Tuesday, January 03, 2006

House Of Bamboo

My favorite Hollywood decade is the 1950's. Filmmakers working in peak form during this period included: Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, Nicholas Ray, John Ford, Douglas Sirk, Anthony Mann, Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, and Samuel Fuller.

Fuller famously appeared in a party scene in Godard’s Pierrot Le Fou and pronounced his credo: “Film is like a battleground. Love. Hate. Action. Violence. Death....in one word, emotion." He wasn’t kidding. For Fuller, the central metaphor for life was war, which he once called “the world’s oldest profession, not whoring. It is as important as breathing.”

House Of Bamboo, which Fuller made in 1955, was Godard’s favorite of his movies, and the first Hollywood production to be shot in Japan. Robert Ryan plays a brutal ex-Army officer who runs an all-American crime outfit in Japan that extorts money from pachinko parlors (gaming joints). Fuller's war metaphor also translates to the paramilitary-model organization of Ryan's gang: they use military language, gesture at maps with pointers, and talk about "battle fatigue". They're applying lessons of war in the civilian world. A few observations about the film:

  • Fuller’s most fertile period lasted from his debut I Shot Jesse James (1949) to the glorious The Naked Kiss (1964). Of the seventeen films he made in this period, a third of them dealt with the Asian-American culture clash. In House Of Bamboo, Ryan recruits dishonorably discharged ex-cons for his Tokyo gang, “fine-looking ex-GI’s to mix with the politest people in the politest nation in the world.” (Imagine Ryan's most malevolent voice here, drenched with contempt for the Japanese.) Fuller throws the cultural differences into relief by contrasting the brutishness of Robert Stack (a new recruit to Ryan’s gang) with the elegant and courtly Japanese women he encounters at every turn.

  • Here’s another precious Fullerism that Jim Jarmusch has quoted: “If the first scene doesn’t give you a hard-on, throw the goddamn thing away.” Minutes into House Of Bamboo, we get a fantastic money shot: the boots of a dead American GI framing and cradling...Mount Fuji! Both an eye-smacking visual composition and a powerful symbol of the clash of two cultures, it is an unforgettable image.

  • The movie is a remake of William Keighley's Street With No Name (1948), in which Richard Widmark plays the gang boss. Widmark's shiny face opens up like a swiftly slit piece of fruit each time he smiles. A human lizard. With asthma. Fondling his inhaler. He's the best thing about the movie, but the original can't hold a candle to the Fuller remake, possessing neither its visual imagination nor its take-your-breath-away boldness.

  • I'm used to Japanese interiors being shot in a particular fashion — I involuntarily picture them the way they're captured in Ozu, with a low camera that hardly moves. Imagine my surprise when the first domestic interior shot in this film begins with the camera perched on the ceiling (!), the crane pouncing down parabolically to the door to coincide with the entry of a kimono girl into her home, followed by Robert Stack who attacks her and pins her to the ground. It's enough to rock you back on your tatami mat. Later, Stack and Mariko, the girl, become lovers. (Fuller's lovers never meet cute, only hard and violent.)

  • Ever the canny engineer of aesthetic collisions, Fuller — whose "shock cuts" have always reminded me of both Eisenstein and Ghatak — stages a trembling love scene: Robert Stack and Mariko, separated by the slats of a bamboo partition, lying in their beds late at night, gazing silently into each other's faces, a continent (and a bamboo curtain) away. It's so tender, it's shocking.

37 Comments:

Blogger girish said...

Acquarello writes about Catherine Lupton's book on Chris Marker. This one was also part of my Christmas haul.

January 03, 2006 12:12 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Dear Liz Phair fans:
Prepare to be blown away.
Her driver's license as a teen.
via Tofu Hut.

January 03, 2006 12:15 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Steven Shaviro really likes Alex Cox.
I've just seen Sid & Nancy and Repo Man, both of which I enjoyed, a long time ago.
Anyone else with a passion for Cox, and DVD's you'd like to recommend? Steven's got me curious.

January 03, 2006 12:28 AM  
Blogger girish said...

The drawing is supposed to be [ahem] the Rising Sun.

January 03, 2006 12:34 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Fascinating:
David Byrne's journal.
On his visit to the Philippines.
via The Bad Plus.
Okay, what the heck am I doing up?
Off to bed.
Actually, off to bed and Kung Fu Hustle.
Then to drift off to sleep.

January 03, 2006 1:02 AM  
Blogger Brian said...

I have not seen House of Bamboo or nearly as much Fuller as I ought've. The only Asian/American culture clash movies I've seen of his are the Steel Helmet and the Crimson Kimono. What are the others?

I'd add Budd Boetticher, Andre De Toth and Vincent Minnelli as Hollywood directors working at their peak in the 1950's.

January 03, 2006 5:09 AM  
Blogger Flickhead said...

Thanks for writing about this one. Exceptionally biased when it comes to Fuller, I adore even Street of No Return (1989). The Asian influence was a sporadic but continual element of his work, though I often wonder why he cast Angie Dickinson as the half-caste ‘Lucky Legs’ in China Gate (1957) — no mention is made of it in his autobiography, A Third Face, but the actress’s naturally-squinty eyes were subtly slanted by the makeup department.

“Young writers and directors,” he wrote, “seize your audience by the balls as soon as the credits hit the screen and hang on to them! Smack people right in the face with the passion of your story! Make the public love your characters or hate them, but, for Godsakes, never — never! — leave them indifferent!” You can see the spinning headlines cartwheeling through Sam’s head.

The association with Jim Jarmusch is another puzzle: balls-to-the-walls emotionalism meets lobotomized passivity (with more than a touch of vanity). But I give Jarmusch credit: his alternate commentary (with Mika Kaurismäki) on the DVD of Tigrero: A Film That Was Never Made (1994) is touching and enlightening.

As for Alex Cox, Richard Armstrong reviews Highway Patrolman and Three Businessmen here.

January 03, 2006 7:57 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Brian,
Nice calls.
Love Boetticher and Minnelli's work of the period, but don't know De Toth's at all, except House Of Wax. DVD recommendations, anyone?

Both Merrill's Marauders and China Gate are set in the Far East, and Hell & High Water is a Korean War-era submarine film. Interestingly, in China Gate, Angie Dickinson plays Lucky Legs, a mixed-race woman with a son who is entirely Asian in appearance, and is hated by his own (American) father.

January 03, 2006 8:05 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Ah, thank you, Flickhead. We must've been composing simultaneously.
I picked up The Third Face when it was released but it sits (like so many other books bought with big intentions) unread.
Doesn't Notre Musique feature Godard's idea of the afterworld (if I remember right) in which a soldier sits silently, contemplatively, reading Street Of No Return?
Thanks for the Tigrero and Alex Cox suggestions. I've heard about the former film, but never seen it. Sounds like fun.
Did I hear somewhere that Criterion is planning to release three Fullers, including The Steel Helmet?

January 03, 2006 8:15 AM  
Blogger girish said...

I wish I had Nick's awe-inspiring ambition:
here's his resolution list of movies, plays and books to have under his belt in 2006.

January 03, 2006 8:29 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Man, I love 1950's American cinema.
Thought of another: Otto Preminger.
Whose 1950's output included: Angel Face, The Man With The Golden Arm, Bonjour Tristesse, and Anatomy Of A Murder.

January 03, 2006 8:46 AM  
Anonymous Peter Nellhaus said...

This would have been a perfect time to issue The Crimson Kimono on DVD. I Columbia Pictures really wanted my money, they'd have all of their Fuller films out.
Speaking of the 50s, even if you don't agree with the hierarchy, check out Sarris' list for 1958 in American Cinema. For me, a year that includes Vertigo and Touch of Evil blows out Victor Fleming's lucky year of 1939.
I still haven't seen the De Toth films out on DVD except House of Wax. Hopefully Play Dirty will be available soon. I also liked Day of the Outlaw, the western David Nelson was in when little brother Ricky was making a film with Angie Dickinson.

January 03, 2006 8:53 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Peter, I looked at the Sarris book last night as I was writing the post. It has a permanent place on my piano; I reach for it often.
1958 rocked:
Vertigo, Touch of Evil, A Time To Love & A Time To Die, Tarnished Angels (both Sirk), Bitter Victory, Party Girl, Wind Across The Everglades (all three Nicholas Ray), Bonjour Tristesse, Man Of The West,, Borzage's China Doll, Arthur Penn's debut, Boetticher's Buchanan Rides Alone, Joseph H. Lewis' Terror In A Texas Town,....

January 03, 2006 9:03 AM  
Anonymous Filmbrain said...

I stared at the image for a while, thinking, what does an egg about to be fertilized have to do with Fuller? Sorry I didn't pick up on it.

As for Cox, I highly recommend Three Businessmen. Part Beckett, part Bunuel, and a killer punch line to boot. His documentary on the Emmanuelle films (entitled, A Hard Look) is also quite interesting. He sells cheap ($9.99) versions of several of his rarer films (including his Kurosawa doc) on his website -- www.alexcox.com

January 03, 2006 10:00 AM  
Blogger girish said...

"Sorry I didn't pick up on it."
Filmbrain, don't apologize.
I alone am to blame for the opacity!
And Alex Cox made documentaries on Emmanuelle AND Kurosawa? Wild.

January 03, 2006 10:35 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Okay, I give up.
The pace of new DVD releases has far outstripped my ability to catch up with them.
The mailman brought the new Film Comment. The DVD page announces:
Peckinpah x 4.
David Lynch shorts.
Albert Brooks' MODERN ROMANCE.
Renoir's LA BETE HUMAINE.
Peter Watkins x 4, including the Munch film.
One of the flagships of Brazilian Cinema Novo: VIDAS SECAS.
King Vidor'S HALLELUJAH.
Minnelli x 2.
CLAIRE DOLAN.
SHE'S ONE OF US.
Ulrich Seidl's terrific doc JESUS, YOU KNOW.
Whit Stillman's METROPOLITAN.
David O. Russell's SPANKING THE MONKEY.
Rohmer's TRIPLE AGENT.
Ford's YOUNG MR. LINCOLN.
Almereyda doc about William Eggleston.
De Sica's THE CHILDREN ARE WATCHING US.

I think I've seen more than half of the above, but DVD just makes repeat visits really attractive.

January 03, 2006 10:55 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Oh nice.
Filmbrain's discoveries of the year.

January 03, 2006 11:15 AM  
Blogger Flickhead said...

There's an interesting bit of business between Alex Cox, Tod Davies and Dr. Gonzo in Breakfast with Hunter.

January 03, 2006 12:49 PM  
Blogger girish said...

And I notice that my formerly living but now dead hero Warren Zevon is in it too.

January 03, 2006 1:46 PM  
Blogger phil said...

hey girish, how'd you like Kung Fu Hustle?

January 03, 2006 2:33 PM  
Blogger Flickhead said...

I found Breakfast with Hunter compelling enough to watch three or four times in one week. Here’s the Flickhead review.

January 03, 2006 2:35 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

My most favorite De Toth films, Day of the Outlaw and Crime Wave, are not available on DVD to my knowledge. I really ought to see more of the ones that are out, like Monkey on my Back and the Indian Fighter. Especially the latter since I own it.

Interesting that 1958 should come up. I've been enjoying a daily dose of this lately.

January 03, 2006 4:40 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Phil, I was zzzing through the opening credits of Kung Fu Hustle; nothing to do with the film, it was late. Hopefully, I'll have better luck tonight.
Bummer: the Hunter doc is not at Netflix.
Thanks for the link, Brian.
I haven't yet cracked open my Faber & Faber "De Toth On De Toth" because I've seen just one film by him.

January 03, 2006 6:47 PM  
Blogger Shasta said...

i'll have to check it out a.s.a.p., i'm enthralllllled.

January 03, 2006 8:28 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Ben's 50 favorite tracks of the year:
mon ami, what can I say? You have unimpeachable taste.

January 03, 2006 8:28 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Dave Kehr on Cecil B. DeMille.

January 03, 2006 8:30 PM  
Blogger girish said...

More film and music lists at The Listening Ear.

January 03, 2006 8:35 PM  
Blogger girish said...

'Tis a strange week without Filmbrain's screen capture image to ponder. (Breather between rounds).
And may Aaron's be always as smooth sailing as it is this week. (Speaking historically, not).

January 04, 2006 8:47 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Ever-present "soundtrack" of my days this week:
AC Newman's The Slow Wonder.

January 04, 2006 8:54 AM  
Anonymous nilblogette said...

I just watched HOUSE OF BAMBOO for the first time, and, having not seen any other Asian-influence films, I found myself feeling I was at a disadvantage. I think I ought to rewatch it after I've seen more of them for the cumulative effect.

January 05, 2006 2:43 PM  
Blogger Richard Gibson said...

If anyone has 'Wind across the everglades' on DVD please get in touch. Later this month a great firm here in UK (Eureka) release 'The Savage Innocents'.

http://www.eurekavideo.co.uk/moc/

I like Alex Cox. Here in the UK he has a lot to answer for, he introduced so excellently a series on Sunday night's on BBC2 of some excellent films, some of which have never again been shown on British TV. Every self respecting film fan was glued to their TV set on Sunday nights, I think amongst the people I was at school with he also started getting people who didn't really talk about films talking about films. Certainly at my school all of my buddies watched Moviedrome.

Here is the link, so you guys can see for yourselves the pleasure he bought to our screens. His introductions were witty and well informed.

http://www.geocities.com/kurtodrome/drome.html

I love 'Repo Man', even as a fan of everyone involved in 'Straight to Hell' I struggle to find anything good to say about it, but it's a long time since I saw it. I haven't seen it but some rated 'Highway Patrolman' - it's sad in a way he has to leave this country to make films. For my money 'Repo Man' is his finest hour.

Happy blogging everyone, there is really a great bunch of people posting on this blog. Excellent stuff girish. I'll be checking back every once in a while.

Cheerio from England.

January 05, 2006 4:52 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Nilblogette--I'm a Lubitsch fan too. "Cluny Brown"--it's not on DVD, is it? I know "Heaven Can Wait" is...

Richard--Thanks for visiting and commenting, and for the links. I love "Savage Innocents", it seems so radical even today. I've never seen Everglades.

January 05, 2006 11:04 PM  
Anonymous Filmbrain said...

I was fortunate enough to catch a rare screening of Wind Across the Everglades last year here in NYC. While it's still an interesting film, and a must-see for Ray completists, it's all too easy to see how and where the studio changed the film after wrestling it out of the hands of Ray.

January 06, 2006 10:11 AM  
Anonymous The Pop View said...

It's criminal how few of Fuller's movies have been available on DVD until very recently. The ones that are include Street of No Return, The Big Red One, The Naked Kiss, Shock Corridor, and Pickup on South Street. One that I'd like to see, since it's been 20 years since I originally saw it, is Park Row, about the early days of the newspaper business.

January 07, 2006 12:58 PM  
Blogger girish said...

I taped Park Row off TCM a year ago and watched it twice. Yeah, a beaut.

January 07, 2006 1:07 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Ah, Pop View, you left out one of my faves, Forty Guns. It's a piece of work.

January 07, 2006 1:08 PM  
Blogger Richard Gibson said...

'Wind across the everglades' - I too saw this on the big screen when The National Film Theatre here in London ran a complete Ray retrospective. I was impressed and it does remind me a lot of 'The Savage Innocents' in terms of use of landscape as a major component to the story. I heard from a Spanish friend that it was recently shown on TV in Spain. So if anyone out there does have a copy then please do get in touch.

Channel 4 ran an excellent Sam Fuller season several years ago now including 'The Typewriter, The Rifle and The Movie Camera', I recall seeing 'Park Row' and many of the others mentioned here.

January 08, 2006 7:16 AM  

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