If there's a Hell for film noir characters, and it's not their own tortured lives, it might look like 1967's Branded to Kill (殺しの烙印). A satire more cruel than funny, a sincere Post Modern action film, director Seijin Suzuki riffed from a run of the mill yakuza movie script to create a commentary on film noir character tropes. The comments take the form of stripping from the world the characters inhabit any semblance of reason or dignity. It's a clever, nicely shot absurdist nightmare.
The story follows Goro Hanada (Joe Shishido), a yakuza hitman, ranked the third best marksman the criminal underworld. Most of the time he's cool and reserved, except the nostalgic smell of boiling rice seems to make him almost orgasmically excited.
His wife, Mami (Mariko Ogawa), is almost always naked and is almost always trying to get the generally distracted Goro to have sex with her. His attentions, though, are diverted by the cold and untouchable Misako Nakajo (Annu Mari) who hires him to kill someone involved in an overseas diamond smuggling operation.
He meets her in the rain and most shots of her afterwards include raindrops or something that looks like raindrops which she doesn't seem to notice. She collects dead birds and butterflies which seem to symbolise Goro trapped in his obsession with her. "I love you," she says at one point, looking at some dead birds in a cage, to which he angrily responds, "Don't despise me!" A subversion of the frequently portrayed barrier between a male protagonist and a femme fatale where there's a simultaneous sense of rejection and attraction.
The triangle here loosely resembles many seen in great films noir, from Vertigo to Out of the Past--the man, the femme fatale, and the available girl he's less interested in. Only here, everyone's motives are ultimately portrayed as cheap or childish beneath the stylistic veneer.
The movie also mocks the portrayal of alcoholism in films noir--at the beginning of the film, Goro cautions a young yakuza against drinking whisky before a job. One drink, and the young man turns into a cartoonish, stumbling drunkard who dies in a blaze of glory. Throughout the film afterwards, one drink turns even the sharpest character into a gibbering buffoon.
The end of the film mocks the intimacy that arises between two absurdly skilled adversary killers who find themselves in a stalemate. One might almost think it's a parody of the extended standoff in John Woo's The Killer if Branded to Kill weren't a much older film. The mysterious "Number 1 Hitman" (Koji Nanbara) and Goro end up in such an extended standoff, each with a gun pointed at the other, that they call a truce for periods of sleep where they get into bed together handcuffed to the frame.
The film's finale, in a decadent and grim satire of supreme skill in committing violence, drains every last bit of mystique from the trope, even taking the strangely beautiful relationship between Misako and Goro built throughout the film and reducing it to something small, sad, and silly. Though, in making it to be silly in the end, it somehow makes the rest of their relationship more beautiful.
The film has a lot in common with Godard's Pierrot le Fou, which also subverted conventions of action and suspense films by highlighting their artificiality. But there was nonetheless a sense that Godard had an affection for the characters. I think there's empathy for Suzuki's characters in Branded to Kill but I feel like this made him want to pull their wings off even more.
Current Music: "Dirge" - Bob Dylan and The Band
There was a 50% off sale on Criterion movies at Barnes and Noble yesterday, plus another 10% off for members of the store club, so I exercised a little less restraint than I usually do. Not just because it was such a good sale but also because I saw this in the last Barnes and Noble in San Diego county that sells movies two days after I'd noticed Fry's Electronics had done away with their Criterion section. The End, for being able to buy many Criterion films in stores, is nigh, I think. I suspect they'll do the same thing to the movie and music section in the Barnes and Noble that they've done to the other movie and music sections in other Barnes and Nobles--turn it into a second kid's books section, to supplement the one they all already have. Kids are for the most part seemingly the only ones left tickled by the novelty of actually going somewhere and holding something in your hand before you buy it.
Those are all blu-rays I bought, it's nice to see Criterion isn't giving in to the seemingly requisite blue band on the top that makes many an otherwise beautiful example of box art look cheap and ugly. Criterion always makes the best package art, though I preferred the old DVD clamshell art for The Red Shoes of a drawing of a ballet slipper and the cover of Late Spring really ought to have a larger, more prominent picture of Setsuko Hara.
I'm still amazed I managed to restrain myself from getting the new Picnic at Hanging Rock big box set. I had to cut myself off or I'd be living in an alley under a crude shelter made of blu-rays and cases.
Twitter Sonnet #645
Redeemed barrels bar fake plastic monkeys.
Real plastic anthropoids water the cans.
Anomalous kegs throw unseen donkeys.
Machine of the shrunken t-shirt is Man's.
Multiple computers live for Muppet.
A mind on a knitted lolly grabs fall.
Tom Waits had "a bottle full of trumpet."
Evil's face hid the Doctor in a wall.
Walking Flash is a disgrace to spandex.
No half dollar looks for a floorless fan.
Cookie constellations make an index.
Giant unicycles crush the bike man.
A machine's red eye began with "Daisy".
Doughy bonnets distinguish the lazy.
Current Music: "Highest Trails Above" - The Ramones
Happy Birthday, Peter Murphy, another free chapter of my comic, The Casebook of Boschen and Nesuko, is online, Chapter Five. Look for Six next week on Hunter S. Thompson's birthday.|
I had a dream last night about a triceratops and an ankylosaur which is a good enough reason to talk about the Sirenia Digest, a monthly publication of vignettes by my palaeontologist friend Caitlin R. Kiernan, though the new story in the Digest, "Far From Any Shore", is about archaeologists. It's a nice Lovecraftian tale, not just because it contains Lovecraft's soapstone artefacts which Caitlin has written about in other work--it effectively captures the Lovecraftian impression of minds damaged through contact with the strange, the jumbling of perceptions of past and present, real and unreal. Also included are references to The King In Yellow and anyone who liked True Detective might find reading Caitlin's work a rewarding experience.
There's also a reference in the new story to a Castle Rock which I thought for a moment might be a Stephen King reference despite knowing Caitlin isn't especially fond of King. But it may also be a reference to Lord of the Flies, as it was for King originally, and of course there are plenty of real life Castle Rocks, including right in my home town--this being a Castle Rock that's a Castlerock, apparently the name being so familiar now they've decided it's one word. It looks awkward. I want to read it as "Castler Ock", as though Doctor Octopus has a reputation in chess circles for castling. But it's pretty rare for anyone not to castle in chess. No, no, it won't do.
Current Music: "Entropy" - VNV Nation
Morality is a dream and a nightmare, a promise of justice and a cunning trap. Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur's 1934 film Crime Without Passion is an anomaly in a lot of ways. It has the suffocating snare of guilt inspired by popular morality characteristic of film noir years before the first films noir are generally considered to have emerged; it combines fantasy, surrealism, mystery, and courtroom drama. It's fascinating, audacious, and brilliant.
Despite a title card at the beginning informing us the film passed the motion picture code, and it was released just two months after the code essentially became law in July, 1934, the film features several things that would be absent from Production Code era Hollywood. The nightmarish opening sequence, which Leonard Maltin in his brief review of the film at TCM.com says was directed by Slavko Vorkapich, features footage of three essentially naked women portraying the mythological Furies, in process shots sprouting from the blood of victims of violent crimes.
Brief shots of crimes being carried out are interspersed with rapid cuts to the Furies and human skulls laughing or perhaps snarling, the whole sequence something that would have seemed at home in a Carl Dreyer or Luis Brunuel film.
From this sequence, we go to the offices of criminal defence lawyer Lee Gentry, high above the city where he looks down at the people in the street and wonders how all those people can bear to continue living in this horrible world. It's a strange scene of introspection for a character mostly portrayed as a ruthless, diabolical advocate for villains. In the same scene, his secretary actually tells him he's "too nice" as he describes the difficulty he has breaking up with his girlfriend. He thanks his secretary but says, "Fortunately for yourself, I've never been in love with you. In love, I am a monster."
He says the normal acts of affection like hand-holding and kissing aren't enough--he wants to become intimate with the personalities of the women he loves so, he says, when he loses interest the women seem to feel like wives whose husbands are leaving them. Claude Rains plays Gentry and he does a brilliant job in many scenes, like this one, where his character would seem to be presented as a kind of two dimensional villain that would satisfy the Hays office and yet, to anyone with a slightly more complex view of human nature, Gentry is a man who punishes himself with an unfair self-image and it's this unfair self-image that leads him to make mistakes later on.
The press and law enforcement blame him for getting criminals off the hook in the courtroom and yet the film crucially never explicitly says any of Gentry's clients are actually guilty. Meanwhile, later in the film a man is clearly condemned by false notions on the part of law enforcement, but because the film on its most superficial layer had set up that character as a villain, his punishment by law enforcement is portrayed as right, the vengeance of the Furies in a very subtle mockery of code morality.
In a really amazing tangle of moral layers, Gentry is made afraid of capture himself for the murder of a woman he had in fact been trying to save from suicide. When he finds himself alone with her on the floor, a gunshot wound in her head and he holding the gun, he actually splits into two characters, a panicking corporeal Gentry and a smiling and cool translucent Gentry who, like a devil on his shoulder, walks him through the careful steps of removing pieces of evidence from the crime scene.
The ghostly Gentry is his courtroom persona, the devil created as much by the press and the cops who hate him as he is by Gentry himself. Or rather, and this is really great, its Gentry's perception of their perception. This very nice man is on some level ashamed of this image and yet he also tries to own it, to take pride in it. Rains shows this by giving the persona an even more broadly villainous air than Prince John in The Adventures of Robin Hood.
As fate creates a path for Gentry that brings his psyche to a breaking point he actually even mentions the Furies in dialogue. This broad, unforgiving morality of America, this frantic and relentless drive to figure out a Right that no-one knows while being afraid that other people know. The twisted nature of morality that films noir would brilliantly undermine for decades to come.
Current Music: "One More Time" - The Cure
It's easier for people living in comfort and luxury to say it's because of a fundamental order to the universe that other people don't. But those who live in misery and poverty might also subscribe to such an idea in the vain hope of making sanity from the insanity of life. This is one phenomenon presented in microcosm in Bong Joon-ho's brilliant 2013 film Snowpiercer.
The film depicts a future where a global climate calamity has reduced the human race to less than twenty thousand, all inhabiting an enormous train called the Snowpiercer. Designed originally for a luxury vacations, the train traverses the globe, its enormous cars and almost entirely self-sustaining energy and ecosystem make it a serviceable refuge. Provided, Tilda Swinton's Magaret Thatcher-ish leader Mason informs us, balance is maintained. And, like Thatcher, Mason isn't averse to strongman tactics.
In the rear of the train dwell the bulk of the population living in horrific conditions. Curtis (Chris Evans), the unofficial leader the group, works with his mentor Gilliam (John Hurt) in planning and organising a revolution that means storming the front of the train, the engine, where the train's inventor, Wilford (Ed Harris), lives.
The movie's based on a French comic though one can't help thinking there's some resemblance to Korean politics, at least North Korea, where the difference between those at the front of the train and the majority at the back is stark indeed. But this is a South Korean movie, despite the dialogue being 80% English. One of the stand-outs of the impressive cast is Song Kang-ho as Namgoong Minsu, the engineer who designed the train's security systems and is enlisted to aid the rebels in exchange for a drug called Kronol for himself and his daughter, Yona (Go Ah-sung). I'd seen Kang-ho in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, the first in Park Chan-wook's vengeance trilogy, but he doesn't make quite the impression he does in Snowpiercer as the world weary and sometimes strangely reckless Namgoong. He feels no compunction in supporting his daughter's drug addiction along with his own and, considering the state of things, it's hard to blame him.
Speaking of Park Chan-wook, who was a producer on Snowpiercer, and his vengeance trilogy, a scene in Snowpiercer recalls perhaps the most famous scene of that trilogy's most well regarded film, Oldboy--it's exciting seeing American and English stars taking part in the kind of action sequence that has become largely extinct in American action films in favour of lazier motion blurred close-ups to fake a fight. Like the long, messy corridor brawl in Oldboy, Snowpiercer features a sequence in a train car of people fighting with hatchets. It doesn't really attempt to match the brilliance of the Oldboy sequence but it thankfully does come from the same ethic where vigorous and apparently close choreography is shown in lengthy takes of the actors in full frame.
Tilda Swinton's performance is the other stand out--nearly every review compares her to Margaret Thatcher and it's clear Swinton had the infamous Prime Minister in mind, adopting a Lincolnshire accent and heavily patronising tone around obtrusive dentures.
She has unshakeable faith in order, possibly not even aware of how her personal philosophy is founded on selfishness. The small world of the train is, like many great works of science fiction, like a hypothetical exercise distilling large scale social issues to a smaller context. The ugliness of the aristocracy living comfortably at the expense of the poor is thrown into much sharper relief. But here's Margaret Thatcher herself explaining "the gap", as usual apparently not conscious of the horror implicit in her worldview:
Twitter Sonnet #644
Unshaken cocoanut caught the dry heart.
Unattained ice waylays to wet tofu.
Stone dictionary pockets fall apart.
Fire descends at the dizzy curfew.
Older colours spiral across the clams.
Hairless faces watch from the yoghurt shop.
Grasses in the kangaroos shake like hands.
Score is you're not little people you're cop.
Delayed apple heights redden the gully.
Wild turpentine glimmers like a wish.
Metal men's books need water to sully.
Emperors are the penguins on the dish.
Lighter snowflakes'll break the barricade.
Tea and fingers drain from the cold arcade.
Current Music: "Neighbourhood Bully" - Bob Dylan
|» Graduation that Never Occurs/Occurred |
The past forty eight hours have been the best for unreliable memory that I can remember. I watched Blade Runner on Blu-Ray last night--which is as unbelievably gorgeous as you might expect--and this morning I watched the twenty third episode of Revolutionary Girl Utena, the final episode of the "Black Rose" arc. I'd forgotten how good those last two episodes were.
It's a story arc involving a young man named Souji Mikage who lures students to his "seminar" where he listens through an intercom as the students tell him about their problems from the inside of an elevator descending. They descend to the depths of the Nemuro building, located on the campus of Ohtori Academy, the school where the whole series takes place.
The arc takes up ten episodes of the thirty nine episode series, episodes fourteen to twenty three. Throughout the series, the protagonist, Utena Tenjou, has sword duels with opponents in a duelling arena located in a forbidden forest on the school grounds. The object of each duel is to knock a rose off an opponent's lapel and the winner of the duel becomes fiancé or fiancée to Anthy Himemiya, the "Rose Bride".
Utena, we learn early on, carries a memory of a prince who comforted her when she was a child and gave her the rose seal ring that would mark her as duellist later in life. Utena had been charmed by the prince but, we're told, instead of the experience making her want to marry a prince, it makes her want to become a prince, something which the ongoing duels for the Rose Bride essentially allow her to do.
In the "Black Rose" arc, Mikage gives the troubled students a black rose to wear in their lapels when they challenge Utena. The idea is that the one who finally wins the Bride for Mikage will kill her--it's not quite clear in the beginning why Mikage wants her dead.
The black roses are somehow harvested, it's implied, from the bodies of one hundred students who committed suicide in the building years ago. They're plucked from what looks like an aquarium by a boy named Mamiya, possibly Mikage's boyfriend in what seems to be a reflection of Utena and Anthy's relationship.
The final episodes of the arc make the parallels even more apparent as we watch Mikage's memories of the child Mamiya he tried to save from a terminal illness by compelling the sacrifice of the one hundred students--he tells Utena they are alike in wanting to assert the reality of their memories on the present, and it's at this point the viewer realises that this is the motive that united all of Mikage's previous victims.
And then it gets really great as the memories of Mikage's not only don't seem to be accurate but his realisation of their inaccuracy seems to threaten his existence and everyone's memory of his existence. Like a man composed entirely of false memories. At the same time, the incident offers Utena the opportunity to prove her identity is more than memory filtered through desire.
This is my third time watching through the series, I doubt it'll be my last.
|» Reverence for Poison|
Escaping the phoniness of big city society, one might find only more deception in small town America. That's what happens to bigshot reporter Wally Cook (Fredric March) in 1937's Nothing Sacred, a Technicolor screwball comedy remarkable for a few reasons, chief among them Carole Lombard.
She plays the aptly named Hazel Flagg, a small town girl who lies to Cook about her radiation poisoning so she can get a trip to New York. He makes her the toast of the town, even though he bitterly observes to her more than once that all the praise she gets from politicians, entertainers, and publications--including his own--are all entirely self-serving, to elevate the image of those praising Flagg.
There's a lot of amazing, full colour footage of New York City in the mid 1930s. Though cinematography and makeup were clearly designed for a black and white film so I almost thought the movie might be colourised until I saw Technicolor indeed in the opening credits.
So unlike most colour Hollywood films of the 30s, 40s, and 50s, Nothing Sacred has a lot of rough, dark shadows and white powder is somewhat caked on the actors' faces.
Despite being only just slightly over an hour long, Wikipedia has this to say about the screenplay credited to Ben Hecht: "Budd Schulberg and Dorothy Parker were called in to write the final scenes and several others also made contributions to the screenplay, including: David O. Selznick, William Wellman, Sidney Howard, Moss Hart, George S. Kaufman and Robert Carson." I have no particular complaints about the screenplay but it's mainly Lombard's comedic timing that carries the picture. Whether it's her perfectly timed accidental grimace for a newspaper photographer or a weird bedroom punching match with March so that she can fake an illness. I think it was a little dig at the censors that punches were the solution after March tells her, standing over her lying in bed, "We gotta raise your pulse to a hundred and sixty, quick. We gotta have you gasping, panting, and covered in a cold sweat inside of five minutes." I want to believe Dorothy Parker wrote those lines.
|» When You're Down and Out and You Eat People|
When is cannibalism just cannibalism? Almost never in movies and television it seems. To-day I watched the first episode of Tokyo Ghoul (東京喰種), a new anime series that premièred three days ago in Japan. I thought it was good, not spectacular, but maybe good enough to watch the next episode.
In this case, the cannibalism seems to be a metaphor for otaku culture. Police going over the crime scene of a "binge eater" ghoul remark on how useless ghouls are, how they only take and never give anything back. The central character, Kaneki, a shy young man who finds he's become a ghoul after receiving organ donations from a ghoul who tried to eat him, walks through a crowd and is alarmed by how sensitive he is to the presence of other people's flesh--particularly of women and children.
He's horrified by his own compulsion and I think the terror the show is tapping into is a vast since of guilt conferred on otaku by a society that kind of assumes all otaku are paedophiles and rapists. Now he's got the organs of a woman he was attracted to inside him--she was killed in the middle of trying to eat him apparently by a complete accident and surgeons used her organs to save the critically injured Kaneki. So tied in with the horror of what society says about his compulsions is the shy bookworm boy's fear of women's bodies, something the show comes back to when the character introduced as his mentor in ghoulhood is a young woman he'd had a crush on--she offers him the flesh he dearly desires to eat but can't bring himself to out of moral restraint.
It reminded me a little of David Cronenberg's Rabid--as in Rabid, the central character finds himself unable to digest regular food after he's changed into a supernatural being, though that movie was more about objectification of women in popular culture.
Visually, the show isn't particularly interesting, its design downright academic and the action consisting of what must at this point be outlined step by step in a manual somewhere of tentacles grabbing people and throwing them into walls. But it's nice to see a horror anime with these kinds of thematic layers, which of course it probably gets from the manga series its based on. The anime adaptation hasn't done anything to prevent me from wanting to see the next one, though.
Twitter Sonnet #643
Reasonless calcium builds no real bone.
Almond planets stick their innocent rings.
Uranium Smurfs will never atone.
A ten point belly flop dream still now stings.
Walking wig stores curl forward by strand legs.
Only fission powers the typo bay.
Empty aisles bespeak the sale priced eggs.
Dr. Crusher, first heal thy hypospray.
Repealed dog-sled waxes clog the cloudburst.
Godlike rakes force clutter to reconvene.
Smiling yellow sprites trick their liverwurst.
One huntress remains of the Sevateem.
Dehydrated puzzles expand in space.
Liquorice soup boils stars in God's face.
|» A Place of Muddy, Villainous, Treacherous, Slightly Bad Goings On|
How did a lavish historical fiction film made by some of the most talented people ever to work in Hollywood turn into a two bit melodrama? The answer is censorship, the Hays Code, the sudden legality of which forced drastic changes during production of Howard Hawks' 1935 film Barbary Coast. What promised to be a fascinatingly unusual film about hard living in mid-19th century San Francisco is rendered run of the mill by a variety of changes to the script even the great screenwriter Ben Hecht couldn't make work. But there're still some good reasons to watch the movie, from the amazing production design to good performances by the lead actors.
The opening of the film, featuring Miriam Hopkins as Mary Rutledge, arriving by ship to meet her fiancé, creates an extraordinary sense of a distinct environment--San Francisco's docks, a place of fog and treacherous mud.
A later scene in a marketplace shows even more impressive design, with detailed stalls and booths rich in character, crowding into the screen.
A story that was originally to be about prostitution becomes a thin melodrama about how Hopkins becomes the kept woman of the town's crime boss, Luis Chamalis, played by Edward G. Robinson. A woman kept by a man who doesn't expect sex from her for giving her money, fine clothes, and jewellery. Robinson plays Chamalis like one of his gangsters transplanted to the wild west--in a fascinating scene, the sheriff comes to arrest one of Chamalis' men only for Chamalis to turn around, bring the town judge into the conversation, open court right in the middle of the saloon, and find Chamalis' henchman innocent. Here Robinson really gets to be a Caesar.
His insistence that Mary love him back before they sleep together would be intriguing, almost like Conrad Veidt's character in The Thief of Bagdad, if one didn't sense how it was borne of censorship constraints. As a counterpoint, Joel McCrea turns up as the naive Jim Carmichael, a gold prospector and a poet, so pure of heart he's almost annoying, saved only by McCrea's realistic performance.
The climax of the film runs through a list of standard melodramatic points. One can only speculate how great this movie might have been.
|» Nesuko is Tested|
I drove all the way to Tim's last night to upload to-day's chapter of Boschen and Nesuko. So happy birthday Nathaniel Hawthorne--and lest you think I'm ignoring Independence Day, I'll refer to the Wikipedia entry for "Young Goodman Brown" which quotes Stephen King as saying it's "one of the ten best stories written by an American." An excerpt from the story: |
And, maddened with despair, so that he laughed loud and long, did Goodman Brown grasp his staff and set forth again, at such a rate that he seemed to fly along the forest path rather than to walk or run. The road grew wilder and drearier and more faintly traced, and vanished at length, leaving him in the heart of the dark wilderness, still rushing onward with the instinct that guides mortal man to evil. The whole forest was peopled with frightful sounds—the creaking of the trees, the howling of wild beasts, and the yell of Indians; while sometimes the wind tolled like a distant church bell, and sometimes gave a broad roar around the traveller, as if all Nature were laughing him to scorn. But he was himself the chief horror of the scene, and shrank not from its other horrors.
"Ha! ha! ha!" roared Goodman Brown when the wind laughed at him.
"Let us hear which will laugh loudest. Think not to frighten me with your deviltry. Come witch, come wizard, come Indian powwow, come devil himself, and here comes Goodman Brown. You may as well fear him as he fear you."
In truth, all through the haunted forest there could be nothing more frightful than the figure of Goodman Brown. On he flew among the black pines, brandishing his staff with frenzied gestures, now giving vent to an inspiration of horrid blasphemy, and now shouting forth such laughter as set all the echoes of the forest laughing like demons around him. The fiend in his own shape is less hideous than when he rages in the breast of man. Thus sped the demoniac on his course, until, quivering among the trees, he saw a red light before him, as when the felled trunks and branches of a clearing have been set on fire, and throw up their lurid blaze against the sky, at the hour of midnight. He paused, in a lull of the tempest that had driven him onward, and heard the swell of what seemed a hymn, rolling solemnly from a distance with the weight of many voices. He knew the tune; it was a familiar one in the choir of the village meeting-house. The verse died heavily away, and was lengthened by a chorus, not of human voices, but of all the sounds of the benighted wilderness pealing in awful harmony together. Goodman Brown cried out, and his cry was lost to his own ear by its unison with the cry of the desert.
You can find the full text of the story here.
So my Internet's back to-day. I assumed it wouldn't be, which is why I drove into deepest Santee to upload it from Tim's. I even asked his advice on buying laptops--he recommended research and carefully weighing options and ordering from New Egg. "But I want one to-morrow!" I said. So we looked through Best Buy's web site and I planned on going in first thing this morning.
Then last night, I decided to try restarting my computer and when it came back on, Internet worked fine. This was at 1:30am. I did feel silly. Why didn't I try this before? Well, I'd unhooked modem and router several times and I thought this was the same thing that restarting the computer accomplished. Guess not . . .