Monday, March 6, 2017

Go to Hell, Bastards!: the feverish films of Deceased Artiste Seijun Suzuki

A master of subversion, Seijun Suzuki took the relatively low budgets he was given to make B-features by the Nikkatsu studio and created scores of the most memorably surreal, Freudian, and explosive films ever. Like many cult icons, Suzuki was underappreciated while he was working regularly, but he thankfully lived to see his work hailed around the world as groundbreaking and completely unique. (Although, being an infinitely frank soul, he did declare it “too late.”)

Many of his obits felt that contextualizing him was in order, so the magic name “Tarantino” was invoked. Tarantino’s work is closer to that of the more procedural, less dazzling, and far more violent Japanese genre filmmaker Kenji Fukasaku than Suzuki. The obits also cited Wong Kar-Wai and Jim Jarmusch. The latter is a diehard fan and paid tribute to Suzuki’s work rather brilliantly in Ghost Dog. The former might love Suzuki’s work, but John Woo is closer to the mark — particularly in The Killer, where he seemed to be fusing Suzuki’s Branded to Kill (1967) with Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession, which is quite a combination of influences.

It was also interesting to note that the official announcement of his death was made by a Nikkatsu representative, given that he had an acrimonious split with the studio, whose head at the time said his films “made no sense” and weren’t making any money. Whether or not they did well at the box office, it’s been noted that young Japanese college students loved them and were in fact the first cultists for his work.

The most-circulated interview with Suzuki is this one, conducted in 1997:

Suzuki's frenzied stylization of his storylines made him “a Japanese Sam Fuller” (although, of course, Fuller was as much a screenwriter as he was a director). By the time that he was able to do what he wanted with these assignments — mostly because the Nikkatsu chiefs initially ignored their B-feature production, so the directors could do what they wanted — he was using every method possible to make his films jump off the screen into the lap (and mind) of the viewer.

A recent festival held at the Walter Reade theater in Lincoln Center included a few of his earlier genre pics that have been unseeable in the U.S. (some of them signed by “Seitaro Suzuki,” his real name). The revelations were that they were *heavily* plotted for B-features, and that, even though Suzuki and his crew were breaking the fourth wall by drawing attention to the film’s style, he did stick rather closely to the formulaic plots he was given. If one sees his pictures in chronological order, it’s obvious that he was desperate to break free of the constraints of B-moviemaking.

Here is the trailer for one of the earlier efforts, Everything Goes Wrong (1960):

Thus, he began to “explode” his heavily-plotted genre pics with framing, editing, eye-jarring sets, and surreal touches like an overlay of animation. In interviews, he stressed that he was intent on making “entertainment,” not art, and that he wanted to please the audience. His array of techniques, though, suggested that he was well-aware of the European masterworks made in the Fifties and Sixties, as well as the modernist work of contemporaries like Oshima and, without question, the pop art that overwhelmed the era.

Kabuki has been cited as another influence, and while it no doubt was, one gets the sense watching his work that Suzuki was an incredibly “cinematic” artist, rather than one toying with theatrical techniques.

And he had some of the best titles in the business. The second half of this title is one of my all-time favorites for a crime film — or a film in any genre. Herewith the opening of Detective Bureau 23: Go to Hell, Bastards! (1963):

One of the names who is rarely linked to Suzuki is another kindred spirit, namely Robert Aldrich. In Kiss Me Deadly, Aldrich approximated the unapologetic violence of Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer novels. Being a master-manipulator — and an artist who loved to play with and rework the genres he took on, much like his near-namesake Robert Altman — he left the graphically violent moments in the narrative *between* the shots. “Beat” Takeshi Kitano did this beautifully in his Hana-bi (aka Fireworks) (1997), and Beat has also cited Suzuki as a cinematic hero. This is another dominant characteristic of Suzuki's work: going “over the edge” in terms of subject matter and behavior, and yet not showing anything truly objectionable onscreen.

His trippiest yakuza drama was undoubtedly Tokyo Drifter (seen here in its entirety with no English subs), which was one of the two films that became cult items in the West during the Nineties.

I would also liken him to Nicholas Ray, in that both men were masters of widescreen and “color-coding” their characters. Akira Kurosawa was most certainly one of the greatest widescreen filmmakers ever, but Suzuki is closer to Nicholas Ray in terms of the feverish pace of his films and the fact that he unabashedly used color to tell his story, as he did in the unusually-kinky-for-its-time, brothel-set drama Gate of Flesh (1964) (seen below in its entirety, but with no English subs).

One of the other things that is truly mind-roasting and extremely important about Suzuki's work is the way in which, as he progressed through the Sixties, he began to toss off sequences that other directors would've made longer set-pieces out of. This is most blatant in Branded to Kill, where he quickly disposes of two impressive “trick-shot” murders (one of which is duplicated in Jarmusch's Ghost Dog, thus the thanks to SS at the film's end) and a brilliantly insane twist — our hero getting away from a tightly secure building by leaping out the window and riding a hot-air balloon to safety.

Other filmmakers would've spent 10-15 minutes easily on each of these moments, while Suzuki disposes of them in less time than it takes to listen to a Ramones song.

The most famous aspect of Branded is that it got Suzuki fired from Nikkatsu. He sued the studio and then became the subject of a blacklist that found him unable to work as a director for a decade. The ironic element here is that he had taken on the film as a favor to the studio. It was begun by another director, but then became one of the “most Suzuki” of all of Suzuki's genre pics. When he was unable to work as a director he took on work as an actor on TV and in the movies. Here is an ad he appeared in for a toilet cleaner of some kind:

When he finally returned to filmmaking, he wound up making seven more films, the last two of which were released internationally, as they were made after his worldwide cult-reputation had grown. I will confess that, while I enjoy his “Tasho trilogy” of very “high art” films, I prefer him subverting a weird script, as he does in his “comeback” film, A Tale of Sorrow and Sadness (1977).

The film, to which I devoted an entire episode of the Funhouse, is a bizarre tale of the “making” of a female athlete — at first turned into a sexy golf pro by corporate execs, the lead is later stalked by a scary neighbor who wants to steal her lifestyle. It's an amazing film that definitely is an extension of the weirdness that he was crafting in the Sixties (it is in fact that only film he made after his comeback that practices the same kind of subversion).

Watching it I was put in mind of two films about the manufacturing of a woman star by men. The first was Dennis Potter's too-little-seen Blackeyes (1989) and the second was The Legend of Lylah Clare (1968) by none other than Robert Aldrich. Suzuki's film is definitely in the same vein, as we see the execs figuring out how to have their golf pro dress, which ends up in her wearing a bikini on the links at one point.

The first half of the film is decidedly about male manipulation of women, but the second half is a more tangled statement about celebrity and its horrors, embodied in the person of the fangirl neighbor who wants to “be” our golf pro heroine (who has also become the host of a daytime talk show). Sorrow and Sadness is a great Suzuki film that has been shuffled under the carpet for the most part — it was released in the U.S. on DVD but with scenes that were missing the proper subtitling. The film is not available for free streaming online, but I found a music video created with images from it:

Suzuki's “Tasho trilogy” was the first time that he was making art films “on purpose.” The first film in the trio, Zigeunerweisen (1980), is a beautiful-looking picture that has some unforgettable imagery. Suzuki seems to have seen the films of Alain Resnais (whose work is as influential as Godard's to some leading Asian filmmakers) and works on a Marienbad-like level of ambiguity with these films, set in an era when Japan had a fixation on Western culture and dress. When Suzuki was unable to secure theatrical distribution for the film he had it shown in an inflatable dome in Tokyo.

The second of the two “Tasho” films, Kagero-Za (1981), also contains some gorgeous imagery but is, admittedly, rather slow-going.

The “Tasho” films are indeed beautiful-looking, but they lack the humor and sheer perversity of Suzuki's earlier work. Before the third film in the trilogy was made, Suzuki directed the very strange and pretty much unfindable Capone Cries a Lot (1985), a too-long-for-its-own-good but still imaginatively designed drama. The humor and perversity returned for good in Pistol Opera (2001), his remake of Branded to Kill with women in the lead roles.

His last film is certainly a wonderful genre-bending act of subversion. The musical Princess Raccoon (2005) is an intentionally kitschy musical that blends Western musical genres and a fabricated Japanese fairy tale. It is not as involving on a narrative level as his Sixties work, but it proved that, even at the age of 82, he could still deliver downright weird and brilliantly imaginative sequences.

Suzuki’s legacy is assured — the man whose movies “made no sense and no money” outlasted his detractors and former employers.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

‘Radio Graffiti’ Forever: Deceased Artiste Alan Colmes

I'm pleased to say that this tribute to Alan Colmes will be a Hannity-free piece. Alan spent 13 years being Sean Hannity's partner (some would say “sidekick”), and I skillfully avoided ever seeing more than five minutes of the show. This obit for Alan is solely concerned with his talk-radio work, pre-Fox News (the cable TV network and the radio syndication outlet).

Listening to Alan's radio shows, one was aware of his debt to the East Coast pioneers of talk radio. He either verbally cited them as influences or, as was the case of Jean Shepherd, he interviewed them on-air. I first heard of Alan when he was doing a show on WPIX-FM, where he was known for a short time, for some incomprehensible reason, as “Alan Le Colm” (spelling is dubious, as was the whole nickname thing). When he arrived at WABC-AM for a morning drive-time slot, they dubbed him “Alan B. Colmes” – the middle initial fitting in with their call-letters but being another dippy work of fiction (his middle name was Samuel). WABC did a short obit tribute this past week to Alan in which they kept identifying him by this stupid moniker, which seemed moronic and disrespectful.

His specialty during his stint at WPIX was having various levels of kooks as guests, in an echo of Long John Nebel's radio show. This meant he could be heard talking to folk who interacted with aliens, various and sundry psychics, and the odd show-biz type.

Like all great radio personalities, the thing that made Alan special was his voice. He had a warm, comforting sound, and occupied an unusual place in the talk-radio spectrum, since he was openly liberal and proudly Jewish, as well as being okay with letting the “inmates run the asylum” by having segments on his shows that encouraged creative prank-calling. The best of these was “Radio Graffiti,” a segment where you were allowed “one sentence, one sentence only.” (An even better, longer version from the WEVD years can be found at the bottom of this webpage.)

As talk-radio became incredibly “specialized” on the AM band (read: simply conservative chatter, or all sports drivel all the time), Alan had fewer outlets to be heard on. This resulted in him being on a trio of stations that all shifted their format, meaning that he was on the last hours of all three (he was the very last voice heard on two of them; I can't verify this about the third).

The first was 66 WNBC-AM, where Alan took over for Joey Reynolds when he was “moved on” by management. Alan had Joey on as a guest during that time and it's pretty fascinating, since Joey was in transition and the callers are openly abusive to both Colmes and Reynolds (who keeps reminding them he doesn’t work at NBC anymore).

Alan polished his talk-show formula beautifully on NBC in the afternoon drive-time slot from 1987 to October '88 (the point at which I became a devoted listener). Alan hosted the very last show on the station before it made the switchover to “the FAN” (an all-sports format that gets amazing ratings and is toxic for folks like me).

From there Alan went to WMCA, the one-time home of the man who created talk radio as we know it, Barry Gray. Alan was on that station from '88-'89, when it, too, changed formats to all-Christian radio (more deadly than sports!). This is the best example of Alan's radio work on YT – an evening in which he pretended that he was giving up hosting his show and gave it over to the callers. What resulted was beautiful chaos, in which prank callers alternated with what sound to be prepared pranksters recruited by Alan ahead of time. Truly fun stuff.

In the late 1990s – around the time he began his TV stint with Hannity – he had a late night stint at WEVD. This station was a longtime left-wing station (named after Eugene V. Debs) that found Alan in good company politically. He also still devoted time to comedy – including two memorably serious interviews with Jean Shepherd and George Carlin.

WEVD went off the air in 2001, with Alan again being the very last voice heard on the station – wags on a certain radio-pro/fan message board deemed Alan “the Grim Reaper of Radio.” Alan got a lot of shit from a lot of parties for a few things he did, most notably his “partnership” with Sean Hannity. Now that he's left us, I'd like simply say that he was a great radio personality who gave me a lot of entertainment in the years that I listened to him. And my personal favorite partnership he had? It was with a caller, who was actually a professional performer that called in as different characters.

Alan had three regular callers, all of whom were played by this unnamed, unidentified comedian (there is *nothing* on the Internet to identify this guy). The last creation was “Mace,” a gravel-voiced alcoholic who called up Alan while he was fully lit and ready for destruction. The calmest of the three was “Steve,” a wimpy guy who had a bizarre obsession with Eddie Albert and was dying to host Alan's show.

The best comedy character, though, was “Elmo.” Alan's nemesis, Elmo called him to remind him that he wasn't funny, he conducted bad interviews, and generally made a lousy host. Alan would allow Elmo to dissect him at length – I remember him noting that Colmes “sucked all the humor out of comedians,” in reference to the Shepherd and Carlin interviews. It was a nice touch for a radio show – an antagonist who called in to say how badly the show was going.

Elmo also took the time to mock Alan's liberal politics. And when he did it, it was funny….