THIS JOURNAL DOCUMENTS MY INTAKE OF ONE BOOK, ZINE, CD OR DVD A DAY. RATINGS ARE: ***** = Godhead, **** = Great, *** = Good, ** = Fair, * = Why Bother?

Monday, December 1, 2008

Australia **

Directed by Baz Luhrmann
2008, 165 minutes
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman, Bryan Brown, David Gulpilil, Brandon Walters

On the strength of my film friend Marc's zealous recommendation, I caught the saturday matinee screening of Baz Luhrman's epic Western-cum-War movie Australia. And while it was entertaining and engaging in a Hallmark Presentation/Willing-Suspension-of-Disbelief way, I really can't argue with the Rotten Tomato Meter consensus: "Built on lavish vistas and impeccable production, Australia is unfortunately burdened with thinly drawn characters and a lack of originality." And, I'd add, one of the worst-ever Elton John songs playing over the end credits (the Phil Collins Disney-soundtrack worthy "The Drover"). This is a Disney movie, plain and simple. Luhrman's Australia 101 movie has Hugh Jackman, David Gulpilil and newcomer child star Brandon Walters going for it, and it was enough of a tearjerker that my girlfriend soaked my arm with her excess saline production, but still, there was never any doubt about Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman falling in love, twarting robber baron King Carney (Bryan Brown), and saving the aboriginal half-caste kid Nullah to boot. Good prevails over evil. No surprises there.

Still, seeing yet another film dealing with Australia's execrable civil rights history inspired me to check out some better films from the Land of Oz, namely Philip Noyce's Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002, ***) and Nicolas Roeg's 1971 cult masterpiece Walkabout (*****). (Yes, full disclosure be damned - I had never seen them before!) Incidentally, a common thread runs through all these films: David Gulpilil - because you can't have an Ozzie film about Aborgines without the first Aborgine actor to star in a feature film, the iconic Original G.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Ab-Normal Beauty **

Ab-Normal Beauty (死亡寫真, Sei Mong Se Jun)
directed by Oxide Pang
co-written by Oxide Pang and Thomas Pak Sing Pang
Hong Kong, 2004, 101 minutes
Cast: Race Wong Yuen-Ling 黃婉伶(Jin), Roseanne Wong Yuen-Guan 黃婉君 (Jas), Anson Leung (Anson)

The Hong Kong-born, Bangkok-based Pang Brothers (Danny and Oxide) paint pretty pictures but can't tell a story worth shit. And there's the rub, for these guys have great eyes (no wonder The Eye and The Eye 2 were Western crossover hits) and great visual flair - they stock their well-composed, creatively edited frames with beautiful scenes and creatures (Angelica Lee was the only reason I sat through The Eye) - but ultimately are like music video directors that are creatively taxed when they attempt to stretch a narrative beyond the 5-minute length. A lot of talented directors have visual flair and style without being tied down to traditional narrative structure; Wong Kar-Wai and Godard come to mind - but these auteurs at least have something to say, some meaning beneath or behind their images. But the Pangs have nothing to say. All is flash without after image, form without substance. They strike me as being like great musicians that can't write a lyric to save their lives. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but every so often a picture-snapper should throw us a linquistic bone to chew on - even a monosyllabic one would suffice. Or as Twitch reviewer Todd so aptly summed it up: "Chock full of gorgeous – and disturbing – cinematography Oxide Pang’s Ab-Normal Beauty represents both the best and the worst of the Pang Brothers approach. Absolutely stunning to look at the film is a text book case of style over substance..."

That said, I watched Ab-Normal Beauty on the strength of its beauty, namely Race and Roseanne Wong, real-life sisters who make up the Hong Kong Cantopop duo 2R (aka The Twins), who are kinda like a Chinese Puffy Yumi Ami - minus the talent. (And yes, this means Hong Kong still makes "Race" records!) Though Race is the film's star, Roseanne Wong is pretty famous in her own right, having been romantically linked with Edison Chen - he of the Hong Kong sex scandal. But as far as the form vs. content formula goes, suffice it to say the 2R's fit form trumps the lame content of their acting.

The Twins R2: Race (黃婉伶) and Roseanne (黃婉君) Wong

And what are The Twins asked to do in this extended music video? Here's the imdb plot summary: "Jiney [Jin] is a talented student of Arts with a trauma in her childhood and lack of communication with her mother, and excellent photographer that is not satisfied with her awarded works. When she witnesses a car crash, she is driven by a morbid wish and takes pictures of the dead victim. She becomes obsessed with death, and her close friend Jas feels that Jiney needs help with her abnormal behavior and attraction. When Jiney supersedes her death wish, she receives a snuff video where a girl is tortured and killed in front of the camera. Jiney shows the tape to Jas, who questions the authenticity of the footage, and they believe it is a prank of their friend Anson. When the girls realize that it is not a joke of Anson, Jiney receives another tape with the message inviting her to take a look. When she sees the tape, she becomes scared with the sinister footage."

Pffft, whatever! The snuff film plot twist is lifted straight out of the opening of Toshiharu Ikeda's Evil Dead Trap (Shiro no Wana, 1988) and the subsequent torture sequences are equal parts Hostel and Saw. But such narrative shortcomings aside, the Pangs know the Godard Kino Credo all too well: "all you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun". They've done the gun (Bangkok Dangerous, 1999) and have a long list of lovely ladies they've let the lens leer over (e.g., Oxide's fiancee Angelica Lee in The Eye and Re-Cycle, Qi Shu and Eugenia Yuan in The Eye 2), so they know what works as far as keeping this guy's attention. To sweeten the M Appeal even more, Oxide Pang has made the 2Rs play lesbian lovers. Ooooo, how Frat-boy appealing!

But my favorite part of the movie was the scene where Race as Jin buys a book of Joel-Peter Witkin death photos. Looking like an art school goth gal just discovering her mentor-muse, Race's eyes beam with a post-coital glow. It's actually a key scene, because, like Race's character Jin, Witkin claimed that his artistic vision - and subsequent death fixation - was shaped by a childhood incident where he witnessed a little girl being decapitated in a car accident. Jiney even holds the book up to wannabe-boyfriend Anson (pretty-boy blank presence Anson Leung) and exclaims, "Isn't that beautiful?" as she looks at this photo of two severed heads kissing:

Joel-Peter Witkin's "Le Baisier"

Uh, yeah - what you said! Of course, Anson agrees with her, because boys - following their hard-wired biological impulses - will say and do just about anything in the pursuit of booty.

While I enjoyed peering at Twins skin for over an hour and a half, I realised that the sexiest part of the body is the brain; once the Pangs figure that out and give us some characters with a depth beyond their undergarments, they'll be on to something. As Twitch reviewer Todd correctly noted, "The Pang Brothers are a pair of the most technically accomplished film makers in the world and while that focus on technique can sometimes overwhelm their characters they simply shoot gorgeous film. There are breathtaking shots scattered throughout the film, the composition is flawless and the film is edited with punch and style". True enough: Oxide Pang, who trained as a telecine colorist before moving to Bangkok, even won a technical award for his digital coloration of the Thai film Tears of the Black Tiger (Fah Talia Jone, 2000). But the Pangs have yet to make a film that has the character depth or narrative flair of Wisit Sasanatieng's masterpiece or Pen-Ek Ratanaruang's (Prabda Yoon-scripted) Last Life in the Universe (เรื่องรัก น้อยนิด มหาศาล or Ruang rak noi nid mahasan, 2003). Which is a reel shame because, until they do, they'll remain a sound and a fury that signifies nothing.

Friday, November 21, 2008

My Favorite Sinatra Album

Columbia CL 606 mono
1955 reissue

As an unabashed Sinatraphile that grew up in a household of Sinatra lovers (epecially my older brother Billy, whose massive Sinatra LP collection I either inherited, borrowed or stole), I have scores of albums, cassettes, CDs, 78s, and books related to "The Voice of the Century" (apologies in advance if I've somehow slighted William Hung). And yet my favorite Sinatra album, Frankie, remains out of print on CD. I had my dog-eared copy thanks to my Mom, who loved this now obscure "long player" that's actually a a 1955 12-inch reissue of the 1946 original. Though the cover features a beaming Fifies-era Frankie watching over two bright-eyed young lovers (the dark-haired babe is Debbie Reynolds!), the numbers date from Sinatra's Romantic Utopian Period at Columbia Records when the boys were away at war and the women at home pined for the skinny, pencil-necked 'n' bow-tied Hoboken kid crooning love ballads set to Axel Stordahl's lush orchestration. Many of these songs have been cherry-picked for inclusion on other compilations, most notably the four-disc The Voice: The Columbia Years 1943-1952. The 12-track album was even reissued in the UK in 1960 under the imaginative title Frank Sinatra (long since out-of-print, needless to say), but Frankie has gone the way of the Huguenots in France: vanished from the face of the earth.

Yet my favorite tune from my favorite album remains ever elusive: "How Cute Can You Be". It was originally released as a single (b/w "Five Minutes More") in July 1946 and was Sinatra's first novelty tune for Columbia. Sure, it's out there for hardcore completists, but you have to either fork over $300 bucks to get the 12-disc Frank Sinatra - Columbia Years (1943-1952): The Complete Recordings (1993) or settle for the three-CD Romantic Sinatra from CD Universe. (Of course, I could just buy the MP3 online, but this virus-prone Web surfer is always wary of downloading stuff off the "Internets". Besides, I tried it twice and Internet Explorer crashed on me!)

Yup, I like this novelty ditty from the coveted Cutesy Canon of Frank's "Frankie Period" even more than the similar Bobby Troup number "Snootie Little Cutie" he sang with Tommy Dorsey and The Pied Pipers (btw, check out the fun video mash-up of Bobby singing this song on YouTube). It's fun, irreverent and has that great 1940s Damon Runyon-esque hepcat lingo that I adore. I still use phrases like, "He's a right guy" or "He's a stand-up kinda fellow" (linguistic staples of film noir dialogue) and such politically incorrect descriptors as "pert little skirt" and "kissy little missy". (No wonder so many people think I'm gay!) Frank even throws in a "Hubba!" at the end. Priceless.

"How Cute Can You Be" lyrics:

Two eyes walking `round with a baby blue stare, how cute can you be?
Red lips pouting so that a guy's gotta care, how cute can you be?
I've seen plenty of lassies with fine-looking chassis, almost every day,
But I've stopped my looking `cause I know what's cooking, just a glance away.

Soft hair shining so that the sun blinks his eyes, how cute can you be?
A voice sweet and low, making temperatures rise, how cute can you be?
I'll give up my gallivanting, if you'd consent to be
The ready little steady on my family tree, how cute can you be?

She's got some soft hair shining so that the sun blinks his eyes, hey, how cute can you be?
A voice sweet and low, making temperatures rise, how cute can you be?
I'll give up my gallivanting, if you'd consent to be
The ready little steady on my family tree, how cute can you be?
Baby, how cute can you be? Hubba, how cute can you be?

"Snootie Little Cutie" lyrics

And here are the "Snootie Little Cutie" lyrics for kitschy-cutie linguistic comparison:

[Pied Pipers:] She's a snooty little cutie
She's a pert little skirt
She's a knockout and a beauty and a flirt.
Such a dapper little flapper
She's just as cute as a trick
She's a kissy little missy, a vain little jane,
She's slick. (doo doo doo roo doo),

She's a classy little lassie
A keen little queen
And although sometimes she's sassy and mean
Just a fiend for romance is she
Squirly little girly, see,
She's a knockout, a beauty, snooty little cutie
Snooty little cutie, she.

[Chorus:] You're a mellow little fellow
You're a coy little boy,
[Frank Sinatra:] You're a knockout and a beauty, you're a joy,
[CH:] You're a ready little steady
You've swept this girl off her feet,
[FS:] You're a kissy little missy, a vain little jane
But you're sweet.
[CH:] You're a handy little dandy
[FS:] You're a keen little queen,
[CH:] And although sometimes I'm bossy
[FS:] You're never mean.
I'm a fiend for romance with you
[CH:] Mellow little fellow you're mine
[FS:] Youre a knockout and a beauty
[CH:] And a snooty little cutie
[both:] Snooty little cutie mine.

[PP:] Yes she's a classy little lassie
A keen little queen
And though sometimes she's sassy
She's never mean.
[CH:] I'm a fool for romance it's true, moonlight and kisses and you,
[PP:] She's a beauty, that snooty little cutie, snooty little cutie she.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Warner Brothers Story (****)

You Must Remember This: The Warner Bothers Story
American Masters, PBS Television
3-part series airing Sept. 23-25, 2008 at 9 PM

Ah, my peeps, mon freres, my namesakes...the Warner Brothers. Alas, no relation to me, regrettably, but I can dream can't I? Anyway, this excellent three-part series debuted Monday night at 9 PM on Maryland Public Television and while I originally was gonna watch G4's repeats of Lost or Andrew Zimmern eating scorpions and chicken balls and other disgusting comestibles on Bizarre Foods, I promised a co-worker I would tape this special for him - and I'm glad I did. It's the latest excellent documentary produced, written and directed by award-winning filmmaker and Time magazine Senior Film critic Richard Schickel. As narrated by Clint Eastwood, it's the centerpiece of Warner Home Video's year-long celebration of the studio's 85th anniversary, which coincides with the reissue of more than 50 titles for DVD release and new special editions of select Warner Brothers classics.

Before the Warner Brothers turned their ardent anti-Fascist fervor of the 30s and 40s to Red-baiting in the 1950s (following a nasty post-war labor union strike at the studio), this studio was the home of the best in Pre-Code permissiveness (viz Baby Face), working-class social realism (I Was a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, The Gold Diggers of 1933), civil rights/social injustice (Black Legion was a direct attack on the Ku Klux Klan, though "foreigners" were substituted as the target of the KKK's ire instead of the too-close-to-home, still-invisible-to-Hollywood African-Americans), and crime/gangster films (Little Caesar, White Heat). They were also the studio that released the first (semi-) "Talkie" with 1927's The Jazz Singer and the first to take on fascism directly with 1939's Confessions of a Nazi Spy. Not to mention they were home to such golden era-classics as The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, Key Largo, To Have and To Hold (hmmmm, all starring Humphrey Bogart, who Jack Warner didn't think was "star" material) etc. So, a pretty good pedigree there, dating back to the Rin Tin Tin era all the way up to the Harry Potter film franchise. Anyway, here's a much better take on the series from TCM's website.
New Documentary is Centerpiece of Warner Home Video's Year-Long Celebration of Studio's 85th Anniversary

On April 24, 1923, four brothers from Youngstown, Ohio (Harry, Albert, Sam and Jack L. Warner) officially incorporated their new motion picture company which to this day continues to entertain the world with great films.

Throughout 2008, Warner Home Video (WHV) will celebrate Warner Bros. (WB) Studios’ 85th anniversary with an initiative that will debut more than 50 new-to-DVD feature films along with its centerpiece, You Must Remember This: The Warner Bros. Story, an illuminating new documentary produced, written and directed by award-winning filmmaker and Time magazine Senior Film critic Richard Schickel. Clint Eastwood narrates.

As part of the partnership with American Masters, You Must Remember This: The Warner Bros. Story will be broadcast nationally as a three-part special in September 2008.

Susan Lacy, the creator and executive producer of American Masters, which is produced by Thirteen/WNET New York, noted "Given our long co-producing relationship with Warner Bros. -- on such projects as George Cukor, Gene Kelly, Judy Garland and John Ford/John Wayne - it is thrilling and appropriate that American Masters can bring You Must Remember This: The Warner Bros. Story to PBS."

“PBS’ American Masters is acclaimed for its exceptional documentaries illuminating our collective past, whether through individual achievements, or in this case, through the vision of a film studio,” said John F. Wilson, Sr. Vice President and Chief TV Programming Executive, PBS. “Exploring this impressive body of Warner Bros. films to more fully understand America’s unique place in history will be a wonderful and entertaining journey for our viewers.”

The DVD debuts in September. Simultaneously, a 550-page full-color companion book -- written by Schickel and George Perry, with an introduction by Eastwood -- will be published worldwide. George Perry is the former The Times of London film critic and is the author of many books on film.

In the documentary, Schickel chronicles the history of Warner Bros. in an unprecedented way, using excerpts from hundreds of Warner Bros.’ films to illustrate how many of the studio’s films have served as a mirror of the values, mores and attitudes of the eras in which they were produced.

“This documentary is definitely in Richard’s DNA. His fascination with Warner Bros. goes back to his boyhood in Milwaukee where the only theatre in town was owned by Warner,” said George Feltenstein, Senior Vice President, Theatrical Catalog Marketing, and Warner Home Video. “It’s a groundbreaking work that, rather than dealing with executive intrigue, contract disputes or casting couch adventures, focuses on the studio’s films as a microcosm of America’s cultural and social history. It’s a unique cinematic achievement which has never been attempted on this level ever before - for this or any studio.”

To help celebrate the 85th anniversary year, from the vast WB library among the industry’s most celebrated movies, more than 50 are being restored for their DVD release this year including: All This And Heaven, Too, The Beast With Five Fingers, Black Legion, Brother Orchid, Deception, Flamingo Road, Gold Diggers Of 1937, Inside Daisy Clover, Kid Galahad, Lady Killer, The Mayor Of Hell, Night Nurse, None But The Brave, Pete Kelly’s Blues, San Antonio, Thank Your Lucky Stars, Three On A Match, Virginia City and Watch On The Rhine.

New special editions of Warner Bros. Pictures favorites including Bonnie and Clyde, Cool Hand Luke, Gypsy, Risky Business, and Splendor in the Grass are also set for the anniversary year celebration. A number of other new-to-DVD special editions and thematic box sets drawn from Warner’s classic MGM and RKO collections will also be part of this anniversary slate.

On August 31, the Hollywood Bowl’s “Big Picture” night will honor the studio’s magnificent movie music legacy with a special Warner Bros. musical concert to be held at the famed 18,000 seat amphitheatre. The Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, led by one of Hollywood’s foremost composers, David Newman, will perform music to accompany pivotal and well-known scenes from classic Warner Bros. films.

Clint Eastwood, who has worked with Richard Schickel on a number of projects, will narrate the documentary. The creative force behind many earlier works about Warner’s talented stars and directors, Schickel now takes on the task of telling the studio's entire history, with each sequence underscoring the crucial roles Warner Bros. and its films have played in portraying our society, a role the studio still plays today, some 85 years after its incorporation.

Through the use of rare archival interviews, some of which have not been seen for decades, as well as a great deal of newly photographed material, Schickel celebrates the colorful legacy of Warner Bros. throughout the decades, featuring cleverly assembled film clips from literally hundreds of films. Each of the documentary's hour-long sequences focus on a specific period in the studio's history, from the silent movie days and the development of sound, the depression, WWII, the advent of television, the onset of new technologies, and even the broadening and diversification of media companies in recent years.

Schickel engagingly retraces the legendary insights and demystifies the myths of some of Hollywood’s most magnificent productions such as The Jazz Singer, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Casablanca, Yankee Doodle Dandy, The Exorcist, All The President’s Men and the Batman and Harry Potter films; and talent from the likes of legends such as Bette Davis, Errol Flynn, Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson, Paul Newman, James Dean, Doris Day, James Cagney, Joan Crawford, Paul Newman, Warren Beatty, Clint Eastwood, Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, Robert DeNiro, Barbra Streisand and George Clooney. As the films from Warner Bros. studios have served as a roadmap and mirror of our social history, You Must Remember This: The Warner Bros. Story is sure to be viewed as an entertaining and unique roadmap to the colorful history of Hollywood and filmed entertainment.

For more information about Richard Schickel and his work, visit www.richardschickel.com

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Great Happiness Space (**)

The Great Happiness Space: Tale of an Osaka Love Thief
Directed by Jake Clennell, USA, 2006
Official site: www.thegreathappinessspace.com

Knowing my predilection for all things Japanese, my friend recommended this documentary about Japanese "host boys" - good-looking young men (sometimes known as "flower boys" because they're flora-pretty with an androgynous, long-haired look akin to that of a rock star) who are paid to entertain women in exclusive nightclubs. She figured I'd like it because it was about the Japanese sex trade and that my half-Japanese girlfriend would dig it because it was specifically about the less well-known male side of that trade. Unfortunately, she was wrong. This doc was way too long, the narrative didn't progress at all, and we doubted the veracity of the film - i.e., were people just playing to the camera or were we really getting a fly-on-the-wall perspective of something approaching truth?

Part of the problem is that first-time documentary director Jake Clennell focuses almost exclusively on one male character - Issei, top host boy at Osaka's Café Rakkyo - and the group of women who adore him. The women are all sex industry workers (either "host girls," strippers, or "soap land" masseusses) who feel they can only talk about their trade or have a relationship with someone also in the trade or similarly "damaged goods" in the eyes of society. But Issei is egotistical and we never move beyond his superficial "Look at me, I'm wonderful" explanations of his success. And the girls, well, they're not middle-aged Patricia Neal types buying a young George Peppard boy-toy a la Breakfast At Tiffany's. They're young and fairly attractive; one wonders why, since men pay to have sex with them, that they can't simply find young, attractive guys to date. (Here's a hint, ladies: musicians. Since Issei and his ilk look just like J-rock pop stars, why not join the groupie gravy train? It's a well-established fact that pop musicians will fuck anything that moves, plus you might actually get in free to shows instead of having to pay $200 an hour to sit with Issei and sip $500 bottles of champagne in the VIP booth at Cafe Rakkyo.)

But instead, we get a tedious, seemingly endless loop of the women talking about how wonderful Issei is. For well over 90 minutes. And the grand finale? A predictable end-of-the-night scene of the exhausted man-whores stumbling out of the club and counting their money. Hardly a Hard Day's Night finish. And since Issei and his fellow hosts look so much like rock stars, I would have liked to have seen the director explore that aspect - talk about the "flower boy" pop star phenomenon, learn what pop stars the girls liked, etc. As it is, this movie is a one-trick pony, without a whole lot of ideas or filmmaking style. I can't believe it won the "Best Documentary Feature" at the 2006 Edinburgh International Film Festival. There must have been a football derby that day between Celtic and Rangers and all the judges must have been supremely pissed after the game.

To best understand host bars and their employees and clientele, check out Mikio Naruse's When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (Onna ga kaiddan agaru toki, 1960). It may be a fictitious narrative film, but Fiction is often the lie that tells the truth. It certainly rings truer than an allegedly "real" film like The Great Happiness Space.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Gumby Dharma (****)

Directed by Robina Marchesi
USA, 2006, 54 minutes
Official Website: http://gumbydharma.com

On the Sundance Channel's Monday night "Doc Block," I caught the national broadcast premiere of Robina Marchesi's Gumby Dharma. (It repeats on Friday September 26 at 11 PM and Tuesday, September 30 at 10 AM.) It was great and I learned a lot about Mr. Clokey that I never knew before - like why Gumby was green (it's the color of life), why he has the bump on his head (to make him look less like a big green phallus; also, the bump reminded Art Clokey of his dad's cowlick!), and why Clokey went through his mid-life crisis and hung out with the new agey hippie types - including Timothy Leary and the requisite spiritual trip to India (he fell in love with a younger woman and succumbed to the swinging '60s sexual revolution). During that period, a lot of the Gumby episodes were produced by Clokey's wife, with animation by "Sneaky" Peter Kleinow (later the pedal steel guitar player with The Flying Burrito Brothers, who passed away in 2007). Oh, I and also learned why Clokey always wears that silly hat - he's bald!

Anyway, here's the student film Art Clokey made that started it all:

GUMBASIA (Art Clokey, 1953, 3 minutes)

The other great non-Gumby or Davey and Goliath-related work Clokey did was something called Mandala (1964) - not to be confused with Jordan Belson's Mandala (1952). After seeing clips this very personal film (made following the suicide of his daughter and reflecting the influence of Eastern mysticism and its concepts of life and death), I really want to see the whole work.

Sundance Channel capsule:
Art Clokey, grandmaster of stop-motion animation and the artist behind beloved icons from the early years of children's television - Gumby, Pokey, Davey and Goliath - is the focus of this fascinating documentary by Robina Marchesi. In his 80s when interviewed, Clokey reflects on his playful work and life, which included time in an orphanage, seminary school, divorce, years as a hippie and spiritual quests in the East. Featuring a rich assortment of film clips and interviews with leading animators, including Ray Harryhausen.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Revolution! The Explosion of World Cinema in the Sixties *****

Revolution! The Explosion of World Cinema in the Sixties
by Peter Cowie
Faber and Faber, 2005, 304 pages

I just finished reading this, one of the best books on world cinema ever. I skimmed it over when I spotted it at Dadalus Books & Music and was instantly won over when right away I saw mentions of three rarities in there - on the first page of the Inroduction author Cowie mentions Alain Resnais' Je T'aime, Je T'aime (which I was lucky to catch when Eric Hatch screened a 35mm print last year at the Baltimore Musuem of Art), Juan Antonio Bardem's long-lost classic Death of a Cyclist, and even Glauber Rocha's "Cinema Novo" rarity Antonio Das Mortes (which locally is only available as a 16mm print at Baltimore's Enoch Pratt Free Library). Sold!

If you're a little dense, like me, you live for populist overviews like this, which is written in an easy-to-read style that avoids getting bogged down in detailed high-falutin' theory. The best thing about it is it made me want to go rent or re-assess the films mentioned, so in that regard it was a great Film Reader's Advisory. Peter Cowie is the author of numerous books on film and was the former international publishing director of Variety for many years.

Bares & Noble Overview:
In film history, the sixties are commonly known as the golden age of international cinema. The period from 1958 to 1969 saw a brilliant explosion of talent not just in Europe but throughout the world. From Sweden and Poland to India and Japan, from Brazil and Hungary to Spain and Czechoslovakia, young filmmakers seemingly sprang out of nowhere, challenging the stale conservativism of fifties cinema. With films like Jules et Jim, 8 1/2, and Breathless, to name but a few, they flouted taboos both sexual and political while bringing sharper, fresher, franker, more violent, and more personal visions to the screen than ever before.

In Revolution!, Peter Cowie discusses the themes, trends, and creative filmmakers of the period--including Antonioni, Bergman, Cassavetes, Fellini, Godard, Kurosawa, and Truffaut--while focusing on those whose voices still evoke the struggles and achievements of the sixties and set the creative and intellectual standard by which today's finest films are still held.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Sundance Channel Documentaries

Ever since my co-worker alerted me to the fact that I get the Sundance Channel as part of my digital cable package, I've been watching a lot of programming there. Lately I've been recording a bunch of one-hour mini-documentaries. Here is a field report, starting with the best of the lot.

The Mosquito Problem & Other Stories *****
Directed by Andrey Paounov

Bulgaria, 2007, 58 minutes
In the Bulgarian city of Belene, everyone talks about the “zanzar” problem — a particularly vicious mosquito with a very painful bite. Perhaps the reason everyone talks about mosquitoes is to avoid thinking about the past, and the dark history of what happened on a nearby island during the Communist era. With a delightful eye for the eccentric, the unexpected and the tragic, Andrey Paounov (Georgi and the Butterflies) presents a witty and disturbing documentary about a haunted corner of the world and its colorful inhabitants. (Sundance Channel capsule)

I love this documentary, which I caught while flipping through channels one night. Though at first I wasn't sure what it was about - or even if it was a documentary - because of the way it jumps all over the place, like a jigsaw puzzle that asks the viewer to put the pieces together to form a whole.

What an unusual film - I don't think I've ever seen anything quite like it (well, maybe Errol Morris' Vernon, Florida). It feels, as one commentator put it, less like a doc and more like a series of set pieces staged by Wes Anderson - or Antonioni, for that matter. Maybe that's because it has a dreamlike quality to it and, while recording real people, it definitely chooses to stage them ahead of time to maximize each "set piece." It sure ain't Wiseman's fly-on-the-wall verite style, that's for certain. But director Andrey Paounov does achieve some of the most stunning images I've ever seen (a horse galloping around an abandoned prison, cheerleaders with pom-poms and cowboy boots performing pro-nukes choreography inside a dour meeting room, Belene's lone Cuban citizen playing his guitar outside a dormant nuclear power plant, children chasing after a truck that engulfs them in pesticide, etc.) I don't know who his DP was, but he/she has quite an eye, as the framing is imaginative and the cinematography is breathtakingly beautiful.

Images from The Mosquito Problem:

Belene's lone Cuban serenades the power plant

Todor Pdrnikov plays Chopin on a rinky-dink piano

The scenes at the former concentration camp (or "re-education camp" as it was known under the Communist regime) turned prison on Belene Island are the film's strongest. It's like a ghost town, home to a horse, a pig, some dirty pigeons, and a lone prisoner, Ahmed Hasanov, a murderer who seems to be a pretty mellow fellow. Oh, and it's also home to hosts of mosquitos! (Which seems unavoidable, as Belene is situated on the mosquito-friendly marshy banks of the Danube river.)

Apparently Bulgaria's switch from Communism to Capitalism brought promises of employment for Belene's citizens at a much-ballyhooed power plant (locals even engraved the nuclear power plant logo on buildings and restaurant dishes), but the plant - which at one time had thousands of workers from the former Soviet Bloc and friendly communist nations like Cuba and Vietnam - was never completed. Construction was halted in 1990 in the wake of a national economic crisis; the plant's demise kept the townsfolk in limbo, while Belene's population dwindled to under 10,000 inhabitants. That's the socio-economic-political backstory to the film, but I found it most interesting in its celebration of the individual eccentrics. Like the pianist who talks about why Chopin was the most Slavic of composers, or the daughter of a prison guard convicted of abusing prisoners who talks about how much she loves her mother.

According to his bio, director Andrey Paounov was born in 1974 in Sofia, Bulgaria, and has worked "as a bartender in Prague, a cook in Washington DC, a gardener in Toronto, a boom operator in New York and an accounting clerk in San Francisco." He graduated from the National Academy of Theatre and Film Arts in Sofia, Bulgaria in 2000. His first documentary feature, Georgi and the Butterflies, won the Silver Wolf at IDFA in 2004. The Mosquito Problem & Other Stories is his second feature-length film. And without a doubt a buzz-worthy one.

French Beauty ** 1/2
Directed by Pascale Lamche
France, 2005, 68 minutes
As essential to France's mystique as its wines, haute couture and cuisine is its place as the defining home of female beauty. Filmmaker Pascale Lamche examines how French film actresses have projected a unique je ne sais quoi -- described as an allure combining delicacy, luxury and intelligence -- that has captivated generations of cinema audiences around the world. Providing their own insight into this Gallic riddle are icons of French cinema, including Juliette Binoche, Catherine Deneuve, Audrey Tautou and Jeanne Moreau. (Sundance Channel capsule)

French beauty Audrey Tautou

I love French actresses - Bardot, Isabelle Huppert, Catherine Deneuve, Stephane Audran, Audrey Tautou, Jeanne Moureau, et. al. - so I was looking forward to this. But while it sounded great on paper, this French doc was guilty of poor execution and a half-assed focus. And its list of actresses profiled is rather selective - and recent. Bardot's in there at the beginning of course, but where are Emmanuelle Seigner, Anouk Aimee, Julie Delpy, Virginie Ledoyen, Isabelle Adjani and others? Halfway through, the doc shifts its focus to French models, like Jane Birkin's daughter Lou Doillon, who made the switch from modeling to acting (hardly a radical transition, especially in Asia, where many pop stars and models are also movie stars). Disappointing, but I did enjoy seeing the "other" Birkin daughter (from her relationship with French director Jacques Doillon), who unlike her step-sis Charlotte Gainsbourg, looks just like her Mom. Which is to say, a total babe!

Lou Doillon & Jane Birkin

In the Mood for Doyle ** 1/2
Directed by Yves Montmayeur
France, 2007, 54 minutes

Doyle: Obviously Living The Life

Just OK doc about the best cinematographer in Hong Kong - and possibly the world - Christopher Doyle, a scruffy-looking middle-aged Aussie beatnik who dresses like Keith Richards and has been described as an "Asian Jack Kerouac." Doyle is a Western ex-pat living in Hong Kong (that's actually his apartment that Faye Wong inhabits in Chunking Express) and is totally immersed in Chinese and Asian culture, like T. E. Lawrence was with Arabia and the Middle East - refuting Kipling's "never the twain shall meet" adage about East and West cultures. In fact, Doyle famously married a Chinese woman, but she's never referenced and the beautiful young woman by his side and in his house in several scenes is never identified in the film.

Definitive Doyle: Scene from "In the Mood for Love"

Unfortunately, this French documentary is every bit as unfocused as its subject (Doyle may be a brilliant cameraman but he talks in stream-of-conscious bursts like a drug-addled, ADD-afflicted space cadet). As a result, this rag-tag affair jumps all over the place, from Doyle's rambling pop-cultural takes on "The Asian Way" of life to directors Fruit Chan and Olivier Assayas talking about him and Hong Kong filmmaking in general. Doc almost exclusively focuses on Doyle's work with Hong Kong's Godard, director Wong Kar-Wei, who Doyle worked with on Chunking Express, Fallen Angels, In the Mood For Love and 2046, and - unfortunately - wastes time showing him working on lame Western horror movies like Lady in the Water with M. Night Shyamalan (who looks like a dopey college kid next to the grizzled vet Doyle). Last Life in the Universe, the Thai film he worked on with director Pen-Ek Ratanaruang - and arguably his greatest cinematography to date - isn't even mentioned, though we do get to see one clip from his follow-up with the director, the unseen-in-the-West Invisible Waves. And this despite the film opening in Bangkok, where Doyle shows off some of the neighborhoods where he shot footage for In the Mood For Love.

Still, anything about Chris Doyle - whose life is every bit as interesting as his work - is better than nothing, so I enjoyed this short look into his world. I just wanted more of it.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Graham & Joe & Trev & Carol

Trevor Howard's Brit Lit Films

No, it's not '60s sex comedy - I'm referring to the principles in Turner Classic Movies' recent programming salute to the films of British actor-par-excellence Trevor Howard, who starred in films directed by Carol Reed as well as ones written by or based on the writings of Joseph Conrad and Graham Greene. The films I watched this night included:

Outcast of the Islands (1952) ****
Directed by Carol Reed
Based on the novel by Joseph Conrad

The Third Man (1949) *****
Directed by Carol Reed
Based on the story by Graham Greene

The Heart of the Matter (1953) ****
Directed by George More O'Ferall
Based on the novel by Graham Greene

Besides the value of the quartet of notable names mentioned above, there were a number of "two-fers" on offer in this evening's programming: two films directed by Carol Reed (Outcast of the Islands, The Third Man), two set in exotic colonial-era settings (Maylasia in Outcast of the Islands, Sierra Leone in The Heart of the Matter), two back-to-back films starring one-name only actresses (Kerima in Outcast of the Islands and Valli - the moniker Italian actress Alida Valli used in her Hollywood films - in The Third Man), and two written by Graham Greene (The Third Man, The Heart of the Matter). (For the record, Greene collaborated with Carol Reed on three classic films: besides 1949's The Third Man, they worked together on 1948's The Fallen Idol - also starring Trevor Howard - and 1960's Our Man in Havana).

What's in a (full) name?: Valli

Anyway, throughout the night I was struck by the consistent pedigree of Howard's filmography, as he seemingly always appeared in quality pictures, including a number of stellar adaptations of British literary classics (besides Greene and Conrad, let's not forget Trev's turn in the film adaptation of Noel Coward's Brief Encounter).

Following are some thoughts on two of the three films that aired this night. I can add nothing about The Third Man that hasn't already been said, so why bother? Like The Maltese Falcon, it's an example of a perfect, flawless film. ('Nuff said!) Besides, I've always been a sucker for those British colonial empire pics - give me a pith helmet and an exotic locale, and I'm in hog heaven (especially if Joseph Conrad or Graham Greene are penning the tale) - so my main interest this night was on Trev's celluloid exploits in Africa and Southeast Asia. It's too bad that both films are currently unavailable domestically on either VHS or DVD.


Outcast of the Islands (1952)
Directed by Carol Reed
Based on the novel by Joseph Conrad
Cast: Sir Ralph Richardson (Captain Lingard), Trevor Howard (Peter Willems), Robert Morley (Almayer), Wendy Hiller (Mrs. Almayer), Kerima (Aissa), Annabel Morley (Nina Almayer)

Missed the first half-hour of Outcasts of the Islands, but caught the rest of this curio that screened as part of Turner Classic Movie's recent all-night tribute to British actor Trevor Howard. And, as usual, I was drawn into a movie by the compelling face of a beautiful starlet, in this case the mysterious Kerima. Ah, Kerima - a woman so mysterious, she warrants nary an mention in Danny Perry's Cult People. (Speculation: Had she been born in a different era, Kerima could have married Lew Alcindor and the couple could have had the divine-sounding name of Kareem and Kerima Abdul-Jabar. Alas, 'twas not to be.)

Kerima: One word, one love

Though born in Algeria, her exotic looks enabled her to play a number of different nationalities in her brief screen career, including an Egyptian in Land of the Pharoahs (1955), a Vietnamese woman in The Quiet American (1958) and even a "she-wolf" in the Italian horror film La Lupa (1953). Here she plays a mute Malayan "savage" girl, Aissa, the devoted daughter of a blind village chief.

Kerima's temptation eyes

Kerima's temptation eyes captivate Trevor Howard's scalawag colonial trader character Peter Willems to the point of obsession; and who can blame him - I likewise had to put the remote control down when I saw her. Unfortunately for Willems, the attraction soon becomes obsessive.

Savage Love: Trevor Howard goes native

Outcast of the Islands was an adaptation of Joseph Conrad's 1896 novel; though partially filmed at Shepperton Studios in England, the novel was set in Southeast Asia and was partially filmed on location in the Malayas, Borneo and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) - the latter being the birthplace of the film's star Trevor Howard. Conrad described Willems as a "worn-out European living on the reluctant toleration of that settlement in the heart of the forest-land."

Howard as the worn-out Willems, with Carol Reed

Worn-out? All Movie Guide's Hal Erickson described Howard's Willems character more graphically as "a degenerate British expatriate who wanders aimlessly around a Malayan island" and added that the supporting cast of characters wasn't much better. "None of the characters is particularly likable; even Howard loses audience sympathy for his plight by betraying one of his closest friends (Ralph Richardson), a ship's captain who'd raised Howard from boyhood. The unrelenting pessimism of Outcast of the Islands was such that the American distributors felt the need to ease the characters' pain by editing the picture down from 102 minutes to 94."

But for the definitive analysis of this neglected Carol Reed gem, one must turn to the write-up at Britmovie.com:
The success of The Third Man propelled Carol Reed to the peak of his career, making him a director of international importance whose movies accomplished the rare merger of commerce and art; they earned praise from the reviewers and sold plenty of tickets as well. His decision to strike off in a new artistic direction rather than cautiously husbanding the profitable aptitude for thrillers he had displayed was courageous. Weighing up a number of different potential film assignments, he settled on an adaptation of Joseph Conrad's second novel, An Outcast of the Islands (1896), a work which Korda - a Conrad enthusiast - had been urging him to film. The endeavour would require a large and convincing cast and a Far Eastern locale, most of the movie was shot on location in the region where the story was actually set: Ceylon, Borneo and the Malayas.

Kerima signs on for the cast of OUTCAST

The plot of Outcast is soundly constructed, yet the story is largely psychological in emphasis, and it is the passions of the characters which determine the events rather than the other way around. The boredom and restlessness from which Willems suffers in Sambir leaves him vulnerable to temptation and, since there is no money to steal, lust replaces greed, insatiable lust for Aissa (Kerima), the beautiful daughter of the blind chieftain Badavi (A. V. Bramble). The girl's tribesmen, allies of Lingard's rival Ali (Dharma Emmanuel), are thus able to blackmail Willems into revealing the treacherous route into Sambir, which the old captain has incautiously shown his young protégé.

Willems: On the Route To Mandalay

From Willems' first sight of the hypnotic Aissa to his final realisation that she is his doom, Reed's camera follows the course of his swelling passion with silent eloquence. Although Kerima has no dialogue, she is all that one could hope for in an Aissa - a dark-eyed beauty who moves about with regal but savage pride and communicates great emotional intensity. As the agent of Willems' downfall, she is completely persuasive. In the case of Almayer, Reed is entirely faithful to Conrad's depiction of the trader as a self-important prig. The epitome of a respectable burgher, Almayer has felt compelled to transport his stuffy bourgeois life all the way to Malaya, with every bit of pietism, hypocrisy and smugness intact. His cosy domestic environment is made to seem airless and numbing, a miniature Kensington inhabited by his well-corseted, tea-bearing wife and his shrill daughter Nina (Annabel Morley, Robert Morley's daughter). The scapegrace Willems is repelled by the pompous proprieties of Almayer's home -having abandoned his own in Singapore - and the rancorous scenes between the two men, which are among the strongest in the movie, leave the audience more sympathetic to the sneering Willems.

Robert Morley as the priggish Almayer

Reed follows Conrad in establishing Almayer's stance towards Willems as one of outraged respectability throughout and in unmasking Almayer as the embodiment of self-interest and heartlessness. His loathing for Willems is fuelled more by anxious fears that Willems may supplant him with Lingard and become a partner than by disgust over Willems' deterioration. Our loyalties gravitate decisively towards Willems when the latter comes to Almayer to beg for a chance to set up his own trading post (presumably as an alternative to betraying Lingard). His physical and emotional condition is pitiable, but Almayer turns him away ruthlessly. When the vengeful Willems returns at the head of the Badavi tribe - following the safe passage into the lagoon - we are not unhappy to see Almayer sewn up in his hammock and swung to and fro over a fire by the sadistic natives.

Kerema and Willems Under the Boardwalk, Native Style

Outcast is easily the least appreciated of Reed's major movies. Yet the Far Eastern milieu is as lush and reverberant as we could possibly have hoped it would be, and the story is almost never vitiated or debased by commercialism. Other than the softening of Lingard, there is not a single artistic compromise of significance in the movie. Beyond its other laudable attributes, it stands as one of the most powerful evocations of human degradation ever to reach an audience through a commercial medium like film. Its moods are all potent because Reed's direction and Wilcox's camerawork are supplemented by Conrad's dialogue, which Fairchild sensibly and skilfully interpolated into his script. By transcribing Conrad's dialogue so faithfully, Reed and Fairchild have also preserved the distinctive rhythms and intonations of each player in the drama.


The Heart of the Matter (1953)
Directed by Carol Reed
Based on the novel by Graham Greene
Cast: Trevor Howard (Harry Scobie), Elizabeth Allan (Louise Scobie), Maria Schell (Helen Rolt), Denholm Elliott (Wilson), Gérard Oury (Yusef), Peter Finch (Father Rank)

Graham Greene's 1948 novel The Heart of the Matter deals with Catholicism, guilt and moral change in its main character, Scobie, a British police officer stationed in Freetown, Sierra Leone who realizes he has more in common with the locals than he has with his boorish fellow ex-pats. It also deals with an extra-marital love affair but, Scobie being a devout Catholic, you know how that will end. Globe trotter Greene - whose penchant for situating his stories in exotic Third World locales led to the coining of the expression "Greeneland" to describe them - drew on his real-life experiences as a British intelligence officer stationed in Sierra Leone during World War II for his novel, which won 1948's James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction and was later included in Time Magazine's lists of the "100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005."

While his nagging wife Elizabeth (Louise Allan) is away in South Africa, Scobie falls in love with widow Helen Rolt (Maria Schell, sister of Austrian actor Maximilian Schell), a sensitive survivor of a U-boat sinking who collects stamps and dons a Jean Seberg haircut decades before A Bout de Souffle.

Maria Schell

How do you solve a problem like Maria? Well, Scobie's "belief" leaves him in a moral no man's land; he can't leave his wife and he can't continue to see the woman he loves and still go to confession as a good Catholic. Hence, Scobie chooses the typically Catholic response of masochistic self-denial. Though it's a sin, Scobie decides to kill himself, risking eternal damnation for himself while "freeing" the women in his life to not be tied down to him. Of course, the "human" response to his moral dilemma - be honest and be with the one you truly love instead of living a lie and honoring God by your loyalty to the marriage oath (one that does not acknowledge that people change and the person you marry is not necessarily the same person later in life), doesn't appeal to the pious penis-punishing policeman. Scobie reluctantly breaks secular law when he accepts a loan from Arab smuggler Yusef (Gerard Oury), but he will not take the bigger risk of breaking spiritual law. It is here that Scobie is meant to come across as a noble martyr, but to me it merely pointed out the smallness of the man in ways all the brow-beating by his status-conscious wife and the constant indignities of his job (in which he is passed-over for advancement by younger and lesser men) never could.

I haven't read nearly enough Greene novels as I should have, but of the ones I've read I've noticed two things:
1) Greene understood love and intimacy as well as any author I've ever read (especially in his brilliant The End of the Affair, a novel that I think I marked up every other page with underlines and highlighting and spoke volumes to me about the failings of my romantic relationships). Some of his observations about love are as eloquent and cogent as anything written by Shakespeare - or Dylan or Hal Hartley, for that matter!


2) Greene was obsessed with Christian - and specifically Catholic - values and the struggle to avoid sin. This is most unfortunate. Perhaps it's related to Greene's alleged bipolar disorder. For he was a renowned womanizer who couldn't enjoy his vices. Strike up another one for the masochistic Church!

While Greene's religious convictions ensure the inevitable outcome of his novel and this faithful film adaptation, it doesn't mean that this isn't a totally enjoyable film. I think a lot of that had to do with the fact that it was shot on location in Sierra Leone. According to TCM film expert Robert Osborne, the film's producer originally wanted to shoot the entire film at England's Shepperton Studios, but Trevor Howard insisted on location shooting. Go Trev!

Critics rightly consider this to be arguably the finest screen performance by Trevor Howard, with some suggesting that no other actor could have come close to portraying the role of Scobie. The Heart of the Matter was nominated for four British Academy Awards (BAFTAS) - including best film and best actor for Howard - and the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes, and boasted a stellar supporting cast that included Denholm Elliott as the snivelingly suave home office spy Wilson and a young Peter Finch as the spiritually disillusioned (but beer-loving!) Father Rank.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Maltese Falcon (*****)

The Maltese Falcon
Directed and written by John Huston, from a book by Dashiell Hammett
USA, 1941, 101 minutes
Cast: Humphrey Bogart (Sam Spade), Mary Astor (Brigid O'Shaughnessy), Gladys George (Iva Archer), Peter Lorre (Joel Cairo), Sydney Greenstreet (Kasper Gutman), Elisha Cook Jr. (Wilmer Cook)
"The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter."
- Sam Spade to gunsel Wilmer

"You'll take a slap and you'll like it!"
- Spade to Joel Cairo

TCM aired a Peter Lorre tribute last night, and this A-list classic came on right after the excellent RKO B-noir The Stranger On the Third Floor. What hasn't been said about The Maltese Falcon? It is, quite simply a flawless cinematic experience. I've seen it a million times, but I sat there transfixed, unable to get up because it really is a perfect film, with great dialog and great characters (yes, yes, Peter Lorre was great in M and Mad Love and Arsenic and Old Lace, but for me this is his defining screen performance, one that created the Lorre character caricature he continued to call on as he carved out a quite successful career in Hollywood). I wanted to grab a snack, but couldn't. With the possible exception of Sidney Greenstreet's explanation of the history of the falcon "The Knights Templar paid tribute to Charles V, blah blah blah," there isn't a moment in the film that misses a beat. I could watch it over and over and over again. Sometime we forget what an "essential" classic really means. It means The Maltese Falcon. Believe the hype.

The Stranger On the Third Floor (****)

The Stranger on the Third Floor
Directed by Boris Ingster
RKO, USA, 1940, 64 minutes
Cast: Peter Lorre, John McGuire, Margaret Tallichet, Elisha Cook Jr.

Saw this last night during TCM's Peter Lorre tribute...

Neglected RKO B-movie notable for being an early, textbook example of film noir. Great cinematography with nod to German Expressionism, tilted camera angles, surreal dream sequence and Peter Lorre as a charmingly loopy lunatic on the loose from the looney bin. And whatever happened to the beautiful female lead, Margaret Tallichet (Mrs. William Wyler)? What a face "Talli" Wyler had! Weird...her looks reminded me of my friend Nicole, a resemblance so striking it makes me believe in Hindi reincarnation now. By the way, Elisha Cook, Jr.'s cabby character is named "Joe Briggs." I wonder if drive-in movie critic Joe Bob Briggs took his moniker from this film?

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Asian Mystique (*****)

The Asian Mystique: Dragon Ladies, Geisha Girls & Our Fantasies of the Exotic Orient
by Sheridan Prasso
PublicAffairs, 2005, 464 pages

My girlfriend saw this book at Daedalus Books & Music and handed it to me, saying "This has you written all over it." She can read me...like a book, I guess. It's true that I have a well-documented interest in Asian art, food and culture (especially Japanese cinema and pop culture), and an aesthetic preference for slim, dark-eyed, dark-haired women - which naturally biases me towards the attributes of almost all Asian women. Not that I've ever dated anyone even remotely Asian before Amy, who is a Halvsie (Japanese mother, American father) born right here in (not so Far) Eastern Baltimore.

Anyway, I realise that it's a thin, nuanced line between having a natural preference for something and a politically incorrect obsession, which is usually tagged with the dreaded and distasteful adjective "Yellow Fever."

"What are you looking at, you objectifying Eurocentric racist?"

And, given the Seinfeld Preference Principle - aptly referenced in Prasso's book - I'm probably a racist in that regard. In the Seinfeld episode "The Chinese Woman," the following exchange takes place:
Jerry: "Helloo? Who is this? Donna Chang? Oh, I'm so sorry, I must have dialed the wrong number.
Elaine: "Donna Chang?"
Jerry (redialing): "I should have talked to her; I love Chinese women."
Elaine: "Isn't that a little racist?"
Jerry: "If I like their race, how can that be racist?"

Anyway, this is a great and detailed look at Occidental misconceptions and stereotypes about the Orient and Asians, from Madame Butterfly up to Lucy Lui. More later as I make my way through this exhaustive study - it's a long read!

Booklist review:
Prasso, who has lived in Phnom Penh and Hong Kong and written for Business Week, nearly turns the fascination of Western men with Asian sexuality into a subject of numbing correctness. Fortunately, though, her determination to explore "our relationships and interactions, our misconceptions and stereotypes" doesn't suck the life from her compelling topic--perhaps because she is not above taking readers into the girlie bars of Bangkok and Manila, the personals ("Red Hot Asians") of the Village Voice, the cinemas and TV screens of West and East, even the home of Mineko Iwasaki, who inspired Arthur Golden's best-selling Memoirs of a Geisha. Using this frame of reference effectively, Prasso explains the symbiotic nature of Western fantasy and Asian fulfillment--often to great profit--of that fantasy, the roles that Asian women play and defy in the West, even the dangerous implications of this still-active fantasy upon global politics. Especially interesting are her observations on the emasculated role of Asian men in Western media--picture, for instance, Jackie Chan even kissing a Western woman.

Publishers Weely review:
Prasso, a former Business Week Asia editor, asks if Westerners can look objectively at the Eastern region, blinded as they are by "issues of race and sex, fantasy and power." It's this worldview-one the author admits succumbing to and feeling a "sense of loss" in giving up-that clouds cross-cultural relations. Prasso's ambitious agenda focuses on both Asian women and our perceptions of them, exploring the historical and pop cultural roots of the "Asian Mystique" and ending with a "reality tour of Asia." Her stories about the lives of Asian women from diverse cultures and socio-economic backgrounds are compelling. The Japanese woman who inspired Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha shares her distaste for the novel's "misinterpretation" of her "flower and willow world." A Chinese investment banker struggles with modern demands and traditional expectations. With the author in tow, a Filipina prostitute navigates a seedy red-light district. Prasso has an almost voyeuristic fascination with sexual mores, and the result is a frank, at times graphic, exploration of how some Asian women cope with stereotyping-and with Western males looking for one-night stands. But when the author moves from reportage to social anthropological analysis, the book loses focus. Self-conscious ruminations, such as the incongruity of dancing with Filipina prostitutes to Madonna's "Like a Virgin," sometimes intrude and distract. In addition, Prasso never really gets a grip on the Asian Mystique's effects on foreign policy, concluding, not surprisingly, that it is "much harder to measure and more difficult to prove." Nevertheless, Prasso's work and travels have opened her eyes, and this book might do the same for others.

Monday, August 11, 2008

In the Stacks (***)

In the Stacks: Short Stories about Libraries and Librarians (2003)
Edited by Michael Cart
Overlook Press, paperback, 288 pages

Saw this at Daedalus Books & Music marked down to $4 so, as a card-carrying librarian, I had to pick it up. Former librarian Michael Cart has assembled an anthology of some of the best short stories about the reader's nirvana - the library. Among the heavy hitters here are such major figures as John Cheever ("The Trouble With Marcie Flint"), Alice Munro ("Hard-Luck Stoires"), Saki, ("The Story of St. Vespalms"), Ray Bradbury ("Exchange"), Francine Prose ("Rubber Life"), and Italo Calvino ("A General in the Library"), with Jorge Luis Borges's "The Library of Babel" being probably the most famous, with its typically fantastic, Twilight Zone-esque speculation about the possibilities of an "infinite" library.

And there's even an espionage-tinged murder mystery solved by deconstructing the Library of Congress classification system, Anthony Boucher's "QL 696. C9." In this 1943 story, a head librarian trained as a cataloguer is murdered, but not before typing this clue to her assassin's identity. Working in a library, I can attest that cataloguers are indeed a curious lot, so I enjoyed the hilarious description of them by one character as, "...a few turn out to be born cataloguers. Those are a race apart. They know a little of everything, all the systems of classification, Dewey, Library of Congress, down to the last number, and just how many spaces you indent on an index card, and all about bibliographies, and they shudder in their souls if the least little thing is wrong. They have eyes like eagles and memories like elephants."

But I was disappointed to see one glaring omission: where's Aimee Bender's "Quiet Please"? This is my favorite short story about libraries and librarians, which was brought to my attention by a former girlfriend, a fellow librarian who worked at the same branch as me. It's about a young female librarian who, in mourning after the death of her father, decides one day to take every male patron she meets into the back office for sex. "This is the sex that she wishes would split her open and murder her because she can't deal with a dead father," Bender writes of the young librarian. Of course it's a metaphorical story in the fantastic style of a Kafka or Borges, but it was so "un-librarian-like" that I fell in love with it, and recall asking my then-sweetie if we could reeanact certain scenarios in the story. She blanched, saying this far exceeded her Reader's Advisory responsibilities - not to mention the librarian code of conduct. She was probably right; it would have been very un-professional. But hot!

Aimee Bender's stories are wonderfully strange and highly recommended; "Quiet Please" is included in her short story collection The Girl in the Flammable Skirt (Doubleday, 1998).

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

6ixtynin9 (***)

Ruang Talok 69 (เรื่องตลก 69)
Thailand, 1999, 115 minutes
Directed by Pen-Ek Ratanaruang
Cast: Lalita Panyopas, Sirisin Siripornsmathikul, Prompop Lee, Surapong Mekpongsathorn, Tasanawalai Ongartittichai, Black Phomtong, Sritao, Arun Wannarbodeewong

On the heels of rewatching Pen-Ek Raranaruang's 2003 masterpiece Last Life in the Universe (aka Ruang Rak Noi Nid Mahasan or เรื่องรัก น้อยนิด มหาศาล), I discovered the director's earlier black comedy 6ixtyni9 (Ruang Talok 69, 1999) - thanks to also discovering that I got free movies on the Sundance Channel as part of Comcast's Digital On Demand service. I've never understood all the channels I get on digital cable, boorishly confining my viewing to Turner Classic Movies, MSNBC, the two all-soccer channels (Fox and Gol TV), and The Tennis Channel. But, considering my outrageous monthly cable bill, I'm going to have to take advantage of all the free movies I found listed On Demand.

This movie is far froma masterpiece, with its tone fluctuating unevenly between comedy and drama, but it has a fine performance by lead Lalita Panyopas and shows the early but as-yet-unrefined promise of a developing auteur in search of the stylistic flourishes that would finally come to fruition in 2003's Last Life in the Universe.

I read a review on the wonderful Twitch website that sums it up better than my words could:
As any fan of Asian film can tell you there are two major film producing countries on the rise right now. While Hong Kong is trying to fight their way out of a massive industry decline triggered by the reversion to Chinese rule and Japan seems content to hold steady the film cultures of Korea and Thailand have exploded to the forefront, both in terms of quantity and quality of the films being produced. And without a doubt one of Thailand’s brightest lights is writer / director Pen-Ek Ratanaruang.

Ratanaruang exploded onto the international scene with the absolutely stunning Last Life in the Universe, a film sensation that triggered a rush to track down his earlier works. Monrak Transistor – his 2001 effort – was still in print and easy enough to come by, but 1999’s 6ixtynin9 proved much more elusive with only a grainy Hong Kong produced VCD edition available on a fairly limited basis. But 6ixtynin9 proved to be one of those little films that just wouldn’t go away. Lauded in its own country – the film was Thailand’s Oscar submission that year – it tended to win converts whenever someone was lucky enough to track a copy down and it continued to grow in reputation until the good folks at Palm Pictures picked up rights for a North American release.

But enough of the background. What about the film? Lalita Panyopas stars as Tum, a low ranking employee in a Bangkok financial services firm – an industry sector that has been hit hard by an economic recession. Tum arrives at work one morning to find an impromptu staff meeting in session. The firm has been forced to lay off three employees and, unwilling to single anyone out for termination, the unlucky trio is decided by drawing lots. Tum, of course, is one of the unlucky three sent packing. This places her in a horrible situation. She has been financially supporting her parents and younger siblings and is now a single woman with no support network and little to no chance of finding legitimate work in the midst of the current hard times. Faced with the real prospect of having to turn to prostitution to make ends meet Tum begins shoplifting and fantasizing about suicide. Until one morning she discovers a box left outside her door, a box full of money, and sees a possible way out for herself. Here enters the continual case of mistaken identity brought on by a faulty apartment door number (the film’s title is a play on this), rival gangs, illegal passports, dope smoking youth, over exuberant police officers, nosy neighbors, an amputation and rather a lot of blood.

The summary makes 6ixtynin9 sound like a fairly busy, high energy film but like all of Ratanaruang’s other films it is actually a very quiet, meditative piece. Much like Japan’s Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Ratanaruang loves to dress his films up in genre convention when they are actually psychological mood pieces. The gangsters are window dressing, what really matters here is that Tum is a woman in an incredibly difficult situation with some harsh moral decisions to make. How will she bear up under the stress? What path will she choose? The obvious point of comparison is Danny Boyle’s Shallow Grave – a film that shares several significant plot points – but where Boyle’s film revolves around issues of greed Ratanaruang’s turns on desperation. How far are you willing to go to survive?

Key to making the film work is Panyopas’ performance as Tum and she does an admirable job charting Tum’s progression from a woman caught up by forces beyond her control into becoming one of those forces herself. She is giving very little dialogue to work with and has to rely on body language, frequently carrying her character entirely through her eyes. She has a quiet sense of grace and strength to her, more than enough to allow you to buy into the wildly excessive situation Ratanaruang drops her in to.

Where the film struggles a little bit is in the balancing of humor with the darker, more serious elements. Ratanaruang has a bit of a dreamer in him, as well as a healthy dose of absurdism, and he struggled to mesh those impulses with the ‘real-world’ feeling he also wants to maintain in his films until he finally struck a perfect balance with Last Life. There are some awkward moments here where you can tell he’s aiming for humor but the situation is paced and played just a little too realistically to laugh, and also some character moments that just don’t seem to fit with the tone of the rest of the film. Which is not to say that 6ixtynin9 isn’t a good film – it is, very – but fans of Last Life will need to approach this as an example of a master still learning and experimenting with his craft rather than coming in expecting the degree of balance, polish and subtlety of his most recent work.

As for the DVD itself it is short on extras with only a trio of trailers and some web links but it sports an excellent, high quality transfer of the film itself. There are some small amounts of film grain, the occasional speck of dust or hair on the print but this is far superior to any version I’ve seen in the past and is most likely the best this film is ever going to look on DVD. The one somewhat jarring aspect of the film transfer was the choice to black out areas of the screen where Thai subtitles originally appeared. This happens very rarely and I can only assume that the Thai prints available for the DVD transfer had these original subtitles burned directly into the film and the blacking out was required to allow the English subtitles to overlay without interference. The English subtitles have the occasional problem with grammar and spelling but are perfectly serviceable and easy to read.

- Posted by Todd at January 4, 2005 07:54

Monday, August 4, 2008

Graphic Witness (*****)

Graphic Witness: Four Wordless Graphic Novels
by Frans Masereel, Lynd Ward, Giacomo Patri and Laurence Hyde
Firefly Books, 423 pages, 2007

(Wordless review of these wordless graphic novels:)

OK, I can't resist...here's the synopsis of this essential read from the back cover:

"The power of a story told through images lies in its universality. It can be read anywhere by anyone, regardless of langauage, making it an ideal medium for social commentary and criticism. Four rare wordless are reproduced here, by some of the greatest woodcut artists from the first half of the 20th century, as a testament to their roles as graphic witnesses. The stories they tell reflect the political and social isues of their times: economic depression, social injustice, war and fear of nucler annilhilation. While the context my hve changed, the issues, sadly, remain relevnt today."

Wordful reviews of Graphic Witness:
January Magazine

Sleeper (****)

If You Are But a Dream, I Hope I Never Wake Up

Smart (1995)
Arista Records

The It Girl (1996)
Arista Records

Please To Meet You (1997)
BMG Records

I'm late to the party, not discovering Sleeper until I picked up a sampler CD for Rhino's 4-CD Brit Box compilation of late '80s to '90s Britpop indie shoegazer bands at a neighborhood yard sale around the corner. One of my favorite tracks on it was "Sale of the Century" by the hitherto unknown Sleeper. Investigating further, I learned that they had eight UK Top 40 hit singles and three UK Top 10 hit albums but only made a blip on the stateside music radar when they covered Blondies' "Atomic" on the Trainspotting soundtrack (after Blondie refused to allow their version to be used). I saw that movie, but still no recognition, so I found their first two albums on eBAY and picked them up for the ridiculously low price of no more than $2 or $3 each - including postage! (They also recorded a third LP, 1997's Please To Meet You, but I haven't picked that up yet.)

I'm here to report that if you liked Elastica, you'll love Sleeper. In fact, you won't be blamed if you listen to "Inbetweener" and swear it's an Elastica tune. Elastica was three girls and a guy, while Sleeper was three guys and a girl (a polarity kind of like, locally, Baltimore's Thee Katatonix and D.C.'s The Pin-Ups - but with talent!). But both bands were fronted by talented femme chanteuses. Everyone knows Elastica's Justine Frischmann, who was not only the front femme for Elastica but also famously dated both Suede's Brett Anderson and Blur's Damon Alburn. But you've probably never heard of Sleeper's Louise Wener, who these days makes her living as a (quite popular) novelist.

Louise Wener: A Stunner and a Strummer

But if you like the '90s Britpop sound of Blur, Oasis, Lush, My Bloody Valentine, Pulp, Echobelly, et al, you should really like Sleeper. (BTW, Sleeper opened for Blur during the 1995 Parklife tour.)

Though 1995's Smart sold over 100,000 copies and included the early indie singles "Delicious" and "Swallow" - and the later high-placing "Inbetweener" (#16 UK Charts) and "Vegas" (#33, featuring Blur's Graham Coxhon on saxophone - and a personal fave with its line about "he lives in a flat, islands of crap" that reminds me of my own dense domicile) and the early Nirvana/grunge-influenced "Alice In Vain" - the next year's platinum-selling sophomore effort The It Girl represents the band's best work, with their guitar-driven sound augmented by tastefully restrained synth and keyboard accents. Produced by Stephen Street (famous for his work with The Smiths, Morrissey and Blur) it included the standout "Sale of the Century" (which was their biggest single success at #10 on the UK charts) as well as "Nice Guy Eddie" (also #10 UK Charts), "What Do I Do Now?", the snarky "Lie Detector" (from whence comes the Clara Bow "It Girl" reference that the album takes it title from), "Statuesque" (another Trainspotting soundtrack song; it's included on the Trainspotting #2 CD) - and the wonderful "Stop Your Crying." The difference between Smart and The It Girl is comparable to the change between Oasis' Definitely Maybe and (What's the Story) Morning Glory? A clear jump.

According to Wikipedia, singer/guitarist Louise Wener, like Justine Frischmann, was one of Britpop's biggest female stars, placing highly in Melody Maker's and NME's "Sexiest Woman" polls several years running. The other band members - the so-called "Sleeperblokes" - were guitarist/keyboardist Jon Stewart, bassist Diid Osman and drummer Andy Maclure. Sideman John Green also played keys/synth for the band live and in studio. Wener and Stewart met in while living in Manchester, adding the rhythm section when Sleeper relocated to London in the early '90s.

Louise and the Sleeperblokes

By the way, Wener was born in Ilford, East London, and thus is a fan of the football team West Ham United.

Sleeper released its third album, the string- and horn-laden over-production Pleased To Meet You in September 1997, but the album's first single "She's a Good Girl" tanked on the charts and the end was nigh. In his definitive chronicle Britpop!: Cool Britannia and the Spectacular Demise of English Rock (2004), author John Harris quotes Wener's reaction to the single's failure: "I knew we were as good as done for. I can remember walking down Oxford Street, looking at everyone, thinking, 'I'm back in the throng.' I had no illusions that anything else was going to happen. We did TFI Friday that week, when we knew for sure, and I was drinking from midday onwards...I was in the men's loo of this curry house, just lying down, puking. There I was, knowing my whole career was over."

A novel approach to post-rock stardom

Sleeper split up in 1998, right around the time Britpop waned as a musical genre.("It happened to us and we thought we'd be the only ones," Wener recalled, "But then everyone started to go, so that was kind of satisfying."). Wener then began her 'second act' in showbiz, re-inventing herself as a novelist. Wener has written four novels: Goodnight Steve McQueen, The Big Blind (retitled The Perfect Play), The Half Life of Stars and Worldwide Adventures In Love. According to Wikipedia, she also teaches poker courses(!) and is in a new band called Huge Advance with partner Andy Maclure.

Wener can also be seen as an interviewee in the 2003 Britpop documentary Live Forever though, regretably, her own band isn't covered (while, aggravatingly, the decidely non-Britpop Massive Attack is! I mean, Britpop was about guitars and Massive Attack is not about guitars! Ack!)

Louise Wener in LIVE FOREVER

Sleeper is a band that more than lived up to its name, flying well under the radar and being criminally neglected despite its solid contribution to a defining British musical genre of the early to mid-'90s. So wake up Britpop fans and seek these albums out!

Sleeper Singles & EPs:

There's a lot of them. To purchase, see Matt's CD Singles.

Alice In Vain EP, November 1993

Swallow, February 1994

Delicious, May 1994

Inbetweener, January 1995

Vegas, March 1995

What Do I Do Now, September 1995

Sale of the Century, April 1996

Nice Guy Eddie, July 1996

Statuesque, September 1996

She's a Good Girl, December 1996

Watch Sleeper:

"Inbetweener" and "What Do I Do Now" live:

"Nice Guy Eddie" video:

"Sale of the Century" Video:

"What Do I Do Now" music video:

"Delicious" and "Little Annie" from Glastonbury 95:

Louise Wener Sings Marc Bolan's "Life's A Gas" on TFI Friday:

Related links:
Sleeper (Wikipedia)
Sleeper Bio (All Music Guide)
Sleeper Timeline
Sleeper post - "Because Midway Still Aren't Coming Back" blog
Louise Wener (Wikpedia)
"My Life As a Pop Star" by Louis Wener
Louis Wener's Novels -Fantastic Fiction
"Delicious" music video
"Inbetweener" music video
"Nice Guy Eddie" music video
"Sale of the Century" music video