Monday, December 31, 2007

It's All Over - Go To Work!

As usual, I've waited to the last possible moment to come up with something for a blogathon - in this case, the Endings blogathon, being hosted by Joseph Judge - in fact, looking a bit closer, it's worse than that: he ended it on December 30, not 31 - I missed it. Well - not to be helped, without a working time machine. Since this is also an opportunity to finally say something about the big Imamura series that played at Harvard last month, I am going to post it anyway.

I want to write something about his 60s films - Pigs and Battleships, Insect Woman, Intentions of Murder, especially - which have truly remarkable endings. Of course, most of his endings are damned good, though it took him a while to figure out how to do it. The early films tend to take somewhat minor key endings - little codas: the college boy and younger sister heading off to Tokyo in Stolen Desire; the local kid and his girl commenting on the story in Endless Desire - Pigs and Battleships is the first to really step it up. And it does so in style, and in a way that really brings out his overarching philosophy. The climax - a huge gun battle, traffic jam and pig stampede that ends with the hero expiring with his head in a toilet - is strong enough: but it's followed by shots of the heroine walking through the train station, headed to Kawasaki, to take a job in a factory. This ending - a young woman going to work (instead of going to fuck an American, like the women she passes on her way into the station), is given a thunderously heroic treatment - musical crescendo, a soaring crane shot, telephoto shots of the girl crossing the station like Mifune.... And not a trace of irony in it: this is what it means to stop waiting for someone else to save you, to stop trying to weasel a living out of the Americans - she is heroic, and basically carries the fate of her country with her.

It's interesting that Imamura's great theme, those tough, unsentimental films about tough, nearly indestructible women, is really only on full display in three or four films he made in the 60s. In Pigs and Battleships, she's the second lead (though she gets out alive) - in Insect Woman and Intentions of Murder (and in the documentaries) she's the main character (or characters, since both mother and daughter have it in The Insect Woman). After those films, his attention usually turns to men, surrounded by tough women, but still... Insect Woman has two endings, in a way: it's the story of a woman from the country, who came of age during the war, and fights her way through life after the war, rising and falling over time. She has a daughter, whose life follows a similar pattern - though she (the daughter) bails out of the cycle as soon as she gets the money, and goes to work on a farm. The ending? it's complex, covering both women - first, we see the girl driving a bulldozer, then talking with her lover - she is pregnant, but he's worried it's not his - she insists it is, though we probably know better. And then her mother comes plowing up the hill, coming to visit, hoping to lure the girl back to Tokyo... both of them plowing on, doing what they do - though again, it's the girl who's more heroic, taking what she can, and stepping out of the cycle of dependence - looking to make her own life on her own terms, through hard work. A figure, maybe, of moving on - in the post-war period, maybe, Japan simply had to survive, and staying alive was heroic in itself, no matter what you had to do to do it. But in the 60s, it's time, maybe, for something more - it's not enough to survive, it's time to get to work.

Anyway - Intentions of Murder is a bit of a change from this. The heroine, Sadako, is less of an agent than any of the women in the other two films: though the story is, in fact, the story of how she becomes an agent of her own fate. The story is - she is the miserable mistress of a librarian, who has somehow never gotten around to marrying her, and whose parents somehow accidentally (cough) registered her son as their own... While her husband is out of town, a thief breaks in to rob and ends up raping her - he becomes infatuated, and keeps coming back. She can't tell anyone; she can't get rid of him; she can't kill herself. Things are terrible. But as the film continues - she starts acting: she tries to buy him off, she tries to run away with him, she tries to kill him, never quite managing it. But she does manage to file suit to be registered as the librarian's wife, and the mother of her child - she does manage to get around to learning to use a knitting machine, and later to start giving lessons on the machine. And all this builds to what has to be the happiest ending in any Imamura film: she gets the registrations changed, the family moves to the family farm, where she starts raising silkworms, giving knitting lessons and making things, making money - she beats them all. It allows, too, for a lovely joke.Everyone else in the film think she's a stupid, weak, lazy fool - her husband constantly calls her stupid, useless, and lords it over her with his education and erudition. But she runs rings around them - even early in the film, when we see that she's been making almost as much money as he does from her knitting, or when she corrects his math when he does the finances... though the best scene is at the end, when he receives the notice that she has filed suit against him and his parents to be registered as her son's mother. He and his mother whine and complain - she says she's sorry, if they want she could try to stop the suit - she never thought it would ever get to trial, she says. Never mind, says the husband, it's too late now - you can be so stupid sometimes.... comeuppance is seldom so sweet...

And so it goes. He kept ending films right after that - Shoichi Ozawa floating out to sea to end the Pornographers; the swarm of witnesses, cameramen, clappers ending A Man Vanishes; Ken Ogata's bones freezing in midair in Vengeance in Mine; The Bomb in Dr. Akagi; the snake-man in his section of September 11 (11'09'01) - "is being a human being so disgusting?" - but those 60s endings get it all.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Review of Juno

It's been an interesting month for films (December that is). Not all that deep a month, for new releases - I've seen 6 new films, including the David Lynch documentary, and only one is really extraordinary - but even the less successful films have been very interesting. I've been sitting on a couple of these reviews for a while, and it might be time to get them posted, whether I have run out of things to say about them or not. With luck I might get a couple more of these out before the year (at least the week) is up... for now -

Juno - Every year, there seem to be two of three films like this. (Lately - say, Me and You and Everyone We Know, Little Miss Sunshine, maybe Half-Nelson, Knocked Up, Lars and the Real Girl (in a very minor sense) - a partial sampling.) They seem to come out of nowhere (a few months before they are released) - they play Sundance or Toronto or something and people gush. And the moving chattering classes (pro and am) start to shiver in anticipation. The hype builds - and then they arrive... And the reviews are - call it mixed. Call them normal, like this was just another film.* You'll see some good notices - some bad - and then you start to see a backlash: the haters come out. And the anti-haters come out. Maybe a think piece or two appears (like this one, after Katherin Heigl took some shots at Knocked Up [richly deserved shots, one has to say.]) And so - even if you see the film opening weekend, you have seen it go through about 5 stages of critical reaction. And what might have seemed like a sure thing 3 months before, and a disaster the week before, now - could be anything on the planet. So you go, and you hope for the best, or for something surprising and then -

Some of them work (I think Little Miss Sunshine is a pretty good movie, or 2/3 of a pretty good movie, despite all the hating) - but Juno, not so much. My main reaction is one of deflation. It's enjoyable enough, but even watching it, I felt it getting away. Hoping it could turn around but fearing the worst. And thinking about it for a couple weeks now, the disappointment has just grown more convincing. The problem is simple: I don't believe a word of it, from beginning to end. Juno herself comes off like a reasonably convincing human being - but I don't believe the story. And worse - the filmmakers never convinced me that they believed a word of it, and don't do a thing with the unbelievability of it. It's not a parable or fable or any of those things (like the infinitely better Waitress is.) The filmmakers are conventional mainstream Indie filmmakers, and can’t imagine anything outside conventional mainstream indie realism. Everything is contrived: they have no obstacles in the way of the kid having an abortion, so they have to make like the Phantom in Inland Empire, and hypnotize you - they chant some mumbo jumbo and she runs away. Then they set up the adoption family and again - contrive a story out of it. People defend these films where characters who should (and would) have abortions don't by saying things like "there's no story if she has an abortion” - no kidding, but here - there's no story if she doesn't have an abortion either. So they have to manufacture one: if the adoptive couple weren’t fuckups, you wouldn’t have any jokes, you wouldn’t have a plot - she’d go 9 months, have the kid, maybe get back together with the boy, end of story. Instead they gin up a plot - a plot that is obvious the minute Juno walks in their house, and gets drilled in all over again when she talks to the husband - and play it out by the numbers. They don't do a thing you can't see coming from the beginning. Now - if Vanessa got cold feet, or Juno got creeped out by Vanessa's stalkerish behavior in the mall - it would at least be interesting. But this is stupid, predictable, and as false as the non-abortion. And it's frustrating, because the performances are good, and a lot of the moment to moment writing and characterization is solid, and it does try to take the POV of the girl. The plot fakery stands out.

And so.... there's still plenty to like - it's funny most of the way through, quite a few of the characters are charming enough. There are complaints about Juno being too pop culture savvy, though I don't quite see it - nothing ever goes away anymore, with DVDs and the internet, so 16 year old Mott the Hoople fans should be no surprise. The problem with the pop culture name dropping is how transparent it is - they name check the Stooges and the Melvins and Patti Smith and Mott the Hoople like wearing buttons. And none of that musical taste is reflected in the film - the characters may claim to love the Stooges and the Melvins, but we hear the Moldy Peaches... I guess Ellen Page suggested using them, but I don't know if that excuses it; they make for bad soundtrack music, turning the mood "cute" every time they play, and using them (instead of the Melvins or Nirvana or the Stooges) underlines how music is used as a label to signify characterization. It isn't quite true that these characters should be defined by their musical tastes - this isn't High Fidelity. But their tastes, in this film, carry no weight: they are labels. The musical conversations are just name dropping - I can believe a 16 year old Iggy Pop fan; I can't believe a Melvins fan who doesn't love the Stooges.

I suppose I'm overstating this a bit. Or, having let this post cook for 2 weeks, I'm having second thoughts about my second thoughts... because I admit: this isn't necessarily unconvincing - that is how people talk about music - they compare tastes by naming names; they make rash and excessive judgments - "Sonic Youth is just noise!"; they try to surprise and impress the other person... I've been there, done that - conversations about music, especially with people younger or older than yourself, tend to look like those pokemon card games - "you've played your Stoogemon, but that's no match for my Blue Cheeronator!" That's especially believable in Juno herself - I can believe her tastes,** and how she uses them to try to impress the husband. Playing "All the Young Dudes" as though you didn't think he'd have heard it before.... So I must temper my abuse - though it still plays like shortcuts to character in the film, and the talk doesn't match what we hear on the soundtrack...

* I should add - this particular process seems most common with indie crowdpleasers. There might be plenty of hype for art films (There Will Be Blood, say) or blockbusters, but when they arrive, the reactions are different. Blockbusters sink or swim at the box office - the rest is pretty much irrelevant. And with art films, the arguments are much more substantive, moving away from the hype. This is perhaps because art films actually try to look like something - indie comedies all look alike. There's nothing to talk about except the story, so if the story doesn't shine...

** With the internet and DVDs and CDs and oldies radio and VH-1 classic documentaries and god knows what else, pretty much all pop culture for the last 100 years is out there to be found - I know too many 10, 12, 15 year old Beatles and Elvis and Ramones and Judas Priest and Feelies fans, too many Disney experts, anime nerds, Three Stooges fans, comics readers, to say otherwise - I could cite the two kids sitting in front of me at the Blade Runner show yesterday, discussing, in minute detail the entire frigging run of Star Trek, Pike to Voyager.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Endings Begin

Welcome back! or,wait, how should it go? Anyway - here I am, back from another festivus celebration. Were grievances aired? were there feats of strength? did Rudolph save christmas? did I eat too much chocolate? yes, yes, yes, and god, yes... Anyway, as we move into the last weekend of the year, I can start working my way up to the Making of Lists - just in time for a bunch of films I've been desperately waiting for to appear...

In the meanwhile, of course, I remind you all that Joe's Movie Corner has a Movie Endings Blog-a-thon going: a fine way to ring out the year. And don't forget the Opening Credits blogathon at Continuity, to open the new year...

And me? all those end of the year lists are coming - and I hope some movie reviews. And now, to fill the space - here's another 2007 Random Ten list, cause - you know...

1. Devendra Banhart - Lover [it's the disco song...]
2. Liars - The Dumb in the Rain
3. Thurston Moore - Frozen GTR
4. Melt Banana - Blank Page of the Blind
5. MIA - $20
6. The Fall - Scenario
7. PJ Harvey - Dear Darkness
8. Linda Thompson - Blue & Gold [what a voice]
9. Iron & Wine - Wolves (Song of the Shepherd's Dog) - [another nice record I haven't done justice to yet]
10. Deerhoof - Matchbox Seeks Maniac [this one two - I like them, but this seemsa bit less inspired than some of their other records - I don't know if I have judged it too quickly or not... it's good anyway]

Video? Here's a nice performance by Mr. Beam and company, on Letterman...

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Midwinter Random Songs

Happy Solstice! I don't know how much more we'll see here for a while - the holiday season is in full gear, as we make offerings to the gods of retail... I should at least try to come up with some christmas jokes, but you know how it goes. I'm off to the mall! But I think I can toss off another go through the Songs of 2007, randomly arrayed...

1. New Pornographers - The Mutiny I Promised You
2. Arcade Fire - Keep the Car Running - go Canada!
3. Devendra Banhart - Saved - fake gospel, a neat little song, for all that.
4. PH Harvey - The mountain - a gorgeous, soaring tune, she’s singing at the edge of her ability, and beyond - “since you betrayed me so”.
5. Thurston Moore - silver>blue: here’s a question - why have I only heard this song from this record - and heard it twice now? Strange stuff. But this is a nice song - pretty - sounding more like the New Pornographers or PJ, acoustic, strings - great stuff. Longer and more adventurous than anything any of those bands try: interesting point there.
6. Dino Jr - We're Not Alone - J goes C&W - this is the best song on this record so far - though has that irritating drum sound, that I like, but not that much. A sloppy cool guitar solo comes in. Neil Young would be proud.
7. White Stripes - A Martyr For My Love For You - much better than almost all these other bands: Jack writes first rate lyrics - interesting songs: he’s absorbed the old zep style, blues/pop/rock style, mashed together, with strong riffs, strong melodies, interesting dynamics. He’s the most convincing rock star in the world, when you get down to it.
8. Wilco - Leave me (like you found me) - it's the eagles, without the singing talents.
9. Interpol - Who Do You Think - good lord, it’s like old new pornographers!
10. Boris - You Laughed like a Watermark - yes. And wait for Kurihara to weigh in. There it is - those little flicks and fades, halftones and slides, that tone. Oh. The second solo is even better, smearing those notes all over the place, twisting around and around - melodic and abrasive at the same time - amazing.

Video? I don't have time to dig, so let's give a shout out to our neighbors in the great white north (who know what winter really is!) with a single off the New Pornographers record:

Sunday, December 16, 2007

A Film about Living in the World

I almost forgot this: a blogathon, for It's a Wonderful Life. More like, almost forgot it was set for today... we are talking, after all, about the greatest movie of all time. An opinion I've held firmly for a decade or more - though I admit to having doubts lately. Mostly under the pressure of a steady diet of Ozu films, which cover much the same ground, but without the need to end happily every single time. (That is a vital point, to understanding Ozu or Capra - that things can go either way. Ozu got to retell stories with different endings and configurations - Capra did the same thing, but felt he had to always end them well. This makes some of his endings feel very strange - they are very arbitrary. Sometimes, in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, naming one, the "happy" ending is almost pure rhetoric - what really happens is far more complex... which is one reason that film remains a serious contender for the top slot....) But this is time to praise It's a Wonderful Life: and praise we shall.

There is much to praise: Capra was among the 2-3 best filmmakers ever (stories aside) - this is no exception. Cinematography, acting, handling of actors, staging, sound, story telling, is all utterly masterful. He gets short shift these days, on purely technical matters - that is criminal. His peers are Hitchcock, Godard, maybe Kurosawa, Imamura - directors who used everything cinema had to offer at the very highest level (as opposed to equally masterful filmmakers who chose more limited palettes - Ozu and Mizoguchi, Renoir or Bresson, maybe) - and he got there first.... Or taking more specific felicities - his manipulation of time, say - the "real time" of the film is about what - 20 minutes? we start with people praying for George - flashback to tell his whole life up to that point, then an extended dream sequence, then one last reel in the present. And the flashbacks are expertly paced: Capra lingers over every episode, taking his time, then shooting off like an express train. Look at the way he plays out George and Mary's courtship - all the hesitations, false starts, false turns, the comings and goings and shifts of tone and emotion in their love story, then - once love is declared, cutting straight to the wedding. It's like that throughout - episodes played out in detail, but strung together at a breakneck pace. (This is something TV totally ruins: commercials cutting up long sequences and taking the shock out of the ellipses.)... Or take it's literary references and lineage: obvious stuff like Dickens, a comparison it earns, for its willingness to show the harshness alongside the melodrama, for its handling of characters - the deeper, rounder characters at the center, surrounded by types... Though this is also, if not an allusion to the Confidence Man, an excellent example of Melville's notion of the "original character" - the way a central character can reveal everyone around him. Though too - they reveal him - representing the ways he could choose to live, by becoming (like them) adequate to his role. They represent options, some quite attractive, but all of them limitations: Mary's stability and her will to transform their small scale life into a kind of fairy tale; Potter's rapaciousness; Sam Wainwright's goofball selfishness and enthusiasm; Violet's easy hedonism, etc. Good or bad, all of those characters have settled - they are what they are, and George is not. (Though it's worth remembering that we see George from outside too, at least a couple times: the scene with the schoolteacher's husband, particularly - he takes a crack at George, and rails at him, and everything he says makes sense - he's right, and George knows it...)

It's that, I guess, that in the end, makes this film what it is. It's that doubleness, to everything - how every good thing is, in some ways, a limitation. How you have to live within the limits of thw world you are in, the choices you make, the person you are - but you don't have to be happy about it, and the minute you get too happy about it, you are stuck with it. And George's world is a bitterly ironic world (bittersweet, of course): everything cuts both ways. What is this film about? The way a community (a town, a family, any community) sustains and traps its members. About the necessity of both self-determination and fulfilling ones obligations to the community. It is about the ways no one is ever alone, and how one is always alone. It is about how our strengths trap us, how our best instincts lead us to do things that hurt us. It is about how we can never break out of the systems we live in, and how we can never simply accept those systems. About the necessity of constant self-invention. It's a film about contradictions, that can't be resolved. Yes - the ending fudges the issue a bit, but not enough to obscure it: anything George did, assuming he was as decent about it as he is in the film, would have made something in the world a better place and something else would have suffered. To be true to himself he would have to sacrifice something of himself - that would have been as true if he had gone away and become Robert Moses as it is if he stayed in Bedford Falls.

Everything in the film is double-edged. Everything that happens has at least two meanings. Everything is built on sudden reversals. Everything is built on the ways George's intelligence and ambition forces him into a position that (seems to?) thwart his ambition and intelligence. There are times (the courtship scenes, say, or the wedding night) when the contradiction becomes almost unbearable. He loves her - of course he loves her, why shouldn't he? But he knows that marrying her will trap him there; but he knows he's trapped whether he marries her or not. And their honeymoon: Mary's whimsy and imagination, turning their troubles into a dream, is coupled with the frustration of comparing the reality of their poverty, their responsibilities, to their dreams of travel. The scene is a tribute to their strength, their resourcefulness, their ambition and decency - but it's also a parody of his dreams, and it's a lie to pretend it's not cruel.

It's that constant pressure that links Capra to Ozu - they both pose individuals against communities (families, social obligations), and both refuse to resolve the conflict. They never let their protagonists off the hook - American films usually find a way for the hero to couple up and still be free - Japanese films all too often insist that happiness (and self-fulfillment) requires serving the group. Capra and Ozu, though, don't make it so easy: true individuality almost always involves social obligations - which almost always choke our individuality. Love, friendship, families - fulfill us and frustrate us.... Ozu was more free to explore this - so that one film can end badly, another less so - while Capra felt obliged to end happily throughout his career. (Or convince us that the end was happy, whatever it looks like.) Though those bell ringing, auld lang syne singing tear jerker triumphs Capra kept putting on screen are a bit more than just unconvincing. Because, first - they aren't really unconvincing. For all the pissing and moaning people do about the way It's a Wonderful Life ends, it's a pretty believable ending. If a popular and well respected man is in trouble, his friends probably will take up a collection for him - if he has rich friends, they will probably raise enough to buy what he needs. What's arbitrary about it is not the happiness of the ending, it's the idea that it's an ending at all. It's worth remembering that the ending of It's a Wonderful Life is a direct steal from a scene in the middle of You Can't Take it With You. The only thing different at the end of It's A Wonderful Life is that George sees himself a bit more clearly.... His life? he won't go to jail, but he's still not rich, he's still going to have to go to work on boxing day, with the same problems he had before. Will he understand things a bit better, having seen himself through Frank Capra's eyes? What more can we ask for?

Random (2007) Music

The weather, this week, has taken a definite turn for the wintry. Though being December in Boston, the snow has turned to rain, which will turn to ice, which will make things ugly, uncomfortable and dangerous for the next couple days. Great. We'll see how much the opportunity to loaf about leads to increased posting: there's plenty to write about, from awful, terrible, bad baseball players, to magnificent films, to - who knows what... No lists though! not until the year actually ends...

For now though, let's talk music. Continuing to leaf through this year's releases, thanks to the iPod... though first a dig - all those poor saps who paid god knows what to see Led Zeppelin - and all the millions more who tried to pay god knows what to see the zep... yeah. Cost me 12 bucks to see Boris, and Boris is undeniably a better band, and Kurihara is a better guitarist than Jimmy Page (at this point - I say that as an unabashed, though sometimes apologetic, Jimmy Page fan). I don't get the attraction at this point. They are old; they have not been playing together for 30 years; John Bonham is Still Dead - that's Jason on the drums, not John. This is a cover band - sure sure, some of them are the same guys, but they're covering songs they did 30 years ago! 40 years ago! Christ! I won't gainsay them, in their prime - I can't pretend bands like Boris or careers like Kurihara's would exist without the Zep (with their unapologetic musicianship, their LONG guitar workouts, their love of the RIFF, their amplifier worship, their willingness to jump around from style to style to style) - but why settle for a shadow of the real thing when other bands are, in fact, still doing the real thing? Oh well - until Jimmy gets around to pissing on the party, much video of the show can be found on YouTube, like this performance of Stairway to Heaven, largely shot off the TV screen. I'll also note that I saw a new Zep phone ad at the movies the other day - someone must need some money! That helps explain this concert.... Now though - on to the randomizer!

1 Of Montreal - We were born the mutants Again with Leafling
2 Meat Puppets - This Song - one of the better songs on the record, pretty with some nice dynamics and guitar work...
3 Boris - My Rain - slow, short, atmospherics...
4 Devendra Banhart - Tonada Yanomaninista - Devendra rocks out!
5 Dinosaur Jr - Been there All the Time - I see why Buffalo Tom got called Dinosaur Jr. Jr. This sounds like dinosaur jr jr jr...
6 Damon & Naomi - Cruel Queen - nothing like an old folk tune for some undiluted nastiness...
7 Devendra Banhart - Samba Vexillographica
8 MIA - Bamboo Banger - definite contender for the best song of the year...
9 Son Volt - Circadian Rhythm - forgot this record came out this year... all the time spent trying to convince myself to like the Wilco record, I should have been listening to Jay Farrar. Very nice song - I have to listen to this a bit...
10 Einsturzende Neubauten - Alles wieder offen -

Video:speaking of the best guitarist in the world... here with Damon & Naomi...

Wednesday, December 12, 2007


A recent post at Girish about Jonathan Rosenbaum's list of 1000 essential films prompted some self-criticism from the crowd, confessing their most shameful omissions from the Great Film Canon... I have been saving one of mine for this post: Ingmar Bergman's Shame. (Actually I could count quite a bit of Bergman - though there isn't a lot of Bergman on Rosenbaum's list. Bergman churned 'em out regularly for hundreds of years, it seems - maintaining a fairly high level of quality for most of his career... there's a lot to choose from. I've seen a dozen or so, which doesn't start to do justice to his production...) I hadn't seen it - then last week, it played a double feature with Hour of the Wolf (another one I hadn't seen, though a bit less talked about), so I had my chance.

Shame is a superbly made film, handsome looking, acted impeccably, gritty at places, with some nice use of sound, especially in portraying the confusion and dread of wartime. The story conveys that confusion, that dread, and shows as well the steady erosion of human decency and humanity itself in times of war. There are gestures as well toward the matter of fact will to survive, though these are clearly subordinate to the dehumanization of war... It is unsentimental and biting - but it didn't carry the weight it seems meant to carry.

The problem, I think, is that it abstracts War too much - it strips out information about the warring factions, the politics, the course of events. There are no direct references to real world events - and in the the fictional world, we do not learn any of those details either. Indeed - we don't really see details in the fictional world: explosions, dead bodies, killings and beatings, are all offscreen (with a few exceptions) - the war is indicated, with lights and sound - very effectively - but abstractly.... This, it might be said, universalizes the story - but the universal is usually best seen in the particular.... taking out the particular (whether in references to real world events or to details about the film's world) turns the film into an exercise... Abstraction, in war films - turning war into a series of gestures and signifiers of war - tends to only really work (in this way: carrying the kind of moral impact Shame aims for) when it is rooted in real world events (however vaguely glimpsed they may be.) The Red and the White (which Shame resembles in some ways), Devils on the Doorstep, Tarkovsky's war films, do this - they tend to strip out the details and certainly the political background of war; they show war as a kind of death stagger where only survival matters (though that is never actually true). But they do it, and they give it weight and consequence, by keeping in the back of our minds that this is something that really happened, that had real consequences. Shame, and films like it (Flandres comes to mind), lose those consequences - their abstraction makes the choices they show abstract; the choices don’t matter - all that matters is what the filmmaker wants to subject the characters to, and the points the filmmaker wants to score. The detail - the political, historical detail of wars - whether real or fictional - are what give it moral weight: if that is not in the film (if the film deliberately elides the politics and specificity of the war itself, as all these films do), then it has to be in the war the film is about.

Now - it's not to say that a film can't work at this level of abstraction. There are moments in Shame that reminded me of Weekend, or of Donald Barthelme's "The Indian Uprising" - the absurdity, the odd juxtapositioning of horror and banality, getting together for music - the torture chamber in a schoolroom... and most of all, precisely the things I have been talking about: the artifice of the war; the explicit discursiveness of the war - presented through signs: lights and sound; archtypical characters and situations; references to other texts.... But Godard and Barthelme seem more than willing to follow through on the implications of those devices: they are thoroughly "presentationalist" - the story and film are explicitly acts of discourse, not trying to show a world that has some kind of independent existence - created in the act of telling, asking no suspension of disbelief. Their morality (and they are moral works, I think) is itself discursive, without apology: we don't really see characters as moral agents to be identified with - but as signifying elements that mean something....

Maybe I'm overstating this. I don't know. But it does seem that films like Shame (or Flandres) seem more didactic (in the bad sense - that's this week's discussion at Girish's place) than Weekend (which is unapologetically didactic, or at least essayistic), and much less moving and morally profound than films like The Red and the White, that keep contact to history itself. The moral choices is Shame don't carry the weight they carry in real world films - arguing about the meaning of Jan's treatment of Jacobi, say, is diminished by the sense that the situation is set up and manipulated by Bergman for our edification. A straight up lecture on the subject would seem less manipulative and evasive, I'm afraid....

Though none of this should take too much away from the genuine excellence of the film - Bergman was no slouch with a camera, and a master of staging, and always got the best from his superb casts. It is a moving and morally serious film that just sometimes seems a bit stale... (And, I suppose, there's no denying the fact that it had to compete with the 7 Imamura films I saw over the weekend: not many directors can hold up to Imamura - Bergman doesn't come close.)

Saturday, December 08, 2007

December 8

Feel an irresistible urge to post this today....

...reasons to love YouTube part several thousand...

Friday, December 07, 2007

Friday Musings

I have little important to add to the sea of discourse, but I shall contribute a few drops. A solemn moment in memory of Pearl Harbor. A reminder to check out the Short Film Blogathon at Ed Howard's or Culture Snob's. A few more coming: It's A Wonderful Life gets a day on the 16th; end the year with a Movie Endings blogathon and begin 2008 with opening credits Blogathon. And as always on Fridays, you should be dropping by Left Behind Fridays on Slacktivist. Last week, Buck flirted with Chloe! This week, Captain Steele witnesses to Hattie! don't miss a thrilling moment of bad prose and implausible plotting as the tribulation marches on!

And finally - music: continuing last week's theme, drawing randomly from 2007 records:

1. Grinderman - Get It On - some kind of nonsense about rock star misbehavior, but they know their business, Nick and co.
2. Dungen - Ett Skal Att Trivas - guitar wanking and 70s style half-prog half pop rock... which is kind of a formula for success, as far as I'm concerned. They may not be great art, but they're a consistent pleasure to listen to
3. Bishop Allen - The Rain - clever pop, nice wordplay, "if it's ever gonna get any better, it's gotta get worse for a day"
4. Meat Puppets - Vultures - kind of a mild mid-tempo soft rock song with some noisy noodling on top... more noodling and less soft rock might be better, but this is a start
5. Of Montreal - Suffer for Fashion - I am coming to particularly like this record...
6. PJ Harvey - Broken Harp - another extraordinarily beautiful song...
7. Otomo Yoshihide, Bill Laswell & Yoshida Tatsuya - Fudge - I think this is new, just added it a couple days ago - full on jamming...
8. Wilco - Side with the Seeds - like most of the record, they might as well be the Eaglkes, except for the guitar solos, which do have their merits.
9. Sigur Rus - Hafsol - took a second to figure out who it was, what with all the "post-rock" type stuff I have on here - though the vocals come on and they are unmistakeable. This is a very beautiful song, building and building and releasing - really great.
10. Modest Mouse - Fire it Up - coming on right after that magnificent Sigur Rus piece brings up the weakness of this - Modest Moiuse used to be cool - now - they're a competent, but very very bland, indie rock band, like all the other indie rock bands. Blah.

Video? Live Sigur Rus? I believe this is called "Von" on the new record...

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Quick Notes on Recent Films

I've been way too lazy this fall, with posting and all. Not posting. Except about the Red Sox. Which won't start up again, I sort of promise, at least not until they make a deal for Johan Santana. I'm not having much louck finishing any substantial posts - heck - starting any... so let's try some quicker hits. Maybe coming back to films a couple times over the course of a couple weeks will get more accomplished than procrastinating writing full reviews or essays....

So: as Joseph B puts it - with talk of No Country for Old Men still "whirlwinding" around the internet - let's revisit... not at length: just one or two things. The way the story is told, say - it is a model of economy - actually, 2 models of economy. The first half (or 2/3, or whatever it is, literally) is a chase film, almost silent, cutting between chased and chaser, interested as much in how they do things, from locating a fugitive to surgery at home to dispatching an angry dog to crossing the border. Clean and sharp, without much talk, the attention to what happens. Then - Woody Harrelson comes on screen, and there starts to be a lot more talk: he talks a lot, we get some more scenes with Tommy Lee Jones talking, we even get Bardem and Brolin talking. Meanwhile, as the film gets talkier, the narration gets even more elliptical, though without leaving anything out. In the last third or so of the film, we don't see things happening anymore: the killing occurs off camera, often completely elided; Chigurh appears in rooms he shouldn't be in, without all the detail of how he got there we saw in the first part of the film. But what gives this its kick is that it's all been set up: having seen how Chigurh operates, do we need to see him break into a high rise? do we need to see how the scene with the accountant or the chicken truck driver will end? The Coens have shown us the type of man we are dealing with: they can shift their attention - the story remains coherent. And the shift has an interesting effect - at least for me: it focuses our attention on the way the people live, not how they die. How they face the end - begging for their lives, not begging for their lives, doing a good deed or not - it focuses attention on the value of their lives, period. There is more of this in the Coens' work than they usually get credit for: there's a bitter sympathy for their losers and fools, that hangs around despite the (seeming) jokiness of the violence.

Next - totally unrelated (except in that Fernando Croce piece I linked to a couple weeks ago) - I should try to add a few more words about Southland Tales. It was not that impressive when I saw it - and a couple weeks to think about it haven't helped. I suppose some of it is sort of amusing - lots of pop culture parody, which tends to work better the less is made of it - things like Jon Lovitz simply appearing in the film get more laughs than a lot of the jokes... It has moments, though now, the only ones I can remember involve The Rock - playing himself, basically, sending himself up, mocking his attempts to act, his paranoia, going over the top. He is fun to watch, and the film is almost interesting when he's on screen. Granted, in a more coherent film, the character might not work - if the film wasn't so awful, he might not be so amusing... but I'll take what I can get. The rest - if there were jokes, I've forgotten most of them; the story is useless, a dumb pastiche of Brazil, La Jetee and 12 Monkeys, with some self-conscious, and botched, David Lynch moments throughout. It's too bad - you sense something of value lingering in there somewhere, but, just not on screen.

And finally, since I haven't mentioned it yet: Margot at the Wedding was a treat. Not as good as The Squid and the Whale, but still fine. I like what Jim Emerson said about it - calling it a horror film: a monster comes into a house and devours everyone within it.... It's like that. Nicole Kidman pulls it off - her madness has no redeeming features, it is simply sad - and she gives it that sadness. The ability to make it clear that she hates no one more than herself, and just turns it back on people. The film shows this , especially later on - the way she will hold something for an extra beat, something someone says, as if weighing it, considering what she should do - then coming back with something harsh, to stop whatever it was cold. And the horror film structure holds to the very end, when she puts her son on a bus, and watches him go away - he's almost free - but at the last minute, the Monster comes running up and jumps in beside him... Scary!

Monday, December 03, 2007

Keeping a Toe in

The weather outside is frightful, but blogging is delightful, no particular place to go, let it snow etc. Be glad this is not a vlog, or you would be hearing me croon away... yes, that is a horrible thing to contemplate. But - resolving, once more, to try to post more often, here we are, on a Monday, with nothing in particular to blog about, so we shall blog about everything. The weather is frightful indeed - sleet, snow, cold; the power has been blinking on and off the last couple days. Twice this evening, making using the computer something of a gamble. Overnight last night - though I have programmed by brain and body too well, and woke up at my usual time even without an alarm. Bloody thing.

Anyway: don't forget the Short Film Blogathon at Ed Howard's place and Culture Snob.... I, however, have to settle for some long film blogging - for it was a productive weekend on the moviegoing front: Dylan and Imamura... While I hope to come back to Imamura, especially, let me offer up some quick thoughts...

I'm Not There is getting a lot of praise it seems, and I suppose it deserves some of it - it's intermittently inspired, maybe brilliant, but not so much taken as a whole, I'm afraid. All the hype about Cate Blanchett seems right - the film comes alive when it switches to her, or to the kid (Marcus Carl Franklin) - it goes flat when it switches to Heath Ledger or Christian Bale (despite the presence of Charlotte Gainsbourg - hey! when's the Serge Gainsbourgh biopic coming?) - I have no idea what Richard Gere and Ben Whishaw were in the film for. It's one of those films that flips back and forth among a bunch of stories for no particular reason, except, I suppose, to avoid the necessity to work any of them out. I guess it doesn't pay to think too much about it. It's enjoyable enough to watch: and the music is outstanding. It's Dylan, so it's got a leg up - but the performances are worthy of the music (unlike that misbegotten Beatles movie that blighted the world a couple months ago.) But other than the Blanchett parts, there's nothing here really worth seeing again.

That was good and harsh! Whatever virtues the Haynes film had, they were blotted out by the mastery on display later that day.... An Imamura double bill - Vengeance is Mine and A Man Vanishes. The former is one of Imamura's better known and easily available films - it's on DVD, people have seen it. Ken Ogata stars as a petty crook, a con man, I guess, who turns violent - killing a couple ex-co-workers, then going on the run, impersonating randy professors and lawyers for profit, only to end up killing his benefactors, since he can't kill the ones who actually hurt him... This story, told out of sequence for fairly good reasons, is intercut with flashbacks to his childhood - a bullied minority! turned delinquent! a mama's boy! - and very Imamura-esque home life (his wife takes up with his father, under mom's nose - maybe...) pre-crime spree. The centerpiece of the film is the time the villain spends at a seedy inn, seducing the madame, and facing down her mother, an extravagantly tough old bird, just out of the clink herself, where she'd served 15 years for murder - here, Imamura gets into his element, with sex and violence and primitive instincts for survival - and the chance to indulge in some maginifent filmmaking: one shot, where the killer and his mother seem to pass each other on the stairs, and Imamura shifts from one inn to another without cutting, is as glorious as it gets...

Meanwhile... A Man Vanishes is, perhaps, a documentary, about one of Japan's 91,000 (adult) runaways (I think that's the number cited by an expert toward the end,though by that time, things are well out of control; 5,000 a year, if I remember the Takeshi Kaiko story right) - it is a strange documentary, starts strange and gets stranger, and becomes something quite different from a documentary. The "plot" so to speak is this - Imamura and crew start looking for a man named Tadashi Oshima - the point people in this search are an actor and Oshima's fiancee, Yoshie (known as the rat) [no, really - that's what the crew calls her: part of the manipulation is the way we hear the crew talking about the woman they call the rat without naming her - that could be a trick of the translation I suppose, but I don't think so - I don't think they name her until later...] - as they pass through several months (it seems) of unsuccessful investigation, Yoshie starts to fall for the actor... and suspect her sister of murder. Leading to a scene where Yoshie and a fishmonger who saw Oshima and the sister together confront and accuse the sister - who flatly denies it. This eventually brings Imamura himself into the conversation - he lectures them a bit on the nature of truth then has the crew strike the set. Then the gang of them adjourn to the street [or - appear to adjourn to the street: like any movie, this could have been shot at any time - it's only the vestigial traces of documentary rhetoric that even suggests that this is literally just outside the sound stage where the previous scene was shot] where, well - a couple experts come in to talk about the 91,000 Japanese runaways, more witnesses argue and speculate on what happened and what it meant, and eventually Yoshie and her sister and the fishmonger get back into it, yelling at each other and carrying on. All of this, of course, is being filmed by three or four cameras, with sound gear everywhere - a kid keeps running into the shot with a clapper - Imamura mixes the sound and visuals here, as throughout the film, in strange, provocative ways. (There's a post to be written about the sound design of the film: I may, if I ever get any energy.) And then, it ends, with a flourish: a kid laughs - someone askas Yoshie what she will do now and she says she doesn't know - and Imamura freezes on the clapper...

I can't do it justice, not here, not tonight. It's still one of the most disruptive, surprising, strange films I have ever seen. That - I should note - works perfectly well as a documentary about a man who has disappeared without a trace... and as an Imamura film (complete with tough, strange women, possibly fighting over men, maybe killing men, and flatly denying what they may or may not have done - worth noting that the actor is the male lead of Intentions of Murder, which also features a woman murdering a man and flatly denying it in the face of overwhelming evidence - coincidence?)... and, heck - as a parody of L'Avventura... It's very hard to track down, but it's a film that needs to be seen.

Finally - one more Imamura: Profound Desire of the Gods... I can't describe it, so I won't. I have heard people call this his masterpiece - I can't buy it. It is gorgeously shot and made, but it's pretty damned silly, when you get down to it. It's full of mythical stuff - brothers and sisters marrying and founding races and the like - all very sordid, and I suppose that's part of the joke, the depiction of the beginnings of Japan itself as a bunch of inbred hillbillies - but still.... I also fear that this marks a kind of turn for Imamura, where those tough, earthy women he idolizes start to get too symbolic, and too mythological. The earlier ones are tough, independent, and always protagonists - in control or fighting like hell to be in control. But in this film, they become a retarded sex fiend and a plot device: Nekichi's sister/lover, Ryugen's priestess/lover. They are symbols, not characters. This turns sour - this film ends up being misogynist in ways not even Mizoguchi (if you insist on reading him that way) managed: Mizoguchi's women were always agents, one way or other - as were Imamura's earlier women. The women in this film are not, they're just embodiments of Imamura's ideas about what women represent...

That proved to be more substantial a post than I expected coming in, though there is a lot more to be said about any of those films.... There are more Imamura's coming - I hope I can write them up as well, maybe work out a more coherent treatment of some of it. He was one of the great ones, and the run of films he made in the 60s stands with anyone.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Friday Random Ten, Year in Review Edition 1

Well, another Friday night, and nothing special to say here - maybe in the next week or two - as Harvard features a series of films by a Particular Favorite (note the banner of this humble blog) - inspiration may return. In the meanwhile - go Celtics! and, well, the year is running down, so - let's start reviewing it! And how better (or lazier) than to bring back the Friday Random Ten, to look at music released in 2007? So for the next month - songs from this year....

1. Buffalo Tom - Hearts of Palm - rather surprising, actually, how many records like this I got this year: 80s and 90s indie bands coming back after years away - Buffalo Tom, Meat Puppets, Dinosaur Jr - never mind the Stooges... or the who (was that this year?) Anyway - none of them are all that interesting, I'm afraid.
2. The New Pornographers - Failsafe - a nice record, I should listen to it more, I sppose. I don't have much sense of this - or most of thes erecords - as albums. Thanks to the iPod of course...
3. Ghost - Caldonia **** - Ghost, Boris, white Stripes - those are records I have listened to over and over this year. This is a darned good song.
4. Grinderman - When My Love Comes Down *** - and grinderman. Another great record; one of the best of the year.
5. Buffalo Tom - Three Easy Pieces - Chris Colburn singing - a nice little song...
6. Of Montreal - Faberge Falls for Shuggie - I admit, though a couple songs on this record are genuinely great, there's a lot of it I don't know if I have ever actually listened to. This might have been the first time I ever actually heard this song - should try to fix that... this is a strange discoish thing that still manages to work...
7. PJ Harvey - Silence - a record I have to listen to more.
8. The Fall - My Door is Never - speaking of old farts, still hanging around, still exciting.
9. Linda Thomas - Day After Tomorrow - acoustic song about a soldier... beautifully sung...
10. Bishop Allen - Like Castanets

And video - let's go with Mr. Smith, doing "Reformation":

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Home Again

Back from holiday... as usual, killing off whatever posting routine I might have... this time, I had some notion of adding another bit to the Kurosawa blogathon, which came to naught. (So far anyway - I might still finish the piece...) Did get a good start on the new Bordwell book - that promises some good reading in the coming weeks. Unfortunately, it interrupted another interesting book, Douglas Wolk's Reading Comics... hopefully, I'll get back to that one... Meanwhile - will I get around to reviewing movies anytime soon? it's possible. I am mildly exercised by Fernando Croce's comparison (linked to from the House Next Door) of the (reverentially derivative noir/western) No Country for Old Men to the reverentially derivative (did Terry Gilliam live in vain?) Southland Tales - the real problem might be with Croce's statement that "Blood Simple and Fargo are their [the Coen Brothers] most characteristic works" - hell no! the comedies are their best and most characteristic films. Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski, O Brother Where Art Thou - Cormac McCarthy might not agree, but Stanley Cavell seems to. But anyway - Southland Tales may not be the disaster it seems to be considered, but there's nothing new about it. No more original than the Coen brothers film, and a lot less well made. Both are straightforward genre pieces - or, the Coen Brothers film would be, except after a stripped down first half, they turn elliptical and meditative and...

Whatever. The ride home, meanwhile, gave me a chance not only to get into the Bordwell book, but to generate a double strength Friday Random Ten! A meme I've sort of abandoned, but since I haven't come up with anything better to replace it, and since long train and bus rides lend themselves to the concept, here goes. with ratings and comments when the spirit moves me.

1. Burnt Sugar - Mermaids Angels and Rainbows
2. Claudes Claudes - Mao Mao - not sure where I came up with this, but it's certainly entertaining
3. Mercury Rev - Secret for A Song ****
4. Thelonius Monk - Ruby My Dear ****
5. Johnny Cash - Greystone Chapel
6. Pere Ubu - Pushin' too Hard
7. My Bloody Valentine - Sometimes
8. Styx - Blue Collar Man *** - memories of 1978! or is this 79? those long hours, impossible odds... about as convincing rock and roll as the Yi yi song... or...
9. ABBA - Knowing Me, Knowing You *** - uh oh. Those aren't three stars. Not for Abba. Not me! no!... well - all right, maybe... Abba at their most theatrical, though - very much plotted, this song - no more carefree laughter, silence ever after, indeed; it's like a Bergman movie!... I better leave it alone or I'll make it 4 stars...
10. Damon & Naomi - The Turnaround
11. Bishop Allen - Middle Management
12. Deerhood - O'Malley, Former Underdog
13. Replacements - Lovelines
14. Richard and Linda Thompson - Dimming of the Day ****
15. John Cale - Mr. Wilson
16. Stereolab - Nothing to do with Me
17. Tortoise - the Taut and the Tame
18. Robert Wyatt - Lullaloop
19. Radiohead - where I end and you begin
20. Dungen - Bortglomd - hey! more Swedish rock!
21. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds - Well of Misery - an uplifting end...

Okay: and a video? Oh, who's kidding who? complete with Bergmanesque compositions, all those faces at right angles to one another... well, why not?

Sunday, November 18, 2007

A Shot from Rashomon

As promised, here's a long bit of geekiness for the Kurosawa blogathon. If this looks like an (imperfectly) edited down version of a paper for school, it is, I assure you.

I want to write primarily about one shot: at the end of the Samurai's tale (told by a medium) - where we see the woodcutter and priest sitting in the background, and see - well - this:

The medium relays the samurai's claim that, after he was dead, someone crept on him and removed the dagger from his heart. Who could that be?

The conceit of the film (which it is famous for) is that it is the same incident told four times, by the participants and a witness. There is a frame story, in which a priest and the woodcutter who witnessed the events tell the stories to a traveler during a storm at Rashomon gate. They have witnessed the trial, where the stories are told, and are perplexed by it all. Kurosawa cuts back and forth between the ruined gate, the court, and the incident itself. In all the scenes at the court, the woodcutter and priest have been visible in the background. They don't do anything in those scenes - the participants tell their stories, answer questions, etc. - the priest and woodcutter just sit and wait.

This shot is different. For a start, Kurosawa cuts in closer - instead of a long shot, with the priest and woodcutter in the background (or a close up of the medium, telling the story) he shoots it so the woodcutter and priest are in the middle distance, the medium something of a frame for them. As she tells the end of the samura's story, we see the woodcutter behind her tensing, blinking, flinching. And when she stops, she collapses out of the frame entirely, leaving Takashi Shimura there alone...

It's an important shot - it sets up the possibility that the woodcutter has been lying so far. But it's interesting for another reason - where does this information come from? Kurosawa cuts from back to Rashomon gate, with the woodcutter pacing back and forth. An immediate reminder that we are seeing things that are being told by the woodcutter and priest (and before them, by the people at the trial.) Everything we see, whether from the trial or the stories told at the trial, is a visualization of something they tell the commoner. Everything in the film, from the trial or the woods, comes from a discreet source within the film. It's true that the camera doesn't take the literal POV of the characters, or even maintains a constant identification with them. Kurosawa often shoots from impossible angles, or uses camera movement that can’t be reduced to the perception of the narrators. There are even subjective shots from someone else’s point of view. During Tajomaru’s story, for example, we see shots of the sky, the sun through the trees, from the woman’s point of view. But, even with these shots, the high angles, the “wrong” points of view show events that are being related by the narrator in the story. The woman’s POV shots of the sky in Tajomaru’s tale show what he thinks she is thinking, not what she is thinking. We never really step outside the perspective of the person telling the story.

Except here. That shot of the woodcutters' reaction at the trial is not something anyone tells anyone else. Neither he nor the priest would mention it - the priest doesn't suspect him, and he certainly isn't going to incriminate himself. On the contrary - this bit inspires him to start telling his own version of the story, with the dagger playing no part. The shot of the woodcutter’s reaction can only come from the director. It cannot be traced to one of the diegetic narrators—it can only come from the author’s narration. There is almost nothing else like that shot in the film, certainly not in the embedded stories. Kurosawa does not let us outside the stories being told - he gives us nothing else to let us judge them, pick between them. Except here. He shows us something only the woodcutter would know, and he wouldn't tell.

Not that he doesn't give his agitation away, back at Rashomon, pacing back and forth and immediately launching into his own "true" version of the story. This version is set up, in a lot of ways, to resolve the story - to show what really happened. We've heard from the three participants in the incident in the grove, all peddling wildly incompatible and self-serving tales. Now we see a version from someone who was not involved. And we get it first hand: the woodcutter himself, not through an intermediary. This increased "realism" is reflected in the style - the sound for example: this is the only embedded story not to use music, sticking to the natural sounds. We are primed to see this as the "real" version of the story - the placement of this version of the story, the style and sound, the woodcutter's agitation at the gate, all seem to privilege it, mark it as being more reliable.

But it's a rhetorical trick - undercut before it starts by that shot of the woodcutter at the trial. Kurosawa sets us up to want a resolution - then sets us up to think one is coming - but gives us just another story, told by an interested party. He's told us that the woodcutter is not exactly a paragon; he's also rather pointedly intervened, giving us, for the first time, information not contained in the embedded stories. And when the woodcutter's story gets going, it soon turns into something different than the What Really Happened account we might expect. The stylistic elements (like the elimination of music) that privilege this section are almost immediately countered by other devices. Kurosawa quickly establishes a pattern of repeating details from the other accounts ironically. We see, again, Tajomaru urging the woman to run away with him - but this time ridiculous, wheedling and trite, promising to reform, like countless outlaws before him. She responds by trying to get the men to fight for her - but this time, she is bitter and ironic herself. Her husband reacts by denouncing and abusing her - which is both very conventional, and mostly a bid to save his neck. Everything becomes more stylized as the section goes on - the acting, the characters’ reactions, the direction. The close ups become more insistent; the geometric patterns (the triangles and ostentatious camera angles) become more intrusive. This builds to the mid-point of the story, when the two men fight. And the film has become almost a straight parody of a swordfighting movie.

There's another post to be written about Kurosawa's use of genre in Rashomon. [Actually, that was the other half of the paper I'm repurposing here.] The four segments of the incident in the grove are told in four different styles - Tajomaru’s version is a chambara, full of adventure and derring-do; the woman's is a melodrama; the samurai's a tragedy/horror story. You hear it in the music: Tajomaru’s story has exciting martial music, with hints of sensuality (the harp that emphasizes the wind that he says started it all). The woman's has that Bolero imitation, giving it an exotic, sensuous, melodramatic, tone. The medium’s trance has Japanese music, drums and chanting, and the rest of the Samurai’s story uses dark, foreboding music suggestive of tragedy or horror. The fourth section doesn't so much resolve the "truth" of the stories that came before as it criticizes and parodies the film genres they represent. (And represent something like the future of Japanese films - it points to the Japanese new wave, which shows a lot of the characteristics noted below.) It sets itself up as a "realistic" alternative to them, but soon becomes more of a parody, a deconstruction, of the earlier versions of the story. The style of this section reminds us of the importance of style throughout the film. It exaggerates the generic elements of the other accounts by parodying them; it underlines the role of music by eliminating it. It emphasizes the compositional and editing patterns used throughout the film by exaggerating them. It repeats shots and set ups - the angle used in the penultimate shot of the sequence, showing the clearing through a web of trees, is a repetition of a setup from Tajomaru’s story, used to frame the first shot showing the three principals together in the frame (in the fateful grove.) The use of such overt devices reminds us of the authorial voice in the film, and reminds us that the filmmakers are also interpreting the story. All the reasons we might give for considering the final version of the story more real than the others come from the director, are all elements of his style.

And back at Rashomon gate, what do we know about the incident? we can't trust the woodcutter's story - we've seen how he reacted to the medium's mention of the dagger, but his story contradicts that detail. The commoner certainly doesn't believe him. But more than figuring out what is happening in the story, I think Kurosawa is pushing at the edges of the nature of fiction. By intervening in the story (with that shot of the woodcutter at the trial), giving us information not related in the film, only to allow the woodcutter to contradict this information; and by making his own manipulation of the material more overt during the woodcutter’s story, Kurosawa makes explicit the ways he, as the narrator of these narratives, is imposing his interpretations on the story as much as the characters. In the end, I think the theme of the film is not so much the lack of a stable truth as it is the inextricable entanglement of narrative and interpretation. Each character presents as truth what they think the story means: and so does Akira Kurosawa. He sets up the woodcutter’s story as a resolution, only to undercut it. He comments on the story through the form and style of the final segment. The moments he privileges - the woodcutter’s reaction at the trial, notably - are themselves formal devices, which serve as much to show his interpretation of the story as to show a reality behind the interpretation.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Kurosawa week

A week of Kurosawa posts have started, hosted by Film Squish. As usual, I've been lazy - but Akira Kurosawa is a director I have written plenty about in the past for various purposes, so I can certainly add my two cents - or dollar fifty - to this endeavor.

He's an odd case - one of the directors I picked up on before I really committed to "cinephilia" as it were. Along with Kubrick and Lynch and Eisenstein, back in the 80s - and my opinion of him eroded a bit when I did really get into film. (Which I wrote about, some, for last spring's Altman blogathon.) But it didn't erode far - I never wavered in my love for Seven Samurai - or High and Low, when I saw that, or Yojimbo and Sanjuro - and when I finally saw it, Stray Dog, which still seems to be an underrated masterpiece - not far off his best films (Seven Samurai and High and Low, with Rashomon in there as well.) I've wavered a lot more about Ikiru and Rashomon and Ran, though they are as likely to count as masterpieces as not.

I find - and this is certainly relevant to my ability to generate prose on the subject - that Kurosawa is, and has always been, one of the most stimulating intellectual directors around. His films are infinitely interesting to think about, to write about, to analyze and play with. For all his powers, though, I am not always convinced by his artistry: his films, even at their (almost) best (not in Seven Samurai or High and Low, anymore), have patches of dullness, slip into stridency, obviousness - he loses control of the material in a lot of his films. But this seldom comes hurts their effectiveness as philosophy - only as art.

As art: I think his strength and weakness is in his synthetic style. He uses everything, all the means at his disposal: long takes, fast cutting, acting, compositions, everything - but he lacks, I think, the sense of timing that the (really really) great directors have. With the very best - the Ozus, Capras, Godards, Mizoguchis, Renoirs of the world - scenes never seem to falter or lag; with Kurosawa, there are quite a few scenes that don't quite work. They feel wrong - too long or too short, repetitive, something like that. He lacked rhythm, sometimes. There are sequences in almost all his films (maybe not at the top) that feel stiff and awkward, too stagy, too static, too posed. He sometimes (and this happens even in High and Low, though I don't remember any in Seven Samurai that don't work) seems too fond of his compositions, careful, meaningful - almost turning them into tableaux. Though one of the interesting effects of this is that the "problem" tends to disappear the closer you look at the films: slow them down, watch them on DVD, jumping around, stopping, slowing, speeding up and so on, and their meaning and function becomes more effective. Again - he rewards analysis more than most of his peers: though perhaps at the expense of the organic flow (as well as some the sheer beauty and surprise) the best of them have.

I'm sorry to seem to dwell on the negative. It isn't negative, quite - it's more of an explanation of why I tend to react to him analytically more than emotionally. He doesn't leave me with a sense of awe - more one of inspiration. And probably an explanation of why I am more likely to write about Ikiru and Rashomon - great films I waver on, and have to convince myself of their greatness, rather than Seven Samurai, which is obvious. In any case, it's late tonight, so I have to leave you with a teaser (and Stanley Cavell is speaking tomorrow, with one of my favorite films of the decade) - but with a week to do it, I should be able to get a couple posts up for this blogathon. Starting with rehashed old papers, edited down to workable lengths - maybe moving beyond that. And of course - I look forward to the wealth of material I hope will appear in this blogathon. Kurosawa was a giant of the film world, and one who has had the great good fortune to be pretty widely available in many formats through the years. I am looking forward to it.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Two Films and Remembrance

Checking in with a couple links and a movie or two... First - Armistice Day is over, but there are a few more hours of Veteran's day - there's a great post on the Great War on Making Light, with links to film footage and much more, and a nice link from Lawyers Guns and Money to a list of the remaining surviving veterans of the war to end all wars. There's much to be said for Farley's comments about the specificity of this holiday: WWI was a pretty sharp and decisive break with something - you can trace a direct line from damn near anything that's happened since back to it. From modern art to WWII to the end of colonialism to horror movies...

...including prohibition, and after prohibition, the "war on drugs" in all it's stupid variations... and thus, American gangsterism, the tradition of American crime fiction, and the Coen Brothers! And Sidney Lumet... two new takes on that venerable genre came out this weekend... Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is a new version of the ever popular heist gone wrong picture - in this case, Philip Seymour Hoffman (as a dope fiend embezzler) lures Ethan Hawke (as his loser little brother) into an ill advised scheme to rob a mom and pop jewelry store... heh heh heh... I hope it doesn't spoil anything to say it goes spectacularly wrong. It's a fine little film - it reminded me somewhat of Exiled: a pure genre picture, made for the pure pleasure of going through all the paces of the genre - not quite up to Johnny To's technical chops, but similarly blessed with first rate actors biting into meaty roles... None of it adds up to a thing, except the plain pleasure fo the style, the genre, the craft of it, which we are invited to share without illusions...

No Country for Old Men
starts somewhere like that: a genre tale told with full attention to the specific pleasures of the genre itself. But it keeps going. First - because the Coen brothers have filmmaking chops that surpass Johnny To - partly since they bring the same command to everything, not just the set pieces, but even on the merits: they are better story tellers - much of this film is virtually silent: men running, chasing, searching, sometimes fighting... dialogue when it comes up is almost incidental (especially in the first half) - though it can pack a punch... The story itself is as generic as anything in the Lumet film: a schmoe finds a suitcase of money, various bad guys are looking for it, he has to lam, the bad guys come after him (and each other), a trail of bodies ensues. Good enough and well told on the face of it, it slides toward something more as it goes... Peter Keough at the Phoenix talks about Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem, magnificent, while sporting an unfortunate late 70s page boy haircut) as Death, and the film as being about Death: which is just about right. The film is, basically, a hideous and intolerable allegory about Death: random, inescapable, the end of every story. It is to their credit that they do this, incorporate a walking symbol into the film, and make him fit, make the story work on its own terms. And - because they find new ways to tell the story: they can surprise you, even when you know what's coming, and how, they find a way to tell it that can take you unawares. It's impressive work. They've had a bit of a down run lately - I like The Man Who Wasn't There a good deal less than a lot of people - and no one defends their next two films. This is a nice return - maybe not up to their best films (Fargo, The Big Lebowski and O Brother Where Art Thou? - that's a damned impressive stretch; plus Raising Arizona, I say) - but close.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

I'm Brian and So's My Wife!

The Film & Faith blogathon is reminding me what a lazy slob I can be some time. I have plenty of time to plan and prepare and what do I do? Watch the Red Sox, watch the Celtics, load Syd Barrett and Sigur Rus CDs into iTunes - NOT rewatch Naked or O Brother Where Art Thou or After Life or A Touch of Zen (nothing says it has to be Christian) or Pulp Fiction or The Gospel According to Matthew or Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, or Lady Vengeance, or any other promising subject - not work up a decent essay on the subject. Sloth! one of the Deadly Sins!

Still, it's too interesting a topic not to do something. I might work up a post out of an existing piece - in the meantime, let's expand a bit on the clip in that last post... In fact, I think Life of Brian is, not just a great film - which it is - but a darned good religious film. Presents a more appealing vision of christianity than most overt christians do - Passion of the Christ? God, no... Life of Brian takes an interesting approach to religion - it analyzes it a bit, taking it apart into its component parts. Religion, after all, is not, really a single, unified thing: it's a melange of social organizations and institutions, ideologies and belief systems, behaviors, ethical and moral values, rituals, traditions, ethnicities, identities.... Life of Brian offers a fairly savage attack on part of this - religion as social and political phenomenon, as ideology used to support social and political control. It is much more sympathetic to the ideas and behaviors inspired by faith. A big part of the point of the film is, in fact, the way admirable and sensible religious ideas get warped into excuses for forming gangs and attacking other people.

It's interesting, actually, that faith and belief don't figure all that much in the film. Some of this, of course, is due to the fact that it is more about politics than religion anyway. It's also because faith and belief are simplified in the film: collapsed into a couple main ideas. First - the good idea - that religious belief is about values - specific values - getting along, treating people well, doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. Being yourself and respecting others. Blessed are the peacemakers. The film (being a political satire) puts more energy into the second main idea about religion: the ways beliefs, ideas, etc., are transformed into ideologies, ways of controlling people. It’s done pretty directly: blessed are the cheesemakers; we are all individuals - good ideas are absorbed by society and twisted, put to use as ways to control, as tools for the exercise of power. (The Pythons aren’t quite as Foucauldian as Frank Capra, but they make a good start sometimes.) Good ideas and values are turned into dogmas and ideologies useful for forming gangs: defining who’s with us and who’s against us, who’s in, who’s out, who you can abuse and who you can’t. That’s a pretty universal Monty Python theme - the misuse of language - words, turned into tools for power. (Or resisting and undermining power, sometimes.) The ideology of religion hardens, into taboos and irrational codes, stupid vows of silence, excuses for stoning people, that get twisted and warped all around each other themselves. With pretty serious, seriously awful, consequences - those idiotic revolutionaries convincing themselves that Brian is dying for the cause - and the even more idiotic crack suicide squads...

All of it a perversion of the perfectly sensible things Jesus and Brian say in the film; probably an inevitable perversion, since we are social and political animals and do those things naturally. Though what makes what they say sensible is their insistence on the worth of the individual against the group, or within the group. A kind of calling out from the group - to not forget that social and political organizations are conveniences, ways of living in the world. There’s a sense in which something like the Sermon on the Mount is a call to flexibility of mind - don’t judge lest you be judged; take everyone as they come; see the world as the other fellow sees it. Don’t get tied down to any one group or set of ideas, even if you are part of one group: social organizations are fluid and changeable. We should be fluid and changeable. At least that seems to be something like the conclusion the Pythons draw about it - their work constantly condemns people who treat their particular class or profession or any given role as an Absolute Value. Hell - the boys themselves embody the idea, playing all the roles, working, most of the time, in sketch comedy style, rather than establishing one persona, one universe, to live in, to act in.

Anyway - here's another clip, the sermon on the mount falling on deaf ears....

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Catch Up

No, I don't have a good excuse for not posting in a week. I don't know - just the occasional spell of sloth. Anyway - we have 2 blogathons tempting us back to the internets: New Critics asks, What is the purest comedic moment you have ever experienced? - and RC at Strange Culture hosts Film & Faith. Both are pretty wide open, and should gene lots of good reading. I hope I can muster a contribution or two, but meanwhile - I have gotten my movie viewing in, so let's run through some recent shows. With stars! the first resort of the lazy critic, and that's me...

Control - ** - the Ian Curtis biopic - it looks great; sounds good - the music being superb; has a nice approach, in some ways - getting at the sordidness of Curtis' life - but it's still static and dull, and not very revealing. The music gets short shrift - and the sad fact is, without the music, Ian Curtis doesn't matter much. We wouldn't have heard of him, and his story would be just another another miserable tale, told (in this film) without much life or insight... Flashes of Stroszek on the TV screen remind you of what a great filmmaker can do with poverty and desperation, and the flashes of the music remind you of what a great mind can do with their pain and worries. The most interesting thing about the film is thinking about how it brings a photographic style to cinema (the reserve of some of the discussion around Tucker's Jeff Wall post). I'm inclined to think that "cinematic" photography is photography that activates offscreen space: so photographic cinema might be film that negates offscreen space. Though of course - this is always relative: the offscreen always exists in cinema, just as it doesn't exist in photography - but an artist like Cindy Sherman uses t absence creatively. Corbijn, in a way, freezes the spaces and things in this film: there is very little sense of things happening that the camera doesn't see - a sense of the world being closed in. It's a relative thing, of course. It's also pretty effective, given the material: it gives a claustrophobic, elegiac sense to the film, which works. So whiile it is not the film you would probably want to see, it has merits. And is, I say, handsome to look at, and has just enough of that great music...

What else? Lars and the Real Girl and Wristcutters: A Love Story are a pair of neat little indie pictures, clever high concept pieces graced with enjoyable performances and some nice ideas, though neither one can quite justify 100 minutes with the concept, and neither one has an ounce of actual filmmaking style. I am spoiled: I have, in the last month or two, seen films by Pedro Costa, Wes Anderson, Michael Haneke, Johnny To, Arnaud Desplechins, a couple fine Romanian films, and a raft of Val Lewton (to celebrate Halloween) - it's hard to come back to watching plain looking indie films like this, however well they are written or acted. But - they are pretty well written and acted, and do what they do efficiently and entertainingly - I suppose I could compare them to Lust, Caution - they start to look like masterpieces.

Exiled - *** - Johnny To sets several pf his favorite actors loose on a very hoary plot about that Last Big Score (gone, of course, Terribly Wrong) - Anthony Wong, Francis Ng, Simon Yam as a flamboyant boss - Nicky Cheung, Roy Cheung, Lam Suet... scenery is chewed, figurative at least, then shot to hell... robbery, styling gunslingers, Ennio Morricone style music, empty streets, morbid jokes follow, all as sharp and clean as a Ramones song. What can you say? Not up to the Election films, but a sharp, dead on genre parody/pastiche done right....

Okay - that's if for now. Meanwhile, here's a teaser for both blogathons.... jehovah jehovah jehovah!

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Boris, Live

...or, the blogger relives his 20s. I don't think I have ever posted a concert review on this blog. That is mostly because I have barely seen a concert since starting this blog. In fact, I believe I have now seen three in the three years of its existence: one was some old college friends of mine, playing a church in New Hampshire; the other two were Damon and Naomi, supporting their previous CD and now this show, last night, opening for Boris. It was not always thus: in my youth, in the late 80s, I saw many concerts - some of my friends and I made a habit of it, frequenting the Channel, the Rat, TT The Bears - following local bands (The Zulus, Bullet LaVolta, Galaxie 500 [as one may surmise from my recent concert experiences], Buffalo Tom, The Blood Oranges, as well as national indie bands. Seeing The Feelies at least once (usually twice) a year; the Butthole Surfers, Meat Puppets, Husker Du, Replacements whenever they came to town, and bands like that. I didn't see many really big acts: I saw U2 and REM in arenas (the woostah centrum - whatever it's called these days), saw Husker Du, Lou Reed, The Waterboys, a few others at middle sized theaters.... Mostly clubs.... But I stopped going in the early 90s - I started listening to jazz all the time; people got married and had kids and stopped hanging around nightclubs; the rock scene got boring - Nirvana? christ, I'd seen 15 bands that sounded like them by the time they came around - why were they the ones getting big? So now - I still go to shows once in a while, but it's either people I personally know or it's those one or two bands I insist on giving money to - Damon and Naomi; Pere Ubu and its many offshoots.

Which brings us around to last nights show. In 2004, coincidentally, David Thomas played Cambridge the very night the Red Sox won game 4 of the world series: however devoted and passionate a Pere Ubu fan I may be, I never pretended to be David Thomas growing up, and god knows I pretended to be Carl Yastrzemski from more or less as soon as I could lift a toy bat. I had some fears of the same thing happening this year - a Rocky win wold have brought on a game 5, with Beckett closing out the series - could I have resisted that for a concert? I certainly hope so.

Damon and Naomi were fine - they were touring with a kind of big band - cello, horns, Kurihara - playing most from their new record, which is okay. It's taking a while to settle in - longer than their previous couple records did, for some reason. But they were fine, more than enough to get me out on the first really cold night of the year, probably even if they were going up against Josh Beckett. But I admit - Boris was the kicker. I've been listening to them almost constantly this year: Pink began separating itself from the bunch of psychedelic hard rock prog I've been listening to over the last year or so (Comets on Fire and bands of that ilk, including Ilk) - and Rainbow, the Kurihara record, has become one of my favorites in the last year or so. So I had high hopes.

I was not disappointed. It's been a while - it was about as good a show as I have ever seen. Overpowering: as loud as I can remember, certainly the loudest band I have ever seen sober (seeing groups like Ministry, the Surfers, a couple death metal bands - Rigor Mortis! - I made heavy use of the bar....) - but what was strange is how well I could hear it. All the drones and feedback Boris uses, the overtones and guitar interplay, I could hear. I can't hear anything today, but that's life. I could hear the band. And I have to say - they hit my sweet spot. Pummeling volume, hard fast songs, epic solos, double, blended guitar parts (at least with Kurihara), a good deal of variety for all that - fast songs, slow dirgy songs, experimental songs, straightforward melodic songs - sometimes all at once.... It was bliss.

I can't resist - the wonders of the internet being what they are: here is a clip from a show in Georgia, just a taste...