It Was A Dream, But Not A Dream: My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

This is yet another example of where pulling a quote into the title of my blog post also happens to reflect my feelings for the film on the whole.  My Neighbor Totoro, was perhaps the biggest blip on my "never seen" shame list, because having already encountered countless other Miyazaki films and being made constantly aware of this as a masterpiece, I was constantly putting it on the back burner, figuring that I would eventually get around to its viewing.  When it spent a year or so in a bizarre bluray upgrade limbo (at the time region free was not a viable option), I just sat hoping that it would magically appear in my lap at some point.  When the powerful of arm of Disney used its extension of Studio Ghibli to release this on bluray earlier this year, I knew that it had to be obtained, because much like all the decent stuff Disney releases, it is usually lacking in a wider audience, therefore resulting in it falling into limited print obscurity, a few copies being secretly passed amongst friends, or one would assume this to be the case with something like David Lynch's The Straight Story.  All of this is an aside of sorts to say that I finally caught up with My Neighbor Totoro, a work so heavily hyped and made to be something otherworldly that my expectations were nearly impossible, which I feared would result in a general hesitation to embrace the film.  Yet, when the film began to unfold in front of me I realized that the wonder that made Miyazaki's career was as present as ever, almost in a wildly subtle way, wherein, the magical realist elements that have become signifiers of his oeuvre creep into the narrative, as opposed to exploding into action as occurs in something like Spirited Away or Howl's Moving Castle.  Furthermore, never one to shy away from the tragedies in life, the threat of loss and the forced moments of youth being confronted with adulthood are at their most entrenched within this film, and for a filmmaker whose entire career has become predicated on breaking from realism, excluding his writing of the most recent From Up on Poppy Hill, My Neighbor Totoro, might well have one of the most hauntingly real of moments, so poetically executed, as to take on a surreal quality indicative of the hyper-tragic Grave of Fireflies.

My Neighbor Totoro, focuses on the experiences of two girls, the strong-willed, yet wide-eyed Satsuki and her younger sister the loud-mouthed but earnestly curious Mei.  The two girls are currently residing with their grandmother in the countryside, while their father moves too and from Tokyo for work, the reason for their needing to stay away is predicated upon their mother being hospitalized for an unnamed illness.  As such, the two spend many of their weekends traveling to visit her and awaiting the return of their father from work each day.  Of course, given that they moments, as well as attending school, only consume so much of their day-to-day activities, Satsuki and Mei spend their time traveling through the woods and meadows of the rural town.  It is during one of these trips that Satsuki and Mei meet a giant cat-like creature that Mei refers to as a mispronunciation of troll, therefore becoming known as Totoro.  This creature begins to appear intermittently during Satsuki and Mei's endeavors, often showing up in moments of trouble or fear as a means to put them at ease, for example, a large Totoro spends time awaiting the arrival of their father who is late from work, even providing them with a small gift of acorns and nuts which they plant in their yard.  These acorns lead to a gigantic tree growing in their yard, wherein Totoro and his various smaller forms take Satsuki and Mei on a wild flight through rural Japan.  When the girls awake the next day they realize it has been a dream, but also notice that the seeds have still sprouted, leading them to believe that the magic of Totoro might actually exist.  When Satsuki receives news that their mother has fallen ill, yet again, with a cold her and Mei panic, attempting to contact their father, who tells them to be patient until he can obtain more information.  Mei, unfortunatley, is incapable of grasping the necessity of patience and takes it upon herself to travel to the hospital, getting lost and become a cause for concern in the entire village.  Satsuki in a moment of desperation tracks down Totoro and uses his magical cat bus to find Mei and then visit their mother, although they do so from outside the window, leaving her a gift in the hopes of it leading to her quick recovery.  This act, assumedly works, or at least the closing credits animations would suggest as much.

Coming of age tales are often dealt with in a hyper-sentimental manner, leaning heavily on everything being perfect and avoiding the very real fact that for most people, growing up is tied to a point of fear or moment of tragedy.  Perhaps the best example of this working, while also being highly sentimental would be the lost love sequence of Summer of '42.  I would posit that Miyazaki also does this as a filmmaker, using the magical realist elements of his film to ease the heavy blow of tragedy, while also showing that necessitates growing older.  Totoro and the escapism it provides to the girls is also paired with Satsuki coming to realize that his escapist qualities do not factor into her mother suddenly becoming healthy.  Indeed, if anything Totoro is more a projection on the part of Satsuki to help maintain Mei's sense of wonder with the world, because Satsuki has her own moment of tragic awakening, when she realizes that her mother "having colds" indicates a white lie being propagated by adults to tell the two girls that their mother is sick, but not entirely playing into how truly troublesome her health might well be.  When Satsuki confronts an adult about his lie, they can offer nothing more than a defeated sigh, for they acknowledge the loss of innocence occurring, something that will never fully be the same.  Of course, Miyazaki realizes that the truly happy individual can still retain moments of innocence late into their life, pulling from it at moments of happiness, or as is the case with Mei and Satsuki's father, to help young persons understand the curiosities of the world, as is clear in the dust bunny discussion early in the film.  It is in moments like this were white lies are more fun stories in replacement of detailed scientific explanations which would be of little interest to a young person.  Yet, the most wonderful moment of magical realist escapism emerges when Satsuki and Mei's mother swears she sees her two daughters laughing outside her window, a moment that the viewers assume to be real, however, as their father suggests is only possible through the magical gift of the corn.  In this stroke of genius and subversive non-linear narrative, one can read the message as the father playing into the same "wonder in the world" rhetoric he uses when talking with his daughter as a means to ease the suffering of an ailing spouse.  To Miyazaki, tragedy is a reality, but it is also something that can be softened by a light-hearted and curious view of the world, because no all has to be heartbreaking, particularly when giant fluffy trolls can serve as emotional companions.

Key Scene:  The sandal floating in the water is stark, jarring and surreal and perhaps one of the single darkest frames in all of Miyazaki's oeuvre.

Buy this bluray.  Buy your friends this bluray.  Buy everyone this bluray.


I'm Good, We Gonna Be Good: Fruitvale Station (2013)

It is no small task to release a film about a controversial shooting against the backdrop of a heated debate of racial attacks in America, particularly one where justice became murky quite quickly and an sour taste was left in the mouth of those both directly and indirectly involved in the incidents.  It is even more challenging to release a film against the existence of very real footage surrounding an event, one whose violence is factually chronicled, yet still wildly inexplicable.  That is precisely what occurs within the context of Ryan Coogler's cinematic and poignant directorial debut Fruitvale Station.  A film that possessed such an evocative theme and decided force from its very inception, Fruitvale Station was already on my radar well before its release and the closer to its release date it came, the more it seemed as though it was on the tails of the Trayvon Martin case, whose presence invariably exists all over this film.  Fortunately, the film does manage to navigate the tenuous and troubling issues with a degree of awareness about the layers of representation, suggesting that even the most seemingly understood of individuals can prove to have a set of motives and challenges that invariably come to challenge any notion of changing or starting over.  There have been many films like Fruitvale Station prior and there will, undoubtedly, be many films like it to follow, what they all lack is an understanding that they invariably exist outside the frame of the reality, attempting to posit a layer of credibility to a set of events that can only be certain in the previously reality, thus making the film a statement about what can and should occur in the aftermath of a tragedy.  Whereas, Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing, from which Fruitvale Station inevitably pulls, is afforded a pre-9/11 space to create a narrative against an assumed outcome, Fruitvale Station cannot create quite the same sense of a simulacra of events.  Coogler understanding that his work is occurring after the events of Rodney King, as well as in a post-9/11 framework chooses to audaciously bookend his film with images of the real, making each fabrication and directorial choice that much more purposefully and precisely heavy-handed.  It is a profusely audacious decision, but one that pays off in incalculable ways.

Fruitvale station, begins with actual cell phone footage that depicts the arresting of Oscar Grant III, which leads to an assumedly accidental shooting, before cutting to the fictionalized version of the events leading up to the real incident.  Oscar (Michael B. Jordan) is shown talking with his girlfriend Sophina (Melanie Diaz) about their respective New Year's Resolutions, while also caring for the couple's daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal).  Hoping to get his feet back on the ground after a stint in jail, Oscar returns to his old job begging to be forgiven for his continual tardiness, which has direct ties to his selling of drugs, an endeavor that assumedly caused his jailing, which is also dealt within in the narrative.  Despite his inability to attain a legal job, Oscar vows to end a life in the world of selling drugs both for his daughter and girlfriend, as well as for his mother Wanda (Octavia Spencer) who seems to serve as the only guiding presence in Oscar's desultory life, especially considering his notable devotion to assuring that she has an enjoyable birthday.  After attending his mothers birthday party, Oscar and Sophina plan to meet up with various friends and attend New Year's fireworks in San Francisco.  The group meets up and despite the general drunkenness of those on the subway train they are traveling, nonetheless, seem to get along with little or no trouble, the general glee of New Year's celebrations momentarily transcending race, class and gender divides.  At one point, Oscar even appears to meet up with a man whose work in web design could prove a ticket to a respectable job and step in the right direction.  Tired from the events the group returns home  on an even more crowded train, at which point Oscar by a wicked twist of fate runs into an enemy he made while in prison leading to a minor incident on the train.  Nonetheless, the scuffle results in subway authorities entering the train and forcefully removing Oscar and his friends.  The two leading officers become incredibly aggressive in their methods, pushing Oscar's face into the ground and eventually shooting him through the back.  Realizing their mistake the officers quickly rush Oscar to the hospital, but it proves too fatal a wound to save and he is left on life support until it proves futile to keep him alive, the film closing with Sophina showering a confused Tatiana who simply asks where her father has gone, and in an even more sobering closing moment, the film cuts to a 2013 vigil for Oscar and a match cut of the real Tatiana crying closes the film, reminding viewers of the reality of the event and the contemporary presence of such inexplicable loss through acts of violence.

I know when I have reviewed a film like Red Eye, I praised its for its self-aware existence in a post-9/11 framework, where they understand that the ebb and flow of their narrative is entirely contingent upon an understanding that the majority if not the entirety of the audience is aware of the tragic inexplicable act of violence that occurred at the World Trade Center.  Red Eye kowtows into the absurd as a clear juxtaposition to the real violence, but also accepts that its tension is derived from that acknowledgement, particularly given its plane-in-flight setting.  Of course, the major example of post-9/11 cinema will always be United 93 poignantly directed by Paul Greengrass, but Fruitvale Station may well exist as the clear second in line to this work, in that, like United 93 it accepts that it is a fictional consideration of a very devastating and very real occurrence, one whose images are easily accessible and for many viscerally and permanently burned into their memory.  The moment of the planes hitting in United 93 is not recreated, because to do so would be to compete with a collective memory of the reality, a fabrication would seem ill-conceived and to many offensive.  With this in mind, reading Fruitvale Station as a film working within the space of the post-9/11 filmmaking framework is particularly fascinating, because like Greengrass does in United 93, Coogler accepts that his narrative is existing within the space of real images, ones available and catalogued heavily on the internet, an example of viral video becoming a powerful tool for justice and political action.  As such, Fruitvale Station is a poetic realist fabrication of the events leading up to the shooting, beginning the film with the real events as a means to assure that at no point will this film attempt to extend or challenge the reality, because it has been captured and to contest it, or undermine it would be to nobody's credit, particularly not that of Oscar who was very much a victim, as the cell phone footage affirms.  In so much, as it instead becomes a tribute to the ethereal memory of the lost Oscar, the film is post-9/11 instead celebrating moments of a remembered character, both in their ups and downs, hoping to show a scale of humanity that is discussed in the aftermath of such tragedy, while never suggesting itself as anything more than a film.  Indeed, as the closing shot of Fruitvale Station attests, no amount of glorified cinematic composition can help to deal with the tragic loss that affects those in the reality, but in an ideal world something like Fruitvale Station can at the very least afford people a space to consider their emotions and frustrations of such events, without hostility and violence becoming the immediate answer.

Key Scene:  Tatiana chasing Oscar after he picks her up from day care will break your heart, and again, this is because the film sets up from the beginning the certainty of his death and Coogler manages to make the fictionalized version of Oscar stand in for an emotive replacement nearly immediately, a challenging task made much easier by the stellar, Oscar-worthy, performance by Michael B. Jordan.

Go to a theater and see this, it is what should ideally be shown for 10+ screenings a day, as opposed to The Man of Steel.


Sometimes I Feel Like A Human Sacrifice: New York Stories (1989)

The anthology film has become a thing to expect in contemporary cinema, a means within which to bridge the gap between loose genre ideas or to create a feeling of a global community discussing the rhetoric of a singular idea, such as love, loss or happiness.  Even the other omnibus works, such as Paris Je T'aime suffer from a heavy sense of knowing that this work is offered within a collection of larger statements, therefore, unjustly affording filmmakers a belief that they do not really have to try and offer anything of worthy cinematic consideration.  This is by far not the case when concerning New York Stories, a set of three featurettes by three directors whose identities are more or less inextricably tied to the city.  What makes this anthology work particularly fascinating is that the products of two out of three of the filmmakers are some of their best work in rather storied and well-regarded careers, and the third while clearly the weakest in the collection, nonetheless lays out what cinephiles would come to expect from a second generation filmmaker and writer in one of cinemas most well-respected families.  Where as other city film anthologies use the space of the movie to wax poetic about the serene and sentimental experiences of the spaces they occupy, New York Stories exists in  world about New York that paints it both with endearing pride, while also making note of all the ways it is a city of struggles, failures and lack.  Two out of the three works exist in a state of magical realism, nonetheless, playing upon the tropes of New York, where as the other manages to pinpoint into a singular narrative of a man and woman "in love," perhaps even extending into its own consideration of the relationship between New York and New Yorker.  I say all of this having only spent a couple of hours in New York as a teenager, not really understanding a bit about its spaces or the bodies which occupy its vast area.  Instead, what I posit is that New York Stories works for all moviegoers because through the intimacy of the subject matter, passion emerges, so much so that it becomes a text book look at New York, the entity, without ever being pretentious or calling attention to many viewers outsider status.

Split into three distinctly different narratives, the first film directed by Martin Scorsese is title Life Lessons and focuses on action painter Lionel (Nick Nolte) who is panicking for his upcoming studio exhibit, much to the chagrin of his agent  Lionel, while allegedly capable of throwing together a show at a moments notice is, nonetheless, anxiously awaiting the return of his assistant and lover Paulette (Rosanna Arquette).  Upon her return Paulette explains that she no longer wants to be involved with Lionel and has indeed just ended a tumultuous relationship with performance artist Gregory Stark (Steve Buscemi).  Flailing to assert his authority, Lionel plays a game of cat and mouse with Paulette, using his power as an artistic giant to convince her to stay and hone her craft in his studio.  However, it becomes clear that Lionel is only interested in using her sexually, leading to her eventually packing her things and leaving, an act that leads Lionel to complete his Bridge to Nowhere painting and mirroring this metaphor with his immediately moving on to a new ingenue during his exhibit opening.  The second film Life Without Zoe, is directed by Francis Ford Coppola and co-written by his daughter Sofia Coppola.  Wherein a young girl named Zoe (Heather McComb) talks in roundabout fairy tales as a way to analyze the troublesome relationship between her parents flautist Claudio (Giancarlo Giannini)  and wife Charlotte (Talia Shire), as well as commenting upon the feelings of alienation which emerge for her parents constantly being away.  In a decidedly child as adult feel evident in later Sofia Coppola work, the film looks at Zoe's attempts to act in the hyper-adult, only able to do so through excessive wealth.  In the end, however, Zoe realizes that sometimes a momentary feeling of unity with one's family is far more valuable than anything money could hope to buy.  The final segment is Woody Allen's Oedipus Wrecks which focuses on Sheldon (Woody Allen) an established attorney with a loving girlfriend named Lisa (Mia Farrow).  Despite success and love, Sheldon cannot shake the condemnation he constantly faces by his mother, played by Mae Questel.  It is during an "unfortunate" accident at a magic show that Sheldon's mother disappears inexplicably, leading to a momentary feeling of freedom by Sheldon, improving his sex life, while allowing him the freedom to excel at his job in new ways.  However, when his mother emerges as a floating entity in the sky line of New York things change drastically and Sheldon's feelings of oppression blow up to a grandiose proportion.  It is indeed not until he finds a new girlfriend appropriate to his mother's strict demands that her presence no longer becomes omniscient, or at least less blatantly so as the closing moments of the film might suggest.

The fascinating thing about this particular anthology is that aside from auteurist elements present within each film, one could find themselves hard-pressed to claim a thematic link between the three separate stories.  Indeed, aside from the psychoanalytic nightmare that is traditional Woody Allen filmmaking from the era, these seem like, as noted earlier, statements on existing within New York, more so that individual films about a city.  For Scorsese, the issue at hand is how one "performs" the New York lifestyle, particularly one like the New York art world which predicates itself upon a certain pomp and circumstance where struggle is embraced, but not something that should be affirmed physically.  Take the distinct difference between Lionel and Paulette for example, he is well off given his status in high art and can afford to drunkenly feign trouble, whereas Paulette's gender and other issues legitimize her struggle and also do not allow her the privilege to simply perform any degree of abjection.  Coppola's film then becomes about the issue of learning class privilege in the space of New York, it is fitting that Sofia helped write this script, because it lends a layer of credibility to how she would have seen the world as a youth, attempting to rationalize the decadence of her youth with the bustling reality of New York, one where hands literally extend from the trash to beg for food, while she can purchase absurd amounts of food, jewelry and even alcohol despite being admittedly too young to understand how credit works.  The robbery in the film takes on a wonderful layer of class conflict, as does the closing moment in Rome become a moment of scathing irony, which would become a staple of Sofia Coppola's oeuvre (it would be fascinating, in fact, to stand this film up against Marie Antoinette).  With these two films in mind, Oedipus Wrecks then considers the nature of constant looking and watching that occurs within New York, to Allen, New York in all its wonder is also a place where every action is scrutinized, because space is limited and filled with many bodies, all with stories and opinions, some more willing to share than others.  Always the existentialist, the film considers what distinction could possibly emerge between Sheldon's singular struggles and the larger struggles of society.  Perhaps it is all inherently meaningless and Sheldon is merely overreacting, what Allen does show is that, in the end, some encounters are simply unavoidable.

Key Scene: Woody Allen steals the show here and Sheldon's smirk when his mother is "being stabbed" will make you laugh.

The bluray for this is surprisingly cheap, but should in no way suggest a lesser product.  In fact, this is probably one of the more overlooked works from the year.


2013 Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge (Book 6) Korean Film: History, Resistance, and Democratic Imagination

If I were to ask even the more seasoned of cinephiles in my circles of friends and colleague and even fellow bloggers about their experiences with South Korean cinema the likelihood of their awareness will only extend to, at most Oldboy and maybe The Host.  This is not entirely their fault as much of the knowledge around South Korean cinema specifically, is trapped under the weight of its contemporary Asian film predecessors with successful global offerings in the Hong Kong action cinema of the 90's and Japanese horror films of the early 2000's.  Running alongside these two movements was an emerging South Korean film world unfolding some of the most avant-garde and challenging films of the past two decades and has since garnered much more writing both academic and general interest, much of which I have read.  When figuring how I could possibly include a text on Korean cinema for this my final offering to Out of the Past and their 2013 Summer Reading Classic Film Book challenge, I was fortunate to stumble upon the text Korean Film: History, Resistance and Democratic imagination, which pulls deep into the traditions of Korean film, both before and after it divided into its respective North and South political spaces.  Co-authors Eungjun Min, Jinsook Joo, and Han Ju Kwak compile what proves to be not only the most detailed account of the century old tradition of filmmaking with Korea, but also manage to depict the troubled historical landscape of a country(ies) whose cinema invariably and irreversibly influenced by the presence of Chinese, Japanese, British and American occupations, noting the ways in which each foreign entity influenced the film of the Koreas both in highly positive, as well as problematic situations.  While the pinnacle of classic Asian cinema still proves to be the late Donald Richie's love letter to Japanese cinema, this text offers an astute, albeit, specialized set of voices on a country who has become both a point of revolutionary filmmaking in the past decade by showing that as a moviemaking entity the wild themes, challenging cinematic landscapes and inherent subversiveness of the work of the Koreas is nothing new and certainly only seems to be expanding beyond all other countries at an exponential rate

This co-authored text works, precisely because it is clearly influenced by film theorist, historians and even possesses a keen eye for the economics of filmmaking and distribution.  Despite it being authored by three distinct individuals, the narrative voice is that of a singular statement, pulling upon ideas inherent to Korean culture, lifting phrases that have contexts inexplicable to Western audiences using the moments in the countries storied history to develop this enigmatic concepts.  While, the book does often fall into the trap of listing every film possible from an era, particularly true for the post-Korean war film section, the authors do afford it a considerable amount of space to explain particularly important authors or ideas, both in terms of how they relate to the historical narrative of Korea and the various regulations of filmmaking from the prospective eras.  While it can prove a bit dense at times, it is refreshing to visit a text that does not feel it necessary to overexplain the ideas it is working with, making only brief notes on political factions and economic burdens from era, always remember that it is firstly a text about film, allowing discussions of Im Kown-taek to receive precedence than overly detailed accounts of the various student revolutions and failed political coups which occurred, and for awhile were still occurring, in the respective Koreas.  Furthermore, the authors do something that is often impossible in this kind of work, they manage to insert their opinions of certain films or filmmakers without it coming off as flippant, pretentious or worse, ill-informed.  This is perhaps most evocatively and engagingly done when discussing the melodramas of the fifties, wherein, the authors note the heavy degrees of exploitative politicized filmmaking that is neither subversive or well-executed making the works seem hokey and ill-conceived by a contemporary gaze.  Any opinion posited in this book is always reason, almost over analyzed as though the authors realize their text will serve as the only work of reference. Indeed, many of the works mentioned escape a global audience, but the optimism spouted within the various chapters only proves to make the case for their emergence on a global scale in the near future.

Best Film Discovery of the Book:  This is a bit tricky as much of this is unavailable, however, I will say that it has made me want to hunt down the early works of Cheol-su Park whose films seem as though they were wildly subversive well before his cerebral 301, 302.  It is worth noting that this book is quite expensive, I would suggest do like I did and rent it from a library, through the wonder of inter-library loans.


Gewaltig Gar Die Macht: The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1929)

This marks a rather unusual occasion in that I have decided to lift a German quote directly into my post title, as opposed to usually finding its closest English translation, or borrowing from the subtitles. I am doing so for two specific reasons, Gewaltig gar die Macht, roughly translates to "make even the mighty," which carries weight, but does not flow as well as its Germanic counter, and secondly because the title cards for The Adventures of Prince Achmed are as integral to the narrative of Lotte Reiniger's silhouetted 1929 animated film.  Reiniger, a woman filmmaker, manages to create a world so awe-inspiring and delightfully captivating that I cannot describe in in any sense of singularity, instead; finding myself pulling upon various points of comparison, whether it to compare the magical quality of the film to the rarified work of George Melies, or to acknowledge the sense of scale in The Adventures of Prince Achmed that moves between the intimate and the grand in a manner evocative of a D.W. Griffith film.  Once could find themselves regarding a work like The Adventures of Prince Achmed a bit flippantly since it does incorporate a rather basic animation style by contemporary standards.  Reiniger's film, however, is anything but simplistic, the movement of her figures, the scratching and altering of the film strip and intricate detail provided to each silhouette is nothing short of genius.  When I made note of this film on Facebook I had a friend in great earnest link a similarly visual work that was made entirely in CGI.  While, I noted it being a stunning work in its own right, I also countered the post by suggesting that were Reiniger still alive making films, her work would flourish in a world of CGI, perhaps pushing it to the farthest boundaries possible, beyond the calculated wackiness of a Tim Burton film, beyond the multiple layers of the dream state that consume the world of a Satoshi Kon film.  Indeed, I would be most inclined to compare it to the visual world of Rene Laloux's Fantastic Planet, but even that description betrays the simultaneously audacious and simplistic execution of The Adventures of Prince Achmed.  Again this was made nearly a century ago and it could "make even the mighty" visions of Pixar animated shorts seem tame and run-of-the-mill.

The Adventures of Prince Achmed pulls its narrative almost exclusively from the mesmerizing, exotic world of the Arabian folk tales 1001 Nights.  The narrative here specifically focuses on the title character of Prince Achmed who must recruit the help of many individuals to conquer a trouble some sorcerer in the land of Wak-Wak.  This means seeking aid in the thief Aladdin, who possesses a powerful magic lantern that will help to deter the attacks of demons and other beasts which Achmed encounters along the way, similarly, Achmed must make use of a magical horse, who possesses a lever that allows it to fly, thus affording Achmed a considerable advantage over a group the evil Witch of Fiery Mountain and her deluge of magma monsters. All the while, Achmed endeavors to marrying the entrancing Pari Banu, a princess of relative status.  Realizing, as well, that he has grown to trust and admire Aladdin, Achmed approves of Aladdin's marriage to Dinarsade, Achmed's own sister.  It is also worth noting that Achmed is, as the title suggests a prince, working under the guidelines and hopes of his father Caliph who rules over the Arabian lands, sending Achmed to the land of Wak-Wak, both as a pseudo-coming of age quest, as well as one of political advancement, on the part of Caliph's own kingdom.  After a series of intense evolutions and alterations on the part of the witch and the sorcerer in Wak-Wak, Achmed is able to fell the rivals and claim supremacy for his father, returning along with Aladdin, Pari Banu and Dinarsade to Caliph's kingdom to revel in their new marriages, as well as enjoy a land free of the threat from any insurgencies.

I realize that the plot description for this film is really short and much of what I provided was either presumptive of a cultural awareness of 1001 Nights through Disney films, as well as what narrative plot holes one can fill between general plot cards provided in the film.  However, there is also another element worth consideration when looking specifically at The Adventures of Prince Achmed.  Much like, Eric von Stroheim's masterpiece Greed, The Adventures of Prince Achmed suffers from having sections of it removed or lost due to editing, nitrate fires and general mismanagement of the fragility of film.  Indeed, the version I watched, currently on rotation for MUBI, was only sixty-five minutes long, leaving roughly fifteen minutes unaccounted for, which could have been an entire extra act considering the amount of time afforded each event in this film.  I say all of this to also acknowledge that at no point does the lack of a portion of the narrative, or the general simplicity of the plot deny The Adventures of Prince Achmed any degree of importance or heightened sense of meaning. In fact, for a film made in 1929, which pulls from an even older text, the film is rather optimistic in notions of class relations, suggesting that in the right circumstances and given a shared interest class can be transcended and friends can be made out of even the most unlikely of combinations, in this case the relationship of friendship between Aladdin and Achmed or the love between Aladdin and Dinarsade.  It is tragic that such things only seem possible in elements of lore, and animated ones at that, indeed, it is interesting to place this in opposition to the far less socially aware work like Disney's Aladdin, where a over zealous "up from the bootstraps" narrative, suggest that class can be transcended purely by wishful thinking or blind ambition.  The Adventures of Prince Achmed is clever in clearly denoting a class difference, but also suggesting that such difference need not be divisive.  Sure, there are sections of this film that could be considered racist by contemporary standards, particularly the association with the Wak-Wak as a primitive African tribe, although such movements were quite prevalent in art of the twenties and thirties, but I would allow for a certain degree of cultural relativism to work in this context.  Again, in comparison to Disney's Aladdin made some sixty years later, in a purportedly post-racial society, it seeps with racialized performances, offensive to all nationalities depicted, as well as a few who have no logical connection to the world of the Middle East.

Key Scene:  There is a sequence where Aladdin descends into a cave that is one of the least involved of segments in the film, yet, it manages to be captivating in the void it creates, allowing viewers to feel as though the cave is truly a bottomless thing.  

I watched this on MUBI and it looked stunning, there are also DVD versions available on Amazon.  I, however, have opted to nab up the BFI bluray, since I now have a region-free bluray player.  Once this is in my possession, I will revisit this film and try to remember to return to this post to provide an aside on how it looks in HD.


It's A Hard World For Little Things: The Night Of The Hunter (1955)

Every time I hear Robert Mitchum move into the swelling and baritone singing of "Lean on Jesus" I literally get goosebumps.  I watched this film early in the morning, perhaps the exact opposite of the ideal time to view this film and found myself still feeling the anxiety, dread and frankly adoration I initially felt upon discovering this film years ago.  What do I have to thank for this revisiting of a fear-inducing classic, none other than the brilliant Movies, Silently and her recent Gish Sisters Blogathon.  Admittedly, I jumped on the chance to revisit this film, because it is, undoubtedly, one of my favorite films of all-time, if only for it being the rare example of a perfect piece of cinema, one that was the single directorial work of Charles Laughton no less.  Furthermore, by choosing to specifically focus on this film, I was able to truly look at the role Gish offers, which shines both narratively and emotionally compared to the seething corrupt figure made a cult icon by Mitchum.  I went into this viewing anxiously awaiting all my favorite scenes, between the Love/Hate hand story and the image of Shelley Winters body at the bottom of the lake, I had my notion of what this recent viewing of the experience might prove to become, what I did not expect was to be rewarded with a far more clever film than I had recalled previously, both in terms of some devilishly subversive writing, as well as in the many cinematic choices inside and outside the diagetic space of the film that allow for it to seem like something that exists entirely in a world all its own, one where crane shots can sweep into sequences, maniacal preachers can instantaneously transport themselves from town to town and where small girls can begin singing with the voice of a grown woman.  In a lesser film all of this would seem like poor editing choice or over-the-top elements intended to draw in mild interest in the viewers, however, in the eyes of Laughton and through the very nature of the narrative, these seemingly arbitrary acting choices are evocative, engaging and, at times, cinematically engaging, much in the same vein as a work by Stanley Kubrick.  The Night of the Hunter is many things, a noir, a crime thriller, a family drama, a kids film and a work of melodrama, however, it is certainly and undeniably a masterpiece that should be viewed by all many a time.

The Night of the Hunter, begins, after an eerie floating head narration involving a then unidentified woman talking within children, with a murder.  This murder, is suggested to be exacted at the hands of one Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) a preacher whose communique with God leads him to confess to having a unhealthy attachment to women, wherein he constantly asks forgiveness and provides thanks to the religious figure for providing him with a constant flow of money, of which he draws from recently widowed women.  Meanwhile, two children John Harper (Billy Chapin) and his sister Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) witness their father Ben Harper (Peter Graves) return from a recent robbery, only to quickly stuff his money in Pearl's doll, before being hauled off to jail, where he is found guilty of murder and sentenced to execution.  It is in jail that he meets Harry Powell, who becomes curious when Ben begins vaguely quoting scripture and mentioning the whereabouts of his money.  After Harper's execution, Powell feigns being a dear friend to Harper returning to his hometown and tracking down his widowed wife Willa (Shelley Winters) who is hesitant to welcome the slick-talking preacher, particularly when she suspects that he is only after the money which her late husband had hid.  John is even more suspicious leaning on the promise he made to his father not to betray the location of the money, constantly assuring that the less intelligent Pearl does the same.  Harry uses a variety of forms of trickery and smooth words to try and attain the whereabouts of the money, even resorting to murdering Willa when she comes to suspect that her new husband really only cares to find the money, made all the more a betrayal after she has given herself up to his religious ways, blindly spouting scripture.  The murder of their mother leads the children on an exodus down river in a rowboat, where they eventually land in the backyard of self-run foster mom and general good samaritan Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish).  Realizing that John and Pearl are clearly running from a dire situation, when Harry comes knocking at her door she quickly banishes him with the threat of a shotgun, an action she goes through with when the slimy Harry returns later that night.  After a successful arrest of Harry, John frustratingly tosses the money at the handcuffed preacher explaining that he can no longer stand the burden of carrying such a secret.  AFter doing so the two join their fellow orphans and Rachel for Christmas celebration, one that affords John the very watch he has had his eye on since the films opening moments.

It might seem like the best move for analyzing a film such as The Night of the Hunter would be to go at it from the "what is the nature of religion" route and while this is certainly a theme that emerges specifically in the contrasting characters of Harry and Rachel, one could extend this argument on to consider the larger idea of authority and whose given the power to say what is right or wrong in the face of figures who are culturally afforded an unquestioned amount of respect.  The Night of the Hunter appears to suggest that only two things stand to be undeniably authoritative, the rule of law and time.  Yet even law within the narrative becomes rather murky when a man is stealing money to make living in a moment of depression a bit easier, or when the same law enforcement spends its time hunting psychotic serial killing preachers while completely brushing by lines of starving children.  Justice, in the context of The Night of the Hunter then becomes tied almost solely to the notion that if one is able to understand time, not control it, but merely work in its favor they can assure that justice will work in their favor, particularly if they are working in a fair and reasonable way.  Indeed, the reason that Harry is eventually is not because he gave himself up or was actively pursued by the police, but because he attempted to cheat time and kill children to attain money from them, his similar actions in previous situations are also his own act to avoid the effort and patience of attaining money, something he thinks he can merely get by working within his bizarre relationship with God.  The other notion of authority comes then in signifiers of power, for Harry it is always tied to his phallic knife something that takes on blatant sexual allusions throughout the film and remains his point of privilege until challenged by Rachel's much larger and more powerful shotgun, the subversive gender politics even more interesting. Indeed, this leaves John as a figure to be swayed by the time and signifiers of authority in the films closing, as Rachel accepts that her stories from The Bible only serve a cursory function to instill authority.  It is indeed not until she hands John the watch that he becomes an arbitrator of authority because he can now tell the time, that thing that rules over all within the film, as well as those outside of the diagetic space, verified when Lilian Gish breaks the fourth wall in the closing moments of the film.

Key Scene: The scene involving the joint singing of Lean on Jesus by Gish and Mitchum is absolutely one of the premier moments in all of cinema.  Furthermore, one could also make the case that the images of Willa's body laying at the bottom of the lake are also some of the most haunting ever committed to film.


2013 Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge (Book 5) Mining The Home Movie: Excavations In Histories And Memories

When one considers a notion of classic film they often find themselves looking back with great fondness upon Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman sharing an ill-fated kiss in Casablanca or a maniacal Charles Foster Kane uttering the seemingly incoherent phrase Rosebud.  These are sentimental favorites for cinephiles the world over, yet movies, or more specifically their function in our daily lives, at one time took on a layer of the personal through the home movie.  The home movie, often shot by a father hoping with great aspiration to capture the fleeting memories of his children and wife at Christmas, during the first day of school or moments of sheer wonder which occur during a first snowfall, are equally cinematic, to the previously mentioned attachment to an loaded phrase that turns out to be nothing more than a sled.  Home movies, much like Kane's Rosebud represent something lost that can never truly be reclaimed, or so it would appear.  The anthology, which discusses the nature of home movies, as well as where the major collections of such film are held within The United States and a handful of European countries that is Mining the Home Movie is nothing short of a revelation.  Edited by Karen Ishizuka and Patricia Zimmerman, Mining the Home Movie takes one one of the more enigmatic pieces in the catchall world of "orphan" films (all those cinematic works that fall outside of traditional realm of commercial filmmaking.  Indeed, as the editors and the many contributors to this text point out, the home movie takes on a very important cultural level in an era prior to the movement towards digitization, wherein anyone with an Iphone could become a chronicler of events, the recent inception of Vine making that a much more condensed and non-engaging endeavor.  Indeed, the home movie in all its personal appeal to the original recorder of the events, nonetheless, transcends the private space and often serves as a larger commentary for a social setting, images of gender during eras or as a few of the articles suggest detailed and rarefied considerations of what a racial minority might have experienced during an era of heightened segregation in various settings.  Mining the Home Movie is a wonderful text, because it takes something that has become almost antiquated in popular culture and breathes new life into its existence, suggesting that these decade old pieces of amateur documentary filmmaking are more pertinent than ever both in a artistic and social sense, demanding that the works, may of which have fallen into ill-repair receive equal if not greater attention than their commercial counterparts, because while it is amazing that Metropolis continues to obtain new sections of film when discovered in South American film warehouses, it is also worth noting that an entire filmed documentation of one families experiences in a Japanese internment camp continue to go unseen by large audiences.

As noted, Mining the Home Movie makes certain to draw upon both the artistic and social relevance of the home movie, first noting that as a frame of cultural production, the home movie does exist in a rather problematic state.  First off, as multiple authors note, the home movie exists in a state of hyper-fabrication.  Despite the amateur filmmakers intending to capture their family at their most intimate, the movie image in this context is quite similar to the photograph in that those filming sought to create an idyllic version of family life, only allowing the camera to roll when all parties involved were smiling and willing to engage with camera.  As such, many a home movie take on an ethereal state of impossibility, wherein domesticity seems far too perfect and children always in a state of perfect behavior.  Nonetheless, it is in this performance of reality that the collective of the book suggests that our understanding of a social reality is best drawn, not because it is true, but because it was the expectation.  Authors like Ishizuka, however, take this idea a step further and suggest that the reuse of this footage can help artists to challenge the establishment or canonical understanding of history by reconfiguring the images and narratives of home movies to draw out previously silenced voices and rework misunderstandings in the historical narrative. This is perhaps most true with the footage captured by one family during their time in a Japanese internment camp, which might seem quite arbitrary were one not given the context of the film.  Aside from one passing shot of a guard tower the footage, Ishizuka discusses takes on no level more than a family enjoying one another's company, however, not that it has been verified that it was captured during their time in the camp, when projected with this preface each work takes on a layer of meaning that was previously invisible.  To a degree this can only happen in the non-fiction film, although I will admit their are fictive exceptions and with each home movie that is uncovered one cannot help but hope that a cloud of uncertainty floats over the work, perhaps waiting to be uncovered and pieced together to reconsider the entire understanding of a moment in history.  In an era of over saturated documentation, things have lost a degree of sincerity and meaning that may never return and a work like Mining the Home Movie demands that we look back to what is being tossed to the way side in hopes that it will helps us not only reflect on the past, but also carefully navigate our future before it becomes far too detached to ever narratively reassemble.

Best Film Discovery of the Book:  I currently intern in a film archive and had been reluctant to get behind working with the home movie collections available, this work single-handedly made me reconsider how I should and could engage with such works.  It does not have a single filmic discovery, but exists as a call to look for a "new" type of film to discuss by reflecting on things considered extremely outdated.  This text is a necessity for any cinephile, even those strictly attached to the world of commercial narrative film.


I Cook A Local Stew, Stewing In My Own Juices: One Sings, The Other Doesn't (1977)

I recently obtained myself a MUBI account, not because I really need another venue to stream movies from, but mostly because I caught wind of an ultra rare Agnes Varda film being offered from the seventies.  Knowing that I adore her work, I decided at 2.91 a month MUBI was more than well worth my time.  However, this post is not intended to hype MUBI, I do enough of that for Criterion as it stands.  I do not mind in the slightest hyping Agnes Varda, whose work has always challenged, enlivened and generally enriched my understanding of cinema, this her "musical" focusing on two women's experiences during the tumultuous rise and fall of women's liberation as it relates both uniquely to France, as well as how it extends to spaces one does not immediately think of when discussing women's issues in the 1970's.  Indeed, the very nature and subject manner of this film are well within my interests and, again, having Agnes Varda helm the filmmaking only verified that I would be taken a back in wonder by all it had to offer.  Then the magical moment involving the "Papa Engels" song happened and I came to realize I was consuming what might well be the greatest offering in French cinema for all of the 70's.  Indeed, this film exists in the middle of two cinematic bookends by great French male filmmakers in Godard's Weekend from 1967 and Truffaut's absurdly underrated The Last Metro from 1980.  Here with one master stroke, Varda is able to create a work that cements her place in the highest of rungs for French filmmaking and deservedly so, because this list is often invaded by the greats of The French New Wave, which deserve praise, but would also be nothing without Varda's preliminary steps in the movement, as well as her continued presence in the world of filmmaking.  Rocking the same excellent haircut for the entirety of her career, Varda is the definition of an auteur and a reminder of the very real presence a woman and can should be afforded in the world of filmmaking, just in the same way that there would be no French New Wave without Varda, the cinematic perfection that is a work like Zero Dark Thirty would not evoke the commentary and feminist undertones it does today, without Varda's willingness to go all out in her own political, social and personal beliefs.  Sure the singing is a bit silly, but the subject matter is far too serious to be easily dismissed.

One Sings, the Other Doesn't focuses on the relationship of two women during the world of seventies counterculture.  The first girl, Pauline (Valerie Mairesse) the young wide-eyed idealism of France with her endearing nickname Apple, her wild red hair and general curiosity about all things against the norm, she exists purely with the hopes of making it as a singer.  Stumbling into an artist's shop, Pauline notices a photograph of one of her former neighbors from her youth.  The woman, Suzanne (Therese Liotard) is a mother stuck in a less than thrilling marriage, captured in photographs by her lover Jerome (Robert Dadies).  Pauline asks Jerome if it would be possible to meet Suzanne, to which he sees no problem.  The two immediatley form a deep bond between one another, sharing in the unique troubles that faced women of the time, Pauline dealing with the oppressive expectations of her parents who want her to succeed in things that are decidedly of the feminine realm, while Suzanne stumbles through the threats of yet another child on her freedom.  When Pauline offers to accrue the necessary funds to afford Suzanne and abortion, Suzanne comes to realize that the bond between the two is of the deepest level of friendship, so much so that when Pauline is kicked out of her home for her choices, she immediately moves in with Suzanne and Jerome.  This choice, apparently leads to Jerome going into a severe bout of depression and eventual suicide and act that leads to the first splitting apart of Pauline and Suzanne, not out of anger, but economic necessity.  During this time, Suzanne creates a space for herself in the family planning world of social work, dealing with both rewarding and frustrating cases of introducing women to the liberating benefits of the pill.  Meanwhile, Pauline, fully appropriating her Apple identity, takes up a life as a folk singer, traveling about France, Amsterdam and even Iran singing songs on issues of abortion, domesticity and the wonders of communism, meeting a man named Darius (Ali Rafie) along the way, whose faux-feminist politics trap her into a marriage and role of motherhood she immediately regrets.  Suzanne finds her own relationship which is one of comfort and complacency, only seeking solace in her communication with Pauline.  The two continue to exchange letters and occasionally meeting up speaking to the woes of feminine oppression, while expanding their own friendship to a level of almost romantic intimacy.  The two women's lives intersect and move apart in unique ways, always, however, sharing in the bond of womanhood that transcends all the absurdity of the world they face.

So it is rather clear that this film has open feminist politics in its frank discussions of abortion, family planning, domestic oppression and issues of property.  These things alone could make Varda's One Sings, the Other Doesn't a work in feminist filmmaking on level with Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, which is by all accounts the most feminist of films to date.  Varda, however, is not simply concerned with verbally affirming a narrative of feminist politics, she accepts that individuals like Simone de Beauvoir and Betty Friedan have already done so by the time her film emerges.  Instead, Varda wants to specifically consider how such rhetoric and ideals can invade and influence the space of filmmaking.  The very title One Sings, the Other Doesn't considers how silencing affects certain female bodies, Varda affirming that Suzanne through her forced life in domesticity is incapable (either by choice or limitations) of singing out, therefore, while Pauline has not necessarily experienced the same types of domestic oppression, nonetheless, shares in the larger oppression of womanhood, thus singing about the woes of domestic depression, in her previously mentioned song Papa Engels.  In this way, Pauline becomes a voice for the feminist movement, one that is often wily, but always astute.  Suzanne, however, is not completely at a loss in activism, wherein Pauline speaks, Suzanne acts.  Involved heavily in what could be seen as the French equivalent of Planned Parenthood, Suzanne is giving escape to woman who have found themselves trapped into unplanned pregnancies or simply want to avoid the danger of pregnancy in their youth.  What Varda does brilliantly in the film, is provide both verbal and physical activism the same degree of validity, by suggesting that Pauline and Suzanne are one in the same, both moving throughout their lives with a constant reminder that each decision speaks to their larger endeavors of feminist activism.  By the time the two are shown in the closing moments of the film, it is suggested through a brilliant panning circle that the two are at the very least sharing the same space, if not outright the same person within the filmic world of One Sings, the Other Doesn't.  I would also posit given Varda's concern for the types of activism that an appropriate alternative title for this film could have ben One Sings, the Other Performs.

Key Scene:  While I am a fan of the Papa Engels song, I also found the abortus song on the boat to be clever and politically profound.

This is currently only available to view on MUBI.  Get the seven day free trail or just get an account, either way it is worth it for this rarified cinematic gem.


2013 Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge (Book 4) Licence To Thrill: A Cultural History of the James Bond Films

Bond. James Bond.  Even those iconic words came as a sort of accident in the franchise as a means to properly introduce the cinematic Sean Connery version of James Bond to the world, as he playfully engages with the overlooked Bond girl Sylvia Trench.  These are the types of things you learn when you read way to many texts about James Bond, some completely academic, using Lacanian psychoanalysis and high level political theory to consider the image of Bond, while always pulling back to understand that he is entirely a creation of the late Ian Fleming.  I will admit that I do not mind this approach in the slightest, but on repeat, as it has been pretty much all summer can get a bit daunting and a fresh alternative is always welcome.  Thankfully, James Chapman's A Cultural History of the James Bond Films provides the perfect way to approach the fifty plus year franchise, while also considering the ways in which it has influenced film studies, political landscapes and the general manner with which moviegoers see the action film.  Furthermore, where works often lack in an ambition to paint in the most minute of details the initial encounters in the filmic inception of one of the world's highest grossing franchises, Chapman picks out ever possible piece of key evidence, without it ever appearing nauseating or excessive.  It is also in this very commitment to exactitude that Chapman's narrative becomes important, precisely because other "dossiers" on the evolution of James Bon have come out under the very watchful and critical eyes of EON productions, whose narrative reflects one that tries its best to vilify all participants whose involvement was either stifled financially, or in the case of poor George Lazenby completely removed as a result of backdoor politics.  Indeed, as great a documentary as Everything or Nothing proves to be, it is great to see the larger story of the James Bond film franchise depicted, acknowledging that famous names like Bruccoli and Saltzman carry an iconography about them, while also remembering that since making the films were very much a business, sometimes financial strong arming happened, allowing for Chapman to make some absolutely astute suggestions between the quality of work in certain films and the pros and cons of the respective production experiences of each.

Another benefit of Chapman's particular reading is that despite it affording an occasional critical and theoretical reading of the films, it does not fall into the trap of kowtowing to the contemporary works in the genre, as a means to draw in young, non-Bond fanatics into the mix.  As the title suggests, it is a history of the film franchise and as such most of the text does center on the first decade of films, which Chapman makes expressly career proved integral, if not outright necessary, to the success of more recent works like the backwards looking Casino Royale.  The section that Chapman provides for the great Sean Connery could almost double as a mini-biography for the actor, in its detailed accounts of his discovery, implementation and eventually cementing as the image of James Bond.  This is particularly key to discussing the James Bond films because Connery over the recent years has come to disdain talking on the subject of Bond, partially due to his eventual falling out with the producers and his own retirement from acting.  In fact, if it were not for the laboriously researched audio commentaries on the recent release of James Bond blurays, I would be willing to call Chapman's writing on Connery the most detailed available.  Of course, as a clear fan of the films, Chapman also has opinions about the works that cloud how he considers their importance and presence, yet, where other others would be overly embracing of bad movies or dismissively flippant towards decent works, Chapman tempers his opinions with grounded arguments and factual evidence.  Indeed, he comes down quite hard on You Only Live Twice, which has become wildly dated and highly offensive by contemporary standards of race and gender identity.  Similarly, he is an advocate of On Her Majesty's Secret Service and Moonarker (my personal favorite in the series) despite their being dismissed by fans.  For the first, he explains how shifting attitudes in cinematic narrative and a push for a darker film, based entirely off of Fleming's book no less, resulted in the poor success of On Her Majesty's Secret Service, and Lazenby was indeed fine in the role.  As for Moonraker, he embraces the excess and absurdity of the film, noting that it fell in line with the style of Bond films of the era, while also drawing attention to the larger implausibility of an old-school Bond existing in the increasingly globalized and post-colonized world.

Best Film Discovery of the Book:  While I had seen the entire series by the time I encountered this book, I do agree with Chapman on his defense of On Her Majesty's Secret Service, which has become vilified by many for what they see as a complete misstep in the franchise's image and style.  Chapman argues the opposite and instead suggests that it was an attempt to make Bond more adult and realistic, which occurs to much success in the contemporary films.  If anything Lazenby's Bond was well ahead of its time.  If I cannot sell you on it, I would suggest reading it in Chapman's words.