Rashomon / Rashomama

A fact of my biography it occasionally surprises me to remember, is that I spent a good amount of my high school career doing my homework in front of reruns of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation on Spike TV (R.I.P.). Just the original Las Vegas version—the only time I touched another CSI property was the CSI: Miami backdoor pilot where Catherine and Warrick appeared in a cross-over special. My favorite thing I learned about while watching CSI was the hemoglobin deficiency known as porphyria. My favorite joke I saw on CSI was when Grissom casually established a metric of measurement at a crime scene based on units of Greg, the young lab tech recently graduated to field work, and a personal favorite of me and my best friend. And one of my favorite episodes of CSI was the jokey concept piece in Season 6 where four of the characters each recalled their investigation of a crime scene after Nick’s car was stolen with all the evidence in it.

The episode was called ‘Rashomama’, a reference to the Akira Kurosawa film Rashomon, I would learn later, and I adored everything about it. The conceit of repeatedly revisiting the same scenario though different characters’ perspectives was like catnip for me. You not only learned something more about the case each time, you also learned more about that character through how they saw the scene and their role within it. There were marked differences in the scoring and color correction for each run-through, ranging from adjustments in the saturation and tint to one rendition in full film noir black & white (Greg, obviously). This ability to swap between whole different genres within one work, as part of the overall story you’re telling, their distinct aesthetics serving as the tools for how you are telling it, while also creating the opportunity for beaucoup ~comedy moments~, was one of the most artistically exciting concepts my baby mind had ever been presented with.

And that would be my primary reference for “Rashomon”-style storytelling for the next 14 years. And one of my last references for CSI, too—like most of my high school shows, I dropped it after the next season when I went off to college.

But this week, in the spring of 2020, I decided it was high time I finally watch the original Japanese film that had inspired that episode. And that it was also time to rewatch a bit of CSI for the first time in over a decade.

Rashomon (1950) is also the story of one crime told through four different perspectives. This is the first and most fundamental way in which that old episode of a CBS murder show turns out to have made a pretty solid creative choice. In the movie though, all of the characters were primary actors or witnesses to the event, which left a woman raped and her husband dead. The characters recount what happened to an unseen judge at an open-air court trial in 8th century Japan, each testimony interwoven with a new flashback of what happened in the grove three days before. Interestingly though, the larger framing device means that all of these stories are coming to us through just two of the witnesses, as they repeat what was said at the hearing to another man sheltering with them from a rainstorm. The last memory we see is that of the woodcutter, the primary witness, who is ultimately the only one to speak to us first-hand (the dead man’s story actually even coming to us from two steps removed, initially through the medium claiming to be channelling his spirit). Perhaps appropriately then, the woodcutter’s is the one version that is distinct in any significant formal way: unlike the first three, there is no musical score in his. This effect of sudden unadorned quietness absolutely works to make his tale seem more credible than the others, though the film is still deliberately constructed to keep us uncertain.

Overall, my response to Rashomon was similar to my response to recently watching The Seventh Seal for the first time. I see why this movie, which even 70 years later still does carry some of that air of novelty it had upon its release, was so influential on filmmaking to come, but unlike other black & white movies from the 1950s that I’ve super loved, I was just not that into either of these. Both have plenty that people can write serious essays about, given the films’ engagements with such big ticket topics as God and Truth, so maybe that’s partly why their legacies endure. I would hope it’s not for their poor treatment of women, which was once again a real drag to watch here!

The ‘Rashomama’ episode of CSI also features a number of unflattering female stereotypes, and a woman’s murder. Though she is confirmed by all who knew her to be a cruel and conniving piece of work, which is what allows this to be one of the show’s occasional lighthearted episodes only possible when the victim is a villain in their own right. Anyway, was rewatching this thing ever a full-body astral projection into the past. The number of times I discovered that the way an actor had delivered a line was still lodged in my brain somewhere was, frankly, more horrifying than any of the network-cleared gore. At the same time, boy I had forgotten a lot! The roster of guest stars in this episode was its own trip that I was entirely not expecting. Ray Wise is in this. He’s introduced lurking through a window with a creepy grin and I said aloud “SURELY NOT.” But oh yes, it was Leland Palmer, little as I would have known that back in 2006. Continuing in the Lynchverse, Amanda Seyfried’s appearance a scene or two later I actually accepted quickly, as I think one of my first memories of her was an appearance on House, another of my high school faves.

But the guest actor that really threw me, the one I believe no one anticipated transforming into the outright jump scare it is today, was when, into a faintly fishbowl close-up shot, Chris Hardwick’s face suddenly swung into view. My blood fully ran cold for a moment as my brain’s gears screeched in shock and dismay. Truly chillingly, he’s even playing a “Nice Guy.” Wow no thank you, The Past!

Besides that part though, this episode was still the somewhat ghoulish but fun-having romp that I remembered (it’s CSI, it’s always kinda ghoulish). The CSIs are given time to just joke around with each other with that comfortable, broken-in familiarity you get from actors in a long-running program. The gradual reveal of the [spoilers] ad hoc nature of the crime diffuses homicidal responsibility among a number of people, with the added bonus of lending the story a dash of that getting-the-team-together collaborative spirit of a heist movie. And of course, there’s that distinct Rashomon story structure lighting the whole thing up.

In writer Sarah Goldfinger’s version for CSI, the different perspectives we see don’t fundamentally contradict one another as they do in Kurosawa’s, where the manner of the death and the person left holding the weapon changes from tale to tale. Interestingly, Goldfinger’s is deployed with the opposite intent: where in the original Rashomon each character’s version of events further confounds what happened, in ‘Rashomama’ each telling actually brings us closer to the truth. Meanwhile, the stylistic differences between the memories has been greatly amplified from the movie’s more subtle framing, even moving fully into genre by the time we hit the noir, which is a direction for this four-part recollection format that I support with my whole heart. Like, every single one of the investigators remembers the flowers of the archway differently, and that is that kind of surreal thrill of a detail that I love.

So at the end of the day, CSI may be still be a simple, schlocky little episodic slice of murder sensationalism, but its sixth season Rashomon episode really did do some great things with the concept.

Bacurau

Review contains spoilers

Bacurau is a Brazilian Weird Western with lots of bullets and blood, and not, as I had originally thought, mostly about a Google Maps dystopia erasing indigenous communities. It’s still about the erasing of indigenous communities, in a big way, but that erasure is not merely surreally technological, but very straight up literal through a group of white people who have rolled up upon Bacurau to carry out their own personal Most Dangerous Game.

And that’s where this movie started to kinda shake apart for me. Just because they’d done such a good job endearing me toward this little town through an unhurried, nuanced, funny and beautiful opening. These characters and their relationships to one another were all so rich and layered, and then after about 45 minutes or so, these racist cartoons showed up. I mean, it’s a whole conversation whether it’s more artistically moral to depict bigoted characters as just flat evil and irredeemable or more complicated and humanized, and my answer would be: each has their place in different kinds of works! I have no problem with deranged trigger-happy white supremacists as a genre concept, my issue is just that they’re so one-note that when they started taking time away from the real characters, I think the movie suffered. Sure it’s definitely The Point that the people of Bacurau feel alive and human and interesting and the hunters do not, but it’s just a fact of simplistic characters that they’re less engaging to watch. My solution would be really simple: just cut down a whole lot of their screen time. We don’t actually need it, we can put together what’s happening as the people of Bacurau do, alongside them. I think that would have been a better balance just from an entertainment perspective, maybe also an artistic one for that matter, without losing the central conceit of what this movie is trying to do as an anti-imperialist revenge fantasy.

I do think Bacurau is ultimately successful, I just found it noticeably not as strong as it could have been, in that latter part. Again, part of it comes from how much I really enjoyed the beginning portion. Things like the couple on the outskirts of town radioing over to I think everyone’s cell phones to let them know someone’s driving up, all like “you’ve got two minutes until that asshole mayoral candidate shows up, two minutes,” is such a fantastic way to illustrate community, something deep in my human soul just thrilled to that. And it’s visually fun and pretty too, with some psychedelic little bits of editing that had my quietly cheering, just sitting alone on my couch. And there was a part about the town disappearing from maps for me to enjoy.

The Seventh Seal

The only image I recalled ever seeing from The Seventh Seal was of Max von Sydow playing chess with Death alone before a sea, and I actually had the idea that it was just an hour thirty of exactly that. For this reason I thought I would really enjoy this movie. Turns out it is not that! It is about a fairly large group of people trying to avoid the Black Plague in medieval Sweden. It’s still as allegorical as that famous shot indicates, but actually more about the absence of God than the concept of Death, I’d say. The characters sort of vaguely move from incident to incident—that the Knight has a castle they can head to and try to shelter from the contagion is introduced surprisingly late, for instance, for a primary action motivator—and overall I honestly found it a little rough as a film, though I can’t say that detracts from what it’s trying to do. It’s one of those movies that seems more interested in using art to explore a grand thought than it is in making a grand piece of art that is itself thoughtful.

As often happens with classic movies, my experience of watching this was maybe overly informed by my dawning recognition of what later works I’ve seen were referencing this one. Most striking to me was Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life, which also contains a metafilmic scene of a character having a conversation about faith & suffering & God and artistic depictions of same with an artist painting murals on a church wall. Also, Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey.

The Seventh Seal was made in the 1950s and set in the Middle Ages and it is definitely thinking about gender politics, I’ll give it that, but at the same time, boy a lot of this movie sucks to watch! Oh I don’t know, I’m just tired of having to talk about sexist female archetypes—they’re all here, basically. I mean I’ll admit I did get mildly invested in the health & well-being of the cute little acrobat family who loved each other, but I am unsurprised, for all the reasons mentioned so far, that my favorite part was easily the opening scene, when it WAS just Max von Sydow and Death on a rocky beach in high contrast black & white.

★★★

Corpus Christi

Corpus Christi (Boże Ciało) tells the story of a young parolee with startling eyes getting out of juvie and winding up posing as a priest in a small lumber town, but here’s the trick: he’s genuinely devout and really good at his job, unconventional but with this very intent inspiration to heal, despite the brutality that still follows him, even within himself. And ultimately, the movie might mostly be about a community trying to process their collective grief over a deadly accident that occurred the year before.

This marks the third Polish film I’ve seen, as well as the third Polish film I’ve loved—the cinema of Poland is truly batting a thousand here!

The others I’ve watched were both Paweł Pawlikowskis, shot by his masterful cinematographer Łukasz Żal in beautiful boxy black & white. Corpus Christi, meanwhile, is green—green trees and fields around this little town, green vestments on ‘Father Tomasz’ at mass, and this green quality to the very light itself, seeping in cool like a stream through curtained windows. It’s not a Guillermo Del Toro green or a Park Chan-Wook green, it’s lighter and waterier than that. It’s pretty. “This is a pretty movie,” I remarked quietly. Which isn’t to say it’s soft. What I mean is: in the very first shot, the gaunt, watchful face of our protagonist suddenly fills the frame, starkly lit in the daylight coming through a window, while something violent happens out of focus behind him.

He’s incredible by the way, this young actor. He has an absolutely astonishing ability to go still, ringing like a single held note. Two different times watching him I momentarily wondered if my video had paused, but before I could tear my eyes away to check, he moved again.

There was one plot line that I don’t think really served anything or anyone by following its traditional path, and it would certainly have been a more interesting work if that part had been remained more unexpected, as it seemed it might. There was another moment where I felt as if the script suddenly doubted its ability to write the right speech—admittedly maybe a bit of a Two Towers situation where they realized they’d written themselves into a corner—and sure it’s easy for me to sit here and say ey you should have just gone for it!, because not everyone’s gonna end up with Sam Gamgee’s “It’s like the great stories” speech, but up until that point there had been so much clear yet compellingly enigmatic shit they’d written for that kid that he just sold the heck out of, that I think any words would have been more powerful than their choice to go with none there, just gesture. As powerful as gesture can sometimes be as well. And ultimately this is backhanded compliment because what I’m really saying is I wished every moment could have been as strong as most of them are.

Because maybe we’re in a golden age of priest fictions right now with works like First Reformed and Fleabag and Paolo Sorrentino’s Pope shows all coming out in recent years, but what I was so into with Corpus Christi was that it’s not that filmmaker Jan Komasa just picked “priest” out of a hat as Daniel’s fake profession, a backdrop to the real story he wanted to tell. This movie is fundamentally about concepts of forgiveness and atonement, as they interrelate across criminality, church, and community, and there is a complexity in what is emotionally resolved in the narrative and what is left quite jarringly inconclusive.

★★★★