The Bus

Standing In for the Irreplaceable

You can't buy friends and family, really, but maybe it is useful to pay people to occupy those empty spaces. In fact, it's a lucrative business in Japan and it's the subject of Werner Herzog's 2019 film Family Romance, LLC. Not a documentary, the film consists of scenarios devised by Herzog but stars non-professional actors improvising their dialogue. The film's protagonist is the real life founder of Family Romance, LLC, Yuichi Ishii, playing himself. This experiment in filmmaking is peculiarly suited to the subject, being about an industry where people are paid essentially to improvise roles. This fascinating film examines the performative aspects of Japanese culture and human nature in general.

In Japan, there's a very conscious separation between the "private" and the "public" face--called honne and tatemae. You can see this phenomenon at work in many Japanese films like in the bar hostesses of When a Woman Ascends the Stairs or in the bureaucrats in Ikiru. But living and working in Japan has given me a better perspective on just how prevalent it is. It helps people recognise their roles and the parameters of their responsibilities in all kinds of workplaces. It's a concept that's been criticised and scrutinised--there's even a disturbing smile mask syndrome where the imposition of a forced smile on an employee's face leads to depression from sustained psychological discord. I've seen that frozen smile, too, in movies and in person. But, to be devil's advocate for a moment, I would say there's a counter-intuitive freedom in system where everyone is aware of this performative aspect of the culture. There's a difference between people being fake to seem real and people being fake because everyone is expected to be fake at work. It's a tacit acknowledgement by everyone involved that the woman serving you coffee wouldn't be doing this if it wasn't her job. Since the work persona is so clearly dileanated, it makes it perfectly natural when people let loose in a drunken night of karaoke.

The typical scenarios shown in Herzog's film range from a train conductor for whom Yuichi accepts intense verbal beration from his boss for allowing a train to leave station 20 seconds early to a woman who wants to recreate the feeling of winning a lottery.

These are people who are aware of the artificial experience they're engaging in but the main plot of the film involves Yuichi posing as the father of a 12 year old girl, Mahiro (Mahiro Tanimoto), who's led to believe he truly is her father.

Employed by the girl's mother, he spends time with Mahiro on outings in the park or at restaurants, pretending to be the father who divorced and left her mother when she was a small child. Gradually, Yuichi becomes concerned about signs of real affection from the girl and her mother.

Herzog serves as his own cinematographer in the film and says in an interview included with the film that he tried very hard to be "invisible". It generally seems that in most scenes the film crew consisted of just Herzog himself with a camera, being as close and as unobtrusive as possible to catch moments when he deemed real emotions suddenly manifested. Even in scenes where the client is aware of the business nature of the relationship, the act of performing the role seems to actually create something of genuine feelings of the relationships among the participants.

There is a moment where Yuichi and Mahiro are doing something, both focused on something off screen, and she turns and looks at him without him seeing. There's this look in her eyes of genuine desire or need for something from him and Herzog immediately focuses on her expression. It really does seem real but, after all, Mahiro is an actress performing for us.

The score by Ernst Reijseger is ambient and filled with the kind of static, vibrant, non-committal energy present in another of Herzog's favourite musical selections, the Vorspiel from Das Rheingold (not used in this film). Herzog doesn't pass judgement but there is a definite sadness evoked from a disconnect in the proceedings. Is it because the rented family and friends are the wrong way to address emotional void or because they don't go far enough? The film refrains from presuming this kind of judgement.

Family Romance, LLC is available on Mubi. I got the free trial just to watch this movie, I'm not sure if I'll keep the service. Mubi seems to have a good selection of indie and art films, old and new, and I was able to subscribe to it through Amazon Prime, allowing me to use Amazon's very stable streaming service instead of something like the frustratingly unreliable Criterion Channel servers. But I'm not sure I want yet another subscription service right now.
A Dame Like Julia

The Tide Continues

After reading The Ebb-Tide I looked to see if it had any film adaptations. Turns out there were four--I watched the 1937 version because it looked like it had the best cast. Ray Milland plays Herrick and Barry Fitzgerald plays Huish, which I thought was perfect, even if I doubted Fitzgerald could pull off a Cockney accent. But while Milland as he was in The Lost Weekend might have been perfect, in the 1930s his gig was playing straight forward, romantic leads and that's what Herrick is transformed into here. The attempt in doing so is to give him centre stage but paradoxically it makes him a far less substantial character. Who is Herrick if he isn't wrestling with his pride and conscience? Well, he's the wouldbe lover of Francis Farmer who plays a beautiful stowaway named Faith Wishart. There isn't much for her to do, either, but look beautiful which, to be fair, she accomplishes admirably. Also on the plus side, Barry Fitzgerald is every bit as great, and unable to hide his Irish accent, as I expected. Would you believe he plays a fantastic drunkard?

The only American in the book is Captain Davis who's replaced by Captain Thorbecke in this film, an identical character except he's European and played by Austrian actor Oscar Homolka with a thick accent. Milland was Welsh but, as usual at the time, even when playing British characters (like here), he has an American accent. I guess the studios generally didn't like to make Americans look weaker than Europeans and there were still concerns about audiences being unable to understand foreign accents. So they were usually relegated to character actors like Fitzgerald or Eric Blore, save for exceptions like Charles Boyer or Cary Grant, or carryover stars from the silent era big enough to have whatever accent wanted, like Greta Garbo.

Ray Milland as he was in Dial M for Murder would've been perfect as Attwater, who's played by American actor Lloyd Nolan, another British character with an unexplained American accent. In addition to the wrong accent, Nolan completely fails to give Attwater any of his fascinating complexity--his charming manner coupled with paradoxical piety and sadism. I can easily imagine this scene being played between Dial M for Murder Ray Milland and Lost Weekend Ray Milland:

'And what brings you here, Mr Herrick-Hay, or Mr Hay-Herrick?' asked the voice of Attwater. 'Your back view from my present position is remarkably fine, and I would continue to present it. We can get on very nicely as we are, and if you were to turn round, do you know? I think it would be awkward.'

Herrick slowly rose to his feet; his heart throbbed hard, a hideous excitement shook him, but he was master of himself. Slowly he turned, and faced Attwater and the muzzle of a pointed rifle. 'Why could I not do that last night?' he thought.

'Well, why don't you fire?' he said aloud, with a voice that trembled.

Attwater slowly put his gun under his arm, then his hands in his pockets.

'What brings you here?' he repeated.

'I don't know,' said Herrick; and then, with a cry: 'Can you do anything with me?'

'Are you armed?' said Attwater. 'I ask for the form's sake.'

'Armed? No!' said Herrick. 'O yes, I am, too!' And he flung upon the beach a dripping pistol.

'You are wet,' said Attwater.

'Yes, I am wet,' said Herrick. 'Can you do anything with me?'

Attwater read his face attentively.

'It would depend a good deal upon what you are,' said he.

'What I am? A coward!' said Herrick.

'There is very little to be done with that,' said Attwater. 'And yet the description hardly strikes one as exhaustive.'

'Oh, what does it matter?' cried Herrick. 'Here I am. I am broken crockery; I am a burst drum; the whole of my life is gone to water; I have nothing left that I believe in, except my living horror of myself. Why do I come to you? I don't know; you are cold, cruel, hateful; and I hate you, or I think I hate you. But you are an honest man, an honest gentleman. I put myself, helpless, in your hands. What must I do? If I can't do anything, be merciful and put a bullet through me; it's only a puppy with a broken leg!'

'If I were you, I would pick up that pistol, come up to the house, and put on some dry clothes,' said Attwater.

'If you really mean it?' said Herrick. 'You know they—we—they. .. But you know all.'

'I know quite enough,' said Attwater. 'Come up to the house.'

There is a definite attraction between the two men in the book that's not present in the film. I don't generally like to hold up all such things as "code for gay" though I wouldn't be surprised if homophobia were the culprit in the attempt to reroute this chemistry--unsuccessfully--to Francis Farmer's character.

The book has no female characters unless you count one of Attwater's native servants--a beautiful woman mentioned very briefly in the book. Every film adaptation shoehorns a female character in--the first adaptation, from 1922, introduces a daughter for Attwater while a French version from the 60s introduces yet another character. The 1947 version is basically a remake of 1937's, with Rhonda Fleming in the same role as Faith Wishhart.

Faith is the daughter of the captain Herrick, Huish, and Thorbecke steal the ship from. She attracts both Herrick and Attwater but the film doesn't actually make much hay from the love triangle it sets up. The last act is so muddled it presents a lot of plot points while forgetting that it deleted a lot of setup. It's not even clear why Herrick is horrified by Attwater who's condescending attitude about the power of life and death he holds over the natives isn't nearly as pronounced in the movie as it is n the book.

The movie doesn't seem to be streaming in HD anywhere. I watched a lousy VHS rip on YouTube, which is too bad, because I suspect Farmer emerging from the sea in one scene in a totally unexplained evening gown/sarong is really beautiful. But Barry Fitzgerald is a delight in any resolution.

Death Chess

The Current Carrying Men to Infamy

On a hot beach, far from home, a destitute Englishman comforts himself with a tattered collection of Virgil. What path in life led him from university to poverty? The same that leads him further down the spiral in The Ebb-Tide, an 1894 novel by Robert Louis Stevenson and Lloyd Osbourne. A tale of unscrupulous men on a desperate sea adventure, it reads a bit like a darker, more mature version of Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island. There's treasure and stolen cargo, there's a mysterious and grim atmosphere in the beautiful language, much like Treasure Island, but there are also ruminations on human worth and the meaning of moral value ascribed to actions. It's a fascinating and disturbing work, particularly for being the last completed novel Louis Stevenson worked on.

Herrick, the Englishman, befriends two other desperate men--an American sea captain named Davis and a cockney reprobate called Huish. Although circumstances have driven Herrick to compromise his self image as a gentleman, Davis nonetheless trusts him enough to make him first mate when a seagoing opportunity arises. Despite Davis himself having no good reputation for having lost another ship under suspicious circumstances, he's given command of a ship bearing a cargo of champagne when no-one else is willing to take her. The ship, the Farallone, had fallen prey to smallpox, which had killed the previous crew. Only the very dregs of the unemployed beachcombers could be coerced into crewing her now.

But like the scoundrels they are, Davis and Huish soon plan something more ambitious while behaving with less discipline, deciding to commandeer the ship and cargo for themselves to fetch a higher price, but also, compulsively, drinking quantities of that same precious cargo.

In the cabin at one corner of the table, immediately below the lamp, and on the lee side of a bottle of champagne, sat Huish. 'What's this? Where did that come from?' asked the captain.

'It's fizz, and it came from the after-'old, if you want to know,' said Huish, and drained his mug.

'This'll never do,' exclaimed Davis, the merchant seaman's horror of breaking into cargo showing incongruously forth on board that stolen ship. 'There was never any good came of games like that.'

'You byby!' said Huish. 'A fellow would think (to 'ear him) we were on the square! And look 'ere, you've put this job up 'ansomely for me, 'aven't you? I'm to go on deck and steer while you two sit and guzzle, and I'm to go by nickname, and got to call you “sir” and “mister.” Well, you look here, my bloke: I'll have fizz ad lib., or it won't wash. I tell you that. And you know mighty well, you ain't got any man-of-war to signal now.'

Davis was staggered. 'I'd give fifty dollars this had never happened,' he said weakly.

'Well, it 'as 'appened, you see,' returned Huish. 'Try some; it's devilish good.'

The Rubicon was crossed without another struggle. The captain filled a mug and drank.

Herrick finds himself cast further and further from his bright past now that his lot is cast with this murky and deplorable future. What else could he have done but join this voyage?

'That's the dreadful part of it!' cried Herrick. 'Another week and I'd have murdered someone for a dollar! God! and I know that? And I'm still living? It's some beastly dream.'

'Quietly, quietly! Quietly does it, my son. Take your pea soup. Food, that's what you want,' said Davis.

The soup strengthened and quieted Herrick's nerves; another glass of wine, and a piece of pickled pork and fried banana completed what the soup began; and he was able once more to look the captain in the face.

'I didn't know I was so much run down,' he said.

'Well,' said Davis, 'you were as steady as a rock all day: now you've had a little lunch, you'll be as steady as a rock again.'

'Yes,'was the reply, 'I'm steady enough now, but I'm a queer kind of a first officer.'

'Shucks!' cried the captain. 'You've only got to mind the ship's course, and keep your slate to half a point. A babby could do that, let alone a college graduate like you. There ain't nothing TO sailoring, when you come to look it in the face. And now we'll go and put her about. Bring the slate; we'll have to start our dead reckoning right away.'

Dead reckoning is easy enough to explain in words or on paper but Herrick soon finds practical experience is required to do it properly. This is one of the ways the book discusses class and resentment periodically manifests between Huish and Herrick alternately with wary respect. The concept of a poor man gorging himself on champagne is a potent enough symbol of class transgression, mirroring Herrick's own circumstance. In the second half of the novel, the Farallone encounters an island where an English gentleman called Attwater is hoarding a bounty of pearls. Herrick's internal conflict becomes quite external as he's forced to choose between the Attwater and the drunken pirates. But instead of choosing between good and evil he finds the choice is between two kinds of brutality. He realises his life has finally brought him to a point where he no longer feels he is free to choose between killing and not killing but only between which men to murder.

He considered the men. Attwater intrigued, puzzled, dazzled, enchanted and revolted him; alive, he seemed but a doubtful good; and the thought of him lying dead was so unwelcome that it pursued him, like a vision, with every circumstance of colour and sound. Incessantly, he had before him the image of that great mass of man stricken down in varying attitudes and with varying wounds; fallen prone, fallen supine, fallen on his side; or clinging to a doorpost with the changing face and the relaxing fingers of the death-agony. He heard the click of the trigger, the thud of the ball, the cry of the victim; he saw the blood flow. And this building up of circumstance was like a consecration of the man, till he seemed to walk in sacrificial fillets.

The progression of the story is remarkably like a noir at times. It's an engrossing, unsettling, and conflicted book filled with complex, colourfully rendered characters. And like a noir its central drama turns on just how much control a man really has of his life and his actions.

Twitter Sonnet #1380

A button veils a lever plugged to life.
Between the chairs a table sets the tone.
Collapsing plates reveal the dinner strife.
But growing legs decide they're almost grown.
The idle tracks were tapping rock and sod.
Another train was passing webs and wings.
The summer poison simmers 'round the pod.
The exo-chorus chatters loud and sings.
The action sequence built a sparking bridge.
For safer passage walk the dripping coals.
Observers score the move from 'long the ridge.
The smartest feet were strapped to wooden poles.
The frozen dreams could melt and slowly run.
With icy sweets the hours munch the sun.
Seventh Doctor and Ace

News from the Brains

I think it's fair nowadays to get the impression news media are controlled by a ravenous meat blob fixed to a ceiling. But only in the 2005 Doctor Who episode, "The Long Game", was this literally the case. Presumably.

The Ninth Doctor (Christopher Eccleston), Rose (Billie Piper), and Adam (Bruno Langley) wind up on a space station in the distant future where the food is lousy and the aliens are scarce--which is odd, as Adam points out, earning praise from the Doctor for the insightful comment. Sadly, Adam is about to betray the Doctor in his very first adventure as a companion.

Introduced in the previous episode, "Dalek", Adam is an intriguing "failed" companion, one who turns out not to have the ethical fortitude to be trusted with time travel. Which I'm surprised doesn't happen more often--or maybe it does, I'm sure Big Finish could fill in some gaps with companions who don't pass muster after only one or two trips in the TARDIS.

It's a little odd the Doctor isn't upset with Rose for giving the TARDIS key and her rigged cell phone to Adam. But I guess that's love for you.

The station turns out to be the headquarters of the Earth news organisation. I like the Sci Fi metaphor writer Russell T. Davies came up with for how the operation works. First, you've got a half dozen or so people pumping information through their brains to a single person who then passes it from their brain into the system which feeds it back to everyone. The Doctor comments that no-one's brain is big enough to actually hold all that information so it's all gone moments after it's passed through.

Then, the "lucky" few who get promoted are sent up to the 500th floor where, unbeknownst to the majority of employees, they're killed so their corpses can be put to work, overseen by none other than Simon Pegg.

Look at his round, full cheeks! He's quite good in the episode being cocky and sadistic.

Despite being journalists of a kind, the Doctor derides them for failing to question any of the odd things happening around them, like the fact that no-one ever visits other floors and that it's getting increasingly warm. Of course people who have been trained not to think critically would be complacent with the information fed through their brains. I like the idea that it passes through multiple brains, though, because it suggests the information is filtered by perspective, however passive. And, of course, the higher up the ladder they get, the closer they get to a single, communal perspective, in other words, death.

Take It

The Elusive Bear and the Vine to Clouds

Who remembers Bongo the Bear? Who remembers 1947's Fun and Fancy Free, Disney's ninth animated feature? Keeping it in my brain is kind of a struggle. It's a struggle to remember when it was first released on DVD in 2000 and I remember at the time a lot of people saying, "What is this thing?" No-one remembered it. Forgetting Bongo is understandable. More surprising is that most people don't remember the other half of the movie, Mickey and the Beanstalk, which stars Mickey, Donald, and Goofy. There are a few reasons this film slides through the cracks in one's brain. Though one of the 1940s' series of anthology films, its two parts were too long to be put in regular rotation like the shorts from Make Mine Music and Melody Time. And unlike The Three Caballeros and The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, it's just plain dull. To say why exactly may be to examine the eternal mystery of storytelling but I think there are some clear explanations, too.

Bongo has a lot in common with Dumbo, being about a mistreated circus animal who doesn't speak, in fact there was some initial thought about making it a sequel or spin-off. But the similarities make it very easy to see why Bongo falls short of Dumbo's greatness; Bongo the Bear isn't as vulnerable as Dumbo, for one thing.

He looks like a cub but he behaves like an adult, having the wherewithal to abscond from the circus when he takes it into his head to go back to nature. His story also lacks characters to be his friends and foes in the circus--the only voice we hear throughout is Dinah Shore who narrates and occasionally voices the characters' thoughts, much like Bing Crosby in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow segment of Ichabod and Mr. Toad or Nelson Eddy in The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met. Those shorts show you can have a range of characters in this format, though they may not be as filled out as the supporting characters in Dumbo or Bambi. But it's perfectly adequate if it's the kind of story to support it but, despite Dinah Shore's talent, Bongo isn't that kind of story.

Bongo himself is just too ill-defined. Mickey and Donald can be childlike but we know, at the end of the day, they're adults. The ambiguity is a problem for Bongo as we try to get a grasp on just how ready he is for this adventure he sets out on. We worry about Snow White running frightened through the woods because we know she's a teenager being cast out of everything she knows. We know Bongo didn't like life in the circus but we have no concept of his social group, his family and his friends. Considering how important family is in Disney's normal features, this is a particularly surprising omission.

He meets a female bear and the two have an extended, surreal love sequence where they fly about in clouds and swim through floating waterfalls accompanied by bear cherubs. In terms of design it's fascinating to watch though I wonder if at this point Disney was starting to realise this kind of thing doesn't connect with children as well as it does adults. But Bongo's love interest is even less substantial than himself. When a rival is introduced and the idea of bears slapping each other to show affection, the tension brings the story some life but never quite enough to support the whole.

Another problem with Fun and Fancy Free is that its two framing devices collide and start to make the movie feel cluttered. Bongo is introduced by Jiminy Cricket (Cliff Edwards), amusingly fiddling with a record player and talking to a doll and teddy bear. But after Bongo, Jiminy hops over to the live action neighbour's house where Edgar Bergen is entertaining Charlie McCarthy, Mortimer Snerd, and a little girl (Luana Patten). Jiminy is relegated to an occasional sight gag as he tries to remain hidden while the four live action characters narrate Mickey and the Beanstalk.

Bergen's pretty funny and Charlie McCarthy in particular gets some good cracks in. Bergen's voice for Mortimer Snerd is distractingly similar to Goofy, voiced by Pinto Colvig. Both are based on the same vaudevillian stock character of the placid, dumb white southerner, but Goofy has a pretty small role in the film.

But the cluttered narration of four characters, three voiced by the same guy, almost dominate the story. Donald Duck (Clarence Nash) breaks through in a few spots, especially when he loses his cool at the dinner table, but the film fails well short of its intended goal of rejuvenating Mickey (voiced by Walt Disney) as a star. The animation is good and the trademark Disney fairy tale design is there but the only lasting impression is made by Willie the Giant (Billy Gilbert), who's much more familiar to audiences as the Ghost of Christmas Past in Mickey's Christmas Carol.

There's not much space for tension to build as Mickey, Donald, and Goofy rescue a magic singing harp (Anita Gordon) from the giant's clutches. There's more substance here than in Bongo but by the end you're still left with a feeling like you were served pizza without any toppings, including cheese and tomato sauce.

Fun and Fancy Free is available on Disney+.

Comic Con at Comic Con

Here's the recently deceased Congressman John Lewis when I saw him at Comic Con in 2016. As I recall, he was actually involved with a comic of some kind. I certainly wasn't expecting to see him, though I had by that point come to expect the unexpected at Comic Con.

The Comic Con at Home experiment ended last week and it's generally being seen as unsuccessful. Views on YouTube for most panels were under 20,000, far less than the number who actually attended the Con and well under the usual number of views generated by YouTube posts of the event. Nothing beats actually being there, or even vicariously being there. So to-day I thought I'd post a list of experiences I had at the Con that could never be simulated online.

Twin Peaks 2017 Panel

2017 was the year Twin Peaks came back and that will always be a high watermark in my life. And one of the highlights of that was watching the premiere of Season 3, Episode 11 with a room full of Twin Peaks fans and several castmembers. Of course, for other fandoms there, there were equivalently exciting events.

Randomly Meeting Talented Celebrites

Guillermo Del Toro gave me permission to take the photo when I randomly ran into him in a bookstore on the main floor. Too bad it came out so blurry. This was in 2015, right after I saw his panel for Crimson Peak, and it was a pleasure to be able to honestly tell him how fantastic I thought the movie looked.

The 2014 NASA Panel

Saying you watched Buzz Aldrin on YouTube is a lot different from saying you were in the same room with Buzz Aldrin. Anyway, a video gives you one perspective on an experience. When a thousand eyes and ears are transcribing the experience, each in their own way, some of them only privately, it's a very different thing.

Talking to Great Comic Artists

Thanks to Comic Con, I've met both Jaime and Gilbert (pictured) Hernandez, Gerald Brom, Gary Gianni, and many more. It's great to be able to show your appreciation (Brom told me how lonely an experience his work could be) and also get some insights into their work process.

The Cinema Makeup School Creatures

The main floor of Comic Con is filled with a diverse array of amazing talent and spectacle. One of my annual favourites was the Cinema Makeup School which unleashed a different astonishing creation on the crowd every year.

Comic Con Taking Over Downtown San Diego

The Con's been too big for the convention centre for a long time. Panels were held in the library and in hotels and businesses all over downtown held their own events and genre related promotions. For a few weeks every year, downtown San Diego became Comic Con.

The 2011 Twixt Panel

Few events are comparable to watching one of the greatest filmmakers alive, Francis Ford Coppola, experiment with a new style of filmmaking--one he obviously didn't end up pursuing, but still--and actually edit a short film in real time response to crowd reaction. It was a singular experience but also part of the atmosphere of experimentation and creative freedom to be found at the Con.

Seeing Original Frank Frazetta Paintings Up Close

Also in 2011, Robert Rodriguez announced he was going to remake Ralph Bakshi's Fire and Ice and, to promote the film, or really, to use the promotion as an excuse, he gave everyone in the Hall H crowd a ticket to view a selection of actual Frazetta paintings in a gallery across the street. Seeing the paintings up close I saw the colours as Frazetta meant them to be seen and I realised how muted they are in typical reprints.

Striking Up Conversations With Cool Weirdos in the Queue with You

How many lengthy conversations about art and music have I had with total strangers who felt like old friends who I also never saw again? It was part of the weird community feeling of Comic Con.

Meeting Talented Indie Artists

(Pictured art by Danni Shinya Luo) I've meet so many talented artists, writers, and creators in Artist Alley and areas for web comics and independent publishers. Especially now that many of the sites that made it easy to find new works from such creators are gone, actually wandering amongst them in person was always a pleasantly eye opening experience.

That's just a few of the experiences you can have in person and you'll notice I didn't even mention buying merchandise.

Twitter Sonnet #1379

A proper trade commenced before the bean.
Another vine produced the vital bulk.
The label foists the mind of something mean.
Without their shades the crew invade the hulk.
Prescription paste repaired the pointy teeth.
Amazing currents wash the drifting hull.
A splintered keel could scratch the sand beneath.
Description failed the circling, watching gull.
The final dressing drooped across the fork.
Prepared for salad days, the night intrudes.
As kings recall a former Duke of York.
A quiet swap of seats the slow excludes.
Converging rapid movements make the shape.
Rewound, we're falling back inside the tape.
Alastair Attentive

Playing Right Into Sartana's Hands, One Last Time

Of all the official Sartana movies, the last one has the fewest gimmicks. 1970's Light the Fuse . . . Sartana is Coming (Una nuvola di polvere... un grido di morte... arriva Sartana "Cloud of dust... cry of death... Sartana is coming" finds the preternatural Spaghetti Western hero at his least preternatural. People even get the drop on him a few times. It does wonders for the level of tension in the film but, lest you worry the man in black and red has lost his touch, he still does plenty of satisfyingly impossible things.

He actually gets worked over in the beginning of the film by a bunch of guards after he's turned himself in for killing some deputies. Naturally, it's all part of the plan but it's still surprising to see. It has something like the effect of Sanjuro being worked over in Yojimbo, something previous Spaghetti Westerns took a lesson from to great effect. When you establish a guy as being such an impossibly skilled fighter, the perfectly credible circumstance of him being caught and having to pay for being such a smug bastard is truly shocking. Of course, it works better if you never actually say he's invincible. Superman getting hit by Kryptonite can be effective but somehow not as effective as Sanjuro or The Man With No Name or Navajo Joe getting the treatment, I guess because the movie has more subtly lulled you into not expecting something perfectly plausible.

But Sartana (Gianni Garko) is free again before twenty minutes have elapsed in the film's run time. He got himself caught so he could spring a guy named Granville (Piero Lulli). So unfolds a particularly complex plot of double crosses and violence as Granville tells Sartana a story about a casino owner who murders two thieves after he agrees to mediate for them when they decide to trade a load of counterfeit bills for a pile of gold.

Both caches of ill gotten goods are sought after by various parties including a cool as ice sheriff (Massimo Serato) and a beautiful widow named Belle (Nieves Navarro).

But my favourite is General Monk (Jose Jaspe), a big, wild eyed bandit leader who always wears a red and beige military coat with huge epaulettes over his bare chest.

It's a solid film. The plot hardly matters--it's really all about watching Garko strut around in his hat and cowl, showing off new moves and gadgets to win gunfights in improbable ways.

Light the Fuse . . . Sartana is Coming is available on Amazon Prime.
Looking Glass Clock

A Refuge from the Rainy World is a Land

I can only dream of the splendour contained within the walls of Hotel Land Land. I noticed this place when I walked to the mall last week. I glanced over and there it was, an art nouveau anachronism across an unassuming field of green.

According to the web site, under 18 aren't permitted to stay. I guess it's a Love Hotel. Only 6,000 to 10,000 yen, or around 60 to 100 dollars, a night. Not bad. The description from the website, translated by Google:

A dream world like a theme park is even more powerful! If you can see a volcano along the river, that is "HOTEL LAND LAND". The impact is even bigger when you enter the hall! There is a playful space full of curiosity. Five zones, such as princess, jungle, pirates, pharaoh, and cosmo, are a dream world like a theme park. The interiors that match each space were purchased by female owners both inside and outside Japan, and some were made to order.

Female owners, eh? That's progress!

I like the idea that any time you see a volcano along the river, then, magically, Hotel Land Land will appear.

I wish I had a good excuse to stay there. I wish it'd come up in my searches when my apartment wasn't ready yet back in March. But I guess Hotel Land Land chooses when it will be seen.

It's been hot and rainy lately. Here is a local bird doing his best to stay dry while hunting fish:

Death Chess

A Semblance of Creation

How do you weigh the value of freedom, the effectiveness of a leader, the spiritual enrichment of creativity? Andrei Takovsky's 1966 film, Andrei Rublev, about a real life mediaeval icon painter, shows how elusive answers can be when it comes to any of these topics. Tarkovsky's slow tracking shots, dispassionately revealing volatile dioramas, here dwell in a grim, grey, feudal landscape and in the shadows of an Eastern Orthodox cathedral. It's beautiful and eloquently invites the viewer to troubling contemplations.

A series of stories are presented in the same area over a period of 24 years. Andrei Rublev (Anatoly Solonitsyn) generally seems to be a passive observer. Over the course of the three hour movie, he meets a jester (Rolan Bykov) who boldly mocks the ruling class--and is punished. He meets a group of naked pagans, a master icon painter, the young son of a bell maker, a young woman driven mad apparently by syphilis, and a Tatar invasion.

It's strange to see an action sequence in a Tarkovsky movie but it's an effective one. He switches between shots of masses in chaos to focused violence, employing creative compositions and sound, as when one young man is killed by the roadside and falls against a tree saw, the object making its peculiar song as the boy falls dying against it.

In one way or another, each story contemplates the value of human works and philosophy. The master icon painter, Theophanes (Nikolai Sergeyev) visits Andrei from beyond the grave after the Tatar invasion and, like Death in The Seventh Seal, can tell Andrei very little about the other side. But Theophanes does reiterate how beautiful are the icons Andrei painted.

The final episode follows Boriska (Nikolai Burlyayev), the son of the bellmaker, who joins a band of workers making a bell when he promises them his father has passed down the secrets of the art to only him. He's put in charge despite the incredulity of the workers when he asks them to find a certain kind of clay and then to avoid applying a second layer of it to a mould. It's not clear how much the boy is bullshitting but he's clearly bullshitting at least a little bit.

He's quite proud of himself for it, too, even ordering his friend to be whipped for defying him. But then it starts to torment him as the value of his actions seem to be either based on wild luck or something else. It's not hard to see what troubles him--if he can get away with this, what are other people getting away with?

Andrei Rublev is available on The Criterion Channel.

Twitter Sonnet #1378

At last returning guards relieve the field.
In glasses mashed against the nose we saw.
The tangled grass concedes a verdant yield.
With drops of gum we wrote another law.
A ventured question shows without a dot.
Discovered cakes commend the corner shop.
We whittled minds to think a single thought.
A stumble jump became a steady hop.
The tired cheese was lounging 'cross the bread.
Abundant noodles crammed beneath the teeth.
For pasta lips were painted cherry red.
The noodles make a weird and soggy wreath.
The boiled time reduced the steam about.
The longer day reduced the night to doubt.
The Bus

Olivia de Havilland

What can I say about Olivia de Havilland, who passed away two days ago at the age of 104, that I haven't already said? On the occasion of her 100th birthday, in 2016, I wrote about her talent and accomplishments. Many articles about her talk about her landmark legal victory against Warner Brothers that set a precedent, changing the profession for all actors who followed her. She fought to get better roles and she got them and rose to the occasion.

Her fragile, layered performance in The Snake Pit is a strong portrait of madness. Her trajectory from guileless innocent to frightened recluse in The Heiress is extraordinary and heartbreaking. But her work in the 1930s, in Gone with the Wind and Captain Blood, are also fantastic. Her exceptional beauty was paired with warmth and sensitivity of spirit that any swashbuckler should be honoured to fight for.

She remains the definitive Maid Marian in the definitive Robin Hood. It may not have been the most demanding role of her career but few could've made it so memorable. Opposite her frequent costar Errol Flynn, she was part of a cast impeccably suited to their roles, also including Eugene Palette as Friar Tuck, Basil Rathbone as Sir Guy of Gisbourne, Alan Hale as Little John, and Claude Rains as Prince John. These portrayals have shaped impressions of the characters ever since.

Obviously her death was inevitable but I'm sorry to see her go. Somehow knowing she was out there was a comforting reminder that a piece of old Hollywood was still alive. But we still have the movies.