Happy 117th to Lotte Reiniger!

Lotte Reiniger is one of the pioneers of animated cinema, well-known for her detailed silhouette animation. Her 1926 feature film The Adventures of Prince Achmed is the earliest surviving animated feature and remains one of the gems of silent film fantasy. Later on, she stuck more to a shorter format with her fairy tale adaptations, as she did in the early 1920s. Above is her 1922 adaptation of Cinderella. Just look how lovely it is!

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (dir. Hayao Miyazaki, 1984)

For my hundredth post on this blog, I wanted to do something special. Therefore I have decided to talk about a movie of great personal importance to me, a movie that shaped my adolescence and the way I view the world: Hayao Miyazaki’s 1984 epic, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. I saw it on my crappy school-issued laptop in December of 2008 when I was fifteen years old and never forgot it. For years, it was my number one favorite movie and it remains in my personal top ten to this day. The film covers many of the themes I’m attracted to: the nature of violence, the nature of evil in mankind, and the possibility of hope in what appears to be a hopeless world doomed to destruction.

A thousand years after modern civilization was destroyed by nuclear war, humanity has dwindled down to a number of warring tribes trying to survive in a polluted environment where large insects dominate the landscape and even the air has become poisonous due to the spread of the Sea of Decay, a jungle filled with toxic plants. The Valley of the Wind is the one place immune from this pollution due to the wind which comes in from the coast. The nation is led by the bedridden King Jhil and Princess Nausicaa, a young woman fascinated by the Sea of Decay and the insects which have adapted to its conditions. She is a pacifist, believing man can coexist with nature despite the general fear of the large insects, particularly the mammoth Ohmu. However, the Valley is invaded by the militaristic Tolmekians, resulting in the killing of Nausicaa’s father and a shaking of her faith in her own ideals when she reacts to the king’s death with violence against the invaders. Held hostage by the warrior-princess Kushana, Nausicaa and her kingdom are suddenly launched into the midst of a conflict between Tolmekia and the neighboring kingdom of Pejite. The Tolmekians seek to awaken an ancient “God Warrior,” a surviving biological weapon from the apocalypse which wiped out civilization centuries ago, and destroy the Sea of Decay with it, ignoring the fact that this will draw the fatal ire of the insects within its ever-expanding borders. The Pejite nation is willing to use measures just as drastic and self-defeating to kill the Tolmekians as well as innocents for the greater good. Aided by her mentor Lord Yupa and the Pejite Prince Asbel, can Nausicaa prevent another apocalypse?

Though not a Ghibli film, Nausicaa set the bar more than any other pre-Ghibli work for the studio’s output in the years to come. Though there are a few moments of weak animation in the long shots and extreme long shots, this is a beautifully animated film, particularly during the action sequences. The design of the world and characters calls to mind the look of Isao Takahata’s 1968 fantasy Horus, Prince of the Sun, a film I discussed a bit last year; the young prince Ashitaka looks like a post-puberty Horus and Lord Yupa is a dead-ringer for the elderly blacksmith in the earlier movie. Nausicaa herself is the epitome of the Ghibli Heroine, first introduced to the world in Horus through the tragic character of Hilda, the brave and compassionate but emotionally conflicted songstress. Preceded even more closely Lana of Miyazaki’s 1978 television series Future Boy Conan and Lady Clarisse of his feature film directorial debut The Castle of Cagliostro, Nausicaa resembles them in her kindness and inner strength, but is much more active in the story, as later Ghibli heroines like San, Kiki, and Chihiro will be.

Based off the massive comic of the same name Miyazaki was writing at the time (and would continue to work on until 1994), Nausicaa often comes under fire from fans of the original source for not being as “deep.” It does cut a lot from the source material, narrowing the politics of the setting to the basics for instance. However, considering that only the first two volumes of the comic were published at the time and that Miyazaki had no clue where he would ultimately go with the story and characters, I would say the film adaptation is impressive for how much it is able to stand on its own. As someone who was introduced to this story through the picture, I can assure you that you will never feel lost if you have not read the comic in advance. I have moved past the point where I feel an adaptation should be nothing more than a lifeless counterfeit copy of the original source. Changes are not only inevitable, but sometimes, they should be encouraged and embraced. The book will be there nevertheless. (And let me assure you, it is a great book, arguably Hayao Miyazaki’s crowning achievement as an artist in any medium—don’t let the length intimidate you.)

In fact, there are some things about the movie which I prefer to the manga. (Warning: spoilers from here on out.) In the source material, the death of Nausicaa’s father and Nausicaa’s murderous fit of rage-induced violence against enemy soldiers are separate events. The film combines them, making for a more emotionally charged and relatable sequence. Nausicaa kills the soldiers for their disrespect for her nation in the comic, but in the film, the killings ae spontaneous, a reaction to her grief and anger. Her own capacity for violence frightens Nausicaa—and shakes us in its ferocity. As the picture progresses, we learn the other warring nations are not exclusively motivated by greed or survival, but by a sense of injustice. Kushana wants vengeance against the insects which destroyed her limbs as a child. The Pejite people want vengeance against Tolmekia for the death of their princess and the other destruction left in their wake. There is no “bad guy” in Nausicaa, just an assortment of confused, frightened, and angry people in a dying world.

I cannot overstate how much of an impact this sequence had on me as a teenager. Idealistic to an extreme, I wanted to be Nausicaa, someone kind and compassionate, resourceful, brave, and willing to lay down her life for the greater good. A common criticism of the film has been that Nausicaa is “too perfect.” I would only agree if this one scene did not exist, for here, Nausicaa the gentle pacifist, willing to let a frightened animal bite her finger, is roused to mindless fury and a violence the audience exclusively associated with the militaristic Tolmekians. The ideal heroine suddenly reveals an uglier side, a flaw. Later on, she is shocked by her actions and confesses to Yupa, “I didn’t know I had it in me to kill.” Even the kindest souls are capable of violence. Even those with the highest ideals cannot always follow them through because, news flash, we’re all human.

Though the picture ends on a positive note (and a rather weird deus ex machina, but when that’s your film’s biggest flaw, I’m not going to complain), this single scene has major consequences and reverberates through Miyazaki’s work. One need only look at Nausicaa’s spiritual sequel, Princess Mononoke. Released three years after the Nausicaa graphic novel came to its conclusion, Mononoke often feels like a remake of the 1984 adaptation, as it also concerns a pacifist would-be savior in blue trying to stop a war between mankind and nature. However, Mononoke is much bleaker, the equivalent of Kurosawa’s tragic Ran. The gentle Ashitaka pleads for peace as Nausicaa does, but no one listens to him. The nature-loving princess is savage and despises her own humanity. Unlike Nausicaa the movie, Mononoke has no unabashedly optimistic ending that suggests man anhd nature can get along. If there is any optimism at all, it is cautious, unsure of the future, maybe even doubting that man and the natural world can ever reconcile completely. Even the ending of the Nausicaa film, for all its celebrations and hope for a better tomorrow, does not tie all the plot ends into a neat little bow. But that is what keeps these films so fascinating after all this time. Miyazaki is one of those great artists who ponders the big questions, and like Kurosawa or Kubrick, he does not supply the audience with easy answers to make you feel good when you leave the theater. It may not be the most comforting thing, but it makes the work much more interesting and endurable.

Kubrick in Color

This is one of my favorite videos on the internet. Set to “Blue Danube,” this montage features striking shots from Stanley Kubrick’s color movies, with the exception of Spartacus. It’s so well put together and lovely, it emotionally moves me.

Those Awful Hats (dir. DW Griffith, 1909)

The modern day movie goer is plagued by rude people who bring in their cell phones and noisy children. Heck, just the other day when some friends and I went to see Disney’s Zootopia at the theater, this woman walks in late, drags her son in, and shouts to everyone present, “IS THIS AN AD? NO? OH SO IT’S THE MOVIE? YEAH? DID IT JUST START? YEAH? OH AND IT’S ZOOTOPIA, RIGHT? YEAH?” Of course, then I get a case of the nostalgia and start wondering if the theater going experience was better long ago in the days of early cinema.

If this short film is anything to go by, then that answer is a strong “hell no.” Even back in 1909, movie lovers had to deal with people walking in late and, what’s worse, wearing the most obnoxious head wear. I’m not sure if any theater employed such creative methods to relieve the problem as in here, however. All in all, this is a cute little movie, a rare D.W. Griffith comedy that works one hundred percent. Enjoy my friends!

The Classic Movie Ice Cream Social: The Hidden Fortress (dir. Akira Kurosawa, 1958)

Out of all of Kurosawa’s 1950s output, The Hidden Fortress may be the lightest. Seven Samurai may be more action-packed, but it still has numerous heavy dramatic moments and an ending tinged with melancholy. By contrast, Fortress is more of an adventure story and features more comedy, particularly in the peasant duo played by Minoru Chiaki and Kamatari Fujiwara, who almost resemble Laurel and Hardy in their bickering and friendship. The premise is simple: two peasants named Tahei and Matashichi end up unwittingly accompanying a disguised princess and general as they cross enemy territory with gold in tow. The peasants try to make a quick buck whenever they can and the princess experiences culture shock as she encounters the world outside the palace walls for the first time.

The charms of The Hidden Fortress are plenty: beautiful widescreen images, Tohsiro Mifune in shorts (swoon), and sweeping action sequences. There is plenty of comedy, but the story and its world are hardly made of sweetness and light. There is definite danger. Kahei and Matashichi, as hilarious as they are, have a sinister side: their first impulse upon seeing the princess for the first time is to force themselves upon her while the general is not looking. Even after traveling alongside her for days, they still try assaulting her in her sleep, staved off only by the fury of a sex worker the princess had rescued earlier and a big boulder! And yet, the two do possess qualities that endear them to the audience, such as their committed friendship.

For me, it is Misa Uehara who steals the show as the tough-as-nails teenage Princess Yuki. Severe with her eye make-up and masculine stance, she is nevertheless still vulnerable and human. Her sheltered upbringing makes her more curious about the lives of the common people. She is brave and kind, willing to help others at the expense of her own safety. She undergoes a spiritual transformation during the Buddhist fire festival, dancing and singing along with the peasants in abandon. Kurosawa isn’t known for having too many great female characters, but Princess Yuki is one of his best characters period. Out of all the characters in the film, her arc is the most dynamic and by the end, you’re left wondering what kind of woman she will grow to be.

The first thing most people hear about The Hidden Fortress is that it was the model for the original 1977 Star Wars. According to The Making of Star Wars by J.W. Rinzler, George Lucas’s early treatments of the plot were basically word for word the summary of Kurosawa’s film, though the story moved farther away from this outline with each subsequent draft. Star Wars does share much with this film, particularly its enchanting mix of light adventure and a gritty, dangerous setting. Still, the weird thing about The Hidden Fortress’s relation to Star Wars is that it resembles The Phantom Menace more than it does A New Hope! Think about it, both movies feature: 1) A member of royalty in disguise and a stoic warrior out to protect her, 2) prominent comic relief sidekick character(s), and 3) a journey into enemy territory that ends with an awards ceremony. But hell, I don’t need to tell you which movie is better, do I?

If you have never seen a Kurosawa film and you are intimidated by the run time of Seven Samurai or heavier fare like Rashomon or Ikiru, then this may be a good place to start. Accessible and fun, The Hidden Fortress is a great adventure.

This is part of the Classic Movie Ice Cream Social hosted by Movies Silently. Check out her blog for more sweetness!

The Great Villain Blogathon 2016: Kurt Anderson in Employees’ Entrance (dir. Roy del Ruth, 1933)

[WARNING: SPOILERS DEAD AHEAD]

“When a man outlives his usefulness, he ought to jump out a window.”

The pre-code era had tons of swell villains: Count Zaroff in The Most Dangerous Game, the Femm family in The Old Dark House, and Poelzig in The Black Cat are a few of my favorites. But my favorite of the litter is Kurt Anderson of Employee’s Entrance, the tyrannical department store manager played by the much beloved Warren William.

The film centers on the troubles of Madeline (Lorretta Young) and Martin (Wallace Ford), two young people working at a department store run by the ruthless and amoral Kurt Anderson. They fall in love, which makes their jobs complicated and awkward: Martin is a favorite of Anderson’s—so long as he promises to stay away from personal relationships which open one up to “sympathy or softness,” that is, romantic ones. As for Madeline, it seems she procured her job after being coerced into sex with Anderson. Still, the two take the plunge and marry, trying their best to keep their marriage a secret as Anderson finds the stability of his little empire threatened by bankers who may be more villainous than he.

Kurt Anderson dominates the film, emerging as its most interesting and complex figure. There is no doubt he is a bastard, heartless, misogynistic, thirsty for power. He views women as sexual playthings and men as pawns to be thrown away once they “outlive their usefulness.” All things considered, he embodies capitalism at its most callous. And in his darkest moment, he has sex with Madeline while she’s too intoxicated to give her consent. And yet, the film, at times, seems to begrudgingly admire Anderson for all his evil acts. He fights to make sure many of the employees are not laid off, a damn heroic thing to do in the midst of the Depression. When he encounters an embittered man he has sacked, a man who swears to climb his way to the top somehow and then throw Anderson down. Impressed with the man’s ambition and ruthless guts, Anderson re-hires and promotes him! And then there’s Anderson’s affection for Martin. Though he claims to despise softness, he harbors a great soft spot for the young lad. When Martin confronts Anderson in the climax and actually shoots him in a fit of rage, Anderson does not hand him over to the police, but lets him go free.

It’s rare to have a villain this layered, someone so despicable and yet in some ways admirable. These admirable traits do not absolve him in our minds—but he is much more than a straightforward villain.

This has been an entry in the 2016 Great Villain blogathon. Check out the other posts on Silver Screenings, Shadows and Satin, and Speakeasy.

A tale of two trailers: Barry Lyndon (dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1975)

At the time of its release in 1975, Barry Lyndon was a miss with audiences and some critics. Perceived as slow and boring, it has, like many of Kubrick’s films, grown in critical stature as time wears onward. Barry Lyndon is a major favorite of mine, my second favorite Kubrick film after A Clockwork Orange, but after seeing the original trailer, it is hard to see one reason why audiences may have stayed away– the trailer is absolutely terrible!

We are given little sense of plot from the trailer; we receive nothing but critical notices, all bland statements about the film’s cinematography and attention to detail. Those are two of its greatest strengths to be sure, but your average film-goer wants plot, a sense of character, none of which you get from this trailer! This movie is sad, funny, haunting, but from the original trailer it looks like any musty old Oscar bait piece. Blech!

Now compare this recent trailer for a 40th anniversary screening:

Now THAT’S a trailer, guys! Much better sense of editing and we actually get a feel for the story, that this is about an ambitious con man’s rise and fall, told through some of the most stunning visuals ever put to film. If you have not seen Barry Lyndon, then do so. Three hours well spent!