pinn & cribbs

Every day, it seems like there's more being written about fewer films. The internet is an endless expanse of opinioneering, but every blogger seems to be working from the same limited Rolodex. How many times do the virtues of The Godfather need to be extolled? If you love horror movies, do you ever need to read anything else about (the truly excellent, totally brilliant) Halloween or The Evil Dead? How many "Top 10" lists do you need to see recycle the same titles before you realize, "Gosh, maybe I should see The Shining and Casablanca?"

There's a whole universe of movies out there, but you wouldn't know it by perusing critical websites. Look, we love Funny Games (both versions) as much as anybody, but maybe it should be mentioned at some point that The Seventh Continent and Benny's Video are equally interesting films. It's possible some people never tire of reading about standbys like Stranger than Paradise, Breathless and On the Waterfront, but once a week give your palate over to the Pink Smoke and we'll recommend some films that maybe you didn't even realize were thoroughly, totally, 100% worth your attention. At very least, they're not films you'll have already read about 453 times.

tom noonan, 1994

~ by marcus pinn ~

If you like: 90's American indie cinema, video store gems, IFC's late night programming, a non-menacing Tom Noonan performance.

What Happened Was... may not have stood the test of time like other American indie films from that popular early/mid 90's renaissance era, but it's still one of the best and most realistic portrayals of that jaded yet desperate dating scene among adults in their mid 30's/early 40's. It also holds the distinct prestige of being a great New York City film without showing hardly any of the actual city. Because of this, it doesn't really get grouped in with other important NYC-based films, which is kind of understandable as we don't see any real landmarks like we would in a Woody Allen, Spike Lee or Martin Scorsese film. Instead, What Happened Was... conveys that daily New York City 9-to-5 grind and the toll it can take on you through dialogue rather than typical shots of crowded subways and sidewalks full of miserable people on their way to work. Tom Noonan, who before making his directorial debut with this film was best known as a character actor in movies like Last Action Hero and The Monster Squad, makes that New York City lifestyle of commuting and tiny cubicles seem sad, depressing and pointless without ever actually showing the inside of an office building. The only views we ever get of the city are in the opening and closing shots of film where we see the outside of Jackie's apartment, within which the entire film takes place. What Happened Was... is the story about a rough first date between co-workers Michael (Noonan) and Jackie, played by early Hal Hartley regular Karen Sillas - both actors give two of the best performances of their careers. Adapted from Noonan's play of the same name, this is a dangerous movie for some people to watch, as I'm sure it's pretty semi-autobiographical to so many faceless people going through the motions of dates that go nowhere, hating their jobs, pointless gossiping among co-workers, paying too much rent and all the other ridiculous bullshit that comes along with living in New York City. It's also a film that plays off of that unspoken fear that many single adults have (especially single adults in their 30's & 40's) about never finding love and living the rest of their lives alone.

The opening of the film is one of the best scenes to convey loneliness without a single word spoken. In the beginning we're introduced to Jackie lying by herself in bed with a vibrator on her nightstand and a half empty glass of wine. At first these elements don't necessarily represent loneliness. In fact that opening scene makes you laugh a lil'. From Parenthood to The Piano Teacher the vibrator (or any kind of female sexual aid that isn't a penis) has always kind of represented shame and embarrassment on the big screen with the exception of a few films that focus heavily on something like S&M. Usually in films about dating or romance, we get that scene of the woman frantically cleaning her apartment at the last minute before her date comes over (there's actually a moment like that in What Happened Was...) Obviously a vibrator is the last thing a woman would want out in the open for anyone to see, specifically a date. Even if company isn't expected, we're usually led to believe that right after using a vibrator it's supposed to go right back in the drawer. A vibrator just left out in the open is not only unexpected but also leads us to believe that company isn't over at Jackie's place too often, emphasizing her loneliness. And by the end of the film, when both Jackie and Michael break down and go their separate ways, we think back to that opening shot of Jackie lying on her bed and it takes on a whole new meaning as both characters end up alone. My only small gripe with What Happened Was... is that we don't get a glimpse into Michael's home and we're slightly more attached to Jackie. But then again this film takes place over a period of one night in a studio apartment. Obviously one of Noonan's goals was to show the minimalism of the play that this was adapted from, so there's only so much you can show before you lose that minimalist/stage play feel. And at the same time we can imagine his living space is probably the male equivalent to Jackie's.

What Happened Was… is a great blend of dark humor, sadness, sorrow, hopelessness and those awkward moments between two broken people that are just as cringeworthy as they are funny. There's been plenty movies about intense first dates where way too much personal info is revealed between strangers, but this one is up there at the top. On Michael and Jackie's first date, everything goes in and out of going great (making out, sharing personal and revealing secrets, letting guards down) to going horribly wrong (crying, unintentional insults, breaking down, even an all-out argument.) Very rarely do people bring the kind of baggage that our two characters bring with them or say the things they say to each other on a first date. Some moments are funny, like when Michael accidentally degrades Jackie's position at work:

    Jackie: "I'm an administrative assistant."
    Michael: "Is that what they're calling secretaries these days?"<
    Jackie: "...Yeah, that's what it says on my paycheck."
    *Awkward silence*

Other moments are just awkward - and very realistic - like the scene when Michael touches Jackie's lower back and she immediately jumps (although that moment does serve as an ice breaker and the two co-workers get a little more comfortable with each other after that.) It goes without saying that chemistry is important in a movie that's carried by only two actors, and Noonan and Silas have nothing but that. Once those first date jitters are gone, Michael and Jackie share pieces of themselves with one another until the final moments when fear sets in on Michael’s side and he chickens out from a potentially great evening. In one of the film's pivotal moments, Jackie shares a personal short story that she wrote which kind of frightens Michael: during this scene when Jackie is reading her story, Noonan constantly cuts to these intense, darkly lit, up close and personal shots of his face that's expressing uncertainty, fear and intrigue all at the same time. This leads to the films finale where things break down between our two characters and the date goes downhill (which is an understatement.)

It's a shame Noonan hasn't directed anything since the late 90's. Besides being Noonan's most accessible film, What Happened Was... also laid the groundwork for his other two films, The Wife and the rarely seen Wang Dang (actually I don't know a single living soul who's seen that one.) All of his films have the same themes and elements like very small cast, darkly comedic atmosphere and a story that takes place in a few short hours.

Up until recently before you could see What Happened Was... on Netflix Instant, it served as one of the few remaining films that represented the importance and need of having a video store. Had it not been for a friend who recommended this to me after randomly watching it on IFC eight years ago, there's no telling when I would have seen this lil' gem. Luckily the video store I used to work at (Tommy K's) had a copy of the now out-of-print VHS and since it hadn't been rented out in quite a few years my boss sold it to me for a dollar. I was pretty obsessed with this film during the fall of 2004. I remember going home to watch this on a nightly basis at one point when I'd get off of work. Besides the fact that this is a great film, it also serves as a passage to discovering other great films and filmmakers, specifically Hal Hartley. Karen Sillas' strong yet vulnerable performance in What Happened Was... stuck with me so much that I wanted to see everything else she'd been in, which led me to Simple Men and Unbelievable Truth (both of those films were also carried by Tommy K's at the time.) Her delivery of the line "Flattered? Are you fucking kidding me?!" to Michael at the end is so fierce and at the same time heartbreaking. You can imagine so many real women in her position delivering the same exact line at some point in their life. So not only is What Happened Was... one of my recent favorite discoveries, but it also serves as a very important vessel in to the world of film for me.

rokuro mochizucki, 1995

~ by john cribbs ~

If you like: Yakuza movies, actors vomiting on the camera lens, the lead guy from Audition beating up Takashi Miike.

Has the quintessential book on yakuza movies been written yet? I haven't read Mark Schilling's new one, but if it's anything like his Nikkatsu book I imagine it's probably a fun collection of interviews and reviews that doesn't go into too much depth as far as the subgenre's history. The reason I ask is this: I've seen my fair share of Japanese gangster movies, but I've never felt sufficiently informed of their background the way I do whenever I watch a jidaigeki or Japanese horror film. For example, who's the John Wayne of jitsuroku-eiga? I've always considered Ken Takakura the epitome of leather jacket/katana sword stoic cool, but of his 180+ Japanese films practically none of them have made it to the States. Couldn't somebody out there clarify whether Takakura is truly the go-to Alain Delon of his country, or would that be someone like Bunta Sugawara or Joe Shishido? Even the auteurs are hard to pin down: gangster films weren't even the most prevalent kind of movie made by Seijun Suzuki, Toshio Masuda or Kinji Fukasaku, whose Battles Without Honor and Humanity is the closest thing the country has to a Godfather-type saga.* Of course Takeshi Kitano and Takashi Miike have subverted the subgenre over the last 20 years by making their mob movies excessively, surrealistically violent, but even watching their films I feel like there are specific details about the history of Japanese cinema I need to understand to fully appreciate them. Anyway, I'm pleading ignorance on my behalf just in case what I have to say about Rokuro Mochizuki's movie comes across as speculative or uninformed.

The English language title** of Mochizuki's movie says a lot about its mood: from the start, it seems resigned to be a film about yet another lonely hitman. The set-up's the same as countless other films in the subgenre: honorable yakuza assassin is released from prison only to find his reliable code of giri has been kicked to the curb with the arrival of the unscrupulous new heads of the syndicate and there's no place for him within the new corporate-like structure of yadda yadda yadda. "You know the drill" is the conceit Mochizuki seems to be forwarding with this basic Pale Flower premise, but he sets up the clichés to seemingly knock them down when his lonely hitman turns out to be less the lethal lone wolf and more a miserable joe unable to make any real life decisions. Despite being introduced in flashback as a Beat Takeshi-like badass/whackjob who shoots up, aims his gun at a kid, then steals the kid's hat, casually strolls into a restaurant where he offs a rival boss in front of everyone in the place, sits down and asks the waitress to call the police, Ishibashi Ryo's title hitman Tachibana next turns up 10 years later a vulnerable and aimless relic of the old regime. In the climate of the new crime conglomerate, his superiors don't have any use for him: rather than close out contracts, his only option to oversee the syndicate's shabby porn video business, which is being shaken down by various other outfits. When he musters some of the old mojo to deliver a beatdown to a lowbrow pimp, he's castigated by the new bosses and forced to fork over some of his post-prison money to make amends with the pimp's high-ranking bosses. Even after this humiliation, he remains a liability to his group and an annoyance to the dominant clan.

But Mochizuki doesn't have events lead to a full-blown crime war as they normally do in these movies. Tachibana doesn't arm up to show these young punks how things used to get done: he pouts resentfully like any normal guy who's disgruntled with his job and lets the frustration effect his performance with young former prostitute girlfriend Yuki ("out of practice," he reassures her.) Instead of retaliating, he turns his attention to helping Yuki kick her heroin habit, going so far as to chain her to the bed for days so she can sweat it out (the scenes of her ramshackle rehab are alternatively horrific and hilarious.) Tachibana's motivations for helping her don't seem particularly noble - as a reformed junkie, he comes off like an annoying born again Christian, using his formerly vendible toughness against the only person he can still push around. He's insistent and sometimes insufferable, more often than not coming off as completely unreasonable: his family's power has diminished during his incarceration and they're going through a difficult transition spearheaded by the stronger gangs to circumvent new laws against organized crime! It seems like they're doing their best to accomodate him, but Tachibana channels his obsolete methods (he doesn't seem to understand that they don't need anyone murdered right now, but thanks we'll keep your resume on file) towards a newfangled moral tenacity against the family's drug and prostitution departments. Being another unemployed hitman doesn't suit him, so he focuses on bringing down the organization and starting over as a fisherman. It's never suggested he has any experience with it - it's just another cliché he has to follow to have something to do. His motivation is his complete lack of motivation, but that's what makes him so interesting, and - whether intended or not - a comment on characters like Kitano's standard nihilistic bulldog of a malcontent mobster and his incalculable body counts. Tachibana is just as cold and indiscrimately violent, but he's forced to create classic yakuza movie scenarios for himself to carry out his superfluous purpose, like re-casting a clean Yuki as the daughter who needs proctecting once her role as redeemed hooker/junkie is played out. Not a lot of filmmakers could pull off such subtle post-modern manipulations of narrative and subversions of subgenre, but Mochizuki never loses focus of his interest in character study, letting things play out leisurely without distracting forays into unwarranted action sequences. Despite scenes of brain-splattering gunshot wounds and the previously mentioned vomit POV shot, there's not a lot of violence in the movie although it still feels brutal and inherently hopeless, every frame forlorn and isolated.

* Maybe pigeonholing directors to the genre is besides the point: after all, Coppla himself never made another "Italian immigrant mob family" movie outside the Godfather trilogy. If you look at his filmography, he could be as legitimately pegged a director of YA juvenile delinquent melodramas or Robin Williams comedies.
** The loosely-translated Japanese title is "The New Ambiguously Sorrowful Hitman."

~ OCTOBER 1, 2012 ~