Akira Kurosawa's Ran (1985), set during Japan's medieval period of revolt or "RAHN," is not the work of a contented old man. It begins with an elderly warlord looking to retire, like King Lear. He summons his three sons, each wearing a color-coded robe of yellow, red or blue. To the eldest he bequeaths the command of the kingdom. Then he tells them all to play nice and respect his authority. Whoops.
When I first saw this epic drama at Cinema 21 many years ago, the brief scenes of bloodshed were seared in my brain, and I still wasn't prepared for seeing them again. The world splits open, and it's horrible. Pinkish gunfire mows down wave after wave of faceless men in what feels like a rebuke to the 20th century, to the noble combat of Kurosawa's earlier films and to the Star Wars trilogy those films inspired. Kurosawa's Lear is haunted by guilt. He visits a daughter-in-law whose family he massacred. He begs her to hate him, but she's found religion and holds no grudge. Twilight looms, madness beckons. Kurosawa had lost his producers, his health and his wife. He was going blind. The movie was made in hell.
By contrast, Ingmar Bergman's Swedish sex comedy Smiles of a Summer Night(1955) was produced right here on earth, a couple years before the inferno of The Seventh Seal. Yes, young Bergman really did have a sense of humor. He has great fun at the expense of an impotent lawyer, who prefers cigars to his teenage bride. "I want her to mature undisturbed," he says, by way of fatherly concern. If Kurosawa condemned the 20th century, this is Bergman's naughty love letter to the 19th. His wonderful actors are in their prime, evoking A Midsummer Night's Dream as Freudian farce. Has any comedy ever glowed so brightly in black-and-white?
What outrageous fortune to find these old movies playing alongside the new, on the big screen and on real film stock. At local cinemas, Portlanders enjoy what often seems to be a rare pleasure: total absorption. As someone wrote last month to The Portland Mercury, theaters sometimes cheat by projecting DVDs full of distracting fuzz. If we want to watch DVDs, we can stay in our homes, with other distractions, but I hope we don't always have to. New York has let its movie houses die. What's next, St. Patrick's Cathedral?
is rated R and opens Friday at Cinema 21.
is not rated and opens Friday at PSU's 5th Avenue Cinema.