Thursday, August 31, 2017

The Cost of Dreams of Men and Women

It's hard to see precisely where the battle lines are drawn in the conflict between the head and the heart in Mikio Naruse's 1956 film Sudden Rain (驟雨). Setsuko Hara and Shuji Sano star as a young married couple whose unexamined issues are exacerbated by a sudden series of financial woes, portrayed with Naruse's characteristic delicate, inexorable cruelty. This beautiful picture addresses the emerging influence of feminist social change, ably touches on fundamental human anxieties, and has the wisdom to avoid tidy resolution.

Everything seems fine as the film begins--Fumiko (Hara) and Ryotaro (Sano) have a small, obviously inexpensive home and have typical arguments in the morning about whether they should go out more and about Fumiko cutting recipes out of the newspaper they can't afford for her to make. Kyoko Kagawa plays Fumiko's sister, Ayako, and she pays the couple a visit. She's distraught over her husband's behaviour and she needs Fumiko to confide in.

Fumiko is amused by the complaints that seem like high crimes to Ayako. Her husband yawned at a dinner with guests, he flirted with a waitress right in front of her--Fumiko explains that this is simply what men are like and that being married means becoming acquainted with the faults of one's spouse. When Ryotaro comes home, though, helpfully trying to explain the situation that may have caused Ayako's husband to stay out all night, Fumiko gradually becomes angry herself at her husband's dismissive attitude regarding the faults of another man.

There is a literal sudden rain shortly after but the film's title seems more to refer to three problems that strain Fumiko and Ryotaro's already strained finances--a thief picks Fumiko's pocket at the market, stealing her wallet; Ryotaro's boss announces the company he works for is going under; and a stray dog the couple had been feeding has been stealing and destroying property throughout the neighbourhood. People have begun to demand restitution from Fumiko and Ryotaro.

In a more predictable film, the dog would eventually bring Fumiko her lost wallet or something but Naruse never gives his characters that kind of easy out. The dog is an especially effective part of the film. Even as their problems mount, the couple still can't resist feeding the dog and its hard not to see his innocent but destructive hunger as reflecting the same impulse that keeps the couple together despite their problems.

Fumiko calls Ryotaro old fashioned and feudal, not just because he won't let her work to bring in extra money but also because he presumes that he can go back to his home village at any time and earn a living as a farmer. He threatens to do that several times, each time saying how Fumiko would need to stay in the city because country life wouldn't suit her, a slightly cowardly way of floating the idea of separation. Two opportunities present themselves for Fumiko to get work--first as an errand woman for a newspaper, then as a waitress in a restaurant Ryotaro's co-workers propose opening. The argument between the couple over the issue is particularly insightful for the ways arguments tend to go over such ideological issues--Ryotaro says he doesn't want to be supported by a woman and seems to see any kind of work as degrading for her while Fumiko seems insulted by the very idea that one of them is supporting the other by bringing in money, seeing it instead as a matter of maintaining their existence. The disagreement between the two is exacerbated by each being offended by the other's conceptual presumptions.

But no ideas either one has seems to influence their behaviour, illustrated neatly by a really funny final scene which at the same time does nothing to dispel any of the sources of anxiety.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

On Long and Strange Journeys

This is the famous Wall Drug Dinosaur in Wall, South Dakota, and it features in "THE DINOSAUR TOURIST", a lovely new Caitlin R. Kiernan story in the Sirenia Digest. It may be the story in the Digest to feature the least amount of weirdness, being a simple tale of a man who picks up a guileless young hitch-hiker who's on his way to meet his internet boyfriend. A subtle chemistry develops between the driver and the hitch-hiker with interesting exchanges based on differences in breadth and kind of experience. It showcases Caitlin's fine ability to create the sensory elements of an experience and has the slow, nice pace of all good road stories, which this one is.

I've been reading a lot lately, maybe because I'm in a Japanese class now I suddenly have a contrary urge to read a lot of English. I'm still re-reading The Lord of the Rings and on Saturday or Sunday I reached chapter 4 from Book Four, or the second book in The Two Towers, "Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit". And speaking of a slow and easy atmosphere, this is a wonderful chapter which Peter Jackson's film version really doesn't attempt to capture. Most of the basic elements of the chapter are present in the extended version of the film--Gollum fetches some rabbits and Sam decides to cook them, much to Gollum's indignation, who prefers raw meat. Gollum's "What's taters. precious?" line is even reproduced in the film. But there are many differences that completely change the tone and purpose of the scene.

Because Jackson was so focused on creating a film with constant momentum, it's easy to see why he reinterpreted it. But in the book, it's one of the moments that most clearly reminded me that Tolkien was a World War I veteran. After the Dead Marshes and grey, featureless lands of Mordor, the Hobbits and Gollum come to a place that's strangely beautiful.

So they passed into the northern marches of that land that Men once called Ithilien, a fair country of climbing woods and swift-falling streams.

It's easy to imagine soldiers, accustomed to the hellish landscape surrounding trenches, suddenly coming across areas not yet spoiled by the war.

Many great trees grew there, planted long ago, falling into untended age amid a riot of careless descendants; and groves and thickets there were of tanmarisk and pungent terebinth, of olive and of bay; and there were junipers and myrtles; and thymes that grew in bushes, or with their woody creeping stems mantled in deep tapestries the hidden stones; sages of many kinds putting forth blue flowers, or red, or pale green . . .

It's after Frodo has fallen asleep that Sam slowly starts to remember the cookware and formulates his plan to make a decent meal for his master. The wonderful thing about the scene, and the reason Sam quickly takes over the narrative, is that we see him, much more than simply cooking a meal, single-handedly creating a familiar domestic atmosphere, motived both for himself and for the love he feels for Frodo watching him sleep.

Frodo's face was peaceful, the marks of fear and care had left it; but it looked old, old and beautiful, as if the chiselling of the sharping years was now revealed in many fine lines that had before been hidden, though the identity of the face had not changed. Not that Sam Gamgee put it that way to himself. He shook his head, as if finding words useless, and murmured: 'I love him. He's like that, and sometimes it shines through, somehow. But I love him, whether or no.'

After all the time Tolkien spends describing their slow, grim, and hopeless journey, it's wonderful that Sam instinctively wants to spend a lot of time and energy cooking and in the process he even turns Gollum into a familiar domestic figure, the lazy and surly servant lad.

'Smeagol'll get into real true hot water, when this water boils, if he don't do as he's asked,' growled Sam. 'Sam'll put his head in it, yes precious. And I'd make him look for turnips and carrots, and taters too, if it was the time o' the year. I'll bet there's all sorts of good things running wild in this country. I'd give a lot for half a dozen taters.'

The beauty in this scene is an interesting contrast to the impatience Frodo expresses regarding Hobbit culture at the beginning. It's easy to think again of men itching for glorious and worthy battle and then finding something horribly different in the first World War and suddenly foolish homebodies don't seem so foolish after all.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

The Lion in Undead Winter

Sunday night concluded the season of Game of Thrones with the greatest number of viewers by far--the season finale had over twelve million viewers, easily beating the nearly nine million who viewed last season's finale. At the same time, this has been the most critically disliked season with many reviews talking about the logical problems that are seriously undercutting character dynamics and development. Yet, "The Dragon and the Wolf" did have some good character material, though it mostly didn't come from any dragons or wolves but from lions.

Spoilers after the screenshot

Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) didn't have a whole lot to do this episode apart from deciding to show up to the big meeting on a dragon and then to fall for Jon (Kit Harrington), making sure that, whoever ends up on the Iron Throne, it'll probably be someone who likes having sex with blood relatives.

Jon's most interesting moment was deciding to stick to his guns and not hide his pledged fealty to Daenerys. He makes a good point that if people keep lying all the time, sooner or later people won't be able to trust anything and everything will break down. Though the opposing view, that the immediate threat from the White Walkers seems even more likely to do that, is good, too. It's a genuine conundrum.

Effective surprise is a tricky thing to pull off with characters and it demands that the audience have some kind of grip on their personalities beforehand. That's why the surprise in Littlefinger's (Aidan Gillen) execution was especially unsatisfying--the retconning of the Vale's loyalty was too recently implemented for people to think they'd easily believe Littlefinger's guilty of so many crimes just because Sansa (Sophie Turner) said so. It makes sense that Bran (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) would be the only one who knew about Littlefinger's crimes but everyone taking his word takes too much as read. But, of course, the point is to get characters out of the way, not to explore characters. I keep being reminded I don't got my head right when I see things like the Unsullied and the Dothraki marching together and I find myself wondering how these two vastly different cultures get along and how Daenerys maintains her relationship with them.

By the way, I don't think Jorah (Iain Glen) has a single line in this episode. Is there anyone among those twelve million viewers who's disappointed the romantic tension that had been built up for years between him and Daenerys has just been entirely ignored this season? I think Glen's much better looking than Harrington, but I guess that's just me. It did at least seem like there was maybe a suggestion of Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) pining for Daenerys at the end, which was the relationship I was fantasising about more, so that was kind of nice.

But Tyrion was one half of my favourite scene in the episode. Here's where the surprise was effective--at first I thought, there's no way Tyrion could honestly expect to go into a room with Cersei (Lena Headey) and come out alive. But when he did, it didn't feel dishonest, it felt like I was seeing his genuine insight into an aspect of Cersei's personality that hadn't been totally clear before. That's the kind of surprise I like.

It's surprising given how much we know she hates Tyrion but it's believable because of how we know she feels about her family. Still, a lot of the credit has to go to the actors for pulling off the delicate balancing act in this scene. The tension when Tyrion goes to pour drinks for the two of them is great--he's gambled and he's won but he knows exactly how close it was.

It's slightly less effective when Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) makes the same gambit and I'd rather Jaime stayed by Cersei's side instead of going into exile, though maybe now that she doesn't have any kind of foil her character will transmute in interesting ways.

Anyway, I should mention the cgi was pretty spectacular. So, well done, digital effects people. Now that they've killed so many people off, I wonder who they'll kill next season.

Shit, they're through the Wall already. It's going to take Jon and Daenerys at least twenty five minutes to get their armies up there.

Twitter Sonnet #1028

An aviator tempted paper bags.
The quicker clock combined with gold and gin.
On all the marble toes are linen tags.
To choose the rising sand is not to sin.
In tears of melted plastic came the deck.
Forgetful hands return to gloves unknown.
Behind the careful tongue's a traitor tech.
And by a thousand lights the road is shown.
The sleekest shadow swam the aether up.
Escaped into a pocket shot through space.
In nervous ease she took her coffee cup.
Inside her cuff, an endless linking race.
The band affixed itself to straw for good.
A thousand tramping leaves the walking wood.

Monday, August 28, 2017

"I'm Not Me"

Things are really starting to coalesce on Twin Peaks--last night's episode set the stage for next week's finale with victories for both the forces of good and bad. At the same time questions were answered and other answers were teased with ominous implications. The show continues to be a discussion on the lifelong effects of trauma while also continuing to focus on the unpredictability and strangeness of life.

Spoilers after the screenshot

And it looks like we've seen the end of Hutch (Tim Roth) and Chantal (Jennifer Jason Lee). A couple of assassins whose scenes of drifting non-sequitor dialogue, maybe it was their destiny to be taken out by a random nuisance. It seems both a reflection of the fact that you can't plan for everything and that the secret forces of the universe might be helping Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) at every turn.

As one of the FBI agents on the scene mentions, Dougie's home is located on a street called Lancelot Court. It occurred to me again how David Lynch and Mark Frost have seeded references to Arthurian legend throughout the series. If you remember, the entrance to the Black Lodge is located in Glastonbury Grove, the name excitedly noted by Cooper as being that of "the legendary burial place of King Arthur!" One could draw a lot of parallels--Cooper's backstory involved an affair with Caroline, the wife of his mentor, Wyndom Earle. It's not precisely Guinevere and Arthur, but it's close. Like Lancelot, who went mad and lived under another identity in exile, Cooper has spent this past season in exile from all who knew his real self, as a sleep walker going by the name Dougie Jones. Janey E (Naomi Watts) could be seen as an analogue of Elaine of Corbenic, thus perhaps explaining the "E" in her name.

The FBI agents that form Gordon Cole's (David Lynch) team tend to be people of extraordinary ability. As we saw last night, Cooper was immediately displaying his powers, somehow knowing immediately that Bushnell (Don Murray) was carrying a pistol and formulating plans and implementing them with incredible speed. I think this is also why Lynch tends to cast singers with a striking, otherworldly stage presence as agents--Chris Isaak, David Bowie, and Chrysta Bell. He casts real legends as legendary figures.

Cooper's parting with Janey E and Sonny Jim (Pierce Gagnon) was bittersweet and I felt bad for the two of them. But it's the gentlest incidence on the show of someone learning their lover is not who he or she appears to be.

Watching Twin Peaks next to Game of Thrones is an interesting contrast in how the two shows deal with the impact of trauma, especially rape. While Game of Thrones tends to show that the experience makes people nicer (Theon) or smarter (Sansa), Twin Peaks is more interested in how a violation of trust can destabilise a personality. We finally learn for sure that Richard (Eamon Farren) is the product of Mr. C (Kyle MacLachlan) having raped Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn)--Mr. C and Richard together both embody aspects of Morgan Le Fay and Mordred.

Both Audrey and Diane (Laura Dern) are dealing with the effects of having their trust in Cooper violated, the violation made more severely disturbing by how good we know Cooper is. How much either one consciously knows about the doppelganger can be questioned--the badness in Diane's experience happens before the rape when she can tell something is wrong in Cooper's kiss. Like the identities Diane and Audrey had created through what they believed was the nature of their relationship with, and appearance from the perspective of, the other person, there's a disturbing disconnect between what is felt and what is known.

The lyrics to the song performed by Eddie Vedder in the episode could not have been more appropriate.

One liar's promise drained the blood from my heart
Came a message in the dark

. . .

I stare at my reflection to the bone
Blurred eyes look back at me

. . .

Fearful of dreams, there'll be no sleep tonight
Fine at dinner, dead by dessert
Victim or witness, we're gonna get hurt
A fragile existence with echoes of wrath
I can't stop the bleeding nor the tears from thine eye
There's another us around somewhere with much better lives

This is followed by "Audrey's Dance" and she gets up as if in a pantomime of her old identity but of course she's interrupted, once again by a pair of strangers having a problem in their relationship. And we could say this all goes back to the strange cockroach frog that crawled into the girl's mouth in episode eight.

The whole episode was brilliant but my favourite scene was Diane talking to Gordon, Albert (Miguel Ferrer), and Tammy (Chrysta Bell). That gun in her purse was a potent reminder of why Lynch was once so often compared to Hitchcock--it's hard to think of a better example of Hitchcock's "bomb under the table" philosophy of suspense. I was really worried she was going to shoot Gordon but, of course, two legendary knights were much quicker on the draw.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Where Films Deserve to Be

To-day it was announced that Tobe Hooper, the director of the great, original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, passed away at the age of 74. I haven't seen a lot of Hooper's films but I really do think Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a masterpiece. I once wrote about it:

Familiar aspects of the self are a catalyst for a chain of dream logic terrors in Tobe Hooper's 1974 film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The self, both physical and mental; an unexamined every day intimacy with flesh and blood is teased out into a cunning, gleefully beautiful and grotesque nightmare. Even the extraordinary skill and talent for filmmaking on display aren't enough to account for the singular brilliance this movie achieves.

You can find my full review of it here.

It seems strange that I'm writing about Tobe Hooper when I didn't spend any time talking about George Romero and very little talking about Jeanne Moreau. Of the two, I'm probably a greater fan of Moreau, but I do love Romero's first two Dead films. And there was a lot more to him than zombies--there's a nice interview with him included on Criterion's release of Powell and Pressburger film opera/ballet of Tales of Hoffmann, for example. I was fascinated to see that Romero was listening to the soundtrack to The Quiet Man when he died.. And I think, out of the ways one could die, that has to rank pretty high up there. I remember John Wayne's character in the film describing the fictional town of Innisfree (named after a Yeats poem) as sounding like heaven when his mother told him about it as a child.

But the reason I wanted to talk about Tobe Hooper to-day was because a few days ago I saw this video from The A.V. Club by writer Paul Scheer listing his top five worst films of all time. One thing was clear to me right away--if these are the worst films Scheer has ever seen, he hasn't seen a lot of movies. Included on his list is Spider-Man 3 which, to be sure, is a bad movie but the fact that it was made with a basic competence in film craft puts it miles ahead of thousands of other films. His number one worst film, The Room, is such an obvious contemporary choice. It is a bad film but, as Scheer points out, it's one of those films which are fascinating in the way it is bad. "So bad it's good", in other words. There's the weird cadence of the editing and dialogue, the exterior shots limply inserted at random, the actors delivering lines with a kind of tonelessness that suggests a complete lack of direction (rather like Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino, actually). But what makes the list a crime is the inclusion of Tobe Hooper's Lifeforce at number two.

In my own review of Lifeforce, I talk a lot about what is silly and kind of stupid in the film. But there's a boldness to its gender reversal of Dracula, the real reason for the naked woman Paul Scheer seems to take such pleasure in deriding. He may not like seeing naked women, but saying a film is bad because of that is like saying Singing in the Rain is bad because you don't like musicals. It's not like she's naked on accident. Lifeforce has problems but Mathilda May's body isn't one of them.

I considered at the time writing a rebuttal list. Now that Tobe Hooper has died I feel honour bound. So here's a top five worst films, subject to change. And naturally I'll be drawing from Mystery Science Theatre 3000 a lot.

5. Lost Continent 1951

What makes this film worse than an average b movie adventure film from the 1950s? In the ominous words of Dr. Forrester: "Rock climbing".

4. Manos: The Hands of Fate 1966

Any serious worst movies list must include Manos: The Hands of Fate, or, as Spanish speakers know the film, Hands: The Hands of Fate. Aimless shots of unremarkable fields rolling by at the beginning of the film give way to poorly framed dialogue scenes with bad sound. What more can be said about a movie with so little to say?

3. Outlaw of Gor 1988

Presented in its entirety on YouTube by the officially licensed Mystery Science Theatre 3000 YouTube channel is Outlaw of Gor--no, not Outlaw with Jane Russell, Howard Hughes' legendary mediocre western. Its weirdness makes the Hughes film a cut above this low rent attempt to cash in on the audience for 80s fantasy films like Conan the Barbarian. Outlaw of Gor is set in the fictional fantasy world of Gor, a cheesy sexist fantasy conceived of by author John Norman who very badly wishes he was Robert E. Howard. The film takes Norman's embarrassing fantasy and adds tone deaf performances, sub-Halloween store quality costumes, lousy special effects, and a very unfortunately slumming Jack Palance as some kind of wizard.

2. Track of the Moon Beast 1976

Here's one I don't think gets as much attention as it deserves. My favourite from MST3k's final three seasons on the Sci Fi channel, it has none of the charm of Final Sacrifice and none of the competence of Final Justice. Track of the Moon Beast begins with a prank pulled on the main character that obviously must have looked very effective to the screenwriter but in practice turns out to involve the protagonist looking up and seeing a reflective mask and not reacting to it. This would be awkward in itself but it's followed up by what seems like fifteen minutes of dialogue from bad actors explaining the prank. This kicks off a movie with the luscious production design of blank white walls and characters who memorably drone on about stew recipes.

1. Transformers: Age of Extinction 2014

Finally, here's one from outside MST3k. I know what I said about basic filmmaking competence, but this one gets extra negative points for being the product of predatory greed and cynicism. Most of the worst movies on MST3k at least have some heart to them. If you've seen Tim Burton's film about legendary bad director Ed Wood, you've seen how, even if these guys were lousy at what they did, they at least did it with love and that kind of love gives their films a peculiar charm. Truly, the lowest level of Hell ought to be reserved for films that are designed to exploit the medium as a cold, ugly, moneymaking machine. From my review:

Some movies, we see to be entertained. Some, we see for a transcendent experience, to challenge our intellect, to learn new things about the human condition, to gain perspective. And then some movies are like cancerous tissue; they perform none of these functions but sustain to sustain, drawing resources from product placement and heavily stipulated investments to ensure a profit over the budget required to pay actors who don't care about the project and bloated special effects studios.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Feminism of the Doctor

If one watches Doctor Who through from the 1963 première to present, one notices there has been a definite feminist evolution on the show. It's something the writers have been quite conscious of as you can see in the moment in The Five Doctors when the Fifth Doctor has to apologise for the First Doctor automatically ordering a woman to make him some tea. Watching the gradual change on the show gives one a peek into how attitudes about the place of women in work and society were changing in the world at the time. From The Daleks, the second serial, when Barbara, a schoolteacher, fearfully asks fellow teacher Ian what's going on when there's no reason to expect he should know more than her; to the Second Doctor's young math wiz companion, Zoe; to the Third Doctor's first companion, Liz, who was actually a respected scientist. It was during the Third Doctor's era that feminism started being discussed more by the characters in dialogue--Three and Liz are amused and disappointed by a chauvinist administrator who doesn't want her included in a meeting in The Silurians. And when Three's second companion, Jo Grant, was introduced, she specifically mentions "women's lib" in sticking up for herself. Arguably she did need to make her case as the show deliberately dropped the knowledgeable Liz so the Doctor could have a more traditionally clueless companion to explain things to.

The show would take a step back now and then, as in the Fourth Doctor's first season when his companion, Sarah Jane Smith, was reduced to a whiny damsel in distress, which I suspect was a factor in actress Elisabeth Sladen almost leaving the show. But in the Fourth Doctor's second season, partly due to some great improvisational chemistry between the two actors, Sladen made Smith a fuller character capable of courage and ingenuity, which makes for a more interesting dynamic in addition to being less obnoxious.

Anyway, this is all a lead up to me saying I watched the Fifth Doctor serial, Four to Doomsday, again this past week. When I was complaining about the lack of Chinese characters on the show after Talons of Weng-Chiang, someone reminded me that Four to Doomsday has Burt Kwouk as Lin Futu, the head of a group of Mandarin Chinese men detained on the giant spacecraft on which the serial takes place.

I'd completely forgotten him, possibly because he doesn't have much of a role in the serial. He's about for the whole thing but doesn't actually have any significant dialogue until the fourth episode where the Fifth Doctor swiftly convinces him to come over to his side. This was only the second time I'd watched the serial and I'd forgotten other things, too, like the beautiful moment when the Doctor calls Adric an idiot.

I've watched State of Decay and Keeper of Traken a few times but generally I avoid watching any serial featuring Adric. When I want to watch a Fifth Doctor serial, I'm most likely to watch Arc of Infinity (I love the stuff in Amsterdam), Enlightenment, Frontios, and of course, The Caves of Androzani. Though I would say the Fifth Doctor has some of the worst written episodes of the series and it's not all Adric's fault--Time-Flight is tedious and Warriors of the Deep tragically squanders an appearance by Ingrid Pitt.

But the reason I started talking about feminism is because one of the reasons I hated Adric so much was that he took valuable time away from Nyssa. As shown in the first episode of Four to Doomsday, she's a lot smarter and more sensible than Adric but by the fourth serial, in a disappointing throwback to Barbara in The Daleks, Nyssa looks to Adric as a figure of strength and reassurance in a moment of danger, crying out, "Adric!" for no apparent reason. Ugh.

To be fair, it's clear we're meant, in this serial at least, to find Adric annoying--thus the Doctor calling him an idiot. And I kind of like how some of the drama in this serial comes from Adric and Tegan being twits. Though when Tegan tries to run off by herself in the TARDIS, it's a lot more satisfying watching her stomp on the TARDIS manual in her heels than it is to listen to Adric being a snot.

It's hard to believe Peter Davison had to fight for Nyssa to stay--she wasn't supposed to stay on as a permanent companion. I'd forgotten, too, how Adric and Nyssa were written as a pair of mildly competitive children, I'm so used to the nearly romantic chemistry between Nyssa and the Fifth Doctor in the audio plays.

Despite some awkward writing and staging for the collection of earthlings on the ship, Four to Doomsday is a pretty good serial, one of the better in the Fifth's first season. Davison is particularly good in it, at turns guilelessly enthusiastic to learn about this strange place and people, at turns carefully playing the circumstances to outwit the arrogant would-be invaders.

Twitter Sonnet #1027

The alphabet's composed of rubber balls.
You can't festoon a cloud with painted cans.
Forgotten throats will never clear the halls.
Across the yard a hare'll load the vans.
What autumn comes in fire's folded sleep?
What shaky turning bed beheld the cell?
In time with ticking planes the punch was deep.
But careful chords could not replace the bell.
To metal turned the sighing morning grass.
Found late at night but made for dawn it was.
Behind some worlds the stars concealed a mass.
The calmer dream runs as it always does.
At last a certain note returned to blank.
The final eyes could see the islands sank.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Movie Without Excitement or Ingenuity

The Wikipedia page for 1973's Battles Without Honour and Humanity (仁義なき戦い), the first in a famous series of yakuza films, says the film is "often called the 'Japanese Godfather'." The single source cited for this assertion is a one paragraph review that mentions the comparison briefly in order to say it's inaccurate. Though the review considers this a positive point, apparently believing the Japanese film displays greater realism, I would argue the two are certainly different but realism has nothing to do with it. The Godfather is filled with memorable characters and effective family drama while Battles Without Honour and Humanity features a collection of character types with leads played by a few remarkably handsome and rugged men. The film doesn't quite rise above a loving celebration of the genre established over the fifteen or so years preceding it, revelling in typical plot turns and deliberately invoking typical plot mechanics. Seijun Suzuki's Tokyo Drifter, released a few years earlier, almost feels like a parody of this film, so sincerely does Battles without Honour and Humanity devote itself to well worn devices, despite the fact that the film is supposedly based on a true story. But it has some nice bits of style and the actors are attractive.

This is my favourite shot in the film--the film's hero, Hirono (Bunta Sugawara), having sex with a prostitute and revealing to us in the process his massive fish tattoo. This is his last taste of freedom before he assassinates a rival yakuza boss at the behest of his own comically weak and sobbing boss, Yamamori (Nobuo Kaneko). I can imagine what Don Corleone would say about him.

Yamamori promises to make Hirono his heir after the long prison sentence. The protagonist going to prison for a hit reminds one of Pale Flower while the soldier's admirable loyalty to his unworthy boss is reminiscent of a number of yakuza films, most notably Tokyo Drifter.

Bunto Sugawara as Hirono is certainly an exceptionally good lead, charismatic and rugged. I'd like to see him in some more action films but his character is a bit weightless here. His loyalty doesn't feel very natural and then instances of his disloyalty feel less so.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Back from the Bin

What's so peculiarly appealing about watching ducks go on adventures? Audiences and readers have been into it for over seventy years now and Disney's just released the newest iteration, a reboot of Duck Tales which premièred recently. I finally got around to watching the pilot because Disney, a surprisingly YouTube friendly company, has uploaded it for free. And I liked it.

I was a big fan of Duck Tales when I was a kid though even then I became frustrated when the show conspicuously leaned on the typical stock plots, especially ones that didn't really fit the basic concept of the series. My favourites were the ones where Scrooge and the ducklings would go off treasure hunting in foreign lands so I was pleased the new pilot had them looking for a treasure in Atlantis.

I do wish the new show had a little less ironic humour. The original series was partly influenced in tone by the Indiana Jones films so it would spare a moment for the score to evoke a sense of wonder when the adventurers uncovered a treasure. It's fitting since the Uncle Scrooge comics were an influence on George Lucas--so seen through a duck lens, it's very fitting that Disney owns Lucasfilm now. At the same time, one could point to Jar Jar Binks as a sign of how what may have worked in Duckburg does not work in a galaxy far, far away, which brings me back to my first question of why Uncle Scrooge/DuckTales can get us invested in ducks running from booby traps but cartoonish antics are such a bad fit in Star Wars.

One of the ways in which both this and the 80s Duck Tales fall flat is in their depiction of Donald Duck, which simultaneously tries to meet audience expectations for the famous, incomprehensible bird of anger from the great shorts while also representing the more intelligent version of Donald whom Carl Barks developed in his comics. The result on both shows is a character who doesn't quite fit--maybe not so much for a clash in tone, as there are plenty of other goofy characters, but because the instinct for writing any of Disney's classic characters has been absent from the company for at least forty years.

One thing the 80s series got right but the new series inexplicably gets wrong--you'd have thought Disney would have learned from Quack Attack--is in the portrayal of Huey, Dewey, and Louie. At some point, Disney completely lost touch with the essential nature of the triplets' distinctive appeal, which is that they are almost indistinguishable. The wrong-headed theory in current stock storytelling dogma demands that every lead character be distinct and "relatable", nevermind no-one was complaining about the interchangeability of the three nephews.

I'm less bothered by Webby's (Kate Micucci) new nerdy personality. But where the new series really shines is with David Tennant's new take as the voice of Scrooge McDuck.

Everyone knows Tennant as the Tenth Doctor Who but you might also want to check out his Hamlet which is fantastic. In any case, he is probably way overqualified for Scrooge McDuck but he clearly respects the role, bringing an enthusiasm to the character and delightfully creative line readings while imbuing him with enough of the familiar crotchetiness. When he gets the drop on Glomgold, when he wacks anyone with his cane, I get some real, genuine, vicarious satisfaction.

By the way, David Tennant recently appeared on Stephen Colbert's show to promote Duck Tales and Colbert jokingly pointed out the similarities between Scrooge and Donald Trump--having his name on a lot of products, taking pride in his own wealth, etc. I'd just like to point out that it's been well established that, unlike Trump and his "small loan" of a million dollars from his father, McDuck really did work his way up from nothing, albeit with a lucky dime. Also, McDuck is an example of an immigrant bringing vitality to the American economy and in his archaeological pursuits and patronage of Gyro Gearloose it's clear McDuck has tremendous respect and love for science. We should be so lucky to have Scrooge McDuck for president.

Twitter Sonnet #1026

In crowns of curving grass the past embarked.
In tracing trails of dusty coats we go.
The missing page returned and newly marked.
It's strange, it seems, what shades already know.
In forests shaped by starless roofs they watch.
In ready glass the fractured stone was sold.
Alone, the spear acrues another notch.
The ancient roots'll drink what can't grow old.
Received below the lowered clouds, the grain.
The flattened seas of tinder take the warm.
The wind diverts the corn to sheer the lane.
The howling heard subsumes a deathless swarm.
The winter trees become a scattered fence.
A foggy map dissolves the dream of sense.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

The Diamond and the Pirate's Tomb

Some of the most beautiful sound stages posing as exteriors can be found in Fritz Lang's 1955 film Moonfleet. A swashbuckler with a great cast to go with its visual style and exciting story, its only real flaw is that it centres on a child actor who delivers a very weak performance. Still, he's not as annoying as Bobby Driscoll.

There are a lot of reasons one might think of the famous adaptation of Treasure Island made five years earlier--both are told mostly from the point of view of a little boy trying to figure out who to trust among a bunch of roguish characters, even as he's drawn to one sinister but charismatic father figure. Moonfleet is adapted from a Victorian novel that was itself likely influenced by the book Treasure Island.

But instead of pirates, the film deals with smugglers in mid-18th century Dorset. Little John Mohune (Jon Whiteley) has unexpectedly come to stay with his mother's former lover, Jeremy Fox (Stewart Granger). Jeremy is doing well for himself living in a crumbling manor house and living a life of nightly debauchery so he doesn't want some kid around cramping his style. John walks in when a gypsy woman (Liliane Montevecchi) is giving an impressively mad, wonderful table dance for Jeremy's drunken guests.

Among these guests is George Sanders as Lord Ashwood in a somewhat disappointingly small role. Lady Ashwood (Joan Greenwood) has much more valuable screen time later as she vigorously attempts to seduce Jeremy.

This film is under an hour and a half and mostly focuses on John and his hunt for his ancestor's treasure but somehow Jeremy manages to have three memorable lovers in that brief runtime--living with him his Mrs. Minton (Viveca Lindfors).

The fantastic sets are reminiscent of the opening scenes of Treasure Island but Fritz Lang brings a great deal of his own legendary visual instincts to the table. Moonfleet has one of the greatest graveyard sets I've ever seen.

And Lang has a keen sense of how to direct action--the first shot of a peculiar stone angel is as likely to startle the viewer as it does John. And it's not even moving.

The greatest action sequence in the film, though, involves a duel between Jeremy and one of his men in an tavern. The gentleman Jeremy tosses his opponent a rapier but the man throws it away in favour of a massive halberd from the fireplace which he immediately begins swinging around.

If not for the little kid, this movie would be a thorough pleasure. The treasure hunt scenes have a wonderful Indiana Jones feel to them and the dialogue is often delightful.