Kanazawa Film Festival 2013

The third Monday in September is Respect for the Aged Day in Japan which gives us a nice long weekend soon after school has started back. This is one of my favourite weekends in Kanazawa because not only is the Kanazawa Film Festival held then, there is a Jazz Festival and a Curry Festival on at the same time – a feast for the senses. Usually the weather is lovely, although this year we caught the tail-end of a typhoon so there was a lot of rain, but that doesn’t matter when you’re going to be indoors.

Last year, the theme of the festival was sex, and this year the theme seemed to be sci-fi horror, and it focused on films that played up the cinematic experience, through the use of gimmicks. The most famous is probably The Rocky Horror Picture Show, when the event itself is more important than the film. I hadn’t heard of most of the films on show and even though many of them seemed to be the kind of unsuccessful film that the distributor let the copyright lapse on and are now up on youtube, I wanted to see them in the cinema, because I haven’t seen very many B-movies and bad movies are better when they’re old.

My only must-see film was Giorgio Moroder’s Metropolis. I have never seen the original but I remember when the most complete version was restored in 2010, it was screened in the National Concert Hall in Dublin with the original score performed live by the RTÉ Concert Orchestra.  Unfortunately it was sold out before I even knew it was happening. Since then, I have always wanted to make an event out of it. I wasn’t sure what Moroder’s version would be like. What would the the king of disco do to the expressionist classic of cinema?

By the 1980s, much of the original version of the film had been lost, because it had been cut when it was brought to America, and not many reels survived WWII in Germany. Moroder hunted down old copies of the film in New York and Australia and made the most complete re-edit of it until the 2000s. Changes he made were to quicken the frame rate, colour tint the scenes, replace the intertitles with subtitles, and of course, add a pop soundtrack. Despite the fact that it was very strange to be listening to Pat Benatar, Bonnie Tyler and Freddie Mercury belting it out in a film where the actors can’t make a sound, I really liked his soundtrack. I can imagine that when it was released it would have been jarring, but now I think the combination of the 20s’ expressionist visuals with 80s’ electronic music create a complementary twentieth-century futurism. At the screening in Kanazawa, the music was played at a ridiculously high volume so after two hours, my ears were ready to bleed. As my friend said, that was the loudest silent film I’ve ever seen.

I went to see Phantasm in order to see a 70s scary movie, which no horror festival can be without. It was pretty ridiculous but it did have a good creepy soundtrack and moments to make you jump. I wouldn’t really recommend watching the whole film, but the clip below was probably the best scene in it. I won’t bother giving a plot summary.  For this showing the festival used gimmicks, like when the silver ball from the scene below appeared on screen, plastic balls were thrown into the audience, and when the characters were getting chased by hooded dwarves, people dressed in robes would run across the stage and through the audience. The gimmicks weren’t great, but they did make us laugh at the ridiculousness of the film. Watching a bad film on your own is no fun, but watching one with a group of people is a lot of fun.

Island of Lost Souls is based on the H.G. Wells novel The Island of Dr Moreau (though Wells was not happy with the adaptation). A shipwrecked sailor ends up stranded on Dr Moreau’s island which is populated by very strange-looking ‘natives’. The sailor discovers that Dr Moreau has been experimenting on animals to make them human-like. Even the woman who he was attracted to turns out to be a panther. This film was made in 1932, pre-Hays Code, which was why it was able to have such risqué features as a vivisection, the implication of bestiality, a man comparing himself to god and a woman taking off her stockings. It was banned in the UK three times. The film has a dark exotic atmosphere and the special effects are very good. Bela Lugosi is unrecognizable as one of the half man/half beasts.

The Tingler was not meant to be seen outside of a cinema. As you can see from the intro below, the director William Castle directly addresses the viewers in the context of a movie theatre. He is encouraging the audience to respond to and participate in the film. Castle used gimmicks which he called percepto to make his audience feel what the actors were feeling. This film was very popular at the festival and we were lucky to get seats as many people had to sit on the stairs. My seat was at the side so I missed out on some of the gimmicks, but the seats were rigged to vibrate when people on screen screamed, a model of the tingler was pulled across the stage, and when at one point in the film the tingler escapes into a cinema, the screen went black and the audience was encouraged to scream for their lives! It was great – a huge dark room full of screaming people. The film itself was hilariously bad. Vincent Price plays a coroner and scientist who believes that fear causes a physical entity to appear in the spine of the scared person, which will crush it until the person is dead unless they release their fear by screaming. The name comes from the tingling sensation felt in the spine when a person is frightened. Price manages to capture a tingler (an over-sized version of a velvet worm), but it escapes and causes mild mayhem. The best scenes are Vincent Price on an LSD trip, a deaf/mute woman being terrorized by visions including a bath of red blood (the only colour in this black and white film), and the Tingler being made to crawl by clearly visible wires. It’s worth a watch if it’s being screened with percepto and an audience that’s willing to scream.

I had high hopes for Altered States, a film by Ken Russell. In the late 1960s a scientist (William Hurt) is researching various states of consciousness, believing that they can be as real as the one we live our day to day lives in, and that through these altered states we can discover truth and our true selves. It started well too, with experiments involving hallucinations in isolation tanks and examining schizophrenics. But Hurt wants to move beyond these hallucinations so he goes to Mexico to get hold of a psychotropic drug used by an indigenous tribe. This drug, combined with the isolation chamber, allows him to break through the last barrier. This is where the film could have examined philosophically how we perceive the world, but instead *spoiler alert* he turns into a monkey. His hallucinations have caused his genes to regress so he becomes a Primitive Man. Further devolution experiences that bring him to the brink if existence cause him to appreciate his humanity with all its doubt and confusion as preferable over nothingness (which is what his wife had tried to explain to him from the beginning). I thought it was unfortunate that it went the same way as The Tingler, turning a psychological (or at most a neurological) sensation into a physical manifestation, taking away the fear of the unknown and representing it as something that can be laughed at. However, I really liked the special effects of the hallucinations, and I liked the characters, despite their flaws, and their attempts to live normal lives despite their existential dilemmas. I would recommend it.

The last film I went to see was Midori (地下幻燈劇画 少女椿 Chika Gentō Gekiga: Shōjo Tsubaki). I went despite the fact it was in Japanese and that I knew many horrible things happened in it. The Camellia Girl was a character from picture stories that would be told by travelling storytellers in the 1920s in Japan. She was a girl who goes from selling camellias on the street to becoming a slave in a freak show. The story was written as a manga in 1984 by Suehiro Maruo and then as an anime in 1992 by Hiroshi Harada. It took the director his life savings and five years of drawing and painting the cels by himself. The result was a rough, unpolished anime in the style of the kamishibai tradition of picture storytelling. The film was banned on its release because of Japanese censorship rules, but it gained a cult following because Harada would only allow it to be screened if it was presented as if the viewer were visiting a freak show. The film festival did the gimmicks well for their screening. We were let into the barely lit theatre that was strewn with red string and toilet roll. As we walked down the stairs we had to step over the masked people lying there and clear our way through the paper and string to sit (this would be a total health and safety hazard in Ireland). When a particularly gruesome scene took place the seats vibrated and the masked attendants rang bells and hit drums. At the end, when cherry blossoms are floating across the screen, they blew pink confetti over the audience. A lot of horrible things do happen in this film, but I really liked the animation. The beginning of the film shows pictures of traditional Japanese monsters which points out that Japanese art has a long history of the grotesque. The following clip is not one of those scenes, it’s the most beautiful and happy scene in the film.

I enjoyed the opportunity to experience these films as performances rather than just watching them.  While gimmicks can disrupt your attention, they are fun for films where it’s impossible to suspend disbelief because they are just too ridiculous (The Tingler).

Review: Fritz the Cat

I still have a couple of more posts about America to put up, but things are happening here in Japan in the meantime that I don`t want to leave too long to write about so here`s one of them!

It was around this time last year that I went to the Kanazawa Horror Film Festival where I saw The Cool World, and I was surprised this year that I hadn`t seen any posters up for it, so I looked up the Film Festival website to see what was happening. To my surprise, this year`s festival wasn`t horror but erotica! I had a look at the programme which had the films grouped into different categories like animation, horror, films focussing on erotica in showbusiness etc, but the main focus of the event was a retrospective of Christina Lindberg, a Swedish softcore porn actress of seventies fame who shot a few pink films in Japan. Her film Thriller: a Cruel Picture was an inspiration for Tarantino`s Kill Bill. I had originally wanted to see Extasy; a 1933 european film starring Hedy Lamarr that was banned in the United States but that also got Lamarr noticed by Hollywood for her subsequent film career. But unfortunately I couldn`t go at the time it was being shown and it was also not in English.

I did however get to see three films in the festival. The first was Showgirls (1995) with Elizabeth Berkeley (of Saved by the Bell fame) and Kyle MacLachlan (Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks). This apparently caused quite a stir on its release for the amount of nudity in it, as Berkley spends about a sixth of the film completely nude, but I had never heard of it. The reason I went to this film was because it was the opening screening of the festival, and not only was it free but it was being shown outdoors! Yes, ladies and gentlemen, there was a free outdoor screening of an erotic movie. Only in Japan. I hadn`t realised, but Christina Lindberg herself was the special guest at the festival and she gave a short speech at the beginning where she talked about coming to Japan for her films in the seventies and apparently her film Sex and Fury was partly set in Kanazawa. Not only that, but a girl also performed a pole dance before the film started. It was quite impressive. The film itself was pretty dire, if it was on television I wouldn`t have watched it all the way through, but as with most bad movies, it was quite fun to watch it with a group of people and many a belly laugh was had. It was quite a strange experience.

I also went to The Night Porter, and though it`s not the kind of film you can say you enjoyed, I`m definitely on the side of people who think its a good film. Although some of the plot was silly or confusing, I thought the acting was great and it really made me wonder how anyone who has been through something as horrific as a concentration camp can function normally in society afterwards.

The other film I saw was Fritz the Cat, an animated 1972 satire of the swinging sixties that became the first animated film to receive an X rating. Despite this, it’s tame by modern standards compared to some cartoon shows today like Drawn Together and Family Guy. Because of its rating, when it was released it didn`t have a very wide distribution, and so its distributors, who specialised in exploitation films, promoted its more controversial aspects. It’s about the hypocrisy of the sixties, especially that of the radical youth who want to change the world but who don`t know anything about it, and who say they’re looking for truth when really they’re just looking for drugs and sex. The cartoonist who created Fritz the Cat, Robert Crumb, wasn’t happy with how the film turned out because he thought it had too bleak an outlook, which is strange considering he was a pretty cynical individual.

The story is taken from the comic strips Fritz the Cat, Fritz Bugs Out and Fritz the No-Good as well as some original ideas of Bakshi. The plot is a bit of a mish-mash because of this, but it doesn`t really matter, because it`s the characters that drive the story. Fritz is a naive student who has a lot of ideas about life that he doesn`t understand. He`s not a bad guy, he`s just a phony. He wants free love, drugs and revolution, and in his quest for these he meets a lot of interesting characters, most of which are terribly politically incorrect – crows from Harlem, pig policemen, a Nazi rabbit. I suppose some people might take offence from the blatant stereotyping, but the point of it is to poke fun at racists and people who take themselves very seriously.

Most of the voices in it weren`t done by professional actors or even recorded professionally. This makes it difficult at times to hear what`s being said (in the part with the rabbis, I wasn`t sure if they were speaking English or not), but it does give it a strange documentary-like ‘realness’ in the midst of the surreal madness of the imagery. Most of the conversations you hear in passing were actual conversations that Bakshi recorded with construction workers, black guys from Harlem and his Jewish relatives. The soundtrack itself is great too, and there`s an unexpected intermission where a crow jives to Bo Diddley as the next scene slowly appears as a screen in the distance getting closer.

The animation combines Crumb`s two-dimensional style of the characters with a more painterly approach to the backgrounds. The backgrounds are often skewed and don`t adhere to fixed rules of perception depending on what character is experiencing it. This is to be expected in the drug scenes, but one that shows the death of the crow Duke in a riot through the imagery of billiard balls is pretty affecting. There`s also a beautiful collage-style scene through a dump in Harlem to the sound of Billie Holliday`s Yesterdays where we see broken bottles and syringes mixed with cast-away personal items like photographs. Bakshi highlights the problems of the civil rights era through his seemingly insensitive caricatures because he doesn`t glorify the people who have it rough, nor the university-educated, middle-class students who are aware of the problems in society without understanding them. I suppose this resonates with me because I am one of the latter.

“All you cats the same, man. You don’t know where it is. There’s nobody to tell you where it’s at. And you come up here, try to find out where it’s at… but you got to be up here, man, to find out what’s happening.”
“I know it isn’t a ball, man. I studied the race problems. I know.”
“You don’t know nothing about the race problem. Got to be a crow to know about the race problem. You know what I mean? Do you dig where I’m at? You know what I’m talking about?”
“Man, this thing affects me very deeply, fella. As a cat, I have a considerable guilt complex… because my kind have always brought suffering on your kind. Yes, indeed, my soul is tortured and tormented by this racial crisis.”
“No shit?”

Pretty much the entire film is quotable, but this is Fritz`s soliloquy where he ponders his existence.

“Bastards… you’d think the goddamn exams was the be-all and end-all of existence… the cosmic life-force or somethin’. Can’t even say a few decent words to a guy… the bastards… What a bore… they just sit there and take bennies an’ stay up all night with their face stuck in a bunch of books an’ their thumb up their ass… Yes… yes… I remember the time when it was all very inspiring and enlightening… all this history and literature and sociology shit… You think learning is a really big thing an’ you become this big fuckin’ intellectual and sit around tryin’ to out-intellectual all the other big fuckin’ intellectuals… you spend years and years with your nose buried in these goddamn tomes while out there the world is passin’ you by… and all the stuff to see and all th’ kicks an’ girls are all out there… an’ ME, a writer and a poet who should be havin’ adventures an’ experiencing all the diversities and paradoxes and ironies of life and passin’ over all the roads of the world and digging all the cities and towns and rives and oceans… and making all them chicks!
As a writer and poet it is my duty to get out there and dig the world… to swing with the whole friggin’ scene while there’s still time!
My farting around days are over! From this day on I shall live every day as if it were my last! Yes! Yes! I must do it! No more the dreary boring classes, the dismal lectures, the sitting around bullshitting with pretentious fat-assed hippies, no more the books, the spoutings of a bunch of old farts who think they know the whole goddamn score!
Oh God! What have I done? I’ve set all my notes and books and stuff on fire and now I can’t study for my exams… I’ll flunk out and my folks’ll be pissed off as hell… I’ll get a blanket… the blanket’s on fire. We’d better call the fire department.”