For cinema fans who've never gotten a taste of old-school Japanese B-movies, watching the works of psycho auteur Seijun Suzuki can be like listening to the Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique your whole life, then one day discovering Abbey Road and the collected works of Curtis Mayfield, Kurtis Blow, Sly Stone and James Brown in rapid succession.
Homage is nothing new in cinema. But ever since Quentin Tarantino cobbled together every genre influence that ever gave him a boner for Kill Bill, movies channeling hip-hop and sticking samples in their soundtracks have been a pop-culture calling card. It's a wink at audiences who are in the know, and a way for filmmakers to draw attention to under-seen masters or pass off their own work as original.
Few directors have influenced such a broad audience for so long with as little mainstream recognition as Suzuki. This month, NW Film Center hosts a robust and completist retrospective, starting Friday with Suzuki's batshit 1966 classic, Tokyo Drifter.
One need only look at the one-two punch of Suzuki's two most significant films—yakuza noirs Tokyo Drifter and Branded to Kill—to see how this misunderstood rebel influenced everything from Tarantino's chop-sockey mixtape to Jim Jarmusch's Ghost Dog, the gun-fu ballets of John Woo, the unabashed crazy of Takashi Miike, and even Scorsese at his most surreal.
These films—which got Suzuki blacklisted from the Japanese studio system for being so incomprehensible—are, at their very core, stock exploitation films. The hard-boiled updates of samurai lore and gangster-chic dive headlong into expressionism. They jarringly slice up scenes like a katana and add blasts of jazz, avant-garde flourishes and enough explosions of color to make Dario Argento believe he's taken the wrong acid. That's to say nothing of the musical numbers featuring pop star/actor Tetsuya Watari, which we'll leave for your own discovery. The less you know about any of Suzuki's films going in, the better.
Suzuki's work—steeped in noir, teetering into sexploitation, always dazzling—is a prime example of trash cinema taken to artistic levels. His films are absurdist turds polished with the eye of an artist hungry to make an impression while bucking the very system that first employed and then jettisoned him, cementing his status as a nerd legend.
Suzuki, like those who followed in his footsteps, isn't so much interested in original concepts as he is in taking established genre tropes and taking them to demented heights. It's that quality that makes his films at once familiar and seemingly unstuck in time. He was making trash-picture throwbacks 40 years before it was cool.
The revival of films by Suzuki, now 92, should inspire a whole new onslaught of fans. Sure, his body of work emphasizes violent, surreal style over substance. But when the style's this singular and frenzied, substance is just filler anyway. Accept no imitations.
SEE IT: Action, Anarchy, and Audacity: A Seijun Suzuki Retrospective is at NW Film Center. April 8-29. Visit nwfilm.org for a full schedule.
Kevin Costner classics Field of Dreams and Bull Durham continue their run at the Mission, while For Love of the Game is forced to wait out in the parking lot, where it belongs. Now playing. Mission Theater. See mcmenamins.com for full dates and times.
The Queer Commons LGBT film series presents 1985's My Beautiful Laundrette, Stephen Fears' story of a Pakistani man (Gordon Warnecke) and his complicated relationship with a racist gutter punk (Daniel Day-Lewis) who happens to be his lover. Hollywood Theatre. 7:30 pm Wednesday, April 6.
Friday Film Club unearths French master Robert Bresson's Au Hasard Balthazar, the tale of a rural farmhand rife with existential ponderings about life, relationships and cruelty. Also, the farmhand is a donkey. It sounds odd. It is. It's also very moving. NW Film Center's Whitsell Auditorium. 5:30 pm Friday, April 8.
Few films have managed such a deft , timely and enjoyable deconstruction of their chosen genre as the slick, nasty, hilarious Cabin in the Woods. Scream comes to mind. The difference is, Cabin holds up slightly better, and likely won't be an MTV series any time soon. Academy Theater. Friday-Thursday, April 8-14.
At age 20, Trainspotting is set to get a follow-up film based on Irvine Welsh's Porno, which seems a little unnecessary considering how the original meshed hope and despair so wonderfully in its closing minutes. But hey, we're never opposed to more Ewen Bremmer. Laurelhurst Theater. Friday-Thursday, April 8-14.
A great poet once said: "Lordy, lordy, look who's 40 (times 10)," and as such, the Clinton celebrates the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death with 2005's The Taming of the Shrew (Friday) and 1971's trippy-as-hell A Midsummer Night's Dream. Clinton Street Theater. 2 pm Friday & Sunday, April 8 & 10.
With 2008's 40 Shots of Rum, director Clair Denis frames the story of a young woman and her widowed father through a lens inspired by Yasujiro Ozu's Late Spring, offering a thoughtful and deliberately paced drama. 5th Avenue Cinema. 7 & 9:30 pm Friday-Saturday, 3 pm Sunday, April 8-10.
Time (and some serious overhauls to Times Square) might have made Taxi Driver's grimy take on New York dated, but as a portrait of a man whose unhinged take on humanity and heroism is completely deranged by his environment, the past 40 years have made Scorsese's masterpiece frighteningly timeless. Hollywood Theatre. 7 pm & 9:30 pm Friday, 7 pm Sunday, April 8 & 10.
For many, Grease is the perfect musical. For folks like me, the idea of enduring the film for any amount of time is like being water-boarded in a Scientology lab. Saturday's screenings are hosted as sing-alongs, which will either be a rollicking good time of a real-life reenactment of the scene from Scanners where dude's head explodes. Which is to say… Grease is fucking divisive! Mission Theater. Opens Saturday, April 9. See McMenamins.com for full dates and times.
In honor of Gregory Peck's 100th birthday (and, incidentally, on the heels of Harper Lee's death), Cinema Classics stays true to its name with 1962's To Kill a Mockingbird, a film in which Peck plays a paragon of justice and understanding who absolutely, 100% does not go on to become a bigoted shithead in a later story. No sir. Hollywood Theatre. 2 pm Saturday & Sunday, April 9 & 10.
Usually, Hecklevision focuses on a relic of a bygone era for its tomato-tossing diss fests. For this very special edition (they're all special, really) they head back a mere year for a screening of The Rock's San Andreas, in which Dwayne Johnson beats the shit out of an earthquake, or something. The hecklers this time include a geologist and members of the Portland Neighborhood Emergency Team, who will provide emergency preparedness info. You know, just in case you don't' have the Rock to back you up when the big one hits. Hollywood Theatre. 9:30 pm Saturday, April 9.
Kung Fu Theater unleashes 1978's Five Deadly Venoms, one of the greatest martial arts films of all time, with respect to The Next Karate Kid. Hollywood Theatre. 7:30 pm Tuesday, April 12.