The Human Condition (2/3) : Nostalgia/The Fog of War

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Masaki Kobayashi’s monolithic trilogy, The Human Condition (1959-61) is a legend in cinema history. Based off of the six part novel by Junpei Gomikawa (which has never been translated into English, fun fact), the 9 hour trilogy is an epic chronicle of one pacifist’s journey through the last years of Japan’s involvement of WWII and its defeat, while exploring and navigating the brutal heart of darkness of the governing systems of imperialism and aggression, alongside its often vicious and intolerant perpetrators. Seen through the eyes of Tatsuya Nakadai who plays Kaji, we take an ardently non-conformist journey through Japan’s savage heart.

Using the recently re-released Arrow Films version (found here) I will be detailing the experience of the 9 hour epic in three parts. Each film is divided according to its Japanese version into two parts, making for six parts in total, the names of which title the entry.


Why is this story called “The Human Condition”? It is impossible to encapsulate all the infinite variations and possibilities of conditions a human being could go through. Even if everyone is linked through six degrees of separation, can you really claim to build artworks which speak of the experience of every human, of their conditions? A claim in that direction could be the absence of colour in the film, since its tones are only that of the white-black spectrum. Technical choices aside though, what gives this story its right to lay claim to the experience of the “human condition”?

Entry two, Road to Eternity (1960, Dir. Masaki Kobayashi) has its own answer, just as its previous installment did, No Greater Love (1959). To crudely reduce the films to a single word and a single theme, if No Greater Love was about resilience, resilience in the face of an entrenched corrupt and mismanaged system of factions, then Road to Eternity is about survival, and surviving those systems. Kaji’s fate and his soul has been darkened by his previous encounters, his already innumerable failures to protect his ideals and himself through pacifism. Here Kaji’s pacifism is pushed to its breaking point, as the desire to survive eventually forces Kaji into the corner; to fight or to die.  And while he does his best to fight power with non-violence, to martyr himself for those around him at his own physical and mental expense, even Kaji must come to terms with the violent and brutal conflict which drives every human.

The technical choices I don’t have much to say on, simply because what has been said before continues to be the case here. Kobayashi (in an interview found in the Arrow release booklet) said he found the best cinematographer in Japan to film the series, Yoshio Miyajima, and his deep-focus multi-layered compositions continue to fill your eyes, arresting images through placement of the action in front of the camera, rather than any mechanical wizardry of the camera itself. So too does the music and soundscapes remain austere and sparse, the ambient noise of the world minimal, with the dialogue continuing to take precedent. Even the battle scenes are a far cry from the dense muddy clashing landscapes of sound and vision in say, Saving Private Ryan (1998, Dir. Steven Spielberg).

There is no spectacle of war here, no feast for the eyes, not in my opinion at least. Is this because of directorial intention, or simply the cinematic limitations of the time? After all, the way of shooting film by the time of Saving Private Ryan, not only the technology but the psychology and methods of directors nearly 40 years later would barely have been imagined in 1960. Not only that, but the psyche of the Japanese, and the way they viewed their war is miles away in the psyche of how Americans viewed their involvement in the war. Disentangling this issue seems fruitless, since it’s probably a mix of those two elements and more.

No doubt as to how Kobayashi and the story’s original progenitor, Junpei Gomikawa see the war though. Kaji swaps labour supervision for military ranks, and is exposed to a system which creates even more hostility and bitter resentment. Japan’s imperialistic mentality flaunts itself here, as cruel veterans and vicious commanding officers punish the recruits, to weed out the weak and create soldiers “worthy of Japan”. The suffering reaches its peak as a soldier Kaji was looking out for, Obara (Kunie Tanaka), commits suicide. Kaji presses for condemnation, but it’s no use. What changes in Kaji is his despair turns outward, as he begins to become willing to take matters of retribution and justice into his own hands. And hanging over all this, is the dream of the Soviet Union and socialism, a world which treats its men “like human beings”. Kaji’s hope no longer lies in reforming the world, but in a world where his reforms have already taken place.

But a martyr refuses a quiet death, and he continues to resist, taking over command of a battalion to prevent the same cruel treatment inflicted upon him happening to others. And his punishment at the hands of veterans climbs and climbs, until even unflinching defender Kaji breaks, in one of the films most powerful and well shot scenes, a man with nothing left to lose. Finally finding himself on the battlefield, undernourished, unprepared, and facing certain death, Kaji reaches the end of his transforming, as reality’s crushing weight comes down finally on him. Running into the wasteland of the scarred battlefield, Kaji screaming “I’m a monster, but I’m still alive” is mutely blood-curdling. Many more violent deaths have been filmed, been shown to us onscreen, but few have carried so much weight, not in narrative terms necessarily, but in terms of morality. Kaji’s beliefs are sundered apart from his actions, as his pacifism submits to the most primal instinct; the desire to survive, at any expense.

All this is naturally, bleak and depressing and tough to sit through. Suffering is a natural part of living. so why would you make a film, three films, or write a six volume novel about the relentless suffering endured by a single figure, to compound it happening to a single figure, watching him come apart at the seams under an unendurable weight, like Atlas holding the world?

Because Road to Eternity, is about “the human condition”, and its refusal to let up or compromise on the suffering endured by Kaji, and Obara, and everyone in the film is a reflection, a reflection of every act of cruelty and unfairness that worms its way into the hearts and minds of every man in every society, regardless of who you are. The painful reckoning is that what happens in the world so often, is not right. It’s not right, it’s not kind, and it’s not fair. But it happens regardless. It has to happen. It’s a game that everyone is rigged to lose.

What is noble is to try to win anyway. To battle the impulses of nature, to try to be more despite the stains of living, that’s what is admirable.

-Alex

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The Human Condition (2/3) : Nostalgia/The Fog of War

Serpico: Observations and Thoughts

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“I’m not denying for a minute that I’m attracted to the radical…I’m attracted to the questioner. I don’t know if life is possible without it.”- Quote from the documentary By Sidney Lumet (2016, Nancy Buirski).

It’s incredibly apt that each poster of this film that I find has a different shading to the face of Al Pacino, who plays the titular character, police officer Frank Serpico. A man who inhabited many different disguises, both metaphorically and literally, the real truth laying in his story is that he had to spend most of his time acting to reveal the truth, and the truth was so powerful that they had to act it out.

Serpico (1973) was directed by one of my all time favourites, Sidney Lumet, known best for 12 Angry Men (1957), Dog Day Afternoon (1975) and Network (1976), which are all up in my pantheon of classics. Honestly, each film has its own aspects which empower it, Paddy Chayefsky script in Network is brilliant and shining, while Al Pacino absolute tears into the roles in both of his collaborations with Sidney Lumet, plus John Cazale in Dog Day Afternoon is fantastic. 12 Angry Men too has a legendary status, being one of the most brilliant chamber pieces ever put on-screen, as Henry Fonda maneuvers throughout the ethics of 11 other jurors to challenge prejudices.

Naturally then, Lumet’s work in Serpico follows the similar human elements his work informally trademarked, as Frank Serpico presented to us at the beginning bleeding out in a car in the dark, navigates his way through a corrupt police system as an idealistic crusader hellbent on bringing to light the dirty underbelly of the New York Police Department. Al Pacino’s face is seared into cinema history, mainly for his roles where he presents the hidden depths of anger and violence which come bursting out, The Godfather saga and Scarface mainly, but Lumet plumbs a different sort of depth in Serpico, as the haze of darkness hanging over Al Pacino’s usual roles is surprisingly absent. Frank Serpico is a happy guy, at least to begin with. He works hard, plays hard, and loves and believes with his soul in what he does. It’s through the grinding bureaucracy, the infectious and slimy corruption of good men doing nothing and bad men exploiting their power, that Serpico enters into a world of frustration, danger and pain, but mostly on that side of pain more than anger (although when he gets angry, its electrifying). He is a man pushed to the extreme, while all he wants to do is his job. He doesn’t want to die for his cause, he’s a crusader not a martyr and ultimately he just wants to be a police officer without having to be a corrupt one. I’m sure the screenplay has been praised to high heaven, but the work of Norman Wexler and Waldo Salt on this script is iconic, and Al Pacino’s performance combined with Lumet’s direction makes this a true gold piece of cinema history.

What can I say that is new about Serpico? It certainly shares the same thematic pains of another film I saw recently although I did not address it on the blog, Bicycle Thieves (1948) by Vittorio De Sica, another iconic film from the Italian Neo-Realist movement. The real frustrations of even the smallest social actions, the true horror that lays exposed behind our shallow stories of evil gangsters and heroic cops is the cowardice and collective guilt carried by those in all levels of society, the protectors and attackers, the constant passing of the buck of responsibility around. Talking of Italian Neo-Realism, the producer of this film Dino Laurentiis not only produced classics such as Evil Dead II (1987, Sam Raimi) and Barbarella (1968, Roger Vadim), but he also produced two earlier reviewed Fellini films, La Strada and Nights Of Cabiria. Funny how things sometimes work.

The cinematography, that pure deep focus deep staged cinematography is a faded technique now, the glossy TV cinematography which we’re all accustomed to was nowhere to be seen at the time, and as a result the close-ups in the film feel immense in weight, as we study Serpico’s face for the signs of his feelings, his emotions. Honestly it’s that gorgeously subtle cinematography which allows the screen to breathe, wide and comfortable and only pulling us in tight for times of great intensity. There’s so much going on with the story, that I find it hard to focus on the more grounded elements, but without a doubt the score by Mikos Theodorakis, is lush and elegant and beautifully underscores the action of the film. He also created the score for Zorba The Greek (1969, Michael Cacoyannis), one of my favourite stories and one of my favourite scores of all time.

I’ve spent a lot of words referencing other films in this Observations and Thoughts post, but that’s because its cinematic history is so rich that I find it hard not to dive into. Of course the real power behind what makes Serpico great besides its cinematic presence, its real presence. The story of Frank Serpico’s fight against corruption was true, the front page story was published three years before the film was released. It exists as a testament and an incendiary indictment of a culture it was still very close to in time. Sidney Lumet’s commitment to the truth of the story, embellishing and re-moulding the real narrative as any film project will do to condense years of time and people into a couple of hours, means he never loses sight of the soul of Frank’s story, ending the film as Al Pacino reads Frank Serpico’s real speech before the Knapp Commission.

This interview shows a man still haunted by the pain of an unjust band of brothers whose main aim should be to serve and protect. This half interview half manifesto is a call by Frank Serpico to help really tackle with an incredibly nuanced and complex issue. The demonisation of communities and/or the police is in part a driving force of the degradation and the high standards he expects the police to maintain. It’s the power of Serpico himself, a reluctant demoralised hero who had courage and standards, and the excellence behind the team who created the film which mythologised him and disseminated his story, which keeps it relevant. Serpico works as a film, because of the questions it poses, and it works as an inspirational myth of reality because of the answers it gives. The conflict of police versus “x” runs deeps in today’s society, and the continued lack of accountability of those in positions of power continues to be a crucible for anger and violence in the world today. The world can still take a page from Serpico’s handbook.

In a world where ideologies are collapsing faster than a house of cards, its important that the lamps he lit stay lit, because if we only look down at the mud, we won’t see the stars

-Alex

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Serpico: Observations and Thoughts

In The Heat Of The Night – Observations and Thoughts

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“The heat makes people crazy” – Huey Freeman, The Boondocks, Season 1 Episode 14

In The Heat Of The Night (1967) is a landmark film. An indelible mark on film culture and history. Though the film has now been heavily reduced to the iconic phrase “They Call Me Mister Tibbs!” , it’s still lost none of its incendiary flavour and quality, though it’s of a different tone of fire to say, Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing (1989), it is nevertheless still a testament to film making in every way shape and form, while also being a work of considerable ideological weight, about tough men with conflicting duties and desires and just…well just trying to do the right thing.

It follows Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) being roped into investigating a murder in a racist southern town, alongside a Chief Bill Gillespie who’s arrogant, bull-headed, racist but poignantly sad, played by Rod Steiger. The acting alone is enough to make this a must see, as both put on absolutely dominating presences on-screen. However here are some other benefits to extol:

-Haskell Wexler A.S.C – His cinematography is deft in this film, truly an expert at work. It’s the kind of cinematographic skill that people insert into film textbooks to study, because it’s so subtle you don’t pick up on it immediately, but its impact is so resounding that its impossible to ignore.

-Hal Ashby – Who won an Academy Award for Film Editing (also director of Harold and Maude) stitches the film together in such an illustrious way, in a very classic, minimalist way allowing the scenes to flow and the footage to complement that without ever losing the tension involved.

-Staging- The staging of this film is like watching a ballet. Moves are carefully planned, deliberate, thoughtful. Even in a film packed with tension, car chases and drama, the movement is exact in its roughness. Characters reveal themselves through their body language, their expressions, not just their words. It requires the dissection of the sum of its parts, because it’s so well done that you have to take it apart to see how its done.

-Stirling Silliphant- Dialogue in this film is a pinnacle, though no doubt raised by the electric performances. The mystery is delicately unpacked, through the revealing of humans rather than the search for evidence. Character’s weave in and out of fixed moral positions, constantly playing on the duties they and others possess. The duty to law enforcement, to their race, to their friends, to their families. This is a film that remembers people commit crimes, whatever and whoever they may be.

-Colour palette and lighting- A film in a naturalistic style makes it always difficult to the untrained eye to notice because if it’s doing its job it shouldn’t be noticed, but the film’s colours are fantastic. The white lilies in Endicott’s greenhouse. The yellow sunglasses. Specific flashes of colour against the beige and the sun just add some real touches to the film. As for the lighting, it’s already important for being the first film to be lit specifically conscious of a black man’s skin, but beyond that the lighting is gorgeous, both staged for dramatic impact and very natural.

Quincy Jones – The soundtrack in this film, including Ray Charles singing the title track, is just …well listen to it.

-Historical potency- Great characters become archetypes in our stories. Virgil Tibbs, the educated, conscious defender against racism fatherly type is one that has endured, a man of grand stature. A good example of this channeling is Lawrence Fishburne as “Furious” in John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood (1991). Not only has the archetype endured, but the film itself stands as a true monument to the forces of co-operation when the whole world’s against you, something director Norman Jewison specifically angled for.

-Norman Jewison- Speaking of, all these elements and much more are united by the director’s vision, and Jewison produces something incredible. He manages to convey the heat of the town, the heat of conflict, of battles of verbal war and physical confrontations which to this day still shock (read: Mr Endicott). It is a film of striking and restrained fury, anger at injustice, and the forgery of respect which can only be gained by people trying to do good things. It goes to pains to illustrate that no one person is completely right, and no one person can do the job alone. Even the best of us need support. That’s how we lift ourselves, by lifting others.

The reason I’ve picked out just a few of these individual parts, is because something very brilliant happens in this film, is that every part serves the function of the film. Quincy Jones soundtrack is both completely idiosyncratic in that it sounds like Quincy Jones, but also in that it underpins the setting, the place they’re in. The music wasn’t created out of context, it was made for the film. There’s no showboating on the performance side, with the actors involved constantly on the edge of bursting, no mealy or scene chewing involved.

The only flair involved is that of the story as a whole. No individual aspects blindly shines brighter than any other, but since all the aspects are so polished, and are so well done, the whole film is raised to the status it so rightly deserves, a classic.

-Alex

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In The Heat Of The Night – Observations and Thoughts