Dedicated to classics and hits.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

The Ballad of Narayama (1952) d. Keisuke Kinoshita

The Ballad of Narayama: Fun little movie about abandoning your Mom to be eaten by crows on a mountain top.

Movie Review
The Ballad of Narayama (1958)
d. Keisuke Kinoshita
Criterion Collection #645

  Fun little picture about the ancient Japanese practice of abandoning one's elderly parents to die in the wilderness, The Ballad of Narayama is known equally for its distinctive visual presentation, influenced directly by the conventions of Japanese theater, and its utterly depressing subject matter.  When you combine the subject matter with the pan-Japanese cinema tradition of holding shots for minutes at a time, you get a movie that feels much, much, much longer then the 90 minute run time would leave you to believe.

 The Ballad of Narayama is shot entirely on sound stages, with a breathtaking use of lighting and color to create a visual atmosphere that would feel contemporary today.  On the other hand, nothing could be LESS contemporary then the subject matter. I don't shy away from dark films, but watching a 90 minute picture about a family making a conscious decision to abandon their elderly mother to be eaten by birds takes you to a really, really, really dark place, and I'm not sure why anyone would really want to watch this movie.

Grand Illusion (1937) d. Jean Renoir

Erich von Stroheim as Captain von Stroheim faces off with his friend/nemesis Captain de Boldieu (played by Pierre Fresnay.)

Movie Review
Grand Illusion (1937)
d. Jean Renoir
Criterion Collection #1

 In Los Angeles for the weekend, as I often am these days, plotting my escape from the disaster of my San Diego based social life, I have access to my friends Criterion DVD collection, which includes Criterion Collection #1, Jean Renoir's masterpiece Grand Illusion.  I've seen Grand Illusion at least twice, but never had access to the Criterion Collection edition, so I wanted to give it a spin.

 Because I've seen Grand Illusion multiple times, I had no compunction about watching it with the audio commentary track turned on.  Here, the excellent commentary is provided by film historian Peter Cowie.  Perhaps it is because the film itself is so interesting, but I found Cowie's commentary particularly illuminating, especially his comments about famous Director/Actor/Enfant Terrible Erich von Stroheim, who plays the indelible Captain von Rauffenstein.  It is impossible to forget Stroheim's performance, and his performance is even more remarkable that it happened almost two decades after he was cast out of Hollywood for turning in seven and a half hour epic films (the original cut of Greed was seven hours plus) in complete opposition to what was becoming the Hollywood recipe for a feature film.

  Grand Illusion is a prison escape movie, set during World War I, but released on the eve of World War II.  Renoir's vision has a warmth that put him out of favor in the era of the Nouvelle Vague/New Wave, but his mastery of the art form, which Cowie points out in intimate detail, eliminates any kind of serious crticism about the "softness" of Grand Illusion.

  Renoir was a master craftsman but his artistic vision sought to unify, not divide.  It was this trait which put him out of favor with the literati in the 60s and 70s, but when Criterion Collection picks your movie as their number one title, it means you are all the way back and watching Grand Illusion for the first or tenth time it is easy to see why he is regarded as a master by all. 

Friday, September 13, 2013

Classical vs. Romantic Aesthetic in the Silent Film Era (1890s-1920s)

The Story of Film - An Odyssey
Available on Netflix Streaming
Released 2012
The Story of Film - An Odyssey New York Times Review January 2012
The Story of Film - An Odyssey - IMDB
The Story of Film - An Odyssey - Rotten Tomatoes

  I DVR'ed episode 2 of this sprawling 900 minute plus television documentary by critic/narrator Mark Cousins about the history of film.  I was so impressed by the DVR episode that I searched "The Story of Film - An Odyssey streaming" on Google, and quickly discovered that it was on Netflix streaming. I watched the first two episodes a little bit each night this week and I found this documentary really enthralling on a number of levels, but mostly because Cousins actually seems to be in touch with the last 50 years of film criticism and non-Hollywood film, so he's giving what is essentially the Criterion Collection history of film.

  Cousins posits fairly early on that this is a revisionist or alternative history of Cinema, assuming that the main Hollywood driven narrative is the recognizable narrative for most viewers.  However, for me it is the history of Cinema, not a competing story.  Hollywood still plays the central role in a history of film that includes non Hollywood film, if only because the Audience for non-Hollywood films  within the United States was negligible until after World War II.

 The two most interesting themes from the first two episodes of this monster documentary are the movement of film from being a "popular amusement" to an art form between 1900 and the 1920s.  The second is the analysis of the mainstream 1920s Hollywood aesthetic as being "Romantic" and not "Classical."    Although he doesn't really delve into the terminology, it is clear that he is using Romantic and Classical with the meanings established in 19th and 20th century art criticism.  So by Romantic he means Romantic like M.H. Abrams meant Romantic in his book, The Mirror & The Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition.

  Using Abrams Mirror/Lamp metaphor, Classicism sees art as a mirror and Romanticism sees art as a lamp.  Thus, for Cousins the Hollywood spectacle film of the 1920s, with it's soft lighting of starlets, emotive subject matter and over wrought set design, is the definition of Romantic and is about as "Classic" as a Wordsworth poem.  This whole analysis seems to play off of an understanding of the silent film era as being equivalent to "Classic" Hollywood.  I'm not sure that is a term that is really embraced by American audiences.  Being Northern Irish/British, Cousins comes from a different perspective on that question.

 The other interesting theme is the process by which film started as an amusement, something less then art, and evolved into a recognized art form by the teens/twenties of the twentieth century. Again, as a television type documentary, Cousins doesn't get into the mechanics of it, but he does show some early theaters- built before the movie "palaces" of the teens and 20s, and they look like the equivalent of video arcades.  Early theaters were often referred to as Nickelodeons, which is a compound word combining Nickel (price) and Odeon, which is what they called a theater in ancient Greece.

  The Story of Film is a must for anyone looking to dive into the Criterion Collection- because it shares a similar perspective on world cinema and many of the non-American works discussed are represented in the Criterion Collection.

The Last Wave (1977) d. Peter Weir

Movie Review
The Last Wave (1977)
d. Peter Weir
Criterion Collection #142

  Boasting both a killer 80s synth sound track and an engaging plot concerning the efforts by an Australian lawyer (Richard Chamberlin) to defend a group of urban Aborigines accused of manslaughtering one of their own, The Last Wave shouldn't require much a pitch to watch in that it is a) not a silent film b) not a black and white film c) is in English and d) has a conventional criminal trial plot crossed with a supernatural/aboriginal hook to keep things interesting.

  This is the second Australian Criterion Collection title I've encountered- the other is Walkabout- and I've previously seen though not written about Picnic At Hanging Rock- which is also by Peter Weir, the director of the Last Wave.  Walkabout is directed by Nicholas Roeg.   Picnic at Hanging Rock was released in 1975 and catapulted Weir to international prominence, and so The Last Wave has the feel of a  film that was meant to reach the widest possible audience for a film with Australian themes.

  The sound track is particularly notable for the synth heavy vibe.  The Last Wave is no chore to watch and it makes an enjoyable evening view.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Real Charlotte by Somerville and Ross

The Real Charlotte
by Somerville and Ross
p. 1894

  Somerville and Ross were the pen names for a couple of Anglo-Irish women- lesbians- by all accounts- who were best known for their comic masterpiece, Some Experiences of an Irish RM.  These days, it's The Real Charlotte that the true literati embrace, though I frankly question to what, if any extent, Somerville and Ross are read in America in 2013.

  Almost every review I've seen mentions that you need to read The Real Charlotte more then once to grasp the subtlety and beauty of the plot, to me it just read like a denser then usual marriage plot.  The Real Charlotte at issue is a complex, anti-heroine type which makes her more interesting then your typical late 19th century British female protagonist.

 The idea of the "Irish Novel" being somehow distinct from the English tradition strikes me as risible.  So far I think there have been exactly three novels from Ireland- all three by female Anglo-Irish writers- maybe four in total?  All of them featuring plots that resemble contemporary English influence.  Actually I think Anthony Trollope wrote a novel set in Ireland- so- five.


Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Rashomon (1950) d. Akira Kurosawa

Machiko Kyo plays the woman in Rashomon d. Akira Kurosawa (1950)

Movie Review
Rashomon (1950)
 d. Akira Kurosawa
Criterion Collection #138

   With 26 films included, Akira Kurosawa, by himself, makes up close to 5% of the entire Criterion Collection (3.8 percent.)  So what I want to know is that when the Criterion Collection writes that Kurosawa is "arguably the most celebrated Japanese  film maker of all time." Who are the competitors that they are thinking about?  Suzuki? Ozu? Inagaki?  I would say that any "argument" on the subject of "Who is the most celebrated Japanese film maker of all time?" would last about as long as it would take all the participants to say "Kurosawa!" at the exact same time.

  Unfortunately I'm not a huge fan so watching all these Kurosawa movies is a bit of an endurance test.  At least Rashomon clocks in at less then two hours.  Criterion Collection saw fit to upload the Robert Altman interview that serves as the introduction on the DVD, and I found his opinion most useful.  Altman notes that in Rashomon, Kurosawa was the first director to shoot the sun/sky- a technique Altman himself immediately utilized in his own work after seeing Rashomon for the first time.

 Rashomon is most well known for the unusual narrative technique: telling the same story from the perspective of four different witnesses.  The only thing they agree on is the central fact of the film: the death of "the man" Masayuki Mori after the bandit (Toshiro Mifune in not one of his greatest performances) rapes his wife Machiko Kyo.  Each witness, including the dead man via a medium, tells a different version of the same events.

  This narrative form was impressive in 1950, and it continues to impress today.  After watching Rashomon I went to a movie theater and watched the new Wolverine film, and it was like going from a museum where you see a master piece to a Thomas Keller, painter of light, kiosk at the mall.  They are both paintings, but one is art and the other mere commerce.   I mention Wolverine because that film is set entirely in Japan, so one might at least expect some referencing to the Japanese film tradition.   If they did- I didn't catch it- Wolverine might as well have been set in the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco for all the location mattered.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Book Review
The Yellow Wallpaper
by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
p. 1892

  I think this is the shortest story on the entire list of 1001 Books To Read Before You Die- 6000 words according to Wikipedia.  I have no idea how this made it onto the list, except to observe that Gilman is both a woman and American, to qualities that are in relative short supply between Harriet Beacher Stowe and the 20th century.  The description emphasizes that it is a decent into madness depicted in the first person, and that it represents some sort of important feminist statement.  Honestly, it has probably obtained classic status just because it is so short that any moronic undergraduate can muddle his or her way through it, and because the themes are so obvious that that same moronic undergraduate would be able to grasp "the point" or "points" contained therein.

Monday, September 09, 2013

To Be or Not to Be (1942) d. Ernest Lubitsch

Carole Lombard- To be or Not to Be was her last film.

Movie Review
To Be Or Not To Be (1942)
 d. Ernest Lubitsch
Criterion Collection #670
Criterion Collection edition released on August 27th, 2013

  Here is another strange title- not listed as being available on Hulu Plus on the Criterion Collection product page, but none the less available for viewing the same day (if not before?) the new release. To Be Or Not To Be is not listed in the recently added tab when you navigate the Criterion Collection on Hulu Plus, so I don't know if it has been up for a long time or if it just hasn't been featured as a recent addition yet.  It's actually a been a couple days since they've uploaded a new title, perhaps because this marks of the end of their 101 Days of Summer promotion where they uploaded a new title every day for 101 days.

  To Boe Or Not To Be is what you call a "Hitler comedy" a group of perhaps four or five films (maybe six if you count Downfall as a comedy;) that deal with Hitler as a comic figure.  You've got the Great Dictator, of course. The Producers.  And, To Be Or Not To Be, which falls under the category of "too soon."  Directed by the long tenured German filmmaker Ernest Lubitsch, To Be Or Not To Be starred Jack Benny and Carole Lombard as actors who are also members of the Polish resistance.

  They get involved in a "screw ball comedy" style plot that features much innuendo, costume changes and displays of verbal wit by Jack Benny.  Like many Criterion Collection titles, To Be Or Not To Be is both better and worse then it sounds.  To Be Or Not To Be is better then it sounds because the direction and performances are first rate.  To Be or Not to Be is worse then it sounds because Hitler does not really go well with the screwball comedy genre- he's more of a subject for satire (see The Great Dictator.) 

Show Review: Tobacco & Zackey Force Funk @ Casbah San Diego

Tobacco from Black Moth Super Rainbow is a handsome lad.

Show Review
Zackey Force Funk
@ Casbah San Diego

  You can't talk about Tobacco, the front man/main man for Philly psych outfit Black Moth Super Rainbow, without first discussing Black Moth Super Rainbow.  Black Moth Super Rainbow is almost unique among contemporary indie bands in eschewing standard-issue interaction with the media.  Despite this choice, they have obtained a moderately large Audience in a traditional DIY fashion.  They currently have 52,000 Facebook fans (1) and close to Nine million Last Fm plays. (2)  But, they are also a band that has been around for a full decade and averages a substantial but unspectacular 2500-3000 listeners a week. (3)  Their most recent effort, Cobra Juicy released in October of 2012, received solid marks from Pitchfork (4) but has only gained 28,000 listeners since release- compare that to 164,000 listeners for 2004's Dandelion Gum LP. (5)
Tobacco had The Seven Fields of Aphelion with him I believe

 Tobacco, meanwhile, gets a later start dates, 2007, and has a lower but still very respectable 3 million listens on Last FM. (6)  What Tobacco doesn't have is a record out, the last release was the LA UTI EP in November of 2010. (7)  He does have 30,000 Facebook fans, which is in line with what you would expect from the main guy of a band with 52,000 fans, i.e. something more then half of them. (8)

Like Animal Collective, another band/collective that I respect but don't necessarily listen to, Black Moth Super Rainbow has created an artistic identity that has successfully generated a sustaining audience, many of whom bought tickets in advance for last nights 13 USD ticket.  You can tell interesting things about the Audience of a specific artist based on the relationship of pre-sale tickets to walk-up.  Pre Sale tickets are typically bought by people who don't go out frequently, and those who have a strong relationship with the headlining Artist and less often by walk-up buyers who are afraid of being shut out of a hot show.  Walk up tickets typically are purchased by frequent scene habitues, people who have heard about a show via word of mouth, and people with little or no connection to the headlining artists (people out for a good time on a weekend, friends of the opening band.)

 Last night it was pre-sale heavy, and walk up thin. That's something I would expect for a band with a solid fan base but no album out.  The audience was somewhere between backpack hip hop and backpack edm, lots of white guys with glasses looking like they stepped out a 90s Beastie Boys video, and a fair number of girls who looked more like EDM fans who frequent indietronica spots like El Dorado.  They were super into opener Zackey Force Funk, who seemed to be aiming for a Chromeo type vibe.  The internet says that Zackey Force Funk and Tobacco are collaborating on an LP for a project called Demon Queen and yikes.

  Tobacco took the stage with, if I'm not mistaken, fellow Black Moth Super Rainbowian The Seven Fields of Aphelion, who is a woman.  She was playing synths and Tobacco was doing lap top/analog stuff and singing into a mic.  They were both behind a budget EDM style front piece that said "TOBACCO."  The biggest surprise to me is that Tobacco is a buff bro looking dude. I guess that is easy enough to find out using Google Image Search but I def. had an image of BMSR being a bunch of scrawny indie looking cats.

  The crowd was def. stoked to be there but it was hard core fans only- no floating scene types in site. I didn't know a soul, except for the people working, who I also don't know but at least recognize.  Tobacco has fat beats to be sure, but the visual element is, I think, always going to be limited since he has to sit there and manipulate analog synth type stuff while he sings. He can hardly be capering around on stage, which I guess explains the collaborative LP with opener Zackey Force Funk, because he does little besides capering around on stage.

High and Low (1963) d. Akira Kurosawa

Toshiro Mifune as wealthy women's shoe manufacturer Kingo Gondo in Akira Kurosawa's High and Low (1963)

Movie Review
High and Low (1963)
 d. Akira Kurosawa
Criterion Collection #24

  High and Low is Kurosawa's take on the police procedural, with source material from Ed McBain's King's Ransom novel from his "19th Precinct" series.  You can tell the difference between a police procedural and a film noir often because the police procedural deals with actual police doing actual police work to solve an actual crime, and film noir typically features private detectives sorta kinda trying to figure out a situation where a crime may or not have actually been committed OR accused of committing a crime themselves.
The kidnapper in High and Low in the belly of the Yokohama underworld

  But of course, like everything Kurosawa did from the early 1950s to mid 1960s it was a fucking classic of the genre.  It's the first non-Samurai Kurosawa picture I've seen.  Based on his imdb filmography it looks like he did a bunch of non Samurai titles before he really started churning out the hits.  There are many features that make High and Low a compulsively watchable title:

 1. Directed by Akira Kurosawa
 2.  Starring Toshiro Mifune as wealthy Industrialist and women's shoe manufacturer(!) Kingo Gordo (that's Mr. Gordo to you, friend.)
3.  Set in contemporary Yokohama- exotic locale for a Japanese film.
4.  Adorably police work by 50s Japanese Cops, who apparently have so little to do that they can muster the entire police force to work on a single kidnapping case.

  As a bonus, the Hulu Plus version includes an actual extra from the DVD- an interview with Actor Tsutomu Yamazaki (plays the kidnapper/villain).  I know I've said this before, but I'm very hesitant to take the current heaven-sent situation with Crtierion Collection/Hulu Plus for granted.  As I write this Hulu is taking offers on being SOLD.  This New York Times article from last month clearly suggests that the current way of Hulu is at risk, and Criterion Collection already left one streaming provider (Netflix) because it was unhappy with the direction of the service.

 My feeling is that the Criterion Collection could disappear from Hulu overnight, essentially, if certain events occur, like if Hulu is sold to a major media conglomerate, for example.  So while these review may seem a trifle obsessive, they are completed with the thought that nothing lasts forever.

  Subtracting the films out of the first 25 Criterion Collection titles that I've seen before beginning this project, there are only two unseen titles left- A Night To Remember- which I'm going to have to pay for, and Salo/120 Days of Sodom, which I'm going to have to purchase or borrow.

  I'm not recommending it, but if you were going to sample one twenty minute portion of High and Low I would check out the last 20 minutes- particularly the scenes set in the 60s heroin underworld of Yokohama- priceless/amazing stuff.

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