Sunday, February 22, 2009

Kurosawa Akira's Dreams (1990)

I've seen this film as many times as I've seen any of Kurosawa's, although I wouldn't place it very high on a list of his most perfect films.

It's deeply flawed. As mesmerizing as it can be (I'll get to that), it's almost devoid of drama. It can take you a pretty tall glass of green tea to keep you awake to the end. Part of this is due to the fact that Kurosawa decided to make it a message movie, and in the clumsiest possible way. Most of the dreams are, storywise, little more than a setting and a sermon. And the messages are trite at best (the survivor's guilt/futility of war theme in the fourth dream) and annoyingly naive at worst (Ryû Chishû's Luddite monologue in the eighth dream).

I keep coming back to it, though, for the visuals, which are simply stunning. Among other things, I see Dreams as Kurosawa's freest and most passionate engagement with the purely visual aspect of cinema. His most painterly work (I'm sure somebody else has said that).

The fifth dream, the one about Van Gogh, exemplifies what's right and wrong with this film. It's short on drama. Terao Akira as the Dreamer is in a museum looking at Van Goghs, then he's inside one of them. He tramps off through other Van Gogh landscapes brought to life, then finds the master himself. Van Gogh talks about how his obsession to paint is like a locomotive driving him, then rushes off. The Dreamer then walks through more Van Gogh scenes.

Scorsese as Van Gogh is one of my favorite examples of miscasting. Terao addresses him in French, and then Van Gogh opens his mouth and we get: New York. Right. To be fair, Japanese audiences wouldn't necessarily have noticed the accent, or indeed the fact that Scorsese's not really a great actor. They would have been able to focus on all the meta goodness of Kurosawa putting a fellow film director in this role. A painter of a different kind, you see.

Van Gogh's monologue is obvious stuff about the artist's need to capture what he sees. Kurosawa bolsters it with some particularly boneheaded filmmaking, cutting to a shot of a locomotive barreling down the tracks. Yes, I get it.

But the shots of the Dreamer wandering through the world as Van Gogh sees it are revelatory. We start out with real-world landscapes that have been tweaked slightly (vivid paint on wagons, etc.) to make them look like Van Goghs. Then we enter his world entirely, with Terao wandering through VG's sketches, and some paintings shown as paintings. My favorite is a cut we get to the Dreamer standing in front of some mammoth brushstrokes - so enlarged that we can see the shadows cast by raised ridges of paint. As he starts to walk we zoom out until the abstract brush-daubs resolve into a recognizable painting.

The result of all this is a surprisingly tactile engagement with Van Gogh's art. Mrs. Sgt. Tanuki, who happens to know something about art, is often pointing out wonderful brushstrokes and paint textures when we're in museums; clearly Kurosawa appreciates them too.

Here and elsewhere in the film he's fulfilling the promise he made by casting Scorsese: he's showing us the intimate connections between the art of the painter and the art of the filmmaker. On this level, if no other, Dreams is a masterpiece.

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