Elaine May has a gracefully rococo sense of timing as an actor, detecting and penetrating her co-stars’ rhythms and defenses so intuitively that she almost appears to be inventing a new kind of art. This gift also animates her work as a writer and director, most vividly the 1976 crime drama Mikey and Nicky. Though to call Mikey and Nicky a “crime drama” is akin to referring to Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane as a “mystery,” as both films are unique expressions of their creators’ souls.
Mikey and Nicky may appear to the modern viewer to spring from a cinephilic thought experiment: What if May, a woman associated with comedy, were to fashion a John Cassavetes film? As a filmmaker and an actor, Cassavetes reveled in an illusion of imprecision—the opposite of May’s method. And it’s this friction, between May and Cassavetes’s sensibilities as auteurs, that drives Mikey and Nicky. May takes a Cassavetes scenario—working-class guys wandering an atmospheric city, drinking, smoking, arguing, and airing their deepest grievances—and informs it with a sobering sense of perspective as well as a wicked sense of humor.
The bullshitting and bickering of low-level gangsters Mikey (Peter Falk) and Nicky (Cassavetes) is informed with a snap—derived by timing, particularly of the editing—that isn’t always present in Cassavetes’s own films. Mikey and Nicky opens with Nicky in the bed of a shabby hotel, which is followed by quick cuts to a nearby newspaper and the front door of the room, establishing tension that escalates when Nicky summons Mikey to the hotel only to distrust the latter’s motives for arriving. The newspaper reports of a gangland killing, so one assumes that Nicky feels he’s the next head on the chopping block, and that he suspects Mikey of being the chopper. But all of this information is established suggestively, and May continually sidesteps exposition, developing this tension into a series of duets between Mikey and Nicky that imbed who’s-on-first routines with poignant comic danger.
For a mediocre filmmaker, a scene in which a man tries to talk his friend into hitting the road to evade the mob would be a moment of routine necessity to prepare the audience for a set piece. For May, however, such a moment is the set piece. It takes a long time for Mikey to talk Nicky out of his hotel room, and May and her actors work up a fervor that dramatizes the suffocating terror of impending death. In a lovely absurdist twist, Mikey talks his way into Nicky’s room only to leave to get cream from a local restaurant to soothe Nicky’s ulcer-ridden stomach, and to return so as to have to talk his way back into Nicky’s room again. This is a vintage May sketch, with vintage May timing, cloaked in the aura of a Cassavetes film.
May reportedly shot over a million feet of footage for Mikey and Nicky, whittling it down to an ideal of controlled chaos. The film is nothing but observational high points, a near impossibility that’s achieved by trial and error, by pitilessly throwing out that which isn’t profound. Every argument, every comic, rueful moment in Mikey and Nicky builds atop another, gradually establishing who Mikey and Nicky are. There’s a beautiful bit in a bar where Mikey is preoccupied with a pay phone, telegraphing to Nicky that he’s indeed a betrayer. May lingers on an agonizingly long shot of Nicky smiling, deliberately breaking the tempo of the scene to illustrate a revelatory gesture that has the outer appearance of casualness. There are many such scenes in this film, which suggest retrospection and the present tense at the same time, alluding to how important moments in our lives can often feel like little to nothing.
May rhymes verbal and physical violence with liquid finesse. As crime films go, Mikey and Nicky isn’t action-packed, but banal altercations are informed with the horror that they possess in actual life. Mikey, seemingly the sensible foil to Nicky, threatens to beat up the guy at the restaurant with a suddenness that’s contextually flabbergasting. Another instance of such violence, involving a bus driver, erupts later in the film, which May invests with a mischievous streak of comedy. Such scenes deflate the masculine pomposity of the common crime film, showing violence to be, well, violating, as well as ludicrous and pitiful.
As Mikey and Nicky wander throughout the night, under the guise of figuring out where to hide Mikey from a crime boss, they talk of family, childhood, and past longings, outlaying their souls to the viewer. Few films have so exquisitely captured how straight American men reveal their affections and insecurities to one another, as well as how they’re both threatened and awed by each other. It becomes evident that Mikey is the drab runner-up to the sexy and charismatic Nicky: the reliable beta to the latter’s commandingly reckless alpha. Mikey’s betrayal of Nicky has a resonance, then, suggesting a loser’s opportunity for revenge and grace. Yet this resentment is always understood by May to be girded by an authentic and inescapable love. In friendships, men often seek opposites who complement them and bolster portions of their identity at the cost of other elements. The men are both shamed and intoxicated by the personas they bring out in one another. When Mikey and Nicky spit apart for the second half of the film’s narrative, their mutually nurtured illusions begin to fall apart. May allows women to enter the fray, showing how these men gauge themselves differently against the opposite sex, obscuring and reupholstering themselves.
The contours of Mikey and Nicky’s relationship, and their distance from women, come to the fore in the film’s most disturbing scene. At Nicky’s insistence, the men visit one of his girlfriends, Nellie (Carol Grace), whom Nicky cajoles, via a prolonged and humiliating negotiation, into sleeping with him in front of Mikey. There are two brilliant cappers to the scene: an image in which we hear Nicky and Nellie’s sex in the darkness of the foreground while Mikey smokes in the bright light of the kitchen in the background, and a mismatch of shots, united by the flipping of a light switch, that illustrate the shift in this power play.
In this scene, as in the film at large, May dramatizes a wide array of resentments, manipulations, and modes of sexual warfare, particularly Nicky’s objectification of Nellie, which is meant to impress and embarrass both Nellie and Nicky, and Mikey’s subsequent failure to bed Nellie, which is essentially his way of attempting to ante up to Nicky’s dare. (Lost to the men, but never lost to May, is this woman’s agency as a person, and Nellie’s ongoing struggle to maintain her dignity is brutally poignant.) This sequence epitomizes what May achieves throughout Mikey and Nicky, as she reveals the thread that unites Cassavetes and Falk’s talents with her own: an obsession with failures of observation that stem from self-absorption, further trapping everyone within their own minds.
This image boasts an astonishing range of light and degrees of darkness, to which prior home-video editions of Mikey and Nicky only alluded, fully honoring the rich spectrum of visual textures that Elaine May captures in the film. Quite a bit of grit remains here, at May’s request, giving this transfer a docudramatic vibrancy that’s intensified by the various raw colors, such as the reds and the blues of the neon lights of the wild city night life. Skin and clothing textures are also deeply detailed, as are the smoky backdrops of the beer can-littered dives. The monaural soundtrack is every bit as visceral as the image, with crystal-clear renderings of the various taps, screeches, buzzes, jabbering, and honking that compose an urban environment’s natural aural landscape.
In a new program produced exclusively for the Criterion Collection last year, critics Richard Brody and Carrie Rickey perceptively discuss May’s creation of Mikey and Nicky, linking it to her formative partnership with Mike Nichols and to her first films as a director, A New Leaf and The Heartbreak Kid. Brody also emphasizes May’s gift for texture, for fashioning seemingly peripheral moments that are truly the subject of her work, while Rickey discusses May’s ability to empathize with men while scrutinizing them. (Brody also shares a fascinating tidbit: that the Mikey and Nicky screenplay, long in development, helped to forge the partnership that arose in the early ‘70s between John Cassavetes and Peter Falk in the former’s films. Which is to say that Mikey and Nicky is a response to a body of work that it also helped to perpetuate.) Another new program, with interviews by distributor Julian Schlossberg and actor Joyce Van Patten, similarly celebrate May, though their enthusiasm is also enriched by their personal experience with the filmmaker. Meanwhile, a terrific archival radio interview with Falk by Schlossberg illustrates the actor’s extraordinary insight and gift for storytelling. This slim but evocative supplements package is rounded out by a trailer, a TV spot, and a booklet featuring an essay by critic Nathan Rabin.
With this beautiful and lively transfer, the Criterion Collection brings Elaine May’s neglected masterpiece of male alienation back to pulsating life.
Cast: Peter Falk, John Cassavetes, Ned Beatty, Rose Arrick, Carol Grace, Joyce Van Patten, Sanford Meisner, M. Emmet Walsh, William Hickey Director: Elaine May Screenwriter: Elaine May Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 106 min Rating: R Year: 1976 Release Date: January 22, 2019 Buy: Video
Blu-ray Review: Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz
Now Fassbinder’s 15-hour-plus epic runs at 25fps, as per the original German television broadcast.4
Until its self-described two-hour epilogue, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s adaptation of Alfred Döblin’s 1929 novel Berlin Alexanderplatz is an engrossing psychological portrait of Franz Biberkopf (Günter Lamprecht), a Weimar-era worker bee whose slow corrosion of self both parallels and paves the way for the impending rise of Nazism. He’s a vividly realized allegorical golem, at moments passive and acquiescent, at others viciously in control. Emerging from a four-year prison stint at the start of Fassbinder’s 15-hour-plus epic, he plugs his ears and contorts his mouth in silent scream (the on-screen title reads: “The Torment Begins”), though he’s no mere victim of the pogrom’s progress slowly infecting the German id.
In retrospect, Biberkopf is more of an accumulative symbol, as he wears his ideologies—Nazi newspaper seller, drunk, underground criminal, pimp—like the latest fashions, discarding them when they violently fester or cease to be useful. The residue of his experiences—multifaceted, oft-contradictory—nonetheless remains, so the impression in the moment is one of revelation: With each narrative step forward, Biberkopf seemingly gains in clarity (the length of the work is a benefit, allowing for a novelistic density and, at times, a mesmeric depth of character), though Fassbinder is, in fact, merely setting up his metaphor-slathered patsy for an empty-headed last-act kill.
To his credit, Fassbinder’s highly problematic directorial intentions don’t emerge from the literal nowhere. The bibilical story of Abraham and Isaac is crucially invoked, played in voiceover counterpoint to a scene of a younger Biberkopf strangling his lover Ida (Barbara Valentin). This is the only glimpse we get of Biberkopf’s past—the only extra-narrative detail—and Fassbinder returns to it again and again over the course of Berlin Alexanderplatz, the same matter-of-fact shot-sequence replayed, each time with a different aural accompaniment, so that it burns irremovably into the psyche. This is the wellspring, the moment in time that births the character of Biberkopf and sends him flailing forth on a sacrificial ascension up the Teutonic mount. Yet it is finally lazy psychology, in toto suggesting that all of Biberkopf’s travails—and, implicitly, Germany’s—can be traced back to a singular point.
I don’t think Fassbinder entirely believes in this bill of goods he’s selling us, but he seems incapable of resolving the complex undercurrents of Berlin Alexanderplatz, preferring to indulge his (not incorrect) instincts toward self-destruction. In conception, the film’s two-hour epilogue is ingenious, a descent into absolute hysteria and madness wherein Biberkopf wanders through a politically and spiritually charged psychosexual dreamscape, complete with anachronistic musical cues from the likes of Janis Joplin, Lou Reed, and Kraftwerk.
Yet the experience of watching this intentionally incongruous coda is excruciating, and to no defensible effect beyond a shrug of the shoulders and an acknowledgement that literalizing the metaphysical isn’t Fassbinder’s forte. This is the sequence that helped me to understand Phillip Lopate’s otherwise erroneous dismissal of the film (“flat and indifferently realized, a TV mini-series directed by the yard”) in the closing paragraphs of his essay “A Date With Fassbinder and Despair.” I would personally urge Lopate to go back and re-view certain parts of Berlin Alexanderplatz, some of which rank with the finest work in cinema, though in light of where it all finally goes—a haphazard succession of sub-Anger sexual imagery, half-hearted slaughterhouse/Christ motifs, and the kind of head-slappingly pretentious apocalyptic imagery brilliantly skewered by The Critic—I’d understand his hesitation to do so.
Berlin Alexanderplatz’s best scenes revolve around more interpersonal matters, specifically in Biberkopf’s relationship with the treacherous Reinhold (Gottfried John), the man who indoctrinates him into the criminal underworld and who eventually kills Biberkopf’s prostitute lover, Mieze (Barbara Sukowa). When the duo first meets in the fifth episode, they agree to share several revolving-door lovers—when Reinhold tires of his latest conquest, he passes her onto Biberkopf. It’s a brilliantly sustained roundelay on Fassbinder’s part, aided and abetted by an incessant Windham-Hill-from-Hell underscore and by the metronomic rhythms of an endlessly flashing neon sign. In ultimate effect, it is second only to the film’s best scene—captured in a distanced, yet empathetic single take—in which Reinhold murders Mieze.
Fassbinder recognizes this as Berlin Alexanderplatz’s high point: Reinhold and Mieze moving as if on a woodland proscenium, helplessly trying to avoid a violent, practically preordained confrontation. When it comes, it’s awkward, messy, yet possessed of a cosmic significance, an act at once unintentional and inevitable. Even the mist in the fog-shrouded forest descends as if on heavenly cue. It’s telling that Biberkopf is nowhere to be found (he spends the majority of the episode off screen) and even more revealing that Fassbinder appends the tail-end of this sequence to the final moments of his ill-advised epilogue, as if trying—desperately, regretfully, impossibly—to recapture and reclaim a long-lost moment of clarity.
Criterion’s 2007 DVD notoriously featured a slowed-down frame rate to account for displaying the PAL-formatted original broadcast into the American NTSC system. The Blu-ray makes up for this by using the correct PAL frame rate, marking an immediate upgrade from the prior release. In all other respects, though, the Blu-ray, sourced from the same 2006 restoration as the DVD, offers merely an HD upgrade of the older discs. That said, the image still looks great, with the tactile 16mm cinematography offering strong contrast only occasionally marred by compression artifacts. The jaundiced amber color timing and rich use of shadow looks far superior in high-def than on the DVDs, and the lossless audio is slightly crisper than before.
The extras here, including two documentaries, one an overview of the series with interviews with cast and crew and the other a documentary on the 2006 restoration, have been carried over from Criterion’s earlier release. A 1980 documentary on the making of the miniseries captures Rainer Werner Fassbinder in action, impressively commandeering this epic film’s making. Peter Jelavich, a film professor and author of a monograph on the miniseries, contributes an illuminating interview on the miniseries, from its source novel to Fassbinder’s additions and interpretations. Most interesting is the inclusion of a 1931 adaptation of the source novel by Phil Jutzi. A booklet contains an old essay by Fassbinder reflecting on the book’s influence on him, a thorough analysis and appreciation of the series by director Tom Tykwer, an interview with cinematographer Xaver Schwarzenberger, and a summarizing critical essay by Thomas Steinfeld that expounds upon Biberkopf as a Job-like figure.
Criterion’s Blu-ray offers only a mild upgrade in picture quality from the distributor’s earlier standard-definition release, but now Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 15-hour-plus epic runs at 25fps, as per the original German television broadcast.
Cast: Günter Lamprecht, Gottfried John, Barbara Sukowa, Hanna Schygulla, Franz Buchrieser, Annemarie Düringer, Ivan Desny, Hark Bohm, Roger Fritz, Brigitte Mira, Karin Baal, Elisabeth Trissenaar, Barbara Valentin, Irm Hermann, Margit Carstensen, Helmut Griem, Helen Vita, Gerhard Zwerenz, Raul Gimenez, Mechthild Großmann, Angela Schmidt, Claus Holm, Fritz Schediwy, Axel Bauer, Volker Spengler Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder Screenwriter: Rainer Werner Fassbinder Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 940 min Rating: NR Year: 1980 Release Date: February 12, 2019 Buy: Video, Soundtrack
Blu-ray Review: Peppermint Soda Gets 2K Restoration from Cohen Media Group
Diane Kurys’s poignant debut powerfully evokes the bittersweet feelings of leaving behind the halcyon days of one’s youth.
Diane Kurys’s Peppermint Soda is like flipping through a young girl’s diary, capturing as it does snippets of the small-scale tragedies, amusing hijinks, and quotidian details that define the lives of two Parisian teenage sisters over the course of their 1963-to-‘64 school year. Through a delicate balancing of comedic and dramatic tones, Kurys’s debut film taps into the emotional insecurities and social turmoil that accompany the awkward biological developments of adolescence with a disarming sweetness and subtlety, lending even small moments a poignancy that shuns overt displays of sentimentality or nostalgia. As evidenced by the opening title card, in which Kurys dedicates the film to her sister “who has still hasn’t returned my orange sweater,” Peppermint Soda’s authenticity arises from its specificity, both in its characters’ tumultuous inner lives and the detailed rendering of their friends and teachers, as well as the classrooms within which they passed their days.
Structured as a series of loosely connected vignettes, the film bounces between the introverted 13-year-old Anne (Eléonore Klarwein) and her outgoing, popular 15-year-old sister, Frédérique (Odile Michel), who both attend the same strict, bourgeois private school. While Anne’s concerns often verge on the petty, be it her frustration at her mother (Anouk Ferjac) refusing to buy her pantyhose or at her sister for preventing her from tagging along to social gatherings, Kurys depicts Anne with a uniquely compassionate eye, mining light humor out of such situations while remaining keenly aware of the almost insurmountable peer pressures and image-consciousness that are the driving forces behind most irrational teenage behavior.
Some scenes, such as the one where Anne’s art teacher ruthlessly mocks her drawing in front of the class, are representative of the emotionally abusive or neglectful relationship between Anne and many of the adults in her life, and throughout, Kurys understands that it’s how Anne is seen by her classmates that most dramatically affects her state of mind. In the heightened emotional state of teenage years, the sting of simply not having a pair of pantyhose can be more painful than a teacher’s overbearing maliciousness. But Peppermint Soda isn’t all doom and gloom, as the bitter disappointments of youth are counterbalanced with a number of droll passages of Anne gossiping and goofing off with her friends. Particularly amusing is a conversation where Anne’s friend confidently, yet with wild inaccuracies, describes sex, eventually guessing that boy’s hard-ons can grow to around six feet long.
In Peppermint Soda’s latter half, Kurys seamlessly shifts her focus toward Frédérique, broadening the film’s scope as current events begin to shape the elder sister’s political consciousness. Everything from John F. Kennedy’s assassination to a classmate’s terrifying firsthand account of the police’s violent overreaction to a student protest against the Algerian War lead Frédérique to slowly awaken to the complexities of the world around her. But even as Frédérique finds herself becoming quite the activist, handing out peace pins and organizing secret meetings in school—and much to the chagrin of her mother and her sexist, conservative teacher—she’s still prone to fits of emotional immaturity when it comes to her boyfriend.
It’s through these frequent juxtapositions of micro and macro concerns, when the inescapable solipsism of childhood runs head-on into the immovable hurdles and responsibilities of adulthood, that Peppermint Soda most powerfully evokes the bittersweet feelings of leaving behind the halcyon days of one’s youth. Yet the sly sense of whimsy that Kurys instills in her deeply personal recollections acts as a comforting reminder of the humor tucked away in even our darkest childhood memories. Sometimes it just takes a decade or two to actually find it.
Peppermint Soda is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Cohen Media Group.
Blu-ray Review: Takashi Miike’s Audition on Arrow Video
Arrow Video outfits the most notorious and profound of modern horror films with a vivid transfer.4.5
Twenty years after its release, Takashi Miike’s Audition still feels like the most visceral and evocative horror film since Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. There are commonalities between the movies as well, as both are still discussed with a degree of skittish awe—almost as if they’re radioactive—and both bend narrative expectations to reveal social fault lines. Yet to view Audition only as a horror film, to continually emphasize the graphic power of its final act at the expense of what precedes it, is to ignore the film’s robust vision. Audition is a psychological drama, a detonation of romantic-comedy clichés, as well as a brutal examination of social isolation and malaise, and the gulf that often exists between men and women. Miike’s greatest film to date isn’t a gonzo shock artifact, but a furious and mysterious howl of despair.
Based on a novel by Ryû Murakami, Audition has a conceit that could easily drive a mediocre rom-com, though Miike emphasizes social texture, underscoring the insidiously trivializing elements of such formulas. Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi) is a middle-aged widower, a little soft around the middle, who’s raising his teenage son, Shigehiko (Tetsu Sawaki). Worried about his father, Shigehiko says that Aoyama should marry again, with a flippancy that suggests how someone might ask a family member to pick up dinner on their way home from work. Shigehiko is generally sensitive and thoughtful but sees women as accessories.
Indeed, the most unsettling element of these scenes, at least for contemporary American audiences, is the casualness of Shigehiko’s objectification, which Miike presents empathetically. This objectification is understood to be complicated by grief, as Shigehiko and Aoyama are processing a loved one’s death, in addition to a protective guilt that’s common for children to feel about their parents as they develop their own lives. Achingly lonely, Aoyama senses Shigehiko’s guilt and agrees to look for a new wife. At the urging of his filmmaking partner, Yoshikawa (Jun Kunimara), Aoyama holds a fake audition for a melodrama as a way of fishing for young, attractive, and obedient women.
Audition’s linking of rom-com tropes with savagery has always been disturbing, though this equation is thornier in the wake of #MeToo. The first hour of the film can be read several ways, often simultaneously. Outwardly, the narrative resembles an innocuous romantic bauble. On another level, men hurt women throughout Audition, partially because the men see women as “others” to be enjoyed and procured when convenient—a sentiment that’s alternately celebrated and rued by pop culture, giving the populace a kind of ideological whiplash. (Rom-coms condition us to see lovers as objects aiding us on our paths toward fulfillment.)
Though poignant, Aoyama is nevertheless revealed to have bedded and discarded his assistant, whose pain he’s oblivious to as he pursues a dream woman. (In this and other threads, there are shades of another classic film of male manipulation and self-isolation: Vertigo.) Even innocent Shigehiko confesses to a fear of women, born in part from his dead mother, whose absence failed to prepare him for healthy relationships with the opposite sex. Shigehiko brings home a girl, and Aoyama cheers him on as one might an athlete making a score—a punchline that feels cute and characteristic of the jokes of many American or Japanese rom-coms but becomes retroactively sinister. We’re seeing men reinforce one another’s limited views of women as prizes to be won, which are to complement the men’s notions of themselves.
In the audition process, an exploitation that Miike ironically stages with the cheeriness of a broad comedy, Aoyama becomes quickly stuck on Asami (Eihi Shiina), a young woman who conforms so perfectly to a Japanese ideal of subservience as to seem deranged from the outset. This is one of the film’s great black jokes. Aoyama is so determined to see Asami in a particular way (as a reflection of his own pain) that he misses her personal agency, overlooking her in the way that men in this film habitually overlook women. What Aoyama fails to see in Asami is a chasm of alienation and madness, fostered by the abuse of men, which far exceeds his understanding and experience, and which is expressed by her intelligent yet somewhat affectless eyes and coiled, wiry frame. She’s more than willing to educate him in the ways of her true self, in an act of torture born of vengeance, love, and reckoning.
In many of Miike’s most outrageous films, violence is a matter of gleeful aesthetic that’s impressive but fairly easily shaken off. Though far from being Miike’s most explicit film, Audition is his most disturbing for the patience he displays. Miike mounts a character study that’s rich in psychological ironies, portraying men and women as irreconcilably separated by social boundaries and personal traumas that must eventually be exorcised by violence. Aoyama and Yoshikawa can share a drink and a smoke at a bar and enjoy one another in a way that they can’t enjoy women, which is reflective of the behavior of many men in real life. This sadness, as well as the ghastly asymmetry between Aoyama’s deception and the punishment it eventually incurs, keep the film from being a pat male-hating parable. (As Japanese cinema historian Tony Rayns observes in an interview included with this disc, feminism doesn’t enjoy the stature in Japan than it does in the United States.) Like Hitchcock, Miike sympathizes with his male characters, yet he’s enough of an artist to see in his women what his men cannot. The women of this film perceive this mutual male enjoyment and yearn for it, and this is partially what Asami’s torture of Aoyama represents: a demand to be truly seen.
Miike also understands that men pay for their sexism, as this is a source of their feelings of hollowness. When Asami paralyzes Aoyama and sticks him with acupuncture pins and saws his foot off with fine wire, actions which Miike stages with a galvanizing calmness, she traumatizes him while providing him with a perverse catharsis. Aoyama’s fear of women has finally been realized and justified, as he’s seeing the heart of Asami’s sickness. But this interpretation is complicated by several slips in time and perspective. When Aoyama is paralyzed by drugged whisky, he flashes back to dates he’s had with Asami, which gain new significance, and which Miike rhymes with Aoyama’s encounters with other females, most perversely including his son’s date. In these sequences, Miike renders a free-associative vortex of male neuroses, in which women become interchangeable harbingers of longing and pain.
In these recollections/projections, Aoyama also sees images he shouldn’t be able to see, such as Asami’s apartment, to which he’s never been, and a burlap sack that contains a man whom she’s disfigured and taken prisoner, feeding as one might a dog. At a certain point in his drugged state, Aoyama flashes back to the night he slept with Asami in a hotel, only this time he checks his feet with relief to see that they’re still there. Aoyama’s torture and degradation might only be the fantasy of a guilt-ridden man, then, which is but another kind of horror, as this interpretation suggests no catharsis, no bridging of the gulf between Aoyama and Asami.
Asami’s torture of Aoyama suggests an explosion of the pent-up gender hostilities that fuel pop culture. As Audition progresses toward its no-exit finale, Miike gradually informs its atmosphere with the aura of a horror noir, and so the film grows sicker and more neurotic before our eyes. (The turning point is the first glimpse of Asami in her apartment, staring at her phone in anticipation of Aoyama’s call as the human bag sits in a corner. Later, when the phone finally rings, her lips curl into a blood-freezing smile.) Restaurants and alleyways go from being white and sterile to shadowy and inflamed with redness, as Aoyama begins to envision—or hallucinate—fleeting scenes of Grand Guignol atrocity. Yet, unlike many modern horror films, Audition understands such atrocity to be built on a seemingly banal bedrock of illusion, elusion, and accommodation that’s as scary, in its way, as a cooing wraith strapped in fetish gear, who, when confronting a lover, feels as if she’s facing her maker.
This 2K restoration of Audition by Arrow Films is a significant improvement over prior home-video editions, which have often sported soft, splotchy colors. The colors of this image are quite vivid, particularly the blues of the ocean in an early scene and the reds of Asami’s infernal world, but there’s still quite a bit of grain and a sort of brownish tint that are probably inherent to the film’s source materials. Overall, however, this image is attractive, with quite a bit of startling and newly apparent details. The 5.1 channel DTS-HD soundtrack is subtle and disconcertingly immersive, especially in the film’s final act, with aural flourishes distributed astutely across the various speakers. This track is also much cleaner than those of prior editions, with considerably enhanced clarity.
A new audio commentary by Takashi Miike biographer Tom Mes offers a terrific deep dive into Japanese film culture, particularly the straight-to-tape cinema in which Miike began his career. Mes also tackles Audition’s head-spinning thicket of subtexts, elaborating on how Miike foreshadows various events with the repetition of motifs and camera angles. This criticism is complemented by a new interview with Miike and an appreciation by Japanese cinema historian Tony Rayns that’s been ported over from a prior edition. Miike admits that he wonders if he disappointed audiences by never making another film with Audition’s impact, while Rayns wrestles with the film’s ambiguous gender themes and how they resound within larger Japanese culture. Interviews with most of the cast members and an audio commentary by Miike and screenwriter Daisuke Tengan have also been carried over from prior editions. This very solid package, rich in observation and context, is rounded out with an assortment of trailers and newly commissioned artwork by Matthew Griffin.
Arrow Video outfits the most notorious and profound of modern horror films with a vivid transfer, and with supplements that wrestle intelligently with its many mysteries.
Cast: Ryo Ishibashi, Eihi Shiina, Tetsu Sawaki, Jun Kunimura, Renji Ishibashi, Ren Osugi Director: Takashi Miike Screenwriter: Daisuke Tengan Distributor: Arrow Video Running Time: 115 min Rating: NR Year: 1999 Release Date: February 12, 2019 Buy: Video