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




Thursday, August 23, 2018

Margarine

Harold Nicolson
Lunch at the Beefsteak.  Sit between the Belgian Ambassador [Baron Cartier de Marchienne, age 73] and Lord Esher.  Old Cartier is miserable because the cuisine in Belgium is declining.  This cuisine, he says, which was the finest in the world and superior (as I agree) to the finest French cooking, was based upon the lavish use of butter.  Now they have to use margarine.  The tone in which the old boy used the word “margarine” was replete with all the loathing of the nineteenth for the twentieth century.
   - Harold Nicolson, Diary, October 2, 1945

Monday, August 20, 2018

Seijun Suzuki's Early Years: The Youth Movies, Part 1

Before directing such ground-breaking classics as Tokyo Drifter (1966) and Branded to Kill (1967), Seijun Suzuki churned out B movies for the Japanese film studio Nikkatsu.  The good people at Arrow Video have brought together 10 of them spread out over two five-film double-CD/Blu-Ray sets.  Many of these titles, by the way, are not even available on DVD or Blu-Ray in Japan.

The first set contains Suzuki's films from the late 1950s and early 1960s which catered to Japanese youth.  Just as in the US and UK, the first post-WWII generation in Japan was emerging as its own market for the film industry.  Japanese kids, like their US, UK, and French counterparts, had grown up in unrivaled peace and prosperity.  Accordingly they were angry, discontented, narcissistic, and hyper-sensitive; in other words, total romantics - a generation of young Werthers full, it seemed, of sorrows.  They were also avid film-goers.  After the release and success of The Wild One (1953) in the US, film studios around the world began to realize that the big screen was where youth wished to see their sturm-und-drang concerns dealt with.  

The Boy Who Came Back (1958)
Nobuo is a troubled kid.  Released from juvie at the start of the film, he can’t seem to fit into society.  Surly, rebellious, violent, he’s trying to go straight but it’s hard, so hard.  No one will give him a job.  Dad is long gone and Mom is mean to him.  No one understands him.  However, ready to greet him and help him start a new crime-free life is perky little Keiko from the Big Brothers and Sisters organization.  BBS is a group of volunteers working with troubled youth to help integrate them back into society.  She is a do-gooder.  She soon learns of Nobuo’s true love and the woman for whom he went to juvie.  Her name is Kazue.  She’s a school teacher.  Keiko realizes that only Nobuo’s love for Kazue will save him from his crooked past and she seeks to bring the two together.  But Nobuo’s old gang buddies are watching and they have other plans.

Mediocre.  The best feature of this movie, in fact its saving grace, is Sachiko Hidari’s performance as Keiko, the BBS case officer.  She’s energetic and passionate, a little spark plug of rehabilitating zeal, committed to rescuing Nobuo, whatever that means, regardless of the abuse he subjects her to.  The film observes all the proprieties of 1958 Japan and yet there’s a serious streak of kink in Hidari’s performance that is hard to miss.  She’s seems to be something of a masochist.  Does she love Nobuo?  Perhaps.  But she loves saving him even more.  Her family turns on her, her employer is ready to dismiss her, and even BBS decides to kick her out.  Yet far from dissuading her, all this seems to turn her on.  

Sachiko Hidari in the film's happy ending
At the end of the film - here comes a spoiler - Keiko watches as Nobuo and Kazue walk happily arm-in-arm down the street into their bright new future.  They can’t see her but she can see them.  She has saved Nobuo - and lost him.  As they recede, she is overcome with emotion.  She bends down to tie her shoe and to hide her tears.  But soon she raises her head with a big smile on her face.  She has succeeded.  And while the music swells to its climax she stands up and walks joyously down the street, her face beaming with a smile of almost post-orgasmic happiness.  From most directors you could dismiss all of this but with Suzuki you can't; wild and freaky are never far from the surface.  This is a man, after all, who in a few years will make a film about a killer who gets turned on by the smell of boiling rice...

The remaining performances in the film are unremarkable.  Akira Kobayashi’s Nobuo is little more than a James Dean rip-off and Ruriko Asaoki’s Kazue is as bland and forgettable as idealized females usually are.  There is, however, one other bright spot in this film's casting.  Jo Shishido plays Nobuo’s criminal (and criminally overdressed) nemesis, Kajita.  It's a small role, true, but Shishido captivates every time he's on camera. Sadly, this is the only movie in the set with Shishido.

Jo Shishido (before the rice)
The Wind-of-Youth Group Crosses the Mountain Passes (1961) 
Shintaro, a college student (Kôji Wada), spends his summer touring the provinces as an itinerant salesman of women’s underwear.  Along the way he meets up with other roving peddlers as well as a down-and-out traveling magic troupe.  Soon romance buds between him and the troupe leader’s daughter, Misako (Mayumi Shimizu).  This being a Seijun Suzuki movie, though, there are also yakuza and shady gangland figures there in the Japanese hinterland (sure, why not) and they help to provide sub-plots for the film.   

This light and entertaining film (with probably the most cumbersome title in film history) is solidly made B fare.  In one respect, though, it’s worth a second viewing - specifically, for its cinematography.  Wind-of-Youth, like most Nikkatsu movies at the time, was filmed in widescreen and this format enabled Suzuki to display his total mastery of composition.  Handling an Altman-esque number of characters and multiple storylines, he and Director of Photography Saburô Isayama manage to fill the screen and yet keep everything crystal clear for the viewer.  Quietly and unobtrusively they sub-frame multiple levels of action within a shot, as in the one below.  Mayumi and a member of the troupe are center right.  She is trying to teach him a simple magic trick in which a candle is transformed into a bunch of flowers.  He fails and fails and fails.  Then she does it effortlessly.  At the same time domestic life plays out in the background - Dad's getting a massage, Mom is sewing.  And the whole scene is framed, and given a level of intimacy, by the presence of the sliding doors.


Kôji Wada puts in a winning performance in the lead.  With his big smile and casual attitude, he's perfectly in tune with the film's tongue-in-cheek vibe.  Wind of Youth is a carnival of a movie and Wada goes through it almost acknowledging that it's all a big, fun, colorful joke.  And for him, at one point, it literally is.  Shintaro's youthful insouciance has created enemies and during a fight with one of them containers of colored paint are thrown on him.  But rather than throw actually paint on the actor, Suzuki merely has the camera cycle through color filters while the actor, dressed in a white shirt, has water thrown on him.  It's funny, whimsical, and ingenious - as if the film itself were doing a back flip. 

Kôji Wada soaked in green "paint"
Wind of Youth is also a celebration of the young, no more so than in its depiction of the fate of the magic troupe (spoilers ahead).  Misako's father is a good magician but his show is stale and boring.  He can barely keep an audience.  And when his second daughter, the show's stripper, leaves, his dwindling audience abandons him.  And so do his financial backers.  Facing ruin, he tries to add a new act to the show, one in which he is tied up in chains and submerged in water.  It’s a Harry Houdini escape act - but about fifty years after Houdini made it interesting.  On a run through, though, everything goes wrong and he drowns.  Misako takes over as troupe leader after her father's death.  She, though, is not trapped in the past at all.  She knows what to do. She transforms the troupe into a magic and variety show complete with sexy girls in bikinis (the stripper daughter has returned) and rocking jazz combos.  The show is a huge success.  The film's message is clear: The young know best; the old don't have a clue.
   
Do you like jazz?



Teenage Yakuza (1962)
Jiro (Tamio Kawachi) and Yoshio (Toshio Sugiyama) are the best of friends.  Living in a village between Tokyo and Yokohama they bike together to school and are concerned mostly with getting into a good university or saving enough money to buy a state-of-the-art stereo system.  The post-war Japanese economic miracle is transforming their small village into a city.  Construction is everywhere.  New shops are opening every day.  Hope is in the air.  The town is exploding with growth - and with yakuza gangs, who soon set up shop to shakedown all the merchants.  When Jiro and Yoshio tussle with them, the latter gets a stab in the leg which leaves him lame.  Sinking into depression and self-pity Yoshio joins up with the yakuza gangs.  However, the idealistic Jiro, angry at the extortion rings now crippling the town, decides to fight the yakuza.  But it turns out to be more difficult than he thought

Never mind the seemingly grim, social-message tone of the story, Teenage Yakuza is just good, goofy B movie fun.  Seventy-one minutes.  Briskly paced.  Hammy performances from actors you’ll never see again.  Unintentional funny (and intentionally so at times, too).  No matter how bad the A movie was, this one gave you your yens' worth of entertainment.  It’s the kind of movie where a girl in a noodle restaurant will pick up a ukulele, start singing a pop song, and teenagers suddenly flood the room and do the twist. 

Tamio Kawachi and Toshio Sugiyama
Despite the unpromising material Suzuki manages to stamp this film with his own unique style, mostly through the impressive cinematography of DP Kenji Hajiwara. Some of the shots are breathtaking in their beauty and meticulous composition (see below).  Suzuki also makes the town itself a character.  Construction trucks are constantly barreling down the small streets (and running over minor characters).  Dust and construction platforms are everywhere.  The yakuza gangs brawl in the streets.  The town feels raw and unfinished.  It feels, in fact, like the new and lawless towns one would normally find in a western, which, in a sense, it is (one of the yakuza wears a cowboy hat and even lassos Yoshio early in the film).  One of Suzuki’s great strengths was his ability to combine aspects of film genres to create something memorable, no matter how minor the film might seem.       

Teenage Yakuza in one of its darker, almost noir-ish, moments


Thursday, August 16, 2018

Inwardly Chaotic

The lady who said that she envied me for not having a conscience, didn’t altogether misread me.  Like my mother I have firmness of character; and I don’t understand how a rational creature can be wrong in being or doing what he fundamentally wishes to be or do.  He may make a mistake about it, or about the circumstances; or he may be imperfectly integrated, and tossed between contrary desires, not knowing his own nature or what he really wants.  Experience and philosophy have taught me that perfect integrity is an ideal never fully realized, that nature is fluid and inwardly chaotic in the last resort, even in the most heroic soul….
   - George Santayana, The Background of My Life (1944)

Thursday, August 09, 2018

John Banville: Time Pieces

Finished Time Pieces: A Dublin Memoir, John Banville’s recollections of living in Dublin as a young man.  It is a poor and shoddy book, failing both as a portrait of the city and as a memoir, or “semi-memoir”, as the author calls it.  Banville is a bad writer.  Over the years I’ve tried to read his fiction but to no avail.  I never got past page 20 of his award-winning (why?) novel The Sea.  I had hoped that his non-fiction would be better, but it’s not.  My complaints against this book are both substantial and trivial.  Let’s deal with the latter first.

Much too frequently I find myself arguing with Banville’s choice of words or phrases; they seem to me either wrong or inaccurate or inappropriate or simply confusing.  He consistently misses the mark, and as a reader I find this distracting.  Here are just a few instances.

At one point he writes “Here I pause to reflect in wonderment how remarkably things chime with each other…”  Let’s ignore the clichéd sentiment for the moment and focus on the language.  Why “wonderment”?  The word “wonder” will do the job just fine.  In fact, is there any real difference between "wonder" and "wonderment"?

Describing the fine December rain in Dublin, he observes “This was not the driving, pounding rain of the provinces, but a special urban variety, its drops as fine and as penetrating as neutrinos, those teeming showers of subatomic, indeed, sub-subatomic, particles that flash through you and me and all things at every instant.”  Except that rain doesn’t go through us, it stays largely on our surface, so it’s not really like a neutrino at all, now, is it?  Instead he should have written that the rain was “as fine as a shower of sub-subatomic particles” and left it at that.  That's more evocative, conjuring up, at least for me, images of the aurora borealis (itself caused by subatomic particles), a sight known to fill a viewer with wonder, if not wonderment.

Elsewhere he writes of Dublin prostitutes “…most of the ‘girls’ prowled the streets for custom…”  Why the quote marks around the word “girls”?  Were they not girls?  Were they boys?  Or is he trying to convey that they were not young?  Then use the word “women”.  Or does he mean that as prostitutes they’re not proper or respectably feminine?  It’s not clear.  The quote marks are confusing.

“For our next destination,” he tells us at another point, “we shall cross to the north side of the city, and be plunged there into two very different versions of the past, laid layer and layer upon each other in the same house.”  Why not just “…laid layer upon layer in the same house”?  

Do you see what I’m getting at here?  He's verbose, a bit of a windbag, actually.  And these little verbal gaffes of his slow down the reader - at least this one.  They are like burrs clinging to a walker.  The man seems to have difficulty writing a clear and simple sentence.  

On a more substantial note, Time Pieces is very digressive.  Banville rarely stays on a subject for more than two or three pages at a time.  We go from a childhood memory of his and then suddenly he’s writing about issues of Georgian architecture in Dublin, then two pages of literary anecdotes, then onto issues of urban zoning in the 1980s, then onto the girl he had a crush on back in the 1950s, then a story about his aunt, etc.  It’s a jumble.  If Banville is attempting to replicate the flow of consciousness and memory he doesn't succeed since each little scrap of his memory lacks the vividness to lodge in our own.  We’re never anywhere long enough for them to take root and eventually it’s an effort just to keep one’s attention focused on the babble.  The book is garrulous; and as is usually the case when stuck with anything garrulous, one is eager to get away.

The other problem with this book is Marcel Proust, who haunts Time Pieces from its beginning.   On page six Banville writes:
When does the past become the past?  How much time must elapse before what merely happened begins to give off the mysterious, numinous glow that is the mark of true pastness?  After all, the resplendent vision we carry with us in memory was once merely the present, dull and workaday and wholly unremarkable, except in those moments when one has just fallen in love, say, or won the lottery, or has been delivered bad news by the doctor.  What is the magic that is worked upon experience, when it is consigned to the laboratory of the past, there to be shaped and burnished to a finished radiance?
Ah, the amber glow of memory!  It seems there are few memoirists who can escape its enervating charm.  Banville is, of course, attempting to evoke the past and its golden sheen the way Proust did.  In fact the last chapter of Time Pieces is entitled “Time Regained” which is also the name of the final volume in Proust’s Á la recherche du temps perdu.  This will not work.  Proust created a whole world - a whole shimmering, radiant world - out of how we experience the past, and since his day any serious memoirist needs to go down a different road, Proust’s way is barred to him.  But no matter.  Banville is going to try to run blissfully down that already well-trodden road nonetheless.  Unfortunately, he just can't pull it off.  I'm sure that Banville's memories are magical and numinous things to him - I know mine are to me - but when retailed in this book they are free of resplendence or radiance.  Merely saying "There's a glow" is not itself a glow.  

Monday, August 06, 2018

Annex Theater: The Great Inconvenience

Saw The Great Inconvenience by Holly Arsenault (and directed by Erin Kraft) at the Annex Theater this weekend.  It was pretty bad.  

The year is 2050.  The United States is a theocratic totalitarian state.  A group of performers at a history museum re-enact key moments from the country’s past for the benefit of the school children of the wealthy.  Their skits are nothing more than nationalistic propaganda, a whitewashing of history.  Into this mix comes a runaway girl who knows the true history (or rather, the true future history) of the US.  Soon the performers are questioning the real nature of America’a past and their own places in it.

How you react to this play will most likely depend upon how plausible you find its depiction of the not-too-distant future.  If you believe that the US will soon descend into civil war, or that theocratic rule (unseen in our history since the 17th century) is right around the corner, or that major American cities will form revolutionary military alliances, or that native-born Americans will soon be stripped of their citizenship and deported, or that any moment now Jews will be rounded up sent off death camps (yes, that’s in there, too) then this play is your cup of deranged, flaming, paranoid liberal tea.  On the other hand, if you think that those ideas are not only ludicrous but exactly the reasons why you don’t hang out with your liberal friends so much any more then you should spend your theater-going dollars elsewhere.

I found the play far-fetched, silly, etc. but also poorly written.  Arsenault's futuristic premise is so heavy-handed that the characters are never fully developed.  They remain little more than props upon which she hangs endless passages of prophetic exposition.  One never really cares about them.  Only towards the last minutes of the play did any actual humanity begin to appear among them.  And by then it was for them, as it was for America (portentous pause), too late.

The one bright spot of this production is the actors, who do a very good job with the material at hand.  Mi Kang, Marty Mukhalian, Samantha Canela, Nick Edwards, and Jocelyn Maher make a wonderful ensemble.  They couldn’t save the play, but their good work did save the evening. 

Thursday, August 02, 2018

On Being a Great Writer


It is splendid to be a great writer, to put men into the frying pan of your words and make them pop like chestnuts.
   - Gustave Flaubert, letter to Louise Colet, November 3, 1851