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The Great Spaz-Be

The Great Spaz-Be

In America, our cultural institutions tend towards blowing shit up — think Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Batman and various buff villain-thrashing superheroes. Yet for all our notorious bubblegum philistinism, we read too, and there are certain literary characters that are quite beloved: Sal Paradise, Holden Caulfield, Ignatius Reilly, and Captain Ahab, to name but a few, all of whom are so peculiar to our imaginations, it would be offensive for any filmmaker to appropriate them in some caricatural form. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby is another such character only the most audacious artist would hazard to interpret in cinematic light.

The Great Gatsby is the Great American Novel for no small reasons. The story’s titular character makes good on the American Dream, accomplishes the most spectacular romantic gesture in all of literature, and dies tragically, his rise and fall and all too brief happiness narrated in exquisite prose by a fair and compassionate friend. It doesn’t just define the Jazz Age generation, but America itself: our material obsessions, class divisions, brutal selfishness, careless violence, and yet, also our occasional noble impulse towards doing the right thing. Published almost ninety years ago it remains extraordinarily readable, and in fact, every generation is introduced to it in middle or high school. I myself have read it at least a half dozen times, coming back to it every few years as one returns to a refuge well known and thoroughly loved. If Gatsby is not sacred, it is at the very least, a national treasure.

The Great Spaz-Be


The stars of Gatsby getting Bazzed

Enter Baz Luhrmann, an Australian filmmaker with a boom boom aesthetic. From his adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to Moulin Rouge, he tends to lobotomize his audience with bombastic anachronistic dance numbers performed uptempo by shrill ninnies, manically spliced together with attention deficit MTV-style jump cuts that leave many muttering WTF and contemplating four hits of aspirin. His style is so over-the-top, Australians have even adapted his name into their lexicon in the event something is performed with too much intensity, as in, “OMG, he just bazzed the shit out of that.”

Full disclosure: I was horrified when I first saw the film trailer for The Great Gatsby. To put it in contemporary idiomatic terms, I was bazzed out of my mind. Worst of all was the revelation of a 3D version. How dare an Australian, especially one as obnoxious as Luhrmann, treat an American masterpiece as a dumbed down Cliffnotes-condensed soul-free blockbuster, tailored to summer vacation adolescents with rapid-fire mouse-click attention spans? Sure I played with GI Joe and Transformers as a kid, but their adaptations by Hollywood as disposable spectacles never bothered me; on the other hand, messing with Fitzgerald was tantamount to sacrilege, to pissing on a legend’s grave. Not only would I hate Luhrmann’s effort, I was ready to take real pleasure in my loathing.

So imagine my pleasant surprise when I didn’t hate The Great Gatsby. I didn’t love it either, the operative word being “pleasant.” It’s no masterpiece but it’s not exactly profane either. It’s mostly a loyal rendering of the novel, much of Fitzgerald’s wonderful prose intact, well acted, and rating relatively low on the Baz scale of migraine-inducement (perhaps though I wouldn’t be so generous had I not watched it in 2D). On the most important scenes, Luhrmann hits some right notes, so that loyal Fitzgeraldians (such as this writer) are entertained by his riff. It’s definitely not great, but it’s good enough.

But if you can maneuver through all the manufactured ebullience, you realize the Baz is getting some things right: the brotherly love between Nick and Jay is nicely rendered, and Tom Buchanan is a likable baddie. Click To Tweet

The Great Spaz-Be

The Great Gatsby by F.Scott Fitzgerald

It is never easy adapting any book into a film, especially one as beautifully written as The Great Gatsby, so Luhrmann and his screenwriter, Craig Pearce, establish a narrative conceit in which Nick Carroway, the story’s narrator (Tobey Maguire), is reflecting on his friendship with Gatsby from a sanitarium in in the Midwest. It’s a rather bold liberty taken by the director, but a competent, perhaps necessary trick to not only frame the story but incorporate its most lucid prose (though it was a leap to have the character Nick Carroway compose his thoughts into a novel so that we have suddenly a cheap little happy ending– the struggling writer’s redemption, one more American Dream coming true?).

Maguire makes a good Nick Carroway, a greenhorn New Yorker working in bonds, an above average everyman with a trusting face that invites the divulgence of rather personal confidences. He lives in a little cottage next to a grand (albeit digitalized) fairy tale castle inhabited by a mysterious man who throws lavish parties, as it turns out, with the singular hope that a woman he once loved and now married in her own palatial residence across the bay, might attend and perhaps recover the past with him. The story then, roughly described, is a ménage à trois involving Jay Gatsby and the Buchanans, Tom and Daisy.

Australian actor Joel Edgerton nails millionaire simpleton Tom Buchanan’s rough self-centered posturing. His Tom is Old Money petulance, threatened equally by new money parvenus like Gatsby and “the colored races.” Tom, seemingly incapable of love and trust, lives in a very small, disenchanted world. I didn’t think British actress Carey Mulligan — best known for playing ingenues — could pull off Daisy Buchanan, a bitter scion’s wife, but Mulligan musters just enough vapidity to conjure Daisy, whose bubbly, banal non-sequiturs are so telling of the pampered, vacuous life she has accepted with her philandering husband. Her Daisy is pretty, not beautiful, and exhausted before her time.

Daisy only really snaps to life once she rekindles her love affair with Jay Gatsby. Now I’m not sure Leonardo DiCaprio was the right choice for Gatsby. I don’t dislike DiCaprio, but I’ve never understood his continuing fame. He’s definitely an intelligent actor, but I’ve always found his intensity somewhat forced or overdone. There also remains the aura of the child actor about him — he never seemed to grow up, or at least I cannot seem to separate the adolescent DiCaprio from the adult one. Moreover, he is Leonardo DiCaprio, one of those actors so famous it is difficult for the audience member to ignore his celebrity, suspending belief. Thus I had a problem with his casting as Gatsby, a by-his-bootstraps success story in the black market economy. It goes contrary to Hollywood’s economic logic, of course, but the film might have been better with a talented theatrical unknown. (Watching The Great Gatsby, I couldn’t help feeling that DiCaprio was reprising his role in Titanic. It’s a similar character in remarkably similar circumstances, a charming riffraff in love with a wealthy debutante, romance thwarted by a wealthy rival suitor, culminating in a tragic death.)

DiCaprio as Gatsby is a metaphor for the film’s overall artifice, in which everything is just plain unreal. Gatsby’s famous parties are indescribably hyperactive productions emceed by a Cab Calloway ripoff, the dancers choreographed to Jay Z tunes sung by Beyonce and Andre 3000 (even Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” is anachronistic, having been written two years after the story takes place in 1922). Luhrmann’s song and dance scenes are always very camp, as if he is doing a feverish homage to the most egregious cliches of Broadway musicals. His interpretation of the Roaring Twenties is that of squawking peacocks prancing on Ritalin-laced champagne. It’s a fun party, sure, if you played hooky from school only to spend all that freedom watching MTV’s Total Request Live.

But if you can maneuver through all the manufactured ebullience, you realize the Baz is getting some things right: the brotherly love between Nick and Jay is nicely rendered, and Tom Buchanan is a likable baddie. And though it tries too hard to filter a historical New York for a modern and easily distracted audience, its fantastical environment has some magical elements. The film, like the novel, is rife with awkward moments shared between people who don’t really like or respect one another. Luhrmann, while probably the last person you’d want to share a double cappuccino with, does seem to have a deft touch with his actors. Their heartfelt aspirations and disappointments (even DiCaprio’s Gatsby) manage to transcend the green screen effect. There is just enough pathos in the performances to balance the enthusiasm of CGI effects artists.

The Great Spaz-Be

The Great Gatsby Baz Luhrmann

So what you have in our generation’s Gatsby is not a work of art, but competent entertainment. Fitzgerald was a thoroughly successful writer — the voice of his generation — because he was very au courant. I couldn’t help wondering whether he would condone or condemn this very modern take on his novel. Would he have been embarrassed by the spectacle? Or proud of its terrific box office success and its marquee stature? It’s impossible to say, of course, because F. Scott was a very complicated artist, infinitely more so than the Hollywood philistines attempting to profit off his name recognition.

Of course, directors don’t spend a year or two of their lives just making anything. What was the allure for the Baz? Does he see something of himself in Gatsby, a misunderstood self-made genius who brings people together (actors and audience) to celebrate what he envisions a beautiful bacchanalian vision of existence? It seems like all of Baz Luhrmann’s movies, in their very peculiar noise levels, are more or less about Baz Luhrmann. I am obviously not a fan, but I’ll go so far to say this for him: at least he has a personal vision, so much so that his name has become part of our vernacular. He doesn’t fail altogether. His adaptation is low grade irreverence — it could have been a hell of a lot worse.

Nevertheless, I would like to finish this review with an appeal to Mr. Luhrmann: we’ll give you a free pass now, but word to the wise, attempting to baz Holden Caulfield with your lurid hyperkinesia and faux musical numbers denouncing “phonies” will not be forgiven as clever irony. Any more tampering with our beloved classics is done so with considerable bodily risk.

The Prophet Finds an Audience

The Prophet Finds an Audience

The Prophet Finds an AUdience

Searching For Sugarman – Sixto Rodriguez

As far as years in music go, 1970 was a good one: Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush, Black Sabbath’s Paranoid, and Iggy Pop & The Stooges’s Fun House were all released, as were swan song LPs for The Beatles, The Velvet Underground, and Simon & Garfunkel, while John Lennon and George Harrison launched their solo careers with Plastic Ono Band and All Things Must Pass, respectively. In March of that year, Sussex Records, a label out of Detroit and loosely associated with Motown, released an album called Cold Fact. The cover features a glassy sphere, where, within, sits an ethnic hippie, Indian-style, garbed in sunglasses, hat and a pink tanktop, a gem hanging from his neck, dressed for the part of psychedelic messenger, hailing from the peyote and cactus lands of desert dreams.

The dude is Sixto Rodriguez, a Mexican-American singing in a Dylanesque high baritone the language of the zeitgeist, with songs titled, “Hate Street Dialogue” and “This Is Not a Song, It’s an Outburst.” Consider the prophet-tinged lyrics of The Establishment Blues,” sung with the clipped cadence of Subterranean Homesick Blues:

“Gun sales are soaring, housewives find life boring
Divorce the only answer smoking causes cancer
This system’s gonna fall soon, to an angry young tune
And that’s a concrete cold fact.”

pre-Internet days, clues are a lot harder to manage and wildly speculative apocrypha grind the rumor mills. Click To Tweet

The Prophet Finds an Audience

Though it was peak season in the protest movement—the secret bombings of Cambodia had been leaked and the Kent State shootings occurred just after the album’s release— the album went nowhere. The sales for Cold Fact might have been disappointing, but because of his real-deal talent, a year later Rodriguez managed to produce a second album, Coming From Reality. On the cover, he’s sitting on the stoop of a run-down façade. The hair’s long but the hat and gemstone are gone, the hippie matured into a man. Rodriguez has dropped the Sixto; he’s just Rodriguez now. The music itself is less confrontational, mellower, more orchestral, more soulful. It sounds like a man who’s lost more battles than he’s won but he’s all right after all. As lovely, truthful and painfully human as anything produced at the time, like his preceding LP this second effort sold virtually nothing. You don’t get many chances in the music business. His presence then fades before it’s begun and, more or less, Rodriguez disappears without a trace.

But this is only Act I of the story. Let’s fast-forward all the way to the epilogue: a 2012 documentary called Searching for Sugar Man, which is the subject of this review. The film is the story of what happened to Rodriguez’s music after his ostensible failures. As it turns out, a copy of Cold Fact wound up in Cape Town in 1972. His brilliant haranguing of the social order resonates with young people disenchanted with their conservative government and its program of state-sponsored apartheid. In South Africa, Cold Fact is a phenomenon, the soundtrack for the youth movement, as ubiquitous in the living rooms of Johannesburg student activists as “Street Fighting Man” is for New York City Marxist strategists. As someone in the film bluntly puts it, Sixto is “bigger than Elvis.”

But what of Sixto? In the pre-Internet days, clues are a lot harder to manage and wildly speculative apocrypha grind the rumor mills. A consensus develops that Rodriguez committed suicide on stage after a bad show— the only difference of opinion is whether he self-immolated or blew his brains out.

In the 1990s, apartheid ends, Sixto’s music is released on compact disc, and a quest begins to solve the mystery of his death once and for all by two of his fans, Stephen ‘Sugar’ Segerman, an owner of a popular Cape Town records shop, and Craig Strydom, a musical journalist. They find him via one of his three daughters, shocked to learn that not only is he not dead but that he’s working blue collar jobs in construction and that, moreover, he has absolutely no idea of his fame.

...the empty sound of no hands clapping is quite a calamitous silence to confront once the creative spirit has been put on the line. Click To Tweet

The Prophet Finds an Audience

Sixto Rodriguez – Searching For Sugarman

If you feel I’ve shared too much, then you better avoid the trailer, which neatly summarizes the entire story in two minutes. Needless to say, a happy ending can be a very good thing. How we get there, from Sixto’s debut to his fame in South Africa to the quest to find him to the redemption of his legacy is worth your time not just because it is a well-told story— Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul devoted four years to its creation— but because Sixto is a fantastic musician who somehow missed his moment, who in spite of his genius poet soul, remains completely unpretentious, a genuinely warm, lovely man. Though whatever money he should have made in residuals never reached him, he’s not holding any grudges nor does he regret the seemingly unkind hand fate dealt him, grateful to the end for what he has, content to work with his hands and come home to the same building he’s been living in for forty years, a human embodiment of the serenity prayer. Instead of an aloof pop star’s limousine lifestyle, Sixto spent his life as a community organizer, helping out the less fortunate in the neighborhood and even running for city council (he lost). Rodriguez had never really failed because he hadn’t wagered his soul on his musical career, as he sings on “I’ll Slip Away”, recorded after the dismal reception of “Coming From Reality” and unreleased for many years:

“And you can keep your symbols of success
Then I’ll pursue my own happiness
And you can keep your clocks and routines
Then Ill go mend all my shattered dreams.”

There is many an artist that can relate to Sixto’s story. Whether he or she plays a guitar, paints subway cars, lays another novel in the sock drawer, maxes out the credit cards in order to make a movie only a few hundred people will ever view— the empty sound of no hands clapping is quite a calamitous silence to confront once the creative spirit has been put on the line. No one wants to be Van Gogh. We want to keep our ears and enjoy the appreciative applause that is our due. Just in case we live long enough to be recognized.

Even though it won the Special Jury Prize and Audience Award for best international documentary at Sundance, you’ll have some difficulty finding “Searching for Sugar Man” at your local theater. It’s strictly limited engagements in New York and Los Angeles, and even there, playing in just a handful of theaters. For everyone else, we’re left with Batman, Spiderman, and The Avengers, comic book idols that aren’t telling us a damn thing about how to live gracefully. You’ve got to look hard for real life heroes. You won’t find them soaring or swinging over the Manhattan skyline. But you might hear one singing about the truths of living. You only have to find the music and listen closely.

The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974)

Omnipresence of Gene Hackman

The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974)

The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974)

The other day I was perusing one of McSweeney’s many humorous lists and moved my click finger over one entitled, “5 People You Meet In Hell” which when clicked upon revealed number 5 as, “Gene Hackman. That guy is everywhere.”


Or he used to be anyway. One of my grandfather’s favorite actors was Gene Hackman. He never vocalized it but I could see from his bright, happy eyes and the way the sun glinted off his shiny pate as his jaw quickened that he admired Hackman’s Tough-Guy-Average-Joe-Schmoe-Who-Somehow-Prevails-Everymanliness more than I could know. Gramps had been balding for years and maybe Hackman’s increasingly obvious lack of hair, average build–his schlubliness, if you will–while still maintaining a strong presence had a lot to do with it as well. And though I was in many ways too young for it at the time, he piqued my eventual love of all things Hackman by first showing me The French Connection, which simultaneously inducted me into the world of Good Cinema and Hackman’s balls-out (& Oscar-winning) portrayal of Popeye Doyle, a cop who–by the way–does not get his guy. To be able to pull off a true-to-life defeat as expertly as Hackman does shows us, like Jack Nicholson at the time, an actor in full stride.

Fast forward three years to 1974 and we have The Conversation in which Hackman plays Harry Caul, a secretive & disturbed professional surveillance expert living in San Francisco who we meet doing a job for the CIA in the middle of a crowded Union Square. The always under-emotive Hackman plays the paranoid professional Caul brilliantly, going minutes without a word of dialogue, yet drawing the audience evermore into his own hellishly conflicted world of devout religion, and the one thing he can cling to: manic saxophone playing (he learned for the part). Despite his insistence of strict non-involvement in clients’ affairs, he becomes caught up in the drama, even to become a potential accessory to a crime, and eventually to end up–perhaps just in his own mind–the subject of counter-surveillance. His understated though tense encounters with Harrison Ford’s Martin Stett remain a highlight. Coppola sought to show the innate search for balance between the public and the private, asking whether the viewer (or in this case the listener) isn’t actually always somewhat the participant.

Written before Coppola took on The Godfather, when he hadn’t the clout to get anyone to produce it, this often overlooked study (it was nominated for Best Film alongside The Godfather II, lost to the latter but did take the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival) in paranoia seems to have opened the door for Coppola’s internalized brand of soul-searching to come to fruition in what many call the masterpiece of modern cinema, Apocalypse Now. Coppola had this to say in the short Making Of The Conversation:

“(This film) is a struggle. A struggle always on the brink of failure. I have learned in the past that those struggles usually bring about the best results.”

Omnipresence of Gene Hackman

Night Moves (Arthur Penn 1975)

Night Moves (Arthur Penn 1975)

Just the following year we find Hackman in Arthur Penn’s 1975 thriller, Night Moves, as Harry Moseby, an ex-NFL star turned Private Investigator whose seemingly average personal life is about to begin to fatally intermingle with his professional one. We learn early of his wife’s infidelities, but it’s not until much later that we learn what, if anything at all, Moseby feels about this and how this mirrors his current plight. Then there’s the case, passed along by a friend centering on a soused ex-nobody Hollywood blowjob artist’s runaway daughter (played by the young nymphet Melanie Griffith, whose nude scenes underwater probably got her noticed in Hollywood). Harry’s job is to find her, bring her back, collect a check. Easy.

Turns out to be anything but. There are so many twists in this Alan Sharp penned anti-p.i. flick just when you think you have got the movie figured and you know who’s doing what to whom, you get the breath knocked out of you in what has to be one of the darkest final minutes of 70’s Hollywood noir flicks. Astonishingly good performances by Hackman, a young James Woods and Griffith, who’s just frustratingly, underagedly hot (yes, that’s her on the cover swimming in the nude).

Hackman was working his ass off during the 70s, building up a filmography so full of both philosophical thrillers, edge of your seat action and popcorn culture fare that few will ever have the strength of conviction nor range as an actor to match. Grandpa knew his stuff.

For more of Hackman’s greatest, here’s a few of my favorites. The Poseidon Adventure (1972) French Connection II (1975) A Bridge Too Far (1977) Superman (1978) Hoosiers (1986) Mississippi Burning (1988) The Package (1988) Bat*21 (1988) Unforgiven (1992) (Best Supporting Actor), and the ostensible sequel to The Conversation, Enemy of the State (1998).

The Man From Nowhere (Lee Jeong-beom, 2010)

Vengeance Violence and the Sentimental in Korean Film Part I

The Man From Nowhere (Lee Jeong-beom, 2010)

Innocence & the Monster in The Man From Nowhere (Lee Jeong-beom, 2010)

A man holding a hatchet chases a car full of gangsters down an empty, wide boulevard. He looks down and sees blood pouring from a bullet wound in his abdomen. He approaches the first car he sees. A man on a phone screams and flees. He continues to chase the car of gangsters. But he is bleeding heavily. He must find something to stem the tide of blood before he passes out. He needs to find the girl. But first he needs to get the bullet out. Darkness is closing in. Fade out.

Darkness. A light out of the black. A cherried cigarette illuminates faces inside a van. The call comes to the undercover cops on stakeout: wait for the drop, then take the man called Bear down. Simple. But it never goes like it’s supposed to. If it did there would be no film.

In The Man from Nowhere (Lee Jeong-beom, 2010) Bin Won portrays the diminutive Cha Tae-sik, a wooly-haired recluse the locals call “pawnshop ghost” whose only friend is the ten year-old neighbor girl, So-mi. Although he buys her sausage and they eat together in his spartan apartment, the talk is sparse and the cinematography echoes his disturbed and dark past with desultory lighting and accented shadows. Dispelling the pedophile angle early by alluding to her heroin-addicted mother who has male “friends” visit at night, it is through their various interactions that we see that he is not merely concerned for her lack of proper role model, but is conflicted in his as yet undefined role as father figure. It is to intermittent adult contemporary guitar and soulful piano music that these first 25 minutes rather slowly elapse, creating a sentimental connection that will be heavy-handedly drawn on later.

Cue the torture. Specifically on So-mi’s mother, kidnapped and turned up dead and organ-harvested in the trunk of the car Cha is forced to deliver heroin in to a rival gang leader (who thinks Cha is an emissary of a Chinese drug ring). All in order to save So-mi, also kidnapped and being held as one of many “ants”, a massive farm system of child mules delivering drugs, who will later serve as involuntary organ donors. Yeah, complicated. To the upstart kidnappers/ organ harvesters/ drug dealers, Cha is a pawn, being used to destroy the incumbent gangster in a trap, and thrown away.

But Cha persists. The subtlety of his facial expressions hidden by his ragamuffin hairstyle pregnant with meaning so commonplace in Asian cinema allures as much as it distracts. Making up for that is his silence. He is a man who expresses himself through his actions. And action is what he does best. Which the police soon find out when they manage to subdue him only through sheer numbers. Waking up cuffed to a chair in a police station he speaks only to ask to use the restroom. Cue to six policemen being hospitalized and Cha back on the street, searching for any way to find So-mi.

Amazed by his prowess, we learn from the police—in their only adept move throughout the film—that this man from nowhere is a former Special Forces Agent with ties to Army Intelligence. In his search for the girl, he hunts any lowlife who may provide a link, and we experience how far Cha will go to achieve his goals—from his methods of information retrieval (“tell me what I want and I won’t hurt you”) to hand-to-hand fighting a la Jason Bourne with a Thai assassin in a toilet stall next to the corpse of a dead woman. The attention to detail vis-à-vis the mise-en-scène (shot selection, lighting) is as startling as the editing is kick-bass tight, driving the story forward without visual fodder.

The Man From Nowhere (Lee Jeong-beom, 2010)

The Good Intentions of a Man with a Gun in The Man From Nowhere (Lee Jeong-beom, 2010)

Yet as what it is that drives him to undergo beatings, get himself arrested, and kill a lot of people (though all of them very bad guys) becomes clearer to us, director Jeong-beom ratchets ups the violence the closer Cha gets to his goal, ostensibly saving the life of the orphan So-mi, and symbolically avenging the brutal murder of his wife and unborn child by some unnamed assassin we see only in flashback. Subconsciously blaming himself for drawing them into his nefarious world of black ops, we can surmise that the only reason he hasn’t already killed himself is that he feels his redemption lies in this little girl.

The various subtexts are more subtle than in many preceding Korean films, gently poking as it does to the considerable American military and C.I.A. presence still in South Korea, prodding at the inept police work of an inexperienced force, and gently stroking the idea that looming in plain sight, society is secretly controlled by massive organized crime syndicates. In its soft persuasion the film is successful in allowing critical viewers an opportunity to realize that much more is being shown than yet another typical action flick.

The good intentions of the script, direction and acting notwithstanding, the plot of the film remains Hollywood predictable: the strong, silent and handsome hero will destroy the evil organ-harvesting gangsters and rescue the girl. Overcoming the ineptitude of a bumbling, paper-obsessed bureacracy in the process. Yet because these characters symbolize something much bigger than merely themselves, there is a deeper beauty than the gun-metal gloss of cinematographer Lee Tae-yoon, the crisp direction of Lee Jeong-beom, and the enigmatic acting of Bin Won. As cliche as it may sound, they embody the hope of a burgeoning nation struggling to become more self-aware amongst a country divided, and the dream of residing as equals within a larger region that has bent her to their will for centuries. It will be messy. There will be blood. The hero—the free radical in the system through which honorable ends are realized—may be put through such mental anguish and physical torture as to be unrecognizable by the film’s end. But, against clearly unsurvivable situations, the girl—which is to say the innocence of the country—will survive. And as the memory of the hero then becomes legend, the village ethos sheds its skin and lives on in new mythology.

Classic Old School Flick - High & Low

Classic Old School Flick – High & Low

“Whether people be of high or low birth, rich or poor, old or young, enlightened or confused, they are all alike in that they will one day die. It is not that we don’t know that we are going to die, but we grasp at straws. While knowing that we will die someday, we think that all the others will die before us and that we will be the last to go. Death seems a long way off. Is this not shallow thinking? It is worthless and is only a joke within a dream. It will not do to think in such a way and be negligent. Insofar as death is always at one’s door, one should make sufficient effort and act quickly.”

— Tsunetomo Yamamoto 山本常朝, Hagakure 葉隠

Classic Old School Flick – High & Low

Classic Old School Flick - High & Low

High & Low – Akira Kurosawa

By the time 1963 rolled around for Akira Kurosawa, he had already directed Rashomon, Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood (the Japanese MacBeth), The Hidden Fortress (known to have deeply influenced George Lucas’ Star Wars scenes on Tatooine), Yojimbo (the scenario for which Sergio Leone would later base A Fistful of Dollars aka The Man with No Name Spaghetti Western Trilogy opener) as well as 17 other films, earning himself the nickname “Tenno” (meaning emperor), before taking on his next challenge, High and Low.

Toshirō Mifune starred in 16 of Kurosawa’s films, almost always playing the samurai he came to epitomize to the world. In High & Low, Mifune plays Gondo, a hard-working executive of a shoe company whose son becomes the target of a kidnapping plot. The kidnappers mistakenly nab his chauffeur’s son, yet Gondo still vows to get the child back. He fronts his own money despite the possibility of a ruined business transaction and personal financial shame. In truth, Mifune’s Gondo is still very much the character he mastered in all of those bushido-era films, tough and pragmatic, austere and sentimental, a samurai warrior in businessman’s clothing. Very Musashi Miyamoto (a role he portrayed in the 1954-56 Samurai Trilogy – directed by Hiroshi Inagaki). Kurosawa said that Mifune could display in three feet of film what it took others ten. That is possibly why his career spans six decades and over 150 films. Often playing a ronin, that is to say a samurai with no retainer, what his portrayals represent is a sense of the outsider’s role in society. Yet behind the characters he played there are the very real similarities he brought to his films, experiences and actions he could call on to deliver in a film so different, at least on the surface, from his usual character. In life, as in his art, it seems he always understood the Samurai mindset that “death is always at one’s door, (so) one should make sufficient effort and act quickly.”

Born in Qingdao, China to Japanese parents who had emigrated to Dalian under what were likely the auspices of Imperial Japan’s attempts to Japanify “Manchukuo” via the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, he was as outsider from birth. As a non-Buddhist (he had ties to Methodism) and an actor he had little chance to marry well after returning home from working in the Japanese aerial photography unit during World War II, yet he managed to convince the parents of a respected family to do just that. It seemed he threw himself into everything he did, full force: his marriage, his mistress(es), his children, his films, roles, smoking, and what eventually became a three decade rift between arguably the greatest director / actor collaboration in film history.

Classic Old School Flick - High & Low

Follow the man in the glasses…

High & Low (天国と地獄), the second to last film the pair worked on together, is arguably one of his most interesting portrayals of stratified class systems in Japan, though in reality a story that transcends race and borders. Focusing on the beginning of Japan’s economic boom in the early 60s, it is filled with stark contrasts ranging from the monochrome film stock itself to the societal hierarchies Kurosawa portrays with his brand of bare-bones cinematography, a kind of harsh tenderness set to film, letting the story unfold naturally. The film plays in two parts, juxtaposing the worlds of rich man and poor man, high and low, heaven and hell. Kurosawa exposes the grit of everyday life on the low side: the squelch of the train, the annoying voices of the passersby, the view of Gondo’s hillside mansion from our perpetrator’s shack-like window. Compare this to the relative silence of Gondo’s comfortable house, its usual peace interrupted only by the feverish though somehow inept police and the ringing of the phone: the squawk of the low intruding into the aerie of the high. Kurosawa masterfully blends his trademark elements together to create an intensity of development in which these two worlds inevitably collide. The deeper theme is the stratification of an emerging capitalist economy; there are those who rise and those who fall. Gondo is a shoeman who comes from a long line of shoemen. In old Edo, shoemen, tanners, and blacksmiths were of a cast known as Hisabetsu Buraku or Burakumin, the “Discriminated Communities”. Gondo, who came from this low class and jumped to the high ground, is an example of a new era of discrimination based not on race, creed or religion, but on money and the corporation. It takes someone like Gondo, who has more than likely lived in both worlds, to not allow mere money to determine the fate or honor of both men.

This is also emblematic of the rift between Kurosawa and Mifune which began a few years after the filming of this movie. Despite their success together they grew apart professionally and philosophically in a way which ominously mirrored their careers. Mifune continued to rise and gain international acclaim while Kurosawa, though he directed many more films, never again captured the magic of Rashōmon or Seven Samurai, largely due to Mifune’s absence as the Kamikaze presence Kurosawa’s often slow, maudlin screenplays required to achieve proper balance between arthouse introspection and hollywood extravaganza. They made up, but not before Mifune portrayed Yoshi Toranaga in the televised version of James Clavell’s Shōgun. High and Low indeed.

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