Saturday, October 3, 2009

Team Batista no eikô (2008) and Japanese film comedy

Saw this the other night: Team Batista no eikô チーム・バチスタの栄光, official English title The Glorious Team Batista (although I think "The Batista Team's Glory" might capture it better). A 2008 Japanese film that combines the medical drama and the police procedural with a little comedy.

The title refers to a surgical team that specializes in the Batista procedure. Risky open-heart surgery, which makes the team the hospital's star jocks. Until patients start dying. Then the hospital has to investigate. They try to keep it hush-hush, assigning a lowly outpatient counselor to the task. But then a hotshot from the Ministry gets involved.

As a Japanese medical drama, it's pretty typical: by which I mean it looks quaint to someone whose med-melodrama sensibilities have been shaped by E.R. You know, the hospital is calm, underpopulated, unhurried, and spotless, and while everybody says they're overworked they never seem to be paged for anything. Then again, Japan has quasi-socialized medicine, and it's fucking awesome, so they can do what they want in their medical dramas and I won't complain.

Same goes for the criminal-investigation aspect: as far as I can tell, Japanese cinema boasts awesome criminals and boring cops. No grit. Again, it's a pre-Law & Order (actually a pre-Hill Street Blues) view of cop work. But again: then again, Japan has a very low crime rate and great public safety, so they can do what they want in their cop shows and I won't complain.

What I'm getting at is that as a medical drama, as a crime-and-investigation story, it wasn't all that riveting. As a comedy, on the other hand...

I have to say, I've developed a real affection for Japanese film comedies from the last couple of decades. The older I get the less I like the mean-spirited wiseass attitude of much American comedy. I can't stand Saturday Night Live, for example: all catch-phrases and smirks, with little genuine wit. There's some of that in Japan, too, of course; I see it a lot in modern manzai, which is one reason I've never warmed up to that venerable comic art form.

Japanese film comedy tends to be much more good-natured, much more dependent on wit and grace and timing than on attitude. Think Shall We Dance. Think anything by Itami Jûzô or my current favorite Mitani Kôki. This is like that.

The key is the guy who plays the Ministry investigator, Abe Hiroshi. I love Abe Hiroshi (Trick is his best work, I think). He's one of these guys who can stand there stock still onscreen and still reduce you to tears of laughter. He's just extraordinarily gifted, first of all physically (with his height and gauntness he's got that Ichabod Crane-Jeff Goldblum thing going), but also with his timing and delivery.

My favorite scene: his entrance. He shows up, in a suit, at a company softball game. Picks up a bat and inserts himself as a pinch-hitter. Just the way he stands there, the way he grips the bat, has you red in the face with laughter. And this is before he's really said anything. Then the pitcher throws a strike, he looks it in, the umpire calls it a strike, and he informs the ump that no, it was a ball. The umpire remembers who he's talking to, and calls it a ball. Sure, it's an elegantly written little satire on the lordliness of Japanese bureaucrats. But Abe plays it perfectly, too, exuding the perfect mix of arrogance and buffoonery.

Comedy that's not trying to laugh at you, but is willing to let you laugh at it. That's what it is.

Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis: Live In Swing City: Swingin' With Duke (1999)

So this release makes me want to take back some of the sanguine things I said about the LCJO in my review of They Came To Swing. This is a pleasant enough record, but I don't see much argument for its existence. LCJO had already done Ellington once. That was a satisfying disc, and a good starting point for a recording program by this outfit. But the direction their next two discs took was a promising one, mixing jazz from many (not quite all) eras together, demonstrating their credo that "all jazz is modern," making Monk and Coltrane rub shoulders with Jelly Roll Morton and Dizzy Gillespie and the Duke. But a few years later, here they are releasing another all-Ellington album. Why?

It's a pleasant enough disc, as I say. Good, polished renditions, with some very nice moments here and there, such as the last number, "Portrait Of Louis Armstrong," where Marsalis's delta-dragging trumpet is juxtaposed against some very McCoy Tyner-ish playing by pianist Cyrus Chestnut.

But on the whole the disc is just not as eye-opening as the first, because it doesn't try as hard to revive obscure, epic, late Ellington. A lot of the selections are pretty standard. And yes, I realize this began as a PBS project, not a full-scale recording project. But still...

No, no "but still." I think the PBS connection is probably the clue. The "Great Performances" episode this documents was 1999; "Ken Burns' Jazz" was just around the corner. It's hard not to hear this as part of a reactionary turn. A shrinking of at least the recording side of the LCJO's sense of mission - a shrinking of the outfit's conception of what jazz is.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Jazz at Lincoln Center: They Came To Swing (1994)

This seems to have been a companion piece to The Fire Of The Fundamentals. That one sampled what happened at Lincoln Center; this one samples what happened when LCJO went on tour. This is the only one of their discs I bought in real time, btw; I got it not long after seeing the show I mention here.

Like the last one, and like an LCJO concert, it's split between full orchestra numbers and spots by smaller combinations of orchestra members.

Standout numbers:

"Light Blue." A great big-band arrangement of this Thelonious Monk tune. They preserve Monk's lurching rhythms, but add some lush horn harmonies. Then the solos start. First we get a brown-paper-bag trombone solo, and this is followed by a plunger-muted trumpet solo courtesy of Mr. Marsalis himself. What this means is that the New York hipster-jazz tune is effectively revealed to have all the potential for river-soaked New Orleans ooze within it. It's things like this that make the LCJO worth listening to.

"Jelly, Jelly." An exquisite rendering of the Billy Eckstine number. Somehow it manages to be both deep, knockabout bruise-blue and elegant at the same time. It's vocalist Milt Grayson's showcase, and he's a real marvel on these early LCJO records. He's got recital-hall diction and cello resonances in his voice, but those factors just make it all the more powerful, because unexpected, when he digs deep for a teeth-gritting blues like this. LCJO is black-tie jazz, anachronistic to be sure, but that invalidates the age, not the music.

"Things To Come." A pretty magnificent whack at Dizzy Gillespie's revolutionary number. Doesn't have quite the raw power of Dizzy's 1946 version, but still, Jon Faddis turns in a bumblebee trumpet solo that would do Diz proud. And that disintegrating ending. Nice.

Incidentally, this article pretty much sums up my take on LCJO, and why I think they're worth listening to. At one point their status as an argument couldn't help but overshadow their potential as a listening experience, but those days are over. Now it's hard to see them as anything but a net plus for jazz (edit: well, this guy disagrees). You may not agree with the idea that most of what happened between 1965 and 1985 was a wrong turn (I don't), but chances are your appreciation of any jazz, fusion included, will only be enhanced by a greater familiarity with Jelly Roll and Duke. And that's all Wynton's really saying in the end, isn't it?

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Blogging the Dollhouse: Episode 14: Vows

My big question after Ep 13 was, if you’ll recall, whether/how Mutant Enemy were going to keep it interesting, now that they’d told us How It Was All Going To End. We get a partial answer right here, which is: by writing tense, fast-moving episodes with interesting character development. This was one, and it kept me glued to my Hulu. But it wasn’t a complete wipe: at the end, when Echo gave her speech laying out her quest, I was brought right back into the world of “Epitaph One,” and I found myself thinking, “yeah, good luck with that.”

So it remains to be seen if the (brilliant, harrowing) vision of the future we were given over the summer makes it harder to watch the present unfold. Harder to care.

Moments. Sierra, programmed to think she’s English, telling Ivy she doesn’t like Orientals: the rich, evil irony of that exchange, and the sucker-punch of the subtext, that we’re all programmed to hate ourselves, reject ourselves, neglect our own best interests, in so many ways. Ballard, thinking he’s using Echo for good, being reminded by her handler that now he’s a client; the short pause while we realize, along with Ballard, that he’s hereby completed his moral fall, even if it is for good reasons. He’s both a pimp and a john now (in a philanthropic way). DeWitt, touching Victor’s scars to check the doctors’ work, then letting her clinical touch turn into a caress without realizing it.

Vows. What vows? The wedding vows Echo takes, in her persona as agent infiltrating the arms dealer’s inner circle; vows that Ballard thinks take her into morally repugnant territory, and that Boyd thinks constitute a dangerous long-term assignment. That’s the obvious one. Ballard and Boyd are both right, of course, which tells us something about how this episode wants us to think about vows.

There’s Echo’s vow at the end to find Caroline, to find “all of them” – meaning, all of the people she’s been? Or the real people that belong to all the other dolls, at whom she’s gazing as she says this? Does she even know?

Then there’s the real killer, the as-yet undefined vow that governs both Topher and Whiskey – she doesn’t know him, and he doesn’t completely know her, that’s the deal, he says – in as moving a moment as this character has given us (at least in the present). Clearly they have some connection, clearly he wishes she could remember it, clearly he’s too scared or bound by his vow to make her remember it, and clearly it’s killing him. And she – as the broken consciousness that we can no longer accurately call Saunders, but can’t quite call anything else – so she’s, what, Saunders/not-Saunders? – knows that to break this vow, to remember who she really is, would kill her. Because she’s not herself. Saunders both is and isn’t whoever Whiskey was, whoever took that vow.

Vows. What are vows? Expressions of will, most of all: not merely a will to do something, but a will to see something done, a will to will a certain desired reality into existence. They’re a kind of speech act. But doesn’t will presuppose subjectivity? Someone to do the willing? A willing someone? If a doll makes a vow, has a vow been made? Can Echo make a vow?

(And dig: there’s a religious tradition in which the Vow is huge. We’ve already noted the Buddhist overtones of Dollhouse samsara; now note how much of a bodhisattva figure Echo is, achieving her own enlightenment, but electing not to enter into nirvana, vowing to stay behind until she’s helped other sentient beings achieve enlightenment.)

Can any of us make a vow? Do any of us have a firm enough grasp on this reality to will another one into being? We’re reminded, with a wicked drip of sarcasm, that nobody’s much better off than a doll, especially (but not only) in a world in which doll technology exists. Ballard tells DeWitt of his suspicions of Boyd, saying he doesn’t know why Boyd is here, though he knows why he himself is there. “I know what I know,” he says. Do you? she says. [it was Topher who said this, not Ballard, you idiot! -ed.]

Do we? “Epitaph One” has already told us that, even if we do now, we won’t for long.

What are we going to have in Season 2 of Dollhouse? The pathos of watching people thinking their problems amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world? Of watching people who ought to know better hastening toward their own destruction? Well, maybe that’s not inappropriate right now…