Tuesday, November 30, 2004

R.I.P. John Drew Barrymore

John Drew Barrymore, son of actors John Barrymore and Dolores Costello and father of Drew Barrymore, has passed away. Coincidentally, I recently watched a movie of his called HIGH SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL (1958). A campy teen exploitation tale that plays like a pulp fiction novel, the film stars Russ Tamblyn as a baby-faced cop working undercover in a high school trying to bust a dope ring run by Jackie Coogan. Barrymore plays a badass high school drug dealer. In one scene, Barrymore slouches in front of a classroom and delivers his version of Columbus discovering America, a monologue filled with hipster slang. His charisma is so strong in the scene that you could practically feel it though the television screen. It made me want to seek out more films he was in.

Drew Barrymore has released a statement about her father, saying, "He was a cool cat. Please smile whien you think of him." If you would like to read more about J.D. Barrymore's (apparently troubled) life, check out his obituary here.

Monday, November 22, 2004

Kurosawa's Samurai

No time to write an original blog entry? Then recycle old college papers!

This is the last in a series of excerpts from a paper on Japanese cinema and filmmaker Akira Kurosawa that I wrote in grad school. The following explores Kurosawa’s unique characterization of samurai warriors and discusses a couple of his famous samurai films:

As Japan began to recover and prosper economically from World War II, Kurosawa found it difficult to find an audience for his stark contemporary dramas. He began to focus his attentions mainly towards the historical drama. These types of dramas, deriving from Kabuki theatre, are populated with samurai. Traditionally, these idealized warriors are characterized as strong, wise, and determined. Imbued with Confucian morals, samurais’ loyalty to feudalistic lords is above that of family, placing no value on romantic love whatsoever. Kurosawa made major reforms in the characterization of samurai by combining their traditional majesty with narratives that had universal appeal. Unlike their forebears, Kurosawa’s samurai hold little if any allegiance to feudal authority, while retaining their strong personal integrity. This characterization of samurai provided a new ideal of Japanese manhood. At the same time, it made the films more accessible to Western audiences, who found the traditional samurai too overbearing.

A major theme running through Kurosawa’s films is the individual’s responsibility to criticize society for its betterment. Kurosawa found the means to express this through the framework of the Hollywood western. The American genre, like all genres, has specific structures. Western film scholar John H. Lenihan writes, “At the heart of the western was preoccupation with individual freedom amid social constraints…Within the framework of the western, a man could do what he had to do with an instinctive natural awareness of right and wrong. The pursuit of individual good would not threaten society but would protect and perfect it.” Essentially, Kurosawa took the western formula, replaced the cowboys with samurai and substituted the American frontier with a feudal Japanese landscape, with ingenious results. Kurosawa was no stranger to the Hollywood western. As a child, he became fascinated with the films of John Ford, who is considered in most circles as the father of the genre. Kurosawa often cites Ford as one of his filmmaking idols. It is also worth noting that Kurosawa was a descendant of a samurai family and often incorporated samurai imagery into his personal mythology—in various texts he is referred to as a “samurai filmmaker.”

Kurosawa’s film THE SEVEN SAMURAI (1954), indeed, can be seen as a homage to John Ford. A group of rural farmers, terrorized by unruly brigands who steal their crops, hire seven samurai to protect their village. When introduced, the samurai are drifters, roaming the city with their swords strapped to their sides. In an early scene, one of the samurai faces-off with a bullying townsman. With sword drawn, the bully rushes forward, only to be struck down in one blow by the cool samurai, in a scintillating take on the traditional “gunfight in the streets” scene. The seven, each possessing a unique personality, travel to the village and become part of the community, all the while readying themselves and the villagers for a final epic battle with the brigands.

Kurosawa’s clever reinterpretation of the western genre did not go unnoticed. Hollywood remade The Seven Samurai into a traditional western. Entitled THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, the film takes place south of the border, with a group of rural Mexican farmers terrorized by a band of Pancho Villa look-alikes. The farmers travel north to hire seven, white gun-slingers to protect their village. The essential characterizations of Kurosawa’s samurai remain intact as well as the basic plot structure in this version. This film’s success spawned three sequels: RETURN OF THE SEVEN (1966), GUNS OF THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1969), and THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN RIDE! (1972).

In 1961 Kurosawa made another samurai/western hybrid film entitled YOJIMBO. Based on Dashiell Hamet’s novel RED HARVEST, the film centers on an amoral samurai who wanders into a warring nineteenth century town and becomes a hired assassin for both sides of the feud. This film, too, was remade into a western entitled A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (1967), a film commonly referred to as a “spaghetti western”. Responding to a lack of exported Hollywood films, Italian directors began making their own versions of westerns. Using a largely European cast with English-speaking leads, these films were later dubbed and exported to the United States. Directed by Sergio Leone and starring Clint Eastwood, A Fistful of Dollars and the rest of the “Dollars Trilogy”—FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE (1965) and THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY (1966)—have, in particular, been adopted as “classics” of the Hollywood western genre. In essence, an Italian created his version of the American West, using a Japanese samurai film as his source, which was modeled after an American western to begin with. The western genre, literally, has come full circle.

Sources used within this excerpt:

Tadao Sato (trans. by Gregory Barrett), CURRENTS IN JAPANESE CINEMA, (Kodansha International, 1982).

John H. Lenihan, SHOWDOWN: CONFRONTING MODERN AMERICA IN THE WESTERN FILM, (University of Illinois Press, 1985).

Gerald Peary, “Akira Kurosawa: Japan’s Existential Cowboy Looks West and Thinks East”, AMERICAN FILM, (April 1989).

Monday, November 15, 2004

Some Film Reading for the Week of November 15th

On Sunday, the New York Times Magazine released its "Movies 2004" issue. The contents include, among other features, articles on the state of American and Foreign cinema, a profile of Asian actress Maggie Cheung, and essays on Bollywood cinema and on the phenomenon of terrorists using video as a means of communication.

Each issue of the New York Times Magazine is posted online for a week. To check out the "Movies 2004" issue, click here.

Sunday, November 07, 2004

Jorge Luis Borges On Film

In 1998, I traveled to San Antonio, Texas, to attend CINEFESTIVAL, the largest and oldest international Latino film and video exhibition program in the nation. One night they screened a new Argentinean film called MOEBIUS, a fantastical tale of a subway track designed in the shape of an infinity loop, and when the subway hit a certain high speed, it was transported into a parallel dimension. This was my first encounter with the work of the great Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges.

Borges (1899-1986) has often been referred to as a master miniaturist, weaving dense and complex worlds filled with musings on time, space, history, and dualities into short stories and poems. While known mainly for his fiction writings, Borges was a prolific author of essays, reviews and magazine articles. Interestingly, Borges was, for many years, a film critic. The 1999 book JORGE LUIS BORGES: SELECTED NON-FICTIONS (ed. Eliot Weinberger) contains a small yet intriguing sampling of Borges film writing.

The collected reviews cover a few years in the 1930s and early 1940s. While some refer to South American and European films, several reviews offer a uniquely Borgesian take on Hollywood cinema. He was a passionate admirer of Charlie Chaplin. In a wonderful sentence that typifies his writing style, Borges writes, “Would anyone dare ignore that Charlie Chaplin is one of the established gods in the mythology of our time, a cohort of de Chirico’s motionless nightmares, of Scarface Al’s ardent machine guns, of the finite yet unlimited universe of Greta Garbo’s lofty shoulders, of the goggled eyes of Gandhi?” Borges film reviews were often quite humorous. When discussing Josef von Sternberg’s version of CRIME AND PUNISHMENT (1935), he writes, “Indoctrinated by the populous memory of THE SCARLET EMPRESS, I was expecting a vast flood of false beards, miters, samovars, masks, surly faces, wrought-iron gates, vineyards, chess pieces, balalaikas, prominent cheekbones, and horses. In short, I was expecting the usual von Sternberg nightmare, the suffocation and the madness.” Borges had little patience for films he did not like. He writes off KING KONG (1933) with a short, dismissive paragraph-long review:

A monkey, forty feet tall (some fans say forty-five) may have obvious charms, bust those charms have not convinced this viewer. King Kong is no full-blooded ape but rather a rusty, desiccated machine whose movements are downright clumsy. His only virtue, his height, did not impress the cinematographer, who persisted in photographing him form above rather than from below—the wrong angle, as it neutralizes and even diminishes the ape’s overpraised stature. He is actually hunchbacked and bowlegged, attributes that serve only to reduce him in the spectator’s eye. To keep him from looking the least bit extraordinary, they make him do battle with far more unusual monsters and have him reside in caves of false cathedral splendor, where his infamous size again loses all proportion. But what finally demolishes both the gorilla and the film is his romantic love—or lust—for Fay Wray.

The collection also contains an essay championing the humanity of film stories vs. empty cinematography, as well as a piece railing against film dubbing.

Borges, who suffered from a degenerative eye disease, went completely blind by 1955, thus ending his film reviews and other essay work. He instead devoted himself to poetry (which he could compose in his head), lectures and literature surveys, remaining quite productive until his death in 1986.

After viewing MOEBIUS at the film festival, I began reading Borges work in earnest, even taking a continuing education course on the author. I’ve often thought of that film. I was under the impression that its director (who was in attendance) was looking for a distributor. Who knows if he ever found one? I have the feeling, however, that MOEBIUS, was one of those films that makes a few brief appearances before sinking into the depths of obscurity, leaving only trace memories in those it affected.

If you would like to read more about Jorge Luis Borges, check out the New York Times Book Review of Edwin Williamson's new biography BORGES: A LIFE.