Clint Eastwood may the most gnarled paragon of American grit and masculinity—a tobacco-spitting, Chrysler-shilling, gun-blasting, chicks-half-his-age-banging beast carved of granite and sinew—but he’s basically made in Japan. So are Luke Skywalker, Quentin Tarantino, Neo, most cowboys, and half the Wu-Tang Clan.
That’s why the most American thing you can do in the next few months is head to the NW Film Center for its incredible Samurai Cinema series, which begins this week and continues through Dec. 21. It features some of the greatest works ever put to film, particularly those of Akira Kurosawa, who has been rightly discussed to no end in both academia and the annals of film geekery. Artistry and elegance aside, his films are gloriously entertaining. Ran (1985), the series opener and Kurosawa’s final samurai masterpiece, is a sprawling take on King Lear set in feudal Japan. Yojimbo (1961) is a twisting mosaic of betrayal and badassery, and Seven Samurai (1954) is just downright amazing from start to finish in its story of masterless ronin doing good as they roam the countryside.
The series also pays homage to the more drama-driven works of Masaki Kobayashi, whose masterpiece Harakiri (1962) includes some swordplay but is more effective as a meditation on honor and cruelty. Then, of course, there are the hyperstylized bloodbaths that marked the genre’s explosion into the fantasies of action junkies and, naturally, built the Wu-Tang empire. Sadly, only lip service is paid to the ultraviolent subgenre, but hey, most of the beret-wearing regulars at the NW Film Center can only stomach so many severed limbs, spilled innards and rolling heads. The chosen ambassador of splatter is Lady Snowblood (1973), with a female protagonist who sets out to slaughter pretty much anyone she meets.
These are the films that helped shape American action heroes: the lone warriors fighting for good against insurmountable odds; antiheroes of questionable honor and loyalty playing their cards against any and all challengers; and defenders of ancient legacies fighting to keep their traditions alive in a changing world. They are the Jedi of Star Wars, the hackers raging against the machine in The Matrix and the outlaws turning to righteous justice in pretty much every Western.
In recognition of this, the series also pairs many of the films with their American (or, in some cases, Italian) counterparts, including classic remakes like Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven (1960), in addition to films inspired by the genre such as Jim Jarmusch’s Wu-heavy Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai (1999) and Tarantino’s Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003), essentially a mixtape of samurai tropes with Lady Snowblood as its driving beat.
These are films rife with badass fight sequences, gut-wrenching drama, gorgeous costume design, gnarly antiheroes, sadistic overlords, mysticism and epic journeys. They have shaped the American cinematic landscape, even if many people don’t realize their impact—just think of the Star Wars movies, then imagine them without all the light sabers and Force mysticism. They’d just be space Westerns. Han Solo might be space’s answer to Clint Eastwood, but his parts were made in Japan. NW Film Center’s Whitsell Auditorium. Oct. 6-Dec. 21. See nwfilm.org for schedule.
That at no point in 17 years has the Portland Lesbian & Gay Film Festival shown Point Break is astounding, considering the unsubtle subtext of Kathryn Bigelow’s magnum opus, but the fest nonetheless returns this weekend with a huge slate of documentaries (including films about Alice Walker and Gore Vidal) in addition to a wide swath of films exploring identity. They include the crassly campy thriller The Trouble With Barry, dramas like Pit Stop and the comedy Who’s Afraid of Vagina Wolf? (hint: me!). Multiple venues. Oct. 4-12. See plgff.org for schedule.
- Tim Burton actually used to make original movies, and they were batshit phenomenal. Beetlejuice is proof (go for the Michael Keaton, stay for the Harry Belafonte). Academy. Oct 4-10.
- The NW Film Center presents Port of Shadows, a 1938 French thriller that you will either see or skip based just on the words “1938 French thriller.” NW Film Center’s Whitsell Auditorium. 7 pm Friday-Saturday, Oct 4-5.
- Why would you want to watch a remake of the classic Nosferatu? Because it’s directed by Werner Herzog, deals with parallels to Nazism, and stars Klaus freakin’ Kinski as the villain. Hollywood Theatre. 8:45 pm Friday-Sunday, Oct. 4-6.
- Halloween arrives early with the 1988 remake of The Blob. It’s surprisingly awesome and spectacularly gross. 5th Avenue Cinema. 7 and 9:30 pm Friday-Saturday and 3 pm Sunday, Oct 4-6.
- Dracula’s known weaknesses: sunlight. Stakes. And, according to the tripped-out opus Seven Brothers Meet Dracula, kung fu. Hollywood Theatre. 7:30 pm Tuesday, Oct. 8.