Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Dreaming Of An Aneurysm.

1990, Japan
Akira Kurosawa

In the 1990s, Akira Kurosawa made Dreams and then had a stroke, finally providing proof of the underlying theme that pervades this website: Japanese people should not make films when they’re about to have a stroke. The Japanese are crazy enough normally, let alone with a blood clot floating around in their brains. Comprised entirely of beautifully shot but entirely disconnected dream sequences, this is the sort of movie that seems to have been created for the sole purpose of forcing film students to use the word “oneiric” in a sentence. It’s the sort of film that no one understand, so they have to pretend to like so that they don’t seem stupid. I call it the Thin Red Line Syndrome. But Dreams is not meant to make sense, which puts it in a class of Japanese cinema all by itself, a class that confuses by design, rather than by being absolutely unaware of storytelling fundamentals.

Understanding Japanese cinema.

But that’s what I love about this film. Well, I also love that Martin Scorsese is in it as Vincent Van Gogh, which seems monstrously conceited but just ends up being funny, as Scorsese is a short hairy little fellow who stands out among that Japanese like Wolverine fighting the Hand. But mainly, what I love about this film is that it’s beautiful and captivating, but clearly the product of a raving lunatic. Finally, probably due to pre-cardiac stroke symptoms of numbness and loss of balance, Kurosawa has embraced his discombobulate Japanese heritage of absolute cinematic insanity. Having spent an entire career being a more long-winded John Ford with samurai swords, it’s nice to see Kurosawa create something that must be seen as uniquely Japanese, as opposed to a hybrid of different Western styles. The fact that this must come in the form of two hours of cinematographic wankery is unfortunate, but again, it adds weight to my long running complaint that national cinemas should attempt to define themselves against American movies, as opposed to just aping them. Since Kurosawa took the bait, it’s time for some other countries to follow suit.

Martin Scorsese on the set of Dreams.

France: French films are loving celebrations of cinema as an art form, not a product. They break new ground while embracing film history with open arms. Wait. Did I say “are”? Because I meant “were”. Now, they’re just Vincent Cassel kung fu fighting stuff.

Russia: Russian films are intellectualized deconstructions of the tools used to create a movie, from the montage experimentation of Eisenstein to the lengthy time image studies of Tarkovsky. Wait. Did I say “are” again? Because I still meant “were”. Now, they’re just two hour commercials for Tony Scott movies.

USA: American films are stupid. Wait, did I say “are” again? Because I meant to. I don’t want to be one of these coffee shop losers in a Che Guevara T-Shirt, spouting out trite, predictable nonsense about the superiority of foreign films carried on gusts of weed breath, but it’s true. Hollywood functions on the “throw enough shit at the movies screen and some of it will stick, slide down, and leave a Vin Diesel-shaped smear” approach to filmmaking, and while it sometimes works, mainly it doesn’t. Sometimes I wish I lived in a third world hell hole like Azerbaijan or England, and I only got to see American films six months after they’re released, once all the crap has been weeded out. But then I realize that I like hot food and electricity, so I guess it’s all something of a trade off.

So while Dreams doesn’t get a lot of lip service in critical circles, I’m going to go on record as saying that this is my favorite Kurosawa film, once again proving the long-running theory here at the 16mm Shrine that I am probably having a stroke.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Got here by way of Andrew Sullivan a little while back and now you're bookmarked.

Anyway, I'm with you on Dreams. I rented this a few years ago because I heard that Lucas and Spielberg gave Kurosawa money and ILM to do whatever he wanted. Apparently he wanted to walk in a Van Gough painting rather than stick a five-year-old in a spaceship. Score.

I'm not sure that national film identities have so much to do with being anti-American as with being able to appeal to aesthetics without coming off as elitist. I think that a lot of American movies are lowest common denominator because we don't really have a national identity, just a national ideology. It's mutt culture. I'm guessing that filmmakers in countries with a stronger national identity are more comfortable with their specific tastes because they're not going to be accused of being anti-Japanese or Anti-Russian for making a thoughtful, non-linear (or even poetic) movie. After all, Van Gogh is Dutch, isn't he? Does that make Dreams more Japanese or less Japanese?

-Harvey Birdman

4:59 p.m.  
Anonymous Rich said...

Then you, sir, are my mortal enemy.

I'm not a true film nerd but one of my resolutions last year (I made an OCD list of 105) was to see EVERY movie kurosawa directed. I did it, with a month to spare (some of them were a little hard to find) I can tell you that Dreams is my least favorite of his movies, just barely edging out his adaptation of Dostoevsky's "The Idiot"

My favorite was "High and Low" have you seen it yet? Next would be "The Lower Depths"

My favorite of the slightly hard to find ones was "One Wonderful Sunday"

I just recently found your blog from Andrew Sullivan. I approve.

5:04 p.m.  
Blogger Ash Karreau said...

Harvey - I also don't really believe that national film identities exist as reactions against American cinema, I just meant that I prefer it when they're easily identifiable as un-American (but not in a perjorative sense, merely as distinct from American cinema).

However, I do disagree with you as to America lacking a national identity. It certainly exists, and though it's not as obvious as, say Swedish = slow and depressing, the worship of the rogue/underdog/anti-hero coupled with 'down home' (cruel, biblical, and vigilante) values are uniquely American, and are typified in the Western, which is a uniquely American genre. In any case, it's an interesting question.

Rich - I have seen all (or almost all) of Kurosawa's films, in fact I've reviewed some of them here. I will, however, admit that I picked Dreams as my favorite mainly because it's the only one of his films that feels Japanese. I still think it's wonderful, a beautiful exercise is exploring the trance-like aspects of the film viewing experience while abandoning meaning and narrative. Probably, my actual favorite Kurosawa films are High And Low, Throne Of Blood, and Red Beard. One Wonderful Sunday is good, too, but a little too Frank Capra for me, though the way he combines that upbeat sensibility with a horrifically depressing story is interesting.

11:03 p.m.  
Anonymous Ben said...

I had the (mis)fortune of living in Azerbaijan for a year and a half, and can tell you that film accessibility is NOT what makes it a hellhole. Girls with monobrows and wide, flat asses - check; the inability to distinguish between lamb and mutton (or edible meat and gristle and fat, for that matter) - check; a male populace who look like they've been dumpster-diving in a Turkish slum, or are a Russian's racist idealization of Caucasian trash who have seen one too many movie about the Russian mob - check; and believe me, I could go on.

But the country is, thank the gods of Commerce, blessed with the fruits of DVD piracy. There are shops that provide the bounty of China's, Russia's, and who-the-hell-knows' access to studio DVDs. Yes, there are shitty handheld copies, but so it goes. Oscar season is fantastic, because then we can see all the new movies about pillow-biting cowboys that we hear so much furor about.

But, as ever, even when you're wrong, you're right. This is the definitive site for movie reviews, and thanks for the daliy dose of bile. I admire folks who suffer so that I don't have to. The aid and development community here in the former Soviet Union thanks you; or at least I do. Keep up the stunning work.

8:48 a.m.  
Blogger Ash Karreau said...

What? You mean I was wrong in describing a country I've barely even heard of, let alone been to? Damn. That does not bode well for all the films I've reviewed without having seen.

Thanks a lot for the compliment, Ben. I've always been one to take a bullet for the team, or in my particular case, 171 bullets so far.

8:57 a.m.  
Blogger Sam Kahn said...

Yet another Kurosawa movie I haven't seen. Damn.

11:24 a.m.  
Blogger Ash Karreau said...

You need to get cracking, my friend. You are a film student, after all.

12:12 p.m.  
Blogger Sam Kahn said...

Yeah, I really need to get off my ass and get around to it. Today I watched Starsky and Hutch instead of catching up on Kurosawa and other things I desperately need to see.

I feel dirty.

8:47 p.m.  
Anonymous the natty little twat said...

akira kurosawa is a bloody load of old rubbish !!!

2:50 p.m.  
Anonymous ash karreau said...

yes i know he is, but i`m a rather pretentious fart, thats why i pretend to like his films.

2:53 p.m.  

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