Thursday, October 04, 2018

Enlightened Selfishness

A regime based upon the ethic of “always enlightened selfishness” has the undeniable advantages of producing a more efficient and prosperous economy and a freer polity and society.  It is also, I would venture to say, more genuinely, as distinct from rhetorically, moral, because it requires no violation of transformation of human nature.  It takes people as they are and as they always have been, capable of being enlightened as well as selfish - enlightened precisely because they are selfish, because the “self” naturally embraces family and community, religion and tradition, interests and values.
     - Gertrude Himmelfarb, “Victorian Values, Jewish Values” (1989)

Saturday, September 29, 2018

French Cinema Now: When Margaux Meets Margaux

Went to SIFF yesterday to see When Margaux Meets Margaux, which is playing as part of SIFF's French Cinema Now festival.  It was bad.  A 45-year old woman named Margaux (Sandrine Kiberlain) comes across a 20-year old woman also named Margaux (Agathe Bonitzer) at a party in Paris.  Ah, you think, a pleasant little comedy about mistaken identities.  Alas, no.  Margaux the Elder is actually Margaux the Younger from a later period in her life.  Apparently some sort of time travel has occurred.  But how?  We’re not told.  However, there is also the possibility that Margaux the Elder is some sort of metal projection of Margaux the Younger when she contemplates what her future life might be.  So who's the "real" Margaux.  It's not really clear.  And that’s the problem I had with this film: its main conceit is too baffling.  We’re never quite sure what we’re witnessing.  The ground beneath our feet is never secure.  Writer and director Sophie Fillières is attempting to create a romantic comedy but keeps throwing us so many metaphysical curveballs that one barely has time to care about the fate of Margaux or her love life.  I was busy looking for clues to determine what was the reality of the film - and (spoiler?) I was left empty handed.  An entirely unsatisfying experience. In fact, leaving this film my greatest regret was that an older version of myself hadn’t traveled back from the future to warn me not to waste my afternoon watching this movie.

Sandrine Kimberlain and Agathe Bonitzer

Monday, September 24, 2018

Unfinished Books

I try to finish every book I read.  In fact, I don’t regard a book as “read” by me unless I’ve gotten to the very last page.  But in reality that’s not always possible.  Most of the times I agonize over when to give up on a book.  I know the author worked hard on it; I want to make sure I’ve given them a chance.  But other times - and this is one of them (or two of them, actually) - the author manages to drive me away from their book either by poor writing or by being annoying.  That’s the case with the two volumes under consideration here.

I was very excited to start Alan Strauss-Schom’s The Shadow Emperor: A Biography of Napoléon III (2018).  This nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte ruled France from 1852 to 1870 and ultimately led his country to military defeat at the hands of Bismarck’s Germany.  He has indeed been something of a “shadow” historically, dwarfed by both his uncle and by the other major political figures of his era - Bismarck, Gladstone, Disraeli, Garibaldi, etc.  As the heir to the Napoleonic throne, little Louis Napoléon (his real name) and his mother, Hortense, were subjected to constant police oversight.  All their mail was read.  A grand coalition representing Europe’s major powers oversaw Hortense’s choice of tutors for Louis.  They were routinely kicked out of any country they tried to settle in.  It was a precarious life and Strauss-Schom does a fine job with all of this.  

But as Louis grows up Strauss-Schom strikes a new tone in the book.  Hortense, who up to this time appears as a normal aristocratic mother of the day, if a little more protective than most, is suddenly transformed into a domineering maternal bitch.  “Fed on honeyed pap and smothered in cotton wool by an emotional, overly protective, unhealthily possessive doting mother…[sic] her son’s future did not look hopeful.”  But not to worry.  Strauss-Schom assures us “only his [Louis’s] surprisingly strong character and personal will to achieve something worthy of his name, the chalice of empire, to be recognized and respected by the outside world, drove him on with force enough eventually to break away from this strangling silk web.”  

“Chalice of empire”?  The minute I read that it hit me “This isn’t a history; it’s a trashy historical novel.”  I had to check and make sure the cover wasn’t embossed.  This is the language a tenth-rate fiction writer would use - as, too, is the cliché of the suffocating mother.  What kind of legitimate historian would use a phrase like “chalice of empire”?  Frankly, I'm not even sure what that means.  How is an empire a chalice?  Is a drinking vessel really the appropriate imperial metaphor?  Could there be a “mug of empire”?  Or maybe a “red Solo cup of empire”?  I don’t know.  I do, though, think that “Chalice of Empire” may actually be the name of a multi-player video game, but I’m not sure.  Clearly, the only way for me to continue reading this book would be to regard it as camp - and that’s not really my thing.  So I close it and I'm done.

Right from the beginning I sensed that David Cannadine’s Victorious Century: The United Kingdom, 1800-1906 (2018) wasn’t going to make it.  He begins the book with two quotes.  One is Karl Marx’s classic observation from The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte that human beings make their own history but only under inherited historical conditions.  The other is Charles Dickens's even-more-classic opening from A Tale of Two Cities, “It was best of times, it was the worst of times...”  The Marx quote is bad enough; surely, Cannadine could have found a more original quote in the corpus of Marx’s work than the old chestnut he settled upon.  But the Dickens quote is worse.  The choice of it is trite, lazy, and not even relevant.  Dickens wrote it about the eighteenth century, not the nineteenth century.  So it’s not even á propos to the book at hand.  

On the first page of the Preface and Acknowledgements Cannadine writes “I was lucky enough to grow up in what were in many ways the final years of the ‘long’ nineteenth century - namely the 1950s.”  The 1950s?  Really?  On the next page he refers to “the first decade of the twentieth century - the 1960s”  Nine pages later you’ll find this: “In some ways, even today [2017], the British nineteenth century is still not over.”  Cannadine is playing much too fast and loose with his conception of the nineteenth century.  In fact, when your periodization of a “century” covers over 220 years you need to rethink your assumptions.

But intellectual sloppiness seems to be Cannadine’s forte.  To prove that the nineteenth century still is not over in Britain he points to the ongoing existence of photography, nursing, the bicycle, etc. but also matches, football, the old school tie, and bacon and eggs.  In the book’s Prologue (yeah, it’s one of those books with both a preface and a prologue) he writes of the UK that “uniquely among the great nations of the world, its boundaries remained unchanged and unchanging throughout the nineteenth century.”  Yes, that happens when you’re surrounded by water.  

But it was a sentence in the opening paragraph of the first chapter which sealed this book’s fate for me.  Here it is: “Accordingly, on the first day of January 1801, Ireland vanished as a separate nation, and the expanded and consolidated United Kingdom that came into being would endure, albeit with misgivings and challenges, disapproval and protest, for the whole of the nineteenth century and on, indeed, until the aftermath of the First World War.”  Ireland wasn’t “a separate nation” before 1801.  Period.  It became a separate nation in 1921.  Until then it was under British rule, directly or indirectly.  That’s the fact.  Just as today no intelligent person would refer to the Palestinians or the Tibetans or the Basque as “a separate nation” so, too, Ireland was not one in 1800. 

So why is Cannadine fudging this?  He could have called Ireland “a separate administrative unit” or said that Ireland “legally joined” the UK in 1801, but calling them “a separate nation” is entirely misleading.  Note, too, the cagey way in which he won’t even acknowledge that Irish independence occurred at the end of his chosen historical period.  In fact, the entire sentence from “albeit…” on is one big fustian evasion.  Why should I continue to read this book?  How do I know that what he writes is accurate?  I’d have to read a second book on this topic just to fact check his.  No, no, no.  To the trash with it. 

Thursday, September 20, 2018

A Dream Animal

Although there is still much that we do not understand, it is likely that the selective forces working upon the humanization of man lay essentially in the nature of the socio-cultural world itself.  Man, in other words, once he had “crossed over” into this new invisible environment, was being as rigorously selected for survival within it as the first fish that waddled up the shore on its fins.  I have said that this new world was “invisible.”  I do so advisedly.  It lay, not so much in his surroundings as in man’s brain, in his way of looking at the world around him and at the social environment he was beginning to create in his tiny human groupings. 
He was becoming something the world had never seen before - a dream animal - living at least partially within a secret universe of his own creations and sharing that secret universe in his head with other, similar heads.  Symbolic communication had begun.  Man had escaped out of the eternal present of the animal world into a knowledge of past and future.  The unseen gods, the powers behind the world of phenomenal appearance began to stalk through his dreams.
     - Loren Eiseley, The Immense Journey (1957)

Monday, September 17, 2018

ACT: Skylight

This weekend I went to see David Hare’s Skylight at ACT.  It’s a superb production - moving, riveting, engrossing.  It pulled me in so strongly that when the lights came up at the end I got that brief jolt of being returned from the play’s reality to my own.  It’s not often that you walk out of a theater and tell yourself “That production could not have been better” but that’s the case with this one. 

Hare’s play (first produced in London in 1995) concerns the reuniting of two former lovers after a few years apart.  The woman, Kyra, is a late thirties-ish school teacher living in a run-down and very cold apartment in a desolate area of North London.  He is Tom, a wealthy and successful restaurant entrepreneur about twenties years her senior.  They come together for the night but are driven apart the next day by both their mutual differences and their shared past.  There is also Edward, Tom’s son by his wife Alice.  Alice is not a character in this play, but she is a presence in it.  The events onstage take place a year after her death from cancer and a few years after her discovery of Tom and Kyra’s affair.  It’s out of this mundane, even trite, material that Hare has fashioned his magnificent play.  

Although Hare is mostly thought of as a political playwright, Skylight is more intimate and personal than much of his other work.  Unlike his more epic plays (Fanshen, A Map of the World) this is a chamber piece, a duet.  The two ex-lovers take center stage; Edward appears only at the beginning and briefly at the end.  At the root of every decent playwright - no matter how inspired by politics or current events or religion or, even, just the desire for money - is the commitment to and love of the brute facticity of theater: a live actor before an audience creating an entirely new reality.  There’s magic in that, and one senses that the sparseness of the material may very well have been inspiring to Hare.  Love, death, grief, anger, betrayal, hope, rage - the gamut of human emotions pass between these two characters.  They contain the world.

Still, the political is there.  Kyra is a teacher at a school in one of London’s poorer and more violent neighborhoods.  She first met Tom when she was hired to work in one of his restaurants, soon Tom and Alice take her into their home, and Tom, ultimately, to his bed.  Kyra’s life became one of ease and affluence, only the finest things.  Her breakup with Tom led her into a hard scrabble existence but one of which she is defiantly proud.  At one point she goes on a glorious rant about “those right-wing fuckers” in parliament and the media who chatter about what the poor need to do to improve their lot but never actually do anything to help them.  After almost a quarter century its power, relevance, and contempt are still fresh.  Elinor Gunn’s performance Kyra is flawless.  She is both deeply vulnerable and yet hard as steel at the core.  Kyra is a woman who says “yes” to the world (Tom reproaches her for this) but she’s at the age in life when events and experience begin to persuade one of the wisdom of saying “no.”  Tom loves her and she almost can’t help but respond to that love; not because he’s so wonderful, but because love is.  

David Hare
On a side note, I couldn’t help but notice that if Kyra had been played a little colder and more archly (and I’m glad Gunn didn't play her that way) it would have brought out the influence on this play, conscious or not, of Noël Coward.  Now I don’t know if Hare would acknowledge that influence or if he even likes Coward’s work, but despite the politics and coarse language of Skylight there are some distinctly Coward-esque aspects to the story - old lovers meet, verbal sparring, potential reuniting, bittersweet endings, etc.  Several times I couldn't help thinking of Elyot and Amanda in Coward's Private Lives (1930) - but that may just be me. 

The moment Daniel Gerroll walks onstage as Tom he dominates the play.  Brash, complaining, needy, charming, undeniably fun, pushy - Tom is all those things and we are fascinated by him.  He’s in many ways the quintessentially successful businessman of Thatcher’s era - and ours, too.  He’s completely unpretentious, hard working, sympathetic and yet possessed of a disturbing callousness and indifference to others.  Though even that he manages to make charming.  When Kyra tells him that he needs to listen to women if he hopes to bed them, he groans and retorts that listening “is halfway to begging.”  Tom is not a larger-than-life character such as Falstaff or Cyrano de Bergerac but there is an abundance to him - perhaps it’s merely the energy and élan vital of the successful entrepreneur - that makes him an irresistible figure.  Gerroll's performance is fantastic.  This is a role that isn’t just played - it needs to be filled, the actor needs to possess a certain heft to pull it off.  And Gerroll does that to perfection.  He’s so convincing that at one point, while watching Tom walking around Kyra’s apartment, I thought to myself “Yeah, you know that guy’s got another piece of ass on the side” and then realized “Oh, wait, he doesn’t actually exist.”

Michael Monicatti, in his professional stage debut, brings a wonderful energy and appeal to the role of Edward.  My one gripe: I wish he wouldn’t rush his lines.  There’s a music to Hare’s language (yet another similarity with Coward) and slowing the delivery down a bit will bring it out.  Julia Hayes Welch did an excellent job with the set; she uses thin copper piping to frame the stage as well as remind us of the gritty nature of the neighborhood Kyra lives in.  And, finally, John Langs it to be commended for his outstanding direction of this play.  Everything seems to come off effortlessly - which we all know usually requires a back-breaking amount of work to achieve.  

Skylight will play at ACT until September 30, so you all have plenty of time to go get tickets.  

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Alberto Manguel: Packing My Library

Packing My Library: An Elegy and Ten Digressions by Alberto Manguel is an enjoyable and entertaining account of the author’s experience packing up his library of some 36,000 volumes when he and his partner left France in 2015.  Interspersed with that narrative are ten digressions about books, libraries, words, and the literary life in general.  Manguel is a born raconteur and incapable of being boring.  At 146 pages, this is quick and pleasurable read.    

The one weak spot in this book, however, is Manguel’s account of the circumstances under which he had to leave France and, hence, pack up his library.  He refuses to tell us why.  He cryptically refers to “reasons I don’t wish to recall because they belong to the realm of sordid bureaucracy” but that will not do.  As readers we need to know what happened.  He claims that the packing of the library was emotionally painful to him and even compares it several times to his own burial.  If we’re to sympathize with his suffering it doesn’t help that he’s being so evasive.  It inevitably raises suspicions.  Maybe there’s more to this story than he’s telling us.  Perhaps he’s not the helpless victim he claims to be.  One fancies that if the sordid French bureaucrats could give their side of the story (and they can’t) Manguel might look a little silly in the sackcloth and ashes he’s donned for his readers. 

But despite that flaw Packing My Library is an outstanding book.  It's everything we mean when we call a book "a good read" - pleasurable, informative, engaging, the author's vivid personality coming through on every page.  It's the kind of book you want to go on for another hundred pages.  I thought the digressions were the best part.  They cover a variety of topics: the library of Alexandria, dreams, artists and suffering, dictionaries, etc.  It’s in these pieces that the author shines.  His immense learning comes into play, as well as his undiminished enthusiasm for whatever the subject at hand.  Yet he never comes across as a showoff or a know-it-all (which is probably the greatest accomplishment that a showoff or know-it-all can have).  Manguel believes in books; he is their evangelist.  

And he covers a lot of ground in a short space.  In the sixth digression, for instance, Manguel (who is of both Jewish and Argentinian descent) writes about the concerns within the Jewish tradition about the power of words, the legend of the Golem (who is created and destroyed by words), and Jorge Luis Borges’s life-long fascination with the Golem figure, as well as his critique of Dante’s Commedia (that's Borges's critique of Dante, not the Golem's - though if there was such a text, Manguel would have read it).  And along the way, of course, there are many fascinating anecdotes.  My favorite from this digression: “When the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot, Israel, built its first computer, Gershom Scholem [the scholar of Jewish mysticism] suggested that it be named Golem I.”  I could easily fill my review with many similarly entertaining quotes and anecdotes from this brief book but I won’t; I will leave them for you to discover. OK, one more:   Apparently Ralph Waldo Emerson took great pleasure in reading the dictionary. Why?  "There is no cant in it," he observed.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Seijun Suzuki's Early Years: The Crime and Action Movies, Part 2

The second disc of Arrow Video's set of early Seijun Suzuki crime and action movies is largely hit or miss.  These films were made during Suzuki's  journeyman years at the Nikkatsu studio and the scripts he was given didn't always provide him with the opportunity to display his talents to the fullest. Nonetheless, there are some noteworthy moments even in the most poorly done of films.  Once again Jasper Short has provided informative commentary for this set (on the first disc), as well as an essay in the illustrated booklet which accompanies the box.  And there's a brief video essay with Tony Raines putting each of the films into perspective.  I have relied upon both men for much of my information.

Eight Hours of Terror (1957)
A nice taut thriller.  When a typhoon closes down the night-train service to Tokyo a group of people board a rickety old bus to make the overnight journey through the perilous mountain passes.  Along the way the bus is hijacked by two sadistic criminals carrying twenty million yen of stolen money.  

As they’re boarding the bus one of the characters says “It’s like a western!”  And so it is.  In fact, it’s John Ford’s 1939 Stagecoach (which is itself, as one critic observed, just Edmund Goulding’s Grand Hotel (1932) on wheels) - throw a bunch of interesting people together in a vehicle and put them through hell.  Hitchcock’s Lifeboat works on the same principle.  And what a colorful, if predictable, crew Suzuki has assembled for us.  There’s the whore with the heart of gold.  The stuffy and obnoxious businessman with his wife.  The lingerie salesman who provides comic relief.  Also, a police officer hand-cuffed to a murderer who's being transported to prison, a pair from the communist-youth league who spout slogans for much of the trip, and a pretty slip of a girl going to Tokyo to break into movies, and others.  The outcasts will of course save the day while the respectable cower in fear.  

The bus encounters an obstacle

The two most interesting characters in the film, which were also the best performed, were Sumie, the prostitute, and the killer Kosaku.  Keiko Shima’s prostitute was elegant, savvy, cunning, devoid of innocence but not of decency.  And certainly not of courage.  During a bus stop she lures one of the criminals into the woods and his doom.  I won’t entirely give it away except to note that bear traps can be very nasty.  Later in the film, when the grateful passengers learn that her boyfriend is an African-American GI at a US Army base, they turn on her.  Refusing to be bullied by them, Shima's verbal berating of the group for hypocrisy is full of both dignity and hurt.   

Keiko Shima and Nobuo Kaneko

Nobuo Kaneko's killer is dark and moody - and ultimately sympathetic.  Apparently it’s not just the whores who have hearts of gold in this movie.  In the course of the film one of the passengers tries to kill herself and her baby.  She is stopped but her baby is harmed.  Kosuku, who turns out to be a doctor, will nurse it back to life.  We also find out that during the war he served in the medical corps.  One day he returned home to find his wife in bed with another man.  In a rage he killed them both. Soldiers serve an interesting role in this film.  Kosaku saved their lives during the war; hence he is sympathetic.  We learn about the black GI whom Sumie loves when someone goes through her purse and sees a photo of him in bed.  Even the soldiers of the occupier and former enemy are used to bring humanity to a character, so unlike the xenophobia on display in the later films on disc one.  At the time Nobuo Kaneko would play other roles in which Japanese film-goers came to grips with the post-war experience.  He was the bed-ridden son and head of the household in 1955’s A Hole of My Own Making, a domestic drama about a family’s disintegration in post-war Japan after their father’s death in the war.

The terrain can be treacherous.

The Man With a Shotgun (1961)
Not good.  Hideaki Nitani plays Ryôji, a loner who goes off into the mountains to hunt.  Along the way, though, he stumbles into a mining town and soon he is embroiled with the town’s outlaws and gun-slingers as well as the scheming boss of a mining company.  And of course the sexy and dangerous madam who runs the saloon/brothel.

A western of sorts.  Fans of Suzuki’s genre-busting tendencies will enjoy this film because it’s something of a gangster movie, too.  The mining company, we discover, is just a front for an opium ring, and one of the outlaws is in fact an undercover cop.  For me, though, the story never quite came together.  Sometimes it’s a comedy, other times it’s an earnest, self-important tale about non-violence.  Mostly it's a muddle.  Parts of the story repeat themselves for no good reason, and the betrayals and alliances among all the characters are a challenge to keep up with (or to care about).  To my mind the most representative moment of this film’s general tenor is when Ryôji gets hurt after a fistfight so he goes to the general store and buys a salonpas patch for his wound.  OK.

Hideaki Nitani
Nevertheless, the acting is good in this film.  Hideaki Nitani has the rugged good looks of a cowboy actor (he plays one of the communist youths in Eight Hours of Terror) and Yoko Minamida is fetching as the town’s slinky, sexy, and cunning madam.  And it was shot in the Japanese countryside, which is quite lovely. 

Tokyo Knights (1961)
Dissapointing.  Kôji Matsubara (Kôji Wada) returns from school in the US after his father, the head of a successful construction company, dies under mysterious circumstances. The company's No. 2, Mishima (Nobuo Kaneko, again), has taken over the firm and also has plans to marry Kôji's mother (Yoko Minamida, again), who seems scarcely older than her biological son (in reality the actors playing mother and son were separated by only eleven years).  Kôji soon figures out that his father was murdered and sets up revenge.  The problem?  He and classmate Yoriko Tokutake (Mayumi Shimizu) haven fallen in love and it looks like her dad (Zenpai Saga), also in the construction business, is the prime suspect in the murder of Kôji's father.  

Mayumi Shimizu and Kôji Wada
Although the opening section of this film is very good, once the Hamlet-esque main story takes hold it falls entirely flat.  Tokyo Knights becomes pedestrian, dull.  There are some wonderful visuals, to be sure, but Suzuki doesn't seem to have too much interest in the story.  Kôji takes a long time reaching the conclusion that his father was murdered and when he goes for proof/revenge it's rather disappointing. His vengeance involves putting on a mask and cape, grabbing a rapier, and frightening the so-called bad guys with his Nōh drama inspired ambushes and antics.  It is very silly. Tokyo Knights, like The Man With a Shotgun, seems reluctant to show actual violence.  Why this is so, I don't know.  Guns are brandished but rarely fired, and if a character does get shot it's more the result of accident than intention.  This unwillingness to depict violence creates major problems if you're telling a revenge story (or a western, too, for that matter).  It's not quite satisfying if the bad guys don't come to an appropriately brutal end.  Violence is inherent to the genre; it's Kill Bill, not Seriously Inconvenience Bill.

Nobuo Kaneko and Zenpai Saga
There are, though, some good things about Tokyo Knights.  The opening scenes, in which Kôji returns to his private school, are very funny.  He's clearly - and comically so - a big man on campus.  For instance, all the clubs want him to join.  No sooner does he join the kendo club than he wins the kendo championship.  So he leaves it and goes off to the polo club.  He becomes champion there too, so he quits to join another club, and so on.  It's all done very briskly and with a light and sunny touch. In fact, the opening scenes have a distinctly Wes Anderson like feel to them.  The other noteworthy part of this film is the actor Zenpai Saga (spoilers ahead) who plays the head of a rival construction firm and is, in fact, the killer of Kôji's father.  What a magnificent face!  But it's more than a face; it's a mug.  If this man wasn't born to play the heavy in B movies, I don't know who was.  He fits this role perfectly, looking exactly like the type of big, vicious bastards who prosper in the construction industry. All the other actors do a fine job but every time Zenpai is onscreen you can feel the malevolence in the air.  It was a delight.

Thursday, September 06, 2018

Mankind's Religious Life

Thus men’s terrors in face of the enigmatically dangerous universe led them to postulate the existence of angry gods; and, later, thinking about angry gods made them feel terror, even when the universe was giving them, for the moment, no cause of alarm.  Emotion, rationalization, emotion - the process is circular and continuous.  Man’s religious life works on the principle of a hot-water system.
     - Aldous Huxley, “Meditation on the Moon” (1931)

Monday, September 03, 2018

Seijun Suzuki's Early Years: The Crime and Action Movies, Part 1

In addition to their five-film set of early Seijun Suzuki movies dealing with the travails of youth, Arrow Video have also released a five-film four-disc (DVD and Blu-Ray) set of his early films in the genre of “crime and action”.  As with the previous set, these B films are not available on DVD or Blu-Ray in Japan but you can get them here in the US. 

The two films on this disc are very similar.  They’re both gritty crime dramas set in a morally corrupt post-war Japan.  The lead protagonist in each film is a journalist, both times played by the same actor, Hiroyuki Nagato.  They were made one right after the other.  And they both share the same world-view of fear, paranoia and disillusionment.  They ooze cynicism.  While not overtly political, both films are a sign of the anger and discontent present in Japan at the time.  In January of 1960, over popular opposition, the Japanese parliament renewed the Japan-US Security Treaty.  US occupation had officially ended ten years earlier but the treaty allowed the US to expand its military presence in Japan.  It was very unpopular.  There were massive student demonstrations against it, one of which resulted in the death of one of the student protesters.  The Prime Minister was forced to resign soon after.  It was in this milieu that these films were shot and released.

Although neither film deals with these events, both present a Japan threatened by infiltration from foreign sources, a Japan under seige.  Clearly, twenty-five years of war and occupation had taken their toll.  Americans - and English-speakers, in general - are a threat.  Their former enemy China, too, is a threat - especially Hong Kong, from where the heroin at the center of each films’ plot is being sent into Japan. And, of course, none of this could happen without the collusion of corrupt authorities in Japan.  

The Sleeping Beast Within (1960)
When Junpei Ueki (Shunsuke Ashida), a retiring businessman, returns home to Yokohama from a business trip to Hong Kong, his wife and daughter notice a change in his demeanor.  So too does his daughter’s boyfriend, Shôtarô (Hiroyuki Nagato) who just happens to be a reporter.  After Junpei suddenly disappears, the reporter starts to dig around.  He soon uncovers a seedy demimonde of drugs, corruption, and murder (doesn’t one always).

This is a very well-constructed and realistic thriller, it moves along briskly and always hold one’s attention.  It’s finale, involving a propane leak and lighter, is suitably explosive.  I did, though, have one problem with this film and it’s, frankly, the leading man, Hiroyuki Nagato.  He’s not much of an actor.  In fact, I found him to be something of a bore onscreen.  He doesn’t emote much.  And just standing there he has zero appeal.  He also stars in Smashing the 0-Line, where he delivers a similarly lifeless performance.  In fact, of all the main performances in the ten films in this Arrow Video release I found his the weakest. 

Kazuko Yoshiyuki, Shunsuke Ashida, and Hiroyuki Nagato

However, in The Sleeping Beast Within the character of Junpei Ueki, and Shunsuke Ashida’s performance in that role, make this film worth seeing.  Junpei is a normal Japanese salaryman but at the end of his career his company gives him a measly retirement pension and a shove out the door.  They don’t even show up to greet him when he gets off the boat from Hong Kong.  Hurt, broke, and feeling betrayed, he goes into the heroin business.  He breaks bad, in other words.  In fact, he’s sort of like a proto-Walter-White.  On the surface he’s a typical, almost stereotypical, Japanese businessman - dignified, quiet, respectable, sedate (maybe he’s a proto-Gus-Fring?), but underneath the “sleeping beast within”, as he puts it to his daughter, has awakened.  And also like Walter White he will ultimately do the right thing, but at a tremendous personal cost.  Ashida himself is perfect for this role.  Tall, stoic, solid (he played the headmaster of the military academy in The Incorrigible), one of his most intriguing features is a scar running down the right side of his face, hinting to the viewer that there’s a darker and more dangerous side to him than one would at first suspect.  

And, as always, there's Suzuki's acute visual sense.  In the shot above, Junpei's daughter Keiko (Kazuko Yoshiyuki) is inquiring with an official about her father's disappearance.  The fracturing of her image in the bevelled glass perfectly conveys her concern and anxiety.  Also remarkable are the flashback sequences in the film. Rather than a mere dissolve between shots - the normal way a flashback is handled - Suzuki uses a double exposure instead, so that the narrator of the flashback can remain onscreen to comment on unfolding events.  In the shot below, the call-girl Akemi (Yûko Chishiro) is recounting the night when Junpei (in the left of the shot) met up with the heroin cartel.  She appears both in the center of the shot pouring the drink and in the lower right corner recounting the evening a few days later.  It's a bold and dramatic technique.  

Shunsuke Ashida (far left) and Yûko Chishiro (center and lower right)

Smashing the 0-Line (1960)
Again Hiroyuki Nagato plays a reporter, but this time he’s a bad one.  Katori is a yellow journalist of the worst kind.  He schemes, betrays his sources to the police, sleeps around, colludes with criminals, etc.  Not surprisingly, he is highly successful.  His friend Nishina (Yûji Kodaka) is also a reporter but of the respectable variety, he never seems to get the story.  He's always getting scooped by Katori.  Again the plot involves heroin - this time the efforts by both reporters to uncover the shadowy “zero-line” which is bringing heroin into Japan.  Both men will clash over the course of the film, with Nishina delivering many a monologue about how one day Katori's bad actions will catch up with him.  Katori will be indifferent to him.  The translation of this film's title isn't quite accurate.  There's no "smashing" in the original title, which is Mikkô 0 LineMikkô means "hidden", "secret", or "clandestine" which is much more in tune with this film's paranoia.

Hiroyuki Nagato and Emiko Azuma

A well-made, if slight, movie.  Yûji Kodaka puts in a serviceable performance as the ethical reporter.  And Nagato is typically inexpressive.  His idea of conveying Katori's evil is to make an occasional weak sneer.  The film's most interesting moments come towards the end (spoilers) when both men, hoping to expose the “zero-line”, stow away on a ship going to Hong Kong.  The ship’s crew is depicted by Suzuki as a surreal collection of foreign demons.  They’re dangerous, drugged-up, perverted, heavily-armed, and mostly non-Asian.  It's an intriguing instance of Japanese xenophobia at the time.  The other noteworthy moment is the conclusion itself.  The police raid the ship and arrest some of the top lieutenants of the “zero-line” but Suzuki makes very clear that the actual leaders of the drug cartel have gotten away.  Justice has not been done.  And Katori and Nishina don’t reconcile; the contempt of the former for the later is unabated at film’s end.  In their final confrontation Katori tells Nishina, and effectively us, that despite everything that’s happened nothing has changed or ever will change.  The heroin trade will continue.  And only a fool would think otherwise.  It's harsh, bitter, and unflinching.  Then the two men part.  Perfect.

Yûji Kodaka and Hiroyuki Nagato

Friday, August 31, 2018

Hitler and Film

Just finished Hitler and Film: The Führer’s Hidden Passion by Bill Niven, professor of contemporary German History at Nottingham Trent University in the UK.  This is an excellent, well-written and fascinating account of the role Adolph Hitler played in German cinema during the Third Reich; a role, it turns out, which was much more extensive than previously thought.  Niven has brought together existing accounts on this topic and added new material as well.  No doubt this book will the go-to one on this subject for a while.

It’s long been known that Hitler loved movies.  Whether at the Reich Chancellery in Berlin or at his private residence in Bavaria, the Berghof, his nightly relaxation (at least before the war) was to watch movies.  Lots of movies.  Often several in one evening.  The viewing pace could be grueling.  Julius Schaub, one of Hitler’s adjutants and general factotums once complained to director Veit Harlan: “Last night I had to watch three - yes, three! - films, and this morning another one…The Führer has got unbelievable stamina when it comes to films.”  Hitler was such an avid film buff that, according to Niven, “there is even evidence he planned to have film projection unit installed in his car”.  

We have lists of the films Hitler watched and they display a wide variety of interests: dramas, comedies, foreign films, silents, etc.  Mickey Mouse cartoons and Laurel and Hardy films were especially popular.  And despite his anti-semitism, he regularly screened films written and directed by Jews.  We even know his opinions of some films.  For instance, of Karl Ritter’s Capriccio (1938), a frothy and light musical comedy, he’s known to have commented that it was “particularly bad….shit of the highest order.”  Most of his comments concerned the technique of the film.  Whether or not the actor was good, or whether the story was well told.  He viewed movies almost as an insider, looking to see what “worked” and what didn’t.

Do we know what Hitler’s favorite film was?  No, we don’t.  Two films have been accorded that status in popular mythology: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and King Kong (1933) but Niven points out that there’s no reliable evidence that Hitler ever saw either of those films.  And does it matter what his favorite movie was?  Would it really tell us something significant about him?  Would it somehow explain everything (or even anything)?  Does Citizen Hitler have a cinematic “rosebud”?  Some would like to think so.  The tidiness of it is appealing.

From Triumph of the Will
But this book is about more than Hitler’s film-viewing habits.   It details how active he was in their making, most famously in his support for Leni Riefenstahl from whom he commissioned both Triumph of the Will (1935) and Olympia (1938).  Niven does a good job recounting their relationship (“obstinate donkey” Hitler calls her at one point) as well as assessing the various lies Riefenstahl would put forth about it after the war.  Riefenstahl could be particularly self-serving in regard to the truth.  During the de-nazification period she would claim that she was merely the director of Triumph of the Will; she didn’t own the copyright, it wasn’t hers.  However, as more and more interest was shown in the viewing of this masterpiece of propaganda, she did an about face and immediately claimed that she owned the copyright on it.  Litigation would go on for decades.  Nonetheless, Niven  recognizes that it was Riefenstahl, rather than Joe Goebbels’s Propaganda Ministry, who knew best how to convey the powerful, mythic appeal of Hitler and Naziism.  And Hitler knew this too.  He made sure that Riefenstahl was answerable to him and no one else in the Third Reich.

Hitler even used his public film-going as a way to reinforce his message to the German people.  In fact, his attendance could be itself a public performance.  Niven writes:
Approaching the cinema to watch Storm Trooper Brand, Hitler made his way through an honorary cordon of SA men, mainly Nazis who had served in SA units active in Berlin’s communist districts.  After the screening of Hitler Youth Quex, representatives of the Hitler Youth appeared on stage and raised their arms towards Hitler.  Hitler got up from his seat and thanked them, smiling benevolently.
Hitler understood his role as a performer.  He had taken voice training lessons in 1932 and learned the importance of gesture and rhythm in his delivery.  “The Führer must sway the masses like an actor,” he had commented in 1933.  He understood film and its power better than any other leader at the time.  It was through movies that he forged his bond with the German people.  Couldn't attend a Nazi rally?  Not a problem.  They would bring the rally to you at your local movie theater - or via the mobile film projection trucks which toured Germany showing the films in small villages and rural communities.  Hitler and Film also contains a gripping and chilling account of how films such as Jew Süss and The Eternal Jew were successfully used to push the anti-Semitism of the German public to new heights of genocidal fury. 

Once the war began Hitler almost completely curtailed his film viewing, although he would remain informed of current movies on a daily basis from Goebbels or others in his circle.  Films confiscated from occupied countries during the war were collected in the Reich Film Archive, which only select state or Nazi party groups were allowed to view “for educational purposes”.  Eventually even that access was closed; no one would be allowed to see these foreign films.  “That goes particularly for Gone With the Wind,” Goebbels noted in his diary.  He and Hitler were both very impressed by GWTW (1939).  According to Hitler’s bodyguard, Rochus Misch, Hitler saw the film three times, once with Goebbels.  The spectacle of it - lush, glorious, epic, - seemed to fill the Führer with envy.  “Now that, that is something our own people should also be able to do,” he told his Propaganda Minister.  Hitler was so concerned about the power of Gone With the Wind that it was removed from the Reich Film Archive and kept in a special safe.  Also in that safe - The Great Dictator (1940) by Charles Chaplin, a film whose viewing by Hitler and Goebbels caused “paroxysms” of rage.  And no doubt paroxysm of satisfaction from Chaplin when he found out.  

But it was in the weekly newsreels (“Wochenschau”) that Hitler had the greatest impact.  He personally signed off on each one and would sometimes insist upon changes.  And that made sense; he was, after all, both their star and their subject.  They commemorated his accomplishments domestically and, after 1939, militarily.  To the average German newsreel viewer, the Führer was Germany itself and also the redeemer of the German people.  Newsreels were one of the main ways in which he maintained that bond.  Hitler himself considered them so important that he wished to memorialize his feats by transferring them to metal (how do you do that?) so they would serve as a monument for future generations. 

From 1933 to 1944 the Nazi Security Service (SD) kept track of viewers’ responses to the newsreels and they are fascinating.  In the early years Hitler appeared in newsreels frequently and the reactions from viewers could be rapturous.  Niven writes that according to one SD report from 1940
Calls of ‘Heil!’ from within the auditoriums greeted his appearance on screen, followed by a  hushed silence when the newsreel showed Hitler walking through the park with his generals…
Hitler's last newsreel appearance
As the war ground on, Hitler’s appearance in the newsreels began to decline.  By 1941 there were no more battle-field victories to celebrate on film and he instructed Goebbels to start using footage of him from earlier years.  Sleight of hand such as that can only be used sparingly.  By 1944 and 1945 the ailing Hitler had almost completely disappeared from the newsreels.  Viewers knew something was amiss.  As early as 1943 they told the SD that Hitler looked exhausted and aged.  Film-goers also missed hearing him speak; they were eager to hear their leader's voice.  But it was not to be, and over time movie-goers lost interest in the newsreels as well.  They no longer waited for them; instead going home once the main feature was over.  As Hitler’s presence diminished in the newsreels so too did the viewers credibility in the increasingly upbeat news they saw on screen.  The bond with the public which he had created via film began to fray, and when it fell apart completely viewers drew their own conclusions.  Niven observes “In the end, Nazi newsreel propaganda lost its credibility because Hitler’s frequent absence implied he no longer believed in it.”

Monday, August 27, 2018

Seijun Suzuki's Early Years: The Youth Movies, Part 2

On the second disc of Arrow Video’s new release of early Seijun Suzuki movies we go back to the Japan of the 1910s and 1920s, a time known as the Taishō period (1912 - 1926).  Apparently teens were brimful of angst back then too.  This was also the era into which Suzuki himself was born and it would serve as the backdrop of his later highly-acclaimed Taishō Trilogy, consisting of Zigeunerweisen (1980),  Kagero-za (1981), and Yumeji (1991).  Before settling into the reviews of the films at hand, though, let me commend the outstanding film commentary and essay by Jasper Short which accompany this set, as well as the discussion of the films by Tony Rayns.  

The Incorrigible (1963)
Akutarô, which is this film’s original Japanese title, is a difficult word to translate.  Some translators use “bastard,” others go with “bad boy.”  But regardless of which you choose the incorrigible bad boy bastard of the title is Tôgo Konno, a teenager whose misbehavior - he’s already been kicked out of one school - has led his mother to pack him off to a harsh military academy out in the provinces.  The insouciant and rebellious Tôgo hates it.  He skips classes and gets into fights with school’s sadistic upperclassmen who've formed themselves into a "Public Morals Committee" which does little more than bully all the underclassmen in the school.  But he also meets Emiko, the beautiful daughter of the town’s doctor.  They fall in love and it’s their passionate and doomed love affair which constitutes the heart of the story.

Tôgo making a point to the Public Morals Committee

A masterpiece.  From the opening credits, in which the camera slowly pans over drawings of old Japan while the lush score - complete with sad mandolin solos - plays in the background, it’s apparent that Suzuki has kicked it up several notches.  This is a film with ambition.  He’s making a play for all the marbles - and he’s going to get them.  Although The Incorrigible is only ninety-five minutes long, it has the richness and depth (though not the drag) of some three-hour saga from Bertolucci or Coppola.  Like those other two directors, Suzuki doesn’t just show a world on screen, he creates it, pulls us in, and doesn’t let go until the final shot.  There is scarcely a single component of the film which doesn't add to its power.  Is the story a tad clichéd, or even vapid?  Yes.  But a feeble story (Gone With the Wind, How Green Was My Valley, etc.) is no bar to great film-making.  With The Incorrigible, Suzuki broke out of the B unit and established himself as a significant director in Japanese movies.

Ken Yamauchi and Masako Izumi

Ken Yamauchi is very good as Tôgo.  Despite being almost thirty years old when the film was made, he beautifully captures the teen’s moodiness.  One minute he’s full of smug and self-satisfied arrogance, the next he collapses into helpless confusion.  Masako Izumi plays nicely opposite him as Emiko.  But the most memorable performance in the film is by Chiharu Kuri as Ponta, the geisha who deflowers Tôgo.  Kuri’s performance is wonderful - all smiles, pouts, and coos; blatantly fake, almost doll-like.  Yet through it all she conveys Ponta’s weariness and contempt for her customers.  Her most sincere moments are when she’s rushing her client to the bed to get it all over with.  Both films on this disc are sexual coming-of-age stories and Japanese censors allowed much more candor and honesty than their American counterparts.  The cinematography of Shigeyoshi Mine is magnificent and this film is the first time that art director Takeo Kimura worked with Suzuki.  Kimura became Suzuki’s default art director and is as responsible for the unique look of Suzuki’s films as any other single production member.

Ken Yamauchi and Chiharu Kuri

The story is based on a quasi-autobiographical tale by Tôkô Kon, himself a fascinating figure largely unknown outside of Japan.  Born in 1898, he served as a personal assistant to Junichiro Tanizaka, author of the classic The Makioka Sisters.  In the mid-20s Kon began to publish his own short stories and joined the literary modernist group known as the “New Perceptionalists.”  After a falling out with the other members of the group he then joined the left-wing “Proletarian Film League of Japan,” a collective which made independent films championing workers’ rights.  He served as the organization’s chair but left-wing infighting would drive him from the group (when does it not).  In 1930 he abandoned writing completely and became a Buddhist monk.  Twenty-six years later he took up his pen again.  The Incorrigible and Born Under Crossed Stars are both based on stories he wrote at this period.  In fact, he had a great deal of success with his work onscreen - one novel was adapted into a period film, another into a yakuza serial.  In 1966 Kon became High Priest of the Tendai sect, and two years later was elected to the upper house of the Japanese parliament.  He died in 1977.  How this guy's life isn't a biopic, I can’t figure out.  (Or maybe it is and I just never heard of it.)

Lovers' farewells are always sad

Born Under Crossed Stars (1965)
An entertaining, if eccentric, film.  It's not quite a sequel to the The Incorrigible but rather a follow-up, or even a remake.  The two leading actors are the same, the director is the same, so is the art director, it’s set in the same time period, it’s the same author of the original source material.  And it’s roughly the same dramatic premise.  A teen boy, Jukichi (Ken Yamauchi, again), must deal with problems at school and learn to navigate his relations with the opposite sex, represented in this film by the pure but distant Suzuko (Misako Izumi, again, too) and the coquettish but loving (and very horny) Taneko (Yumiko Nogawa).

Aside from these commonalities both films are very different.  The Incorrigible is naturalistic, literary, uniform in style, and very much aware of its own significance. Born Under Crossed Stars is almost the exact opposite.  It's brash.  And at times surreal.  It’s full of comedy, much of it low, some of it funny.  Unlike the aristocratic Tôgo in the first film, Jukichi is a farmer’s son who earns his living delivering milk to the town’s inhabitants.  Fights break out over milk deliveries, and characters insult each other with lines such as “You’re not good enough to drink our milk!”  The owner of the farm where Jukichi works wears a cowboy hat and keeps telling him to do things “the Texas way.”  The jokes are broad and the comedy often slapstick.

Misako Izumi

Stylistically Born Under Crossed Stars is flamboyant, playful, at time even wild.  In other words, it’s Suzuki’s mature film style (at least for his Nikkatsu years).  When a bunch of boys at the school are fighting, for instance, he cut to shots of cocks fighting in a farm yard.  Later Taneko strips naked in front of Jukichi in a room at a bath house.  The camera pans from her face, down to her breasts (which she’s covering with her arm), but as the camera approaches her loins Suzuki suddenly cuts away to the image of a branching tree trunk with a big pubic-looking patch of moss where the boughs connect.  Then the camera quickly zooms out and we see that the tree trunk is one of the items in the bath house where the two lovers are together.  Early in the film Jukichi tells a mother that she needs to feed her child milk, he's so malnourished he looks like a monkey.  She looks over and we see a monkey wrapped up in swaddling clothes.

Yumiko Nogawa and Ken Yamauchi

Watching this film I couldn't escape the impression that Born Under Crossed Stars is on some level a parody of The Incorrigible, as if Suzuki was gently mocking his earlier film.  In The Incorrigible the two lovers are brought together over August Strindberg’s novel The Red Room.  Tôgo sees Emiko buy it from a bookstore so he gets a copy.  When they meet later, they discuss it.  Love blooms.  Emiko will write in his copy that she hates Strindberg’s book but loves that it brought them together. In Born Under Crossed Stars Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina plays a similar role, expect this time in a comical vein.  Both Suzuko and Jukichi are reading the novel, and when she finds out that Jukichi has cheated on her she tearfully yells at him that people who read Tolstoy just don’t do those sorts of things - which, of course, they do.  And anyone who's reading Anna Karenina, a novel about adultery, should know that.

A separation
The three principals put in excellent performances but the two female leads outshine their male counterpart.  Ken Yamauchi's best efforts can't change the fact that Jukichi is a bore, uninteresting, unmemorable.  Although she has less screen time in this film than in The Incorrigible, Misako Izumi's performance is more noteworthy here.  I'm tempted to call it enchanting if not enchanted.  There's something neurotic and overwhelming in Suzuko's love for Jukichi.  It's too big, no human being could live up to it, and she haunts the film with a nervous vulnerability which is compelling to view.  The scene in which the two separate - in a mist-shrouded bamboo grove - is unforgettably surreal.  Yumiko Nagawa's Taneko, on the other hand, is as down-to-earth and practical as one could wish.  No wraith-like hauntings of the woods for her, thank you very much.  Lively, passionate, jealous, scheming, clever, she's a girl who will get away with everything in life and she knows it.  Yet Nagawa endows her with a great deal of charm and appeal.  We always root for the horny, little imp regardless of her mischief.  The guileless Jukichi is simply no match for her.  Finally, Masao Mishima does a nice job playing the plump, chain-smoking, sake-swilling Buddhist priest who hangs out with town's peasants and winds up providing the film with something approximating a moral - which, with typical Suzuki eccentricity, turns out to be nautical.  "Go to sea," he counsels the confused Jukichi.  And so he does.

Masao Mishima and Ken Yamauchi