10/40/70: KAIRO (PULSE)

10/40/70: KAIRO (PULSE)


Kiyoshi Kurosawa (no relation to Akira Kurosawa) is perhaps best known for Bright Future (2003) and Tokyo Sonata (2008) and although these films bear his visual watermarks—very long takes, slow tracking shots, naturalistic settings, frame compositions that often leave large, impersonal spaces between characters—it is on his metaphysical detective/ghost films that his reputation rests. The most distinctive of these are Cure (1997), Charisma (1999), Pulse, and Doppelganger (2003), all of which, with the exception of Pulse, feature the remarkable, Peter Falk-like Kôji Yakusho as the lead actor. The pacing of these films produces an oddly perverse effect: the slower they are (and they are slow) the more anxiety they produce, as if the executioner’s bullet fired at the prisoner against the wall took two terrible hours to reach her.

Pulse begins with a man and a woman alone on an enormous ship on a dark sea. It becomes clear that they are survivors of some sort of massive, perhaps global, catastrophe. We flash back to Tokyo and the events that lead up to the epidemic of suicides, events that are presented elliptically and without the usual narrative exposition that we expect in apocalyptic films. Details emerge, but they are sketchy and difficult to piece together: it seems that some sort of ghostly presence haunts the Web, a sort of virus that causes people simply kill themselves when exposed to it. The protagonists address this obliquely, through philosophical conversations that center on topics such as loneliness, the possibility of love, and whether we become ghosts in the afterlife. The ending of the movie loops back to the beginning, on the ship.


10 minutes:

Michi and Junko are at work at a Tokyo plant wholesaler, still in shock over the death of their friend Taguchi, who recently hung himself. That bare sentence doesn’t convey the cold horror of the scene, for it’s not just that Taguchi hangs himself, but that he does so in a completely unexpected and casual way, moments after the most typical banter imaginable with Michi, who asks him where a disc is, as he casually takes a phone cord out of a box of junk on the floor. When Michi goes over to his desk for the disk, he steps into another room with the cord and hangs himself, off camera. He may have well just stepped into the next room to put some bread in a toaster.

And now, at the 10-minute mark, Michi and her friend find themselves, on the roof of the plant company, surrounded by green, by life. This shot comes during one of the many long takes characterizing Kurosawa’s style, takes in which the sparse but soul-killing violence in his films come at us from the edges and margins of the frame. For all the formal, rigorous, distancing strategy of the film—also evident in Cure and Charisma—there is a healthy dose of quiet and sly humor, as in the fact that these women who work with dirt and plants and water also happen to dress like this. This visual contradiction—a naturalistic, washed-out setting featuring characters whose dress seems out of place—is just one example of how Kurosawa slightly de-familiarizes commonplace settings, rendering them just off-kilter enough to make us uneasy.


40 minutes:

Michi, concerned about friend and co-worker Yabe (who has seen what’s on the disk that Taguchi was working on and will also kill himself soon), asks her boss if she can go check on him. This is just one of many shots where characters are framed and reframed on the screen, their bodies appearing behind or in front of a proliferation of rectangles—in this case indicated by the fence frame Michi stands before and the Mondrian-like structure in front of her boss–which only reinforce the film’s relentlessly deterministic sense of alienation. For no matter how these characters try to cope with whatever it is that’s causing the growing plague of suicides, they remain trapped, both individually and collectively, by certain patterns of thinking. Kurosawa uses the mystery/detective genre as a trope to suggest that the criminal is not an individual, or even a human being, but rather a force that is an expression of the collective unconscious of an entire society.

Frame details:

1. The plants, in their sad plastic pots and buckets, straining toward the dim sun.

2. The green water hose the boss is about to wrap into a coil.

3. And also: the fleeting thought that the boss might hang himself with that hose, as Taguchi did with the phone cord.

4. The barbed wire fence, like a cage.

5. Michi’s gaze, as if she has realized something, perhaps the dark knowledge that those plants, incapable of suicide, will outlast her and all the other humans.

In the context of the entire film, this frame from minute 40 constitutes a form of visual terror. Because violence in Pulse, more often than not, occurs unexpectedly and without visual or musical cues, the audience is conditioned to expect it at any moment. Although there’s not real tension between Michi and her boss at this moment, we ourselves bring tension to the scene, noticing for instance, the grip of the boss’s hands on the hose, and the gloves he wears, and the way that the slight tilt of his body and his hat obscure his expression, and the way that Michi keeps her distance from him. The coiling of the hose and the possible uncoiling of his violence. These are possibilities the frame permits.


70 minutes:

In an interview regarding Pulse, Kurosawa has said:

Ultimately, the Other—anyone who is not us—remains incomprehensible no matter how much we try to communicate. And we should try to communicate with the Other. This concept is valid because we are surrounded by the Other: the incomprehensible humans and incomprehensible actions human beings take.

Ryosuke (wearing a tee-shirt from Gilley’s bar in Texas, where Urban Cowboy [1980] was filmed) and Harue, university students, are becoming aware that the suicides are not isolated, but something that threatens to wipe out all humankind. The space inside the frame is itself disorienting, as there appears to be a mirror behind the bookshelves to the right of the gray chair. A white curtain hangs on the wall, obscuring what? Ryosuke’s posture is defeated. Harue refuses to look at him.

The frame is from one of many scenes in Pulse where the narrative comes to a nearly complete stop, offering us a chance to experience the reality of what’s happening in much the same way as the characters experience it. What they—and we—gradually come to understand is that, as Kurosawa suggests, the monstrous Other is not outside, but inside. Ryosuke, Harue, and the other characters carry it within themselves. As do we.

Nicholas Rombes can be found here. For more entries from the 10/40/70 series, check here.

10/40/70: The Fury (1978)

10/40/70: The Fury (1978)

This experimental film column began its life at The Rumpus, and we are very excited to see it continue here.  The column freezes the frames of a film at the 10, 40, and 70 minute marks, using these points as the foundations for an essay.


10 minutes:

Chicago. High school students Gillian (Amy Irving) and her friend La Rue (Melody Scott Thomas, whose first role was as the “young” Marnie in Hitchcock’s Marnie in 1964) (which I wrote about here) walk down the lakefront, quizzing each other in preparation for their upcoming finals. This frame comes near the beginning of a long take (one of many, although not the longest), lasting approximately 1:20. The shot is completely gratuitous and completely beautiful, the quality of soft light serving as a subtle reminder that the people who crowd the frame exist separated from us by only a thin membrane, the membrane of the film. (On why he chose the film’s cinematographer, Richard Kline, De Palma has said “I liked the way he had lit some of his films.” Three years later, in 1981, Kline would serve as DP on Body Heat, imbuing it with the same sort of radically disarming softness.)

The hundreds of extras who pass through the frame during that one minute and twenty second long shot—as well as the ten or so extras in this frame—are part of the filmic world of The Fury, too. There is a sort of choreographed anarchy to the frame, a sly knowledge that what appears to he happening naturally and spontaneously (random people crossing in and out of the screen) is a carefully staged part of the film. In this way, The Fury—like the best of De Palma’s other films such as Sisters, Dressed to Kill, and Body Double—is the product of both a carefully controlled aesthetic and an openness to chance and randomness. We watch this extended crowd scene along the lake with a kind of double vision, with the knowledge that the people crowding the frame are following instructions and only pretending to act naturally, while simultaneously suspending that knowledge and permitting ourselves to forget that they are all just extras. In other words, the sequence is a metaphor for cinema itself.


40 minutes:

Peter Sandza (Kirk Douglass) and his girlfriend Hester (Carrie Snodgrass) are on the run from the ruthless Ben Childress (John Cassavetes), who has kidnapped Sandza’s son for his telekinetic powers, which Childress hopes to harness into psychic weaponry, perhaps for the government. Sandza and Hester sleep in Hester’s van overnight on the roof of a building in Chicago. This shot comes near the end of a zoom-in after a time-lapse shot that lasts several seconds showing the passing of the night. “It’s the kind of shot you’ve seen done many different ways in many different films,” De Palma has said, “but what made this so effective was the subtlety of this pathetic little truck with the characters inside right in the middle of this huge city.”

Around the same time The Fury was released—in the spring of 1978—President Jimmy Carter held a news conference. The very first question he was asked was this:

Mr. President, whatever the reaction to your economic speech here today, it seems clear that this administration faces a continuing image problem. You, sir, came into office with an image of freshness, with promises of efficiency and reform, and above all, with promises to run an open administration, close to the public. But after 15 months, the polls seem to indicate declining public hope in your administration. . . . Whether these charges are fair or unfair, sir, are you concerned by this dramatic shift in image, and if so, how do you hope to redress the situation?

There is something eerie about the gray flatness of the shot at 40 minutes: the asphalt blotched from nighttime rain, the dark car and van windows like portals into the sort of evil dreamed about in Robert Bolaño’s novel 2666, the uncanny, flat geometry of the screen, segmented into frames within frames. All this adds up to something more than what’s in the frame, as if the whole terrible sense of economic determinism of the 1970s (declining public hope) were somehow encoded in that blank space. There is something pathetic and wanting in cars left overnight on a parking garage roof, the visual equivalent of the sad-looking sweater Jimmy Carter wore during his 1977 “Report to the Nation on Energy” speech.


70 minutes:

Gillian is in her bed at the Paragon Institute, her mind, like an antenna, tuning into the psychological tribulations Peter’s son Robin has suffered in his room down the hall, where she will soon venture. The shot could be a deformed, dream-logic  doppelgänger of a similar shot from Halloween (which opened five months prior to The Fury) showing the babysitter Annie’s murdered body, as if Annie were still alive. Although cast as a teenager in The Fury, Amy Irving was 24-years-old during the film’s shooting, and in moments like this you can see it, the true beauty of her age. Part of the film’s weird spirit perhaps derives from watching Irving as Gillian transform from the passive woman-who-is-looked-upon into an active, righteous destroyer of men, as if the whole corrupt conspiratorial system (the Watergate scandal was still a fresh national scar in 1978) could be brought down with a determined grip of the hand. It is fitting that a director who, at the height of his career was so often accused of degrading women in his films (there is even a book entitled Misogyny in the Movies: The De Palma Question) also made films where women lay bloody waste to the representatives and symbols of patriarchal power.

The Fury is a key marker in De Palma’s gradual movement away from avant-garde films into the more coherent cinema of the 1980s and 90s, films whose visual logic conformed more closely with classic-era cinema, such as Wise Guys, The Untouchables, and The Bonfire of the Vanities. In a way, De Palma’s story is similar to other “movie brats” whose early work (Lucas’s THX 1138, or Scorsese’s It’s Not Just You, Murray! or The Big Shave) gave way to a style that aligned itself with more mainstream fare, even as their films transformed the mainstream. Taken in this light, The Fury, like its protagonist Gillian, seems aware of its presence in time and of the way that the moving images of the past exist—radically and simultaneously—right alongside those of the present. Gillian’s face in this frame bears the expression of someone who is seeing the past unfold before her eyes. In other words, the expression of someone watching a movie.

Nicholas Rombes can be found here. For more entries from the 10/40/70 series, check here.

A New Press Play Column: 10/40/70: Melancholia

A New Press Play Column: 10/40/70

This experimental film column began its life at The Rumpus, and we are very excited to see it continue here.  The column freezes the frames of a film at the 10, 40, and 70 minute marks, using these points as the foundations for an essay.null

10 minutes:

The remarkable thing about Melancholia’s early, just married, journey-to-the-castle scenes featuring newlyweds Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) is that, in retrospect, you come to understand that Justine was just play acting. In probably the freshest use and subversion of the Dogme 95 style since The Celebration, these early scenes convey a spontaneity and naturalness (as opposed to the elaborately staged, slow motion prelude) that is highly expressionistic and self-consciously artful. Although the prelude has received the lion’s share of critical attention, it is the scene in and around the limousine, as it maneuvers a sharp turn in the dirt road that leads (presumably from “the Village,” which remains off screen and implied) to the place where Justine’s depression will first express itself. Manuel Alberto Claro, Melancholia’s cinematographer (the film was shot digitally on an Arri Alexa), has said that his “aim is to make images that are in love with the story and not with themselves.”

And so this moment, at the 10 minute mark, we have the tenderness of Justine’s hand on Michael’s cheek, a gesture which seems so genuine but which, in a fine example of delayed decoding, suggests a different meaning, one in which Justine (who will end up having sex, in just a few hours, not with her new husband, but with a young man she is introduced to by her boss at the wedding party). The great English literary historian Ian Watt,, in a study of the works of Joseph Conrad (whose romantic determinism has something in common with von Trier’s), defined delayed decoding as “the forward temporal progression of the mind, as it receives messages from the outside world, with the much slower reflexive process of making out their meaning.” It is, perhaps, only at the end of Melancholia that we remember the early lightness of spirit around the 10-minute mark and wonder: was this all a heroic feat of acting by Justine?null

40 minutes:

Having disappeared from her own wedding reception, Justine is tracked down by her brother-in-law John (Kiefer Sutherland). At the 40-minute mark (which comes during his line “On whether or not we have a deal” from the exchange below), we see him in near silhouette profile, his face filling nearly half the screen:

JOHN: Do you have any idea how much this party cost me? A ballpark figure?

JUSTINE: No, I don’t. Should I?

JOHN: Yes, I think you should. A great deal of money. A huge amount of money. In fact, for most people, an arm and a leg.

JUSTINE: I hope you feel it’s well spent.

JOHN: Well that depends. On whether or not we have a deal.

JUSTINE: A deal?

JOHN: Yes, a deal. That you be happy.

JUSTINE: Yes, of course. Of course we have a deal.

John seems to be speaking not only to Justine here, but to us as well, as the film’s (or any film’s) audience, demanding that we acknowledge “the deal” (the relationship between the film and ourselves) and that we uphold our end of the deal by being “happy.”  In other words, did we get a good “product” for our ticket? (John, as a totalitarian in the realm of feeling, does not instruct Justine merely to act happy, but to be happy.) On one level, John’s instruction is a weird reversal of Jonathan Franzen’s distinction between, in fiction, the Status model and the Contract model. In the Status model, Franzen’s argument goes, the feelings of the average reader simply don’t matter: if readers don’t “get” the book, they are philistines unable to appreciate the complex work of genius. The Contract model, on the other hand, presupposes that “every writer is first a member of a community of readers, and the deepest purpose of reading and writing fiction is to sustain a sense of connectedness, to resist existential loneliness; and so a novel deserves a reader's attention only as long as the author sustains the reader's trust. This is the Contract model. The discourse here is one of pleasure and connection.”

John, from this angle, is von Trier’s sly stand-in for a tyrannical director (“do you have any idea how much this [movie] cost me? A huge amount of money”) who orders his actress [audience?] to “be happy.” And Justine has pretended so well up until now. She flees the set in costume, the ridiculous costume that is her wedding dress, and is cornered in the dark by her dark director.null

70 minutes:

Justine’s sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) near the beginning of Part 2, on the phone with Claire, who has re-entered the orbit of full-blown depression, a depression which brings her fatally close to Claire. “Hello, darling, how are you?” Claire asks Justine, John hovering and speaking in exasperated whispers (perhaps giving voice to our own “common sense” as viewers, the part of us that resists seeing Justine as the noble, tormented sister who dares to face the truth of extinction, unlike Claire), “Just do as I’ve told you. There’s a taxi down the street, waiting for you. Just open the door and get in. Just get in the cab, darling.” Claire is caught in motion. She passes through frames more swiftly than her sister, as if movement can help her elude the inevitability of the internal catastrophe that is her sister’s fate and her own.

The in-between moment of this frame is un-reckonable, the looming of a vast Disorder.

The Village cannot be reached.

The horses will not cross over.

Nicholas Rombes can be found here. For more entries from the 10/40/70 series, check here.