Thursday, May 31, 2012

Battle of Seven Pines

Today, May 31, marks the 150th anniversary of the first day of the battle of Seven Pines (or Fair Oaks) - and another of my occasional posts on the Civil War. I'm back to reading about the war (after taking the spring to take that WWII class) - in the middle of Shelby Foote's first volume right now. There's a great host of material to read, and I hope to get through a lot of it in the next couple years. Not just battles, either - though so far, I have tended to stick to the military side of things. (Last year, largely Stephen Sears.) There's time...

So today - Seven Pines. It's a significant battle - the first really big fight of the Peninsular campaign - and the battle where Joe Johnston was wounded, and Robert E. Lee took over the Confederate army in front of Richmond. We all know how that turned out.

But I want to stick to the battle for now. It's interesting in itself - it's rather startling to read about the early battles of the war, especially in a detailed account, like Sears' (in To The Gates of Richmond). It's one thing to talk about the fog of battle - but those early Civil War fight are mind-boggling in their confusion and the ineptitude of their leaders. It's not just old fashioned tactics, or the time it took to realize the killing power of Civil War rifles - it's the complete lack of control generals had in those days. It took a long time for the armies to figure out how to maintain any sort of battlefield organization - and more, it took them a long time to figure out marching coordination. And it took them a long while to figure out what they could and couldn't do. In those early days, generals were constantly formulating elaborate plans, flanking attacks and coordinated assaults and feints and bluffs and what not, out of the school books - and getting them completely wrong. No one seemed to know how to write an order - no one seemed to take into account things like roads and terrain and the like when they planned these attacks. And when they started moving - no one seemed to know how to keep in touch with anyone else. Battle after battle in the first couple years turned into complete chaos, units disappearing, getting tangled up, units not getting into the fight, or coming in at the wrong time or place - and when they got there - just piling in en masses, to die. It happened at Shiloh, where the Confederates marching order got their units all snarled up on the roads and delayed the fight for two days; it happened with a vengeance at Seven Pines, where Johnston's plan - advance along three roads that converged at Seven Pines itself, to attack simultaneously at daybreak - turned to hash. Generals took the wrong road (good generals - James Longstreet); at least one general (Huger) didn't even know there was supposed to be a fight until someone else (not Johnston) told him; units got in each others way, got lost, bogged down in swamps - and the whole thing ended up starting at 2 in the afternoon (not dawn), involving half the forces arranged to attack, and failed generally.

Now - there are reasons for this, I think, and when you read about battles in order, you can start to see the armies learning as they went. Later on, armies could, occasionally, perform some pretty effective maneuvers - Lee and Jackson at Chancellorsville; Grant at Vicksburg, and during a couple of the stages of his invasion of Virginia, say... They learned - they developed the staff work and command structures to move and fight a bit better. Though - technology being what it was - there were always delays and confusion and mistakes, at every level. But in the early days - it's not surprising what happened. The United States did not have large scale armies before the Civil War. Washington never had more than 20,000 men (including the French) under his command; Scott in the Mexican-American war had some 12,000, at most. A good number of officers in the Civil War had experience fighting Mexico - but most were junior officers, hardly in a position of command, and not of 1000s of men. Even in peacetime - who had had to control even 10,000 men at a time? But by the second year of the Civil War, they were called on to do it. They knew warfare from books, from studying Napoleon's campaigns - they were trying to execute that sort of thing with no experience at it, with predictable results. It was a war where people had to learn as they went. It was a young man's war - it's startling to realize how young most of the major leaders of the war were. Lee, 54 when the war started, was something of a grizzled oldster - Grant was 39, McClellan 35 - shoot, Henry Halleck ("old brains") was 46 - Longstreet 40, Jackson 37, Jeb Stuart 28 - and so on...

The result of all this confusion and learning on the job was mainly slaughter. It happened at Shiloh - all the complicated marching orders that confused things so badly leading to the fight that turned into a simple free for all when the shooting started. Troops were piled in on top of one another, with no regard for organization, with no orders or consideration of how to maneuver on the battlefield - just pile in and try to overwhelm the enemy. It happened at Seven Pines - when DH Hill had too much waiting he sent his men in directly and blasted it out with the Yankees for a few hours, with whatever troops Longstreet could bring up supporting him, and whatever reinforcements the Union could find bolstering their lines. (Not a lot - the Union didn't handle this fight very well either. Keyes' corps (the IV) was in front, and got shot up pretty bad - Heintzelman's III corp was behind them, 2 of the bets divisions in the army at that time, but only one ever got called into the fight... McClellan of course was nowhere to be found - though at least this day he was on the other side of the flooded Chickahominy river, and had malaria, for his absence is understandable.) After a few hours of this, Johnston got the left wing of his army moving, but just in time to get smacked by reinforcements from Sumner's II corp. They all blasted away at each other for a while, and that was that. Except they did it again on the 1st, for a while, without a lot of enthusiasm...

And so it goes. I'll come back to this - the Seven Days battles, in particular, ought to be an inspiration for another post... This time, tactics - maybe then, more strategy - though I do want to note the strategy of the Peninsular campaign. It gets a bad reputation - since it failed, and Grant ignored the possibility when he was charged with winning the east - and because it fits so neatly with McClellan's failures as a general. He could plan and scheme, but he wouldn't fight - and this attempted end run of the rebel army looks like yet another way to avoid fighting. But the fact is - it wasn't all that bad a plan. It came pretty close to working, even with McClellan in command. If he had had an ounce of initiative, no the battlefield - if he hadn't decided to besiege an imaginary army at Yorktown; if he had pressed the pursuit up the peninsular when the confederates retreated; if he had noticed the weakness of the lines in front of Richmond, or the times the rebels divided their army - he could have gotten somewhere. But it was not in his nature to fight, and it was in his nature to imagine dangers, and to overreact to them, and so the campaign turned into a caricature of its general - a wild goose chase, designed more to avoid battle than to win the war. And a campaign that, in fact, cost a lot of lives - since if McClellan didn't want to fight, his enemies were surely willing....

Friday, May 25, 2012

Music For Friday

10 songs, randomly generated...

1. Liars - To Hold You, Drum
2. Rites of Spring - Hidden Wheel
3. Deerhoof - +81
4. Wipers - Taking too Long
5. Dungen - Tyst Minut
6. John Zorn - A Shot in the Dark
7. Jay Farrar - Make it Alright
8. Earth - Coda Maestoso in F (Flat) Minor
9. Loren Connors - Airs #18
10. Heroin - The Obvious

Well - this is not an obvious week whatsoever. Well - we can do what we can. We can start with the late departed Robin Gibb - some vintage footage:

And it's not just the singing, it's the songs - here's Nina Simone, singing one of the Gibbs' best:

And from the list - here's some Loren Connors, a piece of very beautiful experimental guitar:

And some vintage (and looking it) video of Rites of Spring:

Monday, May 21, 2012

1930s Votes

One of the most enjoyable ongoing projects on the web is Allan Fish's Wonders Yearly Awards Poll, at Wonders in the Dark. It's been going on a while - I jumped in late, mid-20s - they have just completed the 1930s, and that makes a good time to expand a bit on my voting. It's been a while since I've posted a great big list post... So - here are my votes, plus a year by year top 10, and a best of the decade, which I guess will be top 20. If comments occur to me, I will add them, though if I add too much I will never get around to posting it. The 1930s are my favorite decades worth of film, by some margin, and it's sometimes hard to get through the things I would like to say about it...

UPDATE (8/5) - I just noticed that I didn't actually finish this post - left out most of the extra categories....

Decade as a whole:

DIRECTOR: Fritz Lang, M
LEAD ACTOR: Peter Lorre, M
LEAD ACTRESS: Barbara Stanwyck in The Miracle Woman
SUPPORTING ACTOR: Dwight Frye, Dracula
SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Kay Francis, Trouble in Paradise
SHORT: Rose Hobart
SCORE: George and Ira Gershwin, Shall We Dance

Some of these should be cumulative as well:

DIRECTOR: Ozu (with Capra not far behind)
LEAD ACTOR: Cary Grant (nipping Stewart, and maybe Fred Astaire, though he'd be there for performer, more than actor)
LEAD ACTRESS: this is also Stanwyck
SUPPORTING ACTOR: Basil Rathbone, who steals everything he's in

And the extras:
Cinematography: Joseph Walker, Platinum Blonde (he's also the best of the decade, I'd say)
Script: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington or Duck Soup
Editing: M, though with a strong challenge from The Only Son
Music/Sound: M

Top 20:
1. M
2. Rules of the Game
3. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
4. Duck Soup
5. I Was Born, but...
6. Blue Angel
7. Bride of Frankenstein
8. Trouble in Paradise
9. Osaka Elegy
10. Frankenstein
11. Make Way for Tomorrow
12. The Testament of Dr. Mabuse
13. Wife! Be Like a Rose!
14. Bringing Up Baby
15. Crimes of M. Lange
16. Platinum Blonde
17. Love Me Tonight
18. Top Hat
19. Zero for Conduct
20. The Awful Truth

And now - I was not sure whether to start at the beginning or the end - I think I will start at the beginning, because, though 1939 is the year most people talk about, the first half of the decade is where the action is. So start in 1930...


This one is almost a sweep...

Film: Blue Angel
Director: Josef von Sternberg
Actor: Emil Jannings
Actress: Marlene Dietrich, in Blue Angel
Supporting Actor: Louis Wolfheim – All Quiet on the Western Front
Supporting Actress: Beryl Mercer – All Quiet…
Short: The Golf Specialist… I think I like it better when it was recycled in You’re Telling Me, but it is great stuff.

Plus – Cinematography: I think I would say Earth – one of the most beautiful movies ever. Editing – All Quiet on the Western Front. Script – Blue Angel.

Top 10:
1. Blue Angel
2. Earth
3. All Quiet on the Western Front
4. Under the Roofs of Paris
5. Morocco
6. The Blood of a Poet
7. That Night's Wife
8. Animal Crackers
9. The Bat Whispers
10. Walk Cheerfully


The fact is, it's all downhill from here - my favorite film ever, close to my favorite direction of a film, probably the best performance, probably best supporting performance - certainly of the decade, probably ever. Stanwyck gets the decade's honors too. But it goes beyond that. This is my favorite period in all of film history, 1930-1933, more or less - before sound became routine, codified, when everyone was making it up as they went along. With the great 20s directors still working at close to the top of their game - Lang, Murnau, Chaplin, Vertov; the next generation coming into their own - Ozu, Naruse, Mamoulian, Capra - just a spectacular year. And really, that's true of the years around it too - 30, 32, 33 - just as astonishing. And oh yeah - an Oliveira film, making this the only year in the decade to feature a film by a director who makes one of my yearly ten bests in the 2010s!

Best Picture: M
Director: Fritz Lang
Lead Actor: Peter Lorre (M)
Supporting Actor: Dwight Frye (Dracula)
Lead Actress: Barbara Stanwyck (Miracle Woman, if I have to choose one)
Supporting Actress: Joan Blondell (Night Nurse)
Short: I'll say Douro, Working River

Playing with other categories:
Cinematography = Joseph Walker, Platinum Blonde
Screenplay = Thea von Harbou & Lang for M
Sound design = M – though this is a great year for sound. Before everyone figured out how films were supposed to sound, they were all making it up as they went, and the results are exhilarating. M, Enthusiasm, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Platinum Blonde, etc. are all endlessly inventive and surprising.
Editing = Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Top 10:
1. M
2. Frankenstein
3. Platinum Blonde
4. Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde
5. Tabu
6. City Lights
7. Tokyo Chorus
8. Dracula
9. Enthusiasm
10. Flunky Work Hard!


This is another year with an impossibly rich selection...

Film: I Was Born, But…
Director: Ozu (for I Was Born, But…)
Lead Actor: Karloff, in the Mummy (though my god, this is a tough one to choose – Karloff, Lee Tracy in Blessed Event, Laughton in Island of Lost Souls, are all on the short list all time.)
Supporting Actor: Ernest Thesiger (Old Dark House)
Lead Actress: Miriam Hopkins, in Trouble in Paradise
Supporting Actress: Kay Francis, Trouble in Paradise
Short Film: The Dentist, I suppose – I do love WC Fields
And adding a couple categories:
Script: Trouble in Paradise (Samson Raphaelson)
DP: I think I’ll go with Arthur Edeson’s work on Impatient Maiden, a typically handsome James Whale film shot in and around old Los Angeles – Bunker HIll and such.
Sound/Music: Love Me Tonight, for both, and their integration.

Top 10:
1. I Was Born, but...
2. Trouble in Paradise
3. Love Me Tonight
4. The Mummy
5. Blessed Event
6. HOrsefeathers
7. Island of Lost SOuls
8. Vampyr
9. Blonde Venus
10. Scarface


Continuing the theme, another spectacular year. Maybe the last one - things start to tighten up after this. Politics gets in the way - the Nazis didn't exactly kill German cinema, but they drove off the top talent, and turned the rest just a bit too cautious to get close to these kinds of lists. In the US - after 1934, Joseph Breen gave the Hays code teeth, and turned American films notably softer. Though the increased codification of sound films - the use of scores, the more conventional look of mature sound takes a bit of a toll as well. Oh well - enjoy it while we can, huh?

PICTURE: Duck Soup
DIRECTOR: Fritz Lang
LEAD ACTOR: again, I don’t know how to choose. Too bad we don’t have actor in comedy/actor in drama… I have to say Warren William, Employees Entrance, because – if you don’t like it, “go ahead and shoot! what are you, yellow?”
LEAD ACTRESS: not much easier… Jean Harlow, Bombshell it is though
SUPPORTING ACTOR: Tokkan Kozo (Tomio Aoki) – Passing Fancy
SUPPORTING ACTRESS: personally, I would as soon nominate the whole cast of the Warner Brothers’ musicals, but if not – Aline MacMahon (Gold Diggers of 1933) makes a good representative…
SHORT: The Fatal Glass of Beer… though if I were cheating, I’d say “By A Waterfall” from Footlight Parade – those Berkeley bits are basically short films in themselves…

Plus bonus picks:
Cinematography: Karl Freund on The Kiss Before the Mirror
Editing: Naruse’s Every Night’s Dream
Script: Bombshell
Music/Sound: Testament of Dr. Mabuse – again, what Lang did with sound in his early sound films is almost unequaled.

Top 10:
1. Duck Soup
2. Testament of Dr. Mabuse
3. Zero for Conduct
4. Passing Fancy
5. Goddiggers of 1933
6. King Kong
7. Bombshell
8. Every Night's DReam
9. 42nd Street
10. Design for Living


This holds up pretty well itself - though I think it's already starting to slip.

PICTURE: The Gay Divorcee
DIRECTOR: Ozu, Floating Weeds
LEAD ACTOR: John Barrymore, 20th Century
LEAD ACTRESS: Carole Lombard
SUPPORTING ACTOR: Peter Lorre, The Man Who Knew Too Much
SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Kathleen Howard in It’s a Gift…
SHORT: The Mascot
SCORE: not sure about a score, but the Gay Divorcee has the best music.

Bonus picks:
Cinematography: The Scarlet Empress, I think
Script: Twentieth Century

Top 10:
1. The Gay Divorcee
2. It Happened One Night
3. Twentieth Century
4. You're Telling Me
5. The Merry Widow
6. Story of Floating Weeds
7. The Thin Man
8. It's a Gift
9. The Man Who Knew Too Much
10. L'Atalante


PICTURE: Bride of Frankenstein
DIRECTOR: Ozu (Inn in Tokyo)
LEAD ACTOR: Takashi Sakamoto, Inn in Tokyo
LEAD ACTRESS: Ginger Rogers, Top Hat
SUPPORTING ACTOR: Ernest Thesinger
SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Helen Broderick, Top Hat
SHORT: Hoi Polloi? (that is a best Stooges films, though)
SCORE: Bride of Frankenstein (if it's a score as such; soundtrack would be Top Hat)

Plus bonus picks:
Cinematography: John Mescal, Bride of Frankenstein
Script: Top Hat
Music/Sound: need a special category for Wife! Be Like a Rose! - by 1935, sound was becoming normalized in American films - but in Japan, it was still a novelty, and there, as elsewhere, the first few years were just incredibly inventive in the right hands. Naruse being the right hands.

Top 10:
1. Bride of Frankenstein
2. Top Hat
3. Wife! Be Like a Rose!
4. Inn in Tokyo
5. Night at the Opera6.
6. Ruggles of Red Gap
7. Crime and Punishment
8. Gold Diggers of 1935
9. The Man on the Flying Trapeze
10. The Devil is a Woman


PICTURE: Osaka Elegy
DIRECTOR: Ozu, for The Only Son
LEAD ACTOR: William Powell - My Man Godfrey
LEAD ACTRESS: Choko Ida, the Only Son
SUPPORTING ACTOR: Jimmy Stewart, After the Thin Man
SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Helen Morgan, Showboat
SHORT: Rose Hobart, Joseph Cornell
SCORE: Chaplin, Modern Times, I guess - though I can't say the original scores of the day are a match for the musicals. I'll take Show Boat, thanks.

Plus bonus picks:
Cinematography: Joseph Walker, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town
Script: The Crime of M. Lange
Editing: The Only Son - Ozu's editing was always astonishing, but from this point on, it encompasses sound as much as sight; it's otherworldly
Song: Old Man River, of course

top 10:
1. Osaka Elegy
2. Crimes of M Lange
3. The Only Son
4. Sisters of the Gion
5. Modern Times
6. Arigato San
7. My Man Godfrey
8. Mr. Deeds goes to Town
9. Fury
10. Show Boat


PICTURE: Make Way for Tomorrow
DIRECTOR: I voted for Renoir and the Grande Illusion, but I am tempted to give it to Detlef Sirk, for La Habenera - proof that they wee making some good iflms in Germany, even at this late date.
LEAD ACTOR: Cary Grant, in the Awful Truth
LEAD ACTRESS: Barbara Stanwyck, Stella Dallas
SUPPORTING ACTOR: Erich von Stroheim, The Grand Illusion
SUPPORTING ACTRESS: I'd be remiss if I didn't drop an Ozu film in here somewhere, so I'll vote for Michiko Kuwano, the troublemaking niece in one of his funniest films, What Did the Lady Forget?
SCORE: since the music in Shall We Dance was written, for the movie, by George Gershwin, I don't have to mutter about the distinction between film scores and film music. The distinction here is meaningless. And this is exceedingly good.

Plus bonus picks:
Cinematography: I lean toward Karl Freund on The Good Earth
Script: The Awful Truth
Song: You Can't Take that Away From Me, by the Gershwins

top 10
1. Make Way for Tomorrow
2. The Awful Truth
3. The Grande Illusion
4. What did the Lady Forget?
5. Shall We Dance?
6. A Day at the Races
7. Pepe le Moko
8. La Habenera
9. Stella Dallas
10. Green Fields


PICTURE: Bringing Up Baby
DIRECTOR: Eisenstein, Alexander Nevsky
LEAD ACTOR: Cary Grant, Bringing Up Baby
LEAD ACTRESS: Katherine Hepburn, Bringing Up Baby
SUPPORTING ACTOR: Basil Rathbone, in The Adventures of Robin Hood
SUPPORTING ACTRESS: May Whitty, The Lady Vanishes
SHORT: Violent is the Word for Curly
SCORE: Prokofiev, Alexander Nevsky

Bonus Picks:
Cinematography: Adventures of Robin Hood (Sal Polito and Tony Gaudio)
Script: Bringing Up Baby (Dudley Nichols and Hagar Wilde)
Editing: We have an Eisenstein to marvel at!

This is an interesting fact - I have seen a lot more films from the beginning of the decade than I have from the end. I am not sure why that is - though I suspect a big part of it is that pre-code films get revived a bit more often than the post-code films do. And since most of my film watching has been in theaters (revival houses), that probably is enough to tip the numbers in favor of the pre-34 stuff. Anyway - I'm fairly amazed at how few films I have sen from some of these later years. I mean - Room Service? (Though I think it is a bit underrated...)

1. Bringing up Baby
2. Adventures of Robin Hood
3. Alexander Nevsky
4. The Lady Vanishes
5. The 39 Steps
6. Holiday
7. Olympia
8. La Bete Humaine
9. You Can't Take it With You
10. Room Service


PICTURE: Rules of the Game
DIRECTOR: Renoir, Rules of the Game (though this is impossible by any standards - Capra, Mizoguchi, Naruse are all impossible to let go of...)
LEAD ACTOR: James Stewart, Mr. Smith...
LEAD ACTRESS: Jean Arthur, Mr. Smith...
SUPPORTING ACTOR: Ray Bolger, Wizard of Oz
SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Maria Ouspenskaya, Love Story
SHORT: The City
SCORE: Wizard of Oz, I suppose.

Bonus Picks:
Cinematography: Joseph Walker, Mr. Smith...
Script: Sydney Buchman, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Song/Sound: Arlen and Yarburg deserve mention too...
Editing: I will be perverse, but the key to great editing is the choices you make, and the choice not to cut is a choice - so Story of the Last Chrysanthemums gets it, because the choices are impeccable.

And, another year I'm shocked at the films I haven't seen. THis is a great year - there must be 10 great films I haven't seen...

1. Rules of the Game
2. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
3. The Wizard of Oz
4. Stagecoach
5. Love Affair
6. Story of the Last Chrysanthemum
7. The Whole Family Works
8. Destry Rides Again
9. Gunga Din
10. Ninotchka

And that is all! See you again when the poll hits the 50s.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Friday Disco Special

RIP to Donna Summer - I won't pretend to be too much of a fan, but I won't deny that she caught the ear. Hating disco was something my demographic was supposed to do, but I guess I was lucky enough to be living in the woods of Maine and not realize we were supposed to hate it, until later, by which time it had mostly morphed into certain strands of new wave, and then came Madonna - things that were never hated quite like disco... a good thing, since you could listen to them in peace. But I never minded the thing itself, until the rock groups started trying to fake it, and then it became comical...

None of which has much to do with Donna Summer - her songs were always just striking music to me... so - I will let Genius generate the list today, from everyone's favorite - MacArthur Park, which seems to bring back more varied results...

1. Donna Summer - MacArthur Park
2. ABC - Poison Arrow
3. Chic - Dance Dance Dance
4. George Michael - Kissing a Fool
5. Madonna - Borderline
6. Kate Bush - The Man With the Child in His Eyes
7. Gary Numan - Cars
8. Pretenders - Brass in Pocket
9. Tears for Fears - Mad World
10. New Order - Blue Monday

Video? MacArthur Park, live, in 2005 or so:

This may or may not have anything to do with being 12 or so when it came out, but this song has always made an impression...

Though I Feel Love is the song that can still grab you. The way Summer's voice is the only identifiably human element on the track - and the complete commitment to the electronics... This still sounds fantastic, and the video below, miming or not, gets the quality across - maybe better because it's mimed... complete with doing the robot... it;s close to glorious.

Monday, May 14, 2012

For the Love of Film III

Just a quick note, that the For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon III blogathon is currently running, at Ferdy on Films, The Self-Styled Siren and This Island Rod. The theme is Hitchcock - there is much to see and read.

All of it for the cause of Film Preservation.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Oshima Post

It's been a couple weeks since my last Sunday screen shot post - the reason is, maybe predictably, the World War II class I have been taking - it's paper time... I was writing about prison camp movies (mostly) - and giving pride of place to this one: Nagisa Oshima's Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence. More precisely, I suppose, I was writing about the depiction of the enemy - and face to face interaction between enemies - a theme given rich opportunities for development in prison camps.

Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence is pretty much about just that - it's about seeing the other side from the other side: it is close to unique, a Japanese film, with a famous Japanese director, made from a book by a South African, co-written and produced by Englishmen, that's committed to looking at both sides, from both sides, and from outside as well. Digging into the political and social divisions on both sides of the war, exploring all the perspectives. Including on outside, analytical perspective - look at all those long shots, high angles - dispassionate and objective, though always alongside explorations of what the characters perceive. I know people sometimes compare Oshima to Godard - that may not be as helpful as it sounds, but this they have in common - an approach that tries to move back and forth between seeing things from inside, as their characters see them - and outside, analytically, "objectively" - and putting these perspectives on film.

Oshima is also one of the great political filmmakers - he never lets us forget who holds the whip - or how power is exercised up and down the system. Individuals are swallowed, and individuals fight back, and individual desires and psychology constantly interfere - his films do all that, and keep it in a real, analytical setting in the world. So we see the Japanese hierarchy - the officers, a bunch of cultured arrogant brutes, lording it over their non-coms - who lord it over the privates - who here, get to lord it over the Koreans, as well as the prisoners. It's certainly consistently with Oshima's work, his interest in the treatment of Koreans - here, the film starts with a Korean guard being beaten, an act that touches off the whole series of actions...

That's relatively common in Japanese films about the war - at least the ones I've seen, mostly from New Wave directors like Oshima. I mentioned it regarding Fires on the Plain - the amount of divisiveness you see in Japanese war films, far more than I think usually appears in other country's films. A lot of these films - Fires, as well as Fighting Elegy, or Kobayashi's The Human Condition - date from the late 50s and 60s, a particularly fractious time in Japan; Oshima's films, all of them, are particularly steeped in the chaotic politics of the 1960s. But Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence is just as interested in the divisions among the allies - the main officers there - Colonel Lawrence, Group Commander Hicksley, Major Jack Celliers - are as different as Captain Yanoi is from Sergeant Hara (the main Japanese characters.) Hicksley as rather ridiculous, by the book, regular military type; Celliers a heroic, flamboyant and a bit self-destructive free spirit (played by David Bowie as something of an alien - at least as seen by Captain Yanoi)

...and Lawrence as a kind of Easternized westerner - a world traveller who speaks Japanese, and spends the film trying (it seems) to explain the Japanese to the British and the British to the Japanese. It never really works - the Japanese have guns, they don't have to listen; the other officers - well - Hicksley doesn't understand him; and Jack is too determined to get himself killed.

Yanoi is interesting enough himself, a Shakespeare quoting radical aesthete, who survived the February 26th incident, and Hara, played by Beat Takeshi, his first film role, but already the kind of performer who can hold his own with David Bowie and Ryuichi Sakamoto - a salt of the earth professional who dreams of Merlene Deitrich and kills like a machine.

And Oshima does a superb job of making them all count - Lawrence is the center of the film, the pivot - everyone interacts through him... And Celliers is the engine of the plot - he comes to the camp and turns everything upside down. He's a fascinating character - an overt Christ figure, with his initials, and his otherworldliness and martyrdom - though also Judas, specializing in betrayal and destroying Yanoi with a kiss.

But - in a film full of religious imagery - churches, hymns, Christian allusions (Jesus and Judas), as well as Buddhism, direct and indirectly portrayed -

- it's Hara who is the one genuinely religious character. He's the one chanting sutras for the dead; he's shaven headed in his cell at the end, with his prayer beads and monk's composure.

And he is Father Christmas, giving life to the others:

And so.... I've found that every time I see an Oshima film, I have liked it more - the more I see his work, think about his work, the more impressive he becomes. I suppose some of that is the political nature of the work - it can be hard to process the first time through - and maybe distracts from the rest of what he does. There's no denying what a beautiful filmmaker he is. And how clever he is - this one manages to work in in-jokes about his other films ("did she cut it off?"), its stars (Bowie wishing he could sing), other films - it's a joy. And he knows how to use the stars he has, exploiting Bowie's charisma, Sakamoto's presence, and Takeshi's face...

Friday, May 11, 2012

Friday Music Time

Happy end of another week... dive right in to the randomizer - iTunes seems quite willful today...

1. John Cale - Momamma Scuba
2. Wiley - Wot do U Call It?
3. Black Mountain - Heart of Snow
4. Bonzo Dog Doo-rah Band - Humanoid Boogie
5. David Sylvain - Late Night Shopping
6. Melvins - Boris
7. Minor Threat - Good Guys (Don't Wear White)
8. Slapp Happy/Henry Cow - In the Sickbay
9. Don Byron - Frailach Jamboree
10. Bruce Springsteen - Jackson CAge

And video? Who doesn't love Minor Threat?

And - since I can't find video of Don Byron playing Klezmer - here's Byron playing "Heathcliff Slocumb":

And Mickey Katz himself, with "Borscht Riders in the Sky":

Friday, May 04, 2012

A Friday Riff Fest

Another week has gone - time for some music. Today, as usual, randomly selected from iTunes...

1. Chicago - Questions 67 and 68
2. Deerhoof - Family of Others
3. Motorhead - Dirty Love
4. Dungen - Lejonet & Kulan
5. U2 - New Year's Day
6. Ric Ocasek - Not Shocked
7. Pere Ubu - Cloud 149 (live - Shape of Things)
8. Pearl Jam - Why Go
9. George Harrison - What is Life (instrumental)
10. Led Zeppelin - The Song Remains the Same

Video? let's riff it up a bit, shall we? It's why Jimmy Page was put on this earth.

And, while not in Jimbo's league quite, The Edge could churn out a riff when he wanted.

And one of Mr. Harrison's best riffs, for good measure:

Tuesday, May 01, 2012