By Michael Atkinson
[Photo: “Able Edwards,” Heretic Films, 2007]
Once upon a time, cinema was whatever else it may have been a factory that manufactured dreams out of the raw materials of reality. 99.99% of the time, the basic lumber for movies consisted of human beings, physical places, physical laws, gravity, weather, real light and shadow, all caught chemically on thermoplastic. The only notable exception cel animations, or cartoons were intended largely for children, and have only been very occasionally palatable to adults. On the whole, we’ve required the form to traffic in the tangible and the earthly, for better or worse, even if the movies in question involve unicorns, ghosts, the Wizard of Oz, Wookies or Stan Brakhage’s baby.
That was then: we’re on the verge, like it or not, of a new sub-subgenre of techno-movie, and if you’ve seen “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow,” “Sin City” or “300,” you’ve done time on Planet Greenscreen, where absolutely everything but the actors is a make-believe, crazed-art-department blitz of pixels and bits. Even if you were thrilled by these films, you have to admit there’s something missing in each of them specifically, a convincing middle ground, a believable relationship between the foreground actors and the lovingly rendered background hijinks. No wonder the movies all retreat into the idealized past for their stories they already inhabit a disembodied, self-conscious non-world into which viewers have a tough time entering. Which feature film actually hit the starting gate first (all in the spring of 2004) is still subject to debate some say it was Enki Bilal’s Frenchified fantasy “Immortel (ad vitam),” some say it was the Japanese “live anime” “Casshern.” (It sure wasn’t “Sky Captain.”) But most agree it was Graham Robertson’s “Able Edwards,” a modest, L.A.-shot indie filmed with a mini-DV camera on 12-square-foot patch of studio floor, in front of an optical effects screen. Robertson’s movie also has another advantage over the competition: it’s a thoughtful, thematically adventurous piece of work, a virtual remake of “Citizen Kane” that scrambles in Walt Disney’s bio (the hero is a cartoon tycoon branching out into visionary theme parks) and then launches into a claustrophobic future of cryogenics, orbital colonies, cloning and environmental devastation.
Robertson’s movie cost less than a week of catering on “Spider-Man 3,” and so you don’t get that style orgasm you get in the bigger-budgeted films. (The acting, too, is roundly unaccomplished, but as Gwyneth Paltrow and Bruce Willis can attest, fluid performances are not easy under the circumstances.) The weird distance inherent in this kind of movie actually serves “Able Edwards” well: it creates an expressive visual context for the story, which is all about the lost authenticity of the modern human. Tangible sets and locations wouldn’t’ve added nothing.
Then again, the wide-screen cinematography and no-holds-barred ratpit drama of a Yasuzo Masumura movie makes a staunch case for the tangible and the verities of real light and shadow. Running neck and neck with notorious auteur maudit Seijun Suzuki as the most outrageous and breakneck Japanese pulp force of the ’60s, Masumura is an all but unknown figure here. The two men, both in their own ways suggesting samurai Samuel Fullers with crank habits, had careers that ran roughly parallel from the mid-’50s; whereas rock ‘n roll gangsta Suzuki has survived into eccentric lionhood, nihilistic sex fiend Masumura died, after scrounging for TV work, in 1986. In the DVD epoch, no geyser of movie love is kept secret for long, and cult-specialty house Fantoma has been busy sending Masumura’s best films 1958’s “Giants & Toys,” 1964’s “Manji,” 1966’s “Red Angel,” 1969’s “Blind Beast,” etc. out into the hungry void. The newest entry is “Black Test Car” (1962), a ridiculously feverish thriller about industrial espionage automobile makers trying to fuck each other over in the run up to releasing a new sports car. As cynical as any American noir, the film has nothing nice to say about the ways postwar Japanese culture does business, and it says it in baroque black-&-white compositions that makes the film look like a bastard child of Kurosawa’s “High and Low” and Welles’s “Touch of Evil.” The best of the extras include an essay by who else? critic/wordsmith/Asian film maven Chuck Stephens.
“Able Edwards” (Heretic) will be available on DVD May 29th; “Black Test Car” (Fantoma) is now available on DVD.