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Blu-ray Review: The Social Network

This elegantly and scrupulously produced Blu-ray essentially serves as an all-in-one For Your Consideration campaign for David Fincher’s film.

4.0

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The Social Network

A portrait of the prick as a very young man, The Social Network uploads a fictionalized account of the birth of Facebook and the monumental success it reaped for noxious billionaire co-creator Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg). David Fincher’s film is, of course, concerned with the already-clichéd topic of “how we live now,” yet unlike a fraudulent poseur like Catfish, it occupies itself less with underlined questions about “the online experience” than with the relationship between the site and its forefather, a Great Gatsby-lite Harvard undergrad driven by a need for acceptance from the school’s elite, an ego consumed with Big Idea aspirations, and a nagging need to compensate for his personality failings through unbridled ambition.

As written by Aaron Sorkin (loosely based on Ben Mezrich’s The Accidental Billionaires) with his trademark brand of blistering rat-a-tat-tat verbal volleys, it’s a story ultimately rooted in Zuckerberg’s own personal Rosebud, Erica Albright (Rooney Mara), who in the borderline-fast-forward opening scene becomes so repulsed by not just his arrogance but the condescension that accompanies it (a dig at her B.U. education proves the final straw) that she dumps him, albeit not before explaining that, when he’s rich and famous, women won’t hate him because he’s a nerd: “It’ll be because you’re an asshole.” That slur scars Zuckerberg deeply, propelling him that evening to drunkenly produce a cruel online girl-rating game called Facemash (made with student profile pics stolen from the university’s databases), and soon afterward to design Facebook itself, a site that—as articulated by co-founder, CFO, and Zuckerberg’s symbolic conscience Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield)—revolves around the simple desire to meet a girl. A subsequent encounter with, and brush-off from, Erica, who’s still smarting from Zuckerberg having called her a “bitch” on LiveJournal, doesn’t lead him to introspection and change but, rather, to immediately feel that “we have to expand.” Expand Facebook naturally does, morphing from a college campus niche service to a global goliath and, along the way, prompting two separate lawsuits from spurned former partners.

Throughout, the director cross-cuts back and forth from past events to present litigious depositions partly as a means of exploring and challenging his subject’s justifications for his actions. Yet Zuckerberg largely remains a static figure, or at least a man for whom revelations regarding his own character and behavior arrive only after the damage has been irreparably done. In that sense, Fincher and Sorkin’s study of success functions as a tragicomedy about a socially repugnant person who, in the film’s central irony, created a ubiquitous venue for friendship while achieving merely alienation for himself. Whereas Zodiac immersed itself in serial-killer case-file details, Fincher’s latest speeds along a veritable information superhighway, flying through conversations, scenes, locations, and time frames with an alacrity that evokes modern ADD media interfacing: consume, process, respond, move on!

Fleetness doesn’t mean glibness, however; Fincher segments and layers his material at a pace befitting the meteoric ascendancy of Facebook itself, and without the grandstanding that’s sometimes marked his work. The auteur can direct the holy hell out of a movie, yet in this case he refuses to indulge in vertiginous tracking shots and look-at-me CG tomfoolery, placing the focus less on overt aesthetic showmanship than on an atmosphere of impending doom born from Zuckerberg’s warring urges to erect and destroy—though cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth’s sleek, shadowy-brown high-def cinematography is to swoon over, as is Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s sexy, malevolent score. Fincher’s sumptuous evocation of Ivy League privilege is inviting and unnerving and his pacing is both zippy and sly, with the film swinging and popping so smoothly that it’s almost possible to overlook the fact that certain incidents, including Eduardo’s fiery quarrel with a possessive girlfriend (Brenda Song), border on broad sitcom terrain otherwise generally avoided by Sorkin’s sarcasm-overloaded script.

In a telling juxtaposition, Fincher jumps between Zuckerberg creating Facemash and a decadent party at one of the Harvard “Final Clubs,” whose admission the geek covets. It’s an acute reflection not only of the motivations behind his inspired computer wonkery, but also of the way his work will replicate—and cannibalize, as further suggested by an animal-cruelty subplot involving chickens eating chickens— such social relations. Desperate to be liked, Zuckerberg begets Facebook so everyone can be president of their own exclusive club. The idea of “exclusivity,” though, is what draws the ire of WASPy twins Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss (both played by Armie Hammer) and their friend Divya Narendra (Max Minghella), who, after hiring Zuckerberg to work on their Harvard Connect (a Facebook-ish site that would court users via the esteemed Harvard.edu suffix), become enraged over Zuckerberg pilfering their idea. An ensuing debate over what truly constitutes intellectual property theft, however, never quite materializes. That’s because The Social Network‘s more pressing concern is Zuckerberg’s gargantuan sense of superiority, which is so rampant that he callously admits to a deposition lawyer that he’s paying the man little mind, and which is ultimately expressed by his triumphant attempts to circumvent Harvard’s exclusionary old-boy power structure (also spied in the Winklevosses’ U.K. rowing match) by creating a new Internet world order in which technology enables nerds to inherit the Earth.

Zuckerberg’s betrayal of the Winklevosses pales in comparison to that perpetrated against trusting Eduardo, whom he screws out of his share of the company, thanks, in part, to the influence of entrepreneur and Napster co-founder Sean Parker (a suavely sinister Justin Timberlake), who assumes the role of devil on Zuckerberg’s shoulder. “I was your only friend,” Eduardo mournfully tells Zuckerberg across a table surrounded by lawyers, and the sadness in both men’s eyes is compounded by the fact that Zuckerberg was compelled not by wealth, but simple jealousy—of Eduardo’s membership into the prestigious Phoenix Club, to be sure, but more fundamental still, of anybody more congenial than he was. Which was just about everybody. In this respect, The Social Network is at once a snapshot of a particular era and a universal story about trying to fit in, and the disastrous isolation such endeavors can entail. And at its core is Eisenberg’s bravura performance, which straddles a fine line between conveying the repugnance of his protagonist and making him pitiable, the actor capturing the intellectually domineering haughtiness of Zuckerberg as well as, in quick glances away from people and back to laptop screens, his comprehension of—and mild guilt over—his own reprehensible conduct.

In a final scene that mirrors its opening counterpart, a lawyer (Rashida Jones) tells Zuckerberg, “You’re not an asshole, Mark. You’re just trying so hard to be,” thereby raising the issue of perceived versus actual reality, and whether there’s any difference between the two. It’s a question The Social Network lets linger with regard to both Zuckerberg, a charmless, self-centered dickhead nonetheless capable, however slightly, of reflection and remorse, as well as to Facebook’s own status as some sort of culturally revolutionary institution. “We lived on farms, we lived in cities, and now we’re going to live on the Internet!” proclaims the cocksure Parker moments before he’s busted for cocaine possession, thereby ending his Facebook tenure. Yet Fincher confronts this potential 21st-century reality with ambivalence born not from the potential harmfulness of such a paradigm, but instead from the understanding that it affords no substantial step toward greater social evolution: In the end, in a pub or online, we’re all still waiting for our version of that desirable girl to see and validate our inner goodness and worthiness. In that astute uncertainty, his amusing, electric, keenly observed recent-history lesson proves a film to love, or to speak in Facebook’s lingua franca, to Like®.

Image/Sound

I’ve been putting off calibrating my television since I bought it, in part because its default settings have been kind to just about everything I’ve played on the set in a month’s time—except for The Social Network, which appeared obscenely dark when I plopped it into my Blu-ray player. The film has been described by critic Nick Davis as resembling “a state funeral for the family cat,” and now that my TV has been successfully calibrated, I can report that the film is as somber as I remember it. Except for exceedingly inky black levels and some pasty skin tones that can likely be blamed on an overzealous makeup person, this representation of a needlessly “dark” film’s aesthetic is never less than striking. Every bit as memorable and dubious is the Trent Reznor score, which skulks above the crystal-clear dialogue like a rabid animal looking for a good fuck.

Extras

“New dick” doesn’t quite have the same resonance as BLEEP, admits David Fincher on his commentary track. And so The Social Network secured a PG-13 rating, but despite that lame concession to its studio, you can’t call the film a toothless dog. An amiable and interesting listen, the frequently bleeped-out Fincher is more open about praising the work of his collaborators than he is about elaborating on his obsessive directorial process (he tells us how many times Jesse Eisenberg had to throw a beer bottle before hitting the director’s desired mark, but that’s about all he reveals). But Aaron Sorkin and select cast members—Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake, Armie Hammer, and Josh Pence—pick up Fincher’s slack on their own commentary track. Sorkin and Eisenberg, for example, reveal that Fincher filmed 99 takes of the opening scene, though neither is critical of the director’s approach. In fact, Eisenberg, sounding every bit as anxiety-inducing and prone to self-flagellation as he is typically does on screen, reveals that he wishes Fincher had shot a few more takes of one scene because he was tired when he filmed it and he sounded like he was in a commercial. Though Sorkin and the actors are unconvincingly spliced together to sound like they were all in the same room, their insights, especially Eisenberg and Garfield’s, into The Social Network‘s making and significance prove more valuable than Fincher’s own.

On disc two, watch out for Garfield and Timberlake fishing for buggers throughout their sessions discussing the film’s screenplay with Fincher and Sorkin, perhaps proof of what Garfield later describes as the “comfort” he felt while working on the film. What’s most striking about the feature-length, four-part “How Did They Ever Make a Movie of Facebook?,” essentially a celebration of the film’s remarkable use of language, is not the sight of Fincher often being visibly pleased with the outcome of a take but the amount of time he and Sorkin and his actors devoted to scrutinizing their characters’ motives. Those wishing for even more technical elaboration on the film’s making will be pleased by the remaining featurettes: “David Fincher and Jeff Cronenweth on the Visuals,” on which Cronenweth extols the wide range of colors made available to him by the cameras the filmmakers decided to use; “Angus Wall, Kirk Baxter and Ren Klyce on Post,” which is constructed almost as elegantly as the film itself; and “Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross and David Fincher on the Score,” in which Reznor discusses producing music that will be applied to images that aren’t of his own making (though his score does sound as if it could just easily be set to a montage of rotting animal corpses). Rounding out the disc is a multi-angle scene breakdown, an interactive music exploration, and a featurette on the Swarmatron sound machine used for parts of the film’s score.

Overall

This elegantly and scrupulously produced Blu-ray essentially serves as an all-in-one For Your Consideration campaign for David Fincher’s film.

Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake, Armie Hammer, Max Minghella, Josh Pence, Brenda Song, Rashida Jones, Rooney Mara Director: David Fincher Screenwriter: Aaron Sorkin Distributor: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment Running Time: 120 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2010 Release Date: January 10, 2011 Buy: Video, Soundtrack, Book

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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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