1969: A great year for film! Sydney Pollock’s bizarre, mid-late period Lancaster WWII vehicle and the late Nagisa Oshima’s underrated look at, among other things, child abuse.
This post is going to start off with a major complaint. The dominantly available version of Castle Keep has been brutally pan-and-scanned. Here’s the opening titles, which establishes Therese (Astrid Heeren) as an object of desire for all men, here for Beckman (Patrick O’Neal):
The aspect ratio looks right to me: 2.20:1. Nice and wide. But these are the opening credits. The rest of the film dramatically changes the frame to 4×3. It’s really annoying and I feel guilty for watching the film that way. It does, however, raise an interesting trend from early DVD versions. Remember how at the end of films the aspect ratio would suddenly change to its much wider (original) version? I have a distinct memory of seeing Lawrence of Arabia this way. Why not watch the whole film that way? I’d guess it’s an artificial way to bring the film to a close and bring us to “the cinema”. I wonder why companies assumed that audiences couldn’t watch rectangularly framed films on square TVs.
There are many reasons that I really like Castle Keep. One of them is Pollock’s technique of time-cuts, tableaus, and sequence shots, all of which are exemplified below. The feel of Castle Keep really reminds me of something Fassbinder would’ve just begun toying with and fully master through his BRD Trilogy period.
Here’s Falconer (Lancaster) and The Count (Jean-Pierre Aumont) in a bunker getting set to gun down a few encroaching Germans as they seek to put an end to WWII and simultaneously protect The Count’s castle full of priceless paintings and sculptures.
After a few shots of Lancaster aiming and gunning:
Pollock abruptly cuts to this overhead angle, the action done, all standing still to look at the aftermath:
The abrupt jump in time, and the stillness of the aftermath, as though we’re intruding on these men mid-deep thought, is certainly Fassbinder-esque. It also sets and maintains an odd tone for a film that is frequently cited as allegory.
Here’s another moment that reminds of the great German auteur. Several soldiers under Falconer’s command head to the local brothel, The Red Queen. They enter and, amidst the red glow of the lights, stare at the women:
Pollock’s camera proceeds on a long sequence shot, introducing various characters, panning, dollying, tilting and craning its way around the room:
Until it lands back on the men (note the smirks):
The slowness of the move, the low music, and the essentially false POV (through their eyes, land back on them), all continue continue the odd ambience and render the Red Queen an essentially different place than the castle. The shallow focus and lens flares aren’t far from those I remember well in Fassbinder’s Lola. Perhaps Castle Keep was an influence. It’s not a stretch – Pollock’s film is very much about the absurdity of war, painting these soldiers as ridiculous outsiders.
Side-note: much of this technique and mood also reminds me of William Peter Blatty’s The Ninth Configuration.
Here are two good frames from the film, and two good reasons why I really missed that 2.20 aspect ratio:
The first one shows Beckman and The Count, the only true art appreciators in the castle framed in a grandiose way, haloed by the lights, surrounded by the warm walls and canvases of the masters. The second shows Peter Falk’s Rossi – momentarily a baker in the film – alongside some of his peers. That squished frame shouldn’t be. It adds an unnecessary bit of claustrophobia and cuts off people at both sides.
Falk has one of the best – and funniest; this film is hilarious! – interactions upon his “seduction” of a baker’s wife:
Rossi: “I’m a baker.”
Baker’s wife: “I’m a baker’s wife.”
The end. It’s a fantastic moment.
As mentioned, Boy is an underrated Oshima. It comes right after his great run of late-60s films and right before the equally underrated The Man Who Left His Will on Film. It’s also towards the end of the super-prolific Oshima.
One thing I’ve always loved about Oshima is his willingness to jump from one style to the next. Boy features an almost entirely static camera. Aside from scenes on moving vehicles, I caught three tilts in the entire film. Otherwise, the frames are carefully composed and the camera never moves. It’s an impressive technique and shows that Oshima is more than just flashy style, anti-old guard cinema, and rebellious New Wave reputation. The man’s got an eye for classical composition and he shows it off.
Sometimes we get trademark-Oshima negative space and only partially visible characters:
But other times we have an evenly balanced frame:
Boy follows a family of con artists. The father (Fumio Watanabe) claims war injuries and is therefore “unable” to participate in the con. He leaves it up to his wife (Akiko Koyama) and son (Tetsuo Abe – “The Boy”) to throw themselves in front of cars and blackmail the drivers.
Another part of Oshima’s technique here is an occasionally changing color tint. The first time it happened was quite surprising. It felt like a nighttime interior with heavy blue and all in silhouette. In short, it felt like a color changed based on narrative (time of day) rather than style or theme (which it turned out to be):
Oshima later uses black and white as well:
A full read on the color schemes are tough. They’re usually used as interludes, particularly as the family travels from place to place. I always find it risky to pin an exact interpretation on an Oshima trait like this one. Suffice to say, it mirrors breaks in the otherwise fast narrative.
Oshima’s frames pack different meanings throughout the film. Here, The Boy, alone, finally faces up to some responsibility. Oshima divides the frame and basically traps him in, forcing The Boy to return to the scene of an accident:
Ironic framing. The half-hidden symbol of Japan looks over a broken family:
More ironic framing (and one of my favorites of the film). The Boy’s younger brother (Tsuyoshi Kinoshita) looks on as his family is arrested. Calm naivete in the foreground, chaos in the background: