Monthly Archives: June 2013

June 12, 2013

39. 東京流れ者 (1966)

Directed by Seijun Suzuki
Screenplay by Kouhan (Yasunori) Kawauchi


Criterion #39.

Tōkyō nagaremono. The English title is Tokyo Drifter.

東京 = Tokyo
流れ者 = nagaremono = stranger, wanderer, tramp

So “Tokyo Drifter” is literal enough, though in English it sounds like someone who drifts around Tokyo. In fact it refers to a man from Tokyo who drifts elsewhere. I’m not sure how to solve that one.

I’ll start with the essay – Criterion always commissions an essay, and the lively one from the 2011 release, by Howard Hampton, is pretentious and insightful and overwritten and satisfying. It’s how I would have them all be — a definite something rather than a nothing. In his flashy, Lester Bangs-y way, Hampton makes the case that this is a valuable and exciting movie, both thrillingly inside and thrillingly outside of the essence of 60s-ness. It’s a fun thing to claim and it’s a fun essay because the claim comes to life before your eyes.

But this is the thing about that sort of cultural writing: the magic act is all Hampton’s, and it depends on his materials seeming banal at first. Luckily for him the materials ARE banal. Which is why his claims aren’t really justified after all. The movie just is what it is: a genial, wacky, flamboyant piece of confusing, confused junk. The rest, the value and the excitement, is just stuff that we can say about it. And that’s fine! I want culture to operate that way. It just is, and then we go out for dessert and drinks, and burn it as fuel for our enthusiastic talk. The enthusiastic talk is the thing. “Can you believe??” Hampton’s essay was just that, for me, and so I was glad to have seen the movie, because then it was converted into fuel for that kind of play. But the notion that the movie, inert, is itself great, is silly. No it’s not.

Also, who cares if it is?

Taste is a racket. I’ve been saying this for a while and it’s useful to me to repeat it. Taste is not how we operate. Thumbs up vs. thumbs down has nothing to do with aesthetic experience. Experience has no thumbs. Experiences that we value do not generally conform to our own ideas of what constitutes “good,” or “worthy,” or “quality.” We just don’t usually feel comfortable admitting it.

In an enlightened enough frame of mind, we might value all experiences that come our way. At my best, I do, in fact, like all these movies. And on the flip side of that, in a bad mood, I don’t like any movies. I don’t want to watch a movie. I’m especially mad at stupid jump ropes! I need a nap.

“Good” and “bad” really have nothing to do with this kind of experience, and this is the only kind there really is. “Good” and “bad” are a racket.

Which is why it’s so needless to say that a movie is “good” when it’s not, it’s actually just fuel. Fuel is what counts!

Well, I just looked back over Hampton’s essay and I see that he never quite claims that it’s good. He just gets very enthused about what he’s saying. So I guess I approve after all. He showed me some tricks for how to burn the fuel. Prior to reading the essay it felt kind of soggy and unburnable to me, but it turned out there was a little heat in it.

Here’s what I got out of the movie: splashy visual flair of the slickest, most commercial sort the 60s had to offer, combined with a surreal disregard for many other things, including, especially, narrative cohesion. Hampton counters by saying that Suzuki’s “insubordination is perfectly coherent as such” but I’m not so sure I detect anything intentionally provocative. As I said last time, I feel pretty comfortable attributing the gonzo detachment to something behind and beyond the auteur. He’s not thumbing his nose at anything as far as I can tell; he’s just genuinely detached.

The movie is intent on playing it cool, and it certainly does that. It’s also not wearing any pants. But it doesn’t seem to know. You murmur uncertainly to the person next to you “do you see what I’m seeing?” It’s the dissonance between the absurdity and the conviction of coolness that draws you in.

Quentin Tarantino has undoubtedly spent some time here. I think I saw some scenes from Kill Bill in there.

To dorks like Quentin I think this kind of movie can be very exciting, because it shows that “cool” is just an act, and it’s an act that doesn’t lose its power even if you are pantsless. In fact it might have more power. The fight scenes here are ridiculous, with a lot of flopping around and falling down and backing toward each other and spinning around. But does that mean they’re not “cool”? How could they not be “cool”? Look at how completely stylish and confident everything about this movie is asserting itself to be! To Tarantino and possibly to Hampton, this kind of “cool” is if anything more cool than the better-coordinated American kind. What could be cooler than wearing your “cool” shades and smoking a “cool” cigarette with a “cool” attitude while sauntering “coolly” through the fake studio snow singing your very own “cool” theme song?

I guess nothing?

The Emperor might as well pop on some shades to go with those new clothes! Ohhhhh yeahhhh!

This movie would be great to play in your hip restaurant where for some reason you feel the need to show a goddamn movie on the wall while people are eating. It looks like great style, it looks like retro, and it’s not really worth watching attentively. And of course it just oozes cultural cred. Cred cred cred! So go ahead, asshole, loop it in your hip hip restaurant, see if I care. I guess I’ll have the farm-to-table portobello-wasabi sliders for $17.50. Fuck you.

Music by Hajime Kaburagi. As Suzuki says in one of the bonus interviews, this is “a pop song movie.” Tetsuya Watari, the lead, sings verses of the theme song at the opening, the close, in the middle, and in character. I was on the verge of simply biting the bullet and putting a song in my mix, but no. A song is a different animal, and doesn’t belong in my zoo. You can hear the entire song here (this is an album version that doesn’t appear in the movie; compare the main titles). For our compilation album I’m offering the actual first cue in the movie, a short instrumental version of the tune. Track 39.

June 11, 2013

38. 殺しの烙印 (1967)

directed by Seijun Suzuki
written by “Hachiro Guryu”


Koroshi no rakuin. The English title is Branded to Kill. But what, exactly, does that mean?

殺し, koroshi = murder, killing
の, no = particle comparable to “of”
烙印, rakuin = mark, brand, stigma

I’m guessing that what this adds up to is something comparable to “The Mark of Cain,” e.g. “The Mark of Murder” or “The Mark of the Killer.” The plot involves a professional killer who after bungling a job becomes himself the target of a killer. Something concise and ambiguous like “Killer’s Mark” that points up the circularity would be a good translation. “Branded to Kill” is not.

Criterion #38.

A sign of our cultural times: artist interviews full of “No, [the thing you just asked about] doesn’t have any special meaning. I just kinda did it, who knows why” — but presented as though this is our enlightening glimpse behind the curtain. (“Huh, think of that! He just kinda did it and it didn’t have any special meaning! A fascinating insight into process!”)

This is a minor symptom of the movement to embrace “low” as “high.” Twenty-first-century man sez: Comic books are art too! Wow Mr. Lee, when you invented the rich and worthy cultural text of Spider-Man, what was the thinking behind giving him no mouth? “I just kinda did it, who knows why.” Wow! Now I know it’s great art because it’s full of mystery!

I don’t think that’s entirely wrong thinking. If there is any single “the thing about art” about art, it’s that an explanation is no match for it.

But I do think it’s entirely wrong thinking to embrace the low AS HIGH. The artist interview is itself an artifact of a Romantic attitude that can only confuse the essence of Spider-Man. Or more accurately: the belief that an inquiry into intentions is obviously relevant… is a Romantic artifact. There’s nothing wrong with a little knowledge, but there is something wrong with the assumption that knowledge is always important.

The Criterion Collection makes me think about the importance of curation, by which I really mean context. I feel a little sad that those words now mean the same thing for film, because I don’t think museums have done our understanding of the visual arts any great good. The sterility and snobbery of “curation” are a little chlorine in your water. Clean clean clean! and it also doesn’t taste good any more. When I look at things like this I can’t help but fixate on the question “did the twit with the stamp have no sense of shame?” Children should be seen and not heard; go to your room!

But that’s common practice. The twit with the stamp is higher than a king. The Grand Federal Doggie pees on each item submitted to the Library of Congress to mark it; you should be so lucky!

Criterion wants to offer you the full Steve Jobs package: the product looks sleek because it is sleek because rest assured it’s been good and curated by the Grand Cosmic Doggie. You are so lucky, consumer! And of course we all know that for movies on DVD, that means a great pageant of the inquiry into intentions: artist interviews, behind-the-scenes, historical context, archival ephemera, accredited experts, information, information, information! You think you knew water, but you haven’t REALLY had water until you’ve had CHLORINATED water. It’s cleaner than the real thing!

This movie — there we go — this movie is a Spider-Man with no mouth. There are several interviews on here wherein surprise surprise, they just kinda did it, who knows why.

It’s screwy. My feeling is that the screwiest art usually emerges out of some sort of folie à deux situation (but more than deux, e.g. a folie à Japon situation) – nobody has to try to be screwy because everyone present has already mutually embraced it. Sometimes with a grin, sometimes with a straight face. I think this movie was made in a spirit of fun, but a screwy one. The main thing is that the premises of this movie’s screwiness are well outside and beyond the movie. It is not authorial in the Romantic sense. For those of us watching it, the important thing is not how much we know about where it came from. Much more important to me is where I am and how it’s coming at me.

Criterion puts it in a numbered box and sells the box. But that’s exactly where it’s not coming from. And this is where “it’s kind of amazing!” comes in. If there is no natural order to culture and we have to depend on curators to keep things in view, there’s no longer any assurance that we will be exposed to things that don’t merit curation. And yet we want them around. High vs. low was never part of our emotional reality. So we rig up a bullshit case to convince the curators to stock regular old crap, because “it’s actually kind of amazing!”

This is why I disliked the ultimate message of Ratatouille. The soulless snooty critic is reminded of his soul, reminded of the emotional reality of food rather than the sterile context of pass/fail high/low pretension that has killed the joy of life. So then HOORAY he writes a positive rather than a negative review within the sterile, pretentious context and thus validates the hero within the sterile, pretentious context. Whew! Don’t worry, kids, your dad was wrong to yell at you that you’re wasting your life, because the reviews are in and it turns out your beloved Spider-Man belongs at MoMA after all! Videogames belong in the Smithsonian! It turns out that your authentic self isn’t embarrassing after all because it’s KIND OF AMAZING! You go girl! Let your freak flag fly, in the manner of e.g. Lady Gaga! She’s not afraid to be real!

The original Criterion essay on this movie is by John Zorn. It’s short, and the gist is, “I happened to see this on TV when I was in Japan and I had an experience with it.” That was the most genuinely useful, appreciation-deepening thing that was offered to me in the entire package. (And it’s not in the new package.)

The movie is a gangster movie, sort of, but it’s off its own rails. It’s brazenly incoherent. I could list the crazy details but that would feel like telling a lie, the lie being “it sure makes an impression when this crazy thing happens!” Not necessarily so. My actual experience was sort of furrowed-brow bemusement, and a shrugging acceptance. I have other things to worry about than why this contract killer in an old B-movie has a fetish for rice-cooker steam, or whether I think that’s interestingly weird. It was a little interesting; not that interesting. (Rice cooker product placement, one of the interviews implies, for what it’s worth.) If I had been in a hotel in Japan and this had come on TV I’m sure the experience would have been much, much more intense.

Criterion callbacks: The story here, such as it is, is a close relative to The Killer. The artistic value is a close relative to The Naked Kiss. My thoughts there basically apply here.

Best thing on the disc was the amusing contemporary interview with star Joe Shishido, who talks candidly about his unfortunate cheek implants. (They seem to have been removed at some point in the intervening years.) In the middle of answering a question — sort of — he suddenly pulls out a prop gun and shoots it, which is one of the greatest moments I’ve ever seen in an artist interview. Take that, curators!

One thing I can say unreservedly that I enjoyed is the 60s-cool score by Naozumi Yamamoto. Harpsichord and harmonica, baby.

The music that opens and closes the movie is a bluesy song about a killer. I’m not sure that vocals suit our purposes, especially what with the spoken interludes, so here instead is a cue from the middle of the movie, a hummed version of the same tune. Preceded by a sting for a dead body, natch. Track 38.

June 10, 2013

37. Time Bandits (1981)

directed by Terry Gilliam
written by Michael Palin and Terry Gilliam


Criterion #37.

In E.T. (1982):

Elliott: You can’t tell. Not even Mom.
Gertie: Why not?
Elliott: Because, uh… grown-ups can’t see him. Only little kids can see him.
Gertie: Give me a break!

This would seem to be an early example of kid culture having knowingness and eating it too. But it — and E.T. as a whole — plays well because it feels what it preaches. E.T. is a classic because it does not condescend to the idea that the emotional life of a child is glorious; it simply plays it straight, makes a movie of it.

Elliott is trying on adult shoes here. He is constantly fed this kind of crap, and now with that dangerous principle of emotional logic (“do unto others as was done unto you” – this principle needs a name) is playing the adult role as he understands it. Garbage in, garbage out. But he’s still young enough that when she rolls her eyes he instinctively bows before the force of truth and changes tack. A real adult would angrily redouble the bullshit in the face of such purity. Adults feel subconscious shame that they are spewing garbage, which is why it’s so easy for kids to see through them.

The scene is rich because the very movie to which it belongs is feeding us something superficially quite similar (although it is essential to the emotional meaning of E.T. that adults can see and feel him, that he is simply there and real), but unlike Elliott’s lie, the movie earns our trust and belief, in no small part through exactly what this scene exhibits: unflinching ease with the fact that part of being a kid is knowing shit from Shinola. Gertie’s dismissal is not a cynical counterbalance to her innocence; it is an essential piece of it.

Yes, the emotional life of a child is glorious, and an important part of that emotional life is the sniffing out of pandering bullshit. In fact, I’m finding that open disdain for the absurdly obvious gap between feeling and pseudo-feeling is proving to be my surest Proustian hook back into that life. Right, that’s what childhood felt like! “Stop telling me lies about magic, because you’re distracting me from magic.”

And yet, like I said, here’s Elliott trying out bullshit, seeing what it’s worth. Another reason E.T. doesn’t feel like pandering is because it does not exempt the children from simultaneously being adults-in-training, with all the bluster and pettiness that entails. Even E.T. himself, the “thou” to Elliott’s “I,” is not exempt from playing at ugly adulthood, drinking all the beer he finds in the fridge and then watching John Wayne on TV, the patron saint of self-satisfied pig-in-a-poke grown-up-ness.

I bring this all up because E.T. seems to me the ideal archetype of the “kids know what adults don’t” movie. It has its head on straight, including about this potentially touchy issue, the fact that being a movie makes it a very adult artifact. It seems to me that the exchange above is not a lampshade; it’s artistic self-acceptance, the very opposite of self-consciousness. The E.T. screenplay alludes to Peter Pan but it is not Peter Pan; it does not dangle “never growing up” over our heads as a magic possibility to make us cry wussy grown-up tears of shame. Or rather it does, briefly, but in the end it does not endorse them: the part of E.T. that makes me cry is when Michael, feeling old, curls up to sleep in the toy closet as E.T. dies; he can’t figure out what to do other than make a futile, merely ceremonial gesture of love for his lost childhood. My tears, I am realizing now, were never for childhood/E.T./innocence — which are indeed resurrectable as per the movie — but for the feeling of impotence that has reduced Michael to nostalgia. Nostalgia exactly because he’s distorting the thing he’s nostalgic for; it is indeed something “only little kids can see.” What is there to do but cry in the closet? I know those feelings well, and feel for him, and I don’t resent the movie for making me tear up in this way, but the important thing is to recognize that to this the movie has already wisely said: Gimme a break!

Anyway, this is all my roundabout way of saying that the “kids know what adults don’t” trope is really about emotional honesty. The magic things that only kids encounter — be they aliens or talking animals or magic portals or mythical whatevers — represent things that are simply true and real and obvious. Such as feelings. Or details. Or the intensity of sensory impressions. Or the strange and mysterious mental phenomena that tangle the three together.

And, as in E.T., part of getting that childlike emotional honesty right is remembering what it’s like to know — immediately, tactlessly, comfortably — when adults get it wrong.

Time Bandits is Terry Gilliam “doing” childhood. Like Spielberg he is doing it uncynically (or at least like Spielberg prior to his 1989 divorce, which, quickie psychoanalysis, in recapitulating his parents’ divorce tarnished his sense of immunity to adult bullshit and opened the door to making the anti-E.T.: the rampantly self-pitying, calculated, impotent Hook. I suspect/project that the reason Hook sucked was because he was secretly distracted by self-fulfilling anxiety that he had suddenly grown up after all, and was faking his “eternal child” thing.)

Sorry, so, Time Bandits is adult Terry Gilliam’s take on what adults can’t see. They can’t see imagination, silliness, fantasy, play, cleverness, faraway lands, the joy of a big anarchic mess o’ stuff. Of everything. All the stuff on the floor in a boy’s bedroom, or in an illustration in a history book, or in a weird dream; why don’t parents care more about all that great stuff? This is to him the essential childhood question. Looking at his work it isn’t hard for me to imagine him as a child for whom this would be the essential question. And that truth comes through; this is very clearly a movie made from within this attitude and in the belief that the attitude is a pure and important one and in itself justification enough for a movie.

And yet my Gertie-meter went off a bit. But in the opposite direction from usual. Rather than playing the sad-wise adult who knows that childhood is a fairy’s tear that falls but once, boo-hoo, he plays the stubborn-angry teenager who knows all too well that adulthood is a big smarmy scam. In the middle of a celebration of the power of the unbridled imagination, satirical cynicism strikes a wrong note, one that a child knows only belongs to the curdled posturing of grown-ups. Imagination is great, so why are we hating on modern society? Or grown-ups? Who would waste their time hating grown-ups? Only a kind of grown-up.

At the end, rather shockingly, he has the protagonist boy’s house burn down and his inattentive, hopelessly materialistic parents actually explode when they encounter the dangerous vitality of the fantasy evil with which their son has been contending. The final beat is presented as a slyly melancholy one; uh-oh, now he’s got no home or family and has to contend with… life! Is that going to be the good kind of life, with dwarfs and derring-do and complete freedom of action? Or the bad kind where you watch idiocy on TV and cover all your furniture in plastic? It’s up to him!

Well, that’s all well and good for middle-aged Terry Gilliam, but for actual kids there is something off-key about the way that ending disturbs — specifically that it clearly knows it’s doing something wrong, something kids don’t deserve to have to see. Why? “Unto others as was done to you.” Yes, it’s human, but it’s not a good policy for art-making.

So that’s the problem; it’s a movie that doesn’t waste its time trying to “work” in any humdrum traditional way — it puts all its money on innocence and magic — and yet it hasn’t entirely washed out its soul. That said, there’s lots of fun stuff here. Gilliam stands almost alone in his willingness to bring a spirit of play to every aspect of movie-making, rather than reserving a few dimensions for ego (or anxious timidity). Imagery that seems to plug directly into the giddy freedom of making imagery is oddly rare in cinema. Even when his movies don’t work, I can’t help but feel that I am in the company of a vital creative attitude, and thus that I am somewhere worth being. Unlike most movies, his movies feel healthy, like you can breathe the air, feel aware of your body while you watch them. On the other hand there is that nugget of spite in all of them. Why didn’t they love me more, dammit?

A lot of it is on the table in this interview. Gilliam actually mentions E.T. He says he thinks the movie would have been better if the creature had been uglier, with narrow eyes, so that the kid had to learn to love it. “It should have been difficult to love E.T.” This is Gilliam’s prescription for everyone else, for all the Americans who lapped up the movie without reforming their hateful ways. He understood the movie fine, because he already loves his inner child — but to everyone else he’s apparently ugly. They could use a primer on loving him!

Time Bandits has a loving father figure in it — Sean Connery as Agamemnon! — but he is betrayed and left behind. At the end he reappears for a split second as a winking fireman, driving away from the rubble of the boy’s former home. Is all love and comfort a tease? Terry hasn’t worked that out yet, quite.

This is a pretty well stuffed homemade toy chest of a movie, but a scary one, and a lonely one. The former issue would have been a bigger deal for me as a child, but that’s because I was a well-adjusted child and could afford to be terrorized by ghouls. The latter is a more significant artistic failing.

I’m very glad to have seen it. There are several really wonderful moments in this movie, things completely pure of any resentment. When, in the middle of a desert, an invisible wall shatters and reveals a vast looming fantasy castle of evil, it is absolutely thrilling. There is, haphazardly, real imaginative joy on the screen. And then there’s other stuff too.

Score is by Mike Moran, the fantasy synths you might imagine for 1981. Main Title.

I watched this on Netflix, where it can be streamed in high quality. But of course the compulsion here is to watch the CRITERION version, and that meant waiting nearly a month for the single copy in the New York Public Library system to pass through three holds and finally reach me. By which point I had already written all of the above. And even this paragraph, because I got that impatient. So, do I have anything extra to say having heard the commentary track? (and the behind-the-scenes galleries??) :

Eh. It’s a pleasant, personable commentary, with an emphasis on how things were achieved on the cheap. But after all this wait it was bound to be underwhelming. I really just wanted permission to post. Permission granted.

Here’s what I do want to add, now that I’ve been forced to wait, and thus given the opportunity to read all the above through new eyes: art is a very personal business, for the makers and the viewers alike. I don’t think any of us have a choice about that. So let’s please try not to pretend that there’s any way of doing this that isn’t very personal. I don’t know if what I said was right; all I can do is swear that I meant it.

My concerns now (i.e. loneliness being a greater problem than scariness) are just my concerns now. My goal is to be a person to whom any attitude seems artistically viable because I am already fine, because I have other ways of getting what I really need from my fellow man. I want to get back in the mood for games.