Saturday, July 14, 2018

Yasujirō Ozu: 'Tokyo Story' / 東京物語 (1953)

Yasujirō Ozu's Tokyo Story / 東京物語 (1953). This is the kind of movie you could study many times and still pick up new details. It's a masterwork of world cinema, and though I am not a devout believer in rankings and lists, it's worth noting that Tokyo Story has been listed by film directors as the number one film of all time, up to the year 2012. Certainly it's a memorable film.

Tokyo Story provides an effective answer to world wars, Trumpism, the internet "shallows," and ADHD. Tokyo Story is quiet, slow, thoughtful and deep. 

Tokyo Story subtly shows the intricacies of family systems. Three generations are on display, with variations in life station, geography, age and demeanor. There are: one set of parents, four surviving kids (one son, who had been drafted into the Imperial Japanese Army, died in 1945, near the end of the Second World War), one son-in-law, two daughters-in-law, and a couple of grandchildren. Family members have "stories" about each other, and each fit into the system in their own way. There are also friends, mostly old friends, and a neighbor or two. 
Ozu (December 12, 1903-December 12, 1963) uses several distinctive techniques in his craft. One is the low-angle shot, bringing viewers into interior scenes. For transitions, he often shows technology or architecture, exterior (smokestacks, trains, signs, lights, boats) or interior spaces (a room with plenty of traces of human habitation but no people). For plot shifts, he'll jump forward past a milestone event (wedding, funeral) and into ramifications and changes to the status quo. 

The actors: Chishū Ryū (1904-1993), who plays the father, is superb, using facial expression, body language and occasional verbal expressions to maximum impact. Setsuko Hara (1920-2015), in playing widowed daughter-in-law Norika, is delightful, poignant, deep. These two stand out, and yet the rest of the ensemble cast is very believable and forceful, too. 

Lest we forget, Ozu's main screenwriter: Kōgo Noda (1893-1968).

Today's Rune: Joy.  

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Mary Karr: 'The Art of Memoir' (2015, 2016)

Mary Karr, The Art of Memoir. New York: Harper Perennial, 2016; originally published by HarperCollins Publishers in 2015. 

Karr is primarily known as a poet and memoirist; she also teaches, which is how this tome originated, through years of teaching experience. One of the book's "takeaways" (in the shady parlance of our day) is her list of "Required Reading - Mostly Memoirs and Some Hybrids" (pages 221-227). The core text is more pick-and-choose -- whatever may help.
Mary Karr's advice on how to get going with the writing process: "The idea is to unclench your mind's claws . . . don't judge how your thoughts might jet around at first. Eventually you'll start identifying . . . with that detached, watcher self and less with your prattling head." (page 31).

On voice: "The voice should permit a range of emotional tones -- too wiseass, and it denies pathos; too pathetic, and it's shrill. It sets and varies distance from both the material and the reader -- from cool and diffident to high-strung and close." (page 36).

Keep it real: "You'll need both sides of yourself -- the beautiful and the beastly -- to hold a reader's attention. . . Sadly, without a writer's dark side on view -- the pettiness and vanity and schemes -- pages give off the whiff of bullshit." (page 38).

On revision: "the best revisers often have reading habits that stretch back before the current age, which lends them a sense of history and raises their standards for quality." (page 211).

"For me, the last 20 percent of a book's improvement takes 95 percent of the effort -- all in the editing. . . In the long run, the revision process feels better if you approach it with curiosity . . . Writing . . . means celebrating beauty in an often ugly world . . . you do that by fighting for elegance and beauty, redoing or cutting the flabby, disordered parts." (page 215). Amen to that. 

Today's Rune: Initiation.

Thursday, July 05, 2018

Michael Schultz: 'Cooley High' (1975)

Cooley High (1975). Directed by Michael Schultz, who also directed Car Wash (1976), covered here last month. Here's a link

The setting for Cooley High is Chicago in the year 1964. A fairly low-budget film, it was a hit in the mid-1970s, an exciting time for cultural offerings. Scripted by Eric Monte, who also worked on What's Happening!! (which shifted the Cooley High setting to Los Angeles). 

Main actors include Glynn Turman as Preach, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs as Cochise, Cynthia Davis as Brenda and Garret Morris as Mr. Mason, a teacher-mentor who looks out for them. Hilton-Jacobs was also in Welcome Back, Kotter, a 1970s series that co-starred John Travolta. 
Preach shows the initially dubious Brenda that they have a shared interest in poetry. He's got a sort of Thelonius Monk-Dizzy Gillespie-Spike Lee kind of look with those glasses and, when roaming around, his cap. 

Cooley High isn't all fun and games. There's a sense of mortality hovering in the background, with a couple of poignant drinking salutes to the dead -- a custom with which I am quite familiar.

Cooley High is also nicely enriched with a Motown-powered soundtrack.

Today's Rune: Partnership.    

Monday, July 02, 2018

Chapel Hill Daze: Pictures of Another Gone World: University Square

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Pictures of the Gone World (The Pocket Poet Series, Number One). San Francisco: City Lights, 1955.  A salute to Ferlinghetti, who is ninety-nine years old -- born on March 24, 1919. Graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1941. I saw him give a reading in Chapel Hill in the 1980s, when he was but a young lad in his sixties. Afterwards, he signed my copy of Jack's Book. (I also remember when Harlan Ellison came to town to write a story based on a given first line -- but that's another story). 

And now it's time to turn to pictures of another gone world, a University Square of the Mind, as it were. University Square was an entry point for me, I liked the area for parking, sitting with cups of coffee, writing in journals. And now it's gone, gone, gone, transmogrified into "Carolina Square." The buildings and entire complex that comprised University Square were demolished in 2015. 

So let's do the Proust thing and bring back some of the names of that lost world. 

In the 1980s, let's say around 1983, you could walk from Columbia Street along Franklin Street on the "north" side, going toward Carrboro, and you'd pass Logo's Book Store (Christian books?), Mr. Gatti's Pizza, the Yogurt Pump, a jewelry store, an electronics store, the entrance pathway to He's Not Here (which always made me think of the Alamo - lots of stories to go with He's Not Here); a Pizza Hut, a sporting goods shop, the Pump House, a funeral home, McFarling's Exxon, Hunam's Restaurant, and a parking lot that ended with Church Street. If you kept going, you'd pass another parking lot, a telephone building, Peppi's Pizza, Woofer & Tweeter, a Gulf station; Fowler's Food (giant deli type meat place), McFarling's garage, Chapel Hill Rare Books, Martin Keith Book Shop, a florist, Phoenicia Restaurant, Village Pharmacy and Noel's Sub Machine. 

The only place left standing from the previous paragraph is He's Not Here.
Let's walk back to the intersection of Columbia and Franklin and cross the street to the "south" side.

Just at the corner is a large Baptist Church (still). Back around 1983, there was next a beauty salon (Scissorium) of which I remember nothing except that maybe it was a small single story stand alone. 

University Square was divided into three large sections: University Square East, University Square, and University Square West. The anchor for East was a CCB (Central Carolina Bank) Bank with ATM designed to trick students into overdrafts (or so it seemed to students). East included Kemp Jewelers: Circle Travel (anyone wonder about travel agencies?  This was one and I went in there occasionally); the Chapel Hill barbershop; Aesthetic Styling Salon; Cabana Tanning Center; Monkey Business -- never went in that one and have no idea what it was pitching.
University Square [Central]. Time-Out Restaurant was a 24-hour place with biscuits and salty kinds of college student food. The aroma of fresh buttered biscuits perpetually hovered about.

There were green and white awnings that fringed the roof edges, and cool passageways that let you cross through to the back side of the complex, one of my favorite design features that I often took advantage of -- built-in desire paths.

Time-Out still exists but has moved to where Hector's once stood, at 201 East Franklin at Henderson, across Henderson Street from the US Post Office.

Swensen's Ice Cream was one of the those old-fashioned places that left me bewildered -- a lot like Mayberry's. There are three Swensen's left in the entire USA, as of this post. Mayberry Ice Cream is down to a couple left in North Carolina, I think.

Other places in the middle section: Ken's Quickie Mart; Knit-A-Bit; Second Sole (shoe repairs, I think); Cameron Craft. The Painted Bird had various types of cool little things, arts type goodies. I think they had stationary and cards, too. 

And there was my favorite University Square hangout of all, on the side facing away from Franklin Street: The Looking Glass Café. More on this at some point, I suspect. The scent of fresh coffee permeated. There's a place with the same name now open in nearby Carrboro, at 601 West Main Street. I'll have to inquire to see if they are connected in some direct way, or even indirectly by inspiration. 
University Square West. Little Professor Book Center. I frequently ducked into this and many of the other Chapel Hill book and record stores. At its peak, there were more than one hundred Little Professor book stores around the USA; there are now (in July of 2018), as far as I can determine, three left.

Other stuff: Tyndall's Formal Wear (rentals, mostly); Shoe Doctor; University Opticians; Fine Feathers - clothes; and T'Boli Imports. The last one had lots of wine, if memory serves.

I have no idea what was in the upper floors of the main buildings: offices, apartments, condos?  

University Square: gone but not forgotten. Anyone who has any idea of what the above is about, please add details, memories, observations. And if not about here, how about somewhere that you once knew that's now part of another gone world?

Photos: "Downtown Chapel Hill" website; University Gazette (2008); Wiki Commons (July 28, 2008). 

Invaluable resource to cross-check memories, places:  OCCUPANTS AND STRUCTURES OF FRANKLIN STREET, CHAPEL HILL, NORTH CAROLINA AT 5-YEAR INTERVALS, 1793-1998, by Bernard Lee Bryant, Jr. Chapel Hill Historical Society, printed out by J.D. Eyre in 1999. Link here.

Today's Rune: Breakthrough. 

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Susanna Forrest: 'The Age of the Horse: An Equine Journey Through Human History' (2016, 2017)

Susanna Forrest: The Age of the Horse: An Equine Journey Through Human History (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2016, 2017).

Brilliantly written, fantastico!  Forrest clearly loves horses, but does not shy away from any aspect of their history or roles in conjunction with human beings.

Chapter headings (not including their subheadings; originals in caps): "Evolution, Domestication, Wildness, Culture, Power, Meat, Wealth, War."

The height of exploiting the horse must include the height of the British Empire. Certainly it was up there. "And so we reach the scrum of our London gentleman's horse-powered Britain, with its vanners, bussers, cabbers, pitmen's horses, farm horses, cab horses, costers' donkeys, trammers, drays, ferry and railway horses, all leaning their weight into their collars and drawing the nation along." (Pages 178-179). "By 1871, there were as many horses in the city as in the countryside, and by 1901, urban horses outnumbered rural by two thirds to one third." (Page 179). Contrary to popular imagination.

The change from horse-driven reality to truck and car-driven reality was even more shocking than the onset of self-driving vehicles will be in the near future. A similar "future shock" moment arrived with the replacement of the analog world with digital technology at the beginning of the 21st century. 

Think in terms of dramatic "tipping points" of the past, present and future. This is just one of may reasons that Forrest's The Age of the Horse is so riveting.
Horse Progress Days -- among the Amish in the 21st century, Forrest observes a twelve-horse team on display. "When this juggernaut marched on  . . . it was like standing by as a siege engine passed: the air was filled with the high jingle and clink of the connectors and heel chains, bits champed and mouthed, the work of muscle and mass, the soft rush of the Ohio soil as it was sliced deep, caught and turned over by the plough, leaving a black, shining and broken wake behind like a harbour ferry's." (Page 189).

Forrest crafts scores of such evocative, even exciting sentences, right up there with Marcel Proust and Vladimir Nabokov, among others.  I am deeply impressed.

I also like the fact that she wields the word "poleaxed" on more than one occasion. It sticks to mind.

Vivid descriptions do the job repeatedly. When Forrest is visiting China after "Golden Week," industry has paused long enough for air pollution to abate. "Over Chaoyang Park on the fourth of seven Beijing ring roads, the skies were deep blue and there was a fresh, brisk breeze that bent the tops of the silver birches lining the entry roads."  (Page 280).

To the Great Wall: "A rampart of rocky slopes rose straight from the plain, littered with huge yellow boulders, and the neat, grey crenellations of the restored Wall rose and fell along the peaks and gorges as vertiginously as a roller coaster." (Page 289).

Observing a bullfight in Portugal: "There was a cry and the gate flew open, clapping against the barrier, and out came the black bull, a surge of dark energy and muscle so thick that it guttered over its narrow rump." (Page 322).

On the adaptability of horses during the First World War of 1914-1918: "Even in Flanders in the Great War, the horses soon became accustomed to the shattering boom of shellfire and continued to pull their wagons as houses, roads and people disappeared into blasted mudscapes." (Page 334).

Horses prefer "cohesion, space and synchrony." (Page 339). The Age of the Horse is a stellar work upon which I'm still ruminating three days after finishing a first read-through -- a remarkable occurrence in the digital age, and something to be treasured.

Today's Rune: Breakthrough

Monday, June 25, 2018

Xan Cassavetes: 'Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession' (2004)

Xan Cassavetes: Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession (2004). 

This is an alluring documentary that dives back into the 1970s and 1980s, beginning as an origin story and ending with the collapse of Los Angeles-based Z Channel (1974-1989), after a murder-suicide perpetrated by its talented, mentally ill main programmer, Jerry Harvey (1949-1988).

Subscription TV (now streaming, too) began in earnest with the likes of Home Box Office (HBO) in 1972, The Green Channel in 1973 -- which morphed into The Movie Channel (TMC) in 1979 -- and Z Channel. The latter included an influential sampling of international movies with subtitles, director's cuts, B movies and independent films. 

Z Channel had a profound impact on its market, especially among directors, writers, and other "creatives." Xan Cassavetes gives us a taste of representatives from this class, ranging from Penelope Spheeris to Jim Jarmusch. 

When a cool movie or director was featured on Z Channel, this was an event that could be shared in "real time," not just recorded for later, or plucked out of the ethersphere at will, or binge-watched down the pike.  

We may well wonder about delivery and recording systems now vs. then, and now vs. in the future. In those years, battle was also joined globally in the videotaping field between Sony's Betamax (Beta) and JVC's Video Home System (VHS) tapes, with Beta starting in 1975, VHS in 1976, and both lines ceasing production only in 2016.

Digital services now available dwarf what was around in the 1970s. All you need is money, access and time!

In 1975, the global human population was about 4.079 billion, 38% of it urbanized. As of 2018, it has already jumped to 7.633 billion, with 55% urbanized. What do you suppose those numbers will be in 2060?  Imagine the delivery systems forty-two years from now, when handheld devices, streaming services, driverless cars and delivery drones are old hat?  

Today's Rune: Movement.  

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Werner Herzog: 'Into the Inferno' (Netflix, 2016)

Werner Herzog's Into the Inferno (2016), a Netflix documentary, takes us to various places around the globe with its primary focus ever in mind: volcanoes and people. Among Herzog's cerebral meditations and the reliable help of Cambridge volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer, there are startling shots of breathtaking ecology, lava flows, explosions, and people's responses over time to the mysteries of volcanic activity.

As one might expect from Herzog (for those who are familiar with his earlier work), there are some weird, offbeat meanderings into associated mysteries. It's all a bit ramshackle at times, but well-worth the effort. 

Where does the film go? Points of focus include Endu (Endu Pahakol) on the island of Ambrym in the Vanuatu Archipelago, featuring the bemused Chief Mael Moses; Mount Erebus, Antarctica, where Herzog met Oppenheimer; La Soufrire
de Guadeloupe (footage from the 1970s); Katia and Maurice Krafft, who filmed volcanic activity and were "instantly killed by a pyroclastic flow in Japan, together with 41 other people" in 1991; Mount Sinabung, Sumatra, Indonesia; Mount Merapi (Fire Mountain), Java, Indonesia; Mount Eyjafjallajökull, Iceland; Mount St. Helens (Lawetlat'la), Washington; the Danakil Depression, Afar Region, Ethiopia, "300 feet below sea level;" the Erta Ale, "one of the three [volcanoes] in the world where magma is directly exposed;" back to Iceland; on to North Korea and Mount Paektu and mass social formations featuring thin, underfed people; and back to Vanuatu, to the John Frum cargo cult village, and Mount Yasur on Tanna Island.

To the Ends of the Earth and Back Again with Werner Herzog (born 1942)!  A salute also to Peter Zeitlinger (born 1960), Czech cinematographer and filmmaker who shot most of the newer footage for and with Herzog.

Today's Rune: Breakthrough.