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DVD Review: The Great Dictator

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The Great Dictator

It’s hard to believe what a misunderstood—and indeed, controversial—film The Great Dictator remains. Still too often written off as an uncinematic and hopelessly sentimental rendering of fascism on the brink of world war, Charlie Chaplin’s scathing satiric masterpiece is actually looking better and better. While deeply of its moment (the most famous man of 1940 ridiculed by the second most famous man of 1940), the film finds, in the striking similarity between Chaplin and Adolph Hitler, an oddly timeless comparison of stardom and totalitarianism, mass entertainer and mass murderer, director and dictator. The margin of error in sending up anything as serious as Nazism or anti-Semitism could have been huge, and yet Chaplin found a deft balance where humor and horror somehow commingle. Indeed, this isn’t a film for people who think the most profound response to the Holocaust is the shaking of their own heads at man’s inhumanity to man. But who, in 1940 or in any time, was better qualified to critique a tyrant like Hitler than a man who himself held millions under his sway?

Conceptualized around Chaplin’s own recognition of what was probably the greatest single example of trademark infringement in the 20th century (that of Adolph Hitler’s pilfering of the Tramp’s toothbrush mustache), The Great Dictator delves deeply into the dynamics of fascism. The 12-minute prologue that opens the film deliciously reimagines WWI in almost Three Stooges-like slapstick, showing the gobsmacking absurdity of a four-year conflict over arbitrary boundary lines that sacrificed much of Europe’s male youth.

Chaplin opens with a sweeping, left-right tracking shot over a grid-like pattern of barbed wire and cross-shaped barricades, while anonymous soldiers scurry rat-like through a maze of trenches. Kubrick could have stuck it into Paths of Glory, and you wouldn’t have noticed any difference. Of course, almost immediately you recognize Chaplin’s unique gift of comic exaggeration: the phallic Big Bertha cannon and a swirling anti-aircraft battery that’s like an out-of-control camera operator’s crane. If Paths of Glory rings false because its chic veneer of cynicism covers an underlying strain of “let’s all sing about our common humanity” feel-goodery like a gooey nougat, The Great Dictator unfolds in exactly the reverse. Throughout the film, huggable sentiments mask a darkly ironic, doomsaying heart. When the clueless Commander Schultz reminisces about his beloved wife back in Tomainia (while his plane is set to crash, no less), it’s a bitter sendup of All Quiet on the Western Front-style portrayals of flowery innocence crushed by warfare: “How she loves daffodils. She would never cut them for fear of hurting them. It was like taking a life to cut a daffodil.”

Somehow without the benefit of historical perspective, Chaplin was able to recognize the distinction between the respective slaughter of WWI and WWII. Though the way Britain, France, Germany, and Russia served up its youth became a mass-scale human sacrifice, the nationalism involved in WWI, though continent-sundering, was still more or less inclusive. Nations stood together to guard their homelands, regardless of religion, ethnicity, or politics. On the other hand, the suicidal, cannibalistic slaughter unleashed by the Third Reich, symbolized beautifully by the popping of Adenoid Hynkel’s globe-balloon, was built entirely on exclusivity—of facing not only imagined enemies outside the state, but inside it as well. Tomainia’s Phooey very calculatingly discusses the importance of stirring up anti-Jewish sentiment to distract his non-Jewish majority from the real problems his country faces. It’s panem et circenses but without the bread and with the entire country turned into a circus.

If the WWI prologue felt daringly cinematic (shot on location, whole sequences dependant upon the interplay of shadow and light, like when the barber accidentally crosses enemy lines in a cloud of smoke), the rest of the film, set under the banner of double-crossed Tomainian fascism, is unapologetically theatrical. The sets, whether of the Jewish ghetto or Hynkel’s palace, look barely believable, more like two-dimensional stage décor than anything you’re accustomed to seeing in a movie. The frame of the screen becomes a proscenium with the actors shot mostly in full, body-length long shots.

Chaplin stages the remainder of his film like theater, because that’s how he sees fascism: a calculated, but eminently superficial, reconfiguring of reality to flatter insecure egos. When Hynkel greets visiting Bacterian leader Napoloni, he has him sit in a much lower chair, so he’ll know his place. Oh, and better yet, he’ll feel cowed by a statue of Hynkel glowering at him from the side. When the two dictators sit in barber chairs, each tries to crank their seat higher than the other, until they end up bobbing up and down like deranged carousel horses.

Likewise, Chaplin shows how the focus of Adolph Hitler’s speeches—spouted in high-volume gibberish by Hynkel, with a dose of pantomime—lay not in what he was saying but how he was saying it, veering wildly from rage-filled tirades to weepy sentiment. For Chaplin’s The Great Dictator integrates sound completely into his portrait of fascism’s theatricality. The crowd goes wild when Hynkel shouts “Soldiers for Tomainia!”—but when he makes a cutting gesture with his hand, they instantly go silent.

This theatricality underscores the idea that image was more important to the fascist mindset than reality. However, it’s here that Chaplin demonstrates his greatest degree of self-reflection. The entire Chaplin canon up until The Great Dictator is built around the idea that image is more important than reality, that the denial of reality enables survival. Think of the Little Tramp. He’s homeless, unemployed, often at odds with the law. And yet he always wears a beat-up coat with tails, dress slacks, a derby hat, and a walking stick. Yes, the coat is tight, the slacks are baggy, and the hat is dented. But it’s Chaplin’s statement that if he aspires to look like a gentleman, he must be a gentleman, even if he’s a vagrant. Image is everything.

But by the making of The Great Dictator, Chaplin seems to have realized the falsehood of that principle. And by showing all the silly acts of schoolyard boasting that Hynkel and Napoloni engage in, he thoroughly rejects it. He shows how mutable image alone can be when his Jewish barber is mistaken for Hynkel and switches places with him.

After all, the denial of reality led to Western Europe’s misguided attempts at appeasement in the late ‘30s and America’s continued isolationism in 1940. There are moments when it seems Chaplin almost tricks us into a similar complacency. At first, he has us think that the Brooklyn-accented stormtroopers who patrol the Ghetto are nothing but buffoons, thick-skulled targets for Paulette Goddard’s intrepid frying pan. (The distinct American accents of the soldiers may be like the Nativity scenes St. Francis of Assisi set in local Italian milieus, a way to make something foreign seem relatable to an insulated public.) But then, in a shockingly unexpected moment of violence, the stormtroopers tie a makeshift noose around the Jewish barber’s neck and hoist him up on a lamppost in an attempted lynching. Hynkel’s forces may be laughable, but that doesn’t make them any less dangerous. Never think that mediocrity can’t be a threat.

Of course, much of The Great Dictator is Chaplin’s call for the United States to wake up to the Nazi threat. Despite his declarations of being an “internationalist,” Chaplin wasn’t a touchy-feely pacifist. He urged the U.S. to enter WWI and toured the country in 1918 to promote the purchase of war bonds. By transplanting a European ghetto to what seems like a New York City street populated by actors with American accents, he made real and relatable for the American public what Nazi persecution was like at a time when most Hollywood studios didn’t dare to make any film about fascism or anti-Semitism. The word “Jew” had barely been uttered in a studio film since The Jazz Singer—and this despite most of the major studio heads being Jewish.

In a sense, The Great Dictator is Chaplin’s The Jazz Singer, because, at the end, in a speech lasting six minutes, he talks, not as the Tramp (or even the barber), but as himself, urging the nations of the world to reject hatred and come together as one. It’s a speech that’s usually rejected even by defenders of the film, though direct address seems, to me, to be self-reflexively modern. Those who criticize it are like those who condemn the psychiatrist’s monologue at the end of Psycho: taking at literal-minded face value what’s being presented.

Believe me, I have no doubt that Chaplin meant everything he says here, but still he injects an unsettling undercurrent of irony. Just when he’s reached the apotheosis of his speech, calling out to Goddard’s Hannah from across the radio waves, the lilting strain of the ethereal music that played when Hynkel danced with his globe creeps onto the soundtrack. Maybe the barber has succeeded in bringing Tomainia’s march across Europe to a halt. Maybe everybody will join hands. The crowds that cheer after his speech seem to indicate that. But that reprise of Hynkel’s musical accompaniment to his megalomania seems to indicate Chaplin’s great distress over a world so volatile that any one man can have power to rile or soothe a whole population by himself. The Great Dictator shows how one man can change the world and how truly scary that can sometimes be.

Image/Sound

This is that rarest of occasions: when a Criterion transfer doesn’t do justice to a film. Certain key moments seem nearly out of focus, others blown-out, like when Paulette Goddard first gazes upon the new hairdo the barber has given her. Admittedly, Chaplin shot most of the film using intense key lighting, but the previous, non-Criterion release in 2004 never seemed hindered by the threat of overexposure. Likewise, though Chaplin intended for certain sequences to possess a hollow, echo-chamber-like quality, Criterion’s soundtrack is muted and fuzzy, with an astonishing amount of crackle.

Extras

Two insightful new visual essays by Cecilia Cenciarelli and Jeffrey Vance make us wish they had recorded the audio commentary instead of Chaplin historians Dan Kamin and Hooman Mehran. Other features are lifted from the previous non-Criterion 2004 release, including the brilliant documentary “The Tramp and the Dictator,” a study of the parallel lives of Hitler and Chaplin featuring commentators as diverse as Sidney Lumet and a former member of Hitler’s inner circle. Also rehashed is color production footage shot by Chaplin’s brother Sydney of The Great Dictator shoot, along with the barbershop sequence from Chaplin’s 1919 short Sunnyside. However, a booklet featuring Chaplin’s 1940 defense of the film in The New York Times powerfully illuminates its initial controversy.

Overall

Though inseparable from its 1940 production, The Great Dictator is an oddly timeless comparison of stardom and totalitarianism, mass entertainer and mass murderer, director and dictator.

Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Jack Oakie, Henry Daniell Director: Charlie Chaplin Screenwriter: Charlie Chaplin Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 125 min Rating: NR Year: 1940 Release Date: May 23, 2011 Buy: Video

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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

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Berlin Alexanderplatz

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.

Image/Sound

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.

Extras

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.

Overall

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

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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.

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Peppermint Soda
Photo: Cohen Media Group

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.

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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

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Audition

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.

Image/Sound

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.

Extras

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.

Overall

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

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