Dedicated to classics and hits.

Friday, November 21, 2014

The Pornographers (1966) d. Shohei Imamura

This disturbing still from The Pornographers, directed by Shohei Imamura, shows the Mother and lover/landlady of Ogata just after she goes mad.  The girl with the pins i her eyes in the photograph is her daughter, Keiko.

Movie Review
The Pornographers (1966)
 d. Shohei Imamura
Criterion Collection #207

  The Pornographers was controversial upon original release in Japan, and it is very, very easy to see why.  I must confess that I was personally shocked to see the scenario of a father raping his own retarded teen daughter- and filming it- being used in the service of light comedy/social satire.  That was not what I expected when the film was described as "controversial."   Such a scenario in this day and age is more likely to appear in a court room, where said father would be sentenced to life in prison.
transgressive Japanese film director Shohei Imamura, worked for Ozu before he went out on his own.

  The main story of The Pornographers concerns low level pornography producer and local pimp Yoshimoto Ogata (played by Soichi Ozawa) and his relationship with beauty shop owner, and her 15 year old daughter, Keiko (played by Keiko Sakawa.) It's unclear to me whether he actually rapes her, or whether they drunken consensual sex, but Keiko's disclosure to her mother makes it sound like rape, and her reaction is to propose that Ogata marry Keiko.  The above described mentally challenged daughter rape, and subsequent discussion among the maker and crew about the morality of such a scenario, is a mere incident, as is Ogata's arrest and prosecution, his bullying by local Yakuza, and his procuring a "virgin" for the deflowering by a decrepit local business tycoon.

 It's important to make clear that while the narrative summary makes it sound like something by Lars Von Trier, The Pornographers IS a comedy, and treats all these subjects with a minimum of emotion.  There is no actual depiction of sex or pornography, no nudity even, which makes the subjects even more shocking.  I'd have no trouble vouching for the stream of transgressive 1960s Japanese film as being a high point of interest within the larger field of Japanese Literature and Cinema.  Looking at the similarities and differences between their culture and ours- these films, by directors like Shohei Imamura and Nagisa Oshima.

  These filmmakers are also of most interest to the Audience for this blog, people seeking information about Japanese film, mostly.  There is no doubt in mind that the interest in these counter-cultural filmmakers from Japan is on the up tick due to more people being exposed to the films through streaming movie services.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Great Expectations (1861) by Charles Dickens

Gwyneth Paltrow, nude in the movie version of Great Expectations by Charles Dickens for some odd reason.

Great Expectations (1861)
 by Charles Dickens
Audio Book

   I listened to Great Expectations on audio book because I just couldn't deal with the print version, and because I've read that Charles Dickens made a great deal of money reading his books out loud on speaking tours, and that such speaking tours were an almost equal basis for his fame and literary reputation.  Great Expectations is also the most popular Dickens narrative in recent history in terms of film and television adaptations.  There have been film versions in 1989, 1998 and 2012, and TV versions in  1999 and 2011.  There has been at least one television or filmed version in every decade since the invention of film.
Ethan Hawke as Pip in the film version that also starred Gwyneth Paltrow.
      First of all, it took me forever to finish the audio book edition of Great Expectations.  59 chapters, and each chapter averaged about 20 minutes of listening time, so 1200 minute, so about 20 hours of listening time, entirely when I was driving or taking the train between San Diego and Los Angeles or San Diego and El Centro.  Basically a month of driving, listening to Great Expectations in the car.

  As you would expect if you have a back ground in Charles Dickens biography, Great Expectations really works as an Audio book, since the characters are meant, in effect, to be read out loud.  Dickens, of course, did not read entire books on his tours, he would just do scenes, and much of Great Expectations best moments simply stand alone in terms of it being a physical description of a location in London or some portion of extraneous dialogue.  Listening to Great Expectations made me very conscious of how wordy Dickens is in the manner of having character using extraneous words and the employment of numerous character who circumlocute.

 In fact, you could argue that circumlocution is a major theme in Dickens and his dialogue, to the point where Moderns may think that it actually characterized Victorian speech rather than being a narrative technique developed by a specific writer due to the dictates of the marketplace and it's hunger for content.

  Excess time commitment aside, I quite enjoyed LISTENING to Dickens instead of reading him, since many of the annoying traits on the page come off as charming when spoken.  A reader needing to read several Dickens novel in a fixed time period might well contemplate a free version of one of his major novels as an alternative to reading the text.  Dickens himself would certainly approve.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Book Review: The Novel - A Biography by Michael Schmidt

Michael Schmidt, author of The Novel - A Biography, an impressive achievement, published in April of 2014.

Book Review:
 The Novel - A Biography
 by Michael Schmidt
April 14th, 2014 by The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press
1100 pages, with index and time line

  Couple facts to know about The Novel - A Biography by Michael Schmidt are 1) This book is 1100 pages long.  2) This book is analogous to the 1001 Books Project, except it isn't a list, there are no pictures, and Schmidt draws his secondary material almost 100% from comments made by other Authors discussed in the book. 3) While the book isn't technically ordered chronologically, it does read that way, so that each chapter's main author/s are discussed sequentially, with later authors who were influenced by that writer grouped in the initial chapter.

  The Novel - A Biography may seem like an unlikely subject for a book that is seemingly written for a "general" Audience, but the idea of it being a Biography is key. After a straight up list, a biography is the genus of non fiction most amenable to the general audience for non fiction subjects, whether it be history, science or some other discipline.  Thus, calling this book a biography seems like a valid ploy as a marketing gimmick to engage a general readership with what is more of a history of the novel as an art form.

 Schmidt's decision to restrict his secondary material to comments by other Authors discussed in The Novel - A Biography proves savvy on a number of levels.  First, he excludes with one swipe of the hand a half century of unreadable critical theory. The inclusion of that material would have doubled the length and made The Novel - A Biography unapproachable.  Second, comments by one author about a second author are a good way to transition between putatively unrelated subjects.  Third, the reliance on a single category of secondary material binds the book together thematically, making a potentially unwieldy subject (and length)

  The amount of insight a random reader will derive from The Novel - A Biography will be inevitably tied to the amount of the authors discussed that the reader has read, and their underlying interest in the novel as an art form.  In my case, I score high on both axis-es, and came to see The Novel - A Biography as the second circle of a triangular venn diagram alongside 1001 Books to Read Before You Die and a third point to be determined.  Unsurprisingly, there was a huge overlap between the works discussed in The Novel - A Biography and 1001 Books to Read Before You Die.  The areas of disagreement are limited- less discussion of German, French, Scandinavian and Latin American authors, in The Novel - A Biography, and a heavier discussion of English and American authors.

  Occasionally interesting discussions are interspersed with paragraphs that appear to be included in workmanlike fashion, and there are actual typographical errors and spelling variations of character names within a single sentence which made me question just how carefully this 1100 page book was put together.  Although I borrowed The Novel - A Biography from the library, I will likely be adding it to my personal library once the price drops from current newish release level prices.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

La commare secca (1962) d. Bernardo Bertolucci

Bernardo Bertolucci: Italian director, writer.

Movie Review
La commare secca (1962)
 d. Bernardo Bertolucci
Criterion Collection #272

  Bernardo Bertolucci is an Italian film maker better known for this work within the Hollywood system.  His best known films are the multiple Academy Award winning epic, The Last Emperor (1987) and the racy Last Tango in Paris (1972).   He's also had a host of box office duds: Stealing Beauty, Little Buddha, The Dreamers (from 2012?)   His later success and foreign citizenship makes him a virtual lock for the early, lesser known films, of major directors category within The Criterion Collection, at La commare secca is especially worthy because the story is by another giant of Italian cinema, Pier Pasolini.

  What stands out about La commare secca compared to other Italian films of the same time is the vivaciousness of the camera work.  Unlike other early 60s directors from Italy, the viewer is not bored to tears sitting through tedious, carefully framed scenes of existentialist dialogue.  Although Bertolucci and Pasolini denied ever seeing it, you can't watch La commare secca and not thing of Rashomon, by Akira Kurosawa.

  In Rashomon,  the story of a murder is told through the varying viewpoints of several witnesses, all of whom tell a different story about the same sequence of events.  So to in La commare secca, the strangulation murder of a prostitute is told from the varying viewpoints of several witnesses, all of whom, it seems, have something to hide or a reason not to be forthcoming.  Unlike Rashomon, La commare secca ends with the audience seeing what really happened and the apprehension of the murderer, putting this movie more in the category of police procedural.


Monday, November 17, 2014

The Myth of Telipinu, The Vanishing God

This is an artist's interpretation of a female priest for the Hittite god of magic, Kamrusepa. Kamrusepa appears in the myth of Telipinu, The Vanishing God.

The Myth of Telipinu, The Vanishing God

Book Review
Life and Society in the Hittite World
by Tevor Bryce
Oxford University Press
p. 2002

  The idea of "real" Indo European folklore is confused.  This is largely because it is hard to tell where any particular Indo European myth is authentic vs. being imported from a near by culture with an independent mythological tradition.  This is best attested in the classical era of Greece and Rome when Greek and then Roman mythology carried a heavy "Eastern" influence, including such "classical" Greek Gods like Aphrodite and Dionysus, both of whom were said to have come "from the East."  Most independent Indo European myths come either late in the day- Celtic and Viking myths are two examples, or are poorly or not attested to in writing.  The oldest written Indo European mythos come the Eastern wing of the family, with the early Vedic writings in Indian and the Iranian Avesta long considered to be the "purest" Indo European mythology.

  The Hittite corpus of mythos face both the problem of being heavily influenced by the pre-existing myths of Mesopotamia AND being poorly attested.  However, they hold great interest for the reader, because the Hittite/Anatolian Indo European language is typically deemed to be from a whole earlier off shoot of "Proto Indo European" than ALL the other languages, making a third, earlier branch than either the Western languages or the Indo-Iranian Eastern branch of languages.

  The most interesting of the "native" Hittite myths is that of Telipinu, the vanishing God.  Here is how the myth appears in the text of Life and Society in the Hittite World by Trevor Bryce:

  The god Telipinu has flown into a rage.  He puts on his shoes and departs the land. Crops wither and die, sheep and cattle reject their young and become barren, men and gods starve.  In great alarm the Storm God, father of Telipinu, dispatches and eagle to search for his wayward son.  The search is in vain.  The Storm God himself attempts to seek him out.  Again to no avail.  No god, great or small, can determine his whereabouts. In desperation the Storm God sends a bee to look for him.  The bee searches on high mountains, in deep valleys, in the blue deep.  Finally in a meadow it discovers Telipinu.  It strings his hands and feet, bringing him smartly upright, and then soothes the pain of his stings by smearing wax on the affected parts.  But the god's anger remains unabated.  Indeed his fury is increased by his rude and painful awakening.  In an orgy of destruction, he unleashes thunder and lighting and great floods, knocking down houses and wreaking havoc on human beings, livestock an crops.  Then Kamrusepa, goddess of magic, is sent to pacify him and bring him back.  She conducts a ritual for this purpose.  By the process of ritual analogy Telipinu's body is cleansed of anger.  The god's way home is made smooth by spreading oil and honey upon it. Telipinu returns and once more cares for his land.  All is restored to normal.

   There is precious little discussion of this myth in English.  Both sources that Bryce cites in his recounting of the actual text of the myth are German academic journals. This idea of a God leaving and returning is not something you get out of the Judeo-Christian ethic.  Quite the opposite, there, despite all the questioning that goes on in the Old Testament (which is the oldest text of the Judeo-Christian corpus.)  The idea of an important god simply leaving (Telipinu was the Hittite god of agriculture) also echoes the later quasi-Judeo-Christian religion of Manichaeism.  His departure reflects a world where survival was very much in doubt, and people had to live with the distinct possibility that they would die, be enslaved or lose everything more or less in the blink of the eye.

  Perhaps some of the genius in the Judeo-Christian era comes from the idea of not just one god, but one god who was ALWAYS there, even if unresponsive.   A vanished god is just that- absent- and it is this disappearance that may very well be the most Indo European thing about him.

  Aside from the myth of Telipinu, Life and Society in the Hittite World is very much THE single book you would want to read on the Hittites, an Anatolian based bronze age empire that lasted in various forms for close to a thousand years before petering out in the face of the neo-Assyrian conquests during the 8th century. The reader will learn that the Hittites were not a fantastically innovative Empire and that their domain constituted the Northern fringe of the pre-Classical Bronze Age world.

   The Hittites were constantly pushing south into the wealthier regions of Mesopotamia and Syria, with a great interest in Egypt as an equal/superior culture.  They were active in Western Anatolia, where pre-classical Greek sites like Troy were active at the same time. They never really figured out their northern border, and although their eventual extinction was at the hands of the "Great Power" of Assyria, they lost momentum several times at the hands of northern barbarians, who raided without maintaining a central authority that could be conquered.
These game purposed depictions of Hittite warriors very much give them a Conan the Barbarian vibe.
     In this regard, the Hittite empire should have some interest to historians concerned with the interactions between Empires and barbarians, but I don't believe this is presently the case.  The details of day-to-day life are largely familiar to anyone who has a larger understanding of day-to-day existence in the near East during the bronze age: mixed agriculture, some luxuries, trading.  Elite Hittites had an obsession with ritual cleanliness which is often observed in both Indo European and Semitic civilizations from the Near East in the same period- see Judaism, for example.  An obsession with elite cleanliness links these two civilizations.

   Bryce is strong on the ritual cleanliness material, and I think that is an area of special interest to comparative historians of religion. 

The Great Tradition by F.R. Leavis

Book Review
The Great Tradition
 by F.R. Leavis
published 1948

   What is the proper attitude of a lay person reading classic literature towards literary criticism? Unlike great works of literature, great works of literary criticism are not particularly interesting.  The fraction of readers who read literary criticism of a title vs. those who only read the book is a tiny one.  But, if you're interested in the relationship between Authors and their Audiences, literary criticism is a great place to start because the corpus of texts is so very vast.

  The 20th century growth of university Literature departments in English speaking countries produced a surfeit of discussion about which authors were "worth" reading, and it is this discussion which has percolated out to impact discussion of all art forms by all critics.  Within this tradition (20th century English language literary criticism.) F.R. Leavis occupies a primary slot in both discussions of the novel and poetry.

  He generally stands for a text based approach that emphasizes the good (or bad) technique of the writer.  Gone are plodding generalizations based on biographical detail.  In The Great Tradition, his discussion of Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James, Joseph Conrad and Charles Dickens is heavy on textual analysis to the point where excerpts from the works in question often occupy entire pages in a book that is only 250 pages long.

  By "The Great Tradition," F.R. Leavis is talking about the great tradition of the English novel, referring both to the country and the language- best explained in the introduction to his chapter on Henry James (who was, of course, American.)  I must confess that I felt rather overwhelmed, both by the level of textual analysis, and Leavis' penchant for using minor works (which I haven't read) to make big points about one of his great authors.

  I'm not sure that it is so important to understand Leavis' specific arguments as much as it's important to understand who he included and who he excluded.  The two major exclusions are Charles Dickens- who he would later change his mind about, and Thomas Hardy, who he would never change his mind about.

  His awkward about face on the inclusion of Charles Dickens in his Great Tradition is noted in the 1963 New York University Press edition that I read by the inclusion of what I presume to be a later written celebration of Hard Times.  This portion isn't attached to the rest of the text, but seems rather tacked on.  The fact that Leavis could be wrong about such a major author is understandable, and is yet another example of how malleable ideas about canonical authors can prove to be over time, even for the most sophisticated academics and critics.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Boudo Saved from Drowning (1932) d. Jean Renoir

Michel Simon as Boudo in Boudo Saved from Drowning(1932) directed by Jean Renoir

Movie Review
Boudo Saved from Drowning (1932)
d. Jean Renoir
Criterion Collection #305

  This is the third Jean Renoir film from the Criterion Collection I've watched.  The other two: The Grand Illusion (1937) and Elena and Her Men (1956) are "classic" Renoir and "late" Renoir respectively, so that would make Boudo Saved from Drowning "early" Renoir. Renoir is one of those Artist who is known but not watched, a denizen of film studies courses and one night revivals at repertory theaters in places like New York, Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area.  Jean Renoir is not riding a recent wave of interest for any reason, there are no A-list Hollywood actresses set to star in reboots of his old films, he's not a particularly cool guy beloved by cineastes.

  Jean Renoir's light touch is fully on display in Boudo, shot in 1931, when film cameras, sound equipment and principles of films creation made keeping a light touch difficult. If you look at Boudo's immediate contemporaries in The Criterion Collection, all you see is German Expressionism and silent American comedies by Chaplin and Harold Lloyd.  Perhaps the most appropriate comparison is Chaplin, since Boudo, played by Michel Simon is a quasi-lovable tramp who turns the staid and predictable world of bourgeois book seller Lestingois up-side down with his irascible behavior.

  The central incident of Boudo Saved from Drowning is in the title of the film.  Lestingois, looking at the river through his telescope, sees Boudo try to kill himself by jumping off a bridge.  He runs across the street, saves Boudo, and brings him back to his book shop for an attempt at rehabilitation.   In its original version as a play in Paris, Boudo was perceived as a kind of satire on the comedy of manners that would have been well familiar to early 20th century audiences.  Boudo is a wacky outsider written to stir the pot (and plot.)

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Sword of Doom (1966) d. Kihachi Okamato

The Sword of Doom is a visually compelling Samurai picture from 1966, directed by Kihachi Okamato.
The Sword of Doom (1966)
 d. Kihachi Okamato
Criterion Collection #280

I took about a month off of the Criterion Collection project because I was roughly half way through the 400ish titles that they make available to Hulu Plus subscribers. One of my insights from this off period is that you can't seriously watch the Criterion Collection without appreciating each constituent element, Japanese cinema and Italian cinema to name two consitutent elements that give me trouble.  In the past, I've deluded myself into thinking that readers don't care, but when I actually go back and check the page views for the Japanese Literature and Italian Literature (which both includes films) I see that there multiple posts between the two with more than 100 page views, and a few with 500 or more.

  For example, Yojimbo (1961), directed by Akira Kurosawa, has 506 page views. Amarcord (1973), directed by Federico Fellini has 516 page views.  Salo/120 Days of Sodom (1975) by Pier Pasolini isn't far behind, with 461 page views.  The multiple posts with 100-200 pages views include L'Avventura(I), Kwaidan(J), Boy(J), The Night Porter(I), L'eclisse(I, Branded to Kill, Double Suicide, Samurai III: Duel at Granyju Island and In the Realm of the Senses (400 page views).  The average number of page views for a run of the mill Criterion Collection review is between 15 and 40, so all of these films are at least twice as interesting to the Audience for this blog as a normal post.

  The Sword of Doom is a Jidaigeki film, one of two genres in mid 20th century Japanese film.  A loose translation of Jidaigeki is "period drama" or "historical drama" and it is a genre that precedes the medium of film, with antecedents in theater.   Most of the classic Japanese films familiar to Western viewers are from this genre, and they include the entire sub-genre of Samurai films.  The Sword of Doom is set at the very end of the timer period typically covered by a Jidaigeki film, with action between 1860 and 1865.  It is late enough in history that a handgun plays a part in the story, and the Samurais it depicts seem to just be barely hanging on to relevance.

   The lead in The Sword of Doom is the masterless Samurai Ryunosuke Tsukue(played by Tatsuya Nakadai.)  Ryunosuke is a bad dude, the first scene has him killing an elderly man for little or no reason.  The first major incident involves him banging the wife of an opponent he is facing in a fencing match.  He finds out about it, divorces the wife, then kills the dude.  It gets darker from there, and ends up with Ryunosuke going mad, plagued by the spirits of all the people he's killed.

 Did I mention The Sword of Doom is two hours long?  Yeah.  The Criterion Collection product page description emphasizes the role of director Kihachi Okamato as the Sam Fuller to Kurosawa's John Ford. I haven't seen enough of the films of any of the directors involved that comparison except Kurosawa, but I would agree that the composition/mise en scene is extraordinary and agree with the observation that Okamato makes the most of the extra wide 2.35/1 aspect ratio used in Japanese film at the time.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Judex (1963) d. Georges Franju

Francine Berge is striking as the criminal Diana Motti in Judex (1963) d. George Franju

Movie Review
Judex (1963)
d. Georges Franju
Criterion Collection #710
Criterion Collection edition released June 17th, 2014.
Francine Berge is striking in her cat suit in Judex (1963) d. George Franju

  This recent Criterion Collection release is also a point of intersection between the Criterion Collection and the 1001 Books Project, as well as an intersection between 19th century pulp fiction, 20th century film and surrealism. Judex is a kind of remake of a much longer, rarely seen serial of the same name, both of them based on the French pulp fiction character from the early 20th century.  That original pulp fiction character Judex is part of a group of French proto-super heroes whose best known member is Fantomas , and they are both stylish, amoralistic anti-heroes masked avenger types whose closest New World avators would be Zorro and the Lone Ranger.

  The accompanying essay to the Criterion Collection edition of Judex points out that director Franju would have preferred to have done a remake of Fantomas, but the rights lay with another party.  Fantomas (1911) is part of the 1001 Books Project, so if you read that book and watch this movie you could good insight into a kind of alternate pop culture where the masked superheroes kidnap corporate executives, and ruthlessly murder the innocent

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Sunset Song (1932) by Lewis Grassic Gibbon

Terence Davies is making a 2014 movie based on Sunset Song (1932) by Lewish Grassic Gibbon,
starring Agyness Deyn as Chris Guthrie.

Book Review
Sunset Song (1932)
 by Lewis Grassic Gibbon

  Widely acknowledged as the first important Scottish novel of the 20th century, Sunset Song is part of a trilogy of novels written by Lewis Grassic Gibbon.  It's hard to argue that Gibbon in any way started the tradition of the Scottish novel, since Scottish writers like Sir Walter Scott and Tobias Smollett played a role in inventing the novel itself.  However, Gibbon is the first author to attempt to portray the "common folk" of highland Scotland in a realistic manner.  His trilogy of A Scots Quair, of which Sunset Song is the first volume, combines modernist technique (dialogue integrated into the text, stream of consciousness), a strong female hero (Chris Guthrie, who is the central figure of all three novels) and regional dialect (complete with a glossary.). to excellent effect.
  It is the interaction of these three features that make Sunset Song/A Scots Quair classic, and they outweigh the limited invention of the plot, which has the strong scent of earlier nineteenth century novels from other northern countries like Sweden and Norway.   A plot point dealing with a triple infanticide/suicide by Guthrie's mother can't help but recall the rural infanticide of The Growth of the Soil (1917) by Knut Hamsun.   The earlier chapters of the novel, describing the history, courtship and marriage of her parents reminded me of The People of Hemso (1877) by August Strindberg.  Which is to say that Sunset Song isn't necessarily breathlessly original aside from the technique, but it is first in the field, and at 195 pages makes for a quick read.


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