I’ve been sick over the past two weekends, hence the no posting last week (I’m sure my miniscule audience really noticed amongst all the other things constantly bombarding us for attention). I can’t remember ever being sick for so long in my life. The only bright spot was getting to watch a lot of movies. I had subscribed to the new Criterion Channel before it actually started up (nice discount on it), and ended up watching more movies on it in a week than I’ve probably watched on any of the other services I subscribe to in a year (mostly they end up being for tv shows).
I rewatched two Akira Kurosawa movies, Yojimbo and The Hidden Fortress. Many many years ago I watched a whole slew of Kurosawa movies in a brief period of time, but I never revisited most of them. Yojimbo feels like an homage to a Western, with a wandering ronin coming into a town rife with strife between two rival gangs. Of course, despite appearing as a bit of rogue, the ronin plays the gangs against each other, says some people, and ends up causing the downfall of both gangs. It’s a tightly plotted movie that happens almost exclusively in a few limited locations (primarily the main street in the town). The Hidden Fortress (which I am not sure I’ve actually watched before), is more of an wandering adventure, as a disaparate group of characters tries to escape enemy territory with a hoard of gold hidden inside some sticks (gotta wonder how they got the gold in the sticks). There’s a wonderful scene in the middle at a village celebrating some kind of fire festival, where the villagers sing and dance around a huge bonfire. The protagonists are swept into the festival as they try to avoid looking suspicious and we see the stony female lead dancing and actually enjoying herself. The film is marred a bit by the overly broad portrayal of two peasants who are constantly complaining and scheming (but always failing). They start to grate on the nerves quite a bit. As always Toshiro Mifune is wonderful to watch in both films, and the female lead, Misa Uehara, in The Hidden Fortress is great as a princess disguised as a mute peasant. I enjoyed both but I think neither rise to the level of my two favorite Kurosawa movies Seven Samurai and Ikiru (which is a contemporary one about an old bureaucrat rather than a historical samurai film).
I watched a few film noir, two by Fritz Lang, The Big Heat and Human Desire, and one by Nicholas Ray In a Lonely Place. The Big Heat is a little too police detective for me to really enjoy it. I prefer my noirs with the police as one more force working against the protagonist rather than as the protagonist. Human Desire on the other hand was an interesting one I hadn’t seen before, featuring Glenn Ford as a railroad man home from the army who falls in a love with a woman who watched her husband murder someone (on a train of course). My biggest issue with the plot was how the woman is treated. The film would work perfectly with her as an abused wife in a difficult situation who ends up wanting her husband dead because of how he treats her, but then late in the film it turns her into more of a femme fatale type. That shifts the film into a more clearcut moral trajectory for the male protagonist and I think blunts the tragedy of the story. In a Lonely Place is another great Ray film (I’m a fan of many of his) more psychological and domestic than many noirs. It keeps the (first time, at least) viewer guessing and features sgreat performances by both Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame.
I watched enough Ozu films that I’m not sure I can even remember all of them. Seeing a number of his films in a short period is really fascinating because of how much you can see repetition and variation at work. Certain actors appear across numerous films, sometimes as a very similar characters, sometimes in shifting roles; locations repeat (a bar called “Luna” appears in at least 3 of the ones I watched recently); even certain objects can be seen in multiple films. The stories are all about families and generally, marriage, but the situations and attitudes of the characters differ. So often you see Ozu really sympathizing with the younger generation (especially the young women/daughters), but without losing the perspective of the older generation. Ozu’s films can be very slow and quiet but I think that allows the viewer to spend a bit more time appreciating the visuals, the composition, the cuts, the colors, in a way that is very hard to do when everything moves fast: cut, cut, cut.
A new one for me was Agnes Varda’s Vagabond, a movie from the 80s about a young woman who lives on the road. The film opens with her body being found frozen in a field and then jumps back in time to her arrival in the local area and her interactions with various people. In the end, it’s a pretty bleak film about loneliness and freedom that I quite enjoyed.
Rewatched Godard’s 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her which is one of his earlier essayist films. The way he overlaps disparate sound with image always intrigues me even as it can frustrate. I suspect it would be less so if one understand the original French, as for me, my attention is split between looking the image and following the subtitles. This is not normally difficult, but Godard’s text is over philosophical or abstract and obliquely related to the image in a way that is harder to suture together than a conventional film where the subtitles are dialogue accompanying the images of people talking.
That’s enough about movies for now. I’ve also been working my way through Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun. Having only recently discovered Wolfe when I read his Latro books, when I read about his death recently I picked up a copy of the two volume edition of this novel/series, originally published as four books. It’s a fascinating work that is very much the kind of fantasy/science fiction I like. It takes places in a rich world, but Wolfe refuses to name and explain everything in the way that too many fantasy authors do. He throws out words that the read has to slowly infer the meaning of. Early on he briefly implies the place the protagonist lives is some kind of former space ship, and only many many chapters later does he talk about how the walls were all metal. What starts out as a seeming fantasy world shifts in the readers perspective as more details come out. I’m disappointed with myself that I didn’t read this books long ago (they’ve certainly come up a lot, but I never read anything about them that convinced me to pick them up).
Also working my way through Yoshikazu Yasuhiko’s Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin, the latest in my ongoing introduction to that franchise. This was clearly an important series when it came out, as unlike most manga it has very long chapters and lots of color pages (multiple multi-page sequences per volume). It’s more of an epic than the other Gundam I’ve seen/read, taking a jump into a very long flashback at one point and following a whole series of characters (perhaps too many, as they often feel underdeveloped). I’m almost halfway through this and still enjoying it.
- Slant Magazine’s 100 Best Film Noirs is an interesting list, that one can easily mine for viewing recommendations. Interestingly they have In a Lonely Place as #1. I don’t agree with that, but I can’t argue that 2 and 3 are Out of the Past and The Big Sleep two of my favorites.
- Jon Schwarz at the Intercept on Washington’s Farewell Address in light of the Mueller Report is an interesting reading of history in light of the present.
- Matthias Wivel at The Comics Journal on the latest Posy Simmonds book
- Moving Pictures: Ozu’s Late Spring by Jack Miller is a nice short reading of one of the Ozu films I recently rewatched.
- Settings and Performances in Late Autumn by Jacob Leigh A longer piece (with lots of screenshots) about one of the other Ozu films I rewatched.
- Alan Sepinwall on the set of the forthcoming Deadwood movie I am so excited for this, as Deadwood is one of my favorite TV shows ever.