When I wrote about Kill Bill a couple of weeks ago, there was another whole aspect of the House of Blue Leaves sequence I didn’t get around to. It was the way the movie creates an action sequence that feels like more than just a bunch of noise and fury — an action sequence that causes the viewer to sense the violence and the physical aspect of the fight on something more like a gut level.
What I’m trying to describe could be called an aesthetic of brutality. With “brutality,” I’m trying to put a label on the general idea of destruction and mayhem as depicted in movies. Across movies, some punches seem to land harder than others, and some explosions seem more propulsive than others. Some movies, for lack of a better word, are more artful in their brutality than others.
The House of Blue Leaves section of Kill Bill: Vol. 1, for instance, has a higher brutality quotient than a lot of battle scenes I’ve watched, and I’ve been thinking about why. Part of the effect, I think, is achieved just by the length of the battle, which takes place over 30 odd minutes. Another reason the action feels so visceral, though, is what Quentin Tarantino does not just in the night club but to the night club. That is, he lets the Bride and the Crazy 88 gradually destroy it and leave a heaping mess of blood and body parts every which place, until the place is nothing but a war zone, totally transformed from the hip dance joint it was only minutes before.
I was watching Kill Bill, Vol. 1 the other day, not thinking much about it. Then a question sort of popped into my head: What is up with the House of Blue Leaves, the Tokyo nightclub where the whole end third of the movie takes place?
Over the course of more than 30 minutes, the House of Blue Leaves becomes much more than a backdrop or a location. It takes on the properties of a palpable space that has volume and a kind of complex presence. We’re used to considering nuanced characters and relationships, but spaces, not so much. Watching Kill Bill, though, I have the sense that Tarantino’s treatment of the set creates a sense of space that is nuanced and specific.
Describing how, though, will take some doing.
In all probability, last year’s Superman reboot, Man of Steel, was not designed to make me want to watch an entire movie about Krypton. But that’s what it did, maybe more than it did anything else.
That probably says more about how totally effective the early scenes of Krypton were more than it means anything about how much I liked the rest of the film (which was fine or something). Man of Steel’s Krypton is a vividly foreign place that clearly establishes its own peculiar aesthetic, one that is a lot more than a mere extrapolation from present trends in American design. Just as it should, the planet feels remote from anything we know in modern America.
First, as we see the birth of Superman (the first Kryptonian born the old fashioned way for quite some time, it seems), there’s a floating monitor-type thing that uses a bunch of pebbly metal beads to display information, like a picture of the Super-fetus. Like a lot of Kryptonian tech, it’s distinctly beyond anything humanity could build right now, but more importantly, it doesn’t look like anything Apple would make any time in the next century, either. The shapes of their buildings, tools and costumes, as well as the green-brown color palette of Krypton, build up a cultural context unlike anything you or I ever normally see – which makes perfect sense.
In the past couple of weeks, Edge of Tomorrow has not done well at the box office, a discouraging development for connoisseurs of well-crafted middle-brow entertainment like yours truly, since I thought this latest Tom Cruise vehicle actually delivered on the perennial promise of summer blockbusters – it was actually entertaining, not just overwhelming.
More importantly, it actually develops some unusual filmic effects worthy of some longer examination. To explain why, I’ll have to subject you to a brief synopsis: Cruise is William Cage, a hesitant soldier in humanity’s war against the Mimics, quicksilver-like aliens whose legions have taken over Europe. On the day of a major human offensive on the beaches of France, the inept Cage dies quickly, only to find himself waking up, completely intact, at the beginning of the same day, pre-invasion. Yes, it’s sort of Groundhog Day meets Independence Day and Tom Cruise is caught in a time-travel loop. Every time he dies battling the ETs, he wakes up again on that day in the exact same circumstances he began it in, with Bill Paxton barking the same orders he has in every other iteration Cage has gone through.
The Criterion review of Ikiru contains this nice extended quote from Richard Brown:
What it says in starkly lucid terms is that ‘life’ is meaningless when everything is said and done; at the same time one man’s life can acquire meaning when he undertakes to perform some task that to him is meaningful. What everyone else thinks about that man’s life is utterly beside the point, even ludicrous.
Oddly, the author of the review quotes a “Richard Brown” but doesn’t cite it, so The Criterion review is an excerpt from a book which I haven’t track down, so I can’t even figure out exactly which Richard Brown in the universe this might be, though I assume it’s this guy.)
I love this quote. It more or less unilaterally asserts the right of everybody to make up their own mind about what their life is about and on what criteria it may be judged.
That doesn’t mean I think it accurately explains Ikiru, however. Inasmuch as I like Ikiru, I like it because it doesn’t seem to have an easy answer to the meaning of life. And even more daring, it doesn’t even clearly grant each of us (the way that Brown does) the autonomy to declare the meaning of our own lives. Ikiru actually has a much more tortured relationship with the meaning of an individual’s life than Brown’s summary suggests.
To do Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru any real justice, I’d have to go on at length. Maybe I’ll save a longer discussion for next week. Today, I’m just going to breakdown my favorite scene, and in that way perhaps I’ll show why a movie like this deserves far more than a thousand words.
The context: Mr. Watanabe is an aging man who has recently learned he’s dying from stomach cancer. He has six months, maybe a year. He’s kept this fact largely to himself, and Toyo, the young woman he’s recently befriended, doesn’t know he’s terminal. They’ve had a chaste but warm relationship until now, but she’s beginning to feel creeped out by the attentions of this older man. She’s agreed to one last date.
Cut to the restaurant. In stark contrast to their silence, a party goes on in the background, across an open stairwell.