Friday, August 30, 2013

Labor Day Weekend Friday Random 10

Ladies and gentlemen, a Friday morning, the last of the month, the day before a long weekend, in which we get to celebrate the working man, and the labor union, an organization that has contributed immensely to our well being, but has faded in the past 30 years or so, with dire effects on our well being. So - good luck, all you fast food workers - getting a decent wage and some institutional power will do everyone a world of good.

Meanwhile, sad news from the literary world - Seamus Heaney has died. He is the only Nobel Prize winner I have met - at least, the only one I knew I was meeting when I met him. So - my knowledge of poetry is too uneven for me to say much more about him - but I certainly enjoyed his work, when I read it, and the couple times I heard him give readings.

And so? Friday it is, and so - music.

1. Sigur Rus - Ara Batur
2. G.O.N.G. - The Isle of Everywhere
3. Audioslave - Set it off
4. Serge Gainsbourg - Requiem Pour Un Con [ah, oui]
5. Grateful Dead - Rosemary
6. Led Zeppelin - Carouselambra [didn't this come up a month or so ago?]
7. Half Japanese - Frankenstein Must Die
8. Of Montreal - Gronlandic Edit
9. fIREHOSE - Can't Believe
10. Meat Puppets - Station

And video? This, sadly, cannot be embedded - Serge Gainsbourg miming Requiem Pour Un Con for a film - have to settle for the music track and some pictures I guess... still makes you want to take up smoking and Jane Birkin, though...

And - life, reunited fIREHOSE:

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

August Director - Kenji Mizoguchi

We are getting to the end of this particular theme for the Director of the Month. I have been using it to count down my favorite Japanese directors, which since I started with Oshima, means counting down 6 to 1. (With bumps.) We are almost there - we are at Number 2.

I can't imagine there's any suspense here - anyone who's read this blog regularly ought to be able to figure out who's number one. And once I put my other obvious favorite at number 3, that pretty much leaves Mizoguchi. I can't claim any kind of originality obviously - I don't really depart much from the consensus, other than elevating Imamura over Kurosawa - I imagine Ozu, Mizoguchi and Kurosawa are the standard Big Three. So I doubt I have to make much of a defense of this choice, except maybe to myself.

I haven't written about Mizoguchi all that much here - I noticed that I don't have a Label for him yet (well, I do now, but I didn't before I hit publish.) I have labels for all the others on this list, and a few who aren't on the list (yet - if I go down from 7 to 10, say, I will surely hit Suzuki and Kiyoshi Kurosawa soon - they have labels!) Are there reasons for that? accidents of what I happen to have seen in the last 9 years? Is Mizoguchi maybe somewhat out of fashion, making his films less likely to be revived, less likely to be reissued that some of the others? There might be something to that - there aren't that many Mizoguchi DVDs available in the states, not that I've found. I don't remember any big retrospectives of his work in the past decade or so - unlike Ichikawa, Ozu, Naruse, Oshima... I don't know. I saw the bulk of the Mizoguchi's I have seen in the late 90s - it has been harder to add to what I have seen than it has to add to the others.

And some of it might be me. I took longer to warm to his films than I did to most of the directors I've written about - the first time I saw them, I liked his early, contemporary films better than his later, period films - however impressive all of them were formally. That division did not survive repeated viewings - every film I saw made me love him more, and every time I see them again, I am inclined to love them anew... (Though again, that's true of almost all my favorite directors of any sort - it's certainly as true of Ozu or Mizoguchi, or even Kurosawa, whose films are shown enough that you can become used to them, as it is of Mizoguchi.) But then again - I use the word "love" there - and I don't know if that is quite right. "Love" is the word for Ozu - it's the word for most of the Imamuras, and a few of the Kurosawas (Kurosawa or Kurosawa), and some Suzukis.... Is it the word for Mizoguchi? Or is the word more like "Awe"? When I'm watching them, I can't say that's a very meaningful distinction. But still - I've put Mizoguchi ahead of Imamura here, but that's a bit deceptive. That's not true if this is a "favorite directors" list - it might be true if this is a "best directors" list. Fortunately, the whole list concept here is just a conceit to pick an order to write these essays, so we can forget it!

And talk instead about what these films have. There's not much debating the question of beauty - there might not ever be a filmmaker more capable of taking your breath away, shot after shot, moment by moment in a film. Start with that. And then, of course, note that there aren't a lot of directors with a more distinct and powerful individual style. (And most of the directors with a more individual style are on this list; or will be in a month.) His camera work, the constant movement, the deep spaces, the sculpting of light and dark, creates a world that is incredibly complex. He expands space in his films, creates a world that is too big for the film, that seems to be waiting in the wings to destroy the characters. There are filmmakers who disorient you, who break the sense of spatial continuity in a film, who make you feel the difference between real world space and screen space - there are other filmmakers who work to create a cinematic world that feels as deep and encompassing as the real world. Mizoguchi is their master. He has good company - Murnau, Renoir, Welles, Dreyer - but he is probably the greatest of them. I remember when I was first reading about film, being confused about why the French loved Mizoguchi so much, at Kurosawa's expense - I think this is a big part of it. Mizoguchi fits in with the people Bazin and his followers valued - Renoir, Dreyer, Murnau, Welles, Rosselini - their use of long takes, deep spaces, the sense of continuity, of keeping back from the action, letting the viewer sort things out, make sense of the imagery - is all present in Mizoguchi, probably to an even greater extent. Those critics were not inclined to value what Kurosawa offered - the much more America and Russian style editing, the more direct creation of "meaningful" shots, and so on. That isn't to say Mizoguchi is not "meaningful" - in fact, it might be one of the points against him, that his films feel very self-enclosed (for all their expansiveness) - their style builds to a complete and inescapable world, in ways that, certainly, Imamura's films don't. Or Ozu - whose style seems much more disorienting, constructed, never letting you forget this is a thing that has been made.

And so. I admit that I will keep harping on these formal qualities in the notes below - I suppose that is part of what makes Mizoguchi sometimes a bit hard to place - he is so formally astonishing, so beautiful, that sometimes, the story might seem to become secondary. (There are many ironies there: I find Ozu much more formally disruptive - but I find his work much more emotionally cohesive. I'm not sure how that works.) But that's really just an impression - the simpler fact is that I find Mizoguchi's films to be incredibly beautiful, brilliantly composed and staged, always featuring strong stories, with a consistent and complex point of view, and - notwithstanding what I was just saying - very humanistic. He is a master in every sense.

1. Ugetsu Monogatari - Ghost story. A potter leaves his wife to pursue a mysterious woman, who proves to be a ghost; another man leaves HIS family to pursue military glory thus plunging his wife into prostitution. Features one or two of the single most magnificent shots in the history of cinema. There is probably not much need to explain why this is such a masterpiece - an utterly gorgeous film on Mizoguchi's usual subject, how women suffer to make men worth their suffering. For good measure, he works in anti-militarism (the samurai are all scum, cowards, fools - the foot soldiers are bullies, rapists, murderers, thieves) and a tract on the evils of greed as well. It is one of the high points of filmmaking - its mix of dynamicism and lyricism - the way people move in and out of the frame, the camera movement, the perfect compositions, the effects, even the use of sound.

The scenes with lady Wasaka make a particularly dazzling high point. From the beginning - Genjuro comes in, passing through the ruins; the sequence starts in ruins, but as he moves into the castle, things become more animated - lights, other ghosts and so on appear - until he is brought to Lady Wasaka herself. It is all very theatrical, especially the moment of truth - references to traditional Japanese theater in particular. The lone pine on the stage, for instance... Then Lady Wakasa dances - again, theater, the way she moves, the staging - and as she sings we hear another kind of music start, then hear her father's ghost singing... That might be a first - a ghost appearing inside a ghost story... The voices blend and Mizoguchi moves the camera to the empty armor.... I lose it every time I see that; who wouldn't?

The film as a whole becomes more moving every time I see it, as do most of these films. There is the emotional punch of the ending, but also the ending for Lady Wakasa, who Genjuro betrays as surely as he betrays his wife. She is almost as sympathetic as Miyagi. And all through there is so much to be in awe of - take the shot of Miyagi's death - a long crane shot, three starving men fighting, one stabs her, she dies in long shot and the others die in very long shot... devastating.

2. Osaka Elegy - Story of a woman who becomes her boss's mistress to pay off her useless father and brother's debts. Murky in every print I have seen, but beautifully composed and shot. Notice the use of light - the dark foregrounds, the bright backgrounds, the frequent high contrast lighting that picks objects out in the background, bright shining objects. These great Japanese directors found their styles fairly early - this is 1936, but Mizoguchi is in command of the style completely - the perfectly composed shots, the long, elaborate tracks, the cranes, the long takes, the sophisticated mise en scene. Shooting through screens - literal screens, also people, windows, shelves, laundry. Like Sternberg - also like Sirk. It is a very strong lineage, that is probably real - certainly Sternberg influenced Mizoguchi, and probably Sirk (who was making his own expressionistic masterpieces in Germany about this time). Sculpting and shaping the world in light and dark, composition, set decoration, all three of them, at a level not really matched by anyone else. (Except maybe Murnau, who helped beget the lot of them...) For Mizoguchi, especially, space is the key - he shapes it, shapes the story out of what is seen and not seen. He is a master of what we don't see as much as we see - using offscreen sounds along with the camera and actor movements, the light and dark, entrances and exits, to establish a sense of continuous space, a whole world around what we see. You feel as if every shot could go on forever, in time or space - that the world extends infinitely in all directions. And what you see, the flow of things you see, and how you see them, creates the narrative and reveals the emotional story. These things are constant in Mizoguchi's work, and they are all here, in 1936, in 71 minutes...

3. Sansho the Bailiff - Story in medieval Japan, of a boy and girl, children of a ruined noble, enslaved by Sansho, who forces their mother into prostitution. The girl sacrifices herself to let the boy escape, and he does, and gets vengeance, though he gives it up to find his mother. Another rather unbelievably beautiful film, though as usual with Mizoguchi, thematically complex as well. Here, the two fathers, good and bad - the ways the sons, Taro and Zushio - betray and redeem their fathers, and so on. And of course, the way Mizoguchi develops themes and tells stories through the formal elements of the film - the play of space, of light and dark, of movement through landscapes, the circles, the routes traced by Zushio (and his mother and sister), the sounds and images, and the ravishing shots... Images that develop themes - consider the way the characters move, where they go - men, whatever happens to them, can move; women cannot. Women sacrifice themselves because that is all they have, in these worlds - men can be stars or heroes or artists; women are lucky not to get their tendons cut.

4. Sisters of the Gion - Another mid-30s film, tracing 2 sisters who are Geisha's - one remains loyal to her lover, even when he is ruined and moves in with her; the other schemes and connives several men, but is almost killed in the end by one of them... while the loyal, good geisha, loses her man when his wife gets him a job. Damned if you do, damned if you don't, though I suppose they are all better off rid of the bastards. As such, for all it's misery, it plays a bit closer to Naruse than some of the other Mizoguchi's - the women are abandoned and suffer, but for no one's sake but their own.

5. 47 Ronin - Classic piece of Japanese drama about 46 ronin who avenge the death of their lord, and are allowed to kill themselves. This was made in 1941, and shows some propaganda elements, but great lord, what a stunning looking film. Maybe the government's interest in the film meant that Mizoguchi had all the resources he could possibly ask - this is far more extravagant looking than his other early films that I have seen. Long elaborate crane shots - overhead angles moving into low angles, all smooth and magisterial. Mizoguchi here moves the camera to get between shots - what might be a conventional shot/reverse shot, he achieves by moving the camera - moving from long to medium shots and so on... Slow going - 4 hours of it, much of it samurai sitting around pretending to vacillate - but it has such weight in the pictures that it feels full, constantly engaging. Amazing film.

6. Chikamatsu Monogatari (The Crucified Lovers) - Another theatrical adaptation, this from Chikamatsu, one of Japan's great dramatists. A complicated story of a printer's wife, whose useless brother needs money that she can't borrow from her husband. So she mentions it to Mohei, her husband's best employee - he agrees to help, but is caught in the act of trying to sneak some money away - when he tries to confess and apologize, the husband turns on him. Why? Well - the old rake had been trying to molest a maid, so the maid said she was engaged to Mohei. Well - as everyone tries to explain everything to everyone else - Mohei and the wife are caught together in the maid's room... Uh oh! They run away, and as they travel together, they fall genuinely in love - to the point that when they are caught, they go together to the gallows, hand in hand, happier than they have ever been.

The tragedy is familiar enough, but beyond that, it is a very dense, complex film - gorgeous and bitter. Money is everywhere - Ishun, the printer, has made a fortune from the great nobles, who all owe him money, and are itching for a chance to break him. He has a rival aiming to get the position back; faithless employees, stealing under his nose. The wife's brother is a useless playboy, taking singing lessons and letting his mother and sister suffer in his place. The class issues - between the printer and the court nobles in his debt, between the poor samurai like the wife's family and the printer, between the printer, his wife, and his employees - are ubiquitous as well. And sexual power - the husband causes a lot of the trouble by seducing a maid; no one (except his wife, and maybe Mohei) pauses for a second to think about the hypocrisy of it - but she does, and Mohei does, and they are ruined for it. All this is lovely as usual, dense and beautiful. Bitter, funny, cruel, tragic, as complicated and modern as Shakespeare (might be more modern that Shakespeare, though only a half century later than Shakespeare) - great film, geat story, everything.

7. Story of the Last Chrysanthemum - Late 30s Mizoguchi, about an actor in the 1880s who runs off with a servant. He had been a hack actor - she makes him a star and an artist, but only after she sacrifices herself for his good. Quintessential version of the Mizoguchi theme, probably - and as always, a masterful piece of work.

8. Life of Oharu - Another gorgeous film, this one about a samurai's daughter who is ruined by loving a servant, and then descends through the ranks of society as misfortune dogs her every step. There might be just a tad too much of it here - the parade of woe starts to seem almost comical, though that is hardly fair. As always with Mizoguchi, the style is impeccable, and this has a fantastic performance by Kinuyo Tanaka as well.

9. Loves of Sumiko the Actress - Film about the the theatrical world of late 19th century Japan - starts with a man trying to put on new, European plays - he wants to stage A Doll's House, and needs an actress - he meets and casts Sumiko, who has left her husband to act - she is a hit. It isn't long before they are lovers, and runs off with him - they become famous, revolutionizing drama in Japan, but they work themselves to death doing it. A fine film, though perhaps a bit flat, and the storytelling merely adequate - but Kinuyo Tanaka's performance carries it. She is radiant - maybe never so radiant as she is here. Radiant and spiky at once - a masterful performance.

10. A Geisha - An older geisha adopts a 16 year old girl, puts her through training, they go to work--the girl has an admirer, and so does the older woman--they go to Tokyo where the two swains try their hands with them--the girl bites her man, the other woman just turns hers down. They are blacklisted. As it happens, of course, the older woman's lover is the problem--he controls some business deal. Everyone--the other man, the teahouse owner, the geishas of course owe everyone else--and when they refuse to cooperate they are blackballed. This lasts a while--then Miyohara goes with the man. Miyoe is unhappy, but that's how it ends. Gorgeous photography as usual.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Weekend Tunes

I am still amazed at how lazy I have been this month. The weather has been superb (though this week got warm again - but a much more pleasant kind of hot than we had in July), I have plenty of things I could be doing - and what have I done? Well - actually, read two honking big books on the Civil War - Peter Cozzens' accounts of Chickamauga and Chattanooga. Gotta be ready for those anniversaries this fall!

Anyway - it's music day, and today we are just plain random:

1. Rocket From the Tombs - Life Stinks
2. The Kinks - (Wish I could Fly Like) Superman
3. David Sylvain - Snow White in Appalachia
4. Jane's Addiction - True Nature
5. John Lee Hooker - Leavin' Chicago
6. John Cale - Amsterdam
7. Pavement - Perfume-V (live)
8. Big Bill Broonzy - Key to the Highway [we got the blues today...]
9. Nick Cave & Bad Seeds - EAsy Money
10. Gram Parsons & The Flying Burrito Brothers - When Will I Be Loved

THat's some nice stuff - what can we find on YouTube? How about John Lee Hooker - not the same song, but live - So Cold in Chicago...

And - Ben Affleck might be the next Batman, but Ray Davies will always be Superman:

Friday, August 16, 2013

Friday Music for the Dog Days

After the weird weather of a couple months there - rain and cold to the end of June, then HOT for a month, August so far has been a peach. High 70s, clear, no humidity - "nice with sunshine" the weather sites put it. And so? I'm amazed how lazy I have been this month - with the weather better, it should be easier to get things done (like those big Imamura and Zep posts), but it hasn't happened yet. Oh well. Not going to complain...

So today? music? I said I was lazy, right? so - here are 10 songs, plucked at random by iTunes from my music library... Only one of which would probably land among my 10 favorite songs of all time. 2 in the top 50, though, possibly.

1. Damon and Naomi - (Scene Change)
2. Leo Kottke - Tell Mary
3. Replacements - Answering Machine
4. Rocket from the Tombs - Never Gonna Kill Myself Again
5. Sonic Youth - Cotton Crown
6. Death - Politicians in my Eyes
7. Pavement - Fin
8. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds - Spell
9. Loren Connor - Airs No. 2
10. The Who - A Quick One While He's Away (BBC version)

Video? I am reminded that I have been very remiss - I have been meaning to link to Joseph B's list of the five best uses of pre-recorded music in a film - and maybe take a stab at the exercise myself. Reminded because this might be #1.

(Somehow the Italian dialogue seems just right...)

And Westerberg:

And, finally - still at it, all these years later - Crocus and Cheetah and Craig Bell, live...

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

1990s WITD Poll Votes

At Wonders in the Dark, the yearly polls are currently on summer vacation, as Sam Juliano and family are in England, visiting Allan Fish - they are up to 2003... and here are my votes for the 90s.

The 1990s is when I stepped up my movie watching - from almost night at the beginning of the year to over 400 films a year the last 4-5 years... obviously, a lot of that was catching up on the past - taking advantage of the Brattle and the Harvard Film Archive to see everything I could... But I finally saw enough contemporary films to make these kinds of lists... I remember it fondly - and looking back, it was an underrated decade. Great decade to be a fan of Chinese films, great decade for Iran, etc. - good stuff. Anyway - my votes, and my favorites for the decade are below...


PICTURE: Rushmore
DIRECTOR (single): Wes Anderson, Rushmore
(decade): Wong Kar-wei
LEAD ACTOR (single): David Thewlis, Naked
(decade): Leslie Cheung
LEAD ACTRESS (single): Brigitte Lin, Swordsman II
(decade): Maggie Cheung
SUPPORTING ACTOR: John Goodman, Big Lebowski
SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Catherine Keener, Being John Malkovich
SHORT: David Lynch in Lumiere and Company
SCORE: Neil Young, Dead Man [wait - I didn't vote for it in the year it was released? I may be confused here, though I don't know where.]
CINEMATOGRAPHY: Christopher Doyle, Fallen Angels

Plus bonus picks::
Script: Groundhog Day - best to miss the cut below...
1. Groundhog Day
2. Rushmore
3. Pulp Fiction
4. The Big Lebowski
5. Thirty Two Short Films about Glenn Gould
Music: Rushmore - one of the most perfect uses of pre-recorded music ever
Sound: Viva L'Amour
Musical: Beijing Bastards
Martial Arts: Once upon a Time in China
Documentary: Close Up, Kiarostami
Animated: Nightmare Before Christmas
Musical: there are a surprising number of films that might qualify - more than one of which (Beijing Bastards, 32 Short Films about Glenn Gould, Nightmare BEfore Christmas) have already turned up here... Well - the top five?
1. Beijing Bastards
2. 32 Short Films...
3. Haut/Bas/Fragile
4. Nightmare Before Christmas
5. Topsy Turvy

Top 20:

1. Rushmore
2. Brighter Summer Day
3. Satantango
4. Fallen Angels
5. Breaking the Waves
6. Goodbye South, Goodbye
7. Happy Together
8. White
9. Through the Olive Trees
10. Beijing Bastards
11. Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould
12. Once Upon a Time in China
13. Flowers of Shanghai
14. The Sweet Hereafter
15. Pulp Fiction
16. A Moment of Innocence
17. The River
18. Naked
19. Dead Man
20. To Sleep With Anger

And now by years:


PICTURE: Charisma
DIRECTOR: Dardennes Brothers, Rosetta
LEAD ACTOR: Russell Crowe, The Insider
LEAD ACTRESS: Emilie Dequenne, Rosetta
SUPPORTING ACTOR: Tom Cruise, Magnolia
SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Catherine Keener, Being John Malkovich
SCORE: Angelo Badalamenti, The Straight Story
CINEMATOGRAPHY: Freddie Francis, The Straight Story

Plus bonus picks:
Script: Office Space
Music/Sound: Ghost Dog
Documentary: a good year for these - the best is probably American Movie
Action/Martial Arts: Hong Kong is starting to run down, though you still have some decent films, like Bullets Over Summer. In terms of Asian genre pictures, I should start a Best Miike category: that would be Audition, in 1999...

1. Charisma
2. Sons
3. Rosetta
4. L'Humanite
5. The Straight Story
6. Lies
7. American Movie
8. Peppermint Candy
9. The Little Girl WHo SOld the Sun
10. Audition


Another solid year, very strong at the very top, and fairly deep. Lots of great performances, especially by men; three or four films that contend for the best script of the decade; some magnificent looking films. With, in the end, the best film of the decade, in Rushmore.

PICTURE: Rushmore
DIRECTOR: Wes Anderson
LEAD ACTOR: Jeff Bridges, Big Lebowski
LEAD ACTRESS: Marie Riviere, Conte d’Automne
SUPPORTING ACTOR: John Goodman, Big Lebowski
SCORE: Mark Mothersbaugh, Rushmore
CINEMATOGRAPHY: Lee Ping Bin, Flowers of Shanghai

Plus bonus picks:
Script: Rushmore
Music/Sound: Rushmore (one of the best uses of pre-recorded music there is)
Martial Arts: we're past real martial arts films, but still need to mark some Hong Kong films - this year - Expect the Unexpected, which deserves the name.

1. Rushmore
2. Flowers of Shanghai
3. The Big Lebowski
4. Babe: Pig in the City
5. After Life
6. Forty-two Up
7. The Silence (Makhmalbaf)
8. Secret Defense
9. Book of Life
10. Expect the Unexpected


This is a very good year, but also maybe the most unbalanced year - there are some great European films, and some very good American films, but the top of the list is completely dominated by Asian films. 6 of the top 7, by my lights.

PICTURE: Happy Together
DIRECTOR: Wong Kar-wei
LEAD ACTOR: Thomas Jay Ryan, Henry Fool
LEAD ACTRESS: Pam Grier, Jackie Brown
SUPPORTING ACTOR: Robert Forster, Jackie Brown
SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Julianne Moore, Boogie Nights
SHORT: Alone, Erick Zonca
SCORE: Angelo Badalamenti, Lost Highway
CINEMATOGRAPHY: Christopher Doyle

Plus bonus picks:
Script: Henry Fool
Music: Happy Together - the music selections, which are perfect
Sound: Taste of Cherry - but this is one of the best sounding films ever; Kiarostami films are so detailed, so rich, you want to watch them with your eyes closed, at least once.
Documentary: a fight to the finish between Little Dieter Needs to Fly and Fast Cheap and Out of COntrol, though I think the Herzog wins.
Martial Arts: nothing quite fits, but as Hong Kong goes over to China, you get quite a burst of creativity - Happy Together, running off to Argentina - and at home, Too Many Ways to be No. 1 has to get a mention of some kinds. For the upside down fight, if nothing else. (And the fact that those two films share a significant, extended upside down camera sequence - seems very likely to be related to the politics of the day. Both films, of course, being quite plainly about the handover, and what you are supposed to do now.)

1. Happy Together
2. The Sweet Hereafter
3. The River
4. Xiao Wu
5. Cure
6. Taste of Cherry
7. Too Many Ways to be No. 1
8. Henry Fool
9. Kingdom II
10. Funny Games


Beyond the top ten, beyond the top 20 - this year has a lot of films I find that I just really like, or remember fondly, all these years along. The Frighteners or Beavis and Butthead Do America or what have you...

PICTURE: Breaking the Waves
DIRECTOR: Lars Von Trier
LEAD ACTOR: Owen Wilson, Bottle Rocket
LEAD ACTRESS: Emily Watson (This is a very difficult choice: Kidman and McFarland, are hard to pass over, or Maggie Cheung for that matter.)
SUPPORTING ACTOR: William H. Macy, Fargo
SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Nathalie Richard, Irma Vep
SCORE: Goodbye, South, Goodbye, Lim Giong
CINEMATOGRAPHY: Breaking the Waves, Robby Muller

Plus bonus picks:
Script: Fargo
Music/Sound: I think
Martial Arts: things are running out around here - this might be God of Cookery, typically entertaining Stephen Chiao nonsense. There are some nice action films in the next few years from Hong Kong, but fewer and fewer martial arts films.

1. Breaking the Waves
2. Goodbye. South, Goodbye
3. A Moment of Innocence
4. Portrait of a Lady
5. My Sex Life, or How I Got in an Argument
6. Fargo
7. The Delta
8. Without Memory
9. Drifting Clouds
10. Mahjong


Not a bad year at all, really. Looks a bit thin compared to some of the years around it, since that seems to have been a pretty nice stretch in the mid-90s, but still. Having a few certifiably great films helps... Anyway:

PICTURE: Fallen Angels
DIRECTOR: Wong Kar-wei
LEAD ACTOR: Takashi Kinoshiro, Fallen Angels
LEAD ACTRESS: Julianne Moore, Safe
SUPPORTING ACTOR: Jackie Cheung, High Risk (or Meltdown, or whatever it's called in English - Die Hard ripoff, with Cheung sending up Jackie Chan)
SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Charley Young, Fallen Angels
SHORT: David Lynch's bit in Lumiere and Company, which I see is called "Premonition Following an Evil Deed"
SCORE: Eleni Karaindrou, Ulysses Gaze
CINEMATOGRAPHY: Christopher Doyle, Fallen Angels

Plus bonus picks:
Script: Dead Man
Music/Sound: Fallen Angels
Martial Arts: The Blade
Documentary: Gate of Heavenly Peace - though I wish I could say Forgotten Silver - the best fake documentary at any rate.
Best English Title for a Foreign Film: Tough Beauty and the Sloppy Slop - silly Supercop ripoff with Yuen Biao and Cynthia Khan, but the title - man, you want to see that, right?

1. Fallen Angels
2. Dead Man
3. Good Men, Good Women
4. Gate of Heavenly Peace
5. Hau/Bas/Fragile
6. Forgotten Silver
7. Safe
8. Red Cherry
9. Sharaku
10. Gonin


93 rivals this year at the very top, but for the volume of great films, this is a truly magnificent year. They just keep on going... doing any sort of justice to the range of great films this year is impossible.

PICTURE: Satantango
DIRECTOR: Abbas Kiarostami, Through the Olive Trees
LEAD ACTOR: Johnny Depp, Ed Wood
LEAD ACTRESS: Sandrine Bonnaire, Jeanne la Pucelle: Parts I & II
SUPPORTING ACTOR: Samuel L.Jackson, Pulp Fiction (I suppose this is a supporting role, though it's a big one; if he were up for the lead I could vote for Paul Newman in the Hudsucker Proxy...)
SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Faye Wong, Chungking Express
SHORT: I think this will be The Smell of Burning Ants, from Jay Rosenblatt.
SCORE: Zbigniew Preisner, Three Colours: Red
CINEMATOGRAPHY: Gábor Medvigy, Sátántángó

Plus bonus picks:
Script: who can deny Pulp Fiction?
Music: I have to split this from sound this year - the competition is for the best use of pre-recorded music is very steep - Chungking Express, Cold Water, Pulp Fiction - I have to give it to Chungking Express, though.
Sound: It's also a year full of magnificent sounding films, films making dense, brilliant use of sound - Satantango and Through the Olive Trees and Jeanne le Poucelle - but the one that stands out is Viva L'Amour.
Martial Arts: we're getting toward the end of Hong Kong's awe-inspiring run, but there are still some nice films coming out - so, though it has a strange reputation I guess - Ashes of Time is a pretty good action film. That might not be it's main appeal, in the end - but it's still remarkable, and well done. The way the fight scenes are atomized - blurs of motion & whooshing sound effects, sudden closeups, changing speeds - but still maintaining a kind of heft - not much flying, a kind of grounded physicality, which is, after all, a trademark of Samo's choreography. It has a relentless earthiness (along with recurring images of the four elements) that makes it memorable.

1. Satantango
2. White
3. Through the Olive Trees
4. Pulp Fiction
5. Viva L'Amour
6. Jeanne La Poucelle
7. Cold Water
8. A Borrowed Life
9. The Kingdom
10. A COnfucian Confusion


This is a tough year, as good a top 5 as we've seen in a while...

PICTURE: Beijing Bastards
DIRECTOR: Hou Hsiao Hsien, The Puppetmaster
LEAD ACTOR: David Thewlis, Naked
LEAD ACTRESS: Brigitte Lin, East is Red
SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Katrin Cartlidge, Naked
SHORT: The Wrong Trousers
SCORE: Zbigniew Preisner, Three Colours: Blue
CINEMATOGRAPHY: Gu Changwei, Farewell, My Concubine

Plus bonus picks:
Script: Groundhog Day
Music/Sound: Thirty-Two Short Films about Glen Gould - which is a close second for best film and script... Beijing Bastards is a strong contender here, Cui Jian is quite good, but this is Glen Gould - and it's a magnificent piece of sound work as well as music.
Martial Arts: Fong Sai Yuk - Jet Li and Josephine Siao putting on a great comic action show.

1. Beijing Bastards
2. Thirty-Two Short Films About Glen Gould
3. Naked
4. Groundhog Day
5. The Puppetmaster
6. The Blue Kite
7. Short Cuts
8. The East is Red
9. Nightmare Before Christmas
10. Sonatine


I'll take Brigitte Lin's eyes and Jet Li's drunken swordfighting and Rosamund Kwan with a whip over more or less anything you can offer more or less any time. Though putting it like that isn't quite right - because as entertaining a bit of pop film-making as it is, it's also packed tot he eyeballs with the Strange, and rather more clever in its apocalyptic gender-bending politics (sort of a Tsui Hark trademark, usually given an extra level of insanity when Ching Siu-tung gets involved) than most anything else on offer.

PICTURE: Swordsman II
DIRECTOR: Tsai Ming-liang, Rebels of a Neon God
LEAD ACTOR: Denzel Washington, Malcolm X
LEAD ACTRESS: I wish I could vote for Maggie Cheung in Actress, for she is truly great, but who am I kidding? I can't not vote for Brigitte Lin in Swordsman II - why pretend? She's one of the most marvelous things ever put on screen in that film. (And the next one; you can guess my '93 best actress vote, I assume.)
SUPPORTING ACTOR: Steve Buscemi, Reservoir Dogs
SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Hey hey! a chance! I can vote for Maggie Cheung in Dragon Inn!
SHORT: Stille Nacht III (Though Frog Baseball is the important one...)
SCORE: Angelo Badalamenti, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
CINEMATOGRAPHY: Poon Hang-Sang, Actress

Plus bonus picks:
Script: Reservoir Dogs
Music/Sound: And Life Goes On - Kiarostami is always an absolute master of the use of sound. Though one of his strongest competitors had a film out that year too - Tsai Ming-liang...
Martial Arts: Swordsman II, of course. Though it's a loaded year, with the Dragon Inn remake and Supercop and the second Once Upon a Time in China film, covering a neat range of styles...
Documentary: Lessons of Darkness

1. Swordsman II
2. One False Move
3. Rebels of a Neon God
4. Careful
5. Actress
6. Lessons of Darkness
7. Reservoir Dogs
8. And Life Goes On
9. Glengarry Glen Ross
10. Autumn Moon


A good year, though not the best of the decade quite. One of the best films of the decade though...

PICTURE: Brighter Summer Day
DIRECTOR: Edward Yang
LEAD ACTOR: Jet Li, Once Upon a Time in China
LEAD ACTRESS: Jodie Foster, The Silence of the Lambs
SUPPORTING ACTOR: John Goodman, Barton Fink
SHORT: Short of Breath?
SCORE: Zbigniew Preisner, The Double Life of Veronique
CINEMATOGRAPHY: William Lubtchansky, La Belle Noiseuse

Plus bonus picks:
Script: Brighter Summer Day
Music/Sound: Brighter Summer Day, named after a song after all...
Martial Arts: Once Upon a Time in China, a contender for the best martial arts film ever made.

1. Brighter Summer Day
2. Once Upon a Time in China
3. La Belle Noiseuse
4. Jacuot de Nantes
5. Rebels of a Neon God
6. Slacker
7. Thirty-Five Up
8. J'Etend Plus le Guitar
9. Life of the Dead
10. Sink or Swim


An okay year for films, but a killer for performances - trying to pick them brings back how many there are, and how indelible they are. Probably come in high on the list of years for memorable moments - Annette Bening jumping on the bed. "I'm funny?" Jane Horrocks' trouble with chocolate. Beat Takeshi and a baseball bat. Etc.

PICTURE: To Sleep With Anger
DIRECTOR: Kiarostami, Close Up
LEAD ACTOR: Leslie Cheung, Days of Being Wild - really? Over Glover?
LEAD ACTRESS: I have too many choices: I'll say - Laura Dern, Wild at Heart - not the best Lynch, but it's not her fault. (Though this is where Kati Outinen belongs for Match Factory Girl, outside this poll)
SUPPORTING ACTOR: this is even tougher, right? it's a good year for over the top - Joe Pesci; Chris Eigeman - is there such a thing as over the top deadpan? or Timothy Spall in Life is Sweet. I want to vote for Eigeman, but I think I have to join the crowd and vote for Pesci.
SUPPORTING ACTRESS: this is tough too - but - Annette Bening, The Grifters, gets the vote.
SCORE: Carter Burwell, Miller’s Crossing
CINEMATOGRAPHY: Christopher Doyle, Days of Being Wild

Plus bonus picks:
Script: To Sleep With Anger
Music/Sound: Close Up - this is for the sound, not music.
Martial Arts: it's mild mannered and same compared to the sequels, but Swordsman is first rate Wu Xia in its own right.

1. To Sleep With Anger
2. Days of Being Wild
3. Close Up
4. Goodfellas
5. The Match Factory Girl
6. Life is Sweet
7. Miller's Crossing
8. Europa Europa
9. Swordsman
10. Metropolitan

Friday, August 09, 2013

In the Days of My Youth...

It is the second Friday of the month, and so time to focus on another band. (Second Friday seems more promising than first, I think... to maintain this habit.) Let me take you back, now, to the summer of 1980. (We've been there before, briefly.) I remember it well - staying up all night - 3, 4, 5 in the morning - reading books and listening to the radio. AOR! In it's heyday! I imagine I was driving the rest of the house crazy, staying up half the night with the radio on, but what can you do? That summer told: it formed my tastes, in music and books - it is a fact that most of what I ended up liking then, I like now.

My youthful musical trek was not always smooth - I was at the mercy of the radio, and lived in the boonies, and mostly stuck with AM until well into high school. I started paying attention to music about 1974 and 75. I mean, that’s about when I started paying attention to songs, started seeking out groups and types of music, and talking about it with my friends at school. I started listening to the top 40 in the summer of 1975. Hamilton, Joe Frank and Reynolds were high on the charts. Jive Talkin’ hit number 1. I listened to the top 40 every week, and I started to have favorites: Elton John; Steve Miller; David Bowie put out Golden Years and Fame that summer; I discovered and liked rock bands - Aerosmith, BTO, Kiss - most of all, Kiss. Not just Kiss - one of my cousins had three records, Frampton Comes Alive, Aerosmith’s Rocks, and BTO’s Not Fragile - I would visit, we would play air guitar to Do You Feel Like We Do? and all was well. But for most of the middle of the 70s, it was all about Kiss.

This post, though, is not about Kiss. The thing is, even when I was young and stupid, I was restless and curious. At the beginning I did not make many distinctions about music - I liked and disliked everything I heard as if it existed in a vacuum. That changed as my tastes developed, and probably not in a good way at first. I tended to fall into the habits of an isolated adolescent white boy - I got to be a rock snob; my tastes became more rigid, I second guessed myself. (Though not before I bought an Abba record, and Saturday Night Fever.) So as much as I might love The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald or Someone Saved My Life Tonight, I would think they were a bit below me. Though I didn’t stop liking them - even at 15, I had a bit of a sense of irony, and that let me listen to what I wanted, when I needed it.

But I didn’t stop looking for music and finding new things. And when I was young, I was inclined to look at every new discovery as a kind of step to a higher level of consciousness. I would move from Elton John and the Bee Gees to Aerosmith and Kiss and think, I have done it - I have finally discovered what real rock and roll sounds like! And a year or so later, I would discover Styx and maybe Queen and say the same thing. And so I moved, from BTO and Frampton to Kiss to the Eagles (poor me) then Styx, then groups like Styx (Journey, REO, Kansas, Queen - that kind of crap), which brought me up to the edges of the province of straight up classic rock. And by the summer of 1980, that’s where I was.

And thus: I found a radio station that played real AOR: The Beatles and the Stones and the Who and the Doors, Sabbath and Springsteen and the Kinks and Pink Floyd and anything else the guardians of Rock And Roll thought met the grade. (Which at times could include the likes Lou Reed and Zappa and even, though I only discovered this a long time later, Captain Beefheart. But those are acts you will have to wait for, in this series, since I am following, roughly, my discovery of music.) One might go on. Some of these bands we will meet again: today, we are going to the band that was the center of the universe when I was 17 (not for me alone I suspect). The main course - the piece de resistance - the stuff of white boys’ dreams:

That, thought I, then, that, is what Rock and Roll Should Sound Like. That was hardly a unique opinion - most of the other guys at school would have agreed. The radio station certainly agreed - they played the hell out of Led Zeppelin. I somehow acquired, along here, Led Zeppelin II and IV on 8 track, and eventually, The Song Remains The Same on vinyl - but thanks to the radio, I didn't need them. I knew the first record and Houses of the Holy and most of Physical Graffiti as well as I knew the ones I had - most of those records got played all the way through every month somewhere on the radio... (III got short shrift; and the later ones were often politely ignored.) I would stay up to 3 in the morning, and hear a Zep song an hour. And usually put down the book (Pride and Prejudice! Lord Jim! I was preparing for an AP English class...) and play air guitar for the duration...

Sad, sad. I should be clear though - the station I listened to did play a lot of bands - they played deep cuts. I got a real musical education, at least in rock of the 60s and 70s, everything from Zep and Sabbath to Jackson Browne and Supertramp, over that summer and the next year. And in fact, things got better in 81 - they started playing new wave type stuff as well (or I found a different, even better radio station, that made no distinctions...) - I heard U2 and the Ramones and Elvis Costello and the B-52s, etc, before I got out of high school - which, in the woods of Maine, was an accomplishment. But all of it, for that year or so, revolved around the Zep.

And then I went to college, and it didn't revolve around them anymore. The radio stations in Boston played contemporary music, contemporary rock - my music-loving friends were mainly Bruce-o-philes (he should be next month's story) - and my freshman year there was a bit of a Satanic Panic, which I mostly ignored, but it made groups like Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath somewhat frowned on... (Though I had a Sabbath poster on the wall; I think I pretended it was Led Zeppelin, since they offended the christians a bit less... but still; I wish I could find that poster. I didn't really care much about Sabbath back then; now, I think their version of hard rock has aged a lot better than Led Zeppelin's; I know I'd rather hear Paranoid than Heartbreaker.) And over the years, I found more bands, that repeated the old process - "this is it! I have finally discovered what real rock and roll sounds like!" - though I admit, after the summer of 1980, I never quite abandoned what went before. My new discoveries (and there are a lot of them: we have three or four pretty major revisions in what I listened to coming through the years) after that were added to what I already liked.

And somewhere in the mid-80s, sometime after I started listening to punk in earnest, I started hearing those AOR bands, the cock rock bands, with a different set of ears. (I mentioned this way back in 2004, writing about Johnny Ramone.) I noticed the riffs, I paid attention to Bonzo, I stopped feeling guilty - or "ironic" - about loving guitar solos. I also noticed, maybe, just how ridiculous their lyrics were; how annoying Robert Plant's voice was; how obnoxious their misogyny was; and how cavalierly they treated the people who wrote their actual songs... But - with eyes open - I still thought they kicked ass. And still do.

In fact, right now, I probably like them almost as much as I ever did, at least since that first flush of discovery. Though I like them differently. In 1980, I liked what you would expect - Stairway to Heaven and Dazed and Confused of course, and the first 2 records, and the harder stuff on the 4th, the long solos, the blues, the boogies.... Oh, I liked the ballads and such, but they were complimentary. But now? I suppose there is no denying: when push comes to shove, Led Zeppelin is basically a duo: John Bonham and Jimmy Page. It's the riffs, it's the drums - even on the ballads, it's the beats, its the riffs. It is awe inspiring, how on a song like All of My Love, a ballad - with Bonzo and Jimmy both so strung out they could barely stand - the band just swings like a motherfucker. They could go up their asses - and these days, I have no patience for a lot of their bluesy boogie workouts, the endless and pointless extensions of Whole Lotta Love and the like, the theremin passages... These days, I make no apologies for preferring the ballads, and have come to really like their later stuff - when Jones and Plant were doing most of the work, and they had almost turned into a prog band. With a drummer who knew how to rock... In the end - they are not like the Beatles; making a top 10 Zeppelin songs is not going to make me agonize and wring my hands, I won't be able to come up with another 20 songs that could be on this list - one or two maybe (How Many More Times, Good Times, Bad Times, Achilles Last Stand, the Immigrant Song - that's about it, probably...), no more. But still, these days, I might listen to the songs on this list as much as anything I have.

Here they are: my 10 favorite Led Zeppelin tracks:

1. Thank You (the live one on the BBC sessions particularly sends me; it’s a real song; and Jimmy really lets it rip. Bless them.)
2. Dazed and Confused - what I said about not liking the indulgent noisy songs doesn't apply universally. It’s the guitar; even the half hour versions of this are almost listenable. The early, short versions, though, are pretty hard to beat.
3. Stairway to Heaven - boring, but what can you say?
4. Ramble On - seeing them play it on the recent live DVD brought it back - the truth is that for most of the last 15 years or so, I've mostly been listening to things like that BBC collection, or HOw the West Was Won, the live stuff that came out after the fact... and those records don't have Ramble On, so I forgot. Now I remember.
5. When the Levee Breaks - it’s the drums, man.
6. All of My Love - there's more to the end of the Zep's run than they get credit for. The last couple records, the songs get good - the words aren’t stupid; the melodies are more than just excuses to jam; Plant has learned to sing. And however fucked up they were, Page and Bonham are always stunning. And so detailed - Page’s work is scary perfect.
7. Fool in the Rain - ditto
8. Communication Breakdown - a faster version of God Save the Queen?
9. Kashmir - riffs; drums
10. Over the Hills and Far Away - live, especially

That's enough - this post has started to approach Dazed and Confused length itself... Let's do some video. Let's start with half of Zep and the Foo Fighters... (though Dave should have written the lyrics down somewhere.)

Try Page and Plant doing Thank You, in the mid-90s:

And - Dazed and Confused, done right on Danish TV; violin bow and all, they get it in in under 10 minutes:

and finally - isolated drum track for Fool in the Rain. Because - because.

Saturday, August 03, 2013

July director of the Month - Shohei Imamura

Well, it is not July anymore, but that isn't going to stop me: it's time for another Director of the Month. (And it's going up as July's director - August's will come at the end of the month.) This month, we are back on track with my countdown of the greatest Japanese directors (as I see it) - we are up to #3 - Shohei Imamura.

Imamura is one of my favorites, in the sense that favorites sometimes get separated from the best. He just makes me happy. I saw Pigs and Batteships as part of a series of classic Japanese films, and it was revelatory. Even then, before I was all that committed a Japanophile, I had an idea about Japanese films - as either gorgeous, serious art works, or lively, exciting genre works, that also worked as art - Kurosawa and Kobayashi, say. Or as perfectly rowdy genre works, sword fighters, gangsters and anime, that kind of thing. Imamura was none of those things. Pigs & Battleships is sort of a yakuza film, but it had none of the usual tropes of a Yakuza film, none of that sentimental manliness you get in so much Japanese genre work (even the highbrow ones). Imamura was certainly not making melodrama, like you saw in Mizoguchi. He was transgressive and funny, but it didn't come off as someone trying to freak the squares. (I'd seen a couple Oshima films, and I got that impression - of trying to be "transgressive" or something of the sort.) It was different. Funny, direct, unapologetically contemptuous of gangsters and Americans, while being more sympathetic to the low lives trying to be gangsters without every letting them off the hook (just look at how the hero ends up in that film). And saving its real respect and affection for the women, and especially the women who decided to get jobs and earn their keep. (A factor you see more of in his other films of the period, but it's there in Pigs and Battleships too.) And finally - fucking hell, what a spectacular looking film! all those cranes and angles and camera moves, the deep focus, the complicated, detailed sets and framings, the staging and composition and lighting - I was floored, and am now, every time I look at one of his films. Imamura came out of nowhere - someone I hadn't just not seen, but never heard of, knew nothing about, and found to be better than almost anything I had ever seen, so much better I could barely make sense of it.

A couple years later I saw the rest of his films, one of the first complete retrospectives I saw, and I got the full measure of his thematic interests. His cool tough women, his political edge, and, I suppose most of all, the full measure of just what magnificently baroque frames and sequences he could put on a screen. The full measure of his artistry - his willingness to use everything he has: composition, editing, tricks - freeze frames and shock cuts and breaking the fourth wall, intertextual references and jokes, all the resources of the 60s, the new wave (as an international phenomenon, all the filmmaking devices it added to world cinema) - which reach a kind of giddy apotheosis in The Pornographers and A Man Vanishes. But all his 60s films take fullest advantage of the new ways of working in films. He is awe inspiring. He is almost as thrilling as Ozu sometimes, for the sheer formal brilliance of it all.

He is. And I suppose, for all my adoration of Ozu, Imamura almost comes closer to my heart because I did discover him almost blind - I was told by all the literature what a great filmmaker Ozu was before I had seen any of his films. Ditto Mizoguchi, ditto Kurosawa, ditto even Oshima or Naruse or what have you. Imamura, I heard, was someone who was supposed to be an important Japanese new wave director, like Teshigahara and Oshima - but who, when I saw him, knocked me over on the spot. He was mine... that's what I wanted films to look like. I still do.

All right. Here then, let me rank the 10 best of his works. I have written a fair amount about these in the past on this blog. I will try not to be too redundant...

1. The Pornographers - A small time pornographer and procuror with a lover whose dead husband has become a fish and a daughter with a scar and a son with a mother fixation. Plus Yakuza and faithless friends and some delicious parodies of Euro art films, and the most astonishing cinematography ever. Every angle, every composition, every cut is startling and thrilling, and usually funny as hell...

2. The Insect Woman - Story of a poor girl surviving after WWII, going through jobs, drifting into prostitution, where she proceeds to take over the business, find a patron, lose both, but keep going. Her daughter meanwhile becomes a farmer, just as tough as mom. This is probably the quintessential Imamura, the one that presents his main themes in their clearest form - tough women, whose suffering and misery is never in the service of weaker, but somehow more important men; they exist for themselves, and win or lose through perseverance and work, nothing else; and through it all, the value of work, endurance, and - well - work. All this is told in episodic fashion, handsomely shot, experimentally editing. Told in self-contained sequences that usually end in freeze frames, jump ahead years at a time, without making transitions clear. Tends to be organized around parallels - repetitive, rather than dialectic: she sleeps with her father - her daughter does; she works for Midori, then Midori works for her; she steals from the madame, then becomes the madame, just as cruel and selfish, and suffers the same fate; her daughter, like her, gets taken in by Karasawa, an old rake - though the kid escapes. Scenes as well as situations are repeated, like the madame/Tome meeting in a police station, then Tome/her maid meeting in the same place. A very great film.

3. Pigs and Battleships - Yakuza, whores, and sailors, pigs and battleships. A boy wants to be a big gangster; his girl has an abortion then tries to convince him to leave and get a job. He pulls one last heist and dies of course. She calls him a fool, runs out on the American who wants to buy her, and gets a job in Kawasaki. The story itself is dense and complicated, though - the main plot line follows Kinta, or Kinta and Haruko (complicated already since it is about both of them, his chance to leave, her chance to leave, which aren't the same), but with strong subplots - Tetsu, the sick gangster; the disposition of the hogs - all of it with a host of characters coming and going, scheming among one another. Not quite a "network narrative" but almost complicated enough, with all the plot lines runnning more or less simultaneously, and all interconnected. And the look - the deep focus, the complex, articulated spaces that run through all of Imamura's films, give a kind of visual equivalent to this kind of plotting.

4. Intentions of Murder - A sickly musician rapes a pudgy mousy woman, who after thinking of suicide, spends most of the movie moping about her misfortunes without (apparently) acting. In the end the musician tries to get her to run away, she thinks about poisoning him, but instead he just dies; though there are photos of the two of them together, she simply denies the affair to her husband, and gets what she wants. That's not quite doing it justice. The family life is complicated - she's married to a librarian, who hasn't managed to get around to registering her as his wife, or their son as her son, so she has almost no rights. She's bullied by him and his family, though in fact, for all her passivity and supposed weakness, she is smarter than the lot of them. (We get it early: she corrects her husband's math, while doing the books; during the film she starts giving lessons in weaving, and by the end is making more money than the rest of them.) It ends up with one of Imamura's best jokes: having eluded the musician and a blackmailing librarian, she sues to have her son registered in her name, and wins - the family huffing and puffing about how stupid she is to sue them, she protesting that she never thought it would reach the courts - a great joke, as she has just gotten exactly what she wanted, and tops it off by moving to their silk farm, where she knits and raises the worms... It's the happiest ending in any Imamura film, by far. As for style - it's as magnificent as the rest of Imamura's work; for some reason too, it's always struck me as providing an excellent illustration of the definition of metaphor and metonymy - it uses Trains symbolically, in both ways: metaphorically as a figure of Sex; metonymically as a figure of Escape. Not sure why that seems to important, but there it is...

5. A Man Vanishes - A documentary of sorts about a man who disappears (a rather common occurance in 1960s Japan, I think). Imamura investigates and soon hooks up with the man's fiancé, who searches (along with an actor) for traces of the missing man, though she also starts falling in love with the actor.... Imamura films, often with hidden cameras, but also stages scenes, reenacts scenes, and so on. I wrote it up a few years back - it really is a remarkable film.

6. Vengeance is Mine - Ken Ogata as a killer; he kills a professor, takes on her identity, then kills a lawyer, an inn-keeper and her mother, as well as a co-worker. All this flips back and forth in time, starting with his arrest, moving to his killings, then his childhood and background, wife and father, then the recent past, the inn, the lawyers, his frauds, and so on. Though this film (like most of Imamura's later films) stays closer to the male lead, he is surrounded by tough women: the wife, who falls for his dad; mom, who for all her religion refuses to die; the lusty inn-keeper, and even more than her, her old mother, just out of jail for murder herself. All this quite wonderful looking, and handled with Imamura;s customary panache, which might hit its peak in the scenes where he jumps between time frames in the same shot...

7. Black Rain - A somewhat restrained film for Imamura, telling the story of a family living in the aftermath of Hiroshima. Starts with the bomb - the uncle was on a train, the aunt in her house - their niece was out of town, saw the bomb, went back through the rain, then crossed the town with the others.... 5 years later - they live in the country (they have money), but the niece can't get a husband, her uncle is ill, her grandmother thinks she's her daughter... The uncle is sick, but survives - while everyone around them dies. A friend dies, two more friends die, right after each other (funerals marked by a wipe), then the aunt, finally the girl. The plot is driven by the girl's search for a husband, which is complicated by her war experience - one man turns her down, despite a doctor's certificate; another says he doesn't care about her health, but his family is not so casual; there is also a war vet, who carves Buddhas and attacks cars as if they were American tanks, likes her and might have married her if she didn't die.... Over all, this is much more classical than anything else Imamura did - slower paced, with spare composition and staging, though as always, composed carefully in depth. This increased classicism is accompanied by a few Imamura touches - the knockabout comedy with the veteran; a couple bursts of anti-naturalism: the vet acting out his experiences; and the end... Uncle and girl are at a pond: she sees visions of jumping fish - he says, 5 minutes to go, we have to get back to the house - sure, he means, before they announce the time on the radio (clocks are a motif, ticking off the hours until everyone dies), but it's the end of the film as well...

8 Eijenaika - Set at the end of the Tokogawa regime, and as the government crumbles, all hell breaks loose among the froth and scum. It is another brilliant film - full of mixed motives, complicated relationships, complex shots - windows giving onto deep focus worlds, glimpses of things, of whole worlds, going on in the background, and sometimes the foreground, of a shot, unrelated tot he story. Of his later, color films, it's probably the closest in tone to the 60s films, especially Pigs and Battleships - comic, chaotic, another network narrative - with politics and history running through it all the way...

9. Endless Desire - Imamura's first completely characteristic film, a black comic neo-noir about 4 war buddies convening, 10 years later, to dig up buried treasure (a drum of morphine.) 4 were supposed to meet - 5 show up - one of them no one remembers, another says she is the sister of the leader of the group. They are a typical comically diverse crew - a businessman, a teacher that everyone bullies, a thug, a pharmacist, and the woman. They go to the slums of Osaka, rent a place where they can start their tunnel, but have to take a local kid into their confidence. They agree to reconvene in a month, but all of them show up early to start digging on their own. From there, things unravel in the usual way; they all start killing one another, dying absurdly, and so on - the woman manipulates one and all, but ends up falling in the river.... It's very funny, dark and bitter, an excellent entry into this kind of film, and already starting to take on the cinematographic brilliance that would be Imamura's trademark in the 60s.

10. Profound Desire of the Gods - Imamura's last film in the 1960s, his first color film, this is Imamura at his most mythic. It is set on a remote island in the Ryukyus, and mostly follows a family, the Futoris. They are inbred and brutal, but mythical: they were always the head of the religions of the island, and sometimes take the legends of brother and sister gods founding islands a bit too literally. Myth abounds - the nature photography, the brother digging a pit to make a boulder fall over, the retarded girl, the priestess, the old man... The film starts with the Futoris as outcasts, since Nekichi (the older brother) dynamited fish and (maybe) banged his sister - he's digging the pit, trying to keep the women under control... An engineer arrives on the island and hires the younger brother, they look for water, they start mowing down a sacred forest, but here Nekichi and the women (and the island headman) start sabotaging the engineer's work... The engineer, as one would expect in an Imamura film, gets pulled into the Futoris' doings, being seduced by the women (he resists the mother, but not the daughter), and even helping Nekichi dig his pit; while the younger brother is pulled into the modern world. Well - it all ends in Myth, with brother and sister sailing away to found a new race and all, though that doesn't quite go to plan. All told - it's a gorgeous film, and sometimes very highly praised, though I have to admit that I don't quite buy it. There's a bit of a shift here - it's full of Imamura's usual obsessions, his usual tough women - but it's changed a bit. He starts to mythologize his characters, those tough, earth women. The earlier ones are tough, independent, characters, and always protagonists in their stories - in control or fighting like hell to be in control. Here, they are transformed into a retarded sex fiend and a plot device: Nekichi's sister/lover, Ryugen's priestess/lover. They become symbols, not characters. For me, it turns a bit sour - it seems misogynist in ways, as it takes character types who had been fully characters, agents, and makes them symbols, only there as a foil to the men. It's a tendency that pops up a bit more in his later films - in general his later films follow men more than women... Fortunately, in the better ones (the ones listed above), the women remain interesting and independent characters - but it's not such a given anymore.

I don't want to end on a down note, though. Because Profound Desire of the Gods is, mythology or not, still a great film - and there are still a lot of damned fine movies to go in Imamura's career. Second Brother, Stolen Desire, The Eel, Dr. Akagi are all outstanding - there's plenty to admire in all of them. And finally - he was an extraordinary documentarian. The box set of A Man Vanishes contains several of his television documentaries, along with that masterpiece - an important body of work.

Friday, August 02, 2013

Welcome to August Friday 10

Well - I managed to blow two blog deadlines this week - both a new director of the month for July, and a band of the month for August. I shoudl cite (though not blame) Wonders in the Dark's upcoming Western poll, as that consumed my attention at the beginning of the week (and for much of the last month or so) - but not really... The director is done, and will be up as soon as it is seemly (to not step on this post - or more truthfully, to not get stepped on by this post.) The Band of the month - it was a bad idea to call that the first Friday of the month - not if I am going to turn the director posts into something at the end of every month. So second Friday! that's the plan!

And today? nothing much. I did see a concert last week - a bunch of kids playing in Cambridge - the son of some friends of mine played his first "real" gig, in a real club - that was fun... Otherwise? We're random today:

1. Arthur "Big Daddy" Crupup - My Baby Left Me
2. REM - A Perfect Circle
3. Atoms for Peace - Unless
4. David Sylvain - The Good Son
5. Wire - Clay
6. Danielson - This Day is a Loaf
7. Tragically Hip - We'll Go Too
8. Scissor Sisters - She's My Man
9. Yo La Tengo - Return to Hot Chicken
10. Sigur Rus - Rafstraumur

So for Video? Why not David Sylvain?

And - in the spirit of randomness - this is what came up on top in YouTube when I searched for Rafstraumur... wait - what? maybe for the Scissor Sisters, but this came up for Sigur Rus?

Not that anyone really regrets KC and the Sunshine Band... anyway, I guess that will put an end to any artiness I might be pushing. I suppose the Scissor Sisters wouldn't go wrong right now...

And finally - leave you with an iphone picture of the show I saw, nice and blurry.