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Flash Festival Review, 5-23: Eternal Springs
Age-less Middle Ages at Anthology Film Archives

A scene from Ingmar Bergman's 1960 "The Virgin Spring." Image courtesy Anthology Film Archives.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2013 Paul Ben-Itzak

In her introduction to Anthology Film Archives's Middle Ages series, resuming this week and running through June, medieval scholar and series collaborator Martha W. Driver, citing art historian Erwin Panofsky, compares the making of a film with the making of a cathedral, because of the many planners and executors involved. I'd beg to differ in one respect: As monuments and signifiers of history go, cathedrals are easy to locate and visit; in France whole tours have been designed around them. Great films, however -- as I'm reminded just about every time Anthology programs a series on just about anything, with the putative theme often becoming a (worthy) excuse to share forgotten gems of cinema -- often repose in obscurity, just waiting for a pro-active cinematheque to dig them up to be re-discovered by a new public. And not just cinematheques. Those of us who cannot afford to live in New York often rely on DVDs, and those of us who live in an anti-intellectual place like Fort Worth, Texas depend on our local library and adventurous DVD distributors to enlighten us with this history. So if you also do not live in New York or San Francisco and don't have the opportunity to visit cinematheques like Anthology or the (somewhat less adventurous) Museum of Modern Art, don't despair: Urge your local library to check out the catalogue of the Criterion Collection, which supplies mine with most of its foreign films and classic American flicks, and distributes many of the films Anthology is featuring in this mini-festival.

Driver is distinguished professor of English and women's and gender studies at Pace University, a fact I was not surprised to learn after viewing two of the films in this series, both from Kaneto Shindo and set in Japan, the 1964 "Onibaba," showing May 25 at 7:15 p.m., June 1 at 9:30, and June 9 at 8:30, and the 1964 "Kuroneko," being projected May 25 at 9:30, May 29 at 6:45, and June 2 at 8:30. Both films feature mother-daughter (or mother-in-law - daughter) pairs of anti-heroes who lure and then savagely kill samurais, either just to survive because their men are off at war ("Onibaba") or for revenge ("Kuroneko," where the women appear to be the ghosts -- or metamorphosing black cat -- of two women raped, killed, and burned in their straw hut by a famished militia band). In fact, watching the scheming mother in "Kuroneko" glide along the floor of her palatial house in an ethereal gown while her daughter seduces then tears the throats out of her victims, it's easy to see where Quentin Tarantino stole the idea for Lucy Liu's villain in "Kill Bill."

A scene from Kaneto Shindo's 1968 "Kuroneko" Image courtesy Anthology Film Archives.

Don't compare Shindo to Tarantino or, for that matter, Russ Meyer; these films are no "Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!" In "Onibaba," the real subjects involve phantoms and spirits, masks and demons, and traversing between the underworld and the living one. When the daughter starts sneaking off to be with a sloughful returning comrade of her reportedly dead husband, the mother -- either protectively or jealously -- descends into the pit into which the women discard the dead bodies of their unsuspecting victims to retrieve the frightful mask of her latest victim, who she tricked into plummeting to his death in the hole. Donning the fallen samurai's costume and mask, she then intercepts the daughter every night in the whispering field as she's dashing to her illicit rendezvous, forcing her to run screaming back home. One night, though, it rains and the mother, unable to get the mask off, must confess her deception to the daughter when she returns home. The latter agrees to help her pry the mask loose only after exacting a promise that the mother will no longer impede her nightly visits to her paramour. To remove it, she has to bludgeon the mask; when it finally comes off, the mother's face is so bloodied and distorted she has to chase the fleeing daughter to convince her she hasn't in fact been turned into a real demon. "I'm human!" she screams, as the two leap in graceful slo-mo over the the hole, but we're not sure if she still is, or if the sticky mask just revealed her true demonic nature..

A scene from Kaneto Shindo's 1968 "Kuroneko." Image courtesy Anthology Film Archives.

Unlike the Shindo films, Ingmar Bergman's 1960 "The Virgin Spring" certainly did not need to be unearthed from obscurity, but showing it in a series alongside the Japanese films reminds us of the role nature plays in signifying timelessness, thus taking these stories out of the realm of historical artifact and making them eternal. Here a teenaged daughter, decked out in her best golden finery (to go with her golden tresses) to travel to the village church bearing gifts, is seen riding side-saddle on a beach before penetrating a forest, where three brothers, convincing her to stop and share her food parcel with them, reward her for the picnic by raping and then killing her, while a sullen, pregnant servant girl who secretly wished the young woman ill fortune watches helplessly, unseen. Later, the perpetrators unwittingly seek shelter in the victim's parents' house. When they try to sell the mother her daughter Karin's blood-stained gown, she tells the father, and he brutally kills them all -- including the youngest, just a boy who had nothing to do with the rape and is so sickened by it he vomits up his dinner, and who the father (Max Von Sydow) kills by hurtling against a wall.

If all this seems gruesome, in fact it's a film of beauty, and not just because of the father's redemption, when he promises to make penance for what he's done by building a church abreast the creek where the daughter's body is retrieved. Through the Karin's loss, we're reminded how precious young life is. When the father lifts her limp body from the ground, water gushes forth from the spot she's been covering; youth springs eternal. (In a preface to the DVD release, Ang Lee notes that "The Virgin Spring" was the first foreign movie he saw, and one can see Bergman's influence in the role that haunted nature plays in Lee's 1997 "The Ice Storm.")

Speaking of the resurrections of the flesh, Anthology's medieval series also includes Pier Paolo Pasolini's 1971 version of Boccaccio's "The Decameron." There's a reason this movie plays permanently at a tiny theater on the rue Cujo on Paris's Left Bank; you can only see it at Anthology May 26 at 8:45 p.m. and May 30 at 6:30.

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