Lear meets the energy vampire

Akira Kurosawa's "Ran" remains a bloody and spectacular depiction of doomsday karma -- and the trickle-down theory of anarchy.

Published September 21, 2000 7:10PM (EDT)

For people who grow up loving movies, returning to the work of favorite actors or directors can be as jarring and illuminating as blowing the dust off a family photo album. Even if our judgments about films are identical the second time around, our emotional reactions, if we've grown at all, change or deepen. Rediscovery becomes self-discovery, and the sparkle on the screen casts a mysterious tunneling light.

Two wildly different reissues have snared me in that mesmeric spell. Recently rewatching "Ran," Akira Kurosawa's masterpiece, I was struck by an echo of David Lynch's marvelous "The Straight Story." The aging hero of Lynch's film illustrates the strength of family with sticks: You can break a single stick, he says, but you can never break a bundle. The tragic hero of Kurosawa's movie says the same thing about arrows -- but his youngest son manages to snap a bundle on his knee. I always admired "Ran." This time I loved it. That's partly because of Kurosawa's refusal in his old age to soften his worldview or his storytelling. What came off as virtuosic in 1985 now also seems valiant.

On a less grand level, I also got more out of seeing Monte Hellman's cult film "Two-Lane Blacktop" last week than I did nearly 30 years ago. Seeing it in 1971, hyped with an awful quote from Esquire calling it "the movie of the year," I thought it was both spare and overblown. Now the wispy and elusive premise -- a cross-country car race that peters out -- registers as a marvelous showcase for a character actor whose earthy volatility I grew to revere: late, great Warren Oates.

"Ran," of course, has always been a hair-raising epic. In the new print touring the country (next stop: San Francisco) it doesn't merely pop your eyes, it also makes you feel clearheaded. With a 160-minute running time that gradually accelerates into a gallop, "Ran" has the imaginative force to air out your brains and revivify your senses -- to make you more attentive to life as well as movies. Not just an electric Japanese interpretation of "King Lear," it infuses Shakespeare's tragedy with black-comic elements derived from "Macbeth" and a mystic fervor all Kurosawa's own. "Ran" sums up the sensei's action-film profundity in its ultimate phase.

"Ran" is one of the last big-screen extravaganzas to depict vast and terrifying Nature and the thrill and awfulness of cataclysmic battle without overreliance on special effects. Like the great silent filmmakers, Kurosawa waited for just the right thunderheads to unsettle us with a vision of a mute, ambiguous universe. He also took advantage of every chance to bend natural elements to his creative will -- so that, say, dewy mists around Mount Fuji gave the aftermath of battle a pale, spectral glow. Like a great choreographer-general, he had enough mastery of mass movement to make a flutter of ensigns on a distant hill send a chill charging up your spine. Of course, his inspiration comes from his subject: a man's confrontation with his destiny.

Kurosawa's Lear is a 16th century warlord who has three sons (not three daughters) and a career studded with conquests. Kurosawa's genius is to tell his story so that every step suggests how wild and savage a journey it has been. At the start, this bold, dominating figure, now called Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadai), is a sacred monster who wants to be a sort of warlord emeritus. He hopes to bequeath power to his oldest son while retaining his own entourage and emblems of command. He hasn't reckoned with the ambition of his successor or the manipulative skill of his heir's wife, who goes for the sexual and political jugular of anyone who invades her sphere.

Kurosawa has a trickle-down theory of anarchy. ("Ran" has been translated as "chaos.") Kurosawa's monarch, like the Bard's, overburdens the bonds of family when he places his security on the shoulders of unsuitable and unready offspring. Hidetora's wishful thinking blinds him to the honesty of his third and youngest son, whom he banishes for bad-mouthing his scheme.

For Kurosawa, more than for Shakespeare, the monarch's real erosion of authority has its roots in the way he acquired power in the first place: through systematic pillage and slaughter.

Shakespeare showed us sound and fury signifying nothing; Kurosawa delivers a spectacular depiction of doomsday karma. Hidetora long ago routed the evil Lady Kaede's clan. That's why she yearns to see the old master stripped of any kingliness. She doesn't stop playing lusty power games when Hidetora's oldest son, her husband, is killed, and Hidetora deteriorates into madness. She promptly seduces the second son, Jiro. He may already be wed to the saintly Lady Sue -- the daughter of another of Hidetora's conquered enemies -- but that doesn't stop Lady Kaede. As the power of each man in the tragedy recedes, Lady Kaede's keeps growing. She's a No drama version of an energy vampire.

Mieko Harada brings to this tigress part a jet-black passion that's as keen and swift as it is seductive. She shivers with ecstasy when she nicks Jiro with a knife. By the time we see Hidetora roaming over wind-ravaged hills and pitiless barren plains, Lady Kaede has become a Fury. She merits her stunning, geyserlike send-off; it's as gasp-provoking as anything Kurosawa came up with in the 23 years between "Sanjuro" and "Ran."

Everyone admires the climactic glories of this movie. The rap against "Ran" has always been that its first hour is too formal and slow moving. I think the opening frames are charged with invisible vectors emanating from Hidetora's potency. No other film has made an audience so viscerally conscious of all a king's horses and all a king's men waiting at their ruler's beck and call. That's one reason the ensuing chaos pulls you in like a vortex.

When the two oldest sons' armies converge on Hidetora and his retinue in a churning sequence of phantasmagoric carnage, it forces him to confront the victims' side of war. There are moments of violence that are appalling and crazy and inevitable all at the same time, like Hidetora's favorite courtesans falling on each other with daggers in a double suicide. As arrows shower down on every side of him, the sight is almost like a circus bow-and-arrow act turned into harrowing torture. Hidetora sees his own brutal legacy. He lapses into shock. As the battle encircles him, time slows to a bloodcurdling eternity.

"Ran" has a trickle-down theory of anarchy, all right, but it trickles down, in gore, all the way from heaven. The gods have left men -- and, as Lady Kaede shows, women -- at the mercy of their human drives for dominance and retribution.

I spoke with Kurosawa in 1986, when "Ran" was in its first run. He was 76 at the time and still a Jovian figure, towering over his entourage, smoking cigarettes and wearing his trademark sunglasses. (He died in 1998.) By the calendar he might have been a lion in winter, but in his geniality and vigor he seemed positively springlike. I asked him why he blanked out the sound in the first, traumatic battle except for the mournful music. "What I was trying to get at in 'Ran,'" he said, "and this was there from the script stage, was that the gods or God or whoever it is observing human events is feeling sadness about how human beings destroy each other, and powerlessness to affect human beings' behavior. The music comes up to represent the feelings of the gods."

Kurosawa's canvas covers a complete spectrum of thought and emotion and yin and yang, from the Buddhist balance of Lady Sue and the hale masculine confidence of Hidetaro's youngest son to the overflowing emotion of the Fool (played by a famous female impersonator called "Peter"), who spills his home truths in a taunting and coquettish way -- as if he were an intermediary between male and female worlds. Without this broad a canvas, the film could not bring off its sense of a universal turbulence.

In the battle scenes, the armies are color-coded: yellow, red, blue, black and white. The effect of clarity within chaos is both aesthetically transporting and psychologically leveling. As the armies charge, regroup and retreat, Kurosawa's lightning palette lets you trace the eddying coils of humanity. Never have such simple symbolic acts as foot soldiers shedding their insignia and leaving flags strewn across a field attained such deadly impact.

Yet the movie ends with simple images of Lady Sue's brother, a blind flutist, and, lying in a moat, a portrait of the Buddha. "In the past," Kurosawa told me, "the contrast between different characters' viewpoints -- that was what I was best able to grasp. Now it's finally become more natural for me to take a more objective viewpoint. 'Ran' is maybe the first time that I feel confident that I have achieved that overview."

Warren Oates placed himself and director Monte Hellman at "the tail end of the Beat generation." Hellman's 1971 road movie, "Two-Lane Blacktop," reopens with a new print in New York next week and also is available on an Anchor Bay DVD loaded with extras, including an audio track with Hellman and associate producer Gary Kurtz. (Two years later Kurtz would co-produce another low-budget movie about cars -- "American Graffiti.") I always thought Oates' Beat comment merely meant that he and Hellman and their sometime compadre, Jack Nicholson, were rambling, cantankerous individualists.

But "Two-Lane Blacktop" really is a big-screen Beat movie, shot in bracing natural light in wide-open Techniscope: an "On the Road" for drag racers, starring James Taylor and the Beach Boys' Dennis Wilson as a laconic team known only as, respectively, "the Driver" and "the Mechanic." Laurie Bird is a rambling gal known only as "The Girl" and Oates is the enigmatic "G.T.O." G.T.O., of course, drives a GTO. He's on a quest to gain some existential traction after a cryptic crackup in his life. When G.T.O. crosses paths once too often with Taylor and Wilson's customized 1955 Chevy, his paranoia and competitiveness lead him to race the scruffy, longhaired Taylor-Wilson team from New Mexico to the District of Columbia, with the winner getting the losing car.

For connoisseurs of American cult cinema, "Two-Lane Blacktop" is a treasure-trove of influence and reference. Rudolph Wurlitzer, who rewrote Will Corry's original script, went on to pen Sam Peckinpah's "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid"; the antiheroes' '55 Chevy was later driven by Harrison Ford in "American Graffiti." And when Walter Hill made a film called "The Driver" about a character called "the Driver," could this film have been far from the back of his mind?

Hellman himself executive-produced Quentin Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs," while, around the same time, Richard Linklater alluded to this film in "Slacker." What's touching is that all these ripples emanate from a movie that's basically a mood piece. It's about men in the grip of a narrow obsession that allows them to pass unscathed through a small-town, pre-mall America, which Hellman catches with an eye and ear for sloth, distrust and parochial allegiances. Wilson has an engaging, unselfconscious smile and Taylor a compellingly tense focus. But the film would be nothing more than a lyric ramble if not for Oates' performance as G.T.O.

Allen Ginsberg might have studied Oates as a small-town cop in "In the Heat of the Night" and a scruffy outlaw in "The Wild Bunch" and written a poem about him titled "Scowl." Oates could glower, furrow his brow and pull in his lip as skillfully as Fred Astaire could dance or Cary Grant could grin. A good ol' boy from the coal-mining town of Depoy, Ky., Oates reached Hollywood by way of the Marines, the University of Louisville and odd jobs in New York. Even in an age of easy riders and easy pieces, Oates' confusion had special resonance. His scowl, which could suggest anything from bereavement to amusement, most often signaled a mixture of anger, befuddlement and defeat in the midst of a modern world that was passing beyond any individual's powers of understanding. Oates said he didn't feel at home in cities and had a strong sense of cultural dislocation, which he used to fuel his work. Rawboned and sturdy, yet fuzzy around the edges, with a malleable face that seemed to have a built-in squint, Oates rarely tried to shake his rustic look. He appeared to slouch even when he was walking tall.

That Beat and beat-up aura was perfect for the character of G.T.O. At one point G.T.O. says he was a television producer, but he never seems comfortable in his amazing array of country-club-casual duds and he spins a new persona for every man, woman or child who hitches a ride with him. In "Two-Lane Blacktop" Oates perfects an unsentimental yet sad and hilarious example of an American prototype: a man living alone or with other men along desperate frontiers, soaking up whatever confidence or direction he can glean from his environment. In "Two-Lane Blacktop" he exists in an emotional and sexual limbo: He yearns for the Girl to go away with him and panics when a homosexual hitcher (Harry Dean Stanton, billed as "H.D. Stanton") makes a pass at him. G.T.O. is living on his nerve ends and hoping for relief. At one point he falls asleep while crouching behind a Chevy pickup.

No one could do a stumble-on or a pass-out better than Oates. Watching him in "Two-Lane Blacktop" you understand why he could speak about acting the way Robert E. Lee Prewitt in "From Here to Eternity" spoke about bugling -- it was more than just a job, more than something he loved and had a knack for. It gave him an identity. Kurosawa found his in a God's-eye view. Oates found his in a grunt's.

By Michael Sragow

Michael Sragow's column about moviemakers appears every Thursday in Salon. For more columns by Sragow, visit his archive.

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