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Economic Measures #6 | Sonny Chiba in The Street Fighter (1974)

Economic Measures is a regular column celebrating those facial and bodily gestures in film that say a lot with a little.

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By Michael Pattison

In the run-up to the climactic duel of The Street Fighter (1974), the film’s protagonist Tsiguri (Sonny Chiba) boards an oil tanker, on which its owner, oil heiress Sarai (Yutaka Nakajima), is being held hostage by the mafia cohorts who want to steal her fortune. Awaiting Tsiguri are gun-toting thugs, casual hired hands and two siblings who had earlier refused to pay our protagonist after the latter had completed a dangerous job for them. This finale is a masterpiece of meaningful action, in which multiple story threads meet in one final showdown. Driving it, as he has done the film, is Chiba, a pulsating, intense figure whose anger seeps through at every turn.

A major part of what makes The Street Fighter a more sophisticated film than its contemporaries is its high production values. Shot on location in Hong Kong and Japan by cinematographer Kenji Tsukagoshi, it boasts a dazzling display of colours and compositional vivacity – in the ultra-widescreen 2.35:1 format – that its otherwise ordinary plot would customarily preclude.

Another key contributor to The Street Fighter‘s success is of course Chiba himself. In contrast to Bruce Lee, the man is vicious from the outset, and though he is revealed to have a code, it is largely governed by financial need. Lee’s appeal lay in the arrogance with which he began a conversation knowing he had his fists of fury to fall back on when the other guy inevitably turned nasty. For Chiba’s character, fighting is the only viable means of communication.

Tsiguri’s father, we learn via flashback, was killed for being a spy, and the resulting legacy is one of distrust, resentment and a self-made tough-guy status: nothing upsets Tsiguri more than an unfulfilled promise, which is why he bears the burden physically as well as emotionally when he makes one to someone else. Indeed, physical force is an emotional outlet in itself for Chiba. To watch him in just about any scene in The Street Fighter is to witness someone channelling a deep, conflicted spiritualism into a lethal weapon. If the reason we continue to like Bruce Lee is his speedy chic – aided by the mysticism that follows a premature death (he’s a kind of Bob Marley of martial arts) – then Chiba’s charms are rooted in a thuggish morality, whereby the pursuit of monetary sustenance fuels his capacity to fight, and thus survive. Never underestimate a guy whose reason to fight is economic.

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These qualities are encapsulated in the scene aboard the oil tanker at the end of the film, as Tsiguri makes his way from the deck to the deeper corridors and engine room below, downing any man (or woman) who dares to stop him. Tsiguri’s ferocity alone seems to compel him onward, like a motor whose sound drowns out all other human attributes. To think of an equivalent performance recently – in which the gruelling element of a fistfight becomes a kind of the structuring principle – we might look to Jean-Claude Van Damme’s exhilarating one-man attack on the compound in John Hyams’ Universal Soldier: Regeneration (2009). Matching the kind of formal audacity that has included an x-ray image of a skull being smashed earlier in the film, Chiba here personifies someone who really is going to go all the way. While knuckles and feet are his preferred weapons of choice, he doesn’t think twice about throwing a knife into the arm of a woman who points a gun at him, and he is unforgiving enough to throw a man to his death even after he has incapacitated him.

Beginning this 4½-minute sequence of fights by stealthily offing a guard and carrying him overboard, Chiba becomes increasingly maniacal in look and angular in movement. Indeed, so heavy is the body count to come, and so confined are the spaces in which he must run this gauntlet, that somewhere along the way, Chiba’s more balletic manoeuvres become less elegant. And that deep, cacophonous hiss-cum-growl that he summons in his throat between each attack becomes harsher, more audible. In a word, more alien: here, fisticuffs are a thing of consequence, something by and through which man is both spiritually and physically transformed. Resembling a possessed demon by the time he plunges his fatal fist into a female foe (tactfully obscured by an upturned settee), Chiba’s quest to save Sarai has changed him: even if he does down everyone in his path, we get the sense from his eyes that he’ll never quite recover from it, and that a relationship with Sarai would be out of the question.

Irredeemably intense, this odds-against, self-destructive plummet into violence prefigures that other antiheroic climax of the 1970s – that of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. Likewise, when his fight is over, Chiba’s fate is open to ambiguity.

Contributor Michael Pattison can be followed on Twitter @m_pattison and runs the blog idFilm.net.

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Recurring Nightmares #2 – You Can Check Out Any Time You Like, But You Can Never Leave

[Editor’s note: Recurring Nightmares is a new, regular column concerned with teasing out those little connections that haunt our cinematic memories.]

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By Jonathan Bygraves

“It’s just a room”, Mike Enslin (John Cusack) sarcastically reports into his dictaphone upon first inspecting the eponymous hotel suite in Mikael Håfström’s 1408 (2007), before dryly adding, “I’ve been here before”. The sense of weary familiarity in that latter line of dialogue, not contained in Stephen King’s original short story, might on its surface appear to be merely a gag on the decorative sameness of the typical hotel room, but it also comes as a sly intertextual reminder to the viewer that they too, in a sense, have been here before.

The precedent which the line most readily recalls is naturally 1408‘s illustrious forebear, Stanley Kubrick’s own King adaptation The Shining (1980), but it nods to a longer lineage of cinematic horror hotels which stretches as far back in time as the medium itself. Indeed, strip away 1408‘s CGI pyrotechnics and Bad Dad backstory and its basic function is near-identical to that of Georges Méliès’ trick film L’auberge ensorcelée (1897), arguably the earliest example of the sub-genre made over a century earlier: simply place a man in an apparently ordinary – if quietly sinister – lodging room, and let the spooky goings-on ratchet up in intensity.

That such a set-up has survived the century of cinema intact speaks not only of its abiding utility as a genre device but also of a fundamentally unsettling quality that hotel rooms can possess. Though in many respects rooted in the age-old Old Dark House exoticism of Gothic literature, the horror hotel differs in that it serves to situate the viewer in a hinterland between the quotidian and the Other. Hotel rooms, in seeking to replicate the comforts of home for a myriad of different occupants, very often represent an impersonal, inexact facsimile of domesticity, which is used in the horror film to create a feeling of dissonance – halfway between the familiar and the strange – tapping directly into what Freud termed Das Unheimliche (the uncanny).

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The possibilities for mise en scene, however, vary considerably within the sub-genre, perhaps best delineated into two distinct sub-classifications: the ornate and the abject. In the former, best exemplified by the baroque grandeur of the ‘Timokan’ hotel in Ingmar Bergman’s Tystnaden (1963) or the luxuriance of the lobby of Ostend’s Thermae Palace in Harry Kümel’s Les lèvres rouges (1971), the uncanny is rendered as a function of opulence: soaring archways, sweeping staircases and, in particular, the maze-like corridors in both Bergman’s film and The Shining. These labyrinthine passageways implicitly hark back to cinema’s greatest exploration of the uncanny, Alain Resnais’ L’Année dernière à Marienbad (1961) (itself reciprocally related to genre cinema via its Hitchcock ‘cameo’), which Kümel’s film more explicitly pays homage to in the presence of Delphine Seyrig as its wanton countess.

By contrast, the sons of Psycho (1960) render Otherness through their locations’ symbolic abjection from society. Remember that Hitchcock’s film begins in a hotel, but one ensconced in the urban familiarity of Phoenix, before journeying with Marion to the remote isolation of the Bates Motel, symbolically representing a move from the civilised to a more primeval wilderness. In this respect it prefigures the Backwoods Horror cycle initiated by John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972) and Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), and was already enough of a cliché to be effectively satirised by the time of Hooper’s own horror hotel entry Eaten Alive (1977) and Kevin Connor’s cartoonish Motel Hell (1980), before subsequently resurfacing in recent years in Nimrod Antal’s Vacancy (2007) and the franchise spawned by Eli Roth’s Hostel (2005).

This latter strain plays into another key signifier of the hotel: that of transience. In Stephen King’s introduction to his 1408 story, he asks rhetorically, “How many people have slept in that bed before you? How many of them were sick?”. If Old Dark Houses are haunted by ghosts of centuries past, a prior guest in a hotel room may have euphemistically ‘checked out’ as recently as the time it takes housekeeping to have cleared up the mess. Longer stays, on the other hand, seem to imply a character’s psychological descent: see Agnes White’s prolonged stay in her dilapidated motel room in William Friedkin’s Bug (2006), Barton’s escalating sense of unreality in the Hotel Earle in Barton Fink (1991), or even Phil Connors in Groundhog Day (1993), whose indeterminately long one-day stay in his Punxsutawney B&B hints towards the same sense of claustrophobic unreality resulting from an over-extended hotel sojourn.

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The characters for whom hotels are seldom places of transience are the staff, who from John Llewellyn Moxley’s The City of the Dead (1960) to Vacancy typically wear a thin mask of obsequiousness to veil their sinister hidden motives, a trope overturned for comedic effect in Miike Takashi’s Katakuri-ke no kōfuku (2001) in which its cheerful inn owners are helpless to prevent their guests dying via as series of increasingly bizarre incidents. By contrast, the about-turn in spectatorial identification in Psycho, signalled by the protracted sequence of Norman Bates dutifully cleaning the Bates’ cabin after Marion Crane’s famously interrupted ablutions, allowed for a more sympathetic eye for its initially two-dimensionally creepy owner-manager. The implication here is that the impersonal domesticity of the hotel affects its workforce as much as its guests, a theme explored more fully in Jessica Hausner’s Hotel (2004), in which banality inspires its own form of Lynchian nightmare.

If the viewer, then, is sympathetic with Norman Bates, then Psycho disturbs precisely because it makes the us complicit in his extra-curricular voyeurism. His lecherous peering through his crudely-fashioned peephole at his undressing guest mirrors that first shot of the film, which cranes in through the Phoenix hotel window to witness to Marion and Sam’s initial illicit tryst, emphasising the prurient allure of the hotel room and its connotation with adultery and secretiveness. So too, more fancifully, is there a certain mimesis with the experience of cinema-going itself: travelling to a place of comfort and refuge, homely but not-home, alone but in the close proximity of strangers. As the semi-success of Mike Enslin’s pulp paperback exposés in 1408 and the evident demand for the underground snuff movies in Vacancy serve to illustrate, the horror hotel is unlikely to lose its hold on the popular imagination any time soon.

Contributor Jonathan Bygraves can be followed on Twitter @iambags and runs the blog Serene Velocity.

Support Scalarama!

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I wanted to draw your attention to the upcoming Scalarama film season/festival, which will take place in September. The guys behind it have written a detailed manifesto about its aims, and they need to raise some funds (via Kickstarter) to make it a reality. Here’s just a snippet:

More than a festival, Scalarama is an inclusive film season, a movement for movie lovers and a celebration of cinema in all its forms.

We invite you to join a community of enthusiasts from across the UK; a range of film organisations, programmers, curators, collectives, academics, journalists and film fans – all will come together for one month to share their belief that watching a film as part of an audience is something important, valuable and worth championing. Scalarama is not just about film, it’s about the experience, and the people and the passion behind the projector.

Scalarama is open to all, whether you submit an event as part of our Open Programme, select to show one of the specially chosen titles from our Core Programme or take part in national Home Cinema Day on Sunday 29th September (see below for more details). Now in our third edition and with hundreds of events expected to take place across the country, we are on the verge of making a real impact on how people think and talk about cinema. With your support, we can make this year’s season the widest and most inclusive film event yet.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? For the full skinny (including video), and details on how to donate, visit the Scalarama Kickstarter page.

All being well, Permanent Plastic Helmet hopes to present an event at this year’s festival.

5 reasons to come and see The Warriors

In case you’ve missed our occasional blogging and tweeting about the matter, we’re screening Walter Hill’s cult classic The Warriors at London’s Clapham Picturehouse tonight! Prior to the screening we’ll have fun times in the bar, an intro and a prize draw. But if that isn’t enough, we’ve put together 5 more reasons to convince you to part with your cash.

1. There will be pizza

The Warriors is New York City cinema at its finest, and, as we all know, the reason why everyone loves New York is because of its pizza. So in order to replicate the NYC experience, we’ve flown in some authentic pies from The Bronx for your gastronomic pleasure*. Who can say no to free pizza in the bar beforehand (from 8pm)?

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*actually from down the road in Clapham, but that’s our little secret.

2. We’re screening it from a 35mm print

We’ve managed to source an original print, so your experience of the film will be enhanced by the warmth and feel that only celluloid can give you. It’s the perfect showcase for Andrew Laszlo’s superb cinematography and the film’s myriad amazing NYC locations. Here’s a snap of the print! (P.S. We should say at this point that the print is an old one – not a restoration. As such, it’s picked up a fair few bumps and scratches along the way, and has a slight pink coloration).

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3. It’s the perfect summer movie

The weather’s scorching outside, so cool down in the cinema. You never know, you might pick up some clothing tips for the rest of the summer. The Baseball Furies (below) know what’s up.

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4. It’s exemplary action cinema from a master at the top of his game

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Walter Hill developed his reputation making lean, mean action classics, and The Warriors found him bang in the middle of a run that included the likes of Hard Times, The Driver, The Long Riders and Southern Comfort. There’s no fat here, just 90 minutes of suspense, music, dry humour, and fighting… lots of fighting. Just how action cinema should be.

5. Because could you really live with yourself if you missed the chance to spend some quality time with Luther?

Exactly. So, you can buy tickets here or grab them on the door. Food and drink in the bar from 8pm, film at 9. See you later!

Paula Deen and Oprah Winfrey in slow-motion = absolutely terrifying

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By the looks of it, this horrifying video has been doing the rounds for a while, but I owe PPH contributor Ed Wall a big “thank you” for pointing me in the direction of a positively Lynchian treatment of a no-doubt inoffensive (apart, perhaps, from the occasional ‘N’ word) meeting between the now-disgraced TV chef and the multimedia empress.

For the full nightmare experience, listen to audio only.

[Source: Pixelbark.com]

The PPH Twitter Question #1: favourite book about film

[Editor’s note – Each week, I’ll throw out an open, pop-culture related question on Twitter, and collate the results in this space. The aims? Not too lofty: to stir debate, to provide recommendations, and to introduce Tweeters to each other. I’m also fascinated by the idea that someone can be a good “Twitter writer”, cramming wit, eloquence and import into such a tiny space. Hopefully we’ll see some of that, too.]

The original question:

The responses: