Thursday, March 29, 2007

168. The Examined Life, or "Little Did He Know"

Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) in Stranger Than Fiction (2006) is an IRS auditor who realizes he is a character in an unfinished novel. He hears a voice, and it frightens him, and then infuriates. He tries to talk back, and gets only silence. He bargains with the voice, or argues or cajoles; he demands and implores. Nothing. Then he seeks it out, encountering the dead ends of self-help and pharmacology before making his way to literature, to someone who understands words. Close, but the more he explores his situation, the fewer his choices, as the lit prof, Jules Hilbert (Dustin Hoffman), eliminates all the kinds of stories Crick is not in. Only by accident does Crick discover his creator, Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson); this is the normal, haphazard, dismaying, flabbergasting process of realizing that one is a creation.

From kindergarten to baccalaureate I attended Catholic schools, and have thus received more or less systematic instruction on how to build a Rube Goldberg consciousness machine. Looking back, I am grateful I was given a language to attempt to describe it to myself--but nothing prepared me for the moment when the Voice started talking, at first scaring the crap out of me, as if It were a ghost, right at my shoulder, spooky as it started telling me, in a startlingly matter-of-fact tone, that I was not simply a Subject, only myself, but an Object, "belonging" in some way to Another. At first I thought it was my mother or father--and they sufficed for a while, if not as the literal Makers they were, but as doers, building the house in secret every night as I slept, having the world ready when I woke up.

But the more I moved around, the more complicated the world got. There were all kinds of new streets and buildings, trees and fireplugs, birds and billboards to put together as I moved away from the house, all of it rising up just around each corner, busy as I approached, and done just as I kept arriving--until one day I began to feel the tremor that marks the world's making, a slight tremble as I stepped on each new square foot of it.

So maybe I was not the only Thing being created--no; no "maybes" about it. And I consoled myself with the necessary adolescent idea that I was the One, that "life is what you make of it." An error, but again, a necessary one, for without pride, one is left in dismay, since freedom without pride demands accountability; and, like Milton's Satan,* I wanted to assert, "The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a Heav'n of Hell, a Hell of Heav'n." I wanted to be free to reign as I wished--but also to nurse wounds and lay blame.

In other words, free not to be a creation. But try as I might, nothing helped, not even literature--no, I have to take that back. Prof. Hilbert reminds us that by reading stories, stories can be told (and I direct you to the note at the end of this for a glimpse into the saving power of lit-trit-chore); besides, it's in the professor's office that Crick sees his author on TV. Still, when Hilbert reads Eiffel's book, he is willing to sacrifice Crick for the beautiful death his author has planned for him. And so even art lets one down; after all, it too is a creation that wants to be itself.

All I had, then, was me and what I knew. But--and I hesitate here, because it may be Pride speaking. Oh, what the--hmm; I'll leave that to Milton. Anyway, I have a thought: In knowing that he is a creation, Crick gains the right to have a conversation with the Creator. I will not say more about what happens to Crick; but Stranger Than Fiction keeps building in my head, like the ever-made world itself, and offers the possibility that addressing the idea of being created is the beginning of life, of freedom that allows one to be more than a monumental, defeated general enduring "the burning Marl," approaching with "uneasy steps" others like me, the mere waking guards of Self.

No, the more I know I am created, the more I can create. Will Ferrell, with his fittingly blank look and completely understandable near-constant flinch, fills me with all the pity and hope I need. You see, I too have been making hash-marks on my own Domesday Book, counting which steps lead to tragedy ("death," as Prof. Hilbert observes) and which to comedy ("getting hitched"--and there for Harold waits Maggie Gyllenhaal's Ana Pascal, a baker of delicious cookies), as I try to keep up a conversation with my Author, not (when I am minding myself) to make any deals, just to keep open the lines of communication. Like Harold, I may know little, but two things are of particular solace: once you start talking, the Author considers the merits of not only justice but mercy, and thus options remain open; and (if I may indulge in an in-joke for those of us who have seen the movie) I am not a Golem.

*A professor at the college where I work, her intellect keen and heart generous--thank you, Gina--has just started a weekly Paradise Lost discussion group. It's students and faculty and staff waxing theological, philosophical, and aesthetical--is that last one possible? We've met once, and it was good, and I think it's going to get better, as we continue trying to justify the ways of Milton to each other.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

167. Rating Game Redux 6: Not Funny Ha-Ha

I'm not sure if they're going to be published--I just sent them off for consideration--but here's the latest Three Best list for our local newspaper.

Best Dramatic Performances by a Comedian

Jim Carrey, Man on the Moon (1999)
As Andy Kaufman, Carrey eerily channels the private life of someone who was all over the place on TV, but so heavily disguised that no one really knew him. But Carrey allows us to try.

Adam Sandler, Punch-Drunk Love (2002)
Sandler's emotionally constipated Barry Egan all but implodes under the weight of his own past failures and present fears--until he finds the strength to accept freedom.

Jack Benny, To Be or Not to Be (1942)
Before Mel Brooks and "Springtime for Hitler," Benny, in Ernst Lubitsch's anti-Nazi comedy, uses his profound deadpan--at once clueless and conniving, understated and self-indulgent--to expose the duplicity necessary both to terrorize and to overcome terror.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

166. Coming to America

Nothing personal, but I think this will be the last Japanese movie I'll watch for a while--although my damnably enticing description of Kurosawa's Ikiru, the screening of which my wife missed, has made her want to see it, so I may return to Japan one of these days soon.

But I'm glad to feel harried by such a small matter; it's nothing compared to the pressures in Giants and Toys/Kyojin to Gangu (1958), directed by Yasuzo Masumura--a prolific filmmaker (the Internet Movie Database lists sixty-five directing credits) I stumbled onto--I think I was looking for a Kobayashi film, and wandered just far enough to slip-and-slide down Masumura's pre-Pop-Art anti-big-business diatribe, with its caramel-company spokesmodel, Kyoko (Hitomi Nozoe), a nut with rotten teeth who looks like a monkey. And I am not being impolite, merely quoting other characters' ver batim descriptions and opinions. But I'm glad to say they're right: Until she succumbs to the power of persuasion herself, transformed by her agent into a stuck-up celeb with an enviable smile and a distant demeanor--snubbing the caramel marketers who had "created" her--Kyoko runs around sticking out her tongue--the sybaritic photographer is especially interested in the fact that she can touch her nose with it--and crossing her eyes and jittering and jumping like, well, a monkey. And her teeth are indeed terrible, and her pets are obscenely tumid bullfrog tadpoles, and her family is crowded into a near-hovel, and they all screech and smack at each other, while pop stars and marketers and delirious dance numbers yell and caper in our faces. This is one tiring movie.

At its core is a bitter scorn for Japan's voracious market economy, catching up with America's while outdoing it in salary-man (and -woman) double-dirt-dealing. The rival execs are either old classmates or new lovers, but none of that matters as they vie for the right to turn every Japanese mouth into Kyoko's, sugar-ravaged and ragged. Not to fixate on her damaged dentals, but the poor things do jump out at you, imprinting like--OK, like a bite--along the entire length of the film. As the competition intensifies and the stakes go up (and all over caramel, a paltry thing, as everyone agrees--but cuts throats nonetheless), and the bonds of friendship, loyalty, and love snap over and over, like the ad exec's faulty cigarette lighter--a recurring motif, his repeated nerve-wracking attempts to strike a flame superimposed on various montages of caramel being manufactured, markets established, competitors crushed--Kyoko's gap-toothed grin, carried around by her spindly frame, looms larger and larger, until it's nothing but crooked smiles all around.

Sometimes I think I'm being, well, culturally myopic in my reaction to Japanese films that deal with "Western" topics: They can seem bizarre re-imaginings of familiar conventions, unintentional kitsch made quaint by "foreignness." After all, in 1956 The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit had already outlined the dilemmas of American Upward Mobility; and its more ghoulish side was already considered in The Sweet Smell of Success, along with the marketing of personality in A Face in the Crowd, both in 1957; by 1958, Hollywood was only three years away from Billy Wilder's hysteria-tinged conflation of Cold War brinksmanship and Coca-Cola diplomacy, One, Two, Three.

But Giants and Toys is more than American culture recycled, with goofy dubbing and maybe Godzilla off in the distance--although the awkward, garish faults of American pop culture seem particularly embarrassing when viewed through a Japanese lens, so to speak. Kyoko becomes emblematic of a deep discomfort Masumura wants his Japanese audience to feel, since those who manipulate her--and then of course are manipulated by her--eventually have more to say about post-War Japan than they do America, even though the latter is always in the background or on the tips of their Kyoko-length tongues; but in the end it is specifically Japanese caramel everyone's tasting, as bitter as the crow anyone has to eat in, say, Oliver Stone's Wall Street (1987) or David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)--except in Giants and Toys they bring it on themselves; it is not a legacy of the American occupation/re-culturalization, but a bitter decision made by young men and women who grow old quickly, hunched over their desks--literally clutching their ulcers--and demeaning themselves for market-share. The final shot of the ad exec, forced to wear the spacesuit Kyoko disdains, walking down the crowded Tokyo street to hawk caramels, is heartless in its insistence that the New Japan may be suffering from rot, but it keeps chewing, no matter how much face is lost.

Monday, March 26, 2007

165. After the Fall

Seijun Suzuki is exhausting; he refuses to look on Creation and say "It is good." Maybe that's because he comes to it, as we all do, so late in the day, long after the quiet promise of dawn--you know about that, don't you? How day is to follow dawn, and so on, until they are well-measured and long, balanced by steady revolutions of sun and moon? That promise? Well, here we are now, the indulged languor gone, the hunger having peaked about mid-morning, and all promises broken by lunchtime to fill our bellies with meat, years of it.

Suzuki sees this state of affairs pretty clearly, despite the fact that--ah; because?—he didn't have two yen to rub together. So the one he did have he fired in his modest melting pot, and poured into his audience's ears, like Claudius with his brother Hamlet, a teaspoon of lava from the scarier part of "the deep heart’s core." This poison, though, wakes you up--OK, with a yelp and a groan; but you nonetheless have no doubt you’ve been poisoned; and here's another analogy: You're Edmond O'Brien in D.O.A. watching your death-clock, until you're out of time and you drop so fast that no one can break your fall.

The odd thing is, in a Suzuki movie his characters--and his audience--in a queasy kind of way have some fun on the way down. In Gate of Flesh we see post-War Japan through a scowl, with the Americans drunk and consuming everything in sight, then hanging in tatters from Tokyo's charred walls like movie posters, mocking with the promise of happy endings. And Suzuki's band of prostitutes will have nothing to do with broken vows; they create their own world, with its own code, like Plato's cave, in which the worst one wins. But despite the nausea of the world turned upside-down, Suzuki gives us color and even a kind of humor, albeit rough as the torture-punishments the prostitutes inflict upon one another for falling in love--evidenced, of course, by doing it for free--but still with a crooked grin that ripples just below or along the movie's surface, a sly Suzuki tickle, setting us up for the punchline, but not without warning. Pie-eyed and feckless, the girls and their adopted tough guy, at least for a while, sing and joke, rough-house and tease--until, of course, the day goes on, and the bright primary colors they wear turn cheap, smearing easily and dripping like blood from a pulp-fiction dagger.

When I was young the whiff of a grindhouse* movie was both enticing and troubling, like something delicious burning. I knew the print version already--E.C. comics, certain Charles Addams cartoons, the Cold Warriors of '50s science fiction, Roughnecks all--and consumed regular doses of cinematic big bugs and tipsy saucers; but true grindhouse often--and thankfully--eluded my sight, except for some unexpected arrivals, such as Mark of the Devil when I was in eighth grade, and I think a bit young to spend any length of time with Udo Kier. I remember audience members were given "barf bags," and I felt a little sick just holding the damn thing. Such tender sensibilities; but still, I was eager to pry open the rusty downtown film cans of exploitation cinema, and "hoped" I could one day see Color Me Blood Red and Carnival of Blood and Blood Feast—a pattern emerges, like a seeping stain. And stupid me, I eventually got my wish, and still do. Gate of Flesh reminds me that the line between a "nudie-cutie" and a "roughie" is as mushy as the corpus callosum, and while it also may be as important, it too is better off untouched. In the end, Suzuki's instructions make sense only if you want to dismantle stuff; this can be a good thing, especially with bombs and tyrannies. But it's nerve-wracking, and one should rest a long time between attempts.

*I'm not going to say anything about the upcoming Tarantino/Rodriguez movie; I'm sure it will have its moments. (I will be forever grateful that Kill Bill introduced me to the music of The's.) And who am I to sneer at affectionate parody? I loved the Blues Brothers, and they ripped off the Real Deals at least as much as Tarantino and Co. Still, I did know most of the original versions before I bought Briefcase Full of Blues. Ilsa, She-Wolf of the S.S., anyone?

Friday, March 23, 2007

164. The Friday Club Begins (Again)

When I was an undergraduate, a group of us would gather, pooling our money and going down to the State Store--residents of the Keystone State will understand--to buy various refreshing beverages, which we would drink until they were all gone. That was about it, and that was the Friday Club.

Thirty years later, and I am afraid I'm not as thirsty as I used to be. So here's a new Friday Club: Every Friday, I will determine a lineup of seven movies. You must watch them in order, one a day, after dark. Screen incoming calls--or ignore them altogether. You should also be seated, and shoeless; you may wear socks or some sort of comfy footie--or best of all, do like the professionals and go barefoot--and of course, feel free to Bring Your Own. You probably need Netflix--and a decent rental plan; at least four-at-a-time--as well as an iron commitment to watch each movie. As I have insisted for a long time, Home Living and Entertainment is hard work.

Here's the list. The intent is to begin the viewing week on Monday--if you start on Friday, you might be tempted to watch more than one a day over the weekend, and we simply cannot have any of that. So this is a "Friday Club" only in the sense that I'm bossing you around on Friday so that you'll hop to your Queue to get the movies in your hands beginning Monday evening. These are movies on my own Queue, so they are films/DVDs I either haven't seen or haven't seen in a while. So I'm as excited as you are.* You are excited, aren't you?

Monday: Giants and Toys (1958)
Corporate marketing wars, Japanese-style. Lately I have been watching mostly Japanese movies; I may take a break after this one--although Sword of Doom (1966) calls menacingly. Still, this buttoned-down version of Pacific Rim ruthlessness might tide me over.

Tuesday: Stranger Than Fiction (2006)
Once again, a movie I know little about, thank goodness. I saw the trailer, and like keeping an eye on Will Ferrell. He always seems ready to do something unpleasant; this makes his comedy especially uneasy. Besides, he reminds me of a guy I knew in graduate school, funny and unpredictable, with often-unreadable eyes. Nothing like an unintentional echo of one's past to keep a movie interesting.

Wednesday: High School Terrors
Another compilation of "instructional films"; it seems some of these were intended for G.I.s. This kind of thing is easy to laugh at, like Ed Wood--and Mystery Science Theater does a world-class job of doing just that; the cinematic equivalent of James Lileks' site--all children of the National Lampoon magazine of the '70s. But once I get beyond mockery and camp-foolery, I find these distressed goods alternately resonant and depressing, in a second-hand way.

Thursday: Tideland (2005)
I think I remember reading--in Film Comment?--that this Terry Gilliam film, released just around the time of his pass at the Brothers Grimm, is the better of two dicey movies. And it's supposed to be dark, dark, dark. But it's a good idea to give Gilliam the benefit of the doubt; after all, too few "mainstream" filmmakers regularly work at Circe's loom, if I may wax Classical. I think every once in a while a movie should turn the viewers into swine, just as a reminder.

Friday: Forbidden Games (1954)
Rene Clement's pet cemetery movie, one that I must admit I will visit dutifully--it's one of those canonical movies, so it's supposed to be good for you--but I am optimistic it will live up to its reputation. I'm interested in the film's depiction of children. Everyone complains that movies don't do justice to their hometowns or occupations; me, I'm always embarrassed and angered by the damage done to childhood. Here's hoping.

Saturday Borat (2006)
My wife has requested we watch every movie nominated this year for an Academy Award. Given the fact that this includes Click (Best Achievement in Makeup), this may be a case of careful what you wish for. I am eager, though, to see Borat. As my smart friend Gene pointed out decades ago--watching SCTV's surreal parodies of the Soviet Union, particularly its take on anti-Uzbeck sentiments--the odder corners (if I may appear insensitive) of Eastern Europe remain the only "minorities" one is allowed to mock. As usual, Gene was decades ahead of his time. So I'm looking forward to seeing "what fits into Mother Russia," post-Millennium style.

Sunday Coffee and Cigarettes (2003)
I've been meaning to watch this Jim Jarmusch exercise in Total Indy Laid-Back-ness; it seems a perfect Sunday evening Quiet Time, even if some of the filmed conversations might grow strident--what will Iggy Pop and Tom Waits get up to? But one can only hope that, plotless and semi-improvised (I think), it will ease us back toward the work week with a minimum of fuss.

I will admit, though, that this is primarily your week in movies. Me, I might read a book. This does not, of course, relieve you of your viewing responsibilities.

Monday, March 19, 2007

163. Tender Mercy

I am not turning Japanese, but I am having great difficulty turning away from Japanese cinema. However, before we move on to, for instance, Casino Royale and Daniel Craig's version of the bully-boy Bond, there's Akira Kurosawa's Ikiru/To Live (1952). Kurosawa always frightens me a little: He is capable of almost excessive tenderness (although the longer I live, the less I think there can be too much of that particular indulgence) pinioned beneath the bald-faced truth of suffering, and the grunting weight of those who inflict it as though they were simply breathing, flat and regular. And I do not mean to reduce Kurosawa's movies to purposeless dichotomy. He knows that mercy begins in suffering--and then he does something about it. Sometimes, he increases the suffering, as in High and Low (1963) and Ran (1985), and sometimes the suffering rises like a wind beneath sails, and moves everything in victory, as in Akahige/Red Beard (1965) and Yojimbo (1961).

In any case, danger abounds in Kurosawa, not the least when he turns a jaundiced eye toward the willfully weak, as in Ikiru. In its narrated opening, we are asked to frown at the bureaucrat with stomach cancer, Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura, constantly pained, like the snake-bitten Samuel Jones (Tommy Lee Jones) in The Missing (2003), always half-hunched, grimacing, making an effort just to look you in the eye). We are told Watanabe has wasted his life, he is already dead, and so on. It seems almost cruel--until we move from his desk to the extended montage in which a group of local women are sent from department to department within the impenetrable bureaucracy, thwarted in their attempt to have a fetid cistern filled and made into a park. It is a compelling piece of work, inexorable in its circuit and return to Watanabe's desk, where he still sits, greasy and staring, silent and still. He may not be the villain, but he'll do.

Kurosawa, though, will not forget that pain also has its circuit, as it moves--at least in Ikiru--from fear to mercy to victory. As Watanabe confronts his death, he first locks himself even more deeply inside; there's a perfect scene, after he discovers he has cancer, in which he inches along a city street, surrounded by others, passing a construction site, within which flashes of light burst--all in complete silence. And then he steps into the street, is almost hit by a truck, and the noise of the world drops on him like lightning, loud and paralyzing. At that moment, his interior world, which is all he seems to have--and which has failed him--begins to slide off his frame. He does at first turn to the past--which, like everything inside him, lets him down, as he considers his wife's death and small but lasting errors with his son. And then he resolves to live in the moment, and we get the middle section of the movie, in which he tries to, not live, but live it up, drinking and nightclubbing. But this, too, is bitter in his mouth--literally: as he says of the sake he pours down, it "is like paying myself back with poison for the way I lived all these years." And then he latches onto a young and bright-eyed fellow-worker, Toyo (Miki Odagiri), cute as a kitten but desperate to escape the bureaucracy. He spends a week--and plenty of yen--with her, clinging to her until his grasp frightens her. As he explains his attraction to Toyo, "Once when I was a child, I almost drowned. It's just like that feeling. Darkness everywhere, and nothing for me to hold onto, no matter how hard I try. There's just you." He wants her to show him what to do. All she has is her new job, in a factory that makes windup bunnies. At first she disdains it, insisting she's just like him, simply going to work, eating, sleeping. But then she confesses that when she's in the bunny factory it is as though she is "holding every baby in Japan." Cute stuff, but more: Watanabe's eyes widen, and he realizes what he must do.

His pain becomes fear, his fear leads him to seek escape--but where? After all, he carries his doom with him, in his gut. So fear becomes a dead end (so to speak), and he has to return the way he came, and find--not mercy, but a way to give mercy. As in Akhige, Kurosawa places his sufferer in the face of suffering, and provides an opportunity to live. Watanabe goes back to his office--at "Human Relations," of course--and dedicates himself to that park, to one small real thing in the real world.

Watch the rest of the story yourself, all told in flashback, after Watanabe's death. His wake really works, as his acceptance--of both death and the job that needs doing--is itself awakened. And how lucky he is, with something to do, something he can actually lay his hands on--and in the twisted bowels of city government, no less, where one would expect to find nothing but its own kind of cancer. Watanabe, though, bringing his disease with him, can smell out corruption, and knows how to lower his sweaty brow and carve away the stink. Again, watch what he finds, and what Kurosawa gives us. It is tender in many ways, like love and like a wound, bright and waiting for the right hands.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

162. Going My Way of the Samurai

No apologies for the childish title: I'm writing about Takeshi Kitano's Kikujiro (2000), in which he directs himself--as "Beat" Takeshi--from his own script; and he edits himself, as well. Literally. Figuratively, though, Kitano does nothing of the sort, instead letting himself go, or leaving well enough alone, or something. His movies can be, to put it mildly, prone to outbursts. On the other hand, he can show amazing restraint: In Kikujiro, he gets as close to a "children's movie" as I've seen from him--and I won't check for Kitano films I haven't watched; for all I know, he's directed Pokemon episodes. But what I do know is that every time I see one of his movies he provides a new challenge--no, old ones: I keep thinking of Buster Keaton, especially the performances, blank-slated and waiting for life to write on him--which it does, like lightning across desert sand, heat-fusing the moment in muscled squiggles. This can be pretty unnerving in Kitano's action/crime films, in which he takes all kinds of time, until you can't tell whether he's building suspense or has, in some fit of audacity, simply left the building, the camera still running. During such stretches, I sometimes half-expect a member of the crew to wander on-frame, as oblivious as the characters that there's a movie going on; then ka-POW! Takeshi flash-edits something outlandishly awful at lightspeed. Again, it is as if he is re-claiming silent comedy, its skitters and ricochets as well as its slow burns and deadpans, all for his own purposes. The resulting almost-illusion is that Takeshi is always making masterpieces, in which everything he's capable of is enlisted in the effort, the only chance he'll get to show you what he can do.

Kikujiro follows this pattern to satisfying heights of beauty and strangeness and even a kind of joy--the kind you get from being free. I watched it with two of my children (13 and 16), and we laughed and gaped, cried--well, I did--and awww'd. It's a road picture, with menace and merriment, surreal appearances and open stretches of waiting terrain. To quote Groucho, "Pardon me while I have a Strange Interlude," but this movie gives me pause--in a good way, I think. Kikujiro puts me in mind of Peter Bogdanovich's Paper Moon (1973) and The Wizard of Oz, Chaplin's The Kid (1921) and David Lynch's The Straight Story (1999), but especially Alice's adventures, both in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. "Beat" Takeshi plays a stone-faced gangster taking a kid from one city to another to see his mother. The plot is episodic and haphazard, sometimes serene in its simplicity, sometimes anxiety-inducing in its relentlessness. The little boy, like Alice, is knocked around and belittled, spoiled and ignored, stolen from and rewarded. The plot details do not matter; what keeps the movie afloat is the steady camera and steady looks Kitano demands and gives. And, like the Alice books, it never entirely abandons its abused child, but always manages at the last second to provide an Eat-Me or Drink-Me, a kind shoulder to lean on, a little squeeze of the hand. Or it asks the child to be leaned on, to see how little the grownups actually know--and how little that matters, since, whether there is any or no control left, something else, some dim-witted but kind-hearted White Knight, is bound to come along, who sees the child "safe to the end of the wood." And the child needs to learn how not to be afraid, because, well, you just never know.

Writing about Kitano, I have been given a very Kitano-esque experience: Slowly at first, imperceptibly, I have found myself suddenly realizing how deeply I admire his films. Like his adoring Japanese audience, I have known him as the tough guy, Dirty Harry with a Yakuza-tattoo, a Death Wish in a noodle-house. And then he pulls the same stuff with a little kid in tow, and shows us how those worlds fit together--and, despite all that bullying and those sudden drops and sickening thuds, Kitano takes care of the child, stoops down and puts on a show to keep away childhood's tears. It's as though Keaton--who never seemed to take much to children in his films--and Chaplin--who of course always wanted to be one--decided to adopt. Perhaps not the best of ideas, but the audience has a good time watching, and the kid seems to manage just fine. In the end, maybe it's because they all become kids--as with Kikujiro's long idyll in the woods, in which the child, his all-but-immobile ward, an itinerant hippie-artist, and a Mutt-and-Jeff motorcycle-gang duo stick leaves and branches in their hair, smear themselves with mud, and play-act, with no grownups watching, not even the audience--if they have been wise enough to stay with the movie long enough--who all but disappear, to allow such indulgence and let Kitano play.

Friday, March 09, 2007

161. Another Way of the Samurai

Nicely done and so forth to Forest Whitaker for his recent Oscar in a real Godzilla role--Idi Amin, twice as ugly (and startling) as any life larger than life--staring us down with the liveliest lazy eye in cinema. But I'd rather we see him first blindfolded, playing a crying game, his accent so British it confused those of us who noticed him earlier in The Color of Money (1987) and Good Morning, Vietnam (1987), let alone as Charlie Parker in Bird (1988).

Or better yet: Calm all the way down, just the way Jim Jarmusch likes 'em, a stolid lump of steady death and gentle, middle-distance reflection in Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999). I watched it for the second time last week, mostly because I was getting ready to see some Japanese movies--I've since viewed the previously blogged Harakiri, plus Kurosawa's Ikiru (1952), and soon something or other by Seijun Suzuki--who brings me back to Ghost Dog. Now, as I've just read, the Internet Movie Database does point out Jarmush's hommage to Suzuki, but movie-geek pride makes me assert I noticed it myself a few years ago on my first viewing of Jarmusch's film, seeing Ghost Dog shoot a guy up a sink drain, a gimmick right out of Branded to Kill (1967), Suzuki's koo-koo hitman shout-em-up (in black and white; it seems Suzuki was being punished for going nuts with the color in earlier films--oh, the palette-risks of '60s international cinema; but that's OK: his spinout take on "No. 3 Killer's" moody/full-tilt spree shows up swell in chiaroscuro).

Ghost Dog, however, is more than a collection of in-jokes and tributes--although it works pretty well as such, a post-mod almost-comedy, cutouts of lots of things, including Jarmusch's own work. Whitaker makes sure, though, that much more happens--and all almost on the inside of his character, his slo-mo rap punctuated by an unblinking gaze and a purposeful lurch. It is an irresistible performance, more mesmerism, like De Niro's Jake LaMotta, but turned down from 11 to ultra-shadowed 1. And Jarmusch knows what he has in Whitaker, refining the film's narrative to recitation, as Ghost Dog reads from Yamamoto Tsunetomo's seventeenth-century book of the philosophy of fatality, Hagakure: The Way of the Samurai. These interludes are not interludes at all, but emerge as central revelations and crises, resolutions and expositions. Whitaker reads them with a deliberate calm, the passions suppressed, so that all is left is the moment immediately preceding action, and then "the way of the samurai," in which "it is best to dash in headlong."

Eventually, Ghost Dog does just that, dispatching Mafiosi with classic cool, methodical and measured--but, again, headlong, part Spaghetti Western, part Wild Bunch--without, though, any Morricone madness or Peckinpah trajectories. For Ghost Dog, it is sturm without the drang, an inevitable front that builds with the certainty of barometric pressure. He has set himself on a Way that leads him to dire loss, but without panic. As he recites, "every day without fail one should consider himself as dead. This is the substance of the way of the samurai." And he saves the girl--like Val Kilmer's Spartan (another code hero for another hard-bitten day)--and protects his friend, but he does so already dead--so should we move toward Jarmusch's other soft-sculpture genre-bender, Dead Man (1995), to understand the curve of the last turning in the road? Again, as Ghost Dog recites, "Even if one's head were to be suddenly cut off, he should be able to do one more action with certainty."

This is the context in which the movie's obligatory climactic slaughter unfolds. Ghost Dog "becomes like a revengeful ghost and shows great determination." In the end, it is easy to see the movie as simply another exercise in literary affection (and no, I did not write "affec-ta-tion"); but Whitaker puts his broad hands on Ghost Dog and holds him up, and hooks his big arms around the hitman's waist, and maintains forward motion, beautiful and sad, as life always seems to end up in a Jarmusch movie. His characters often fall upon the Romantic thorns of life, post-Millennium-style--you know, after all those revolutions and World Wars--moving like Shelley's leaves along the West Wind, but slowly; so, doing "one more action," Whitaker becomes the ghost in the hoodie, the last somnambulistic king of dreamland, his Picasso face turning this way and that, the two at once.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

160. The Way of the Samurai

I'm lucky that I'm not always thinking of Masaki Kobayashi--because if I were, I'd be always either impatient to see his next movie or angry and sad that he has been dead for a decade and will not be making any more. It's the same reason I try not to think of Stanley Kubrick. Both seem filled with beauty and coldness, sorrow and dismissal, curiosity and resignation--all pinning me beneath the weight of an insistent, ravishing (if I may seriously use that word) formalism that makes me watch almost too closely. These are Stendhal Syndrome artists for sure, maestri of mesmerism, forcing me every time into false cinematic chastity, just so I can allow them to show me the movies for the first time.

I'll calm down now.

I saw Kobayashi's Kwaidan (1964) many years ago--when, I can't say; lately I've wanted everything to happen in childhood and adolescence--and who's to say I didn't first see it on PBS in the '70s, when Janus Films offered us the glistening cream scooped off cinema's surface--sorry; once again, I'll calm down now--and gave me my first taste of Japanese cinematic fabulism? I never thought of it as a "directed" movie; Kwaidan simply seemed spun out, like thread from the wheel, falling into my hands with unavoidable grace. And then, thank Netflix, I followed that thread, and it led me to The Human Condition (1959-61), Kobayashi's trilogy of the War, nine-plus hours of hope-turned-horror-turned-resignation, a true epic of morality hammered like a sword turned against the self.

Which leads me to Harakiri (1962), which I watched last night, almost twice, a film as sharp as that sword, and as strong--and so, of course, dangerous. And I kept thinking of Kubrick, especially The Shining (1980)--and not just because of the films' soundtracks, unsettlingly similar, both scraping at a golden veneer, methodically stripping away the illusion of measure--oh, I give up; I'll never calm down--until, like the bamboo sword with which Motome (Akira Ishihama) must commit seppuku, the films draw irrefutable blood--either in black rivulets or red rivers, pouring along the blade or down the corridor.

It is there, at the moment when the blood spills, that Kobayashi and Kubrick seem most alike. They both have kept watch over our transgressions, and lean forward with a careful light in a meticulous frame that displays the essential virtues of human hopes and the inevitable sin of human denial. When Hanshiro Tsugumo* considers his hope--that those in power would realize, now at the end of his tale, that "the suspicious mind conjures its own demons," and would repent, just a little, just enough that he could go to the Other World and tell Motome of their regret--he lowers his head in understanding that no remorse is forthcoming, that the "facade of the Samurai code" is as unbreakable as it is shameful, and that all he has left is his rage and his swords. Together, they explode, terrible and swift, and doomed. Only the moviegoer is left to pass along the truth, as the Great House is set aright and the false code sustained. Hanshiro, driven by that code but unprotected by its facade, stands alone. He is magnificent, like Col. Dax (Kirk Douglas) in Kubrick's Paths of Glory (1957)--and equally ineffectual, as he makes a personal gesture in a public arena where the game was fixed before it began.

Despite such a bitter end, what draws me to Harakiri is its insistence that we can take a secret with us, the truth of the individual soul, desperate in enemy territory, but unwavering. It is tragic heroism drawn inward to a private space, tender and loving--watch the master Samurai cuddle and coo at his grandson, and wipe his fevered brow--"good deeds in a naughty world"--while the gangsters who run things tidy up as if the good were never there, and no one will ever know. But the good know--and Kobayashi allows us to watch them.

Played like nuanced thunderclaps by Tatsuya Nakadai--still acting, according to the Internet Movie Database. Watch him in Kagemusha (1980), The Sword of Doom (1966), Sanjuro (1962), Yojimbo (1961), Seven Samurai (1954)--and, of course, Kwaidan and The Human Condition.

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