Monday, December 05, 2016

Akira Kurosawa: 天国と地獄 / 'High and Low' (1963)

Akira Kurosawa's 天国と地獄 / High and Low (1963) is a rare example of a movie that's better than its source. Kurosawa took the basic premise of Ed McBain's King's Ransom: An 87th Precinct Mystery (originally published in 1959 and since reprinted) and morphed the setting into a Japanese one. The result is a deliberately paced, noticeably well-crafted black and white film.
The psycho kidnapper is one cold slice. 
Envy and hatred are partial motivators: having to look up at Mr. Gondo's house from relative poverty may have driven him over the edge. 
The great Toshiro Mifune (1920-1997) as Mr. Gondo, a man who rose from shoe-and-satchel craftsman to high officer in the National Shoe Company. All is put in jeopardy by his psychopathic nemesis.

Just as pleasurable as seeing Kurosawa's craftsmanship in play is watching High and Low as a cultural artifact. I tend to do both at the same time -- watch and see.

What this 1963 movie reveals from the perspective of 2016

Almost complete male domination of Japanese society in the public sphere.

Reiko Gondo (Kyōko Kagawa), Mr. Gondo's spouse, is dressed traditionally and seems very deferential and submissive. However, she wields influence and helps push her husband in a more compassionate direction.

Back-stabbing and power-plays at the corporate level.

Debates over quality vs. quantity, and profit margins. Mr. Gondo prefers high quality even though this means a smaller profit margin. He is proud of his work and wishes to remain so.

Competent and respectable police force. In the field, detectives and supports operate in pairs.

Sensitive awareness of socio-economic differences between groups of characters by the director and by the characters themselves.

The role of honor -- and differences between honor in theory (high-minded) and reality (more practical or even cynical).

Heroin -- matter-of-fact discussions by police; somewhat lurid depictions of "Dope Alley" reminiscent of  Billy Wilder's The Lost Weekend (1945). 

Articulated mass transit system (trains and trolleys).

Seemingly no air conditioning.

Use of telephones and wiretapping. Public telephones in use.

Changes since 1963?

Women in Japan have made gains, comparatively.

Transit, air conditioning and telecommunications highly developed, with society more fully saturated with all three elements.

Films rarely made in black & white anymore.

Films are rarely this well-crafted, although many newer television series have made tremendous strides in quality. 

Today's Rune: Fertility. 

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Akira Kurosawa: 七人の侍 / 'Seven Samurai' (1954)

Akira Kurosawa's 七人の侍 / Seven Samurai (1954) is a sprawling novelistic film steeped in history during a period of violent anarchy in Japan (late 1500s). It serves as a microcosm of social relations and war. Twenty-first century viewers might be surprised by this wild pre-CGI black and white film, its primal nature and serious grasp of the human condition, as well as by the looseness of its structure.

In Seven Samurai, there are three groups: one of more than one hundred villagers/farmers; about forty brigands/bandits; and seven (eight including Kikuchiyo) ronin/samurai. In the midst of surrounding famine and general devastation, all are hungry. The second group wants to plunder and ravage the first group once their harvest comes in. The village elder of the first group hires the third group, the hungry samurai, to help them fight the brigands. That's the set-up. 

Most of the articulated conflict comes actually between the villagers and the samurai, as they adjust to each other. The bandit attackers are not seen from within their own circle -- an effective approach by Kurosawa that often doesn't work in less capable hands. We never see (or rather we never become well-acquainted with) a specific "villain." The stakes as we see them are high enough: life or death. Stanley Kubrick takes a similarly effective approach in Paths of Glory (1957), set during World War One. 
Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune)
In Seven Samurai, we see a range of social activity and responses. The villagers, though they often seem helpless, are also crafty and just as brutal as brigands or samurai. The main difference is their attachment to the soil, and place. 

By far, the coolest samurai is their leader, Kambei Shimada  (Takashi Shimura -- on the far right in the picture at the top of this post). Through his decisions, we see at play Sun Tzu's The Art of War. In many scenes, whether involving combat or just social interaction, we see the cinematic equivalent of The Face of Battle (N.Y.: Viking, 1976), a frank and painstaking look at people under extreme pressures. There is also occasional comic relief. 

Seven Samurai has already been adapted to Western Hemisphere settings in The Magnificent Seven (1960 and 2016 versions), and to outer space in Battle Beyond the Stars (1980).  

Today's Rune: Fertility.  

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

'Thérèse: The Story of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux' (2004)

Thérèse: The Story of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux (2004): directed by Leonardo Defilippis. I am hoping to see the critically acclaimed 1986 French language film directed by Alain Cavalier that's also called Thérèse, but in the meantime, I enjoyed this English language biopic that seems to have come in mostly under the radar.
Thérèse is a sweet, straightforward movie. The most interesting thing to me is seeing how Marie Françoise-Thérèse Martin (1873-1897) -- Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, The Little Flower -- made her way within the Martin family system, and within the Barefoot Carmelites order of nuns. Her parents were serious Catholics. They had nine children, four of whom died in infancy or at a very young age. Thérèse's mother died when she was four years old. All four of her remaining siblings became nuns. Thérèse herself died of consumption / tuberculosis at the age of twenty-four. From the perspective of the Twenty-first century, the whole arc of the story is astonishing to me. I really like this movie version.

Today's Rune:  Wholeness. 

Friday, November 11, 2016

Liz Garbus: 'What Happened, Miss Simone?' (2015)

Liz Garbus' What Happened, Miss Simone? (2015) is a thrilling, consciousness-raising documentary about Nina Simone, the High Priestess of Soul. 

The inescapable context of the life of Nina Simone (1933-2003) was and is the intractable racial divisiveness of the USA. American society just can't seem to get it together as a whole.

Born in North Carolina before becoming Nina Simone, Nina was known locally as Eunice Waymon. Eunice/Nina became a classically trained Julliard pianist. Her most active recording years took her from the late 1950s into the 1970s. She became a powerful civil and human rights advocate.

However, disgusted with the slow pace of social progress in the United States (and to escape from her violent ex-cop husband), she went on to live more freely in Barbados and London before finally basing herself, for the last ten years of her life, in the South of France. 

A strong and unique singer and person, Nina's mental health suffered in later years -- perhaps, one may suspect, in part from earlier domestic abuse. But when she was on, she was truly spectacular, even towards the end.
What Happened, Miss Simone? is an outstanding Netflix Documentary and RadicalMedia/Moxie Firecracker Production. I waited for the 2016 DVD, which includes a companion CD. The latter has a sampling that highlights many of Nina's most powerful tracks, ranging from "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" and "I Put a Spell on You" to "Mississippi Goddamn" and "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out." I dig it!

Today's Rune: Protection. 

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Gerald Horne's 'W.E.B. Du Bois: A Biography' (2010)

Gerald Horne, W.E.B. Du Bois: A Biography (Santa Barbara: Greenwood Press, 2010). Du Bois: in the US, his name is pronounced not as in French, but more like "Doo-Boyz."

"Du Bois [1868-1963] . . . ranks with Barack Obama, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Frederick Douglass as, perhaps, the most important African American of all time . . ." (page xii).

The first serious non-academic conversation I had about W.E.B. Du Bois was with a postal worker in Philadelphia, when a new Du Bois stamp came out in the 1990s. I remember this specifically not only because of his clear knowledge about Du Bois but also because this particular post office (30th Street Station) was open on Sundays -- an ideal reflection of the separation of church and state. Not too many people seemed to know about this, so I often went on Sundays to mail things and occasionally chit chat with whichever postal worker was staffing the service desk; picking up such new insights in person was a true bonus. 

Du Bois, an intellectual, historian, general writer and energetic activist, co-founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and more. His life arc bridges the gap between the time of Frederick Douglass and the public time of Malcolm X and MLK. His contemporaries included Booker T. Washington, Howard Thurman and Marcus Garvey. 

After World War II as an older man, Du Bois was brought to trial for organizing against the use of atomic weapons and for world peace. As Horne points out: "A familiar nostrum . . . is that with age comes conservatism, a dismissal of past radicalism as so much youthful posturing. This did not hold true for W.E.B. Du Bois" (p. 163). In this and in many other ways, Du Bois endures as an excellent role model.  

Eventually he became so disillusioned with the slow pace of social progress in the United States that he permanently resettled in Ghana, which became independent in 1957. (It was formerly known as the British Gold Coast). Ghana, which is almost never mentioned in the US either in news or in conversation, has about 27 million people. 

W.E.B. Du Bois was a great consciousness raiser. In fact, one of his ideas is that of "double consciousness" -- but more on this, perhaps, in a future post. 

Horne's book provides a straightforward overview of Du Bois' life, times, writings, actions, and social relationships. 

Today's Rune: Movement.

Wednesday, November 02, 2016

Amy J. Berg's 'Janis: Little Girl Blue' (2015)

Amy J. Berg's Janis: Little Girl Blue (2015), a state of the art documentary biography of Janis Joplin (1943-1970), presents her life in a most compelling, sensitive and soulful manner. My first serious foray into this field was Howard Alk's Janis (1974), which I saw at the Melkweg in Amsterdam when I was twenty-two -- and I loved it, not to mention the audience's raucous response. Now I'd consider Alk's documentary as a complement or supplement to Berg's. There have been other films, and there have been excellent books on Janis, too. As anyone who knows her music can testify, Janis Joplin was intense. Amy J. Berg has done her justice here. 

Today's Rune: Signals. 

Monday, October 31, 2016

'Catullus: A Poet in the Rome of Julius Caesar' (2010)

Aubrey Burl, Catullus: A Poet in the Rome of Julius Caesar (Amberley, 2010; original edition 2004). Given the scanty extant biographical details of the life of Gaius Valerius Catullus (circa years 84-54 Before Christ), Burl gives us not straight biography so much as a good sense of Catallus' life and poetry within the context of his times.

The times were wild. Rome was at the top of the heap in its area of the globe, but still one's life could be cut short by any number of things. Catullus is thought to have died in his early thirties, but how? Was he strangled, bitten, stabbed, poisoned, or sickened, or did he slip, drown or fall off a cliff? As of now, we have no idea. But know this: he was a tight poet, a fierce lover and an equally fierce hater. His poetry gives us insight into the people of his times and of ours. 

Maybe more will be revealed in time. As is, there's a stupendous appendix detailing "The Recovery of the Poems of Catullus from his Death to 1492."
Lesbia's Sparrow by George W Joy, 1896
Let's check out chapter 5 on Catallus' main paramour, Clodia. 

"Catullus called her Lesbia [a nod to the poet Sappho]. Her real name was Clodia Merelli, wife of Quintius Caecilius Celer, a cousin on her mother's side" (p. [97]). 

"Clodia was the eldest of three sisters, all by custom called Clodia. She also had three brothers: Appius, Gaius and the youngest, Publius Clodius Pulcher, whose grand-daughter, Claudia, gained reflected ignominy by marrying the counsul, Publius Quinctilius Varus. His three legions were ambushed in a German forest in AD 9 and slaughtered. 'Quinctilius Varus! Give me back my legions,' grieved Augustus" (page 98). 

Fragments of Catullus, writing about Clodia/Lesbos (Poem 68B, page 111):

. . . my radiant goddess entered,
trod on the worn threshold, sandal tapping
as she paused . . .

in that house fragrant with the scents of Assyria,
during that wondrous night she gave me pleasures
filched from the lap of her token husband.
There's a whole section in the back of translations by Humphrey Clucas. Here are a couple of more snippets related to Clodia/Lesbos:

   No one she'd rather marry, my love says --
     Even if Jupiter himself came courting.
   Fine. But what they say in a fond moment
Is written on rushing water, scrawled in the wind.

          My mind thins to a point, Lesbia,
     Ruined by your guilt, and its own devotion:
I could not wish you well, though you were perfect,
     And if you were worse yet, I'd want you still. 

Today's Rune: Fertility.