Death by Hanging
  • Death by Hanging

In her essay for the winter series “Early Katharine Hepburn,” Doc Films programmer Ursula Wagner writes that “Hepburn’s unconventional looks, intense personality, and ambiguous gender presentation all posed problems for the 30s film industry.” Despite having won an Oscar in 1933, the actress was deemed “box office poison” for most of the decade. Several of her films which are considered classics today—including Holiday and Bringing Up Baby (both of which screen later in the series)—were flops upon first release. Sylvia Scarlett, which screens Monday at 7 PM, was one of Hepburn’s most resounding commercial failures, perhaps because it exemplifies those alienating qualities that Wagner mentions. Hepburn plays a young woman whose con artist father disguises her as a boy after they escape from France to England—yet even as a boy, she ends up arousing the romantic interest of at least a couple of men.

Scarlett came to attract a serious critical following in the post-studio era, with some writers declaring it decades ahead of its time. “Genre shifts match gender shifts,” Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote in the Reader, “as the film disconcertingly changes tone every few minutes, from farce to tragedy to romance to crime thriller—rather like the French New Wave films that were to come a quarter century later.”

This 35-millimeter revival would be good news if it didn’t coincide with another fantastic repertory screening. Just blocks away from Doc, the Logan Center for the Arts will host a 35-millimeter screening of Nagisa Oshima’s Death by Hanging (1968), followed by a panel discussion about “the relationship between human finitude and the medium of film.” Don’t let that summary scare you off—Hanging may be morbid and pessimistic, but it’s also very funny. The movie begins with an impossible dilemma: a young Korean, sentenced to death in Japan, is physically unable to die until he can overcome his amnesia and remember why he was incarcerated in the first place. And so, a group of prison officials decide to re-create the prisoner’s life in hopes of jogging his memory. As I’ve written elsewhere, Hanging may be the only other black comedy of the 60s comparable to Dr. Strangelove in its formal ambition and philosophical underpinnings. And along with Boy (1969)—which is also absent from the superb Oshima’s Outlaw Sixties box set from a few years back—it’s one of the best works of the Japanese director’s trailblazing first decade.

It’s especially frustrating that the screenings of Scarlett and Hanging overlap because they’d make a great double bill. Both films are structured around the theme of performance, using outlandish role-playing scenarios to question the subtler forms of role-playing that repressive social conventions force people engage in. This theme runs throughout the filmography of Scarlett director George Cukor, who began his career on Broadway before coming to Hollywood and whose homosexuality was open secret for most of his career (that Hepburn and costar Cary Grant were both bisexual adds another ruffle to the movie’s subtext). In Hanging, Oshima presents the relationship between powerful and powerless as an elaborate charade, positing that the whole system comes apart once the latter party refuses to play along.