Saturday, October 17, 2009

Gemini (1999)

Gemini, Japanese title Sôseiji 双生児, which could just as well be translated "Twins," although that isn't very creepy, which this movie is supposed to be. It was directed by Tsukamoto Shin'ya 塚本晋也 and released in 1999. Based on an Edogawa Ranpo short story which has been translated (as "Twins"); good story, although most of what's in the film is Tsukamoto's fantasia on Ranpo's themes.

A bit hard to follow at first, but pretty soon you're entranced. Imagine David Cronenberg remaking something from Suzuki Seijun's Taishô trilogy: that's this film. An elegant, classy setting for some truly sick jewels.

And it's the setting that I found myself drawn to, more than the jewels. The crime, the violence, the horror felt very Ranpo, which is to say sort of Poeish, and therefore were more or less what I expected. But I loved the film's vision of late-Meiji/early-Taishô Japan.

Weird hairstyles. No eyebrows. Lines clean, clothes neat, behavior unbelievably poised. Until you get to the slums, which are Dickens on acid. The period details, in other words, are recognizable, but defamiliarized. This is past-as-foreign-country stuff, exoticizing early 20th-century Japan, putting domestic audiences in almost the same position as their foreign counterparts vis-a-vis the country's past. Sort of the opposite of nostalgia. Very interesting.

Mokkun, by the way, is great in it. Even without eyebrows.

Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra: Don't Be Afraid...The Music Of Charles Mingus (2005)

It was released in 2005, but it was recorded in 2003, at the same time as this one. It's their most recent release to date (that I know of).

In some ways it's their most puzzling release. As a jazz modernist (I know, all jazz is modern), he's as daring a choice as Coltrane, but then again, since he often wrote for a large lineup, maybe he's not: of all the modernists he's the best fit (unless they want to tackle Gil Evans's work for Miles) (hey, now there's an idea). So why do him? Of course they started out mostly recording Ellington, who was a perfect fit, not an adventurous choice at all; but then again, Ellington was due for a revival, and most of his recordings had been made with primitive technology: for the sonic upgrade, if nothing else, he was worth doing. But Mingus? His records still sound good today. So again: why do him?

I've got no answer. I'm just familiar enough with Mingus to know the above facts (plus, that he's awesome), and not familiar enough to tell you if they're doing anything radical with his stuff here. But I can say: it sounds good, and preserves the humor and weirdness of Mingus's music, if not quite the soulfulness. What I've heard of Mingus never sacrifices grit for glitz; this sometimes does.

So: I've now listened to all of the LCJO's records (except for the ones where they're just Wynton's backing band, playing nothing but his compositions: I figure those belong in a different category). What do I think?

I think they're best experienced live. In concert it becomes clear that their mission is the thing: to present a broad cross-section of the history of jazz, and to do it with a lineup big enough and versatile enough to do it all some justice. And bringing it all together like that, the Duke next to Wayne Shorter, WC Handy next to Fred Rogers next to Dizzy Gillespie, it all makes a certain kind of sense, and of course the music itself is fine.

On record, they haven't quite figured out the best way to present themselves. The discs devoted to the ouevre of a single artist are spotty and even at their best it's hard to think of a truly persuasive reason for their existence. I think their most successful records are the two that just draw from their tours, with eclectic track selections and this historiographical aspect of their work in full swing (pun intended). If they had just released one record a year, documenting each year's repertoire, I'd probably buy them all. That would be something. It might even go further toward making the case for them as an artists' collective to be reckoned with, rather than the combination tourist attraction/PBS special that they seem to be thought of as now.

Then again, that seems to be working out for them. So.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Revenge of a Kabuki Actor (1963)

Revenge of a Kabuki Actor is the English title; the Japanese title is Kikunojô henge 雪之丞変化, which translates to something like "Kikunojô Transformed." Kikunojô is the kabuki actor of the title, and he transforms himself in several ways over the course of the story.

So what I saw was the 1963 version, directed by Ichikawa Kon. The story has an interesting pedigree: although on film it feels about as Edo-rooted traditional as you can get, the Japanese modern novel it goes back to was itself based on The Avenging Twins by American adventure author Johnston McCulley. (This is all per Wikipedia.) You never can tell.

But as I say, the 1963 film version (which is all I've seen) feels about as old-fashioned Japanese as you can imagine. Wikipedia says it was the sixth film version of the story in less than thirty years, and yet it was an all-star Daiei production (Katsu Shintarô, Zatôichi himself, is in a bit part, and figures large on the poster - looking nothing like he does in the film). Meaning, I think, that the mandate was to celebrate the clichés, not challenge them.

Which Ichikawa does. The melodrama is handled straight, and so you get a stirring revenge tale, the tragic death of innocents, the well-deserved death of villains, dark secrets out of the past, spunky women and doomy men, romance and action.

Where Ichikawa allows himself to play is with the visuals. This is only a year before he'd make Tokyo Olympiad, one of the most exciting color spectacles in Japanese film; here he's a little more subtle, but just as sure-handed. We get sudden swathes of yellow or red filling the screen - not abstract or unreal as in Suzuki Seijun, carefully worked into the diegetic color-scheme, but still bravura, still startling. The color work is matched by playful compositions, bold use of shadows, thrilling camera work. As melodramatic as the story is, that's how playful the visual rendering of it is. Lovingly playful, I should add.

My favorite sequence is the opening. We see Yukinojô onstage (he's a female impersonator, and of course any serious account of this movie should deal with the awesomely ambiguous sexual undercurrents that connect him with thte other main characters: but this isn't a serious account), playing a dance scene in the snow. It's stage snow, and one of the nice things about the film is the way it shows details of mid-19th century kabuki staging that I hadn't seen before, such as the confetti used for snow, and the candles used as footlights. We start out seeing him and the stage from the audience's perspective, but then we see from his perspective, looking into the audience, and we focus in on a group of people who turn out to be the ones on whom he's sworn revenge. We enter his head and hear his thoughts as he recognizes them. But as this happens the stage morphs into a real snowscape - Yukinojô is so into his performance that it's as if he's really outside in a snowy forest, although at the same time he's looking at his enemies in the balcony seats. A nice nod to the intensity of an actor's concentration, and a great visual effect.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

New York, New York (1977)

I don't even remember how this ended up in our Netflix queue, but somehow it bobbed to the top, so we watched it tonight. Might have had something to do with this one, which seemed to sort of be in the same ballpark; anyway, it was one of the few Scorsese films I hadn't seen, so I was game.

I can see why it bombed. For me, it has nothing to do with the staginess of the sets (no problem). It's all about lame dialogue and zero chemistry between the leads.

Most of DeNiro's and Minelli's scenes together feel half improvised, and I don't mean that in a good way: they both repeat and restate, gesture and hem the way some actors do when they're improvising and the words aren't coming quite as fast as the feeling. So instead of '40s-style snappy dialogue we get '70s-style Method growling.

DeNiro, in fact, becomes downright irritating, fairly quickly. Neither character has any depth, but his Jimmy Boyle is abrasive and at times scary (Taxi Driver hangover) when he's (probably) meant to be comic and half-charming. Liza's Francine Evans isn't much better, but in her case it's because she's given so little to say. She spends most of the film gazing doe-eyed at Jimmy, for reasons beyond the viewer's comprehension.

By the time the big musical medley starts, you're certainly ready for it. Unfortunately, you're so tired that any goodwill it sparks dies out pretty quickly.

And then there's the song. It's an undeniable pop masterpiece, instantly recognizable and impossible to get out of your head. Unfortunately it makes no sense in the context of the movie. Jimmy's supposed to be a bebop-loving jazzer, and yet when he writes a melody, it comes out a flouncy showtune? Okay, sure, he's supposed to be writing it for Francine, so maybe he's writing it to be something she could sing in her act - except nothing in Jimmy's character leads us to believe he has any clue as to what Francine could or would sing. He's too self-centered. He'd only write the kind of thing he'd want to play. And that wouldn't be "New York, New York."

In most movie musicals this kind of absurdity wouldn't matter. But from Martin Scorsese, I expect better.

Blogging the Dollhouse: Episode 16: Belle Chose

Key scene: Paul takes Echo to wardrobe, and has to sit in the waiting room reading magazines with another handler. Any boyfriend or husband recognizes the feeling: killing time outside a dressing room in the women’s wear department, trying not to look totally emasculated among the silks and satins. What magazine is the other handler reading? Lock and Load. And what does he say to Ballard? I’d never do this for my wife.

Let’s not forget to notice that this is a joke. And this episode has a lot of them. This joke happens to be, oh, just a little sexist. But of course, that’s the point of this episode. Paul in the waiting room whistling dixie is a throwaway moment, but then again it’s also setting up the central question of this episode? What is it that makes (some) men do things for women they don’t want to do? More to the point, what is it that makes (some) men feel they have to do things for women they don’t want to do?

Ask these men (as this episode does, this episode in which Joss and company say, screw it: sex is what we’re talking about, so let’s talk about sex) and the answer would be…well, something like the title of this episode. La belle chose. Google it. “Pretty thing.” Chaucer’s term for the vagina. The thing women have and men want, and because women know men want it they have power over the men. Eddie Murphy had a routine about it; some men have worked it into a counternarrative to feminist critiques of the phallocracy.

But Dollhouse isn’t interested in decrying vaginal tyranny. Nothing’s that simple. Dollhouse is interested in looking at what happens when some men start to resent the power they perceive the pretty things to be exercising over them. You react to a loss of control by trying to assert control.

Terry feels emasculated by the strong women in his family. There are hints of abuse, but they’re ambiguous: what’s important is that in his mind, he’s not getting enough attention or cooperation from the women. They have something he needs and they won’t give it to him: he can’t control the means of meeting his own needs, meaning he can’t control those needs themselves. So he tries to simulate control by abducting women, drugging them, dressing them, and posing them. Making believe. Playing with them like dolls in a…

Dollhouse, of course. Just like the slightly smarmy dresser in the Dollhouse, who asserts that his power to mold external reality is mightier than Topher’s power to mold internal reality. But more importantly, just like any (male) Dollhouse client. We’re getting right down to the nitty-gritty here of sexual power dynamics. Insecure men seeking the feeling of power, paying through the nose (old phallic symbol there) to get what they want in such a way as allows them to pretend it’s being given freely.

The professor (btw, as someone in academics, I have to point out how ludicrous it is to think that a professor in the humanities, a Chaucerian of all things, could ever afford to hire a Doll – or was this one of Adelle’s pro bono things?), as much as the serial killer, takes us there. He wants to sleep with one of his students, but either can’t make it happen or is afraid of the consequences, so he hires a Doll: skeevy enough. But the skeeviness goes deeper. He’s the client: it’s his fantasy. He could have made Kiki a brilliant budding medievalist who genuinely (thinks she) has the hots for middle-aged intellectuals. Instead he makes her an airhead, and worse, an impressionable one – a teachable bimbo, who laps up his talk about the self-aware Wife of Bath who knows what she wants and how to get it. He wants her not only to be willing to sleep with him for an A, but also to feel that by doing so, she’s empowering herself. What’s in this guy’s head? Does he really believe any of this? Is he trying to avenge himself on campus feminists? Is he indulging a fantasy of himself as a true educator? And, more importantly, does this mean that everything he says about the Wife of Bath and female sexual empowerment is bullshit?

Terry would say it’s women who have the power. The prof would say that too, or at least say that Chaucer says that. What does Dollhouse say? Dollhouse would say (I think) that that’s the wrong question, because it posits an unreal situation. Look at the end result: Terry’s killing women, the prof is sexually exploiting them. If la belle chose has a great potential incentive power, in the reality men react to this by asserting real and coercive power in the form of red pens and croquet mallets. Not to mention money. So in the end who’s really in control? (Terry still blames the victims, though: she made me do it.)

All of this has been floating around in the miasmic subtext of Dollhouse since the beginning, but never has it been crystallized so clearly, or so much around the idea of the male id. This one was really calculated to make the fellas feel uncomfortable.

(And what does a fella do when he’s made uncomfortable? When his manhood is threatened? He does what the guy in the club tried to do to Kiki/Victor. But Dollhouse can always sucker-punch faster than you can. That’s why I love it.)

So this was one of the two or three best episodes of the series so far. Real suspense, deep ideas, oddball humor. Starting to link up to the future in interesting ways – we’re rooting for Topher to invent a new way to do a remote wipe even though we know this is precisely what will destroy the future.

And: Ballard. Finally, finally, finally I’m starting to see him make sense in a Dollhouse context. He’s a Quantico-trained cop, a good guy, law and order all the way. But look how naturally he takes to the new rules of interrogation. He can do whatever he wants to the bad guys. He can threaten to kill a suspect. He can kill a suspect – he can switch off Terry’s life support. He’s free. It’s evil, but it’s an evil he can live with. And how scary is that?

As scary as the fact that we know switching off Terry’s life support won’t do a damn bit of good. Terry’s in Echo now, in the matrix – he’s immortal. He’s the ghost in the shell. A serial killer is now part of Echo’s mix. “Goodness gracious” is right.