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The Interrogated Mask Aug. 25th, 2016 @ 03:17 pm

There is an intimate relationship between post-modernism of the 1960s and civil rights movements as the former was largely about subverting the traditional narratives that worked against the latter. 1969's Funeral Parade of Roses (薔薇の葬列) is about gay Tokyo subculture in the 1960s with a particular focus on "gayboys", the term used in Japan for transvestites employed as hostesses of gay bars. The film subverts both typical stories and psychological inferences made by the traditional heterosexual culture in a wonderfully sharp New Wave style. It features beautiful cinematography by Toshio Matsumoto and a magnetic star in Peter.

Best known in the west for playing Kyoami (analogue of the Fool from King Lear) in Akira Kurosawa's Ran from the mid-80s, Peter is the professional name of Shinnosuke Ikehata, a famous drag queen in Japan. In Funeral Parade of Roses, he plays Eddie, the most sought after hostess of the bar he works at, much to the jealousy of his coworker, Leda (Osamu Ogasawara), in particular.

Wikipedia says the film was an influence on A Clockwork Orange and it's easy to see in the film's fight sequences. Whenever the transvestites brawl with each other or with a gang of girls with absurdly phoney tattoos in the street, the film is sped up and accompanied on the soundtrack by Offenbach's famous can-can music synthesised at high speed. In this case, in a very New Wave manner, the technique is used to intentionally diminish the dramatic impact of what's occurring.

Similarly, the film breaks in on its fictional narrative to feature interviews with the actors or to simply show the artificiality of a scene. A sex scene between Peter and an American man abruptly stops to show the whole film crew crowded around the bed and Peter casually getting dressed. This subverts both the drama over whether the American realises Eddie is a guy as well as another theme introduced, the tensions about western cultural influence on Japan.

A later break in the narrative is a brief interview with Peter where he deliberately spoils the end of the film in casually talking about the ways he relates to his character--similar lifestyle and interests--and ways in which he is different--the film's ultra-violent rendition of Oedipus Rex which is part of a subversion about the issues with a father figure that pop psychology tended to infer about homosexuals and transvestites.

The effect of the film's relentless breaking down of presumptions is like a threshing that removes the chaff of bullshit and helps reveal the simple grain of reality, like the fact that Peter's rather beautiful.

Eddie visits a museum a couple times during the film where a narrator talks about the necessity of psychological masks where a real person underneath is inevitably lonely. The obvious relevance and sombreness of this is continually subverted by a shot of a man wearing a false beard that's blown off by the wind. The film's post-modern subversions work both to show up unjust perceptions of others and the fragility of human nature which needs to construct perceptions around itself. Like the films of the French New Wave, it's wrong to say the film is simply attacking dreams.

A scene where Eddie and other transvestites as well as other men and women dance and smoke pot under the benevolent gaze of The Beatles on a massive poster seems to say a lot about shared humanity and cross cultural influence.

Twitter Sonnet #905

Misfortune chose the falling powder room.
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However bright the plates can be they're groomed.
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The light we called for wheat became the maize.
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The wrong projectile flew before the pult.
At night tattoos depart and rally trucks.
The animated ink cascades like sparrows moult.
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In cement skies the heat produced a rift.
Current Location: A club
Current Mood: hungryhungry
Current Music: "Beyond the Sea" - Bobby Darin

Hands that Need Holding Aug. 24th, 2016 @ 07:04 pm

Most films with a mentally impaired character are usually in part about how this person's relatives have difficulty finding time for a personal life. 2014's Next to Her (את לי לילה‎‎) is about a young woman who is distressed by any potential separation from her mentally impaired sister. It's a nice character drama with very good performances that feels oddly incomplete in a way I can't put my finger on.

Chelli (Liron Ben-Shlush) lives alone with her sister, Gabby (Dana Ivgy), for whom she's been the sole caregiver for years. After she comes home from work one day to find Gabby banging her head on the floor, she's forced to take her to a care centre during work hours thereafter.

After some encouragement, Chelli awkwardly begins to explore aspects of personal pursuits she's long avoided. She gets her eyebrows plunked and belatedly accepts an invitation from a male co-worker, Zohar (Yaakov Zada Daniel), to go to a night club. Security won't let her in so she waits around for him and makes some transparent excuses for why she's there when he comes out.

He takes her home to where he lives with his mother and it becomes pretty clear that Chelli's main objective is to get laid. This sequence of scenes is nicely put together and the dialogue is just right, Chelli's excuse that she was at another party with friends who've gone home being just the right kind of insubstantial for him to see through and realise she doesn't mind he sees through it. Her initiating some kissing after awkward small talk feels very real too.

But it turns out he likes her beyond the one night stand and, slowly, despite her trepidation, he becomes her boyfriend and even moves in with her and Gabby.

Gabby can't speak beyond muttering a few words here and there--usually, "No do" or "Chelli" or "Coffee". So Chelli does a lot of interpreting for her and it often feels like her interpretations are either mistaken or insincere, something Zohar quickly seems to pick up on. Chelli is oddly insistent that Gabby not masturbate and pulls her hand away every time she tries, something that perplexes Zohar. When he witnesses Chelli chastising Gabby for playing with herself, he suggests he and Chelli simply go to the next room and let Gabby do what's natural. Chelli can't think of a real reason to object and she seems like she's never actually thought about it before.

There's a lot about her relationship with Gabby that Chelli hasn't seemed to consider, which eventually leads to a terrible mistake. But it seems as though Chelli can get past anything so long as she has Gabby with her, whether Gabby likes it or not.

The film is very effective at building its characters. Dana Ivgy's performance as Gabby is particularly impressive and uncompromising.
Current Location: An apartment
Current Mood: restlessrestless
Current Music: "Boys Don't Cry (Unplugged)" - The Cure

Leather Bottles Aug. 23rd, 2016 @ 02:26 pm

It's hard enough breaking from the flow of tradition and social pressure, it's harder when you have something in your heart you never thought to look for. 1964's The Leather Boys is based on a novel that more directly explores the difficulties a young gay man faced in the 1960s but the film is nicely shot, despite coming from Superman IV director Sidney J. Furie, with naturalistic performances that spend a great deal of time dwelling on the tensions a young gay man would have faced.

The beginning of the film is filled with energy--the hyperactive biker teens at the cafe turns into the energetic, mad dash wedding of Reggie (Colin Campbell) and Dot (Rita Tushingham).

These two kids who spend most of their time wearing leather jackets and talking motorcycles are suddenly on a well worn, rapid treadmill. Parents who a couple scenes earlier disapproved of the pair are now cooing over cutting the wedding cake.

Something happens when they have sex on their honeymoon. The film doesn't say exactly what but Dot is clearly disappointed and Reggie is annoyed. Still, it seems perfectly innocent to her to start spending more time at the beauty salon and chatting with tourists than she does with Reggie. The pattern settles in when they get home. When they're apart, Reggie finds a million things to complain about regarding her, when they're together, they fight. Gradually he finds he prefers hanging out with his fellow biker, Pete (Dudley Sutton).

The film does directly broach the subject of homosexuality and it's pretty clear that Pete is gay and comfortable with it. It also doesn't demonise homosexuality but it does, in the end, ultimately back away from its own thematic momentum in a way that suggests the film was forced to go a certain way by production code or studio. But like Alfred Hitchcock was still happy with the 90% of his film Suspicion before the studio enforced ending, The Leather Boys maintains a nice artistic existence for most of its run time. Colin Campbell gives a subtle performance as the young man who for the most part doesn't seem to know what his own problem is before it becomes something he's afraid to acknowledge and explore.

The sense of social momentum is well conveyed and it's illuminating to note the rebel biker gang of the Wild One mode is just as rigidly traditional in some ways as their parents.

Footage of the film was later used for The Smiths' "Girlfriend in a Coma" music video which takes on a new significance when one knows the film's subtext.

Current Location: A bike
Current Mood: busybusy
Current Music: "Brown Skin Woman" - Muddy Waters

A Power Alien to Gods Aug. 22nd, 2016 @ 06:39 pm

How does one make a documentary about the Internet in under two hours? Werner Herzog made his 2016 film, Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World, as though he were making a movie about another planet. He mentions falling in love more often than most filmmakers probably would in making such a documentary. His heart pervades the film along with his sense of wonder at something peculiarly both frightening and beautiful.

He begins at the beginning, with the birth of the Internet and one of its pioneers describing the first computer to computer communication in the late 1960s. For music, the scene is accompanied by the vorspiel from Wagner's Das Rheingold, the same music Herzog used in his 1979 version of Nosferatu, which may tell you something about his perspective right there. But of course, Das Rheingold is the first opera of Wagner's four part Der Ring des Nibelungen, a story about the world of gods being replaced by the world of humanity, and Das Rheingold's opening music captures the sense of something weird and vast slowly and beautifully coming to life.

He mentions a mysterious "druid dwarf" he imagines when an MMORPG addict in rehab declines describing to him her alteregos for fear of experiencing again her withdrawal symptoms. Video games are alien to Herzog and he's fascinated by the South Korean couple who let their baby die because they were busy caring for a virtual baby and, one thinks, yes, this is exactly the kind of thing that would interest Herzog.

He talks to neuroscientists who discuss the very real possibility of people's brains being connected and conversing in a universal language of pure thought. He visits a man who builds little robots who play soccer and gently encourages the man to express his affection for one of the robots. Herzog's clearly fascinated by the opportunities for connectivity and is charmed by the hapless pioneers who created this simple thing which, in the 70s, had only a few hundred users and no need for any kind of security.

In an eerie, striking scene, he interviews the family of a teenage girl who died in a car accident, pictures of her decapitated corpse proliferated by internet trolls and sent directly to the family. Herzog has the parents standing while their other three daughters sit in complete silence in sombre clothes, trays of muffins incongruous in the foreground, everyone looking directly at the camera with the lines from the ceiling in the background converging symmetrically to the centre like a shot from a Stanley Kubrick movie. The scene starkly demonstrates how horrible anonymous people on the internet can be while at the some time showing how very strange this new kind of horrible experience is. The mother comments that she thinks the internet is the Antichrist and it's very easy to see her point of view.

He talks to people who discuss the decreased level of human interaction that comes with the internet. He talks to Elon Musk about his plans to colonise Mars and enthusiastically volunteers to go along. He also talks to some genetic scientists who enlisted internet gamers to volunteer to participate in a game to create new molecules to assist cancer research. There's a meandering quality to the documentary that feels very much like Herzog probing the edges of strange new forest.

Twitter Sonnet #904

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Resetting vacuum cleaners may avert the dust.
No storm could break beyond the floating farm.
Campaigns we launched for heads were now a bust.
The walking bed encouraged rest by force.
A game of loans'll wager chance for fate.
A starless trek returns on dusty course.
The telephones escaped Adama's pate.
A stepping stone declares for sitting down.
The river runs so long as there's a clown.
Current Location: The hard drive
Current Mood: busybusy
Current Music: "The Hardest Word" - Kirsty MacColl

Through the Mists of Memory Emerged Nothing Aug. 21st, 2016 @ 05:31 pm

Hey, remember that movie with Orson Welles and Oliver Reed? You know, 1967's I'll Never Forget What's'isname, directed by Michael Winner. It's the one with short attention span editing to distract from its vapid statement and conventional plot masquerading as revolutionary.

Orson Welles receives top billing as Jonathan Lute, head of an advertising company, but he only appears in a few scenes. The film is told from the point of view of Andrew Quint (Reed), who quits Lute's company at the beginning of the film to work at an independent little magazine run by Nicholas (Norman Rodway). Andrew complains about the soulessness of his former job while Lute cynically smiles and leans back, making sinister, general statements like, "All human life is waste."

The Wikipedia synopsis says this is what the movie's all about but 90% of the film is devoted to Andrew's love life. So much plot is stuffed into his relationship status the movie acts like it never needs to stop and think about what's going on. Andrew's in the middle of a divorce from his beautiful young blonde wife, Louise (Wendy Craig), except she's always too busy getting ready for a party to discuss it with him while he's there, except for one scene where they end up having sex.

He's also seeing a beautiful blonde model, Carla (Ann Lynn), who works for Lute's ad company and who seems only mildly ruffled when he tells her he might need to break up with her on some vague newly found principles. Then he's off to meet with his beautiful blonde girlfriend, Josie (Marianne Faithfull), who's too busy trying on a tutu to discuss breaking up with him.

And, finally, he gets to work seducing the beautiful blonde virgin, Georgina (Carol White), secretary at the independent magazine he works at now. The film frequently jump cuts in the middle of conversations, Andrew going all over London to have the same vapid conversation about how he wants something more and keeps flirting with girls and no-one's sure what love is and commitment is. The editing may partly be influenced by the experimental cutting style in Jean-Luc Godard's films at the time but they reminded me more of Orson Welles. But while Welles' quickfire editing in Citizen Kane or Lady from Shanghai showed an instinct for the pace of human thought, Winner's editing is curiously inert for all its speed. He seems to generally be saying, look how very far we've come from traditional relationships here in the 60s, but ends up being only as precisely as revolutionary, and not half as insightful, as The Philadelphia Story. For all the pieces rapidly moving around the board, none of them actually becomes a character.

I did laugh at one scene where Welles somehow rapidly sets up an office above Andrew's independent magazine that looks like an Asian themed American brothel.

So how about that title? What does it mean, "I'll Never Forget What's'isname"? Nothing. It has absolutely nothing to do with anything. Well there's a running gag at Andrew's school reunion where people can't remember their classmates' names, but like most everything else in the film it's a completely disposable gag, signifying nothing.
Current Location: An ad
Current Mood: groggygroggy
Current Music: "Rainy Night In Soho" - The Pogues
Other entries
» The Seven of Doctors and the Ace of Dorothys

Happy birthday to both Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred, the Seventh Doctor and Ace, who were both born on August 20th, he in 1943, she in 1962. They were fated to become one of the best, definitely within the top three, Doctor and companion pairings on Doctor Who. For effective chemistry, I'd say they're rivalled only by Four and Romana II and Two and Jamie.

I wanted to find a cute picture of the two to put at the top of this post but I just found too many on google that made me smile to have just one. I said a few weeks ago I thought a romantic relationship between the two would be weird, this picture has single-handedly changed my mind:

I did listen to a Seventh Doctor audio play this week starring Sylvester McCoy, sadly with no Ace, 2008's The Death Collector's/Spider's Shadow. Really they're two different, slightly related stories both written by Stewart Sheargold. The first has the Doctor visiting a space station where a Professor Mors Alexandryn (Alastair Cording) is studying a disease that has necessitated a quarantine for the planet below. The Doctor gains a temporary companion in the adorably named Danika Meanwhile (Katherine Parkinson) who is Alexandryn's ex-wife and assistant. A group of death obsessed aliens, the "Dar Traders", are on hand to study the disease as well. There's some interesting drama about Alexandryn having loose ethics while not being a villain and some nice menace is created by the eventually manifesting alien villain who communicates only by recordings of the other characters. Generally recordings where death is mentioned seem to be preferred. It's creepy though it's rather like the 2006 Seventh Doctor audio play No Man's Land.

The second story, Spider's Shadow, is only thirty minutes and is pretty breezy, the Doctor quickly getting himself in and out of a jumbled time loop where he meets two princesses and apparently does something that disrupts the time line. The spiders in the title end up being something pretty delightfully weird.

Dr Who - Silver Nemesis - 1 by IDavros

Dr Who - Silver Nemesis - 2 by IDavros
» While Some were Already There

Many people broadly paint the westerns of classic Hollywood as reducing Native Americans to rabid subhumans. While this was often true, by the 1950s, when the post World War II climate was creating greater awareness of civil rights issues, several westerns, most notably by John Ford, took a misguided but genuinely well meaning tack in humanising Native American characters and acknowledging the crimes committed against them by white settlers. 1954's The Rode West is an exciting enough frontier western directed by Phil Karlson which focuses on one white military doctor's attempt to make peace between the Kiowa and a U.S. cavalry.

Robert Francis plays Doctor Seward who's sent to the frontier post to replace a drunk and incompetent doctor. He immediately butts heads with Captain Blake (Philip Carey) who's tired of the people back east sending him lousy physicians who do more harm than good.

Also on the train with Seward is the wife of the colonel in charge of the fort, Martha (Peggy Converse), and her niece, Laurie (Donna Reed), who takes a liking for the unseasoned young doctor.

Near the fort are the Kiowa in a valley where they were forcibly relocated. On a visit for Blake to aggressively attempt to confirm his suspicion the Kiowa are responsible for an earlier raid on the cavalry's camp, Dr. Seward discovers several of the tribe have contracted malaria. He angrily tells Blake later that the Kiowa wouldn't have been infected if they'd been left to live in their ancestral homeland and not been forced to move by the U.S. military.

Francis manages to keep his performance from being too patronising as he talks with the Kiowa doctor, Isatai (Frank DeKova) about treatment, respecting the man's use of the term "evil spirit" to explain the illness. Seward is startled by the appearance of Manyi-ten (May Wynn), the mother of a sick child he treats, but we don't find out why until later.

The viewer can't be blamed for not picking up on the reason for Seward's surprise right away. He reveals later he's surprised to see a white woman living with the Kiowa but when half the Native Americans are played by white actors anyway the distinction takes on a pretty meta quality. In one of the biggest missteps in the film's attempt to bring a message of the shared humanity of white people and Native Americans, Seward argues that Manyi-ten can't be Kiowa because she has "good features." He says it without the slightest cruelty in his tone, as though the ugliness of Native Americans were simply established scientific fact.

The film ends on a blatantly ahistorical optimistic tone. The movie sadly never bothers to flesh out a single Native American character but I did like one scene where Seward, complaining about how the other officers call him a traitor to "his own kind" is comforted by Donna Reed's character who says, "Your 'own kind' is the human race. Just because they don't seem to realise it doesn't make you wrong." The the bigger context, though, his ego hardly seems like the most important victim.

Twitter Sonnet #903

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In amber light the cars disperse through flame.
A quiet pair observe the tree serene.
A twisted trunk arrives to grow the game.
Inward vines resuscitate the leaf.
A lemon battery gives sterile grief.

» An Analogue Splinter in the Digital Eye

It'd been a while so I decided it was time to dip my toe into the realm of currently popular anime. So I watched the first couple episodes of Re:Zero--Starting Life in Another World (ゼロから始める異世界生活), a popular series that debuted this year. Anime series are being produced constantly now, cheaply and unabashedly recycling devices, which is a big part of why I rarely watch anime anymore. Re:Zero looks cheap and liberally incorporates well worn devices but there is an inventiveness in the dialogue itself that makes it enjoyable.

Among other things, it has the stock fish out of water protagonist--a young man, Suburu (Yūsuke Kobayashi), transported to a magical, vaguely European mediaeval fantasy world, and, in an extremely conventional twist, he's the post-modern hero aware of all the fictional conventions. He talks about how he was probably summoned by a beautiful woman, he probably has magical powers now, etcetera. I wonder when we'll get the post-post modern hero who's aware of being aware--maybe that would be like the protagonist breaking the fourth wall in a flashback seen in the recent Deadpool movie.

The main love interest, though there's the usual harem of potentials, is an unremarkably designed, beautiful silver haired tsundere named Emilia (Rie Takahashi) though, unlike Senjougahara in Bakamonogatari, she's not aware that she's a tsundere, all the post modern awareness being reserved for Suburu so far. Most interesting to me, though, is the show's use of a Groundhog Day style time loop device.

A recent movie starring Tom Cruise, Edge of To-morrow, is based on a 2004 manga called All You Need is Kill. So by way of that manga, the plot device seems to have entered the realm of acceptable, recycled devices in Japanese fiction. Re:Zero begins in the real world where Suburu, at a convenience store, talks about how a fellow needs food after a marathon session of gaming and I thought, the normal experience of the young person nowadays can't be adapted to a story, we have to begin with an unusual break in routine. The experience of playing the video game can't be adapted so the story needs the unusual situation of the character going outside for once. Except, the Groundhog Day device provides a perfect analogy for the gamer's life experience. In fact, the author of All You Need is Kill, Hiroshi Sakurazaka, has cited the experience of a gamer, in addition to Groundhog Day, as being an influence on his work.

Players being transported into the world of a video game is hardly new--the recent Sword Art Online uses this premise, I think inspired by an episode of Boku wa Tomodachi ga Sukunai. But beyond the comedic potential inherent in pairing video game logic with the real world, like "Anthology of Interest II", an episode of Futurama recently plagiarised by an Adam Sandler movie called Pixels, these shows don't really address the emotional reality of a young adult's life devoted to gaming. The Groundhog Day time loop speaks to the life experience of a gamer on a more fundamental level.

The stock characters in Re: Zero are also like the character types in a Japanese dating game simulator. The concept of games with multiple endings, and the need to obsessively replay a game in order to unlock all endings, is a very familiar experience to the gamer. Having a character transported to the world of a video game is ultimately no different from a character being transported to any other world. A post-modern self aware character who continually interacts with the same stock characters, trying to reach a desired relationship goal like a puzzle, and using experience from previous lives, mirrors the gaming experience exactly. In a sense, this is what Groundhog Day is, though Bill Murray's unique style of performance that seems to exist simultaneously within a plot and outside it is a form of post-modernism that can't be matched. But Groundhog Day is also about the protagonist trying to get the "right" ending. The difference perhaps being that Groundhog Day ultimately shows up the shallowness inherent in this pursuit.

While I think Re: Zero may be shallow, my point in bringing this up is that the human experience of the gamer seems to be fighting for expression almost of its own accord. As much as people devoted to gaming to the exclusion of all other activities might obsessively pursue simplistic plots and repetitive tasks, an inevitably more complex story emerges.
» Fire, Water, All of It!

How can a movie that gets so much wrong be so damned good? 1954's Hell and High Water (not to be confused with 2016's Hell or High Water) is a sweaty, Red Scare submarine spy film filled with racial stereotypes and sexist attitudes that bizarrely actually seems to mean well as regards race and sex. This Samuel Fuller film succeeds on pure, pulpy, gargantuan Cinemascope attitude.

According to Wikipedia, Steven Spielberg revealed to Fuller in the early 80s that he kept a print of Hell and High Water in the trunk of his car. The film feels very Spielbergian--it obviously had influence on all the submarine material in Raiders of the Lost Ark. But there's a dedication to hitting character emotional beats to string along the logic of the story, for the characters always to be touching each other's nerves, that feels very Spielberg in a more fundamental way.

I was also reminded of Star Trek II in the submarine battles and the use of an oddly triumphant Alfred Newman score for all the action scenes. And there's a giddy nightmare quality to the juxtaposition of the crew fighting over the woman on board, Professor Denise Gerard (Bella Darvi), with their submarine winning a blind fight with a Chinese sub accompanied by fanfare.

The film begins with a series of stock shots of London and Rome and then the story starts in a place that's supposedly Tokyo. A few kanji characters on a wall are the only clues as Adam Jones (Richard Widmark), a World War II veteran submarine captain, hangs about, irritable and wondering why he's there.

He's been called by no government but a secret organisation of civilian scientists from all over the world who are concerned about evidence of Chinese nuclear tests on an island north of Japan. Jones doesn't want any of this nonsense but agrees to help for fifty grand and a crew of his old American comrades in the Japanese sub he uses to take Professor Montel (Victor Francen) to the island.

It's lucky Montel brings his beautiful assistant along because she's the only one who can read the Japanese labels on all the equipment. How did they get a Japanese sub without a Japanese crew or anyone who speaks Japanese? The movie's too busy being fucking awesome to worry about that and moves right along.

Bella Darvi's not nearly as interesting as she is in The Egyptian and is generally rather demure in contrast to the volatile Captain Jones who seems to be running on all ornery but mostly accurate instincts. She throws at him a bad decision he made that cost him dearly back in the war and there's a conflict between his two fisted way of doing things and her sensitive rationality. They hate each other but they can't resist each other. Neither can stand it when the other one is right but is made terribly vulnerable by the resultant insecurity and everyone gets sweaty when they have to turn off the fans to run silent and to conserve power they use red light . . .

It's so bad but so, so good. Even with the poor stereotype Chinese crewman on board who sings a weird alternate English version of "Don't Fence Me In" in order to fit in. His character's more adorable than human but seems to be Fuller's genuine attempt at saying, "We hate Communism, not the people of China."

The film's climax was absurd but I was completely invested in what was happening. This movie has heart, damnit, some things you just can't explain.
» The Return of the Nelwyn

I said at one point I planned on getting really drunk and trying to enjoy 1988's Willow. This was after I'd watched my recently purchased DVD and found me as an adult detested this movie I adored when I was a kid. Well, last night I didn't get drunk but I did watch the newer Blu-Ray release, its transfer supervised by George Lucas a year after he'd sold Lucasfilm. And I enjoyed it, which was a relief. Maybe my expectations were lower this time. The film still has a lot of flaws but I'm pleased to say I can see its virtues again.

I was really into this movie as a kid. I think mainly it was part of a general hunger for a mediaeval fantasy film, the kind which studios were trying and generally failing to get off the ground in the 80s--the Conan movies, Krull, Sword and the Sorcerer, Excalibur, Ladyhawke, Legend, films of varying levels of quality but almost uniform poor performance at the box office. I guess they kept trying because of the success of Star Wars, which is essentially a fantasy film, so it seems natural a George Lucas fantasy film was greenlit as late as 1988, despite the poor box office performance of his more recent fantasy films, Labyrinth and Howard the Duck.

I wonder how much of the film was directed by George Lucas and not its credited director, Ron Howard. By his own admission, Lucas tends to take more creative control than producers traditionally do, which is something his friend, Steven Spielberg, was also known for in the 80s. I have the sense the two were modelling their careers on David O. Selznik, the producer from the 30s and 40s who was known for taking a very active hand in films he produced, resulting in a series of films by different directors that bear characteristics of his style. Willow has the Kurosawa style wipes that Lucas made part of the distinctive Star Wars visual style and the first credit that pops up on screen at the end of Willow when the music crescendos, the usual place for the director's credit, is second unit director Micky Moore who worked on the first three Indiana Jones films (credited as Michael Moore until the documentary filmmaker became more famous). This may have been Howard's way of quietly pointing out his reduced role as director.

It's strange that Sorsha (Joanna Whalley) is such a weak character, then, considering how strident Princess Leia was. A lot of that was Carrie Fisher's verve, but in terms of writing, Leia always had a very clear story and motivation. Sorsha is defined entirely by other characters. When her mother orders her to track down and kill babies, she does without complaint. When Madmartigan (Val Kilmer) falls in love with her, she falls in love with him and stops killing babies. She doesn't even try to command the forces attacking Tir Asleen after she defects, it's like she changes shirts in the middle of a football game and everyone just shrugs and goes with it. She's a complete leaf in the wind.

She watches Madmartigan fighting and is really, really impressed and then suddenly finds he's at her mercy . . . so of course she has to change sides. Aside from the fact that this contributes to her reduction as a character, this reflects one of the things I really like about the movie, which is its structure, particularly when it comes to Madmartigan.

The thing that made me want to watch the movie again was hearing a few days ago that Kevin Smith had named his dog Madmartigan. It's such a Kevin Smith thing to do, name a dog after a bad ass character from a movie that everyone's dimly aware of but doesn't get a lot of mainstream attention. I remember as a kid, every time I watched the movie I'd wait with great anticipation for Madmartigan to get his hands on a sword. Then when he does, I'd revel in what great swordplay he engages in. Except, it's not that great. Every time he uses a sword, it's actually a pretty brief shot, usually some kind of spin and a stab, he has nothing on Errol Flynn or Tyrone Power. The great thing is how the movie makes you think he's a great swordsman.

We meet him well into the film, locked in a crow's cage on some gods forsaken crossroads. Already he's bragging about what a great swordsman he is and he's frustrated by his predicament. Val Kilmer is handsome and has charisma, overcoming even the film's unfortunate tendency to have everyone call Willow "Peck" all the time to be intriguing. He's dangerous but also kind of likeable and one genuinely wonders what's going to happen once he's let out. When he is, he still doesn't have a sword. He leaves the film a while and we catch up with him again later when he's pretending to be a woman in a stupidly broad comedy routine. This quickly escalates into an exciting chase scene, all through which he still doesn't get a sword. The film teases you with it again and again before he finally gets that sword in Sorsha's tent--maybe it's meant to be a metaphor about discovering his manhood when he falls for a woman--and then he bursts out with it. He was frustrated because he didn't have a sword either and because he was a hero we identified with at this point it added to our frustration, too. So him just having a sword and looking at least halfway cool with it is surprisingly cathartic. It reminds me of Toshiro Mifune in The Hidden Fortress who's introduced as a great warrior but he doesn't get his hands on a weapon until halfway through the film.

Of course, even before he's hit by the love powder there are signs that he likes Sorsha. He's overcome by her beauty when he first sees her and then his petty antagonism with her after she captures him only makes him seem like he likes her more. The film is filled with mythological allusions--the baby in the river like Moses, the sorceress turning the heroes into pigs like Circe in The Odyssey--the love potion works like in Wagner's take on Tristan und Isolde, it doesn't really make two people love each other who don't but breaks down the barriers of society to express a repressed, pre-existing affection. Well, for Madmartigan, anyway, Sorsha just goes with the flow.

Obviously the film owes a lot to The Hobbit with Willow (Warwick Davis) being essentially a Hobbit from Hobbiton only in this film he's called a Nelwyn. Like in The Hobbit, Willow's not a teenager or kid but someone who's already settled down, in this case with a wife and kids. It makes for a nice moment when he feels the braid of hair his wife gave him while he's staring at the walls of the enemy fortress. It's a moment that gives you a sense of how far he's come and how much bigger this world seems than the world he grew up in. And Warwick Davis gives a very nice performance.

In the villains, one sees more parallels to Star Wars with the skull helmeted General Kael (Pat Roach) obviously standing in for Darth Vader--functioning much as Vader did in the first film, before we knew much about his broader connexions to the universe--and Jean Marsh as the evil Queen Bavmorda. Her character is even more simplistic than Grand Moff Tarkin or Emperor Palpatine--or Maleficent, for that matter, motivated entirely by a general, vague hatred and ruthless self-preservation. It's interesting seeing how her relationship with Sorsha could have been something like the one between Vader and Luke but it completely lacks depth. Still, Jean Marsh is very good and her performance almost compensates.

Twitter Sonnet #902

A sociably turned blink belongs in ice.
A scarlet frame affords the teeth some glam.
Descending scales of plight alarm the price.
Effacing chalk digressions on the lam.
The wool dimensions shore the blotted wrath.
Through steam a face returns the warmest grin.
Reflecting glass led safely down the path.
A field of turning light led dreamers in.
The late syringe appealed to cloaks beneath.
With flying colours cancelled cores collude.
Cathedrals bombed in heads cannot bequeath.
A bearded skull cannot the ears exclude.
A paisley blouse enigma laughs from high.
Computers take a match to cloudless sky.

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