Douglas Sirk, in Japanese, on acid = Pure Cinema

Posted on 24/04/2011


A disclaimer: if you’re wondering what the title of this post refers to, no, I did not watch a Japanese dub of Written on the Wind whilst on acid, although I have absolutely no doubt that that would be nothing short of amazing. Could you imagine: colours more colourful that our eyes can perceive, sets so pretty they kind of make you feel sugary, dialogue so hilarious it makes us wince with pain as we howl laughing. Oh, could you imagine…

But rather, I’m referring to another film I watched not three nights ago during my “Oh my God, you have to see these films!” odyssey; the night where I sit down and try to catch up on all the films that have been recommended to me, or that I’ve been meaning to tackle for a while now. And what a night it was; who knew there was such a thing as chocolate-coated strawberries and cream lollies?

But there’s one in particular that I’d like to talk about, and it isn’t necessarily the one that I thought I’d find myself talking about. Recommended to me by Dave from ‘Now Showing’ (the DVD and Blu-Ray shop across the road from Swinburne TAFE; which, by the way, is the best thing since sliced bread) just the front cover of the case intrigued me, and since he was being generous that day, it was 25% off. So hey, jack-freakin’-pot!

It is a film that seems bound by no sense of law, convention or order. A film that feels more like a dream than a piece of cinema, although it is undoubtedly the latter; disconcerting and seeming to be emerging progressively out of a fog in the most nonsensical, ridiculous manner. It’s scary (somewhat), hilarious, moving, astounding, and probably the most original, inventive , curious film I’ve ever seen.

It’s also, without a doubt, one of the best.

If you like your film’s smeared with an inch-thick layer of stop-motion interludes, chroma-keying so blatantly obvious that it’s actually quite beautiful, backdrops so fake they look as if they’re about to snap,  randomly dispersed animation sequences and some exuberant, confounding music and sound effect choices, then this is a film you should go and find, right now, regardless of what you’re doing.

Giving birth? Hold it in for 88 minutes and see this movie. In a hostage situation? Stall the kidnapper for just over and hour and go see it. Doing nothing? Stop doing nothing and go see this!

Or, by it’s English name: House

I’ll probably struggle to find the words to appropriately sum up House for another few weeks. It’s kind of a horror movie, and it’s kind of a coming-of-age story, and it’s also kind of a fantasy and a melodrama.

And yet, by the same token, it’s almost none of those things. It’s kind of just an experience, like watching a nightmare unfold in the most beautiful way. It outdoes every other horror movie – or indeed every other film – I’ve seen of it’s time in terms of it’s sheer exuberance, insanity and ridiculousness.

Near the film's climax. Although it doesn't really matter where it falls; it still makes little sense.

I’m not really sure where to start with this one, but I know this much: to give you even the most vague, round-about synopsis would be to distill the experience of watching House, because it is exactly that – an experience. Like trying to recount a drunken night wherein  almost everything was a smear or a blur, or trying to tell a friend about an acid-trip or even  just trying to recall the most prophetic, lucid  of dreams, there is a sense in which any second-hand account of such a cerebral, visceral experience would be to diminish it’s power. Look at the shot to your left. Look at it as an example of the films sheer insanity and total abandon of convention. But also, look at it as if it were a still from a dream; a vivid, blue-Cheese induced dream – reckless, wild, sporadic and uncontrollable.

The whole film feels like this.

Nobuhiko Ôbayashi smiles tenderly at you.

House was directed by Nobuhiko Ôbayashi, a Japanese director of commercials, primarily. Originally forced into studying to be a doctor by his father, Ôbayashi soon abandoned this and began making a series of experimental films on 8 and 16mm with Seijo Universities’ art department. Soon after graduating, he worked concurrently on his experimental films whilst earning a living as the director of a number of perfume commercials featuring Kirk Douglas and Charles Bronson, of all people. House would emerge in the mid-70s, and it was here that every piece of trick photography and avant-garde wizardry came to a head.

It’s also important to realize that, throughout the process of pre-production and indeed principal photography, Ôbayashi’s daughter was a constant presence, contributing the majority of the films many sequences. I particularly like this quote from Ôbayashi, as it is absolutely the antithesis of what House is about:

[Adults] only think about things they understand… Everything stays on that boring human level… While children can come up with things that can’t be explained.

And really, when you watch House, that beautifully expressed hypothesis is painted boldly all over the film, because it is a film told very much from the point of view of a child. It has a sense of sheer abandon, of overactive imagination, of unstoppable creativity; it feels like the kind of thing we would get if we could see into the dreams of a child. It reminded me of dreams and imaginary worlds I used to create in the backyard on summer’s days. There’s a wonderful melancholy in that.

The Aunt and The Skeleton dance together. I don’t know why…

But now, you might be thinking – especially if you’ve gotten curious and gone and looked up the trailer on YouTube – on the basis of not only the poster, but also of the stills and what we now know about Ôbayashi and his process: “Hey Dave, c’mon. This is one of your favourite films of all time? But it looks so shit… How can you like anything that looks like it was made for $50 in a basement by a bad film student?”

To that I would say “That depends on your definition of shit”, soon followed by “Fuck you”, but that wouldn’t exactly breathe new life into this debate.

A big reason is because, a couple of days after watching House, I asked myself the hypothetical question: “Could this story – which I like so much – have been told any other way?”, the answer to which I believe is “Hell no!”. For a moment, I second-guessed myself and thought “No, hang on, you could do it as a graphic novel”, but then there goes the amazing soundtrack. I then thought you may be able to do House as a stage show or an opera, but the practicality of that is just laughable. It couldn’t be realized as a book, as a painting, in still photographs or in a freakin’ concept album!

House has to be told by film!

In House, girls don't catch fire... They fucking turn into it!

That, to me, almost makes House a piece of pure cinema. Now, when you Wikipedia ‘pure cinema’, names like Stan Brakhage and early George Lucas and their experimental works are discussed. You know, works of some high degree of wankiness and seriousness.

But pure cinema, essentially, is the blanket term that refers to any film that relies almost entirely on a series of “autonomous film-making techniques” – in other words, ways of telling a story that are unique to film – to incite an emotional response in an audience. So, for any film to be classed as pure cinema, the following cannot appear (sarcasm abounds):

Dialogue cannot, shall not, and will not appear, because any number of other mediums may use it to incite emotional responses.

Just fuck it right off; characters can make us feel things, and pure cinema suggests that they are unnecessary in this endeavor of making us feel emotions.

Stories are, by definition, emotional roller-coaster rides, and that’s cheating in the realms of pure cinema!

Now, House contains all of these things (with the possible exception of character development, and maybe a strong narrative), but you know what, I don’t care! If you ask me, pure cinema refers to any film that induces a vast variety of emotional responses, and that could not be realized in any medium other than film.

This, in my books, makes House a pure film, an amazing viewing experience, and easily one of my favourite films of all time!

Here’s the trailer:

And here’s a link to buy the Criterion print of the film on DVD. I own it, and it’s so worth having in your collection: