrote.) Ever-present is Mishima’s fear of “decay”, both moral — in the waning pride and order of postwar Japan — and aesthetic. As the opening sequence alludes, Mishima sent off his last novel, The Decay of the Angel, on the day of his death; by dying following the commission of a revolutionary act, he hopes to restore his nation’s “purity” and leave a beautiful corpse. (That Mishima was also a first-rate narcissist — and a homosexual — is clear in Schrader’s restaging of the famous photo of the writer done up like Saint Sebastian.)

“Give a man a mask and he’ll tell you the truth”, says the ersatz Bowie (quoting Oscar Wilde, invoked in Jackson’s essay) in Velvet Goldmine; Mishima’s first novel was Confessions of a Mask (and masks are a motif here). Indeed, Mishima foresees Haynes’s portraits of the artist as self-curated assemblage, and their mirroring multilayered constructions. Mishima strives for unity of “art and action,” so reenactments of three of his novels are interspersed within the death-day narrative and black-and-white scenes from his youth and career as literary celebrity and nationalist. Temple of the Golden Pavilion is part of Chapter One, “Beauty” (an acolyte lives in awe of the titular monument, then destroys it); Kyoko’s House is Chapter Two, “Art” (an actor perfects his body while descending into self-destructive masochism); Runaway Horses is Chapter Three, “Action” (a true believer plots against a corrupt, flabby government). The final chapter, in which the body artist sets out to change the world, is “Harmony of Pen and Sword.”

Those reenactments take place on stripped-down, stylized soundstage sets more symbolic than representative. Austere, carved out of pitch-black negative space, but expressive, pulsating with color, they dramatize Mishima’s obsessions: fully beautiful, fully purposeful art, enabled by a controlled environment. (Hence, too, Philip Glass’s minimalist score.) But the movie ends as well as begins on a rising sun — not the Japanese flag but the real thing, beyond sculpting. It’s under this sun that Runaway Horses’ Isao, having botched his own revolutionary act, prefigures his creator’s demise, driving a knife into his toned abs.

 

 

 

EMAIL STORY PRINT STORY

© 2010-2019 Stop Smiling Media, LLC. All rights reserved.       // Site created by: FreshForm Interactive