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THE HUMAN CONDITION (1959-1961) Dir: Masaki Kobayashi, Criterion

As I sat through all nine hours of The Human Condition at the Film Forum (shown in three three-hour complete stand-alone films: The Human Condition: No Greater Love (1959),
 The Road to Eternity (1959), and 
A Soldier’s Prayer (1961) ), my jaw hanging open and my ass not in the least tired, I wondered how it was possible that I had never seen or heard of this film. And in the first words I wrote about it, I wondered if Criterion would step in and do it justice.

They have.

The days of repertory movie houses are long gone. DVD distributors have become the aesthetic conscience for cinephiles everywhere, occupying the place of curatorial responsibility that the rep house once held. Criterion has seized and held both the moral and curatorial high ground. Everybody knows their brand: they get the best movies and make the highest quality DVDs thereof (in the interest of disclosure, I participated in the commentary track of Criterion’s Two-Lane Blacktop). But that summation does not address their courage in the marketplace. I mean, how many copies of a nine hour Japanese seminal masterpiece are they likely to move? Criterion must be motivated–as must any decent film critic—by a purely evangelistic urge, the urge to share the good news. Even in the current age of dwindling DVD sales, Criterion backs up their hearts with their dollars, and that takes the courage of conviction.

It just doesn't get any better than this.
It just doesn't get any better than this.

If I say that the DVD release of The Human Condition is a milestone, does that automatically make you think the film is boring? After all, you could pack three Lawrence of Arabias into the Human Condition viewing timescape and still have time to make your own popcorn. Twice. But, like Tolstoy or Vasily Grossman or Dickens or Eliot or Balzac, Kobayashi needs that time, that accretion of detail, to communicate the astonishing sense that you are observing life, life itself, the very process, as the picture unfolds. My shock at the film’s unboringness (that’s a critic’s technical term) was only matched by my shock at what an influential picture it’s been all these decades, shaping the vision of various European masters while remaining virtually unseen on these shores.

The three films follow Tatsuya Nakadai—the Japanese leading man whose face is familiar to Western audiences from Sanjuro (1962), High and Low (1963), Yojimbo (1961) and about a hundred other films–as an idealistic Japanese businessman striving to escape the working class who falls in love, gets married, does his best to dodge the upcoming war, gets drafted, finds himself in Manchuria facing Russian tanks armed only with a rifle, and ends up enslaved in a Russian labor camp, abandoned by his army and his nation, another victim ground down to nothing by the system.

Kobayashi understands that an epic narrative requires an epic vision. He shoots in wide screen Cinemascope B/W, with roiling cloudscapes in every frame, and the topography of the natural and man-made world looming over his hero every second. It’s impossible to immerse in this epic without constantly seeing shots that clearly influenced later masters: Bergman, Kubrick, Antonioni, and Tarkovsky foremost. As with their best work, the baroque visuals nourish the narrative, and the detailed, almost neorealist story requires the metaphorical visual landscape to come fully alive. The rigorously idiomatic subtitles only add another layer of rich detail.

HOMICIDE (1991) Dir: David Mamet, Criterion

In the lackadaisical on-screen commentary, Mamet sounds as detached and bemused as ever. He chuckles (and what a false, unsettling chuckle he has) and tells backstage stories. As usual, he refuses to address the profundity of his work. And with this film, it’s hard to blame him. Homicide, his second feature as a writer/director, remains Mamet’s most fully realized, and, prior to Criterion’s deluxe release, never got the credit or viewers it deserves. So maybe Mamet wasn’t feeling too celebratory at having to wait so long to get his propers.
Mamet adores cops, soldiers, hierarchies that test or erase individuality and the in-group jargon that results. Men in these fraternal trades invent language that embraces one another and keeps everyone else out. Mamet revels in these rhythms and because Homicide is such a noir, the self-conscious hard-bitten bullets of dialogue seem for once wholly appropriate; this is how guys talk in noir. Mamet’s other noir, Heist, also features hard-boiled moments that contain more heartfelt emotion than his supposedly more serious work.

Mamet’s usual supporting cast of bluff, manly character actors are here gathered together for only the second time on-screen. Maybe because they’re not entirely comfortable off-stage and on-camera, their performances are especially resonant and convincing. The great cinematographer Roger Deakins (the Coen brothers’ cameraman of choice) eschews his usual deep horizon-lines for a claustrophobic urban world of shadows and drab apartments. The plot proves unusually strong for a Mamet picture, with only a couple of the galling, enormous coincidences that undermine his later work. The story is tight, with each event falling like a domino, toppling the next. The brooding score makes clear from the first shot that no good news is coming and indeed, none does.

'When you start coming with the customers, it's time to quit.'
'When you start coming with the customers, it's time to quit.'

Joe Montegna and William Macy were never better as detectives linked by a love that only partners in combat can understand. When Joe’s Bobby Gold—an overcompensating cop who always has to be first through the door—runs slam into the crucial dilemma of his adult life, he shatters the bonds of that partnership. Gold learns the hard way—does anyone in a Mamet piece ever learn the easy way?—that identity in America is nowhere near so fluid as we’d like to believe. Gold worked for decades to be one kind of man. When he tries to cast it aside in what he mistakes for a moment of blinding revelation, he discovers that things hard-earned can be every bit as hard-lost. It’s a horrible, tragic comeuppance and for once, for the only time, Mamet shows compassion for his protagonist’s foolishness. That Mamet seems to understand, rather than mock Gold’s self-destruction, makes this among the most heartbreaking of all noirs. It’s a damn fine cop-thriller, too.


David N. Meyer

David N. Meyer's Spring Semester cinema studies course at The New School begins January 26, The Desperate Horizon: Road Movies, Westerns, and the American Landscape.


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2009

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