REDUCING A REMARKABLE LIFE AND MARRIAGE to stultifying solemnity, Tom Hooper’s The Danish Girl might be most charitably thought of as a public-service announcement gussied up in interwar-period costuming and interior design. Based on David Ebershoff’s 2000 novel of the same name, Hooper’s project is a docudrama about artist spouses Gerda Wegener (Alicia Vikander) and Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne), who, in the late 1920s, began presenting as Lili Elbe and in 1930 became one of the first recipients of gender-reassignment surgery. In all fairness, some of the film’s decorousness is rooted in the source material: In Ebershoff’s book, the countless mentions of the “pickled-ash wardrobe” in the Copenhagen flat shared by Einar/Lili and Gerda (known as Greta in the novel) elevate the piece of furniture to a major character. (The shabby-chic dwelling the couple inhabits recalls the London speech-therapist’s office where George VI is cured of his stammer in The King’s Speech, Hooper’s innocuous biopic from 2010.)
Ebershoff’s book, though, admirably plumbs not just Lili’s complexities and contradictions but also the protean, at times painful, partnership she has with Gerda; Hooper’s movie, in contrast, is so terrified of making missteps in its portrayal of its transgender character that it becomes strenuously anodyne. (The depth of the filmmakers’ insecurity regarding their handling of Einar’s transition to Lili is evidenced in the thick press booklet I received at the press screening, a dossier that includes a wholly unnecessary page headed “When discussing The Danish Girl: Terms to Know.” The text is a preemptive exhortation to journalists covering the film, and one that is completely ahistorical and entirely nonsensical: “LGBTQ” is listed in this PR glossary; the acronym, of course, wouldn’t be deployed until decades after the years covered in the film.) Even worse, amendments to the novel—The Danish Girl’s script was written by Lucinda Coxon—do a grave disservice to the central dyad by making them more conventional than they were either in real life or in Ebershoff’s rendering.
That’s especially the case in the scenes devoted to proving the robustness of Einar and Gerda’s heterosexual mating. Their bed-centered fun occurs off-screen, though not Gerda’s morning-after wish: “I’m wondering if we made a baby last night,” a procreative desire that exists only in Hooper’s film. Other lines in the film sink with their retrofitted interpretations of gender studies, as when Gerda says to the industrialist whose portrait she’s painting, “For a man to submit to a woman’s gaze—it’s unsettling.” The mundane observation typifies most of Vikander’s dialogue, which varies little between uxorial omniscience before Einar’s transition (“I’m your wife—I know everything”) and expressions of extreme martyrdom after it.
Redmayne, though his character undergoes the most extraordinary of changes, is paradoxically hemmed in even more. Lili, whose costuming here suggests Rrose Sélavy, isn’t a woman or a body but a quivering mouthpiece, put in service to declare her virtue and noble suffering time and time again. In sanctifying Lili, the film voids her vitality, quite literally in one of The Danish Girl’s closing scenes, an episode that Ebershoff wisely chose to leave open-ended. A closing intertitle declares of the film’s heroine, “Her bravery and pioneering spirit remain an inspiration for today’s transgender movement.” But in this arduously pious version of Lili Elbe’s life, she was born to die.
The Danish Girl opens in New York and Los Angeles on November 27.
A RETELLING OF THE EVENTS of the January, 1879 Battle of Rorke’s Drift in the Anglo-Zulu War, in which a ragtag force of some hundred able-bodied British Army regulars successfully defended a remote supply depot from a vastly superior force of Zulu warriors, the 1964 film Zulu means a great many things to a great many people. It provided the great Welsh screen star Stanley Baker with a signature role as Lieutenant John Chard, and definitively broke through his thirty-year old cockney costar, Michael Caine. It inspired a young Afrika Bambaataa in the Bronx River Projects to create his Zulu Nation youth movement, though its images of Afro-European combat, appearing in the midst of the Civil Rights struggle, remain necessarily racially-loaded, and for some it’s the definitive screen image of imperial martial valor, epitomized in the moment when the defenders of Rorke’s Drift, fallen back to their last redoubt, raise their voices together to sing “Men of Harlech.”
Zulu reflects both the spiritual sullying of combat and the mythic self-image of the United Kingdom in the full flower of Empire, and it should take nothing away from this to note that the same “Men of Harlech” scene occurs, in a very similar context, in Apache Drums, a 1951 Western directed by the Argentinian-born director Hugo Fregonese and produced by the American Val Lewton for Universal-International pictures, or that the director of Zulu—full name Cyril Raker Endfield—whose sobriquet might fit in on the roll call of Eton, was in fact the son of an Eastern European Jewish immigrant raised in Scranton, Pennsylvania.
Endfield is the subject of an eleven-film retrospective which opens today at Anthology Film Archives—among the many inducements to attend is an IB Technicolor print of Zulu, recommended above the DCP which circulated in the recent Rialto rerelease. His career began not in Pinewood but in Southern California, where he landed in September, 1940, staying with his old friend, screenwriter Paul Jarrico, while he attempted to turn his credits in progressive theater and amateur magic into a studio job. Showing off his feats of prestidigitation for a bemused Orson Welles at Bert Wheeler’s Magic Shop on Hollywood Blvd. led to an apprenticeship for the Mercury Theater unit at RKO, and two years later Endfield had finally managed to launch himself as a director of short subjects. (His first, a propaganda effort called Inflation, was snuffed at the behest of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a foretaste of futures frustrations.)
The earliest of Endfield’s features to play AFA is The Argyle Secrets (1948), an independently-produced quickie marked by an unusual level of political pessimism and a total absence of “sympathetic characters” which involves a race to find documents that prove prominent Americans struck contingency deals with the Axis powers in the event of an Allied loss, but he really made his name with two back-to-back films that might be classified as newspaper noirs. The Sound of Fury (1950) stars Frank Lovejoy as a down-on-his-luck regular Joe who, in order to put food on the table for his family, begins working as a driver for a slickster triggerman (Lloyd Bridges, whose preening “seduction” scene with Lovejoy is a highlight). Once Lovejoy’s character is caught and jailed, this fairly straightforward tale of a man undone by ambition takes on a wider social scope, as a newspaper columnist (Richard Carlson) condemns the accused in the court of public opinion, and is rewarded for his efforts by the appearance of a lynch mob. The didactic commentary of a European observer—“Violence is a disease caused by moral and social breakdown”—was a lamented carry-over from the source novel by Jo Pagano, which drew from an actual mob uprising that occurred in San Jose, but the film, some of it shot on location in Phoenix, has a wonderful feel for life lived tenuously on the rung just above poverty, and Endfield’s visceral handling of the movement of massed bodies in the concluding siege anticipates the director’s later work on Zulu.
The Sound of Fury sets its scene in the Sun Belt anytown of Santa Sierra, where Lovejoy’s character has come from Boston to look for work, while Endfield’s The Underworld Story of the same year goes back to the precincts of Salem to offer live-at-the-witch-trials reportage. Dan Duryea, Patron Saint of Seedy Blondes, arrives in a backlot New England town bristling with cutout steeples and assumes a job at the local newspaper where, purely for reasons of profit, he takes up the defense of a black domestic (Mary Anderson, playing against racial type) accused of killing her employer. The actual culprits are a father-son team of local bluebloods who can trace their lineage back to Concord—“It’ll be the word of a nigger against ours” says actor Gar Moore, in a moment of brute candor rarely seen in films of the day—but when they can’t cover their tracks through backroom dealmaking with prominent citizens, they ally with Howard Da Silva’s crime capo.
Just as he was starting to build up a head of steam, Endfield’s brilliant Hollywood career was cut short. Screenwriter Martin Berkeley named him as a communist before the House Committee on Un-American Activities—and friends and collaborators Da Silva, Bridges, and Jarrico were also being fingered. Endfield’s engagement with radical politics had begun years before he came west. Born in 1914, Endfield was the son of a moderately well-off furrier, born in Łódź as Koniećpolski, but he showed little interest in taking over the store. (“Nothing like a small business,” sneers Da Silva in The Underworld Story, “Backbone of the country.”) His father’s fortunes took a setback in the Depression, but Cy’s scholastic abilities were enough to win him entry to Yale, though his status as a scholarship boy and a Jew developed his sense of class consciousness. (Also from The Underworld Story: “You know what’s under ivy? Little crawling things.”) We have a privileged insight into Endfield’s political thinking during this period—intuitive, compassionate, and skeptical—thanks to his ongoing correspondence with Jarrico, then called Israel Shapiro, detailed in a superb biography by Brian Neve, The Many Lives of Cy Endfield, which appeared last summer. After two-and-a-half years at Yale, Endfield lit off for New York City and the politically-engaged New Theatre League, his course in life set.
Until 1951, that is. Some blacklistees went to Paris. Others, like Sam Wanamaker, Edward Dmytryk, Carl Foreman, Joseph Losey, and Endfield, headed for London. Contrary to popular belief, they weren’t always greeted with open arms in their new homes, and in the first years of his exile Endfield had to operate under a plethora of pseudonyms: Charles de Lautour (his British “overseer” on set), Hugh Raker, and C. Raker Endfield. It was under the last that he had his first great success, on Hell Drivers (1957). Through the personage of a newcomer (Stanley Baker), this hard-bitten classic initiates viewers into the society of lorry drivers carrying short-haul ballast loads—a seemingly banal job, but encouraged by their supervisors and their own overweening pride, they daily risk life and limb to shave seconds off of their time.
Baker, a sensitive performer of tough coal mining stock, had previously worked with Endfield in Child in the House (1956), and their teaming was regarded as such a success as to spawn multiple “sequels,” each featuring Baker performing feats of derring-do aboard a new mode of transit. The excellent Sea Fury (1958), which owes no small debt to Jean Gremillon’s Remorques (1941), was shot partially on location in northeastern coastal Spain, and features Baker as an out-of-work first-mate who finds a job with the captain of a salvage tug—a rumpled, splenetic, alcoholic Victor McLaglen, in a marvelous final film role. (The climax, which shows off the same partiality for cockeyed, canted angles seen in The Sound of Fury’s boozy nightclub scene, takes place aboard an abandoned American freighter, tilted on its port side, called “The City of Scranton.”) Follow-up Jet Storm (1959), which takes place entirely aboard a London-to-New York airliner captained by Baker, may not be the first in-flight thriller ever made, but it’s the first that I know of. Taking place in the growing panic following the discovery of an on-board explosive, the film is bolstered by the presence of a fine ensemble cast including Richard Attenborough and rocker Marty Wilde, who croons a theme song with lyrics by Endfield himself. Jet Storm isn’t Endfield’s best work, but it is the purest distillation of a favorite theme that is something like his political philosophy: The importance of maintaining circumspect and calm in a crisis, be it a matter of resisting the “thoughtless emotionalism” of the mob in The Sound of Fury, or the stiff upper-lip that carries the day in Zulu.
Endfield and Baker, along with screenwriter John Prebble, were the principal architects behind Zulu, but the filmmaker was unable to convert its success into a more stable career. His last completed feature as director was Universal Soldier (1971), and the next quarter century of his life was occupied with uncompleted projects, the design of an early handheld word processor (the “Microwriter”), and a reengagement with his old passion for sleight-of-hand card magic. (Magicians recur throughout his filmography, and the power of the entertainer over an audience and the nuances of crowd psychology were sources of continual fascination.) He had done a great deal in cinema, but late in life rued the fact that he hadn’t done more—as should we, for there is much evidence here that Cy Endfield still had a few tricks up his sleeve.
“Sound and Fury: The Films of Cy Endfield” runs November 20 – December 8 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.
IT HAS TO BE the best movie title ever: My Sex Life… or How I Got into an Argument or, as it was reversed in the original French release, Comment je me suis disputé… (Ma vie sexuelle). But any way you parse it, the film to which the title belongs—Arnaud Desplechin’s second feature, released in 1996 and currently available only in a dark and wan DVD—is a delayed coming-of-age masterpiece and one of the great French post–New Wave films. Desplechin has revisited the central narrative of My Sex Life—Paul Dedalus’s tortured first love affair with the unsuitable Esther—in the 2015 My Golden Years, which will be released stateside in the spring. It would be splendid if My Sex Life were revived at the same time, or better yet, if some canny distributer would bring them out as a BluRay set.
My Golden Years is a cinematically bravura, emotionally rich memory piece about the formative years of a character who might be the director’s alter ego. My Sex Life, on the other hand, is fueled by anticipation. Immersive, wildly romantic (the first sound you hear is a half-second arpeggio straight out of Vertigo), recklessly disorganized, and epic in length, it is the work of a young filmmaker looking at a heterosexual, bed-hopping, near penniless clique of postgraduate Parisians who are not much younger than he was at the time.
At the center is Paul (Mathieu Amalric, looking like a dead ringer for Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network)—brilliant, self-involved, febrile, and terrified of commitment. Paul is five years late finishing his dissertation. Consequently, he doesn’t earn enough money through his adjunct teaching gig to afford his own apartment, which means he has never been able to live with Esther (Emmanuelle Devos), his girlfriend of ten years with whom he’s trying to break up. Paul’s problems are nothing if not overdetermined, and that includes his festering feud with a glib former classmate, Frédéric Rabier (Michel Vuillermoz), who is now the head of the philosophy department where Paul teaches. Frédéric shows up walking hand in hand with a monkey. Bad things happen to the monkey, generating a hilarious depiction of privilege in academia that would be farcical if it weren’t so true to form.
My Sex Life is filled with just such show-stopping set pieces: Paul’s paralyzing panic attack while walking in the woods, the bare branches dotted with ominous bird nests, the ambient music sounding suddenly like Stravinsky; Esther in the shower, watching her menstrual blood flow down the drain, her sudden awareness of her own agency upending the images of the victimized Marion in Psycho and the titular Carrie, the incarnation of the return of the repressed. Paul’s attempts to end his relationship with Esther involve him in guilt-producing affairs with Sylvia (Marianne Denicourt) and Valérie (Jeanne Balibar), the girlfriends respectively of his best friend and his cousin. Sex scenes abound, all of them fast and discreet. Conversations about sex make even more of an impression. In particular, Paul’s admission that what he loves more than anything is putting his hand into a woman’s underpants for the first time—“the surprise of what she feels like down there, the look on her face.” (Please excuse my translation.) I know many men who would agree, but I’ve never heard it said in a movie. It’s the giveaway that Paul, even after he completes his thesis, won’t commit to a relationship until he’s getting on in years and one of those women that he’s feeling up for the first time looks at him as if he’s a dirty old man. Which is the place he has just about reached in My Golden Years.
My Sex Life, which established Amalric as one of the most talented actors of his generation, is screening in the French Institute Alliance Française series “Mathieu Amalric: Renaissance Man,” a nearly complete retrospective of his work as an actor and as a director. It has included two performances of a play, Fight or Flight (Le Moral des ménages), a two-hander for Amalric and Anne-Laure Tondu directed by Stéphanie Cléau (the costar and cowriter of Amalric’s terrifying neo-noir The Blue Room). Literally a psychodrama, Fight or Flight is also a vehicle for Amalric, who is as compelling on stage as on the screen.
My Sex Life… or How I Got into an Argument screens Tuesday, November 17, at 4 PM and 8 PM at FIAF’s Florence Gould Hall in New York.
LONG EMBRACED AS A CULT HORROR MOVIE, Carnival of Souls (1962)—the only feature directed by Herk Harvey, who specialized in industrial and educational films, and essentially the only title of note for any member of its cast and crew—might more provocatively be thought of as a surrealist woman’s picture. Coincidentally, Harvey’s movie was released the same year that Helen Gurley Brown’s Sex and the Single Girl was published; Candace Hilligoss, the sylphlike actress who plays protagonist Mary Henry, even bears a passing resemblance to the storied editrix of Cosmopolitan. Despite these superficial similarities, Carnival of Souls proves to be the very antithesis of the mandate promulgated by Brown and her ilk: Anomic and ahedonic, Mary declares, “I have no desire for the close company of other people.”
Seen early in the film emerging, muddy and disoriented, from a river after a car in which she had been a passenger drove off a bridge, Mary is haunted by ghosts—chief among them a besuited, whitefaced phantom who seems to anticipate Grandpa Munster and is played by Harvey himself. She first sees this well-dressed specter while en route to her new church-organist job in Salt Lake City, her profession belying her lack of creed: “To me, a church is just a place of business.” Beyond these paranormal threats, Mary has an all-too-real menace right next door, her wolfish boardinghouse neighbor, John (Sidney Berger). As the ghouls multiply, the film’s sympathy for its unraveling central character deepens. Mary is most terrified during the moments when no one appears to hear or see her, or, as she describes these episodes, “as though for a time I didn’t exist.” Carnival of Souls has influenced a wide range of directors, including David Lynch and Christian Petzold, whose Yella (2007) is a loose remake of Harvey’s movie. But the film with which it may share the strongest, if oddest, kinship is another American-independent feature, also the only one by its maker, about a woman adrift who similarly feels unseen and unheard: Barbara Loden’s Wanda (1970).
A different kind of haunting marks Dorothy Arzner’s Get Your Man (1927). Stills are used in lieu of missing scenes; intermittent photochemical deterioration throughout the sixty-minute film—the 35-mm restoration of which was undertaken by the Library of Congress—has resulted in ominous, though beautiful, clusters of black circles swarming over the faces and bodies of the performers. And not just any body: Clara Bow, whose vehicles Call Her Savage (1932) and Hoop-la (1933) were highlights of earlier editions of the Museum of Modern Art’s “To Save and Project” series, stars as Nancy Worthington, an American visiting Paris who falls for Robert Albin (Charles “Buddy” Rogers, Bow’s costar in Wings, released earlier in 1927), a young French aristocrat. That the blueblood is already affianced does not prevent Nancy—or any other character Bow would ever play, for that matter—from fulfilling the imperative laid out in the film’s title.
Get Your Man was the first of two movies that the actress made with Arzner, the only female director working in the Hollywood studio system during the late 1920s and 1930s; in 1929, they’d reteam for Bow’s first talkie, the exuberant, proto-sapphic romp The Wild Party. In his 1988 biography Clara Bow: Runnin’ Wild, David Stenn includes a quote from Arzner that nicely underscores what is immediately evident to any viewer of the woman who, before she was anointed the It Girl, was known as the Brooklyn Bonfire: “[S]he understood the emotional content of every scene. Whichever way she did it was so right, so alive. It was like a dancing flame on the screen.”
Carnival of Souls screens November 12 and Get Your Man screens November 15 and 19 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York as part of the series “To Save and Project,” which runs through November 25.
Ulrich Seidl, In the Basement, 2015, HD video, color, sound 81 minutes.
WITH REFERENCES, direct or implicit, to famous native sons Adolf Hitler, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, and Sigmund Freud, Ulrich Seidl’s In the Basement may be the most Austrian movie ever made. The filmmaker’s latest formalist documentary even features an appearance by Fritz Lang—not the Vienna-born director of the Dr. Mabuse series, but a forlorn-looking small-arms enthusiast with a fondness for bulky sweaters, whose subterranean firing range also affords him acoustics to exercise his sweet tenor and bemoan the opera career he never had.
In interviews, Seidl has been mentioning an in-the-works project about the relationship between Austrians and their basements for years now, speaking of the cellar as “a place to do things in secret...[of] violence but also a retreat.” He isn’t the only one of his countrymen to have noticed this peculiar attachment: Rainer Frimmel edited together the found-footage video diaries of Peter Haindl, a misogynistic Vienna hospital orderly, in his 2001 Notes from the Basement (the nod to Dostoevsky is purely intentional), while Michael Haneke protégé Markus Schleinzer’s dreadful 2011 Markus drew on much-discussed cases of two Austrian men, Josef Fritzl and Wolfgang Priklopil, who were discovered to be holding sex slaves hostage beneath their homes.
Hitler spent his last days in a basement, his Führerbunker, and he makes several appearances in Seidl’s film—as heroically depicted in oil paintings that decorate the den of one Josef Ochs, a married, middle-class fellow who unwinds by binge drinking with the other members of his oom-pah band while surrounded by his collection of Nazi memorabilia. (Most disturbingly, Ochs blandly states that he regularly has neighbors over to the space, and evidently no one is put out by his taste in decor.) Sacher-Masoch, from whose name “masochism” is derived, is represented by Austrians who use their subterranean square footage for dungeon space—a burly, hirsute security guard who acts as a slave for his live-in mistress, seen cleaning a toilet with his tongue and submitting to elaborate acts of cock-and-ball torture; a middle-aged female who relaxes from a day job working with abused women by allowing a lederhosen-wearing master to go to town on her haunches with a riding crop, and who seems entirely unneurotic about what some might perceive as a potential conflict of interest between these two pursuits. Freud’s presence is perhaps the most abstract, and the most ubiquitous. For Seidl, the basement is the physical manifestation of subconscious desire, the playground of the repressed: Take the case of the woman whose cellar houses a collection of ultrarealistic baby dolls, which she is seen dandling and whispering tender reassurances to, a private, privileged ritual that is never explained away.
Like his late friend and collaborator Michael Glawogger, Seidl pursues a practice that encompasses both documentary and fiction film, with exercises in each medium incorporating aspects that tend to be attributed to the other. The casts of Seidl’s fiction films, beginning with Dog Days (2001), mix professional actors with amateurs who bring an element of existential veracity to their roles. (Disconcertingly, it is sometimes difficult to tell the difference between the two.) His documentaries, meanwhile, exhibit a degree of finicky, just-so compositional rigor that—particularly in the early years of his work, when every other doc discussion didn’t trot out the word “hybrid”—isn’t usually associated with nonfiction filmmaking. Excepting occasional handheld inserts, Seidl tends to pose his subjects in medium long shots, presented face-forward against a perpendicular backdrop, in what the film scholar David Bordwell, writing about Wes Anderson and his Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), termed “planimetric” composition. In fact, I sometimes have the impression of Siedl as Anderson’s stern, Teutonic older brother—certainly Seidl also has a sense of humor that could be described as deadpan, most evident in his sly, associative montage. A big-game hunter with trophy-covered basement walls discusses making a warthog meat Wiener schnitzel in Africa, and this is followed by Fritz’s recitation of a (self-penned?) poem (“A man is always young and trim / For him time stands still”) and the introduction of the abovementioned slave who, stripped and on all fours, could pass muster as a bristly warthog himself.
Among other things, In the Basement is a musky slog through the fundament of fear and desire in particularly feminine and masculine permutations—in one key moment, Fritz and gun buddies speak very candidly on their feelings about Turkish immigrants, grounded in a basic sexual insecurity. (“They proudly declare, ‘We’re fucking your women!’ ”) As in previous works like Animal Love (1996) and Jesus, You Know (2001), whose respective subjects are ardent pet owners and the devoutly religious, Seidl chooses a single fixed vantage point—in this case, the view from the basement—from which to look into the fantasy life of his countrymen. In both the specificity of his conception and the fastidiousness of his execution, with every mounted ibex and spanking bench seemingly arranged to present the desired flattened perspective, Seidl is as bound to his gimlet-eyed style as his subjects are to their obsessions. It isn’t the same thing as perfection, but by now Seidl has refined and delimited his approach to such a point that he cannot make a mistake.
Seijun Suzuki, Kagero-za, 1981, 35 mm, color, sound, 139 minutes.
WHEN THE CINEMATIC whatsits of Seijun Suzuki were rediscovered by American cinephiles in the late 1990s, through both a touring retrospective and the Criterion Collection’s home video releases of his noir-inflected signature films Tokyo Drifter (1966) and Branded to Kill (1967), the typical reaction was one of giddy bafflement. Even if we weren’t quite sure what these pop-addled movies were up to, we knew they weren’t sitting still.
Now Suzuki is on the move again, with a 35-mm print-heavy retrospective beginning November 6 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, coming from the Freer and Sackler Galleries in Washington DC, which have also published a new book, Time and Place Are Nonsense: The Films of Seijun Suzuki, by Tom Vick. The stated intention of Vick’s book is “to rescue Suzuki from his reputation in the West as a figurehead of ‘extreme’ cinema”—analogous to “batshit crazy,” the most insipid film chat designation this side of “slow cinema”—and to cast his subject in the light of a purposeful, innovative artist, alive and vibrating with the historical currents of the times in which he was working.
Suzuki cuts a figure every bit as striking as his films; with his white Vandyke and black-rimmed glasses, he somewhat resembles a Japanese Colonel Sanders. Today he is ninety-two years old but, according to Vick, too ill to submit to extended interviews. His last completed feature, Princess Raccoon, was released in 2005 and seems likely to be the end of his nearly fifty-year creative run. He was born in Tokyo as Seitaro Suzuki, in 1923, at the tail end of the Taishō Period which, with all its frenzied westernization, would be the setting of his return-to-deform trilogy, Zigeunerweisen (1980), Kagero-za (1981), and Yumeji (1991). He enrolled in the film department of Hirosaki University after failing his entrance exam to Tokyo University, but his education—like all of Japanese life—was interrupted by World War II, in which he served in the Imperial Japanese Army. (Macho prewar martial culture and postwar anarchy would be the subjects of two of his finest films, Fighting Elegy  and Gate of Flesh .) Returned from the front, Suzuki went to work as (in his words) “a relatively worthless assistant director” at Shochiku studios. When Japan’s oldest production company, Nikkatsu studios, resumed production in 1954 after a hiatus begun during the war years, they lured Suzuki into their employ. Two years later he made his first film as a director, and he would work at a feverish pace for Nikkatsu’s B-movie unit until 1968, when he was dismissed by company president Kyusaku Hori for making “incomprehensible films,” with Branded to Kill the final insult.
In fairness to Mr. Hori, Suzuki’s strength was never in the placid, dutiful delivery of plot, though his handling of a relatively straightforward suspense like Passport to Darkness (1959) proves that he could play by the rules when he chose to do so. The everything-but-the-kitchen-sink stylistic exuberance of Branded was the apotheosis of a process of ever-bolder experimentation that had been underway throughout much of Suzuki’s time at Nikkatsu. In part, this was an act of creative defiance by a bright, restless assembly-line worker tasked with rapidly turning out identical industrial product, in this case popular gangster films—in 1961 alone, five movies bearing Suzuki’s imprimatur saw release. Rather than place himself in obeisant service to rote, prosaic plotlines, Suzuki instead approached his works as exercises in uncommon visual expression. His cinematography—usually widescreen, and the work of frequent coconspirators Shigeyoshi Mine and Kazue Nagatsuka—favors slashing diagonals, vertical tracking movements that pass through the walls of diorama-like sets, and startling God’s-eye-view perspectives. Cuts are pronounced and jarring, either unsubtle rhetorical points—delivery of the line “Ever slept with a man?” followed by the flag of the occupying US filling the screen in Gate of Flesh—or punchy inserts of close-ups from long shots, in a manner reminiscent of American art brutalist Sam Fuller.
Seijun Suzuki, Gate of Flesh, 1964, 35 mm, color, sound, 90 minutes.
Almost unique to Suzuki is his idiosyncratic use of double exposures, either to provide perspective on a character’s inner life or to hold two evenly balanced counterpoised images in the same frame, his own version of the split-screen technique that was slowly gaining popularity in contemporary Hollywood. He would routinely construct complex systems of color symbolism, as with the mixed-medium color/black-and-white in Youth of the Beast (1963) or the chroma-coded prostitutes in Gate of Flesh, then deliberately violate the rules that he had created. Real locations were freely mixed with constructed sets that made no pretext of veracity, lit through highly artificial means (spotlights, theatrical gels) that ostentatiously proclaimed the staginess of the proceedings rather than attempting to cover it up. For Vick, one of Suzuki’s most distinct signatures is his employ of techniques that call attention to the materiality of the film screen as a flat plane giving the illusion of depth—very much in line with Clement Greenberg’s idea of the canvas surface as the subject of modernist painting. In both Carmen from Kawachi (1966) and Yumeji, we even find instances of the screen literally appearing to be used as a canvas, while screens-within-screens proliferate in Suzuki’s filmography—either the soundproof nightclub office in Youth of the Beast or the 16-mm snuff screening in Branded to Kill.
Despite his eventual, acrimonious split with Nikkatsu, for most of the 1960s Suzuki found a salubrious working environment at the studio, gathering around himself a gang of trusted collaborators. Among them were Joe Shishido, a contract actor whose surgically augmented cheekbones gave him an air of toothachey surliness and comic-book angularity, who stars in titles Youth of the Beast, Tattooed Life (1965), and Branded to Kill, or Shishido’s costar in Gate of Flesh, Yumiko Nogawa, who reprised her role as an indomitable working girl in Story of a Prostitute (1965) and Carmen from Kawachi. (Suzuki shared his concept of the prostitute as a repository of wartime Japanese history with onetime Nikkatsu stablemate Shohei Imamura, whose films Suzuki’s sometimes played double bills with.)
The confederate most crucial to completing the Suzukian style, however, was art director Takeo Kimura, with whom he first worked on 1963’s The Bastard. I have not watched much of Suzuki’s output from his first five years as a director, which includes such sensationally and salaciously titled items as Satan’s Town (1956) and Young Breasts (1958), and the Film Society’s program can only go so far toward correcting this oversight. Those early works that I have seen find Suzuki tentatively pushing the envelope early on—the freeze frames or bizarre rear projection of a Yomiuri Giants baseball game in scandal-sheet thriller Smashing the O-Line (1960), for example. When Suzuki and Kimura began working together, however, they commenced to double-daring each other to go further and further onto a creative precipice, moving from pastiche to parody in Tokyo Drifter, a yakuza picture with the palette of an Elvis movie, featuring Tetsuya Watari crooning as he crosses snowy wastes in a powder-blue suit and white patent leather shoes, and egregious hair dryer product placements. (Working on a parallel track to the Anglo-American pop artists, Suzuki was acutely aware of the ubiquity of advertising language in new, democratic Japan.)
Suzuki and Kimura were perhaps the earliest and most radical in their application of avant-garde theatrical effects to genre filmmaking, though they were by no means the last—other instances include Shunya Itō and Toshiya Fujita, director of the Stray Cat Rock and Lady Snowblood series, who would star as a tightly comported university professor in Suzuki’s Zigeunerweisen. This, the film that properly began the second act of Suzuki’s career, finds his tendency to luxuriate in kink intact (one character has a sexual fixation on bones, and the tonguing of an open eyeball is the movie’s erotic centerpiece), though it also displays a more solemn side of Suzuki’s art, a film of twilit mahogany sitting rooms that slowly ratchets up the tension to an unnerving climax. He would never after return to the frenzied, electrified creative pace of his mid-’60s creative outburst—but neither would he be tamed.