Saturday, February 28, 2009

James Bond review: For Your Eyes Only (1981)

CUT TO THE CHASE: Let’s just pretend Moonraker never happened, shall we?

BOND, JAMES BOND: This was the movie they said they were going to make after The Spy Who Loved Me – that’s what the closing credits of Spy promised. Then the sci-fi craze happened and they made Moonraker instead. That made tons of money, and yet this is nothing like it, which suggests to me that the producers were somewhat chastened by their complete squandering of the Bond mystique. That or they were simply spooked by the threats of the Other Bond contingent (which would result in Never Say Never Again).

This explains, by the way, the curious precredit sequence. Bond visiting Teresa’s grave takes us back with a jolt to OHMSS, and then – surprise! – Blofeld’s back. But only just long enough to meet an unceremonious end. It’s a fairly nice bit of aerial action, and starts the movie off with a bang, but it’s a waste of a rare bit of continuity, really. It feels like it’s there only to spite Kevin McClory.

Whatever the motivations, this is a more serious Bond than last time out, and that makes this a better movie. Unfortunately, it’s too little, too late. At this point Moore is getting too old for the role, and either he or the producers have forgotten the smirking glamor that made his first three turns as Bond so memorable. Moore trots through the film gamely, looking well-preserved but not especially sexy. He’s harmless.

The result is a reasonably tight film with a lot of nice elements that nevertheless can’t quite rise above the workmanlike.

What Makes Bond Bond: In a meeting at MI-6 with the Minister of Defense and the Chief of Staff, Bond seems to be the only one in the building with the slightest grasp of detection or espionage. He has to explain to them the utility of tracking down the bad guy. This is stupid, but at least it plays into the male fantasy of Bondness. You’re always smarter than your boss – in your dreams.

What Makes Roger Moore Roger Moore: The easy charm he displays in his scenes with Cassandra Harris. She’s not quite his age, but she’s a lot closer than Carole Bouquet or Lynn-Holly Johnson, and this frees Moore up to be, for the last time, as suave as he was in earlier films.

BAD GUYS: Part of what makes this film intriguing is that they abandon the formula when it comes to the bad guys. Instead of a supervillain trying to destroy/take over/extort lots of money from the world, we get a bit of Cold War drama. A British nuclear weapons guidance device has sunk in the Adriatic, and Bond has to recover it before the Russians, working through a shady Greek tycoon, get their hands on it. It's a tiny bit like From Russia With Love: both films involve Our Hero chasing a briefcase-shaped MacGuffin.

It was the age of détente, and to that end the Russians aren’t really villains. Just as they were in Spy (where we first met General Gogol, who returns here), they’re merely opponents to be outwitted.

The villain, then, is the Greek smuggling tycoon. And here, too, the producers have exercised a little cunning. There are two such characters in the film: Kristatos (Julian Glover) and Columbo (Topol – who gets to play a rich man – good for him), who have a rivalry going back to their days in the Greek Resistance. Our Man In Italy thinks Kristatos is the one to be trusted, and the well-dressed, well-mannered Kristatos fools Bond – for a while. But of course it turns out that Kristatos is the bad guy and the rough-hewn Columbo is actually the good guy. Hoary stuff, perhaps, but still a little more energy in the plot department than we’ve seen for a while. A refreshing change from the Draxes and Strombergs we’ve grown accustomed to.

With no monomaniacal villain to dominate the proceedings, the Henchman role changes a bit too. We do have a couple of guys trying to kill Bond – a Belgian underworld figure named Locque and a KGB guy named Kriegler. Both are memorable, but not particularly superhuman.

In short, what we have here is the makings of a real live spy movie, another From Russia With Love. It doesn’t quite work out like that, but that’s not Glover’s or Topol’s fault. They’re both fine.

GRATUITOUS SEX: Now we can get down to the nitty-gritty of what’s wrong with this film. As we’ve noted, Cassandra Harris’s Liverpudlian countess is the most believable Bond girl in the film, and that’s because she’s a little older. It doesn’t look entirely wrong to see Bond seducing her.

Carole Bouquet as Melina Havelock is the best official Bond girl of the ‘80s; that’s not saying much, but she is good. Melina’s out for vengeance (which means she’s part of a lineage that starts with Tilly Masterson in Goldfinger and continues through Camille Montes in Quantum of Solace), and Bouquet manages to make her eyes flash with anger now and then. The problem is Moore is thirty years older than Bouquet. They manage to go through the motions of a growing romantic/sexual attraction, but really the producers have to downplay this: he looks like he could be her father.

But the real snafu comes with Lynn-Holly Johnson as Bibi Dahl, Kristatos’s ice-skating protégé. It’s never specified how old the character is; maybe we’re supposed to assume she’s underage, but Johnson is only a year younger than Bouquet, and in the film she’s a bombshell. She doesn’t look underage. And yet they have Bond rejecting her as if she were a child: she throws herself at him, and he throws her right back. And the thing is, we’re glad, because next to her Moore looks like an icky old man. I can’t begin to describe how wrong this subplot is. I’ll simply observe that when Bond has to resist the advances of a sexy twenty-three-year-old because she’s too young for him, you know you’ve got the wrong guy playing 007.

That leaves us with a GS of 2, but more importantly it leaves us with the sad realization that the producers have just betrayed everything that Bond stood for. Let us bow our heads for a moment of silence.

AND VIOLENCE: The workmanlike nature of the film shows up clearly here. There aren’t very many memorable stunts – the mountain-climbing bits are the notable exception – which indicates less of a reliance on gimmicks and more of an interest in visceral action. Again, one thinks of From Russia With Love.

The problem is, none of the fight scenes here approach that level of intensity. The skiing, the motorcycles, the car chases, the various fistfights and gunfights, all feel a bit blah. They do their job, but never really grab the viewer. (Another exception: the death-by-coral-reef bit is nicely done.)

In fairness, let’s point out that this isn’t Moore’s fault. Everything feels a little tired by now, a little out of step. The editing, the direction, the cinematography all feel flat. This is a problem with all the ‘80s Bonds. In a couple of years, viewers would get to see what a state-of-the-art 007 could look like. This wasn’t one.

BOYS WITH TOYS: Bringing the white Lotus back, only to blow it up before Bond can take it through its paces, is a nice touch. Other than that, it’s not a gadget Bond.

JOIN THE NAVY AND SEE THE WORLD: Spain, northern Italy, Greece, Albania. No complaints here. They even manage to make the underwater photography work: lots of luminous, langourous swimming, not too much fighting.

ETC.: The title sequence is a departure, in that they bring the singer onscreen. Presumably this is because they thought Sheena Easton was Bond-girl-worthy (one might have thought the same about Carly Simon, though). Or maybe they just wanted to save some money on the music video; this was the year MTV began… The song itself is one of the better entries in the series, lush and romantic and mysterious. It’s the best thing about the film. Bill Conti (Rocky) does the score, which sort of works, expanding on the disco elements that showed up in the previous two films. Unfortunately by 1981 disco was morphing into the soulless workout music that dominated the ‘80s, and you can hear that here… Add a Zamboni to the list of vehicles Bond has driven. (A Zamboni?)… Perhaps the most interesting thing about this installment is the fact that, during filming, Cassandra Harris got married. To Pierce Brosnan…

RATING: 004.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Walter Scott: Rob Roy (1817)

I finished this a couple of days ago, and I've been trying to figure out what to say about it. It's tough, because I'm somewhat stupid in my love for Walter Scott. I read him - once or twice a year for about four years now - for sheer pleasure. Which is not to say that I don't try to think about what he's doing in his books and why. But whatever momentary observations I formulate regarding his themes and his methods are quickly washed away in the glorious flood of his prose.


"I do not know if Helen MacGregor had personally mingled in the fray, and indeed I was afterwards given to understand the contrary; but the specks of blood on her brow, her hands and naked arms, as well as on the blade of the sword which she continued to hold in her hand—her flushed countenance, and the disordered state of the raven locks which escaped from under the red bonnet and plume that formed her head-dress, seemed all to intimate that she had taken an immediate share in the conflict. Her keen black eyes and features expressed an imagination inflamed by the pride of gratified revenge, and the triumph of victory. Yet there was nothing positively sanguinary, or cruel, in her deportment..."

Note how he moves from a calm moment of later contemplation ("I do not know...afterwards given to understand" and all the multisyllabic words in the first half of that sentence) backward in time, while forward in motion, into a scene of intense agitation (picking up the pace with lots of monosyllables). Note the impression of action he gives: the blood, the flushed countenance and disordered hair, verbs like "escaped" and "inflamed," in what is really a static scene - we're just looking at Helen MacGregor as she stands there. Note the careful color balance - her black tresses, black eyes (and sun-darkened features?), set off by the red of her hat, her plume, her cheeks, the blood that flecks her skin, and even the ruddy flames of her imagination. Above all note the sheer beauty of the language: the rhythm of "personally mingled in the fray," the alliteration of "imagination inflamed," the musicality of "raven locks," and the wonderfully heavy qualification of "positively."

Sometimes I think Scott wrote English better than anybody before or since. At its best, as here, his prose is lively and vivid but always carefully composed. He writes in those long, complicated sentences that seem so foreign to moderns - I certainly spent most of my life unable to enjoy them - but once you get the hang of them they're so much more exact, and therefore often more expressive, than what usually passes for literary prose today, not to mention beautiful in a way we don't seem to have much use for now.

Shepard Fairey at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston

Excellent exhibit all around: great works presented well.

1. All the way through (and it’s a large exhibit), I was struggling with Fairey’s work on a conceptual level. I get that he’s trying to sensitize us to the controlling messages that capitalism surrounds us with; I get that the Obey Giant is making explicit the propagandistic nature of advertising. We’re meant to come away from Fairey’s work questioning what we’re told.

But this just reminded me of one of my favorite t-shirts from the ‘80s: it said in big block letters “question authority,” and then below it was scrawled, “why?”

That is, I think Fairey’s determination to undermine authoritarian iconography sits uneasily next to his obvious political motivation. His work pushes a specific set of leftist (that’s the right word for his style, at least: not liberal, not progressive, not big-d Democratic, but old-skool leftist) opinions. More to the point, his work mobilizes in support of these opinions all his considerable skill at manipulating imagery.

Cool is a dictator, he’s saying. But he’s also using cool to push his leftist ideas. Doesn’t that make him a dictator, too? Obviously it does. Doesn’t that undermine his message - both his question-authority message and his leftist message?

Obviously it does. Let’s take an example that doesn’t have much to do with politics. One room of the exhibit focused on his music-celebrity related work: it has the Zeppelin album cover, the Jane’s Addiction concert poster, and a series of portraits of punk and rap stars. This series comes complete with (the wall text informs us) a playlist “curated” by the artist himself. In other words, if you want to be cool like Shepard Fairey, here’s what you listen to.

If you’ve been paying attention at all through the previous rooms, your bile is going to rise when you get to this one. Like, I’m really supposed to like Joe Strummer and Biggie just because Shepard Fairey does? As it happens, I really do like the Clash – but for the five minutes I spent in that room, I hated them.

The question is, is Fairey aware of this contradiction in his work? Are we supposed to be wary of his political message – are we supposed to stand back and see it as an example of propaganda to be distrusted? Or does he not get this, and seriously expect us to reject all authority but his own? After all, how manyquestion authorityt-shirts do you see without the “why”?

For the record, I think he is aware. He can’t not be. I think we’re supposed to struggle with the political message, to realize that even the most laudable expression of ideals (if you find his political ideals laudable, which I mostly do) can all too easily shade into authoritarianism. The protest sign can always turn into a control mechanism.

Does this neutralize his political message altogether, then? I don’t think so. He’s so consistently leftist in his message that I think he’s hoping it can get through, somehow. And this is maybe what I find most compelling about his work. All propaganda is suspect, and all ideologies that utilize propaganda are trying to control you: but he doesn’t let that excuse him from taking a stand. It makes his stand an extremely tortured one, undercut at every turn (I think) by his suspicion of his own authority, but it’s a stand nonetheless.

I don’t think he’s solved the dilemma. There are always going to be people who adopt Fairey’s political stances simply because it’s cool to do so – because he, along with Strummer, Biggie, and the other beautiful people on his playlist, have made leftist politics cool. People who won’t see the contradictions in his work. People who think “question authority” simply means “épater la bourgeosie.” No matter how carefully he balances his images, some people will allow themselves to be manipulated by them.

2. The other thing I was doing all the way through the exhibit was getting off on how cool his work is. Undeniably. He’s got a great design sense.

I was particularly glad to see this stuff in a museum, because he really rises to the occasion. His most famous work is in posters, designed to be seen from a distance, surrounded by (or covered with) graffiti and/or other posters, or (increasingly) seen on computer screens. In those contexts you get to appreciate his mastery of color and form and context, and maybe not much else.

But a lot of the work on the walls of the museum was incredibly textured. A lot of the pieces were his familiar iconography executed on a background of, for example, vintage newspaper clippings or scraps of wallpaper, making for a very delicate and multilayered work that would be hard to pull off on a brick wall or t-shirt. And some of these works are huge, allowing him space to recycle some of his own iconography (various manifestations of his Obey logos) as if they were benday dots, or pastiches of ancient wallpaper designs.

I found these recent works – the ones whose main motif is the soldier girl, the woman in her hijab (see the ICA's page), or the boy with the rifle – to be the most powerful. Partly because of what I just discussed, the intricate texturing with which they’re executed, resulting in (among other things) this overwhelming demonstration of how all iconography, maybe all ideology, is recycling other iconography or ideology. An empire of signs, indeed.

But I also loved these works because of their sheer beauty. They’re rich in the aesthetic qualities that make us glory in art: color, shape, texture, motion, balance, etc., etc. For an art that uses socialist realism as its foundation, Fairey’s work provides a pretty decadent level of pleasure. But there he goes undercutting his message again – it’s really hard to remember the Viet Cong girl is supposed to inspire you to realize a socialist utopia when he’s got you dreaming about picnicking with her in a field of daisies…

P.S. Yes, the Obama poster is there, or rather one version of it, a version that works better for a museum show than it would have for a campaign. And, speaking of the Obama poster, this is pretty funny.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Ornette Coleman: Theme From A Symphony (Variation Two)

The Tanuki likes grooves. He prefers polyrhythms to the one, though - the Meters rather than James Brown. And the other day he stumbled into polyrhythm heaven. A track from Ornette Coleman's 1976 album Dancing In Your Head called "Theme From A Symphony (Variation Two)." You can listen to it here, among other places.

The Tanuki still hasn't quite figured out how to write about jazz. He's no musicologist, and he's no jazz expert. But he finds himself listening to jazz more and more lately, and good lord! Are you listening to that? That insane, almost annoying singsong riff, over and over, and then: gack, we're into the middle jam section. It's disorienting, like being shoved out of a plane without a parachute, but then before you realize it Prime Time have stepped up into the wickedest groove you've ever heard. This is truly pagan stuff, whites-of-the-eyes demons-dancing-around-the-bonfire bacchanale music, forcing your lower body to move even while your head wants to stand still and listen to what Ornette's laying down over the top of it all, while your heart wants to hang on the lip-biting chords the guitars are tucking into the pockets of the music. But you've barely had time to begin to make sense of it - or you've barely had time to begin to surrender to it, whichever you prefer - when they go back to the singsongy main riff, this time with the full force of the four-percussionist groove underneath. Then it ends.

Dancing in your head is right.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Shoppai doraibu

Daidô Tamaki 大道珠貴. Shoppai doraibu しょっぱいドライブ. 2003.

Winner of the 128th Akutagawa Prize, for late 2002.

The title story ("Shoppai doraibu," "Salty Drives"), the winner, is narrated by a girl named Miho. For the first half of the story she’s driving around her hometown with her sort-of lover, an old man named Tsukumo. It’s a dead-end Kyushu fishing village, and he’s a semi-retired bureaucrat, so soft-spoken as to be almost invisible, but he’s an old friend of the family, and a soft touch for money. She’s a working-class girl in a dead-end fast food job, no friends, no life, no prospects, no money. She slept with him out of gratitude for lending her some cash; now she sticks with him because he’s a reassuring presence, or lack of presence. Much of the drive she spends thinking about the one other lover she’s had, a local small-time stage actor named Asobu, who used her and discarded her. She doesn’t have any particular illusions about this, but obviously can’t forget him either.

All of this we get in stream of consciousness narration; the story doesn’t have much of a plot. It has three scenes. This drive, another one when she comes to town for the funeral of one of Tsukumo’s colleagues, and the last scene, when she’s moved in with Tsukumo. In this scene, they wake up together, and she just lies in bed, pretending to be asleep, while he gets up to do chores.

That’s kind of emblematic of the whole work: unresolved, full of ennui. I confess I’m puzzled by this story. It’s not particularly evocative of place or time or even character, and the language didn’t strike me as particularly memorable. Is the character a new type in J-lit? She’s not dirt-poor, but she’s certainly got no way out of the claustrophobic towns she lives in; her brother and sister-in-law also figure in the story, and her late father, and all seem to represent her dismal lack of prospects. But she doesn’t seem to aspire to much, either; maybe we’re supposed to see her lack of imagination as the ultimate pernicious effect of such an environment?

Or were the old guys on the prize committee just happy to see a story where an attractive young woman settles down with an old guy? Dunno.

Second story, “Fujibitai” ("Widow's Peak," although that sounds a lot more foreboding than the Japanese, which more literally means "Fuji forehead," i.e., "Fuji hairline"). Only about twenty pages. Covers similar territory, sort of. About a junior-high girl sleeping with a sumo wrestler. She’s one of the chronic truants that have been such a feature of TV news cluck-clucking over the state of Today’s Young People. She’s lied about her age to get a job at the arena in Fukuoka where the tournament’s being held, and now she’s started an affair with the wrestler. Again, not much plot, just a couple of scenes with the wrestler in the love hotel, and after, interspersed with gauzy reflections on home life, her spending a whole summer shut in her room. So it’s hinted that she has problems at home, hinted that she’s kind of a wild child, but nothing’s really spelled out. Disaffected youth, maybe, but she also thinks seriously, or thinks she’s thinking seriously, about her future, opening up a shop of some kind… I actually kind of liked this one. Something about the descriptions or the settings being a little more vivid, and the tone not being quite as depressed. But it’s still pretty thin gruel (not to say thin and grueling).

Third story, longest, “Tanpopo to ryûsei” ("Dandelions and Shooting Stars;" pretty title) We join the narrator, Michiru, as she attends her seijinshiki in Kyushu with her best friend, Mariko. Michiru is a lot like Miho in “Shoppai doraibu,” disaffected to the point of dullness. Not quite as lost, though: halfway through the story she moves to Tokyo and gets a job.

She makes the move largely, it seems, to get away from Mariko, who seems to repulse Michiru, even though they’re inseparable. The relationship between the two, Mariko’s almost creepy pushiness and Michiru’s passivity, is the most interesting part of the story. Even after she moves to Tokyo, Michiru can’t quite escape Mariko; Michiru has a half-hearted affair with a guy at work, and just as it ends, a protective Mariko comes to visit. There’s a definite hint of homosexual tension between them, although the narrator doesn’t seem to be aware of it; Mariko might be. But nothing happens, and Mariko goes home, and Michiru’s glad, and the story just kind of meanders to a close.

There might have been something there, the seed of a real story, in that relationship. But Daidô doesn’t seem to know what to do with it, anymore than in the previous two. This is one of the more disappointing A-Prize results. Based on these three stories, I just can't see what Daidô has to offer.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Kurosawa Akira's Dreams (1990)

I've seen this film as many times as I've seen any of Kurosawa's, although I wouldn't place it very high on a list of his most perfect films.

It's deeply flawed. As mesmerizing as it can be (I'll get to that), it's almost devoid of drama. It can take you a pretty tall glass of green tea to keep you awake to the end. Part of this is due to the fact that Kurosawa decided to make it a message movie, and in the clumsiest possible way. Most of the dreams are, storywise, little more than a setting and a sermon. And the messages are trite at best (the survivor's guilt/futility of war theme in the fourth dream) and annoyingly naive at worst (Ryû Chishû's Luddite monologue in the eighth dream).

I keep coming back to it, though, for the visuals, which are simply stunning. Among other things, I see Dreams as Kurosawa's freest and most passionate engagement with the purely visual aspect of cinema. His most painterly work (I'm sure somebody else has said that).

The fifth dream, the one about Van Gogh, exemplifies what's right and wrong with this film. It's short on drama. Terao Akira as the Dreamer is in a museum looking at Van Goghs, then he's inside one of them. He tramps off through other Van Gogh landscapes brought to life, then finds the master himself. Van Gogh talks about how his obsession to paint is like a locomotive driving him, then rushes off. The Dreamer then walks through more Van Gogh scenes.

Scorsese as Van Gogh is one of my favorite examples of miscasting. Terao addresses him in French, and then Van Gogh opens his mouth and we get: New York. Right. To be fair, Japanese audiences wouldn't necessarily have noticed the accent, or indeed the fact that Scorsese's not really a great actor. They would have been able to focus on all the meta goodness of Kurosawa putting a fellow film director in this role. A painter of a different kind, you see.

Van Gogh's monologue is obvious stuff about the artist's need to capture what he sees. Kurosawa bolsters it with some particularly boneheaded filmmaking, cutting to a shot of a locomotive barreling down the tracks. Yes, I get it.

But the shots of the Dreamer wandering through the world as Van Gogh sees it are revelatory. We start out with real-world landscapes that have been tweaked slightly (vivid paint on wagons, etc.) to make them look like Van Goghs. Then we enter his world entirely, with Terao wandering through VG's sketches, and some paintings shown as paintings. My favorite is a cut we get to the Dreamer standing in front of some mammoth brushstrokes - so enlarged that we can see the shadows cast by raised ridges of paint. As he starts to walk we zoom out until the abstract brush-daubs resolve into a recognizable painting.

The result of all this is a surprisingly tactile engagement with Van Gogh's art. Mrs. Sgt. Tanuki, who happens to know something about art, is often pointing out wonderful brushstrokes and paint textures when we're in museums; clearly Kurosawa appreciates them too.

Here and elsewhere in the film he's fulfilling the promise he made by casting Scorsese: he's showing us the intimate connections between the art of the painter and the art of the filmmaker. On this level, if no other, Dreams is a masterpiece.