Monthly Archives: May 2014

May 19, 2014

54. For All Mankind (1989)

2000: 054 box 1 2009: 054 box 2


directed by Al Reinert
“Filmed on location by the United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration.”

Criterion #54.

(Moon landing documentary, of sorts, made entirely of NASA archival film.)

“Make no mistake,” as our president would say: this is by far the most astounding and spectacular and terrifying and important footage ever shot. It has been transferred and enlarged and printed wonderfully; the picture is pristine and frequently beautiful. The work done by the filmmakers in sorting through the countless hours of previously unseen NASA footage, and then making these selections public at such high quality, is a great and important service.

And continue to make no mistake: You can’t watch this stuff without being awed and thrilled and frightened and inspired (not necessarily in that order). Yes, by now a lot of the basic images may have collapsed into cliche — familiarity has drained the standard “blue marble” photo of most of its power — but it hardly takes any variation, just a tilt or two of the lens, a slightly new angle not seen before, and suddenly one can’t help but be contemplating it afresh, for real. Good god, that’s everything, all of it, surrounded by nothing, and someone went and stood in the nothing to look back and photograph everything. It’s tremendously, nauseatingly real.

In the commentary track, astronaut Eugene Cernan (“Last man on the moon”) says:

I can remember standing on the surface of the moon in sunlight looking back at the Earth surrounded by the blackest black that you can conceive in your mind, a three-dimensional blackness without a beginning and without end: it’s not darkness, but blackness. And the Earth, with all its beauty and all its splendor, lives three-dimensionally within this blackness.

That’s not just theoretical. Like it or not, that unthinkable enormity (in all senses) is something that a man really stood and looked at and saw, and it was as real and ordinary as this tissue box on my desk. A real man, a person so real and ordinary that after returning to the everything from the nothing, he did something as banal as record a commentary track for Criterion. Seeing it — that three-dimensional blackness without beginning or end — in a photograph isn’t as intense as looking directly at it, thank god, but it remains mind-boggling: literally unthinkable. And here it is, the unthinkable, captured on film by a few humans who wore death-proof suits and carried cameras beyond the edge of the living world.

So make no mistake: I was glad to watch this.

Aaaaand… you can make mistakes now.

C’mon, Simone: let’s talk about my big “but.”

The unique and tremendous power of this footage is that it is real. So it is inescapably frustrating that the filmmakers have stitched it together with the customary white lies of film — and a few egregiously gray ones — and in so doing have needlessly diminished it.

There were six moon landings and 11 manned Apollo missions in all. The approach taken by the director is to edit together the best footage from all of them, to create a montage that gives the general cinematic impression of a single mission from start to finish. The rationale for this approach is presented in various ways and in various places in the Criterion package: it allowed the use of all the best footage in one movie, it emphasized the universality of the endeavor by treating all the individual astronauts as essentially interchangeable, it avoided the need for an excess of technical-historical detail that would only distract from the cinematic force of the images.

I find all that completely sympathetic. It is perfectly legitimate to edit non-fiction film with an eye for poetry rather than encyclopedic accuracy. And this material cries out for poetic treatment.

But manipulating documentary footage in this way demands certain scruples that these filmmakers do not have. Their film does more than just edit things together out of sequence. It tells unnecessary lies, repeatedly.

In the very first minutes there is a shot of a crew of astronauts (I think from Apollo 16) walking down a hallway in their suits, headed for the launchpad. The arm of a woman who stands just off-camera appears briefly, waving at them as they walk by. In the film we hear her voice, crystal clear, cheerfully saying “Y’all take care now!” like a waitress might say to anybody who went through the door. That’s an odd and amusing thing to say to astronauts headed for the moon, I thought; what a strange and wonderful detail from way back in 1972, recovered by these filmmakers for me to re-experience and savor in the present day. Then the big “but” hit me: But wait, I thought. The NASA film crew surely wasn’t carrying a boom mike down this hallway. This footage is probably silent. And come to think of it, that sure didn’t sound like sound from 1972. I think that was ADR. Someone in an editing room in 1989 made up those words and stuck that in there to give a sense of place.

Whoever did it was comfortable so doing because it’s the kind of thing that’s done all the time in editing rooms: “We need to lay on some intuitive sound to make this shot feel alive. Let’s put some foley footsteps in there and some crowd noise from outside the door. And I guess when you see the woman’s arm wave we need some sound to justify it or it will seem weirdly silent. I guess we’ll just put in a voice.”

Generally, that’s all well and good for just another day in post-production. But I’m watching this to be put in touch with the real moments of which the film is an artifact. Adding phony footstep sounds is already a little suspect, though I can see the argument to be made for its subliminal value; certainly as a claim about the past it is very mild. But adding phony dialogue is simply no good! That is a strong claim: a woman said this. When in fact she did not. Maybe.

Only a few shots later, the man who closes the elevator door on the gantry is clearly heard to quietly say “Godspeed, men” as he salutes the astronauts. But wait, no he didn’t! Not necessarily! Someone sneaked into this stash of truth and inserted some lies! Hey, I was watching that!

Admittedly there’s not a lot of that kind of ADR lying, but those two instances came very early on and got me off to a bad start. The sin committed more often is false crosscutting. The only flight director we’re shown at mission control is Gene Kranz (whom you know as “Ed Harris”), with all footage seemingly coming from the same day, and maybe the same hour. I can accept that the premise of the film is that we’re not worrying about details: he’s just “a flight director” in this poem of the moon landings. If it cuts to him directing during footage of the launch and then again during footage of the moon landing and he’s wearing the same tie, we just have to roll with it. And I think I can. But when they show someone on the moon making a joke, and then they cut to him laughing, that really irks me! Was that how he looked laughing at that joke, or not? Is this a real moment that was part of a remarkable historical event, resurrected decades later by the marvel of film technology? Or is this an editing room invention from 1989 that is no more significant to me than anything else concocted by film editors in 1989? Those are pretty different categories!

When a video image of the Earth as seen from lunar orbit is shown on the screen in mission control, then we cut to reaction shots of various mission control crew staff members looking awed or reflective. Are they really looking at that image of the Earth on the screen? Or is it just their reaction to something else, maybe on a different day, during a different mission, and it just happened to be what the editor thought their reaction to seeing the Earth on the screen “should feel like”? My impression was that we were getting some of both.

Sly montage technique (as seen regularly at the Academy Awards and elsewhere) in which different sources are mixed and matched to create rhyming couplets — Tom Hanks dials his phone and then black-and-white Joan Crawford answers her phone, etc. — is post-modern fun that is absolutely antithetical to documentary. Just because all this footage is from NASA and none of it is from It’s a Wonderful Life doesn’t mean that what’s going on here is any different. We see an astronaut step off the lander on to the lunar surface and hear Neil Armstrong saying his line about it being a “one small step for [a] man.” Then we hear another astronaut’s interview about how when he stepped on to the moon, he made a joke because nobody would care what the “second guy” said, and then see the same video feed continue as a second astronaut hops down from the lander. We hear him say: “That may have been a small one for Neil, but that’s a long one for me.” Wow, I thought, how amusing! Why has nobody ever told me that that’s what Buzz Aldrin said?

Because it’s NOT what Buzz Aldrin said. It’s what Pete Conrad said, many months later, during Apollo 12. The moment created in the film, in which one line follows the other in short succession during the same video feed, is like a conversation between Tom Hanks and Joan Crawford: they both take place in dreamy silver screen land, for the viewer’s pleasure. “That’s the wonderful magic of the movies! P.S. The moon landing itself was real, though, we swear.”

I can’t overstress that this matters. You can’t cut historical footage like it’s fiction without devaluing the fact that it’s real. I want to be allowed to muse on the astonishing reality of everything I see! That is, in fact, the only thing I want from a movie like this. What else are we here for?

Turning on my jaded, skeptical, TV-watching, mediocrity-parsing brain is really, really detrimental to my ability to experience awe. Detrimental to my outlook as a whole. Why couldn’t the filmmakers see that the greatest gift they could offer would be to refrain from asking that of me?

A running theme in my mind during the movie was that man’s comprehension of the reality into which he is venturing is simply insufficient. Great emphasis is given to showing the astronauts goofing around, doing flips in zero gravity, acting like monkeys. It’s meant to give homely, human charm to the proceedings. But to me it said: yup, these are monkeys. Monkeys somehow figured out how to do this, monkeys put themselves in a tiny can and went way, way beyond the edge of what they understand, into a three-dimensional blackness without beginning and without end.

We are shown a real photograph of THE ENTIRE EARTH, to contemplate its unthinkable everything-ness, over which one of the astronauts is heard musing in an interview: “The three things that I associated with Earth were people, and green trees, and fresh water.” This is so bizarrely small-minded and stupid — you associate three things with Earth? And yet against the backdrop of infinite space, which is to say the reality of the universe, that’s just who we are. Hopelessly provincial monkeys with some dumb shit to say.

One of the astronauts describes the moon as “2001 type stuff.” This is what one of the twelve human beings ever to stand on the actual moon has to say about it. I don’t hold it against him: that’s just what we as humans have got to work with. The real moon does look kind of like the moon as seen in that movie 2001, come to think of it.

I saw the Earth and thought about the future of the species. I thought about climate change and pollution and how it is and will remain unmanaged because even as mankind gets big, man remains small. I felt down.

But then I had a flash of relief: I’m only thinking this stuff because that’s the mindset of this movie. This movie is making me think about Man The Mediocre because it has deliberately turned the most amazing documentary footage imaginable into something marketably less than a documentary, something less threatening, less real, less complex. Like planetarium shows have done for decades, the filmmakers set out to reveal the spiritual behind the science and instead just made another middlebrow Hallmark card. Neither here nor there, neither fact nor poem, neither man nor monkey.

But make no mistake: the raw materials are truly stirring stuff, and they shine through. Between the moments of frustration and the moments of despondency, I was moved. You’ll just have to do some editing in your head as you watch, philosophically and otherwise. And that seems a shame, since the whole point of the movie was to do the editing for us.

The Criterion package is great. The movie looks great, the commentary with Gene Cernan (and director Al Reinert) is engaging and personal, the bonus features are nicely assembled. In a way, they supply the traditional documentary grounding that the movie lacks.

The music is by crossword puzzle stalwart Brian Eno. I assumed he would bring ambient awe and terror to outer space, but the music is all dipsy-doodle Museum of Science type stuff. The music as the lander descends sounds like either the pinnacle of human endeavor or a spooky carnival on Punky Brewster. Or possibly the hold music when Henry calls the spooky carnival to make reservations.

It turns out that that particular track (“Quixote”) is actually by Roger Eno, Brian’s brother (who has, unfairly, never been in a crossword puzzle). Herein, it seems, hangs sort of a tale, one not told by the Criterion disc. According to the Wikipedia page for Eno’s original soundtrack album, the film was first assembled in 1983 as a purely non-narrative montage to music, with no voice-over. To give it wider appeal, it was gradually reworked into the 1989 version seen today, in which process some of the music from Eno’s 1983 soundtrack was replaced by music from his 1988 album Music for Films III, which is actually sort of a collaborative album, containing tracks by several other musicians (such as Roger). Having given a quick skim listen through the original 1983 soundtrack, I feel like it offers something more spiritually cohesive than what’s heard in the finished film. I also feel like the purer, artsier 1983 version of the film might well have eased nearly all of my objections above. It sounds more like the conscientious poetry that this footage deserves.

The finished film offers no musical cues that aren’t at least partially obscured by voice-over. The two longest stretches come during the spooky carnival sequence and then the end credits. Since of those two, only the end credits is actually by Brian Eno, that’s what we’re going with. The track is called “An Ending (Ascent)” on the album and runs about twice as long; I’m giving you as much of it as could be extracted from the film without including any dialogue. End Credits.

To me this sounds like 6th grade science class. Someone wheeled in the TV on a cart so we could watch something lame.

Footnote: Apparently, that’s not what “dipsy-doodle” means. But it should be.

May 16, 2014

53. 椿三十郎 (1962)

1999: 053 box 1 2007: 053 box 2


directed by Akira Kurosawa
screenplay by Ryuzo Kikushima, Hideo Oguni and Akira Kurosawa
based on the book 日々平安 (Peaceful Days) (1958) by Shugoro Yamamoto

Criterion #53. Sequel me!

椿三十郎 = Tsubaki Sanjūrō = “Thirty-Year-Old Camellia.” The international title is Sanjuro. So basically this movie is called Thirtysomething. (I have just checked whether there is a Japanese-language version of the Wikipedia page for Thirtysomething, to compare the titles. There is not.)

But why, really, is it called “Thirty-Year-Old Camellia”? Well, when our mysterious hero is asked his name in Yojimbo, he resorts to the old “at the Alamo in the basement” routine: he looks out the window, sees a mulberry field, and says his name is “Kuwabatake Sanjuro (= thirty-year-old mulberry-field)… though actually I’m nearly forty.” The sequel repeats the whole bit, except this time there are camellias out the window.

It’s all about the mythic force of the ritualistic running gag. “Bond. James Bond.” Aw yeeah, he said the thing he always says! Kickass! As the orphan in The Cider House Rules explains, when another orphan asks why Michael Caine always recites the same little benediction every night when he turns out the light: “He does it because we like it.” Just like James Bond! Just like getting tucked in at night! The difference between “kickass” and “snuggly-cozy” is only a very slender line of macho denial.

This is only the second movie about “Thirty-Year-Old. Thirty-Year-Old [Plant-Out-The-Window],” which might seem a little premature for selling snuggly-coziness, but that’s what Sanjuro is selling. And I think that’s why I liked it better than Yojimbo. Because I know this game and I know how to play along. Tuck, tuck me in!

This movie doesn’t just happen to be one of the sources of that iconic image of Toshiro Mifune as a samurai (you know, the famous image, the one from CULTURE AT LARGE); this movie is itself deliberately trading on that iconicity, amping it up to make sure we get what we came for and know that we got it. Look at him go! it says. Look, it’s really him! It’s really one of those movies, and it’s happening right now! You are watching a sequel! Unlike Yojimbo, this one never feels less than commercial.

Well, that’s great. I’m all for it. Let’s hurry up and get this genre all good and coded out so that I don’t have to think about it rationally anymore. Because that’s really what I hate about samurai movies, westerns, and superhero movies: the pretense to actual representational meaning. As if! Enough already! The more artificial the better. If I’m going to have to watch samurai, I want you to put them through a rock tumbler first and make them all shiny. Comic book here we come! Bring on the magic powers! Bring on the time travel!

You think I’m kidding, but we really get almost all the way there. Sanjuro ends with a ridiculous duel — and by ridiculous I mean ridiculously KICKASS! — and by ridiculously KICKASS! I mean ridiculous — in which the two guys have a face-to-face epic comic-book stare-off for a very long time without moving, and then suddenly in a flash they both move and Toshiro Mifune has already killed the other guy, with a single slice across the chest that produces a truly fantastical fountain of spewing blood, like a firehose, Monty Python-style. In the bonus documentary we learn that the absurd overkill of this effect was a technical mishap, but that Kurosawa just went with it.

In other words, snuggly-cozy comic-book dream ballet for all the kids out there. The kids who can handle it.

Yojimbo felt pretty awkward for a classic made by people. Sanjuro feels pretty graceful for junk made by the system. I’ll take graceful junk over awkward classics any day. In fact I’ll take graceful junk over most things. (Junk of course is relative. Obviously there are limits. But this is 1962 and there’s still plenty of breathing room.)

I know, my response to Yojimbo was just a response to my own false expectations. Probably I should have just enjoyed it as good junk. I wish I could come to every movie purified of all prior knowledge of it, but I can’t.

Plot: Toshiro Mifune and the nine dumb good guys. “Do I have to do everything around here?” “I’m getting sick of your blundering!” “Now see what you’ve done!”

The story is about two officials, one of whom is bad and the other of whom is good. These two officials are a chamberlain and a superintendent. I couldn’t have come up with more MacGuffiny titles if I had tried. I find this aspect of the movie deeply charming. To a true innocent, everything in every movie is a MacGuffin. The “real purpose” is always outside the frame; what we are shown is only and ever an interplay of ciphers. Having to consider whether to trust the chamberlain or the superintendent brought me back to a time in my life before definitions. The movie operates there. Nine dumb guys and a smart guy have to rescue a kidnapped chamberlain from a superintendent and his army. Surreality is never far away.

The same might be said of that staple of childhood cinema, Star Wars, in which 70% of the dialogue is blessedly abstract. In Sanjuro once again I felt like I was seeing the complete contents of George Lucas’s brain laid out for inventory.

As my attitude toward life has been improving, my completist masochism has inevitably waned. I watched the documentary for real, but the commentary… well, it’s playing in the next room. Right now, as I type this. I can totally hear it. Here, right now he’s saying “…and that will give us the transition to this splendid sequence of Mifune stalking toward Muroto’s gate…” See?

It’s the same guy as last time, so I feel pretty sure I know how much he has to offer me. Now he’s saying: “… So you could say that one side of Sanjuro’s deadly nature, here, is his facial hair…” And now: “… Kurosawa almost never does this kind of routine continuity editing…” You get the drift. I know I do.

I promise not to post this until he’s done talking.

Music is by Masaru Sato again, with some use of the theme from Yojimbo and some of the same instrumentation, but generally a more restrained and sober dramatic approach. (With a couple of exuberant transgressions.) The score is more effective, less entertaining than last time around. Here’s the main title, all groaning and clattering. I like it. Sure sounds like this one’s gonna be bleaker than Yojimbo, doesn’t it? Well, turns out it isn’t. But too much atmosphere never hurt a movie.

He finished.

May 13, 2014

Best Original Screenplay 1942: Woman of the Year


Winner in the category of WRITING (Original Screenplay) at the 15th Academy Awards, presented March 4, 1943 at the Cocoanut Grove, The Ambassador Hotel.

The other nominees were:
Wake Island — W.R. Burnett, Frank Butler
Road to Morocco — Frank Butler, Don Hartman
The War Against Mrs. Hadley — George Oppenheimer
One of Our Aircraft is Missing — Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger

Opening of screenplay:




dingy and formless from long, severe wear. It lies on a desk. INCLUDED IN THE SHOT are a paper-weight made of a baseball covered with autographs and part of a receptacle filled with “books” of assembled copy paper and carbons. A typewriter carriage comes in and out of the shot rapidly, in synchronization with the staccato – two-fingered clicking of the keys.

CAMERA PULLS BACK to reveal Sam Craig as he finishes typing, pulls the pages out of the machine and starts to assemble what he’s written, frowning as he does so.

Sam’s office is one of a row of small cubbyholes which line one wall of the large room that houses the Sports Department. His door is open.

The large room which we see in b.g., adjoins the city room, from which it’s separated either by an actual partition or merely a railing. In either case, it has its own entrance in extreme b.g. leading into the corridor where the elevators are. There are about fifteen desks, each with its phone and typewriter, grouped around a long (or horse-shoe) table which is the sports copy-desk. At the moment only one or two of the regular desks are occupied, but the copy-readers are around their table in full force. A noteworthy feature of the scene is the business-like rather than hectic atmosphere usually associated with newspaper offices. The head copy-reader picks up a phone next to him as it rings. His voice is audible in b.g.

Head Copy-reader (into phone)
Sports department… No, he isn’t. I think he’ll be back after the fights… Okay.

(hangs up)

Sam’s frown of dissatisfaction deepens as he reads what he’s written. Still poring over his pages, he starts slowly through his open door toward the copy-desk.



The head copy-reader looks up expectantly as Sam comes toward him. But Sam, his pace becoming slower as his discontent increases, comes to a full stop a few feet away from the desk and, with an expression of disgust, suddenly crumples his pages and chucks them into a wastebasket. The head copy-reader “Tch-tchs” sympathetically. Sam detours around the copy desk and goes toward the entrance.

First lines in film:


— Miss Harding and Mr. Kieran both have their hands up. The full title, please.
— It’s Nights in the Garden of Spain.
— Uh, Nights in the… Garden of Spain.
— Hello, Sam.
— Hiya, kid.

BROOM Let’s not do the Mad Men thing where we gleefully list its transgressions against present-day feminism. Let’s try to be more nuanced than that.

ADAM Actually, I thought it was going to be a lot worse than it was. I think the ultimate compromise they arrived at was reasonable, even for a present-day feminist.

BETH I agree with that.

ADAM At times I was a little worried about where they were going.

BETH I was too, but I didn’t really believe that Katharine Hepburn would have chosen to be in a movie with the message that she should surrender her identity to housewifery.

ADAM But poor Gerald!

BROOM When you say “the compromise they arrived at,” you’re really just talking about the one line: “instead of being Mrs. Craig, why can’t you be Tess Harding Craig.” But we don’t see that put into action; we don’t know what it means, to him or to her. And the whole sequence before that, where she tries to cook, is meant to humiliate her.

ADAM But it’s affectionate. That sequence wasn’t mean-spirited. It’s funny in part because he’s good-naturedly playing along.

BROOM Because she shouldn’t even be trying?

ADAM Right. Alma’s not going anywhere — she’ll make the waffles.

BROOM It was very hard to tell whether the movie thought that Tess’s whole value system was bad, or whether it was just comically distant from our value system.

BETH I think it was the latter. The movie was trumpeting her individuality. I think it sided with her living outside of standards.

ADAM Well, towards the 60 percent mark, at the awards banquet, it did seem like it might descend into her being a shrewish villain. That’s the point when I worried that she was the villain and he was the good guy. But it didn’t actually go there. Ultimately it was a sweet movie — notwithstanding its treatment of the effeminate male underling. Who was right: she did have a battleship to launch, guys, so…! How was he supposed to know that it wasn’t a good time to interrupt?

BROOM Are we to understand that Sam hit Gerald over the head with a champagne bottle?

BETH Yeah, I think so.

BROOM That could be deadly! That’s very dangerous. And he may also have pushed him off the porch.

ADAM It turned out that the homosexual was their enemy all along, not Katharine Hepburn. Although we sort of knew that.

BROOM The movie wasn’t unkind to to Gerald until that last sequence; he just happened to be intimidating to our man Spencer. He was just humorless when it would have been more pleasant if he had been personable.

ADAM And he called her “Miss Harding” at an inopportune moment.

BETH That’s true.


ADAM When he was walking in the door and handing his gloves to Spencer Tracy.

BROOM Why was that inopportune?

ADAM Because that wasn’t her married name, and wasn’t the right thing to say in front of Sam.

BROOM Oh. Were we supposed to read it that way?

ADAM That’s how I read it.

BETH I don’t know. I can read it that way.

ADAM I mean, she was pretty annoying for much of the middle stretch of the movie.

BETH Well, she was making some selfish choices.

ADAM She shouldn’t have brought home the Greek boy.

BETH She definitely shouldn’t have.

ADAM That was a funny scene though. I thought it was going to be a child of hers from a previous marriage.

BETH I knew it would be a humanitarian scheme.

ADAM You knew it would be a Greek boy?

BETH No, I didn’t know that.

ADAM I thought one of the strangest things about the movie was the weirdly tepid raciness. There were clearly meant to be some titillating jokes in there. But they were swathed in cottonballs. That might have been a period thing or it might have just been a tastefulness choice. It was weird, to my modern sensibility.

BROOM What was weird?

ADAM The way that the racy jokes landed.

BROOM Which particular jokes? You said “this is rather racy!” when they first went back to her apartment after their date.

ADAM Well, that scene was strange, because the implication was clearly that they were going to hook up. And he tells her that he would have with other girls. I don’t know, that seems legitimately shocking for a movie from 1942.

BROOM The implicit endorsement of premarital sex?

ADAM The acknowledgement of it. But no, I’m talking more about the joke when he’s talking to his mother and says “You can’t ask a girl that! I don’t know, mom! All right, I’ll ask her if she’s a good cook.”

BETH Right.

ADAM I didn’t have a problem with it. I just thought it was amusingly mild.

BROOM You thought “I’ll ask her if she’s a good cook” was a punchline to a virginity joke?

BETH It was.

BROOM But in the final scene we see that whether she’s a good cook turns out to be material. And I thought the point was that when his mother says “I don’t know if she’s good enough for you,” she isn’t just asking about virginity, she’s asking about femininity. Which is why she’s sent the cookbook that we see at the end.

ADAM I know. But the joke of the phone call is nonetheless “Ma, you can’t ask that!”

BETH Yeah, I think so too. I think that’s how the audience was supposed to hear it.

BROOM Oh. Because in that earlier scene, I was already thinking, “Ah, Tess’s overachievement makes old fogeys like his mother suspicious of her.” Whether or not you read it as being about virginity, she’s this advanced feminist modern woman, and the question is whether that kind of person is a proper wife… So clearly when the mother brings up cooking, that’s genuinely at issue.

ADAM Clearly that’s the literal function of the scene. I’m just saying that the way they set up the joke, it was a virginity joke. There were a couple other funny things like that. I’m not trying to just poke fun at its pastness, but it was funny to me the ways that it was both very frank about sex but also amusingly indirect.

BROOM They did do the whole Marx Brothers stateroom scene except as a “cockblock” joke.

ADAM Poor Dr. Lubbeck. The other thing I was going to remark on about the screenwriting is that the pacing was super strange, from a modern perspective. I’m not saying it was ineffective, but it was very leisurely. In that last scene, before he came in, she spent like five whole minutes setting up the breakfast.

BETH It was enjoyable to watch, though.

ADAM Yeah, it worked! But it’s just funny to watch Katharine Hepburn, you know, moving around a kitchen.

BETH Reading instructions.

BROOM I thought that was an intentionally bold choice, that we should arrive at this final kitchen scene and it should suddenly get very slow. Remember that movie Big Night, with Stanley Tucci and Tony Shalhoub?


BROOM They think that their restaurant is going to have a really big night because a famous person is coming, and then it doesn’t happen, and it’s a big letdown, and they blew all their money and it’s not clear what’s going to happen to them. And the very last scene, after this big downer, is just one shot where Stanley Tucci makes eggs, and it takes however long it really takes. And they must have gotten that from here. We go through this whole movie with its own narrative rhythm, and then we end with the rhythm of a real task. Of course, the tasks became farcical here. But I actually thought the pacing was strange much earlier, in ways that I was less sure I was supposed to savor. The whole first half had no conflict in it.

BETH The drinking scene was just very leisurely. And the baseball game.

ADAM It was affable rom-com stuff.

BROOM Yeah, but there wasn’t even a romantic comedy plot; just straight romance. They liked each other, they went on dates.

ADAM Well, there were some moments of conflict. Like: Gerald won’t let him into her office, so he reads the Chinese newspaper. There were little bitty conflicts.

BROOM To me it really felt like we were just gradually falling in love, and then getting married, and then living together. It took me a long time to understand what the specific thrust of the movie was.

BETH That’s surprising to me. I knew that’s what the conflict would be, immediately. Maybe that’s only because I came in knowing who each of them is.

ADAM She invites him to a party and there’s all kinds of foreigners there. Get it?

BROOM I just thought that was a kind of charm comedy. She’s upmarket and he’s downmarket.

ADAM But she’s also thoughtless.

BROOM I thought that was just part of his comic journey toward the girl he was falling for. I didn’t see it as having asserted itself as a thematic problem. Yes, I see in retrospect that it wasn’t just color, it was supposed to be seen as actually frustrating to him. But since the mode of screwball is [shrugging tone] “oh dear, this leopard just got into our apartment…” it just seemed like comedy, not conflict.

ADAM Spencer Tracy only has one face: eyes bugging out, annoyed. He’s a redhead, right?

BETH Yeah.

ADAM You can just seem him flushing to the roots of his red hair. By the way, how old were they, in this?

BETH I’m curious to know.

ADAM They seemed like a hundred years old.

BETH They seemed like they were in their early 40s.

BROOM They were probably supposed to be playing mid-20s; they probably were each around 30. Let’s see.

ADAM Well, no, they each already had distinguished careers at that point.

BROOM Let’s see. Katharine Hepburn was born in 1907.

BETH She was 35.

BROOM Which is about how she looked. She looked like the mature 35 of that era. And Spencer Tracy…

BETH Had to be older.

BROOM … was born in 1900. 7 years older: 42.

ADAM Okay, that sounds about right.

BETH But their parents were in great shape!

BROOM Yeah, they looked the same age as the kids. It was the same as Cary Grant’s mother in North by Northwest. When Spencer Tracy was standing with the older woman, and she said, “drive me back?” I felt a little awkward, because we were supposed to see her as completely not a conceivable or appropriate match for him, but she looked like an appropriate match for him.

ADAM I agree with you: at the end the pacing was probably deliberate, and it worked — but they could still have trimmed 20 minutes out of this movie. I was expecting a lot more rat-a-tat dialogue, a la His Girl Friday. This wasn’t really that. He would say something, and she would say something really fast, but then they would just look at each other. It was funny, though. We laughed many times.

BETH I laughed more than I usually laugh at movies.

BROOM During the first section, I thought it was so romantic and charming that I wondered why it isn’t more fondly talked about. But then as it became clear that the central issue is one that has aged, as opposed to being timeless, I understood. And then it ended in a very strange place, for me. It left me not with a bad taste in my mouth, but with surprise that we were left to resolve it for ourselves. I thought it was going to really resolve the issue one way or another.

ADAM I agree that the specific gender flavor of it has aged, but this is basically what the movie Hook is about, right? You know, when he throws his cell phone into the snow at the end.

BROOM You’ve invoked that as a stupid and offensive thing quite a few times.

ADAM Well, that’s the same thing as hitting Gerald over the head with a champagne bottle.

BROOM Those aren’t the only two times that has happened. At least what was wrong with her was mostly that she couldn’t see what was right in front of her, as opposed to simply that a woman shouldn’t be doing these things in the first place. However, the linchpin line — that we had to rewind and confirm that he had really said — that “the woman of the year… isn’t really a woman at all,” is painful.

ADAM Oof. Yeah, what a devastating thrust. Though she doesn’t really take it that way.

BROOM I mean that it’s painful to watch now. Because either the movie is endorsing that it’s wonderful that she’s a woman and she does all these things, or it’s not.

BETH Or it could be that that’s just his problem. The movie wasn’t necessarily taking his side, even though at that particular moment she had turned us against her by bringing in the Greek boy.

BROOM I don’t know. Sam didn’t seem to be portrayed by the movie as having a distinct psychology that we were supposed to track. Admittedly that may be a problem with my watching of it. But I was waiting for it to present some kind of equal failures on both their parts.

BETH It didn’t really care about him.

ADAM Yeah, he doesn’t have much of a personality.

BETH Which made their partnership a little bit confusing.

ADAM He spent half the movie just in reaction shots.

BETH Because she’s such a force.

ADAM And he’s just rolling his eyes: at Dr. Lubbeck, or at the foreigners at the party…

BETH Although that was clever of him, to call in his ragtag troupe of lowlifes.

ADAM That’s true. “You leave it to Flo!”

BROOM He was supposed to be someone for us, the audience, to identify with, because we were expected to share the reaction: “Look at them high-flyin’ folks — well that’s just fine for them! Now, for a woman to be doin’ all that? Hoo-ey brother, I don’t know what I think of that. But I’ll tell you this: if she doesn’t remember my birthday!… if she doesn’t call me when we’re both in Chicago!…”

BETH “If she doesn’t notice my new hat!”

BROOM “If she doesn’t notice my new hat, boy, there is a problem! I kinda thought there was a problem, and now I know there’s a problem.” If he had been a more complete character, it actually wouldn’t have been as disturbing to me.

ADAM Well, I was thinking about this in the context of the romantic comedy tradition. In My Best Friend’s Wedding, the guy doesn’t have a personality either. Maybe there’s something about the fact that it’s a Hepburn-Tracy movie that makes it seem like they should have equal billing — but it’s really a movie about her, just like My Best Friend’s Wedding is about Julia Roberts and Cameron Diaz, and not about… I don’t even know who played him.

BROOM Dermot Mulroney.

ADAM Thank you. It also occurred to me that if this were a contemporary romantic comedy they would each have a best friend.

BROOM They did: he had Pinky and she had Gerald.

ADAM Then they could have talked about their feelings, instead of just having to play out their conflicts with each other.

BROOM They each got to talk about their feelings with the father and the father’s girlfriend.

BETH But contemporary movies overuse the best friend.

ADAM Yeah, it’s a little creaky, but there’s a reason for it. It’s also somebody who can intensify the boyness of the boy character and the girlness of the girl character.

BROOM He was a “sports writer”! What more do you want?

ADAM She didn’t have any lady friends. Except for Gerald.

BROOM She had that woman, the older family friend.

ADAM Her aunt.

BROOM Wait, that was her aunt? Her aunt married her father?


ADAM Her mother died when she was a baby and her aunt raised her.

BROOM Okay. I didn’t take in who that woman was. I missed the moment when she introduced herself.

BETH It was at the speech, where he enters through the back curtain. She says, “I’ve always felt about my aunt that she was my mother…”

BROOM Oh right, “… because she was my aunt.”

ADAM No, the aunt says that, while they’re waiting for the plane.

BETH Oh, okay.

BROOM I didn’t recognize that woman as anyone who had been at the speech. I thought it was just a friend who had showed up. I was distracted.

ADAM What’s the classic Tracy-Hepburn movie?

BROOM Adam’s Rib?

ADAM Maybe that’s what I was thinking of when I said His Girl Friday.

BROOM I’ve never seen it.

BETH This is the first one I’ve seen.

ADAM It was certainly amiable and perfectly pleasant to watch. Was there any particularly clever writing? I guess some of the jokes.

BROOM I thought the writing was good throughout, smartly put together. I thought the depiction of her intellectual international stuff was well handled: not cartoonish but also not followable. I mean, it was a little cartoonish, but not in a ridiculous way. Dr. Lubbeck was not Dr. Strangelove. Those people didn’t look like a bunch of Mr. Peanuts. The headlines at the beginning, and the stuff she said on the phone, always sounded serious enough. I appreciated the way that was done, since the whole scheme of the movie was basically for us to feel intimidated by it.

ADAM Alienated from it.

BETH Like we’re on the outside.

BROOM Yes. Spencer Tracy can’t read the Chinese newspaper he’s holding, but that’s his own doing; it’s not as though Gerald is saying [snooty voice] “If you can’t read this, then you, sir, are an idiot!” I liked the dynamic between the two leads when they were falling for each other. It was genuinely romantic. It wasn’t an absurd fast-talk movie but it was still somehow charmed.

ADAM Although they fell in love much too quickly. For a movie with leisurely pacing, that happened awfully fast.

BETH In two days, it seemed like.

BROOM Well, they went to the baseball game, and then to that party, and then he went to see her the next day, and then she asked him to take her to the airport… it wasn’t just a two-scene deal. It was quite a few scenes before they really acknowledged to each other that they had fallen in love. And then they got drunk, and then they went back to the room, and then he left the hat, and then she got him a hat… Remember all those things that happened?

BETH I really liked the party scene, by itself, as just a scene of feeling completely lost and uncomfortable at a party.

ADAM The fact that it went on much too long also contributed to that. Because it was like, “Lgh, this is awkward.” And the Turk: that was particularly awkward.

BROOM Because Sam called the turban a towel?

ADAM No, because I thought he was going to turn out to speak English. “Yes?” “Yes?”

BETH Just as a standalone snippet, I liked that part.

BROOM I enjoyed that sequence too. I enjoyed all the little setpieces. It was all very well balanced. And I can imagine this in 1942 being “the adult entertainment of the season!” It’s all very well put together. So I don’t know why it had to end with him hitting Gerald on the head with champagne. That’s ridiculous.

ADAM Well, Gerald, as the symbol of her officious thoughtlessness, had to be dispatched in some fashion. But that does seem a little bit too Looney Tunes.

BROOM I really didn’t see that he needed to be dispatched. I thought the movie was going to end with them declaring that “this is our home, and this is how we’re going to be at home.” Why she told Gerald to show up there I don’t know.

ADAM She didn’t. He tracked her down.

BETH He traced the call.

ADAM I did think the funniest line in the movie was “Miss Harding said if you’re making eggs she’d like some. She also said I should tell you if I was hungry too. I am.”

BROOM The whole thing was very charming. But it came a little too close to home for me to embrace it as a favorite. Not too close to my home, but to issues of empathy. And, like I said when I watched Summertime: Katharine Hepburn’s energy always feels to me like it has something incomplete about it, like it’s a little bit too brassy to believe.

ADAM She’s not relatable at all.

BROOM And her movies all use that, and say: “that’s just cover, she really needs love just like anyone else.” Which I believe! But then the way they depict that love, how she needs it and how she gets it, it always feels a little shallow, like it’s good enough for the movie’s purposes but it doesn’t really resolve the real issue. I had no sense, at the end of this, that her issues are even remotely resolved. They gave her a whole psychological background: she didn’t grow up in America, she was traveling all around, she never really lived in one place… So when the ending is that he says “You don’t need to cook for me! But you need to be more wifely in other ways!” and she says “Okay!”… I didn’t feel that she would know what that means, or that he would know what that means, or that she will ever be quite happy, or that he will ever really get through to her.

ADAM But that’s a mature comedy, isn’t it? It doesn’t have to be fully resolved; they’re just not going to get divorced right then. Yay, we’re not getting divorced!

BROOM Yes, that’s how I felt at the end: they’re not going to get a divorce today. Someone — maybe I’m still getting this from that Molly Haskell essay — someone called the movies in this genre “comedies of remarriage.” They’re always about a relationship that falls apart — and then the two people each have to find the deeper insights that make it more meaningful, so that in the end they get to be together again.

ADAM Quite literally in this one, she says to him, “Will you marry me?”

BROOM And yet the “first” marriage takes up so much of this movie before the “problem” presents itself, and then in the last scene they just sort of say “ah but don’t you see?” and then it’s suddenly over. It feels like that was just a very thin covering they put over what is essentially an anti-feminist critique built into the rest of the movie.

ADAM If you had walked out of the theater as she’s driving back in the car, you’d think, “Ugh, what a retrograde, regressive movie.”

BETH But didn’t he say “I’m disappointed in you for even trying to do this stuff that has nothing to do with who you are”?

ADAM Yeah. He was saying “I’m disappointed in your attempt at being inauthentic,” not “I’m disappointed in your waffles.”

BETH Which I feel is a very worthwhile message.

BROOM That’s right, and earlier when she gets on her knees and wants to be the little wife, he says, “you’ve been a phony before but this is the worst.” But he never quite said the thing that I really wanted him to say, which was “You’re the most amazing woman in the world, and that’s who I want to be with.” Because he didn’t really give a shit that she was amazing!

BETH Yeah, but in a way, that was what made him deserve her, because he didn’t idolize her, he just liked her. He just loved her.

ADAM He went toe-to-toe with her.

BROOM I’m not sure he did. He kind of just slumped around.

BETH I’m filling in blanks for myself to make it work out.

BROOM I was hoping they would fill them in for us, which I guess represents a kind of nervousness on my part. “Please say the right things and make this okay!” They didn’t sin as badly as I thought they would, but once I started worrying, I couldn’t shake it. Once he said that line, and revealed that the meaning of the title is an ironic question: “Is the ‘woman of the year’ a woman?” That’s some disturbingly high stakes! And they never really “kissed and made up” in the way that would have healed me from having been disturbed by that. But yes, all the stuff they did was cute.

ADAM You’re right; it’s very difficult to imagine Katharine Hepburn playing an ordinary woman. She couldn’t be a housewife. It would be completely unbelievable if she played a housewife!

BETH I don’t think she ever attempted anything like that.

BROOM But try imagining some “more feminine” Hollywood actress playing this role, playing the woman of the year. Myrna Loy or someone, someone who was more of a glamour girl.

BETH Or Ginger Rogers….

BROOM I picked Myrna Loy because she also had an “intellectual” thing that she played.

ADAM Marion Davies! Lucille Ball.

BROOM I think that what you would feel when any other actress was struggling to cook would be, “well, I’m sure you’ll get the hang of it soon enough.”

BETH You’re probably right.

BROOM That’s why that scene was also strange, in insisting that she needed to be humiliated. Because she takes off her coat with some enthusiasm, with the attitude that she’s smart, she can follow instructions, she can do this. And I thought, “yes, that’s probably right. She can figure it out.”

BETH She’s not an idiot.

ADAM She can speak Slovenian.

BROOM She can speak every language in the world, so she might not know how to turn on the burner first thing, but once she figures it out, she’s gonna have it down for life. She learned the rules of baseball in one session!

BETH Sort of.

BROOM The gist was, he says these things once and she takes them in. She’s sharp enough to follow anything, even if it’s not her thing.

ADAM Yeah, you’re right. But she had to be taken down a peg, just in terms of the movie’s geometry.

BROOM Well, that’s exactly it. It’s the idea of pegs and being taken down one that worries me. Does anyone really need to be taken down a peg?

ADAM It wouldn’t have been a satisfying ending if she just said “I love you and I promise to do better” and then she made him waffles. Not only would that not have had any dramatic structure, but it wouldn’t have been satisfying.

BROOM When she hears the marriage vows and tears up, and then drives back while we zoom in on her face, I thought for sure she was going to arrive and makes a speech: “I realized something that I never realized before: I want more than just to be woman of the year. I want you and that means that our home is a place that matters more to me than I knew, and now we’re going to start again.” I thought she was going to invent all that herself!

BETH That’s the Jerry Maguire ending. I don’t think a movie made at this time would have had a line like that.

BROOM Well, I didn’t do a suitably comic version of it. But in this ending, the comedy was just “She don’t know what she doin’!” Also: even if she put yeast in the waffle batter, it wouldn’t come out looking like a rubber balloon in the waffle iron.

BETH It looked like a frog.

BROOM And why did the coffee maker have that huge glass bowl on it?

BETH It was a percolator. I don’t know how those work.

[we read the New York Times review]

BETH So he felt that the ending was essentially that she had returned to find out how to be a wife.

ADAM He seemed to see this as a movie not about men vs. women so much as eggheads vs. ordinary Joes.

BETH It was interesting that he didn’t really mention feminism at all, but I guess that wasn’t part of the public dialogue at the time.

[we then read about the original ending and Ring Lardner’s displeasure with the reshot ending seen in the finished film]

BROOM Like I said! There’s needless humiliation there. But I also understand why their original ending didn’t work, this Gift of the Magi place-switching. Again, I think it goes back to the real problem being that Sam doesn’t have enough of a character.

BETH I think that’s right, yes.

ADAM He’s in a language school in the original ending? That would suggest that he feels shame at being not her equal, instead of just irritation at her.

BROOM Which would have made the movie a little richer; if she could tell him “I don’t need you to be one of these people,” that would mean she had some wisdom to offer him, too: forgiveness for his shame. Without that it felt imbalanced. And surely it didn’t originally end with them launching Gerald. That definitely felt like producers getting in there. “Ya know what people’ll like?” Cigar, cigar.

BETH I did like the last scene, though! I laughed a lot.

ADAM I did too!

BROOM Did you not cringe when he said he launched Gerald?

ADAM We all did!

BROOM Look, I don’t have to dislike things like that. Most of the what I cheerfully lap up from old movies is exactly that they do seem like some producer came up with them, such that they just cluelessly resemble other old movies. But here it did leave me feeling a little queasy.

ADAM She was originally going to write his column for him, just to be a good wife? That’s weird. It’s like, “You think you’ve been castrated so far? Now you’ve been rendered completely superfluous. I can do my job and your job.”

BETH “And you’re not really going to learn these languages; come on.”

Last line in film:

— I’ve just launched Gerald.


The only footage of the 15th Academy Awards ceremony that I can find is the newsreel seen here (scroll down). The Acceptance Speech Database contains more text than appears in the newsreel, so clearly there is more footage out there somewhere. But even that database doesn’t have any record of most of the awards, including the writing awards. Nor are there any photos of the presentation of the Original Screenplay award.

May 5, 2014

52. 用心棒 (1961)

1999: 052 box 1 2007: 052 box 2


directed by Akira Kurosawa
screenplay by Ryuzo Kikushima and Akira Kurosawa

On we go. Criterion #52. Here too begins my new healthier attitude.

用心棒 = Yōjinbō = The Bodyguard, which is a perfectly good English title. Yojimbo is not.

I don’t know who’s going around saying that I love samurai movies but it’s not true. I’ve said it before, but I guess Akira didn’t hear me, so I say it again: I just don’t get much out of this genre. I find the milieu almost completely unexciting. The instant I see a wet noir street, or a glowing sci-fi planet, or a crumbling Dracula’s castle, I get a good eager taste in my mouth. When I see topknots and kimonos and dust and sliding panel doors I taste nothing. Like a big old gulp of air. Who cares.

This one I basically liked. So that means this one’s pretty great, all things considered. But it’s a drag to have to consider all things. I mean, when have all things ever considered me?

This one’s pretty great but I still don’t like samurai movies. I wrote a longer more intellectual(-sounding) entry investigating the ins and outs of why, but it was beating around the bush. The bush is a black-and-white mulberry bush somewhere on a studio lot in Japan. And who really wants to watch a bush?

Isn’t it important that we leave room in our worldview for there to be things that are genuinely boring? And once that room is made, are not samurai movies clearly such things?

Remember how George H.W. Bush didn’t like broccoli?

Beth said she finds samurai movies pleasantly lulling. I guess I can manage to find most things from before around 1970 pleasantly lulling, in a pinch. Maybe this project qualifies as a pinch.

Kurosawa continues to strike me as being too stately to be punchy and too punchy to be stately. Dammit, how fast is my heart supposed to be beating? Maybe what’s going in is that I’m too uncentered a person to savor balance, but to me it doesn’t feel like balance; it feels like taste tug-o-war between a fish and a fowl.

The exposition in this movie seems to me completely fumbled, undramatic and confusing, and then the story structure is designed around longueurs and redundancies that let the air out. Toward the end, undeniably, there’s some really good pulpy stuff — a top-notch escape from a locked room, for example. But then why wasn’t it all like that? Why is so much of it like hammy theater? Who’s this for? Why don’t I know how to be, watching it?

I think the answer is: dignity, boredom, innocence, and fun are different cultural quantities in Japan, so the math works out differently. Witness karaoke.

But only slightly differently. Every aspect of this movie that worked for me also seemed very American. Call me a jerk if you will, but I think present-day film buffs tend to love Kurosawa because it’s the least adventurous way to like something foreign. It’s just Hollywood as done by a stodgy Japanese uncle. Focusing the mind to be able to disregard the stodge and see through to the intention seems to be a gratifying part of some people’s intellectual self-image. How else to explain these commentary tracks (this one being no exception), which worshipfully point out every composition and editorial choice, even when those choices are blatantly gawky and ineffective? It reminds me of the analyses of 12-tone music I had to read in college: y’all sure have lots to say about what makes it so great but you skipped the part where we investigated whether it is so great.

My response to this commentary track, as to many other commentary tracks (as to many other things I encountered in college besides 12-tone theory): 1) Analysis is not in itself worthwhile or significant, nor does it demonstrate that the thing analyzed is worthwhile or significant. Anything can be analyzed. 2) Mere description is not analysis.

I mean, the commentary is fine. It’s conscientious and scholar-dull as you’d imagine, and tries to make a sweeping historical reading, which is silly. The included documentary from Japanese TV is much like the one on High and Low. It’s good enough but the overarching Japanese low self-esteem makes it all strangely small. They manage to make ostensible pride seem pathetic. What’s the opposite of a humblebrag? Anyway, there sure is a lot of weird Japanese “ahhhhh”ing and hearty chuckling about unfunny things. The 80-year-old set designer is interviewed wearing a Guns N’ Roses T-shirt.

I can see that in its day this movie was pioneering and inventive, but that was 50 years ago. Like I said in dismissing Nanook of the North, there’s a difference between historical significance and greatness.

I’m still glad to have seen it.

I feel strong pressure to make a couple of nominally “objective” points to save face but you know, my face is fine.

(e.g.: that the samurai genre and Yojimbo in particular are often discussed as an analogue to the Western genre, but that in fact this functions more like a gangster movie than a Western, despite the ghost-town visuals. I noted in fact that the plot was rather similar to Miller’s Crossing, and then was vindicated to learn that both movies were documented as having been inspired by Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key. And the legacy of this movie’s particular innovations (A Fistful of Dollars aside) seems mostly to be in other genres, in things like Indiana Jones and Die Hard and Dirty Harry. Plus that severed arm that was in every Star Wars movie. And pretty everything else in Star Wars for that matter. George Lucas has been here.)

The music, by Masaru Sato, is delightful — which is not to say it’s not also incredibly heavy-handed and only intermittently effective. Touch of Evil seems like a clear point of reference, but here incorporating elements of traditional Japanese music which surely are to be read as ironic. It’s got “attitude.” The whole movie’s got “attitude.” Just listen: track 52, the main titles.

The trailer uses different music, straight noir sleaze that has no traditional or period element at all, most of it sort of a sardonic saxophone dirge, and it works much better than the real score. In fact, watching it made the whole movie sort of snap into focus in my mind: oh I see, the movie is slow because sleaze is slow. I wish I could watch the whole thing with that score.

You know, I might just have been cranky when I watched it. But consider that you too might be cranky when you watch it.

Oh boy, I wonder what’s next!