Chiaroscuro-Gaga Kurosawa

6 Aug 2013: High and Low (DVD, 1963, Akira Kurosawa)

An absolute masterpiece in so many ways that the mind is perturbed into a state of awe for at least the final hour out of two-and-a-half. Kurosawa’s image as master of the samurai movie has been shown shockingly incomplete by viewings of his modern-times corporate-bureaucratic oeuvre – a subcategory of epic film which has few parallels (Sidney Lumet, maybe?) in any other nation’s cinema that I know about – including Stray Dog, The Bad Sleep Well and Ikiru. The black-and-white cinematography of these films – particularly as restored by Criterion – is gorgeous both in composition and lighting: what the first half of High and Low has in character blocking (roomfuls of people occupying their own distinct territory in the broad ‘Scope frames, at varying depths, all looking in different directions; four men confined by a doorframe as another man looks on from outside) within its confined set, the second half has in locational exuberance (the proto-Kiarostami flow of city lights over a roving police car; the Dutch-angled glide along the glass walls of a dancehall; the ghostlike images of kidnapper and victim overlaying each other on forward-reverse shots in a prison visiting booth). Personalities are revealed not so much by dialogic content or quirky private hobbies as by expertly differentiated behavior and expressiveness within a group, aided by compositions that rarely go in close but show wide tableaux of police and family and business honchos and dancers and junkies in spacious rooms together. Sound design superb: music sparse to accentuate its own eventual usage as well as keep attention on the tension of the drama rather than the sonic tones (amid the anxiety and fury of the suspect’s eventual apprehension the music serves as contrapuntal irony rather than “augmentation” of the expected emotion), and harrowing foley work in the prison and elsewhere. Unlike the somewhat cartoony feel to the action and acting in Rashomon, Yojimbo, Throne of Blood, etc., these corporate drama films rarely feel sentimentalized (save for a few forced crowd-laughter moments and a tad too much earnestness on the part of journalists and cops) and maintain a bleak yet incisive worldview with great precision in detail. But of all the many cylinders these films fire on, the respect for time seems to me the most memorable and significant. From the post-funeral debate in Ikiru to the opening wedding scene of Bad Sleep Well to the near-experimental market-search sequence in Stray Dog and the police-station rundown of accumulated detective work in High and Low, Kurosawa (an editor himself, according to the DVD’s documentary segment) knows how to shape considerable lengths of time into pieces of reality that clearly register as longer than usual without ever sagging or drifting. Instead these expanded moments let the viewer live in and feel the scene as the characters do, which allows for a gradual build in unstoppable momentum and thus the construction of a sense of monumentality for the narrative. This is what film is about: taking stories that look simple and overtold on paper (rich man victimized by kidnappers) and turning them into spaces and emotions through profundity of vision and attention.

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