Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Dangerous Like an Unripe Pepper

I thought I was in for a treat ten minutes into the gorgeously shot 1946 murder mystery Green for Danger. Rich, shadowy cinematography with an interesting and attractive list of suspects among the doctor and nurse staff of a war time hospital--all this and Alastair Sim, too, as Inspector Cockrill, there to solve the two murders. Unfortunately, the film has a rather disappointing ending.

I don't feel a mystery film necessarily needs a surprise ending or a series of clues leading up to the reveal, at the end, of the killer's identity. But if a movie or novel does intend to hinge so much on that discovery at the end, then it should be treated as a proper puzzle, giving the viewer all the clues necessary to solve it themselves if they're able. Arbitrarily picking a killer from the group not only denies the viewer the fun of this game it also, as in this case, tends to lead to awkward, plot forced characterisation. I won't spoil it for you.

I was hoping this would be the film that gave me Alastair Sim in a role closer to the one he played in Stage Fright but, sadly, he's shown to be a broad comedy buffoon, comically ducking from imagined air raids and making one big mistake at the end, one which allows the smug surgeon Eden (Leo Genn) to feel even more smug.

Eden has a tendency to say things like, "Most women ______" and it feels like the movie respects his opinion. When nurse Freddi (Sally Gray) confides to Eden that the end of her engagement to Dr. Barnes (Trevor Howard) is probably her fault, Eden remarks, "When a woman says that it usually means she's convinced it isn't." When Inspector Cockrill remarks that a former lover of Eden's was "jealous and possessive," Eden says, "Most women are if you give them the slightest encouragement." I really wanted to see Cockrill humiliate this guy. Sadly, the closest we get is an amusing scene where Cockrill happily watches Eden and Barnes disgrace themselves in a fist fight.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

A Springlike Autumn

Setsuko Hara and a bottle of Johnnie Walker, I certainly couldn't ask for more. Well, maybe Balvenie instead of Johnnie Walker, but then, Balvenie doesn't come in a red bottle and in this shot director Yasujiro Ozu is using the bottle for his characteristic "signature" in 1960's Late Autumn (秋日和). Ozu had a very distinct set of compositional mannerisms--almost always using static shots from the elevation of someone sitting on the floor, usually featuring a series of square frames or prosceniums, and one red object in a corner. His passion for putting together these shots means he quite deliberately disrupted continuity between shots as the the Johnnie Walker bottle demonstrates by showing us its red label from multiple angles.

Sometimes the signature is even someone's socks:

This particular character, Yuriko (Mariko Okada), supplies the red in several shots, making me wonder if Ozu saw her as his avatar.

Late Autumn is a reworking Ozu's great 1949 film Late Spring and is very much inferior to that work, more of an enjoyable anecdote than that film's devastating and subtle portrayal of the incidental damage of traditional social dynamics. Which is not to say Late Autumn doesn't offer some insight into human behaviour.

Setsuko Hara, who played the twenty seven year old woman reluctant to marry and living with her widower father in Late Spring, here has the opposite role as the widow mother, Akiko, who feels culturally pressured to in turn pressure her daughter, Ayako (Yoko Tsukasa) into marriage.

But, despite the fact that Hara was the biggest star in the movie and top billed, she only has a few scenes. Unlike Late Spring, most of Late Autumn focuses on the people in her and her daughter's social circle trying to arrange the marriage, mostly three middle aged male executives in the company Akiko and Ayako both work for.

They were all friends with Akiko's late husband and all of them had crushes on Akiko when they were young. They use this to justify their rather patriarchal plot to see that Ayako gets married in order to protect what they see as the young woman's extraordinary "purity".

Yuriko, who is Ayako's friend at work, gets wind of this and seems to represent Ozu's perspective on the modern, more independent woman in 1960 Japan. In a very gently radical scene, she confronts the three men angrily, telling them they should be ashamed for meddling in the lives of Akiko and Ayako, even telling them to address her as "Yuriko" and not "Yuri-chan"--an affectionate manner of address older people use for children, women, and pets.

But Ozu's far from a revolutionary--once the men explain themselves, Yuriko happily joins their conspiracy. She wants to see Ayako married, too. Ozu shows the men and Yuriko to all be quite charming with their very human faults and seems to portray something healthy in their combined efforts. And yet, like Late Spring, there is the subtle impression in the end that there's something very wrong with all this and no-one can see it. But it was a message that came off far more powerfully in Late Spring.

Monday, April 28, 2014

A Treacherous Fog

I was going to jump right into the Poetic Edda after Nibelungenlied but last night I instead found myself reading the masterful first chapter of Charles Dickens' Bleak House. Having read a little bit about the legal system in Victorian Britain, I know Dickens' account of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, a dispute over an estate that has lasted for generations at the time of the story, heirs having grown old and died in the process, is a quite accurate rendering of the sort of thing that went on. "The little plaintiff or defendant, who was promised a new rocking-horse when Jarndyce and Jarndyce should be settled, has grown up, possessed himself of a real horse, and trotted away into the other world." Dickens' lengthy and awesome description of the all prevalent fog and soot of London of course also being accurate, somehow complimenting the atmosphere of the courtroom to perfection. The impression of consummate absurdity portrayed is all the more fascinating for how dead honest it feels.

I recently got my hands on a really lovely 1942 hardbound edition of Bleak House. Though it might be a bit impractical to carry around.

Of course I watched the new Game of Thrones last night--spoilers after the screenshot.

I just saw a rather douchey tweet from Devid Faraci: "Next season on GAME OF THRONES: Tyrion obtains written consent from all women he sleeps with. Every episode ends with crisis hotline info."

I do happen to think the show, or any show, should not shy away from portraying rape or anything else horrible and I don't think it should come with a heavy handed "moral moment." But by getting into such a lather that he uses sarcasm, he misses the real problem arising from the rape scene added by the show runners in the previous episode--it seems like it didn't even happen in the new episode. The two people involved in the rape speak to each other as if it didn't even occur. Which makes sense insofar as it didn't occur in the source material. One could argue the show is making a point about how sometimes trauma is so completely buried, aided by cultural pressure, that people basically seem to forget about it the next day. But I think that's a bit of a cop out. It seems much more like sloppy writing and/or directing, especially since the director of the episode, Alex Graves, said the rape, "becomes consensual by the end." Meanwhile, the writers of the episode unequivocally refer to the scene as rape. So, putting aside all issues of social consciousness (though the director's perspective, I must say, is a little disturbing), there was a crucial scene shot where the people who made the show can't agree on what actually happened. That's bound to lead to problems moving forward.

Otherwise, I thought the implication of what the White Walkers really are was disappointing--I liked the idea of it being an undead army so much better. I loved Diana Rigg and Natalie Dormer, though I still prefer my explanation for Joffrey's death (that he choked on a dove bone). I didn't understand why the very shrewd and careful Littlefinger was laying out all his plans for Sansa like a Bond villain.

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The booze flask of Artemis rattled roofs.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Fire, Blood, and Decapitation

How does a story that began with dragons and magic helms end with Attila the Hun and brutal, zealous warfare? The second film of Fritz Lang's 1924 Die Nibelung, Kriemhild's Revenge (Kriemhilds Rache) puts Kriemhild in the role of protagonist--in a strange way, an anti-heroine--as she single-mindedly pursues bloody revenge for the murder of her husband, Siegfried. It's a beautiful, vicious film about obsession and loyalty.

One of the most impressive things about the film is its star, Margarete Schon as Kriemhild, who goes from being an innocent, trusting maiden in the first film to a cold instrument of fury.

Schon shows this with an incredible stillness, standing motionless with her cloak wrapped around her like Count Orlok or Legosi's Dracula, her wide, unblinking eyes--and she really doesn't blink, I watched for it. She often seems fixed in some intense reverie when someone speaks to her and it's uncertain she's even heard until her eyes snap to focus without her head moving. It gives her an otherworldly quality, like a goddess, which is appropriate since she incites violence for the murder of someone, Siegfried, who has the quality of a myth. Siegfried died for the imperfection of human society, you could say he died for the sins of humanity.

The translation of the film I saw translated the character who's known as Etzel in the book as Attila--it's meant to be the historical Attila anyway so it doesn't really matter. Again, it seems strange that we see a fight with a dragon before we see Attila laying siege to Rome--represented in the film by just a group of naked children dancing around a tree.

I'm guessing after the dragon, the castles of Worms and Brunhild, Attila's palace, and the Nibelung hoard, Lang didn't have the money to build Rome for two scenes. The children dancing work as a nice shorthand for the vulnerable complacency of Rome, though.

Attila is played by Rudolf Klein-Rogge, also with wide starring eyes, though much more of the earth than Kriemhild. The movie skips over the journey of Gunther and Hagen to the Huns' land and Hagen's encounter with the Rhinemaidens. Instead, the movie is told almost completely from Kriemhild's point of view, possibly due to screenwriter Thea von Harbou's feminist perspective on the text. Which is entirely appropriate--it makes a lot more sense to see Kriemhild has the heroine. But there is still an odd loyalty everyone feels to Hagen. After everything Hagen has done, including the murder of a small child, one of Kriemhild's younger brothers still says to her, "Look what you've done!" when he's holding the corpse of her other brother after they've barely managed to defend Hagen from the Huns she's ordered to kill him. It was a moment I found myself saying, "Oh, fuck you, man," at the screen. Hagen murders and murders and murders and somehow it's all Kriemhild's fault? What do they expect her to do?

When Attila marvels at this, he's told, "You do not know the German loyal soul!" as though this is something to be admired. Considering the movie features a dedication in its opening titles "to the German people," one wonders if Lang and Harbou are trying to administer some bitter medicine.

On one side, you have a woman fighting for a sort of Christ figure and on the other people fighting for national and sexual pride. Like in the poem, even the Germans serving under Kriemhild seem horrified that any man should be threatened or killed by a woman. This subtext made the movie compulsively watchable for me--Hagen is such a thorough creep and it's barely acknowledged by anyone but Kriemhild and Kriemhild has so many grievances that deserve redress but it's barely acknowledged by anyone but Kriemhild. It's not so much about a battle between good and evil as about two sides and their definitions of good and evil.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Destruction Wrought by Strength of Heart

Life can be pretty simple until humans get involved. Young Siegfried has a happy childhood, becoming a great swordsmith by the time he reaches adulthood and from there he enters the woods alone to embark on a career of dragon slaying and treasure hunting. But like the epic poem upon which it's based, Fritz Lang's beautiful 1924 Die Nibelungen is more about the torment Siegfried and the woman he loves are put through when the honest young man of the woods finds himself hopelessly lost in the forests of human deceit and cowardice.

Die Nibelung is two films, over two hours each for a total run time of around five hours. Miraculously, both films survive to-day in their entirety. The poem is rather naturally divided into two parts since the first half of the poem differs in tone rather drastically from the second half. The first film, like the first half of the poem, is focused on Siegfried and so is called Siegfried.

Unlike the poem, Lang begins with the young Siegfried (Paul Richter) in the forest and covers his exploits killing a dragon and finding the Nibelung treasure, as in other versions of the myth and Wagner's operas. The special effects, as you might imagine from the director of Metropolis, are impressive. The dragon moves forward, drinks from a pool, breathes fire, and even bleeds when Siegfried stabs him.

Even more impressive, though, is the film's visual beauty, its Expressionist use of darks and lights sometimes subtle, sometimes severe and always leading to gorgeous compositions. I loved a few shots Lang put together of actors in the foreground in bright light with an actor behind in shadow, as in this shot of Kriemhild (Margarete Schon) in the foreground and Hagen (Hans Adalbert Schlettow) behind her.

This is one of my favourite scenes from the poem because it seems like such an insightful example of bad faith--an existential concept wherein someone unconsciously behaves in a manner opposite from their true beliefs, accepting the word of someone, consciously believing them, even though at some level they realise the person is lying. Hagen asks Kriemhild to sew a cross into Siegfried's tunic in the one spot where his skin is vulnerable, the rest of him having been made invulnerable when he bathed in the blood of a dragon. Hagen says it's so that he can know where Siegfried needs to be protected in case they're attacked on the upcoming hunt. She does as she's asked, saying how Hagen is "truest of the true" in the movie. He is the most respected vassal to her brother, King Gunther (Theodor Loos). The fact that what Hagen tells her is so obviously false manifests in portentous dreams she has and tries to warn Siegfried of before he goes on the hunt.

This shot of Hagen stalking Siegfried is amazing--I love how Lang puts everything in silhouette but has light reflecting precisely off the tip of the spear.

The reason Hagen is moving to assassinate Siegfried is Kriemhild revealed to Brunhild (Hanna Ralph) that it was Siegfried in the guise of her husband, Gunther, who first passed the three tests of physical strength Brunhild required of her suitors and then forced himself on her sexually after she refused to sleep with Gunther on their wedding night. The sex is less explicit in the movie, Siegfried takes an armlet from Brunhild instead of a girdle.

Siegfried is happy to win the feats of strength for Gunther but is reluctant to force himself on the woman on her wedding night, doing so only because he and Gunther had earlier pledged loyalty to each other in a blood pact. The subtext, which is much less apparent in Nibelungenlied but clear in Wagner's opera and in Lang's film, is that Siegfried has grown up learning that violence is a simple solution to any problem he comes across. So he has no reason to be hesitant in pledging his love and loyalty to Gunther and, later, can't yet see violence as a bad enough thing to prevent him from keeping his word to Gunther. The actor playing Gunther is appropriately wide eyed and wimpy. The irony is that Gunther has no compunction about betraying Siegfried and Hagen is even less hesitant.

Hagen has one eye in the film, linking him, as in Wagner's operas, to Wotan, making him a sort of human surrogate of the god who isn't mentioned in the poem or film. Like Wotan, the buck seems to stop with Hagen, actions being deemed good or evil by the men of Burgundy depending on whether or not Hagen approves. But as a mortal, Hagen's idea of justice seems to lead to more chaos than the rule of Wotan, which is borne out in the second film.

Both films are public domain--here's the first on YouTube:

Friday, April 25, 2014

The Equinox is Okay

Maybe letting young people decide for themselves who and when they want to marry isn't so bad. Really, the most interesting thing about 1958's Equinox Flower (彼岸花) is that it's Yasujiro Ozu's first colour film. It's pretty and it's pleasant and trouble briefly furrows the brows of its protagonists. It's the visual beauty of the film that's the meat of it, the revelation that a young woman has gotten engaged without her father's permission isn't even that troubling to most of the characters in the movie.

I recommend listening to Roger Ebert's DVD commentary for the later Ozu film Floating Weeds to anyone interested in Ozu. Ebert covers all of Ozu's stylistic mannerisms pretty well. It was fascinating to see how many of Ozu's tendencies for shooting colour films were already in place for Equinox Flower including the presence in almost all of his invariably static shots of one red object, most often a tea kettle, like a signature on a Japanese painting.

Considering the three films Ozu made previous to Equinox Flower--Tokyo Twilight, Early Spring, and Tokyo Story--all dealt with extremely bad aspects of marriage, it's fascinating that Equinox Flower would be such a gentle tale. Perhaps it's because Tokyo Twilight was so unpopular for it's dark subject matter or maybe Ozu just wanted to play it safe for his first colour film.

Shin Saburi plays the protagonist, Wataru Hirayama, a successful businessman, husband, and father of two daughters, the eldest of whom has just reached marriageable age. The film begins with a wedding attended by Wataru and his wife (Kinuyo Tanaka) where Wataru is called upon to make an impromptu speech. He rambles about how, though he's happy with his wife, he envies his friends who were able to marry for love. His wife seems only slightly embarrassed by the speech.

Almost immediately afterwards, Wataru starts laying plans to arrange the marriage of his daughter Setsuko--who's played by Ineko Arima, not Ozu regular Setsuko Hara.

It turns out she already his a fiancé, Wataru finds out when the young man (Keiji Sada) visits him at work to ask for his consent to marry his daughter. Wataru says he has to think about it. Character conflict in the film only ends up getting very slightly more heated than that.

One thing I found really distracting is Shin Saburi never bows. I don't know if it was something about his character--none of the other characters seem to notice--or if the actor had a back problem or something. But watching Japanese films, you get used to how everyone bows, even unconscious little head bobs when they're talking on the phone. This guy Saburi doesn't even give a hint of a nod.

Twitter Sonnet #619

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Smart loafers stop digits that toe the most.
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Frozen aisles were watched by captive bass.
Floating forests host Donkey Abacus.
All kings bow to Australopithecus.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Waking Up Early

Well, it's back to school for me to-day--I'd gotten used to sleeping in 'til 7am during spring break and I'm feeling a bit ragged this morning*. Having scotch followed by cocoanut ice cream with pineapple sorbet was probably not the best idea but it was so good. Also scrambled eggs with swiss cheese and sautéed mushrooms on pumpernickel for dinner. Some part of me was clearly already rebelling against my health class to-day.

I also finished reading the Nibelungenlied last night, an epic poem from the 13th century. I read an English translation from the German--my German friend, Ada, found German from the period a bit difficult to read, seemingly about as difficult as modern English speakers find Beowulf, though Nibelungenlied was written a few centuries later. Like Beowulf, it's a transcription by a Christian hand of a pre-Christian tale, though in this case inserted Christianity is a bit less obtrusive throughout the piece, mostly not much more than mention of characters observing matins. It's a good read mainly for the spectacle of savagery on display.

It's a telling of the Siegfried/Sigurd story of northern Europe and Iceland, in this case with no gods, of course. Siegfried's slaying of the dragon is only related as an event transpired before the text to explain Siegfried's mostly invulnerable skin. There's not a lot of magic in the story, the strongest indication of magic being the very brief appearance of precognitive mermaids/Rhinemaidens, obviously left over from some other version of the story. Primarily, the Nibelungenlied is the purest example of a "might makes right" story I can think of, particularly, "mighty men make right," as the treatment of women by the story is pretty harsh even for something from the Middle Ages. Our pure and noble hero Siegfried rapes the indomitable Brunhild while disguised as Gunther--Gunther himself is too weak to subdue the warrior woman. There's a strange ghost of another story's moral in the events as the text superficially seems to support Siegfried in this while the events also seem to mark him for death as recompense. It's like the hint of a noir-ish existential tragedy--Siegfried feels he has no choice but to render service to Gunther yet Gunther later obviously doesn't feel anything like the same loyalty to Siegfried.

Siegfried's not even slightly in love with Brunhild in this version and I must admire what Wagner did in his operas to actually use the contradictions in the different versions to create a complex psychologically subtext. The fact that the man who pledges his love so truly and beautifully at the end of the third opera betrays the same woman so horribly and easily in the fourth is very fitting for a story about the end of a world kept in order by the gods. There is something very human about the moral confusion in Nibelungenlied. The only consistency is in its praise of men who are really good at killing people.

Siegfried's in love with Kriemhild in this version, known as Gudrun in other versions, Gutrune in Wagner's opera. She swears revenge for the killing of Siegfried halfway through the story and it feels like we're going to get behind her, like this is going to be a glorious revenge tale, but the story inexplicably seems to side with Hagen and Gunther, following them on their journey to a feast Kriemhild has invited them to after she's married Etzel the Hun (apparently based on Attila). One of my favourite bits comes when, after Gunther and Hagen have slain scores of Etzel's men, Kriemhild orders the burning of the hall Gunther and Hagen are in. Seeing the flames, Hagen comes up with the idea to drink the blood of the men they've killed, the idea being that quenching thirst will counteract the effects of the flames. It's sort of splendidly absurd and grotesque, the sort of thing maybe it's only possible to arrive at when one story has passed through so many perspectives. I can just imagine one storyteller coming up with the blood drinking to illustrate Hagen's savagery and the next storyteller automatically repeating the action in his version before somewhat awkwardly realising he needs to provide some kind of explanation for it. It's not unlike one writer for a television series having to explain what another writer came up with for a previous episode without quite understanding why.

*I wrote most of this entry before I left for school.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

When Male and Female Clouds Crash

When a couple hundred girls are accidentally bussed in to your boys' school, making do in the circumstances can be very difficult but you may sense somehow it's necessary. Headmaster Wetherby Pond (Alastair Sim) of the not at all suggestively named Nutbourne College fortunately has the assistance of Headmistress Muriel Whitchurch (Margaret Rutherford) of the misplaced and also definitely not suggestively named St. Swinthin's in 1950's The Happiest Days of Your Life. A sentiment about school life not usually shared by students but as one girl tells her parents before a professor can stop her this particular semester turns out to be "a real scorcher". The film is a very amusing screwball comedy.

Of course, both heads of the respective schools attempt to phone the ministry but seem continually put off by bureaucracy or a key representative's trip to a golf course. Things are bad enough trying to accommodate all the extra people in the house--Pond finds the drawers in his quarters have been emptied of his possessions and replaced by Whitchurch's undergarments. His clothes turn out to be hanging about his office. But then they face a crisis as parents of Whitchurch's students turn up for a tour of the girl's school while some members of Parliament turn up for a tour of Pond's boy's school at the same time. To conduct both tours, the heads, the staff, and the students attempt to effect a "miracle of timing" with results you might predict, such as a brawl between the rugby boys and the lacrosse girls.

My favourite Alastair Sim role is still in Alfred Hitchcock's Stage Fright. I'm still hoping to see another movie in which he's used the way I think he ought to have been, in which he's more genuinely cagey. But he is still quite good as the foolish, status obsessed Pond.

But my favourite lines in this movie actually come from Rutherford. I loved when she hastily contrives an explanation for photos of girls pinned up in the staff common room, explaining two photos of women in bikinis are of swim champion alumni and a photo of a can-can dancer is in fact a former student engaged in Morris dancing.

I also liked when a parent notices her child continually turning up in the different classrooms Whitchurch takes them to on the tour--because the girls are continually cycling through so that Pond can conduct his simultaneous tour for the MPs--and Whitchurch can only helplessly explain that the girl in question is "quite ubiquitous!"

The movie features a lot of effective supporting performances, too, particularly from Whitchurch's second in command Miss Gossage (Joyce Grenfell). There's also a completely pointless handsome male English school teacher in love with a pointless pretty female English school teacher who have only three or four small seemingly obligatory scenes--the filmmakers seem to have felt it necessary to have a straight romantic subplot as a counterbalance. Fortunately it's just barely in the film and not very obtrusive. It still ends up with the two of them kissing as though it means something to us and feels slightly odd when it of course means pretty much nothing.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Lost Dogs part 2

One of the ways in which Melville satirises the Byronic Hero in Moby Dick is to make Captain Ahab look ridiculous at times, as when Ahab finds himself in the humiliating position of having to figure out how to board another ship with his false leg. The point being however grand and powerful Ahab sees his quest he's still forced to contend with small, mundane human circumstances. On Breaking Bad, Walter White is made to look ridiculous often enough--by the middle of the second season, one is well acquainted with the sight of Walter in his underwear. I can't really speak much about Breaking Bad since I have yet to watch the fifth season. But if the show has intended by this point to make Walter's decision to become a meth cook seem in any way bad it hasn't succeeded. The show makes Walter's life as a law abiding citizen at the beginning of the series seem so humiliated and empty, largely because of the implicit American ideal that a man should be able to support himself and his family with his prestige measured with money, that we hardly blame him for taking the route he does.

The show portrays many problems in the American system--the untenable expense of healthcare, the counterproductive and hypocritical laws regulating drug use. But it seems more to say that system inhibits capitalist enterprise than that capitalism is inherently wrong or that founding one's self respect on financial freedom is a flawed point of view. Stories of the Super Anti-hero seem to make obligatory nods to the wrongness of what their character is doing but one senses less and less enthusiasm in it.

One needs to look to television for the frontier on this movement as a shift has occurred in the realm of motion picture media away from the cinema being the theatre of artistic exploration. But one can see some hints of this trend growing in the blockbuster, from Batman not having to let Ra's al Ghul live at the end of Batman Begins to Superman killing General Zod in Man of Steel. Both films were written by David Goyer and both killings occur as the climax of the film, the moral shift in how the characters are traditionally played clearly meant to please the audience in a way they do not expect. It works because American audiences have completely lost touch with why it was so important Batman or Superman never killed anyone.

More and more, I think about how Revenge of the Sith was really the Star Wars appropriate for this generation. Whatever flaws that movie has, I think George Lucas is due some credit for the courage to show his anti-hero walking into a school and slaughtering children in a time when school shootings seem to have become an epidemic. Those who cry for the cool power of going against the social codes ought to be reminded now and then how very, very ugly it can be.

Some, like the Hound on Game of Thrones, believe this is excusable simply because it's how the world works. I guess it's time I talked about Sunday's Game of Thrones. Spoilers past the screenshot.

It was good to see in the episode finally the voices of a couple of the peasants who are supposed to be following all these kings and nobles, however briefly we hear those voices. We still don't really learn much about them.

Mainly I want to talk about what everyone else is talking about in the episode--a scene that was changed from a depiction of consensual sex between Jaime and Cersei in the source material into a scene depicting Jaime raping Cersei.

It is fascinating how upset people are over this particular transgression on Jaime's part after we've already seen him commit multiple murders, shove a small child out of a tower window, and have sex with his sister. People mainly seem to be upset by the fact that Jaime is supposed to be on a redemptive arc--as the underdog when he was a prisoner being transported to King's Landing and seemed to be learning some hard lessons while seeming to feel a growing love and respect for Brienne, going out of his way to protect her, one naturally begins to feel sympathy for the guy.

His crippling of Bran happened when we barely knew him and the murders he committed could be considered necessities of war and the people he killed were people we barely knew. I think the reality is that people consider his other actions forms of acceptable selfishness.

I suspect I'll ultimately see this change in the story made by the show writers as being a mistake--it's hard to imagine such a big change not sitting oddly next to other things faithfully taken from the source material. But I think it's good to remind people that selfish, barbaric behaviour is sometimes very ugly.

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Monday, April 21, 2014

Lost Dogs

I don't consider it his best film but for some reason the Akira Kurosawa movie I most often feel inclined to revisit is his 1949 film noir Stray Dog (野良犬, Nora Inu). Last week I was compelled to watch it again after an episode of Breaking Bad I particularly liked and I realised a lot of the concepts Kurosawa dealt with in Stray Dog were helpful in framing my thoughts on what I see as a new genre in television and film. We might call it the Super Anti-hero or maybe the New Byronic Hero.

World War I seemed to put a damper on the fun with amorality in the arts exemplified by Oscar Wilde and Walter Pater which seems to have descended from Romanticism's attraction to Satan in Paradise Lost. An attraction whose motives were expressed in their fullness by Lord Byron's Manfred, a story of a man who dares to pursue power without the aid of God or the Devil, freed from the old morality. Herman Melville and others formed their criticism of this love in their own writings, Captain Ahab being something of a horrific parody of the Byronic Hero. Tolstoy in War and Peace directly criticises Napoleon as the real man most evidently serving as the model of one whose power is founded entirely on his own initiative--Tolstoy, who had been a soldier, at length shows how little control even the officers have over the forces at work in war. The World Wars of the twentieth century certainly showed how correct Tolstoy was.

But it's from another great Russian author, Dostoevsky, that Kurosawa drew inspiration for his characterisation of the killer in Stray Dog. As Kurosawa scholar Stephen Prince notes in the Criterion DVD commentary, the killer's personality as explored in this, one of the film's best scenes, seems like something straight out of Notes from the Underground or Crime and Punishment:

Clip from Akira Kurosawa's Stray Dog by setsuled

Yusa killing the cat because he sees the cat's death as inevitable, Prince observes, recalls a scene in Crime and Punishment and the anti-hero, Raskolnikov's, own motives for murder--killing partly because there's an overwhelming sense of pointlessness apart from satisfying one's own desires. Raskolnikov is obsessed with Napoleon and kills in large part because he has no reason to kill--he sees great men as those who create their own reality, morals only being a system to control those whom Nietzsche would have said were possessed of a slave mentality.

The episode of Breaking Bad I watched was the season four episode "Problem Dog" where Jesse, in order to discuss dealing with the murder of a human being he committed, tells his group that he killed a dog for no reason other than that the dog was, vaguely, a "problem". The argument that ensues between Jesse and the leader of the therapy group highlights a fundamental issue with the kind of therapy at play--the therapist's focus is entirely on people learning to accept themselves. He is himself guilty of the accidental killing of his child when he was under the influence of a drug but he needs to accept himself in order to move on with his life. Jesse points out that if one can work through any action to the point of self-acceptance, there is no exterior, objective morality, something Jesse has a great deal of trouble accepting. He seems more at peace with himself when he calls himself "the bad guy" than he does with the idea that the murderer of one day can be an acceptably normal human being of the next.

In Stray Dog, Kurosawa portrays many common features between the young cop protagonist, Murakami, and the killer, Yusa. Both had been soldiers for Japan in World War II, both had had their knapsacks stolen when they returned home, bags which had held all their positions. Their paths diverged after this--Murakami tells his mentor, Sato, that he had seen himself at a point of crisis and decided to become a cop in order set himself in the right direction. Yusa succumbed to despair and accepted the world where civility is fundamentally meaningless. The plot of Stray Dog concerns the theft of Murakami's gun which ends up in the hands of Yusa who uses it to commit his crimes. The guilt Murakami experiences over each person who dies by his gun tightens the connexion between the two and examines the tenuousness of social codes.

There's an element of sexual politics to it--the phallic symbol of a gun, the fact that Murakami pursues a female thief and eventually arrests a female go-between for the black market gun trade, interrogating both women obsessively without reward while both seem to regard him with cool lack of interest. We learn that Yusa's original motive in possessing the gun was to steal an expensive dress for the woman he's in love with--when Murakami thwarts Yusa's effort to return the gun by arresting the go-between at an inopportune moment, Yusa rapes and murders a young housewife. One might then recall that the murders committed by Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment were of women and one might also observe the role sex plays in the modern trend I'm speaking of.

In Breaking Bad, Walter White's manhood and his social function as a man to provide for his family is established repeatedly as his motive to indulge in criminal behaviour. Most of the anti-heroes of these popular shows, with the notable exception of Game of Thrones with its diversity of characters, are male. One could say the model on which these new shows are based is The Sopranos which portrays an intensely patriarchal society where the ability to provide for his family is continually presented as Tony Soprano's justification for his career.

It's appropriate, then, that Kurosawa uses Yusa's motive of stealing a dress for his girlfriend to form a criticism of the culture of capitalism newly exerting its influence on Japan after the war. Capitalism, and the promise of comfort and luxury for those who've "earned" it, again being a motive both for Walter White and Tony Soprano.

So much of Stray Dog is based on the chaotic social climate in Japan in the wake of World War II--as I said at the beginning, World War I threw a ghastly light on literature's flirtation with amorality in the nineteenth century. I have a recording of a radio interview with Jack Kerouac where the interviewer, an older man, put to Kerouac that World War II seemed to have produced no generation of artists like World War I did whose work dealt with a confrontation with the ugly chaos of reality thrown into sharp relief by the atrocities of war. Of course, the interviewer not only comes off as stupid and ignorant now, he probably came off that way to Kerouac and anyone halfway literate listening at the time, though Kerouac was too polite to point it out. But naturally Kerouac's Beat generation, film noir, Neorealism, New Wave, and so many artistic movements can be shown as having been inspired at least partially by experiences with or news of the war. "Apres-guerre" Sato says to Murakami, referring to a widespread psychological state more commonly shortened at the time to "apres", Prince points out, that was recognised in the populace after the war.

It's not hard to see how this modern anti-hero trend might be related to our own apres-guerre, as I said in my review of Frozen a few days ago. The dubious motives and complicated nature of the war in Vietnam may have set a precedent, but even then I don't think most people were quite aware of how intricately our comfortable lives were founded on destruction. Though this has always been a reality perceived by many--as Clark Gable points out to Marilyn Monroe in The Misfits when he's justifying the killing of horses, there's nothing that can live without something else dying. Though now we're not just living off death, we're living comfortably off it, and the word for our justification is capitalism.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Rabbits Must Be Wary but It's Pointless and Death is Not the End

Happy Easter, everyone. On this day we pause and think of our primal anxieties to which we fruitlessly endeavour to ascribe communicable meaning, our coexistence rendered an exchange of quietly plaintive but meaningless dialogue as we await a vague but certainly terrible calamity.

Also, remember, death is not the end because then there's taxidermy.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

A Castle Built on Ice

How do you deal with the knowledge that you're capable of terribly hurting people you care about without intending to? In 2013's Frozen, Princess Elsa's parents decide the answer is to lock their daughter away after she nearly kills her little sister. The experience and the response of their parents implies a lesson to Elsa she carries to her adulthood where she fears the proximity of loved ones. This is a very good, visually beautiful Disney fantasy with resonant themes about how one handles living in a world in which the threat of emotional harm is constant.

I could write a whole entry--and I probably will at some point--about the modern preoccupation with a sense of one's own capacity to destroy manifesting in fiction. The film credits Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen as its inspiration but there's, as you might expect, very little similarity between this film and the story (you can read the original story here). I do like the original story better but it doesn't diminish my love for the movie. I bring it up mainly to highlight two differences I consider crucial--the protagonists are peasants in the story and royalty in the film and in the film the story's person in need of rescue and villain are combined.

You'll notice I didn't say damsel in distress--that's because the original story is about a girl, Gerda, on a quest to rescue a boy, Kay, who has been seduced by the Snow Queen. He has been made susceptible to the Queen's influence because of two pieces of glass caught in his eye and his heart--glass, we are told, that originally came from a mirror made by the Devil which could only reflect death or blemishes. So Kay becomes cynical. Ever in search of purity he can no longer see, he becomes very good at numbers--can even add fractions in his head, the story says--and becomes a big hit for his ability to perfectly imitate others, highlighting their shortcomings. Something I thought was a rather insightful comment about the coldly logical nature of comedy. The glass threatens to eventually freeze Kay's heart which makes him attractive to the Snow Queen. A scene where she gathers him into her cloak on her sleigh as she takes him away inspired a scene from The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe.

In Frozen, the threat of a gradually freezing heart is transferred to the protagonist, named Anna instead of Gerda, voiced by Kristen Bell, the biggest star to lend a voice to this movie, unusually for a Disney animated film. Elsa is played by a Broadway star, Idina Menzel, whose singing voice is better than Bell's, unsurprisingly, though they both sing with the modern Broadway style I personally dislike, though I don't hold it against anyone for disagreeing with me.

Anna's heart starts to freeze when Elsa, who was born with the power to create and control ice and snow, accidentally zaps Anna's chest. The freezing heart is entirely a physical ailment in the film and doesn't carry any thematic meaning in terms of Anna's story other than being cured by an "act of true love". The heart of the original story becomes a broader sideline to the much more modern character conflict introduced for Elsa.

As anyone who's seen the film will probably tell you, the best scene is when Elsa, banished because her terrible destructive powers have finally been revealed, creates a castle for herself and she sings about how she's liberated, how she's free now to use her powers. What is she liberated from? Well, like Walter White in Breaking Bad whose cancer liberates him from the falseness of his home and work life, or the characters on Game of Thrones who operate with unvarnished pragmatism, Elsa is liberated from the artificial constraints of morality.

Elsa is the Kay/Snow Queen composite, a combination of the victim and the villain. The other crucial difference I mentioned, that the characters are royalty instead of peasants, is partly, I think, simply due to the fact that it's easier for kids and people generally to-day to identify with royalty. Disney used to make movies about people who lived on farms but movie-going audiences have shifted away from being able to identify with that lifestyle since the 1930s. Now movies about farms are about farm animals who have few or no chores and have personalities, like the children watching, founded on being taken care of.

But much like Game of Thrones, where very few of the many characters aren't nobility or royalty, people have an easier time now identifying with the privileges and the guilt of high station. The average person in the U.S. has an unprecedented awareness of the suffering throughout the world maintained along with, and possibly necessary for, their comfortable lives. There's also the awareness that one's lifestyle is responsible for climate change and immediately damaging ecological conditions in other countries. So Queen Elsa's liberation comes with the unintended consequence of putting her kingdom in a permanent state of winter.

Compared to Elsa's story, the tale that dominates most of the film--Anna's quest, her love triangle, and a talking comedy relief snowman--aren't nearly as interesting. Though Anna is charming and the men are both interesting--Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) is fun and Hans (Santino Fontana) contributes to the delightful satire of the old "love at first sight" conceit. Even the snowman is a good comedy relief character, existing as a credible part of the film's world rather than played for ironic dissonance as the Disney comedic relief characters too often are. But the film would have been better with more Elsa.

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